In a Samhain state of mind

Not to get too pagan on you, but this week I can feel wheels turning, for good and ill. On the good side: above is the cover of my first novel, to be released in June 2020. I’ve been so grateful for the excitement people have expressed about it. As I keep saying, this venture feels more like a leap into the dark than poetry publishing. I’m getting publicity gears grinding for my March 2020 poetry collection, too, but I know perfectly well that except for rare cases, “Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon,” as Don Marquis poetically said, “and waiting for the echo.” I worked insanely hard on that novel, I’m proud of it, and I WILL get out there to give readings, etc.–but will it be like dropping a moderately-sized rose bush into the Grand Canyon, meaning, not much more echo-producing? I really have no clue. I feel pretty philosophical about it these days; I just want to know, a year from now, that I gave all my pretty rose petals the most energetic pitch possible.

Pitching, however, is a LOT of work. The “bad” of this liminal season is feeling stressed and anxious as I step from the overwork of October (teaching, grading, applications, event programming) to the overwork of November (teaching, conferencing, applications, and exceptionally heavy committee work). I just keep plotting out tasks on my calendar, trying to prove to myself that it CAN be done, and hoping I reach Thanksgiving in one piece. I’m also trying, to whatever extent possible, to pare off obligations that rev up my worries and spend time instead on what makes me feel better.

Ridiculously, that sometimes means work, but the kind of labor that produces an experience of flow rather than jitteriness. I gave Monday morning over to intensive lesson-planning, doing some background reading on William Carlos Williams and getting ready for tomorrow’s campus visit by the fabulous Lauren K. Alleyne, and you know what? I felt noticeably better after those hours of concentration. Answering email: not so soothing.

Today’s treat was reading a splendid new anthology I am lucky enough to have a poem in: the brand-new Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia, edited by Rose McLarney and Laura-Gray Street. They commissioned pieces on various plants and creatures from poets with connections to the region, and so many of the poems are gorgeous and moving. Each species, too, is described by naturalist L.L. Gaddy and illustrated in black-and-white by seven Southern Appalachian artists. The resulting book is both local and diverse, and truly a stunner.

The next task: prepping for the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference starting on 11/8, because I’ll be away this weekend, visiting the kids (it’s Haverford’s Family Weekend). That’s downtime I sorely need, as I keep telling myself as I watch work pile up on either side of it… but I’ll be striving to be in the moment there, and at the conference, too. Check out the program; it looks kind of brilliant.

What I want to do most of all is work on a short story I’m feeling excited about; the poetry hasn’t been coming lately. And that leads to one last Samhainish thought: one of the funny things about publication is that by the time the work gets out there, you’re often mentally and emotionally moving on to new ideas. When you give a reading or do other kinds of promotion, you can feel like you’re trying to call up the dead and hoping the doors to the otherworld open, as they’re supposed to do this time of year. Come, ghosts, and help me out. I have, in fact, been thinking about my father and dreaming about my maternal grandmother, as if spirits are visiting–and I’ve also been remembering that tarot card reading I got around New Year’s, when the psychic told me two ghosts were following me around. If they are, and they want to be of use, maybe they could help with the committee work?

Teaching US Poetry from 1900-1950

I started teaching modernism as a graduate student, leading discussion sections for Walt Litz at Princeton in ’91. When I arrived at W&L in ’94, I resolved to teach much more diverse syllabi: I put the version of modernism I’d studied in conversation with the New Negro Renaissance and included many women writers (Walt’s syllabus was all white and male). Soon I was bringing in formalist modernism, too–featuring the so-called “songbird poets” and analyzing various kinds of experiment that earlier discussions of the field hadn’t made much space for. Something I love about teaching, though, is that you can’t just rest on your laurels: I’m teaching you a version of modernism that’s fuller and more complicated than the one I received–aren’t I the greatest? Changes in scholarship and theory demand renovated approaches, but so do the students themselves.

