When revisions are even harder

I’ve been working flat-out on honing the manuscript of an essay collection, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, due from Tinderbox Editions late this year or early next (I suspect the latter at this point). It’s a blend of memoir and criticism with a good dose of cognitive science and narrative theory, plus thirteen 21st century poems reprinted in full to anchor the short chapters. Recounting the close of my con-man father’s life, it’s also the story of reading poetry through personal crisis AND an analysis of how “literary transportation” works when you enter a poem’s pocket universe (that’s immersive reading or getting lost in a text, for the layperson). I’ve been drafting this book since 2012 so it’s really important to me. Closing in on a final version I’ll submit to an editor, though, always makes me nervous. You’re down in the weeds, seeing ways a sentence here and there could be made more elegant, checking the bibliography, and wondering whom you’ve inadvertently omitted from the acknowledgments. But it’s also the last time you can try for the 30,000 feet perspective, imagining how the book will be received by others and trying to catch those moments of obtuseness or under-explanation that inevitably linger. Hard work in multiple ways.

This book, though, works through challenging personal material. On the good side, there are stories of travel, particularly my 2011 Fulbright in New Zealand; reflections on growth and change; and positive representations of sustaining relationships. The dark stuff involves, of course, tales of my dishonest and narcissistic father but also workplace harassment; a long-ago sexual assault; Chris’ mother’s dementia; and my mother’s first round of lymphoma in 2015. It shook me to spend time with that material again. Worse, since my mother died of the lymphoma’s recurrence in April, I had to put my sentences about her into the past tense. No wonder I was resisting finalizing the ms.

I did the same thing to myself in July, at the Sewanee Writers Workshop. I had to finalize my workshop ms in May, and it was full of poems about my mother’s death and other tough material. Somehow, for the last couple of years, I’ve finally been writing about childhood abuse and mental health. My mother always read my poetry books, but I think at some level I knew she wasn’t likely to read this new stuff. I’m freer to be honest than before, and some of what hurt me long ago was my mother choosing not to protect us from my father. Again, no wonder Sewanee was emotionally intense.

I came to a good pause point on Poetry’s Possible Worlds this morning, and I go to Chris’ play The Zombie Life in Richmond tonight, so next week I’ll be turning my attention to different things: a department retreat, course prep, reference letters, poetry submissions, and as many other smaller writing-related tasks as I can squeeze in. That sounds like a lot, but except for the poetry subs, it isn’t nearly as difficult. Writing, as I tell my students, is a complex task with many factors always in play, which is why even a short, imperfect essay or poem is such an achievement. It’s salutary to be reminded, as I approach another academic year, that it can be hard in other ways, too.

Convertible and weird

I’m home from Sewanee followed by a pretty decent week at the beach. It was wet in North Carolina, but we hot-tailed it to the beach whenever the rain stopped for a couple of hours. The surf was wild, the water hospitably warm. Our rental house on the sound had kayaks and bicycles we made the most of, plus an insane parrot and flamingo decoration scheme, which I’m inclined to put down in the “plus” column. If you see some metaphors in my beach report, so do I. This summer was packed with challenges–and sometimes opportunity–for me, my family, and friends. It’s not over, but my tan is fading. My tarot spreads, a pandemic hobby that hasn’t run out of gas, are full of aces and fools, signs of new beginnings, but also upside-down wheels and travelers. They hint that it’s time for change, although I’m resisting it.

Our teaching year begins properly in September, preceded by buckshot meetings that I will dodge as possible. In the meantime, I’m prepping for one last summer event. ReaderCon, which I’ve never attended but which has a rep for being the most serious and interesting U.S. speculative fiction convention, kicks off this weekend for its first virtual iteration. I’m moderating two panels, one on historical sf by women, the other on critical theory and sf. I’m bemused to realize I actually do have some expertise in the latter. Among English PhDs, I definitely don’t count as a theoryhead, but among sf writers who read for writerly inspiration, I think I’ll do okay. Wish me luck. And if you’re intrigued, it’s still possible to register here for just $25.

I’m also revising like crazy, converting drafts workshopped at Sewanee into snazzier models. That involves sifting through a lot of advice, putting much of it aside, then tinkering with suggestions small and large. Mostly I like this work, but there’s too much of it for a compressed late-summer timeframe, and I’m afraid that if I put it off I’ll forget what my scrawled notes mean. I thought I was going to do the Sewanee Workshop in the summer of 2020 then cruise into the relative intellectual leisure of a sabbatical, but, you know, best-laid plans. The upside: better poems! I’d like to get some submissions out during August magazine reading windows, but we’ll see, because I’m ALSO also completing final revisions on my forthcoming essay collection, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, as my editor’s advice rolls in.

Too much, right? I like all of the projects I have underway, just as I’m excited about each of my three fall classes, but I also can’t work this hard all the time, keeping the engine just this side of overheating. Meanwhile, I hear my university’s administration wants to raise caps on our fall courses, basically because they miscalculated, underhired, and don’t have enough seats for first-years (strategically, would be my guess). My question for them at a Zoom meeting last spring was “how are you planning to lower the stress next fall for your burnt-out and exhausted faculty?” (Demoralized, too–we had voted to change Robert E. Lee’s memorialization in the university name and the trustees said “nah.”) Instead, the administration is putting out ask after ask, even during the summer, which was once time we were urged to protect for research and recharging. There’s an analogue here to the U.S. “worker shortage,” meaning people resisting working too hard for too little money under bad conditions. I’m personally fine, with way more options than most if I can just make myself rev down, but generally, the university’s aspirations to remain a top-ranked liberal arts college do not jibe with undermining the faculty’s ability to teach well and thrive.

Speaking of change: my poem “Convertible Moon,” a sapphics-ish elegy for my mother-in-law, appears in the new issue of One. I wrote it maybe five years ago, right after she died, and rewrote it many times, struggling to open a hyper-compressed poem to the air. Meanwhile, an etymological riff of a poem, “In Weird Waters Now,” appears in Smartish Pace 28. That one came fast. I drafted it, polished it, sent it off, and it was taken on the first try. I’d like more magic like that in my life, but in my experience, you earn the breakthroughs only by keeping your writing practice alive, and that’s time an overstuffed workday tries to edge out.

Finally, if you’re in Virginia and can make it to Virginia for a play in Richmond, please buy a ticket to The Zombie Life, written by my brilliant spouse, Chris Gavaler. There’s a feature on it here. Talk about weird transformation. It’s as if it’s a theme in our lives, or something.