The present and future of pandemic poetry

Like a sad dragon, I’m currently sitting on a diminishing hoard of potential poems for future issues of ShenandoahFall ’21 and Spring ’22, presuming we get there–knowing I can’t keep ALL the gold. I’m already rejecting good poems, trying to get down to 20-ish from more than 700 batches. The last couple of weeks have been largely a sifting process: holding each poem against the light, seeing how pieces might fit together.

One issue I’ve been pondering, in part triggered by a tweet from Kelli Russell Agodon: how are the poems I’m reading manifesting the extraordinary pressures of a global pandemic? The answer I gave Kelli is that the poetic worlds seem a notch smaller: I’m getting more poems about the flora and fauna close to hand, fewer about conversation and art and the randomness of being a human walking around in the built world. That’s not a bad thing, but it can make the submission pile less various. I’m certainly coming across references to Covid-19, too, as well as elegies and poems about anxiety, depression, and isolation, but not as many as I expected. This may be because poetry has such a slow burn that we won’t really see the literary results of any crisis for a few years. It may also be because a lot of people just can’t write lately–their lives are busier and their brains can’t rev down enough for reflection. I’m interested to see how things shake out in the literary world and otherwise.

“Haunted and Weird Futures” was actually the title of the final session of the poetry master class I just finished teaching at Randolph College. The assignment:

To read for class: Juliana Spahr, excerpts from “Will There Be Singing”; Jeannine Hall Gailey, “The Last Love Poem,” “Calamity,” “The End of the Future,” “Introduction to Writer’s Block”; Natasha Trethewey, “Theories of Time and Space”; January Gill O’Neil, “Hoodie”

Prompt: Write a poem that looks toward the future. Some part of it should use the future tense.

It went well, although I was glad I’d lightened the reading for the last session, because the students are tired and stressed. One poem we discussed intensively was Gailey’s “Introduction to Writer’s Block”, because another group of students at Randolph, in a BFA program discussion group, asked me how I keep writing in a difficult time. I talked about switching things up–trying a different genre when one isn’t working–but also just forgiving yourself and spending time on activities that nourish what is depleted in you (whatever it is–a craft, exercise, reading, watching TV, games and puzzles, talking to friends, taking a bath). I love Jeannine’s persistence in the face of pre-pandemic calamity, her declaration that “If you wait long enough, something inside you will ignite.” She writes plenty of poems considering the possible failure of poetry, but they tend to nurture some wit and spark and hope, whatever the trampling Godzilla of the moment is. And I think she’s right: if you keep showing up to the page, cultivating whatever openness you can however you can, the words eventually come.

Because discouragement is also epidemic this year, I am joining in on an event organized by Celia Lisset Alvarez and including Jen Karetnick, both of them poets and editors extraordinaire. We’re going to talk about rejection in the context of our own recent books, and how we work to overcome it. It’s called She Persists and it’s happening at 7pm on Monday March 8th. Sign up here and I promise I’ll try to cheer you on and cheer you up!

Oh, February. Oh, amygdala.

I realized this morning that I’ve been concentrating with clenched-body intensity on my mother’s and my daughter’s needs for vaccine appointments–my mother is 81 and immune-challenged, my daughter is a pre-school teacher–as if my constant vigilance was necessary to help them rise to the top of the list. That’s magical thinking, obviously, except that it wasn’t obvious to me until I made it conscious. I’ve always been like the mother in The Woman Warrior, who must mentally hold airplanes in the sky so her loved ones don’t crash in fiery balls of flame. I’m a seriously terrible backseat driver for the same reason. I find it especially hard to release the habit of vigilance when there’s real risk involved that I might have a tiny bit of control over: what if I notice the speeding truck but the driver doesn’t, and I yell and death is averted? Could happen. Not likely.

So here I am in the backseat, struggling to relax and enjoy the scenery. This February is a holding-pattern of a month; it’s also busy. I’m halfway through the master class I’m teaching at Randolph College. I’m virtually attending the Poetry and Pedagogy Conference hosted by West Chester starting tomorrow and looking forward to hearing panels about teaching. The workshop I’m running on Saturday morning, on how and why to teach single-author collections, is nearly ready, and I’m giving a reading with the other workshop leaders on Saturday night. Meanwhile, my department is assembling a list for the registrar of our fall courses, so I’m in planning mode for my own fall offerings. The clock is definitely ticking on my sabbatical, even though the second half of the leave year remains fuzzy in many ways, for obvious reasons. (Deep breaths through the diaphragm. Amygdala, calm down.)

