Sacrifices, gifts, and a year in reading

Fairies and gods haunted my last post, to which I have a couple of addenda: first, an English cousin spotted my story about my mother and her father propitiating the fairies with sweets and, bless him, he brought a matchbox full of sugar to Sefton Park in Liverpool and left it in Fairies Glen, pictured above.

That moved me very much, but a comment poet-musician-blogger Frank Hudson left in response to the post made me sit up straight. I’d asked why sacrifice was so important to fairy stories as well as every religion I can think of. He wrote:

Ah, fairies and fairy stories and sacrifices/gifts. My last abandoned novel was an attempt at a fairy story told without any resort to explicit, understood magic. Too difficult a task for me, who I’m pretty sure is not a novelist, or maybe for any writer. The personal understanding I developed of fairy was that they represent everything we’re not: the other, the choices we don’t make, the things we’ve “conquered,” the suppressed. and so on. We give those things gifts and placating acts, in a complex mix of “tribute” (in the old alliances/bribe against war sense) and guilt. We wish those things to not overcome us, to make war on us and our state — and we also wish we could have those exclusive choices we’ve made and the abandoned choices too.

Sounds reductive as I just wrote it, but I don’t feel it as reductive.

Good insights, even when they’re hard-won, do tend to sound obvious once you say them. This one really clicked. Fairies are so often associated with wild land but also wild feelings: uncontrolled eating and dancing and sex and cruelty. You lose time, and therefore abandon domestic ties, when you enter their circles. The fae character in my novel Unbecoming was, I now understand, incredibly fun to write because in imagining her, I got to inhabit the person I might have been if I were thoroughly, deliciously selfish, unworried about anyone’s future. I rarely consciously knew what she would say or do next; instead, I would take a break from writing and hear her whisper her next lines. The last dictation I received is her last quotation in the book: “I don’t know what I want, but I want it very much.” Word.

Speaking of traces of the past: one last magazine issue with a poem of mine slid under the old year’s wire. “You Know Where the Smithy Stood by the Clinkers” just appeared in the new National Poetry Review. It’s based on a lecture given several years ago by W&L archaeologist Don Gaylord. It immediately helped me see the buildings I work in in a different way, but I had to revise the poem many times, mostly by paring it down, until its architectural bones became clear. The past is always present, even when you suppress difficult memories.

And finally, here’s a list of the books I read, or sacrificed my hours on the altar of, in 2021 (with the *s indicating works published in the last year or so, to keep track of how much contemporary lit I’m reading). I’m currently in the middle of two others: Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence, a ghost story I was very much enjoying, but my daughter wheedled my e-reader away from me for a few days; and Emma Newman’s Between Two Thorns, a fairyland story I’d given to my son for Christmas, and which I started when deprived of Erdrich. I’ve been on a novel-reading binge and want to turn to poetry again in the new year–and I’ll have to, because I start teaching a class on 21st Century Poetry on January 10th. I can’t help the strong planning impulses baked into my character–you should see how busy my 2022 calendar is already!–but one of the goals on my mind is to keep thinking backward and inward, wondering how to negotiate peace with ghosts and my own fae self.

POETRY (29 books and chapbooks, including a few re-reads)

  • 1/7 Daye, Cardinal (reread for review)
  • 1/16 Tran, The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer* (met at a virtual reading)
  • 1/16 Goodkin, Crybaby Bridge* (met at a virtual reading)
  • 2/21 Bonta, Failed State* (fandom)
  • 3/8 Phillips Brown, The Adjacent Possible* (for teaching, and author’s a neighbor!)
  • 3/16 Wade, When I Was Straight (fandom)
  • 4/26 Chiasson, Bicentennial (workshop prep)
  • 5/4 Seuss, Frank: sonnets* (fandom)
  • 5/7 Rekdal, Nightingale (reread for research)
  • 5/18 Wade, Skirted* (fandom)
  • 6/24 Harvey, If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? (friend’s rec)
  • 7/19 Waldman, Not a Male Pseudonym (from a friend)
  • 7/19 Thomas, Red Channel in the Rupture (friend’s rec)
  • 7/28 Youn, Blackacre (my Sewanee teacher)
  • 8/4 Marshall, Finna (my Sewanee teacher)
  • 8/4 Smith, Black Hole Factory (met at Sewanee)
  • 8/10 Meehan, Geomantic (fandom)
  • 8/13 Kindred, Where the Wolf* (fandom)
  • 8/19 Manhire, Wow* (fandom)
  • 8/27 Jones, Reparations Now!* (fandom)
  • 8/28 Choi Wild, Cut to Bloom (met at Sewanee)
  • 8/29 Chiasson, The Math Campers* (met at Bread Loaf)
  • 8/30 Levin, Banana Palace (fandom)
  • 8/31 Phillips, Pale Colors in a Tall Field (fandom)
  • 10/1 Charleston, Songs of Protest, Songs of Freedom (teaching)
  • 10/14 McCully Brown, Nevison, In the Field Between Us* (professional request)
  • 10/25 Jones, Reparations Now! *(reread for teaching)
  • 10/28 Kindred, Where the Wolf* (reread for teaching)
  • 11/7 Tran, The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer* (reread for teaching)

