About Lesley Wheeler

Lesley Wheeler is the author of Radioland; The Receptionist and Other Tales; Heterotopia, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize;, Heathen; Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920's to the Present; The Poetics of Enclosure: American Women Poets from Dickinson to Dove; and the chapbook Scholarship Girl. With Moira Richards, Rosemary Starace, and other members of a dedicated collective, she coedited Letters to the World: Poems from the Wom-po Listserv. Henry S. Fox Professor of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, she has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the American Association of University Women, and the Fulbright Foundation.

Rebalancing hours and relineating Clifton

“How are you doing so much emotional work in September?” I demanded of my friend and office-hall-mate Deborah Miranda on Tuesday, after I’d read this. She’s an intermittent blogger, like me, but lately posts have been pouring through–here‘s another powerful story, from just this morning. I think she laughed and said something like “it comes when it comes.”

Over on my side of the hall, it’s stalled. I’m really struggling with being back to a rigid schedule. I worked hard during summer and my sabbatical, too, but most of the deadlines were self-imposed. The core of what I’m doing now is also rewarding: I’m teaching an upper-level seminar on modern American poetry, a poetry workshop, and a composition course. My students seem exceptional even by local standards. My classes are each full to the brim, but the “brim” is fifteen–cushy almost anywhere. Yet all this means my days are chock-full of classes, preparation for classes, office hours, meetings, committee work, grading, reference-writing, and a million flavors of professional correspondence. Deadlines are external and difficult to defer. I’ve been racing flat-out for several weeks now to meet my obligations to other people. I write the committee report Saturday after class prep, with more preparation and grading to do on Sunday.

I’m still exercising some and I halt whatever I’m doing if someone I love needs me. When my brain stops functioning in the evening I watch some TV or read The New Yorker before bed. But carving out any other downtime seems impossible, and I feel desperately sad about writing projects I finished recently that need to be pushed along towards publication. I just don’t have the focus, or the hours.

You know this story, and I do, too. The moral is: make time anyway. So I’m submitting the damn strategic planning white paper today, and I’ll refuse to take further leadership in committees. I’ve almost stopped looking at Facebook. After a hard stare at my schedule, I realized I can take Tuesday and Thursday mornings to work at home, where it’s quiet, so I imposed that regime this week.

Tuesday morning I labored over ms queries–a rational effort, the most urgent item on my to-do list. I got a few out. It felt terrible. Then my sister called with worrisome news about my mother’s recent blood tests and I got a couple of magazine rejections. I ran out of time to get my head together for my three o’clock class–it was fine, but not as energizing as the session could have been. The next day I pulled a muscle in my back at the farmer’s market, loading up the car with vegetables for the week. Back pain always seems so symbolic to me: I’m unbalanced, carrying too much.

So here I am on Thursday morning, when I’d promised myself to prepare queries for the other ms, blogging instead. This is an inefficient way to spend free hours, maybe, but writing just feels better than submissions. What’s the right math here–some aimless drafting, some submissions, some revisions, as the day seems to call for? Or should I focus hard-won time with laser intensity on what would really feel best in the long-run–delivering mss somehow, some way, to the world?

I don’t have the answer, but I can tell you the most fun I’ve had this week was preparing for my poetry workshop, very inefficiently. I was pondering how to get introductory students to see the possibilities of lineation, and I ended up retyping a Lucille Clifton poem: “the beginning of the end of the world.” For an unnecessary hour, I played out variations: what if I wrote out the poem as a single grammatical sentence, in prose (see below)? The poem turns out to be an open-ended proposition. Maybe the roaches are holy emissaries, not “dark” invaders, and our refusal of their presence will destroy us–she doesn’t quite spell that out, but it’s a resonant speculation, in this moment of hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric. Maybe the roaches break faith with us because we’re faithless–where might the commas go in that last bit, anyway? Would parentheses be better? I tried other versions, too–long lines to highlight the buried litany, for example (although WordPress won’t let me paste in hanging indents). Clifton’s poem is way better than my bowdlerizings but I learned the poem more deeply through the exercise, and I think discussing my revisions was illuminating for students, too. No answers. Just questions, and poetry, and play…I may often wish my life weren’t such an experiment, but pondering uncertainty seems to be the best survival strategy I’ve got.