Nope, amygdala thinks my editorial load is fight-or-flight. It’s a privilege to work for a great magazine with a great Editor-in-Chief; accepting poems and promoting their wonderfulness is a thrill. Yet, open for submissions for the first two weeks of February, Shenandoah received 736 batches of poems. 736!!! I’m working hard, but when I get down to the most irresistible poems I’ll still have more than enough for multiple issues, which means more hours of difficult siftings and rejection letters that can be wrenching to write. (I have 19 spots max for Fall ’21 and Spring ’22 combined, with some reserved for a portfolio curated by our BIPOC Editorial Fellow in poetry, Sylvia Jones.) I’m trying to take it more slowly than usual and not feel so overwhelmed, but it’s a lot.

The stressy busy-ness is only partly about work, after all. Part of my brain is always rehearsing the vigilance script: steer clear of that maskless man; what can I cook over the next several days to postpone another trip to the supermarket, because it never feels safe there; my mother and daughter are on that airplane, how do I keep it aloft from down here? Oh, February. Oh, amygdala.

Please enjoy the photos below of progress toward our future screened-in porch, to replace a rotted deck that was older than our children. It’s slow work, especially with all the snow we’ve been getting, but I like to imagine sitting back there reading, come spring. Not a metaphor at all…

Report from hagdom

I’ve been sending missives from menopause and perimenopause over the last few years, and sometimes they feel like dead letters. Well, almost all poems land softly–but the so-called change of life feels so BIG to me that it feels like there ought to be a much larger body of literature about it. So I was really happy when “Oxidation Story” was accepted by Kenyon Review Online this fall, and even happier to receive lots of positive responses when they published it yesterday. I’d worked on this one for years. Maybe I got the words right, or the subject matter called to people, or the prestige of the venue attracted attention? In any case, it made me feel seen for a shining moment, for the writer in me.

That’s one of the weird side effects of crossing over to this side of 50: you’re catcalled, harassed, and menaced for most of your life, then you become invisible. I prefer invisibility on the whole, but it would be even better to become, say, “distinguished.” Most TV shows and movies provide illustrations of how impossible that seems to be. As my spouse and I burn through all the shows streaming services have to offer, we just tried “The Undoing,” which pairs Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman as high-powered professionals in unholy matrimony. Kidman is ultra-fit and facelifted and bewigged into a simulacrum of Pre-Raphaelite maidenhood; Grant is carrying more pounds than in his lean thirties, hair grayed and face a little jowly, but he remains very much the leading man. It’s not that I’d put Grant on a diet; I’d rather see Kidman, or any older woman, allowed to wrinkle and accumulate a spare tire and still play a complicated, vital main character. The disparity gets old. (As does the effort to discern facial expressions in an actor post-botox.)

Even in the underresourced world of literary publishing, most successful women-identified authors are glamorously slim and able-bodied. I sometimes wonder if the best thing I could do for my career would be to go paleo and get my eyebrows done, but I’d rather jump my game-token right to witchy croneland.

A big thank you to the new editorial team at KR for giving a hag some bandwidth. I’m also wildly grateful to Julie Marie Wade for this review of The State She’s In in The Rumpus–what a gift! I love that she analyzes poems about gender and middle-aged bodies (such as a gory rondeau, “Perimenopause”), as well as the politics and the violent histories the book puts front and center. I continue to think all those subjects are deeply connected, often in ways that most people just don’t want to look at.

Some of my new-ish work is, like “Oxidation Story,” about the processes of anger and gendered physical transformation–material that I certainly have a strong personal claim to! I’m also writing much more explicitly about depression, anxiety, diagnosis, and medication, also aspects of embodiment that make people uneasy. It’s been interesting to watch more and more writers claim neurodivergence as an identity and think about whether I should. I feel a strong connection to conversations about neurodivergence, disability, and queerness, and while I’m emerging out of the old fears of making that plain, I’m also hesitant to claim difference that has been way more costly to others than it has been to me. I just received a request from the editors of an anthology of queer ecopoetry to include one of my poems, “Absentation,” and I said yes gratefully but also uncertainly (I didn’t answer a call for work–they just found me somehow). As I reread the poem, it does seem nonbinary, holding multiple identity possibilities in its mind. Is that good enough? Is what the work does the most important thing?

