Rereading Sedgwick, or, Oh Yeah, I Like Teaching

The first paragraph from this famous essay by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick just stopped me cold:

“Sometime back in the middle of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, I was picking the brains of a friend of mine, the activist scholar Cindy Patton, about the probable natural history of HIV. This was at a time when speculation was ubiquitous about whether the virus had been deliberately engineered or spread, whether HIV represented a plot or experiment by the U.S. military that had gotten out of control, or perhaps that was behaving exactly as it was meant to. After hearing a lot from her about the geography and economics of the global traffic in blood products, I finally, with some eagerness, asked Patton what she thought of these sinister rumors about the virus’s origin. ‘‘Any of the early steps in its spread could have been either accidental or deliberate,’’ she said. ‘‘But I just have trouble getting interested in that. I mean, even suppose we were sure of every element of a conspiracy: that the lives of Africans and African Americans are worthless in the eyes of the United States; that gay men and drug users are held cheap where they aren’t actively hated; that the military deliberately researches ways to kill noncombatants whom it sees as enemies; that people in power look calmly on the likelihood of catastrophic environmental and population changes. Supposing we were ever so sure of all those things—what would we know then that we don’t already know?’’ -from “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You”

Very different epidemic–AND a remarkably speedier development of treatments and vaccines (an observation I don’t think is paranoid)–but still, what foreshadowing in a piece originally published nearly 20 years ago! The essay goes on to analyze the contagiousness of suspicion as an approach to texts taken by literary critics and theorists, as in, “Let me expose the prejudices lurking behind this poem.” Rather than strive to forestall humiliation by the author-poet who wants to put one over on you, a reader could, she suggests, seek pleasure from a piece of literature, because life is pretty hard and art can make us feel better. That’s a gross oversimplication, and I’m not even touching on some really important aspects of the essay: how she describes each method working in queer theory plus the Freudian stuff (so much Freud…). Yet this essay grants a professor permission to be a fan as well as an analyst of poetry, and many others have taken it that way, too. What a pleasure to revisit it.

My first full week of teaching was exhausting, full of positive feelings about my students but inflected by pandemic fears, too. Cases are rising fast here. We’re in person, masked, but students are having tons of unmasked encounters–let’s call them encounters–in residence and dining halls and, I presume, at parties. Prepping for and teaching 6 90-minute classes is as hard as I remembered, even before the grading starts; things are high-powered here, with smart students chewing through material fast, something that’s both lucky and sometimes a major challenge to keep up with. And there are all the extras like advising, reference letters, department meetings and consultations, university-wide meetings and events, etc etc. I’m beat.

Yet I’m having fun, too. I’m prepping Sedgwick’s essay for a senior seminar called “Taking Literature Personally”; during that session we’ll try some paranoid and reparative reading of Frank O’Hara’s poetry (no spoilers, but my lesson plan involves crayons). For yesterday’s class, we read the poem “Philomela” and the essay “Nightingale” by Paisley Rekdal as well as the Ovid tale for background, which is infinitely darker material though just as powerful. Whatever the literature at hand, the flow experiences of rereading then planning discussions feels really good. I wish I had more time to linger in it, but I’m being strict with myself about stopping work when I’m tired. I’m an introvert who HAS to recharge and a grown-up person who HAS to rest and sleep. I’m doing okay at it for now.

The picture below is from my book signing here in Lexington this week. Office hours, teach two classes, assemble cheese plate, then hold court at an author event for 2 hours–it was ambitious for a Tuesday. Yet pleasurable, too. I’m sure I’ll feel the same about my Randolph College reading next week, where at least I don’t have to cater the refreshments. Meanwhile, here comes Friday night, a drink with a friend, a gentle hike tomorrow morning. As I used to tell myself during college hangovers: pacing, Lesley. Everything’s more fun when you get the pacing right.

Pandemic books, like pandemics, keep coming

September 2021 in the U.S.: vaccines are widely available for those over 12, yet people are still suffering and dying from Covid-19 at a higher rate than last September, newspaper articles keep telling me. This is a comparatively trivial point, but for related reasons, it continues to be a tough time to launch a book. I feel for those authors who postponed and postponed, thinking this fall would be the moment.

Things are better for authors now than when I launched The State She’s In in March 2020 and Unbecoming in May 2020. Businesses have found workarounds and vaccinated people are rightly less afraid to enter them; an occasional literary event is in person, with caveats; organizers are more skilled at running virtual events and authors are better at presenting from a distance. Zoom presentations tend to be less engaging, but it’s no secret that live ones are a pretty mixed bag, too, as when a tweedy writer is staged at a podium, symbolically elevated above the audience and enforcing the sacred Literary Appreciation Hush. Yet even when in-person events are stuffy and formal, there’s a surprising amount of multisensory mutual feedback happening. That dynamism has been widely observed to result in better book sales. I think one lesson of the last year and a half is that authors and audiences benefit from virtual events–I’m now a firm believer that they should be in the mix–but that virtual promotion works best when it supplements rather than replacing presence.

I’m be swamped with teaching work soon, but with all this in mind, I just spent some time on Goodreads, giving stars and occasionally brief reviews to books I read this summer. This is an especial kindness to small press authors. None of us can afford to buy every book we might like by every author deserving more attention, but here’s a reminder to do what you can–Goodreads and Amazon reviews, social media praise, library requests, putting new books on your syllabi, whatever sounds doable for you. That circulation of dollars and attention rarely puts much money in a small-press author’s pocket, but it does enable indies to stay afloat, therefore publishing good writers who haven’t hit it big (yet) and keeping the literary world more lively, quirky, and full of risk. It’s much easier for a writer to place the next book when the previous one has done decently. And, of course, love gives a writer heart. This pandemic would have hurt worse without the company of books.