Not Necessarily the Beginning of the End of the World (with apologies to Clifton)

Maybe the morning the roaches walked into the kitchen, bold with their bad selves, marching up out of the drains not like soldiers—like priests—grim and patient in the sink, and when we ran the water, trying to drown them as if they were soldiers, they seemed to bow their sad heads, for us, not at us, and march single file away; maybe then, the morning we rose from our beds as always, listening for the bang at the end of the world; maybe then, when we heard only the tiny tapping and saw them dark and prayerful in the kitchen; maybe then, when we watched them turn from us, faithless, at last, and walk in a long line away…

 

clifton

 

 

Five Year Plan

I once went for a period of several years, unable to work my ATM card because I’d forgotten the password, and unable to find the energy to contact the company and get a replacement. I just kept stealing cash from my husband’s wallet then saying, “Uh, honey, looks like you need to go to the bank.” So when people accuse me of being organized or having my act together, I laugh and laugh.

poe2

What Poe thinks of paperwork

But I do get some things done. I spend time with my kids and my friends every once in a while. Decent meals occur in my kitchen. I write a lot. I publish some of it.

I notice my last couple of posts have reflected the Annual Academic’s Augustpocalypse Angst. One recurrent task is writing reports–for me, this year, a report on my summer work, another on my leave year generally, and then something called a “Five Year Plan.”

It’s a highly speculative exercise, to map out the next five years, especially given how hard it can be to just pick a pair of trousers in the morning. But mine isn’t the only university that asks its faculty members, periodically, to look backwards, then forwards. We’re all supposed to hate it, this chore of generating memos and other documents that are, in turn, a chore for their recipients to read. If they read them at all. Some administrators are conscientious and responsive, and others are basically yawning faceless whirlpools with sheafs of papers rattling around in the abysses of their hearts.

poe1Don’t tell anyone, but I kind of like these reports. You know the satisfaction of writing a list and then crossing off items one by one? It’s like that. Out of the chaos of my life, I generate a roster of items I actually accomplished, and then I get to feel smug for a few minutes, until I remember all the forthcoming deadlines I cannot possibly ever meet.

The Five Year Plan, moreover, strikes me as genuinely useful, although perhaps it would be more so if you didn’t have to frame it with a degree of braggadocio (how lucky you are to employ me!–don’t forget at raise time), and if the personal stuff could be woven in with the professional, as it is in real life.

I just submitted mine and it begins: “This is my fourth Five Year Plan. I accomplished all the goals I outlined in 2011 except winning an NEA grant (which remains on my bucket list).” The books I was working on then, and most of the essays, and some of the poems are now in the world; more books are fully drafted and looking for homes. I developed some courses that were only inkling ideas, too. I didn’t achieve everything I wanted to, either artistically or in world renown, but it’s still cool to note that hey, former Lesley, you did a good job following through.

Of course, my father also died, my house flooded and had to be substantially renovated, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and my mother became seriously ill. One child finished high school and was ripped from my grieving breast to attend university; the other grew some ten inches and started high school. Our cat Flashlight died; our lives are now ruled by Poe. Chris and I have had lots of ups and downs in health and in mood, but Chris landed a tenure-track job and is hugely happier than five years ago. All of these events affected my “productivity.” Surprisingly, some of them made me write more, because I direly needed to create some good shape out of sadness or mayhem.

Five years from now, if all goes well, Chris and I will be empty nesters, with one child in college and the other out doing something interesting with her BA. That’s got to be a HUGE change. I expect more health crises for us and for our parents, because we’re just at that age, even if catastrophic climate change and other factors don’t promote the spread of Zika and who knows what else. I look at the personal area of the map and think, “there be monsters.” Every project I plot could be taken from me without notice.

