Writing/ being a “strong female character”

One of the students in my senior seminar is exploring representation of female characters in contemporary fiction. On the one hand, there’s pressure to write “likeable” women protagonists. Koa Beck wrote about this for The Atlantic in 2015, quoting an amazing retort from Claire Messud, in response to a journalist’s question about whether anyone would want to be her protagonist’s friend:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.

If only I could be that direct and brilliant when people annoy me. My student Chloe assigned Beck’s piece to the seminar, as well as this one about strong vs. strongly written female characters, as she prepares to write a final essay on the subject. Discussion was lively.

These essays resonate with my train of thought during last weekend’s World Fantasy Convention in Montreal, which was mixed. I saw some very good readings panels–mine, on speculative poetry, was brilliantly moderated by Terese Mason Pierre–but a couple of half-baked ones, too, plus participants asking hostile questions and volunteers who seemed strained to the limit. I’m not sure I would go to this convention again, although the city made up for it: great walks, great pastries, and vaccine policies a woman can get behind.

Listening to one of the presentations I found most useful, on story structure and character, made me think about revising my novel Unbecoming. Panelist Susan Forest said something like: the core of the book, the hard work it does, is rooted in the one action your character takes at a defining moment, the action that produces irreversible change. Ellen Kushner, in the Q&A, also remarked that everyone is haunted in a way that prevents them from living their best life; the author’s job is to decide, what is the worst thing that could happen to a character haunted in this particular way?

My editor helped me locate and rewrite the crisis moment Susan Forest describes. At the outset of Unbecoming, the main character, Cyn, refuses to recognize her own strength, magical and otherwise. And when you don’t admit the power you have, others get harmed in ways you could have mitigated, or maybe even headed off, if you had your wits about you. Cyn does come to terms with power and its consequences by the end, but the choices she makes about how to use her magic are problematic: some good, for sure, but some ethically questionable, to put it mildly. The problem she faces lies in the nature of magic–by definition, power is inequity, right? The MOST ethical thing is to give up your magic/ privilege, to redistribute it, but that’s ALSO hard, for a million different reasons. In short, I’m sympathetic to Cyn, but I don’t entirely like her.

A book of poems creates characters, too, some of whom are strong or strongly-written. Eric Tran visited campus this week, and while his poems seem intensely autobiographical, he emphasized their fictionality, how many of them rely on invention rather than personal history. One of my favorite’s of his is “I Tell My Mother About My Depression” (scroll down at the link and you’ll find it), and, interestingly, that was the one he chose as an example of writing in persona–not what I would have expected. Yet all poems fictionalize, even when they hew closely to fact. How you experience your life, after all, changes all the time; the you who writes the poem won’t exist in the same exact way tomorrow. I often feel distant from and critical of earlier poetic selves. Some of the poems in my most recent collection, The State She’s In, like “The South,” involve a version of me looking back at an earlier mindset and telling Former Lesley off.

Further, compelling poetic characters, the people implied by the words, are often flawed, messy, self-interrogating. I love a good poetic self-indictment.

Are the women characters in The State She’s In “strong” or “likeable”? I invoke strength in some of the poems, weaving spells to banish bad people. Elsewhere I explore the accusation that Hillary Clinton wasn’t likeable (like Claire Messud, I say, For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?). I also test, I think, the limits of womanly likeability by writing from anger–against Trump’s regime, workplace harassment, and the racist past and present of Virginia, you name it. My collection received many lovely reviews, but a mixed review that often comes to mind (not linking to it!) was by a writer who wrestled with her own discomfort with or even distaste for those gouts of outrage. It was one of those reviews that reveals at least as much about the reviewer as it does about the book, but it brought home to me how, even in an age of activist poetry, it’s hard for a woman to write from negative emotion without risk of alienating otherwise sympathetic readers.

By Ruth Rodriguez

Rhyme. Activism. Speculation. Revision. Pumpkins.

I still don’t have exact dates for my forthcoming essay collection, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, but I can see the light in the distance now. I’m STOKED to have a version of the Introduction appearing in the new American Poetry Review, where lots of people will see it. I just finished revising the whole ms according to my editor’s notes, too. It feels polished and good. I need to reread it as a whole to make sure I haven’t introduced other errors, but I’m nearly ready to share it with others!