I’m also pondering what I can still do for my 2020 publications, knowing that plenty of people who might like them haven’t got around to checking them out yet. The plan:

  • I arranged a local signing of Unbecoming at a new Lexington, Virginia bookstore, Downtown Books, on Tuesday September 14th from 5:30-7:30. There will be wine, snacks, and goody bags stuffed with little doodads I began gathering pre-pandemic. The goody bag candy, however, will be newly purchased, because the chocolate eggs I bought to match the cover of The State She’s In, and which I had planned to scatter on the Tinderbox table at my AWP signing, are REALLY OLD.
  • I’m reading poetry at Randolph College at 8 pm on September 22, with Fran Wilde. We were the fall and winter Pearl S. Buck Writers in Residence but our readings were postponed to this academic year, with the aforementioned optimism. Despite masks and distancing and that frisson of risk, I’m really looking forward to it.
  • I’ll be presenting in person at some winter gatherings: DisCon III, an SF convention in DC in December; a NEMLA panel on hybrid writing in Baltimore in March; the Virginia Festival of the Book in March; and maybe, verdict out so far, at AWP in Philadelphia (also March, so that month is starting to look pretty nuts). Late fall booster shot, anyone?

I’m thinking I should try to arrange more events like readings or workshops at regional bookstores, places I can drive to. I’m also wondering if, instead, I should cool it, go gentler on myself. Applying for literary opportunities is a ton of work, and then doing events is a ton of work, but we all have to take care of our damn selves. People keep telling me that teaching stressed-out students while you yourself are masked and nervous is even more tiring than teaching was formerly. I guess I’m about to find out how much will be left of me at the end of each workday. My Tarot cards say that my life is in balance now but I’m about to totally lose control. Yee-hah.

“A diary of this kind is neither authentic nor satisfactory”: Millay’s journals

Champagne for breakfast!–no, I’m only kidding, but that’s what Edna St. Vincent Millay had on her birthday in 1933. I was asked to blurb an edition of her diaries, Rapture and Melancholy: The Diaries of Edna St. Vincent Millay, edited by Daniel Mark Epstein and forthcoming from Yale University Press. I’ve been reading the galleys for days. My head is full of her voice, which IS rapturous and melancholy sometimes, but also hilarious and chatty and occasionally wonderfully snarky. “The weather is frightful!” “Got the curse.” “I’ve just had my first gin-fizz. And it’s not going to be my last.” Millay records some mundane details–letters received, college grades, her weight when she was ill–and lots of meticulous observations about social and natural worlds, especially the flowers and birds at her Steepletop estate, where she gardened her heart out (sometimes in the buff) and occasionally hosted visitors, plenty of them distinguished.

Millay kept diaries on and off from the age of 15 forward, with big gaps. Some diaries could have been destroyed by family to conceal evidence of her wild adventures, but it’s just as likely that her diarizing was sporadic. She needed the money publication brought. Millay grew up in painful poverty, but even after she became famous, with funds for housecleaners and travel and scenic properties, she depended on her income from publishing and performances. I’m glad she wrote privately about asters and green snakes and bobolinks, but it wasn’t a practical way to spend her limited energy.

I don’t rely on income from my writing and a good thing, too. Yet her journals make me think about the calculus of blogging about poetry. There are plenty of people who can’t afford to give any writing away or who, at least, choose not to. I see the sense in that and sometimes wonder if diverting writing energy to this blog has dented my rusting jalopy of a career.

Blogging isn’t the same as keeping a diary, of course. Millay shared her journals with friends once in a while, and her husband even contributed occasional updates. She also constructed imaginary readerships, especially when younger, addressing entries to mother-substitutes and future lovers. But they were essentially private undertakings. Teenaged Millay gets quite fierce on the subject:

Resolved.
Firstly. That, henceforth, no one reads my diary.
Secondly. That whosoever, by stealth or any other underhand means, 
opens these pages to read, shall be subject to the rack, the guillotine, the
axe, the scaffold, or any other form of torture I may see fit to administer.

Blogs can be diary-like in their episodic reflections and informal voice, but even when the tone is intimate, they’re meant to be read. Further, they can be instruments for increasing an author’s visibility, and very occasionally they generate revenue. This platform has probably raised my profile a tiny bit, but not in proportion to the amount of effort it requires. In how they aim at small audiences, literary blogs seem more like letters–bids for connection among friends in the ether–but they do resemble private diaries in cultivating habits of attention that nourish a writer’s practice. They’re also zones of experiment for constructing a public self.

I like blogging because I like writing but publication is slow. It’s nice to have an immediate outlet for thoughts I’m not ready to cast as essays or poems. I’m not about to stop in favor of more strategic writing behavior, although one day I might. But I do regret a little having channeled time away from truly private writing. What’s really on my mind is often not mine to share–this week, “worrying about a friend in trouble” doesn’t even remotely cover it–so I end up misrepresenting aspects of my life in my blog, probably most often by projecting coherence I certainly do not feel. I don’t know if any entry is really better than a verbal selfie, in which I “show” my writing, reading self at a deceptively flattering angle. As Millay said at one of the many moments she castigates herself for not writing, “A diary of this kind is neither authentic nor satisfactory.”

Well, poets are experts at the simulacrum of presence, creating an illusion of voice through dry printed words. Millay certainly was. “What kind of beast would turn its life into words?” Adrienne Rich once wrote. Me, I guess, over and over again, trying to be authentic enough to satisfy myself.