Conference report containing not nearly enough gossip

There’s plenty I’m NOT going to tell you about the Sewanee Writers Conference until the next time we can share a cup of tea or glass of wine together, after I check that your phone’s voice recorder is off. I’m also still processing and will be for a long time yet–a lot happens in twelve days! But here’s a sketch.

First off, I felt lucky to be accepted to this conference in winter 2020, and I still feel lucky. I hadn’t applied previously because of stray comments and stories I’d heard. I live in the U.S. South and I’ve encountered the clubbier bits of literary old-boy culture. Who needs it, I thought, until my friend Anna Lena said no, a great new director is coming in, try. She was right. Leah Stewart’s debut as conference director would have been in summer 2020. This deferred version is in person, with our vaccine records downloaded and masks indoors, so it’s still a Covid-complicated enterprise but very well run. The hitches seem small, like someone lighting a candle in the dorm at midnight and setting off fire alarms. I mean, I’m positive worse things are being handled quietly, but this is a staff you trust to handle things. The ethos is inclusive and respectful. Every reading is terrific. Audience members stay off their cellphones (well, mostly) and really listen.

The structure: there are five fiction workshop streams, two nonfiction, three poetry, two playwriting. Each workshop has two teachers and 12-14 students; it meets five times for two to three hours, so basically every other morning. The co-teaching model is unusual, but it seems to work smoothly. My workshop was run by Monica Youn and Nate Marshall. I was in Monica’s cohort in that she’s the one faculty member I had a personal meeting with, but Nate was a deeply thoughtful participant when Monica’s students were workshopped, and vice versa. I was also given three 20-minute meetings with editors and an agent, and spots in four one-hour master classes, which are “master” to varying degrees. My favorite was an exciting hour on using speculation in creative nonfiction, brilliantly taught by Tessa Fontaine, a Fellow.

Which brings us to hierarchy. There are “Visitors,” like the editors who swoop in for three days, taking meetings and giving a presentation or two. People in the “Faculty” role co-teach the workshops and give readings in mixed-genre pairs at 8 pm every night. Some of them also give afternoon craft talks. (The other poetry faculty this year, by the way, were Carl Phillips, Tarfia Faizullah, Mark Jarman, and A. E. Stallings.) Next come the “Fellows,” at least two in each workshop, and they have half-hour meetings with the other students in their classes as well as group reading slots. Some of the Fellows are rightly famous, like Eduardo Corral; others are amazing writers I’d never heard of before, some of them just starting out. I had a half-hour meeting with Arhm Choi Wild, whose poetry is dazzling and whose vibe is warm and generous.

I’m in the next group, the “Scholars.” Being a Tennessee Williams Scholar (!) means that my tuition was paid but room and board ($700) plus travel is on me, although I have help from my employer on those because again, I’m a lucky bastard. Scholars also have group reading slots of five minutes each (the Fellows have 15 minutes each and the Faculty 25, at a listener’s guesstimate). There are staff readings, too, and regular students have the chance to read at alcohol-fueled open mics after 9pm, which I kept missing. I can’t, as it turns out, do hikes, very intense workshops, several other daily events, three group meals, AND an open-mic party. My head gets full, my body tired, and besides, I’m your standard poet-introvert who needs to retreat periodically. Fortunately the dorm rooms are big, air-conditioned, and quiet.

That’s maybe more math than you wanted, but the structure is important to the experience. Conference veterans told me that Sewanee has been democratized in a big way: lunch tables with agents used to be arranged via sign-up, cocktails at the French House used to be limited to faculty and fellows, etc. All of that is gone. Did I still feel the hierarchy? Absolutely. Some of it is what we’re here for, frankly. I want to hear from writers whose achievements I admire and get a window into what high-profile publishers are thinking. Sometimes, though, I felt invisible, and my ego took bumps. A graduate student advised me on how to submit to a magazine I’ve published in multiple times, sigh. One editor told me, during our twenty-minute meeting, that I should sit down with him at a meal sometime, and when I did, he didn’t even acknowledge I was there. (That one was hilarious, actually. Over it.) The jockeying for status could be intense. But other people at every level of career success were remarkably open and kind and funny and encouraging. I suspect these dynamics are bound to occur when humans get together for any common purpose: dentistry conventions, quilting bees, spiritual retreats. Imagine the delicate snark of monks.