Yet carving out this Saturday, jack-o’-lantern style, for processing those edits (and this morning for contacting finalists for Shenandoah‘s Graybeal-Gowan Prize) was HARD. I think this week and next may be the busiest of my fall–unless I’m just deluded about things easing later. My pumpkin-head is so full these days I don’t know how to quiet it. Some of the lovely too-muchness:

  • I’m preparing a craft talk and a reading for UNC-Wilmington’s Writers Week this week–all Zoom, all free–and full of luminaries. See the schedule and Zoom links here. My craft talk, “Led by Sound,” is about using rhyme as a way of getting past your rational brain to access the weird stuff that makes a poem powerful. It’s based on a workshop I gave years ago, but I felt the need to renovate it deeply, so it’s taken lots of time.
  • I’m ALSO preparing for the World Fantasy Con in Montreal next weekend, where I’m giving a reading plus participating in a panel on speculative poetry (which I haven’t prepped yet, but I know this stuff, right? I’ll pull it off, right?). Never mind packing, doing the Covid tests, etc. I’m vaccinated with Moderna and not scared of flying (casting no shade on people who are, which I think is a reasonable position), but flying was always a pain and now is an even bigger project.
  • Two wonderful poets, Ashley M. Jones and Sally Rosen Kindred, visited different classes of mine via Zoom this week, and each hour was an oasis of forest, music, inspiration, and transformation. I also visited two classes, the Shenandoah internship to talk about poetry selection and a fiction writing class to talk about Unbecoming. I LOVE doing that. But my head is buzzing with everything we said and didn’t say, as well as the regular discussions happening in my classes and office hours. I’m teaching books I’ve never taught before. Students are devising final projects. There’s a lot to talk and think about.
  • Setting up W&L’s Task Force on Chairing–wait, you do NOT want to hear about that!! Much more interesting are the whirlwind days coming up of a campus visit by Eric Tran; presentations by finalists for our tenure track job opening in postcolonial and indigenous literatures; and doing some advance training for my late November-early December gig as a Fulbright evaluator in creative writing.

In short, not much time to answer messages or haunt social media, so I’m sorry if I’ve been a Bad Art Friend by not liking your posts. I’ll catch up.

I’ll close with a Halloween scare: I am full of dread about the upcoming Virginia governor’s election. I voted weeks ago, but the outcome is very iffy because of what they call an “enthusiasm gap” (Trump fans love Youngkin; McAuliffe is the better candidate by miles, but he doesn’t warm the cockles of anyone’s heart). Youngkin, by way of one small example of potential future horrors, is encouraging book-banning. I just started reading the excellent YA novel Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez because local right-wing parents are bombarding the high school with demands to remove books from the collection, including that one. Everyone needs to marshal arguments to keep them in the stacks. As activism goes, that’s definitely my speed, but what a stupid battle to be fighting when the world is burning.

Currents and circuits

I’ve been revving high without going anywhere for a while, having entered the work-around-the-clock part of the term, so I’m going flat-out all day and it’s hard to calm down at night, much less write poems or do other creative work that makes me feel peaceful. Thinking about how to manage my energy better made this poem come to mind. It appeared in a 2018 anthology, Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle edited by Marilyn L. Taylor and James P. Roberts, and I’ll probably include it in my next poetry collection, providing the publishing world wants book number 6 from me.

Return Path


The only way to pray is through my feet,
earthward, jolted in return by the fizz
of a spiking current. I never thought a circuit

would loop through me, believed I was separate, 
alone, done with gods, but here it is:
I’ve found a way to pray. Through my feet,

I reach down. There’s something animate,
chthonic, that touches me back. It’s a species
of love, a thinking-spike, a zinging circuit

of energy and dirt, blood and spirit—
plutonic conversation, mostly wordless.
The way I’ve found to pray is through my feet,

sole bared to wooden boards, or rug, or slate,
or buggy grass, just as you want to press
skin to a beloved’s, sparking a current, a circuit.

Not that earth loves me, exactly. Matter’s what
matters. She wants me to return the mess
of my only body, pray from head through feet
as I sink, unthinking ash, into love’s circuit.

I call myself agnostic mainly, atheist occasionally, but I pray sometimes. I don’t discuss it much: saying you talk to the underworld is likely to concern religious friends on behalf of your soul and skeptical friends on behalf of your brain. But while praying the way I was taught in Sunday school felt terrible–addressing formal words to a pale and distant father in the sky who never answered–connecting imaginatively to soil and rock settles me. I even get good advice sometimes. Yep, what’s returning my calls may be a deeper part of myself rather than an outside force, yet I have an inkling that the inside-outside distinction is wrong-headed anyway, so I don’t worry about it. I’ll take whatever help the universe is offering.

