Rusting robot poetics

Lots of stress on this bucket of bolts lately–family, health, and writing-related–but I’m tickled to report that my first poetry comic has been published by the gorgeously-redesigned Split Lip Magazine. My spouse Chris Gavaler and I created it a couple of years ago; he made the images and I wrote the words, although there was some cross-influence in revision, more or less as we’ve cross-influenced each other in life (“Go for it!”/ “Don’t wear that!”). To me, this comic is about a pretty-long-running partnership from a midlife perspective, very much inflected by the self-reassessment that happens when your kids grow up and move on (my daughter graduated in May and just returned home after a summer gig, and my son starts college in about 10 days). We’ve changed so much since we were undergrads together, and I love the way the images capture our disintegrations and haphazard rebuildings from odd materials at hand, bringing forward the idea of resourcefulness under constraint. Chris built these robots rather laboriously in an outmoded program; my constraints were spatial, meaning seven lines per poem, with the line-length controlled by panel-width and the letters of Chris’ homemade font. It’s so gratifying when you make something weird in a weird way, for fun, and other people like it enough to publish it!

Not much other luck in that department lately. Rejections are flying; I haven’t had a poem accepted in months. As I’ve said here before, though, I actually feel more philosophical about that since beginning to work on Shenandoah. You just have to keep trying, revising and targeting your work as intelligently as you can, but knowing there’s a heap of luck involved. Submission rates are very high, and chances of hitting the right reader in the right way at the right moment are low, so it’s a numbers game. I did some poetry revision/ submission work this week, though, and I’ll keep at it until the semester swallows me whole–I’ve also got essays to tweak and keep in circulation plus a difficult grant application to finish. The meetings and new-tech-training-sessions, all that late summer jazz, starts tomorrow.

I’m also sighing, but philosophical, about the timing of book edits. I’d hoped to have feedback in hand on two mss–or at least one of them–by early August so I could do at least some of the work before the term starts, and that no longer seems likely. Editors are heroes, and like me they have chaotic lives–so be it. There’s still a TON to do without waiting on anyone else, not least preparing my courses, finishing those submissions, and organizing all the book promotion work I have ahead of me during this very busy school year.

In the midst of all this, I followed a link yesterday to a powerful article in n+1 called “Sexism in the Academy.” ” Depending on the funding agency, the gender gap in winning grants is about 7 percent,” Troy Vettise writes in this heavily-researched and very persuasive piece, adding, “when women are successful in their grant applications, they usually receive less funding, about eighty cents to a man’s dollar.” Talk about constraints! Discouraging, but I was grateful for all the work Vettise pulls together here, documenting everything from discrimination in resources to the costs of harassment, and more. And the recommendations at the end are provocative in an exhilarating way, including radical structural changes to universities and foundations.

Our robot comic is, I think, also about ambivalence toward gender roles, both in Chris and in me. It’s hard to be your best self and do your best work with all the gender shrapnel flying–as if teaching and writing aren’t hard enough.

Well, “keep your skin on,” as the robots say. There’s change ahead, good and bad. My visor may be foggy, and my sensors all scratched up, but I just have to be a self-reconfiguring modular robot, slipping free of my programming and adapting to my own increasingly buggy hardware as well as the unpredictable terrain. I can do it. Right?

A slightly terrifying amount of reading

“Admit that Mexico is your double, that she exists in the shadow of this country, that we are irrevocably tied to her. Gringo, accept the doppelganger in your psyche. By taking back your collective shadow the intracultural split will heal.” (page 108)

“This land was Mexican once/ was Indian always/ and is./ And will be again.” (page 113)

“So this is what happened to someone living at the border like me: My ancestors have always lived with the land here in Texas. My indigenous ancestors go back twenty to twenty-five thousand years and that is how old I am in this country. My Spanish ancestors have been in this land since the European takeover which pulled migration from Spain to Mexico. Texas was part of a Mexican state called Tamaulipas. And Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and part of California and Colorado, were part of the northern section of Mexico. It was almost half of Mexico that the U.S. cheated Mexico out of when they bought it by the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. By doing so they created the borderlands.” (Interview, page 274)

The above quotes are from Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Fourth Edition. The book was first published in 1987; I encountered it a couple of years later, in graduate school, although I can no longer find my first copy. I’ve been meaning to reread it, because I’m advising a senior who wants to make it part of her thesis next year.