My occasional feelings of invisibility are partly on me. I started off anxious, which made me quiet, and then powerful readings and workshops stripped off my doing-okay veneer. I (briefly) fell into a pit of grief about my mother then climbed out again. Feeling fragile, I don’t think I made the most of my opportunities, although I relaxed some in the final few days and gave a good reading. I also remembered, oh, I don’t want to compete with the literary players, although it’s good to join the lunch table once in a while and see how it feels. I REALLY get that people have to protect their time and energy. But watching the eminences here and elsewhere, I aspire to be one of the friendly, non-power-hoarding types, if I ever hit the big league, which isn’t friggin’ likely for me or anybody.

The career introspection triggered here has been useful. I clarified for myself about what I want for future book-publishing experiences, for instance. I met a ton of writers whose work I like and will follow. Shenandoah will get subs from new people this year containing the sentence, “It was such a pleasure to meet you at Sewanee!” I’ll send a few of those subs to other people. It’s all good.

The most important thing, though, is the work itself. I have a lot of feedback to sort through, but I’ve already identified some habits I’ve fallen into as a poet that need interrogation. I have ideas about how to transform some messy poems into their best selves. I also see how to improve work I’ve been doing in other genres–the fiction and nonfiction talks and readings have been great. Even advice that I wouldn’t implement gives me information about how my work is coming through to different kinds of readers.

A few more readings, a booksigning party, and then I pack up and drive to NC tomorrow to meet my family at a rented beach house, where the long decompression begins! Well, not too long. Damn you, August, I am not ready.

Teaching guide for “A Grimoire” in Shenandoah 70.2

The Slightly-Later-Than-Spring 2021 issue of Shenandoah is live! I curated a themed section called “A Grimoire: Poems in Pursuit of Transformation.” My editorial note describes what I mean by “uncanny activism,” but in short, these are poems that try to make things happen, often by using the features of spells, prayers, charms, and other petitions to the more-than-human world. I describe how I see the poems speaking to the portfolio’s theme, but below I also provide lists and links for how these poems might fit onto syllabi for various literature and creative writing courses. Free online content can be a pretty useful way to add richness to a reading list, and of course I think these poems are amazing.

Forms and modes:

Ecopoetry:

Social justice and generally surviving a world than can be awful:

Poems engaging religion and spirituality (well, more directly than the others):

I hope this list might be helpful to teachers, although I think putting poetry into thematic categories involves some sleight-of-hand. Poems transcend labels like “ecopoetry” and “about religion,” if they’re good. Yet academic study, at least as constituted here and now, depends on categories, due to the sheer necessity of narrowing down some fraction of the literary universe into non-insane portion sizes for courses. Curricula typically divide material by the author’s country of origin, century of publication, literary school, gender, sexuality, race, religion, or other identity category; genre and theme play in, too. None of these categories is “natural.” We’re just used to them. Further, no reading list is fully coherent; every one generates borderline cases. I’d be interested to hear if you think I got any of these categories wrong for these particular poems.

I’m focusing here on the portion of the issue I edited, but I proofread the entire publication (even while on leave, because I love the magazine). I can testify that there’s terrific work all through it. The comics Rachel Cruz curated about survival are very powerful; check out the special translation section on Arabic poetry; BIPOC Editorial Fellow DW McKinney presents nonfiction about home and belonging (Sara Marchant’s “Haunted,” for example, is a memorably weird ghost story). Please check out the regular fiction and nonfiction, too. Beth Staples and her partner-in-crime Morgan Davis choose riveting pieces full of strong feeling that are also often experimental in structure and voice.

Every issue is a huge collective effort brought to wonderful fruition, and it means a lot when other people read it. When any issue of any magazine delights you, let the editors know! Or share it on social media, or do whatever you do to celebrate art you like. The world needs more of that.