In any case, most of my poetry that directly addresses psychiatric diagnosis hasn’t been picked up by magazines, for whatever reason. Maybe I haven’t got the words right. Yet.

Haunted and weird poetry: a lesson plan

My visiting writer gig at Randolph College started yesterday. As the Pearl S. Buck Writer in Residence (virtually), I’m teaching a 4-session workshop each Thursday night in February, 7-9pm. There are only 4 members, all advanced poetry students, so it’s a pretty nice gig. The topic is “Haunted and Weird,” since the organizer told me these students were also jazzed about speculative fiction–but also because strangeness and surprise make for complicated, interesting, powerful poems.

Designing the syllabus, I gave each session a title/ theme. Yesterday’s was “Pleased to Meet You” and it worked like a charm. In case the topic appeals, here’s how it played out. I asked each poet to post a poem the Tuesday before our session, following this prompt (it’s keyed to a care package sent in advance):

If you dare, light the votive candle in your care package, without burning your house down, please. Prepare to tell a story of an encounter with something potentially supernatural in five sentences. It should be based on an incident you have experienced, OR you can ask a friend or a family member for a story and use your imagination to fill in the details. Instructions for each sentence:

  1. Write a sentence beginning, “The weirdest part was.” (You may revise that phrase out later, but start with the eeriest moment of your tale.)
  2. Describe what the setting or the apparition smelled like.
  3. Ask any question that you don’t know the answer to. It can be unrelated to the scene.
  4. Describe, with at least one sensory detail (involving sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch), how your body felt when the apparition left or you left it.
  5. Describe, with at least one sensory detail, how the apparition felt after the encounter.

Here are some poems they had to read for class, as well as each other’s drafts. I also asked them to be ready to explain which poem unsettled them most and why.

I started us off with “Monsters,” which triggers all my parent-fear. One student named Mariani’s “Ghost” as the most unsettling–that’s another poem full of guilt, and very crafty in how it sets up situations and then dissolves them. For everyone else it was “The Mango,” in which the speaker hears voices–and yet it’s more political than supernatural. One way all of these poems are shifty: what’s “real” is up for grabs, although there’s plenty of realistic detail within them.

I ran out of time to run a three-staged prompt I’d invented. At the end of class, they had to open a sealed envelope, also in the care package. I had put an antique postcard in each, having ordered a batch from Etsy (some of them are dated as early as 1906). Here’s one I didn’t send; I’m planning to use the extras in a fall workshop on the same theme.

The prompt to go with their postcard:

  • First study the picture side and write for 3 minutes about what messages the picture conveys all by itself
  • Then read the message—think about ink, the handwriting, writing style; also look at the postmark, stamp, and address; write for 3 minutes about what you see
  • Now imagine the sender is a ghost and write back to them.

They can build on that idea for next week’s poem, or research the meanings of the tarot card I also put in each envelope (I figured some students might not like to mess with them, so that’s just an option). Next week’s assignment:

  • Choosing a night when you’ll have 20 minutes to write the next morning, sleep with something unusual beneath your pillow (one of the cards from the care package, or anything else that feels like it has some mystery about it). Have pen and paper by your bed—real writing tools, not your phone. As soon as you wake up, write for a while about anything that’s on your mind. Put the paper away, forget about it, and later on come back and write a poem about possible relationships between the object and your free-write.
  • Write an epistolary poem (a letter poem) to someone or something that can’t answer.
  • Write any other poem based on a religious ritual or uncanny procedure. If tarot interests you, study the card I gave you and research its meanings, or you can do a free online reading here.

The energy in the class felt good, I think? Only teaching two hours a week, P/F so nobody’s worked up about grades–pretty sweet. In September I’ll be back to a full teaching load, a million advisees and meetings and committees, but now I get to just swoop in and be the Spirit of Poetry Fun, here to distract you.