This was definitely the week. I’m sickened by U.S. gun violence and epidemic hatred without having a new or insightful word to say about them, but it felt just slightly sanity-restoring to spend time with Anzaldúa. After all, how can there be a “Hispanic invasion,” as the Texas shooter alleged, in a place to which the U.S. government has only the most recent and most dubious of many claims? Aside from the book’s reminders about history, it’s also big-hearted and wise and full of insights about language, culture, queerness, trauma, depression, artistic process, sacredness, and dreams. Plus, I loved remembering my twenty-something astonishment at its hybrid of prose and poetry: holy shit, you can do that?!

I’ve done a slightly terrifying amount of reading and rereading this summer. Some of it was planned: I wanted to know queer theory better for a course I’m devising; I had to process some of the literature of “postcritique” and more ecocriticism to revise Poetry’s Possible Worlds; and I always use academic breaks to catch up on recent poetry collections and throw myself into various novels, serious and escapist and everything in between. Health issues made me need books more–and made writing harder. My son goes to college in a few weeks, and friends are undergoing similar transitions, so I’m extra-emotional; reading is work I can do when my concentration is poor.

Otherwise, a lot of what I’ve been doing boils down to paperwork: moving galleys along (because I used to write things!), proposing courses, and sorting out plans for the larger-than-usual number of conferences I’ll be a part of this year. I organized a panel called “Uncanny Activisms” for the C.D. Wright Conference–check it out. Now that I’m fully off the AWP Board, I was part of three proposals for that highly competitive conference, too, and two were accepted. The one I organized but will sit on the sidelines of is called “Big Shoes: New Directions at Old Magazines,” featuring Melissa Crowe of Beloit Poetry Journal, Gerald Maa of Georgia Review, Wayne Miller of Copper Nickel, Emily Rosko of Crazyhorse, and Beth Staples of Shenandoah–having played a small role in changes at the latter, I’m excited to hear what everyone has to say. The panel I’ll speak at is “Teaching in the Confederacy,” organized and moderated by Chris Gavaler, also featuring Lauren K. Alleyne, Tyree Daye, and Gary Dop, in which we’ll talk about the challenges and responsibilities that come with regional links to white supremacy. Plus I’ll have a Shenandoah table to sit at, and at least one new book to sign…more on that soon, I hope!

In the meantime, thank god for Anzaldúa and all the other writers who have been challenging my thinking and just keeping me company. I’ll sign off with a few pictures of artists’ books from the Serralves Museum in Porto–we had no idea they had such a great collection until we stumbled on the exhibition.

Books read since May (first poetry, then fiction, then nonfiction, not including chapters, essays, and other short stuff):

5/1 Kaneko, The Dead Wrestler Elegies (planning for his visit)

5/4 Youn, Ignatz (Krazy Kat fandom)

5/5 Xie, Eye Level (strong reviews)

5/14 Miller, Emily Dickinson’s Poems As She Preserved Them (teaching prep)

5/18 Larsen, What Penelope Chooses* (fandom)

5/18 Hayden, Exuberance* (fandom)

5/18 Selznick and Whitman, Live Oak, With Moss* (comics version, teaching prep)

5/18 Seay, The See the Queen (teaching/ visit prep)

5/18 Alleyne, Honeyfish* (teaching/ visit prep)

5/23 Camp, The Turquoise Door* (campus visit)

5/23 Nguyen, Ghost Of* (good reviews)

6/4 Nelson, The Freedom Business (forget where I bought it!)

6/10 Frank, Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country (bought at a reading)

6/12 Bashir, Where the Apple Falls (research)

6/17 Campbell, Noctuary* (fandom)

6/18 Rekdal, Nightingale* (fandom)

6/20 Bashir, Gospel (research)

6/21 Gray, Radiation King* (received review copy)

6/22 Schwartz, Miraculum (found it on my shelf)

6/23 Phillips, Reasons for Smoking (found it on my shelf)

6/23 Honum, The Tulip-Flame (found it on my shelf)

6/23 Baker, waha / mouth (fandom)

6/24 Phan, Reenactments* (fandom and research)

7/1 Choi, Soft Science* (for review)

7/4 Matejka, The Big Smoke (found it on my shelf)