FICTION (32)

  • 1/2  King, The Mist (picked it up used)
  • 1/15 Harrow, Once and Future Witches* (review)
  • 2/14 Atkinson, Case Histories (audiobook for drive)
  • 2/20 Novik, Deadly Education* (review)
  • 3/13 Knox, The Absolute Book* (fandom)
  • 4/3 Mukherjee, The Rising Man (friend’s recommendation)
  • 4/20 Mukherjee, A Necessary Evil (ditto)
  • 5/4 French, The Searcher (audiobook, fandom)
  • 5/? Mukherjee, Smoke and Ashes (see above)
  • 5/27 Sachdeva, All the Names They Used for God
  • 5/31 King, Later* (fandom)
  • 6/10 French, Into the Woods (fandom)
  • 6/13 French, The Likeness (fandom)
  • 6/20 Hummel, Lesson in Red* (fandom)
  • 7/2 French, The Faithful Place (fandom)
  • 7/11 French, Broken Harbor (fandom)
  • 7/ 18 French, The Secret Place (fandom)
  • 7/29 McCorkle, Life After Life (bought at Sewanee)
  • 8/7 Foley, The Hunting Party (audiobook for drive)
  • 8/22 French, The Trespasser (fandom)
  • 8/28 King, Billy Summer*s (fandom)
  • 10/6 Novik, The Last Graduate* (fandom)
  • 10/29 Haig, Midnight Library* (to mentor a student project)
  • 11/7 Perez, Out of Darkness (to counter local bookbanning effort!)
  • 11/11 Ward, The Last House on Needless Street* (review in NYT)
  • 11/26 Hoffman, Practical Magic* (fandom)
  • 11/28 King, The Body (for teaching)
  • 12/1 Tesh, Silver in the Wood (research for conference panel)
  • 12/2 Tesh, The Drowned Country* (research for conference panel)
  • 12/9 Dean, Tam Lin (friend’s recommendation)
  • 12/12 Little Badger, Elatsoe (friend’s recommendation)
  • 12/30 Black, The Cruel Prince (audiobook for car trip)

NONFICTION/ HYBRID (15)

  • 1/5 Attebery, Stories About Stories (research/ teaching)
  • 1/5 Seymour, Bad Environmentalism (research)
  • 1/6 Richter, A Companion to Literary Theory, a good chunk of it (research)
  • 1/13 Russo and Reed, Counter-Desecration (recommended)
  • 1/14 Hakemulder et al, Narrative Absorption (research)
  • 1/15 Connors, Oyster Matters* (friend)
  • 4/3 Pollack, Seventy Eight Degrees of Wisdom (curiosity)
  • 5/12 Frommer’s Iceland (you can guess)
  • 5/18 Hailer, Animal You’ll Surely Become (planning a reading)
  • 5/19 Ball, My San Francisco* (local writer)
  • 7/16 Chavez, The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop* (friends’ recommendations, and for teaching)
  • 8/18 Boruch, The Little Death of Self (research)
  • 9/6 Russo and Reed, eds, Counter-Desecration (reread for teaching)
  • 11/15 Dahl, Boy (teaching)
  • 12/27 Crispin, The Creative Tarot (play)

*published within the last year or so

Weird tree-person looking east

I love the turning of the year toward light at the winter solstice. It makes up a bit for winter looming ahead. This year was tough for everybody, it seems; as Eric Tran said when he visited to give a poetry reading here, we spent the pandemic borrowing energy from the future, and now we have to pay it back. My mother died at the end of April and she’s very much on my mind as I perform seasonal rituals: recent stuff like sending her a zillion gifts at Christmas 2020 to distract her from going out and taking risks; old stuff like mixing up Christmas pudding to steam and flame it (we always did that as kids, although I riff on borrowed recipes and she just bought Crosse & Blackwell). I need to find a quiet moment to think about her.

