Reading by the glow of a year on fire

2019 was a good year for books but a weird year for reading. For pleasure, work, and mood-medicine, I read constantly, but it’s been different lately: my poetry rate is typical, but fiction and I have had some problems. I couldn’t finish things, or I read multiple books in alternating fragments, concentration flickering. I received less solace from it.

What worked best for me were predictable genres: mysteries, fantasy, historical fiction. I’ve heard others say that they’re overworked and sad about politics, so the more escapist a book turned out to be, the better. That’s true for me, too, but personal stresses have diluted my attention even further. On the happy side, reading Shenandoah subs takes time and energy I used to devote to reviewing. I’m also launching my fifth poetry collection and my debut novel next year, and an essay collection in 2021. Good LORD did I reread and revise those mss, over and over, and when you’re reading your own pages you have less time for others’.

I still read and admired lots of poetry collections–many of those listed in “best of 2019” articles, and also small-press volumes by Erin Hoover, January O’Neil, Kyle Dargan, Martha Silano, Amy Lemmon, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Ned Balbo, Jeanne Larsen, Niall Campbell, Hai-Dang Phan, Paisley Rekdal, and Oliver de la Paz. I reviewed Franny Choi’s Soft Science for Strange Horizons. My brief year-in-review piece, forthcoming soon in that magazine, gives a shout-out to poetry collections that touch on sf as well as fun novels by Atwood, King, and a few others. Some sf-ish books I was excited to read, though, disappointed me, especially Ta-Nehisi Coates’ novel, which I found tedious (am I the only reader who thinks “Slavery is” might be an inauspicious way to begin a sentence?).

A few more books that touched, haunted, and even changed me: Joy Harjo’s Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, especially a prayer-poem near the beginning. A Holly Black fairy-tale my son recommended. Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek, because of its disturbing exploration of “bad” parenting. Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, I don’t even know why–dark side of Downtown Abbey, maybe? Patchett’s The Dutch House, perhaps because I took it in more slowly than usual, as a brilliantly-delivered audiobook by Tom Hanks. And as I’ve posted before, I didn’t think The Slow Professor was a great book, but it gave me a lot to chew on as I considered how next year ought to be different.

2019 saw a lot more beautiful poetry books by beautiful people, and I WILL get to them in 2020, as well as voting for whatever candidate the Democratic party puts up against the current flaming-ass-in-chief. Oh, and I’m going to keep rereading this little treasure as I try to launch my own little fire-starters as brightly as possible. Happy new year, fellow readers!


1/8 Hoover, Barnburning* (review)

1/13 Hayes, American Sonnets* (reread for class)

1/14 O’Neil, Rewilding* (fandom)

1/15 Komunyaaka, Dien Cai Dau (reread for class)

1/20 Barnhart and Mahan, Women of Resistance* (for class)

1/25 Coleman, Words of Protest, Words of Freedom (reread for class)

1/29 Macfarlane, The Lost Words* (for class)

2/6 Bashir, Field Theories (reread for class)

2/7 Harjo, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings* (reread for class)

2/23 Dargan, Anagnorisis* (fandom)

2/24 Abraham, al youm (for class)

3/4 Mathieu, Orogeny (for class)

3/5 Nezhukumatathil, Oceanic (reread for class)

3/13 Silano, Reckless Lovely (reread for class)

3/16 Michelson, Dreaming America (reread for class)

3/25 Kaminsky, Deaf Republic (buzz—Twitter mostly)

4/6 Brown, The Tradition* (loved the title poem on

4/6 Jernigan, Years, Months, and Days (review)

4/11 Camp, One Hundred Hungers (reread for campus visit)

4/15 Lemmon, The Miracles* (fandom)

4/18 Fisher-Wirth, The Bones of Winter Birds* (fandom)

4/20 Silano, Gravity Assist* (fandom)

4/20 McCarthy, Surge (new pressmate)

4/21 Balbo, 3 Nights of the Perseids* (fandom)

4/27 Shakespeare, Sonnets (just got caught up in them)

4/30 Nethercott, The Lumberjack’s Dove (friend’s recommendation)

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)                                                                             41

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)

8/25 Hancock, Cairns* (by a friend)

9/19 Gailey, She Returns to the Floating World* (reread for teaching)

9/23 H.D., Sea Garden* (reread for teaching)

9/26 Seay, To See the Queen (reread for her visit)

9/28 Lusby, Catechesis* (buzz)

9/30 de la Paz, The Boy in the Labyrinth* (fandom)

10/4 Eliot, Prufrock and Other Observations (reread for class)

10/8 Eliot, The Waste Land (reread for class)

10/10 Giménez Smith, Be Recorder (awards nominations)

10/? McLarney and Street, A Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia (I’m in it!)