7/8 Satterfield, Her Familiars (reread for research)

7/11 Bray, Small Mothers of Fright (research)

7/12 Ginsburg, Dear Weather Ghost (research)

7/12 Ginsburg, Double Blind (research)

7/13 Dawson, Big-Eyed Afraid (fandom)

7/14 Legros George, The Dear Remote Nearness of You (found it on my shelf)

7/15 Calvocoressi, Rocket Fantastic (found it on my shelf)

7/16 Ali, Sky Ward (research)

7/17 Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard (bought at a conference)

7/20 Winslow, Defying Gravity (by a friend)

5/3 Herriman, Krazy & Ignatz (teaching prep)

5/8 LaValle, Destroyer (teaching prep)

5/19 Garstang, The Shaman of Turtle Valley* (local writer)

5/28 McLaughlin, Bearskin* (local connections plus Edgar win)

5/31 Atkinson, Transcription* audiobook (friends’ recommendation)

6/17 Walton, Lent* (fandom)

6/22 Crouch, Recursion* (NYT review)

6/23 Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (reread for teaching)

7/1 Hubbard, The Talented Ribkins (gift)

7/7 Kim, Miracle Creek* (reviews)

7/12 Ginsburg, Sunset City (research)

7/19 Ray, Whiskey Tales* (translator is a friend)

7/20 Rosenberg, Confessions of the Fox* (daughter’s recommendation)

8/1 Adieche, Americanah (teaching)

8/3 Waters, The Little Stranger (fandom)

5/? Gay, The Book of Delights (fandom)

5/21 Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (reputation)

5/22 Davis, Why Art?* (gift)

6/4 Hayles, Chaos Bound (research)

6/10 Atkins, The Laws of Thermodynamics (research)

6/10 Polkinghorne, Quantum Theory (research)

6/22 Darling, Je Suis L’Autre: Essays and Interrogations (research)

6/22 Kiefer, Nestuary (fandom)

6/24 Anker and Felski, Critique and Postcritique (research)

7/10 Vargas, Dear America* (teaching)

7/14 Moore, 16 Pills* (pressmate)

7/17 McSweeney, The Necropastoral (research)

8/7 Anzaldúa, Borderlands/ La Frontera (reread for teaching)

Sharing space in poetry (“that essay”)

Away from my normal routines for ten days in Portugal, I looked at Twitter occasionally and kept seeing references to “that essay” by poet Bob Hicok. I’ll scout it out later, I thought, first busy with the MLA International Symposium in Lisbon; then laid up in my hotel room with a stomach bug; and finally traipsing around Porto, making up for lost time and calories. I arrived home late this Thursday, and catching up with other people and tasks seemed more important. Scrolling through social media Saturday morning, though, I saw a smart set of questions Paisley Rekdal had posted in response to the piece, along with a link to the essay itself (which had been a little hard to find–people clearly don’t want to promote it). Okay, okay, FINE, I grumbled, brewed another pot of chai, and read it.

The essay isn’t good, no matter what you think of the argument. It belabors its point, which is basically that Hicok is “dying as a poet” (meaning, apparently, not attracting as many readers as he used to), and while it’s good, he concedes, that writers who are not “straight white men” like him are now getting attention, and he’s grateful to have had a good run, he’s sad to lose the limelight. If a writer-friend had told me this privately, over drinks, I would have felt embarrassed for him–listen to yourself, dude! Literature is not a zero-sum game, and nobody has taken your micro-celebrity away from you! I suppose it’s useful, though, that someone has voiced all this in print. I know other people think similarly: I’ve heard the asides, and seen the facial expressions, by white writers of various ages and genders, although whenever I’ve sensed a lament like this emerging in my company, I’ve either cut it short or walked away.

Anybody who reads deeply, widely, and intelligently is going to disagree with the prize committees sometimes. Good books fly under the radar all the time, and mediocre ones (including plenty of books by privileged people) win the love–although when the latter seems to happen, a reader ought to ask herself whether her judgment could have been wrong. Sometimes, I know, I miss what’s exciting others because I’m not ready for a book, or even just in a bad mood. But Hicok’s examples, for heaven’s sake–including Claudia Rankine, Ross Gay, Ada Limón–they’re brilliant writers who take great risks and produce great books, partly rooted in their identities and experiences and wholly illuminated by talent and hard work. All have had luck, I’m sure, but all have overcome obstacles, too, and continue to do so, because there’s always someone trying to chip away at their achievements, treating them like interlopers, and sometimes even threatening their safety. In the U.S., “straight white men” are just more free than everyone else, and dealing with unfreedom wears you down. It can make achieving art at all seem like a miracle.