I posted on Facebook recently that my students have never been so alert to questions of gendered and sexual violence in “The Waste Land” as they were this October. I was really glad I had this recent suite of short essays from Modernism/ modernity to bring to class, organized by Megan Quigley and centered on how #metoo has changed conversations about a modernist poetic monument. My current students think sexual violation, as reality and metaphor, is at the very foundation of modernism, and while I’ve always highlighted those elements in certain poems, I’m still trying to get my head around that as a perspective shift on the whole field. They’re very interested, too, in modernist portrayals of mental illness and how it’s persistently feminized; the more I consider those questions, the more foundational they seem, as well. Honestly, I wish I had more than twelve weeks with these students, so we could deepen our reading together.

We are, however, past midterms already! This weekend I’m reading their first essays, and the scholar to whom I owe the most for the success of this assignment is Suzanne Churchill at Davidson, a scholar of modernist little magazine culture and another Princeton survivor (it was a messed-up place back then). When W&L’s Digital Humanities cohort brought Suzanne here a few years ago, she visited a version of the class I’m now teaching; for the occasion, she loaned me a little magazine assignment she’d been using in her own courses. I’ve since modified it into a sequence of steps: we read Suzanne’s essay “Little Magazines” from Companion to Modernist Poetry; used class time to compare poems from our texts to their original presentations in little magazines; and read this excellent website on Georgia Douglas Johnson that Suzanne created with her students. Then we devoted a session to informal presentations of this response paper assignment:

“Go to the Modernist Journals Project site and either browse through the magazines or search for an author you’re interested in and follow the links (search last name, first name—it’s not case sensitive). Find an issue of a journal that interests you. It should be published between 1900 and 1945, and it should include at least one poem. Then post a brief reflection (~300 words) in which you identify and briefly describe the issue you chose and why you chose it, saying something about how a poem within it relates to other content and/or design elements. What kind of readership does the magazine seem to be projecting? How do font, layout, juxtaposition, and/or illustration affect the poem’s meaning?”

Finally, they wrote 8-page essays comparing poems in little magazines to other published versions, either building on that response paper or switching focus, if they preferred. I shouldn’t report on their discoveries here because this assignment resulted in some actual original scholarship–illuminating publishing circumstances that haven’t been discussed in print before, to my knowledge, although, of course, we’d all have to do a LOT of work to determine that for sure. This means that grading their essays has been slow (I have a lot of backtracking to do, as everyone wrote on different pieces/ publications) but genuinely exciting.

I had originally cancelled this coming Friday’s session, requiring them to go to at least part of a department retreat instead, but the scholar whom we had invited to visit cancelled. So, I asked these students, what would you prefer? Go to a different lecture or reading as class make-up, or reinstate that class and choose readings for it, anything you like? To my surprise, they wanted the class back, and they wanted to focus it on contemporary poems responding in some way to the modernists we’re studying. I’ve had a lot of fun assembling a reading packet! Not surprisingly, many of my own poems have been triggered by modernism, but I’m mostly steering clear of my own stuff in favor of Bishop on Moore; Wendy Cope and Jeremy Richards on Eliot; Evie Shockley on Anne Spencer; Honoree Fanonne Jeffers on Helene Johnson; William Woolfitt and Cynthia Hogue on H.D.; David Ray, Lauren K. Alleyne, and Hilde Weisert on Frost; Kenneth Koch on Williams; Terrance Hayes and Franny Choi on Hughes; and more (many of these great poems are not online). Thanks to Diane Kendig, Max Chapnick, and others for suggestions–please post more in the comments!

In short, in a busy season, this class is absorbing a lot of energy and creativity. I could use an extra weekend every week, one for the work and one for some downtime…but I’m also really happy that I can teach this class for so many years and still, well, make it new.

Copy-editing and fact-checking poems

As the New York Times reports, we’re seeing industry-wide hand-wringing right now about how rarely books are fact-checked, following scandals involving Naomi Wolff and others. I’m proud that Shenandoah editor Beth Staples makes fact-checking a priority: the interns comb through every piece we publish, following up on names, dates, and a host of other check-able details. Not every poem needs fact-checking, of course, but some do. For example, I posted my own poem about the moon landing recently. Most people wouldn’t notice if I got the date wrong, but some would, and spotting the error might impair their faith in me as a writer.