Still, it doesn’t feel silly to me to lay out my aims as a writer or as a teacher, because I’ve done it before and the process probably helped me prioritize goals and accomplish things. Five years from now I hope I’ve published the three book-length mss I’ve worked on this year: a poetry collection, a hybrid of memoir and criticism, and a novel. I’ll probably try to publish them prestigiously and end up with small-but-respectable presses, although strokes of luck can happen. I also hope to write good new work I can’t imagine now. I’d like to keep becoming a better, more expert, more versatile teacher. I hope it’s fun.

This is how I closed this Five Year Plan, encapsulating all those ambitions:poe3.jpg

“My aspiration, in short, is to look for overlap between the work I love to do—which is always changing—and the work the world seems to want and need from me. Finding audiences in a crowded literary marketplace is tough and I can’t control whether I score any particular opportunity. In the meantime, however, I’ll do the very best work I can, both on the page and in the classroom. I’m also keeping an eye on people who do land the golden rings, and mimicking their strategies as best I can, short of moving to Brooklyn.”

 

Waving and also drowning

When, while bobbing in the ocean, you spot a larger-than-usual wave steaming your way, what do you do?

A. Jump into it with joy, trying to hit the breaker where it crashes, for the wildest ride possible. (This is my husband and son.)

B. Shout “no!” in a stern voice, demanding the ocean behave itself. It does not. Before long, you decamp to the sand, electing to pursue a challenge of your own choosing, namely to read as many Russian novels as possible while summer lasts. (This is my daughter.)

C. Express alarm in a comical way that entertains your son, concealing some actual nervousness about getting out of your depth because you’re a pretty lousy swimmer, and then enjoy the tumult until things get fierce, when you actually do panic and nobody takes you seriously because you seemed perfectly fine until a second ago, like a character in a Stevie Smith poem. (Guess who.)

This was one of several potential metaphors I contemplated at the beach ten days ago. It could refer to all kinds of challenges, but what’s on my mind right now is work. I’m doing that late-August surfing, when you madly try to finish summer projects as you simultaneously madly try to get ready for classes starting. Big wave coming.

While I still had decent footing a week ago, moreover, my ability to get things done was sharply diminished last week. Four of my adult molars have been missing from birth–it’s a genetic thing–so baby teeth hung around in their places. One of the latter, bravely standing ground for forty-plus years, finally gave up in December. I went in for a bone graft and dental implant last week and the surgery was more complicated than usual, so my pain levels have been high and I’m sporting a mother of a bruise. I have several friends with serious illnesses, and this is comparatively NOT a big deal, but it’s a reminder of how hard chronic pain can be to live with and work around. It also reminds me I am NOT in control of my “productivity.” This time I can’t just scramble up to the beach and rest on a towel; I have to face the force of water until it’s done with me.

Weights I’m carrying, besides worry about work ahead and physical stress from the various ways a middle-aged body can thwart a person: there were a couple of post-publication prizes I thought Radioland might be a finalist for, and I just heard from the last of them. No luck.

Sources of buoyancy: a wonderful and eminent poet wrote me a fan letter out of the blue. Two friends who are ALSO wonderful poets have given me the gift of critical-but-usefully-specific feedback on unpublished mss, liberally salted with praise. I’m genuinely excited about my fall courses (although maybe not the grading). And I’ve been doing some sustaining reading, too. I just finished Viet Than Nguyen’s The Sympathizer as well as an advanced review copy of Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Field Guide to the End of the World (I’m preparing to teach it this fall in my composition course, which has a speculative fiction theme). Both are powerful and I’m feeling blown away, with more great books and mss piled up waiting. That’s a burden that helps me float, if you’ll tolerate the hyperextension of my marine metaphor.

Okay, the secret is, I’m not as seaworthy as people seem to think, but I do have help, thank the gods. And what threatens to overwhelm me also sparkles.

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Woman escapes monster

insatiableOh, the existential horror of a North American professor in August…Teaching at a liberal arts college full of talented students is an excellent gig, but during teaching terms, the job eats me alive. This is going to be an especially intense fall for coursework, plus I’m running a search. In a few weeks, in short, I will be all tied up and dangling upside down in the den of the monster Work.