A little example: I have plenty of friends who couldn’t afford a trip to Portugal, or whose disabilities would make it extremely difficult, so I thought about how lucky I was constantly (except while vomiting in the hotel toilet). Being at a liberal arts college insulates me from the high-level territory battles at R1 institutions, as I remembered while listening to a roundtable on the state of literary criticism, with lots of anxious references to postcritique and presentism. People are sweating about how to do relevant work when academic protocols can be so conservative and advancement is so tricky, but my main worry is finding publishers for my more boundary-busting work; at a teaching-focused institution, most people don’t publish as much as I do, so even my small wins look good. Beyond the conference, too, being a middle-aged cisgender American of European descent means I can generally get a taxi or a seat at a restaurant, even when I’m grungy from climbing all those cobbled streets, because no one objects to my skin color and everyone knows I have euros in my pocket.

Yet for all that luck, the trip home sucked, because I’m a woman. The otherwise polite white guy next to me, average-sized and not more pressed for space than anyone else, seemed delighted when his nearest rowmate turned out to be me. He promptly claimed his god-given right to the armrest and then, by degrees and apparently obliviously, he leaned his arm against my ribcage. No matter how I contorted myself away from him, his body intruded into my space, and not in an impersonal, occasional, shoulder-bumping kind of contact, either. Like about a quarter of the women you know, I’m an assault survivor. Being unable to avoid close physical contact with strange men–well, it’s upsetting. Once the aisles were clear I asked my husband to switch seats with me, and then Mr. Man-Spreader kept to himself, because of course it would be inappropriate to lean against another man’s ribcage or even his arm, right? Men deserve a little breathing room.

This happens to me all the time, and sometimes the men are far more aggressive. I’ve spoken up and had men respond by pretending to stay asleep, pressing against me while staying on the safe side of “page the attendant” obvious harassment territory. I get panicky, and eventually angry, while doubting that anyone would believe me; I rehearse all the times my space has been violated before; I wonder whether it’s worth flying to conferences on my own, in overstuffed understaffed airborne tin cans; and all of this upset is completely invisible to anyone around me. I’m not in any danger, to be clear; these violations are minor, in the long run. I just get triggered in an exhausting, demoralizing way, and I fear inappropriate touching on airplanes even when it doesn’t happen, so that travel costs me extra stress.

Bob Hicok thinks this gender-specific #MeToo-ish history gives me some publishing cred. I don’t think so, yet even if it did, I would trade that publishing edge in a heartbeat for not having to worry about moving through public territory as a woman. For people who get denied space for multiple intersecting reasons, things are much harder. While plenty of us feel, as Hicok does, that our work merits more attention than it gets, he’s underestimating freedoms he has enjoyed and continues to enjoy because of his own identity, as well as the cost of identity-related struggles that occasionally lead, by twisting paths, to powerful writing.

It is certainly true that while there are more presses and contests than ever before, there’s now a larger pool of people competing for them, as well as a real hunger from readers for stories and poems from less-familiar perspectives. I’m one of those readers, and I’m very glad publishing is more inclusive than it used to be–I hope the trend continues, and as poetry editor of Shenandoah, I try to help it along. Such richness benefits everyone who cares about literature. It’s also true that I’m striving, meanwhile, for my own foothold in the scene, and I get sad about the difficulty of that sometimes. What I keep coming back to: the only way to stay sane is to make sure your writing is urgent, well-crafted stuff, and to use whatever space and advantages you have to help others do good work, too, and feel some love for it. Then, whether or not you earn a lucky spot on the stage yourself one day, you’ll feel okay about how you’ve spent your hours.

Also, as Jeannine Hall Gailey puts it in a post she was clearly writing as I composed this one: once you’ve won two NEAs and a Guggenheim and published ten books with a dream press, as Hicok has, this racist, sexist, ableist complaining is not going to win you any sympathy. The guy has already claimed nearly all the armrests.

From the Serralves museum in Porto, with a reflected poet in it