So what level of precision do poets owe their audiences? Spelling proper nouns correctly, and checking dates and quotes, seems important, if a poem references real-world people and events. The trivia doesn’t matter, really–if I tell you right now that my teapot is as blue as loneliness, but it’s actually an unromantic beige, that seems like a reasonable bit of poetic trickery. (Gotcha! It’s orange.) Even in a persona poem like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a piece that’s obviously fictional, you’d want to check the Dante quote before you hit send.

I just handed in copy-edits for my next book, The State She’s In–overcoming the usual Prufrockian abulia to do so, because finalizing a book makes me REALLY ANXIOUS–and the process involved a final round of fact-checking on my end. Several poems involve public history that’s important to get right. While I know I was careful during the period of composition, what if I made a bad mistake in a poem about slavery, say, or Confederate history? The vultures aren’t wheeling around my publications the way they do around high-profile nonfiction, but still, I’m addressing sensitive material.

For example, last year I published a poem in Flock. They nominated it for a Pushcart, bless them, although it’s a very tricky piece about studying lists of enslaved people once owned, then sold, by my employer. In it, I think especially hard about a boy named Albert, 13, who was the same age as my son at the time; his name appears on an 1826 list but has disappeared by the 1834 version, and I’m wondering what happened to him. This weekend, I went back to the sources one last time to check the names and numbers, and guess what? I’d made some mistakes. They didn’t change the tenor of the poem: I had to change “fourteen names further” to “thirteen” and the sum of “twenty thousand” to “twenty-two.” Still, I make the dodgy move in the poem of speculating about how Albert’s ghost might have answered me, if that were possible, and that’s enough risk for one poem. I’ll likely never know his fate, but I can damn well be true to the part of history that’s verifiable.

 John Robinson’s List, 1826
This ruled and foxed document the only
record of your name, followed by numbers
firm and fat: three-hundred-twenty-five flat
for Albert, age 13. Your face, nowhere.
Ma’am, you do not know the first thing.
Persons bequeathed by Jockey Robinson
to this university, along with a thousand
acres at Hart’s Bottom. A sepia squiggle
ties you to Jerry, 53, and Elsey,
36, blind. Your parents? Dick, Amorilla,
Claiborne, Pompey, sisters and brothers?
I couldn’t say
but it does look likely.
Some of the entries hint at stories. Creasy,
68, twenty dollars, but the note,
in a column usually blank, offers a hard “worth
nothing.” The cursive relaxed but well-groomed.
A breeze huffs at linen curtains. A pitcher
sweats on the marble sideboard. How unworried
the appraisal. How satisfied the gloss.
Or thirteen names further, James the Preacher,
40, costly, his wife Mary, their eight children,
eldest five hired out, down to eight-year-old
Isaac for five dollars a year. What did James
preach about to Creasy-without-price,
“club foot” Nero, and “lame” Dick McCollum?
Your son is thirteen. Would he listen
to a sermon or sleep right through?
Are you like him? A quick boy, loves a game,
strategizing always? I remember you,
eyebrows hoisted, forehead grooved with notions.
No one gains by your imaginings.
Unless you do yourself.
I can’t find you on the 1834
“List of Slaves Belonging to Washington College,”
with Amorilla, Claiborne, Pompey, although
I riffle all the bills. Eighteen months later
Garland purchases nearly everyone
to send to his Mississippi plantation:
“Old Jerry was refused upon inspection.”
After the commission, trustees count
twenty-two thousand dollars into coffers.
That money translated to red brick buildings,
lichened shady trees, and my salary.
Is that how you linger, a ghost of ink
boiled from walnut shells? A row of desks,
a library shelf, digits propagating
in some faraway white-pillared bank?
Ma’am, I cannot say.

I’ve posted about revision A LOT in this blog–I just went back and reread this post from 5 years ago, which contains most of the wisdom I possess about ordering and pruning poetry books, and then there’s this shorter one about reading aloud to revise. Revision feels like a big subject, though, almost as big as the subject of inspiration in the first place. I think often about the day I first drafted the poem above: I was sitting in my office in the supposedly-haunted colonnade, shivering as I read that brutal history, typing out my questions, and then hearing the answers float up, a gift from my own unconscious, I suppose. The various days I wrestled with the poem, though, to make it as accurate as I could–those are important, too.

A famous Michael Miley photograph of W&L