Right now, I’m focusing on connecting gears so the revving gets me somewhere–with small and partial success. I just received edits on the second half of my essay collection, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, so I’m starting to enact those revisions, even though it’s a difficult time of year to carve out any hours. I also discovered an absolutely lovely blurb for the book in my inbox, from someone I had contacted out of the blue. A friend generously helped me research some cover ideas. I’m getting ready to speak at a virtual Writer’s Week held by the University of South Carolina at Wilmington, and then physically attend World Fantasy Con in Montreal, if the gods allow. A panel I’m on was just accepted for the virtual AWP but two others were rejected from the in-person one, though, so I’m second-guessing my intention to apply for university funds to attend. It’s hard to make decisions as the winds pick up.

In the shorter term: please let me know (at wheelerlm@wlu.edu or in the comments) if you’d like the Zoom link for a reading at 6pm Eastern on October 21, hosted by Lucy Bucknell of Johns Hopkins. She doesn’t post the links on social media so it’s usually an intimate group of 6 readers doing 10 minutes each–nice vibe. Next week’s lineup will include:

Elias Baez is a poet from New York.  He’s Poetry Editor at GAYLETTER magazine and has work in The Bitchin’ Kitsch and The Daily Drunk

Helena Chung is a Korean American poet currently living in Brooklyn. She is a recent graduate of the MFA program at UVA.

Linda Campbell Franklin, aka Rowena Sunder & Barkinglips, messes around with words, pictures, dogs, cats, outsider art, and antiques; and writes/illustrates all kinds of books.   

Jalynn Harris is a poet and book designer from Baltimore. Author of Exit Thru the Afro, she earned her MFA from the University of Baltimore. 

Caroline Preziosi is a poet and artist from Baltimore. She is currently pursuing an MFA at School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  

…with me at the end reading a couple of poems from The State She’s In and a couple of new poems, too. I hope our circuits connect and I see you there.

Dream, river, poetic convergences

My dream-life has been off-the-scale intense, populated by strangers demanding I change my life. The tarot spreads of my daily meditations keep saying so, too–that I’m feeling a call and soon to walk away from something but resisting change so far. I must have carried that energy to Harpers Ferry this weekend, when my spouse and I met our kids for a pseudo-Parents Weekend at a rented house. They all seem much more balanced at life cruxes than I am: my husband unbalanced by midlife transitions; my college-aged son, just turned 21, trying to divine what he wants to do with his life; my 24-year-old daughter recovering from a tough summer and pondering grad school. Me, I’m just a postmenopausal writer struggling to straddle different obligations, a bunch of books behind me and more in development, although in general I’m trying to treat myself more kindly. I’m not exactly sure what the big transformation is although my unconscious keeps insisting it’s coming.

It was the perfect landscape for wondering about it, where the Shenandoah and Potomac converge in sparkling streams. Perhaps because we were VRBOing in a Civil War-era house, different histories seemed to be streaming together, too. Union and Confederate troops battled furiously over this bit of land and water; for a while it was something like an international border. Perhaps that was why I kept hearing ghost-men sobbing and moaning during the night, although there’s also a brutal history of enslavement to consider. The river is now lined by ruined mills among which we walked as the morning fog burned off. I read every bit of signage we passed, learning that this area was also home to an important primarily Black college, Storer. Important abolition movement events happened in Harpers Ferry, and the area became a hub of African American tourism later. We had to end our hike before seeing the remains of John Brown’s Fort–Chris twisted his ankle–but after I brought him back to the rental, I enjoyed tramping around Bolivar Heights by myself. It was a cool trip although I have to say I felt uneasy most of the time (well, except while sipping rose on a restaurant patio, when I felt lucky indeed).

I have lots going on this week–classes in full swing and approaching midterms, random medical appointments, a colleague’s teaching to observe, a meeting with the new Dean about a task force I foolishly agreed to run long ago, before the pandemic turned me into a skeptic of university service, which is effectively free work now that merit raises have stopped and there are no more promotions to aspire to. (Maybe that’s the change, me bowing out of the task force? Sigh.) Here’s a plug for Shenandoah‘s open reading period, though: if you’ve lived in Virginia 2+ years now or in the past, you’re eligible to apply for the Graybeal-Gowen Prize for Virginia Poets, which thanks to the donors could earn you $1000. It’s free to enter here and the final judge will be Deborah Miranda, my wonderful and recently retired colleague. Try! The submission pool is way smaller than the general call for poems that will open in January.

All right, off to rustling leaves and walnuts thumping in my backyard like student poem drafts demanding my feedback.

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.

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.