Professor monster will see you now

First, Poetry’s Possible Worlds is back in print, with copies trickling into warehouses and order-able again! Phew. And I’m looking forward to my book-club-style discussion of Unbecoming in Radford VA next week, details in the flier above. What’s haunting a larger passage of my brain-cave, though: facing down the monstrous mixedness of my September life.

Last year I discovered the existence of a branch of lit crit called “Monster Theory.” Not that the ideas encompassed by that term would startle anyone who thinks much about cryptids, were-creatures, berserk A.I., etc., but it’s been useful for me as a teacher to see the categories and definitions laid out methodically (although, as you know, monsters like to violate categories). I used monster theory recently in an hourlong seminar for my college’s First Year Read program, which I agreed to participate in because I’m a soft touch and because it focused on Grendel, a novel that had long been on my reading list. It was fun in many ways–my group was lively–but I disliked Gardner’s book. I didn’t take to the style, and the idea of writing from the perspective of a monster feels a little ho-hum after so many pro-serial-killer shows and movies. Most of all, though, the kind of monstrosity got to me.

In Beowulf, Grendel is straight-up terrible; Gardner’s revision flips the bias, illuminating an outsider who’s monsterized, almost compelled to evil by a culture defining itself as righteous. Poetry itself plays a role in monsterization: Gardner’s Grendel is obsessed with a bard he calls “the Shaper” because the latter reshapes bloodthirsty, pointless massacre into inspiring ballads of heroism. (Cue the WWI poets I’ll be teaching soon in a regular class: Owen, Sassoon, and company rage not only against war itself but against idealizations of war in poems like this by Rupert Brooke.) So, okay, I get the kind of story Grendel offers. I’m supposed to sympathize with the misunderstood shaggy beast. That ceased when Grendel, who had been treating his nonverbal mother with a mixture of longing and revulsion, brought the same misogynistic stew to his obsession with Hrothgar’s young queen and sexually assaulted her. A philosophizing suicidal murdering rapist? Not a great case study for inspiring community among new undergrads, if you ask me.

Yet I love so many monster stories! My other class this term, a first-year writing seminar, features a bunch of them. Geryon in Carson’s Autobiography of Red, for instance, self-identifies as monstrous, a claim that makes for great class discussions and student essays. “Monstrous” in Geryon’s case might translate as queer, shy, and artistic as well as red and winged. It also means “cross-genre.” Carson’s poem-novel-autobiography is a monster in itself.

Poetry’s Possible Worlds is hybrid by design, crossing literary criticism with memoir into a Frankenstein’s creature of a book (an appealing creature, I hope). I have other cross-genre projects fermenting in my files, too, but I don’t have time to birth and feed them, which makes this shaggy beast sad. For my whole adult life I’ve been a poet-critic-teacher; a few years ago I stitched “editor” and “novelist” into that snake of words, which was already pushing it; and now I’m Department Head for a year. I’m not monstrously bad at chairing; I even like parts of it, the moments when you’re helping people as opposed meeting administrative deadlines. It just puts the worrier-perfectionist in me on overdrive, and she doesn’t have a chance of conquering her workload. The job is overly large by design. I rationally know that I have to fight overwork instead of trying to succeed at it. We monsters just have a hard time keeping our drives in check.

Writing this blog is a pleasurable way of playing hooky, actually. It helps me think through the past few weeks: good classes, bad workload, stressed-out body, and flickers of grief, too. My mother was not a fan of British royalty, Diana excepted, and she absolutely hated Charles, but she was the first person I thought of when Elizabeth died–how she would have called me right off, lit up by the news, then watched all the coverage. Meanwhile I watch the happy-dances on #irishtwitter and think about what an interesting monster Elizabeth was, a young Queen Grendel with whom you might sympathize until you remember all the murdering she countenanced and even honored. Because cultural narratives compelled her to? I’m sure those pressures were immense, and lord knows I’ve made many serious mistakes on my much smaller stage, but I can’t buy the idea she had no other choices. It would be monstrous for any of us to let our leaders off the hook so easily.

Professor Monster reading at Grolier Books in Cambridge Mass.–photo by January Gill O’Neil, moderator extraordinaire

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