In the meantime, I’m revising some pieces, submitting a bit, and preparing for the literary work and logistics of attending the Sewanee Writers Workshop next week–as a student instead of a syllabus-writer, which is delightful. I’m also planning for fall teaching with the kind of open-mindedness sabbaticals can generate, because they detach you for a while from the habits that help you survive an intense job. Toward the process, I’m reading Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop. It’s full of useful, specific ideas that are smart extensions and articulations of good classroom values: anti-racist pedagogy is here a way of being pro-empowerment for students of many identities who would benefit from thoughtful support. Sewanee is kicking off with an “Ethics of the Workshop” session, too. I’m excited to learn from these conversations, meet actual (masked) human beings, and just sink into the writing life for a while, although September’s mountains loom in the distance.

Listening to Iceland

Iceland’s landscape is gorgeous, but its soundscape is striking, too. I expected to hear crashing breakers and waterfalls, but I forgot there would be a million unfamiliar bird calls. I spotted oystercatchers, terns, gulls, fulmers, eider ducks, redwings, and sandpipers, but more often I heard screeches, warbles, clicks, and chattering from birds I couldn’t see, much less identify. There was a sea cave near Hellnar full of gulls and maybe other white-and-grey birds–I couldn’t climb close enough to see them well–but their cacophony carried. From around a bend in the trail, they sounded weirdly like small children in a playground, some cackling, one crying from an injury. We never saw puffins or seals, but from steep field after steep field, the sheep had plenty to say.

What might stay with me most was the voice of ice on the move. The ocean beach near Jökulsárlón, noisy with sea-sounds and high wind, was so visually amazing we kept laughing with surprise at the black volcanic sands littered with glassy iceberg fragments, and just behind them, larger blue chunks of Vatnajökull bobbing on the waves. (The joy gets a lot more muted when you learn that this arm of the largest glacier between the Arctic and Antarctic is melting so fast that it will be a fjord in a few years.) We heard the ice much more clearly at a couple of less-visited glacial lagoons, Breiðárlón and Fjallsárlón, where we could tramp out to the edge of the lake and listen without other people nearby. The nearest floes were slushy; you could see as well as hear them crack then separate. Larger noises came from further away, including a rumble from the edge of the glacier. We froze to listen, wondering if it was calving.

We didn’t visit the volcanic eruption, by the way, which has been slowing. Here‘s a clip, though, with audio. Maybe I should write a poem called “The Geldingadalsgos Eruption as Shown by YouTube.”

This was a sparkly trip with plenty of shadows. It was a treat to ride a half-full plane to a destination that wasn’t choked with tourists–but that ease was a side-effect of a killer pandemic. I booked the flight and lodgings right after my mother died because I wanted something to look forward to, but even as I was stunned by photogenic scenery and clean scents and the freshest seafood flaked with grey salt, I was making mental lists: what really cool trips do I still have time to take in this life, if climate change doesn’t make travel less feasible soon? When will the vehicle of my body sputter and resist travel’s challenges? Already I can’t pack the days with sightseeing like I used to, and I had to dope myself with ibuprofen and lidocaine patches to manage some screaming tendonitis. I felt pretty mortal struggling up those cliffs. Plus a family member back home was having health problems, so we were on the phone a lot, trying to figure out how to help. I didn’t always feel present. The adventure was still amazing, no complaints here (!), but you can’t leave your worries out of the carry-on.

I’ll post again soon about the new issue of Shenandoah, but first I have a lot of other catch-up to do. It’s time to prep an online poetry workshop I’m leading this Tuesday (6 pm eastern until 7:30) called “The State We’re In.” It’s free to members of the Poetry Society of Virginia; check out this <a href="http://<iframe src="https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fangela.dribben.1%2Fposts%2F320838493088369&show_text=true&width=500&quot; width="500" height="658" style="border:none;overflow:hidden" scrolling="no" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen="true" allow="autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; picture-in-picture; web-share">FB post from Angela Dribben to sign up. In the meantime, here’s a 6-second video clip taken from the cliffs above Vík í Mýrdal. We hiked a very steep trail in hopes the clouds would blow off enough for us to enjoy what are supposed to be spectacular views, but they didn’t. It was eerie being completely alone up there, seeing only the edges of dramatic drops as mist hurried around us. The audio isn’t great on this–my spouse is mumbling something–but you can hear bird cries and wind, too. The human and more-than-human join in messy disharmony.