11/10 Hong, Age of Glass (met her at conference)

11/19 Hughes, Montage of a Dream Deferred (reread for class)

11/29 Jones, dark//thing* (met her at a conference)

12/8 Sze, Sight Lines* (prize win)

12/24 Heid Erdrich, Curator of Ephemera (prep for a possible campus visit)

12/27 Parker, ed., Changing is Not Vanishing (friends’ rec, for teaching)

12/31 Graber, The River Twice* (fandom)


1/5 Miller, Song of Achilles (daughter’s recommendation)

1/19 Miller, Circe (daughter’s recommendation)1/27 Burns, Milkman* (book group)

2/9 Walker, The Dreamers* (reviews and Emily Mandel’s blurb)

2/23 Anders, The City in the Middle of the Night* (fandom)

3/17 Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird (friends’ recommendations)

3/31 Oyeyemi, Gingerbread* (fandom)

4/6 Martin, Passage to the Dreamtime (play) (bought at a conference)

4/19 Black, The Dark Part of the Forest (son’s recommendation)

4/25 Chambers, Calls for Submission (met at a conference)

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)

9/9 Horrocks, The Vexations* (preparing for her visit to campus)

9/16 Atwood, The Testaments* (fandom)

9/25 King, The Institute* (fandom)

10/16 Joukhadar, Map of Salt and Stars (preparing for visit)

10/? Pullman, Book of Dust* (fandom)

11/? Patchett, The Dutch House* (audiobook for travel, word of mouth)

11/28 Coates, The Water Dancer* (ads; sounded good but wasn’t very)

12/15 Stout, Fer-de-Lance (friend’s recommendation)

12/20 Christie, Murder on the Orient Express (had never read it!)

12/25 Hoffman, The World We Knew* (friend’s recommendation)

12/30 Harrow, The Ten Thousand Doors of January (friend’s recommendation)


1/26 Fennelly, Heating & Cooling (reread for class)

2/6 Harjo, Crazy Brave (preparing for her visit)

3/16 Traister, Good and Mad* (college colloquium)

4/29 Sacks, Sacks, Way Up North in Dixie (research)

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)

8/25 Rich, Permeable Membrane (gift)

11/27 Berg, Seeber, The Slow Professor (to co-lead faculty book club)

12/2 Hughes, ed., Sylvia Plath Drawings (fandom)

12/29 Slate, Little Weirds* (gift from daughter)

*published within the last year or so

Not with a whimper but a bang!

Actually, that title sounds sexual–sorry. I MEAN to tell you how my year is ending, show off some cool student work, and wish you a happy solstitial impeachment frenzy.

My happy news–honored above by a photo of Ursula ecstatic about catnip–is receiving a Katherine Bakeless Nason Scholarship to Breadloaf Environmental Writers Conference this June. This is also the season I gear up for book publicity, and I’m SO glad to have ONE set of dates in stone now, as I query bookstores and reading series and the like. I’m thinking I’ll roadtrip to Vermont and book a few dates at mid-points along the journey, since both the poetry collection and the novel will be out by then. I’m also applying for additional conferences, residencies, etc., which is a ton of work. I’m really grateful that of the dozen or more applications I’ve already put out there, one came through. In the spirit of making visible my shadow c.v.: I’ve also received a cartload of rejections and non-answers (if you can imagine those ghostly silences filling up a cart, anyway). That’s just the way it goes, but it’s good to have one nice shiny “yes” to light up these long dark nights.

I’m also preparing, intellectually and socially, for the MLA conference in Seattle in January, where I’ll be speaking on a panel organized by Janine Utell called “The Space Between Creative Nonfiction and Literary Criticism:  Theorizing, Writing, Publishing Critical/Creative Hybrids.” Right up my alley, but I still have work to do on my remarks. I have a lovely date set up with Jeannine Hall Gailey for the day I arrive, and I’ll also be reading with her on Saturday the 11th at Open Books, but I’d love to see as many friends as possible, so please let me know if you’ll be there.