I don’t know what that viking-druid I spotted on the trail yesterday portends. He’s looking toward the new year, but I’m mostly looking back. For a conference, I went on a binge of reading related to fairies and Faerie, old tales people keep making new. I discuss some of them here, in the annual “pleasures” column hosted by Aqueduct Press. They make me remember my mother, too, who was the teller of fairy stories in my house, as her Irish father was to her. He used to take her on walks to a Liverpool park in the 40s, where they’d put their sugar ration in a matchbox and leave it for the fairies. You have to propitiate them with sacrifice, or–what? It was always clear to me that Enid Blyton tales of brownies making “mischief” were euphemistic. Fairies are more dangerous than that. Thinking about all this sent me on a weird late night Google binge last week, asking questions about why sacrifice is so central to so many religions and legends. Google didn’t know, but I’d welcome your theories.

I’ll close with a looking-backward list of my publications this year, with a post about the year in reading to come. Then, I suppose, I’ll have to think about 2022, although I can’t yet imagine what it wants from me.

POEMS:

ESSAYS:

INTERVIEWS AND REVIEWS:

Shenandoah, #DisConIII, biobreaks

During the last few weeks, I spent 20+ hours reading and ranking national student Fulbright applications in Creative Writing so I could meet with two other jurists and wrangle amicably over the best ones to send up the decision chain. It was interesting work but EXHAUSTING and very hard to accomplish at such a busy moment in the academic year. The planned five-hour Zoom meeting, however, turned out to take half that long, largely because our moderator was awesome. She used a term I hadn’t heard since early in the pandemic: “biobreaks,” as in pauses from our cyborg virtual/ human activity for hitting the bathroom, stretching, hydrating.

YES, I thought, that’s what I need. More biobreaks! Calm my body down with good sleep and unscheduled time. Maybe even gain the mental clarity to write again. It’s probably been two months since I’ve done more than jot down ideas. I don’t worry about dry spells like I used to–I know excitement about writing always comes back–but it’s bad for every part of me when I don’t periodically enter its flow experience. I’ve been working flat out on putting out various fires, from grading (done!) to last minute proofing (the new issue of Shenandoah, full of brilliant poems, is hot off the presses!). Past those accomplishments and the Fulbright effort, my life, thank goodness, is finally cooling down.

Right now I’m at a big sf annual convention, WorldCon, this year in DC and called DisCon III. I know that doesn’t sound relaxing, especially since I’m giving two readings (fiction and poetry) and speaking on two panels (“Teaching and Analyzing Genre Fiction” and “From Grimm to Disney and Back: The Changing Fae”). But since I don’t know anyone here, I’m otherwise taking it easy, bringing takeout back to my room in a cheaper satellite hotel to get my head together, trying to take advantage of the programming but not fry my poor brain. Obviously I’m also catching up with little tasks like blogging, but I have to say, this kind of writing feels like play, not work, at least most of the time.

I’m also watching poetry Twitter, as usual, and recent poets about some beloved poet, unnamed, who paid $25,000 for a publicist to promote their first collection and, as you’d suspect, did pretty freaking well. (It’s probably terrible to ask you to message me if you know who the $25K person is–I’m just crassly curious.) I don’t have that kind of money burning a hole in my pocket, but I have thought about smaller-scale consulting with a publicist, and I know other friends who have, as well–it’s suddenly an open secret that many writers find audiences by investing cash upfront in the process. It’s one way of managing another huge time commitment, I guess, as well as a way that the publishing playing field will never be level. Certainly applying for reading series, festivals, etc. is work I strain to get done. It’s the usual quandary of whether to play the system as it exists or step aside into an alternate artistic economy. I get the arguments for both strategies. I like to think that if I spent some money and gained prominence from it (which can’t be a given, right?), I’d use any power I gained to help other writers. In some ways I already do, but that is certainly a rationalization–if your real goal is to help others, you don’t start by hiring a publicist. Anyway, as I slow down and look around, it’s one of the things that seems to be on my mind.

Oh, and I should gloss the other difficulties alluded to in my last post. The crisis was completely nonliterary, but this blog is supposed to be where art meets life, right? My husband had Covid. We knew he’d been exposed so he waited 5 days to take a PCR test, which was negative, so after consulting everyone involved, we went ahead with Thanksgiving. He ended up passing it to my daughter who lives in Philadelphia (probably–the source and timeline are a little uncertain–but that’s what I think happened). Fortunately, they had symptoms equivalent to bad colds and recovered reasonably quickly. Chris’ parents and I, who’d received our booster shots earlier due to higher risk factors, escaped infection entirely, but I went back to isolating and teaching by Zoom for a while to wait until I knew for sure. We had to divide the house into separate zones while he, an exceptionally energetic person who’s much more social than I am, sadly waited out quarantine. My main source of sadness was getting the zone with the chores. (I’m joking, pretty much.) It was anxiety-producing, although it all turned out fine. Get your boosters, friends, and if you can’t, please take very good care.

Unbecoming in the exhibit hall at DisCon III