That’s on top of Shenandoah and tenure-file reading, holiday prep, and all the other little tasks I fell behind on during the term, so this week has been pretty intense. I hope to put up a blog around new year’s, though, about the year’s reading, and another about certain resolutions that are forming in my stubborn brain. In the meantime, some delights from last week’s grading.

In U.S. Poetry from 1900-1950, my fall upper-level seminar, the students became so excited about researching little magazines that I ended up giving my students an experimental option in lieu of a second conventional essay: they could create 8 pages of a little magazine from the period, including a cover, masthead, mission statement, table of contents, and a few “solicited” submissions (mostly real poems from the period, but they were allowed to make up one or two plausible imaginary modernists, too, and write poems in those personas). They also had to write reflective essays explaining their literary and design choices and providing a bibliography of models and other sources they consulted. You’ll notice that’s actually MORE work than a conventional essay, but perhaps more fun. I’m sneaky that way. Pictures below, plus a particularly cool videopoem from my creative writing workshop.

Moving Poem by Amanda Deans

Screening Shenandoah submissions

It’s the last week of classes! I’m participating in what will be a brilliant reading at 4:30 today (in Hillel on W&L’s campus), from the beautiful Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia! And can I say it again?–this intense term is nearly DONE!

In corners of time, I’m also screening poems for Shenandoah, both for the fall 2020 issue and for the Graybeal-Gowan Prize for Virginia writers (both categories get equal consideration for publication). I thought it might be useful for some people to know what that process looks like, and I understand it better myself than I did a year ago, when I was just beginning my tenure as poetry editor.

I log on to Submittable for a 20-30 minute block on most days during the submission month (this time, Nov 15-Dec 15) and do a quick screening, marking each new batch yes, maybe, no. The majority of subs are “maybe”: I can see some great language going on but I’m not ready to make a decision. “No” is for the poems that clearly don’t fit what Shenandoah is all about–the poems we want involve powerful material, skillfully treated. If a first reading reveals a lot of cliche, ineffective linebreaks, and a high level of predictability, I just can’t spend a lot of time on it (we’ve already received more than 600 batches of poems and I have a time-consuming OTHER job, with no course releases or extra money for this editorial labor of love). “Yes” is vanishingly rare this early in the reading period, but occasionally a poem grabs me by the throat. In that case, I wait a day or two, reread, and then ask Editor-In-Chief Beth Staples what she thinks. If we both agree that it would be tragic if some other magazine scooped the poem(s) up, I accept the work right off. I don’t accept ANYTHING without Beth’s agreement. Usually we’re on the same page, but occasionally we disagree, and then both of us have to consider: “do I need to fight for this one?”

Final decisions on all those maybes will happen by sometime in January, as well as selection of the Graybeal-Gowan winner (by both me and Beth–hiring an outside judge would decrease the prize amount so we decided against). I might write individualized rejection to poets who came close, but mostly a work-study student rejects what I’ve marked as a “no,” using a form letter.

Some things I like:

  • Amazing poems! I love editing because I get to bruit terrific poetry.
  • When the poet takes the time to address us by name and mention something they liked in a recent issue (although I try not to read the letter before the poems, the way the Submittable screen works means I sometimes catch phrases before clicking on the attachment).
  • Professionally formatted subs, with one poem per page in a single file and an easy-to-read font. This whole bullet point is relatively trivial, but if you’re really anxious to make every little detail play in your favor, most editors, I think, have a (sometimes unconscious) preference for serif fonts. I am less fussy than many; I really don’t care which one. Shenandoah‘s font is Minion.

Some things I don’t like:

  • Turning down poems I really like. I still have regrets about work I rejected last year, in fact. But 800+ batches of poems, 15 spots…the math just means good work slips away.
  • Separate submission of every poem–too many clicks! Also, submitting multiple times in a single period without being asked to do so will get you rejected unread.
  • Submission of fiction/ nonfiction during a poetry-only period. That’s a jerk move that means extra work for Beth when she’s busy trying to finalize the new issue (debuting this Friday!).
  • Cover letters that begin with an insult to the submission guidelines or the magazine itself. You’d be surprised.
  • Poems including racist, sexist, or other dehumanizing language, or otherwise displaying prejudice against groups of people. Again, you’d be surprised.
  • This is more trivia, but I haven’t yet liked a poem that’s centered on the page or in a goofy font. I’m open, too, to reading work by teenagers, but in almost every case it just isn’t skilled enough yet. Let your work cook longer before hitting send. Poetry keeps.
  • That I don’t have time to write more personal rejections. Honestly.