Every year, the prospect frightens my saner summer self. I have a history of asking for books about meditation for my September birthday–until Chris laughed at the request, commenting he’d already bought me a shelf-full and I’ve never cracked any of them. Whoops. I actually have done marginally better this year with meditation, yoga, etc., but mainly because conditions were dire and I really had to work at not going under. Being on sabbatical is awesome, but anxious person that I am, I felt internal pressure to come to closure on long-standing projects–and then I was floored by the emotional stress of sending my first child off to college, my mother’s lymphoma, and a host of health problems. Lots of pain this year. Having a middle-aged body seems to require striving harder and harder to maintain a deteriorating status quo.

Relative to others, I remain very lucky. My mom is recovering well, my daughter had a brilliant first year, and I have the resources to handle most of the hitches the universe throws at me. A rusting roof that needs to be fixed and sealed? Cracked car windshield requiring replacement? Dental work? Do less pleasurable ways to spend pots of money even exist? But it’s okay. It’s getting done. And I’m likely to survive the fall, too, with only minor breakdowns.

Some strategies, since asking for self-help books should clearly be off the table.

  1. Do the work that stresses me out most, no excuses. I’ve spent the summer so far writing and revising (work I like) but, most importantly, making sure that all the best writing I did this year is under consideration somewhere. I dislike submissions intensely–it’s hard to figure out where work should go, but also emotionally hard to ask respected editors, “hey, do you like this thing that’s, you know, the very best I’m capable of, and intensely personal in ways that may not be obvious, as well as my cosmic reason for existing, kind of?” Ugh.
  2. When I’ve done at least one hard thing per day, use the rest of the time available to get a jump on work that’s easier, but would stress me out at a busier moment. I’ve been writing micro-reviews for the Kenyon Review Online so I have a backlog. Fall syllabi are well-developed and winter ones are roughed out. I’ve drafted the summer/ sabbatical reports due in the fall, made to-do lists, done advance planning for events I’m in charge of, etc. I cleaned out my office, even, and did a lot of chores at home.
  3. Pay attention. When I have pain, for example, instead of trying to live around it and maintain writing’s dream, I’m attempting to notice it, think about causes/ patterns, see if it can be remediated. Podiatrist tomorrow, sigh. The same goes for anger and worry. I’m noticing that FB has been making me unhappy lately, so I need to spend less time there. Many people in my life need attention, too. Lots of friends are having rough years. And while teenage kids don’t require a parent’s bodily presence as much, they need intelligent awareness more than ever.crow
  4. Bask in the good stuff. I had a couple of poetry acceptances this summer I’m really pleased about (Blackbird and Thrush). I’m including pictures here from two magazines that just arrived. The triolet is one of two just published by Kestrel and “Crow on the House,” inspired by Plath’s “Black Rook in Rainy Weather,” is from the latest Fjords. Clearly it’s the summer of birds, so remind me, please, of other avian-themed journals. I’ll fly to submit. 

And next week I’ll bask big-time. The four of us are heading down to a beach rental in North Carolina. I plan to do zero work and as much pleasure-reading in the hammock, or on the sand, as possible, and play board games, and explore an unfamiliar island with the ever-hungry and curious Gaveeler crew. The monster Work, as far as I am concerned, will just have to snuffle in frustration at my glib auto-reply.

 

Red wolf howl

Okay, so the red wolf is not a separate species but a hybrid of gray wolf and coyote. That kind of makes me like them more. What’s celebrated as local is mixed, impure.

red wolfMaking a fetish of purity–racial, ideological, national–is not just hateful. It’s dumb. No person is unmixed, no policy, no poem. That was an important problem for me to think through when I was writing the chapter on lyric collaborations for Voicing American Poetry, and it’s why I just revisited related questions in my “process” blog for Modernism/ Modernity, “On collaboration (or, she do the blog in different voices).” It’s also an important fact to remember as a citizen, watching or avoiding all the good and bad news out there. We’re all connected. The Obamas and Clintons speak for my America and so, frighteningly, does Trump. Freddie Gray’s tragedy is my tragedy. The failure of law to address his death is my failure.

Everyone forgets or represses or denies those links, sometimes. Reading that article on wolf species in today’s paper brought to mind the poem below, another outtake from Radioland, first published in Valparaiso Poetry Review in 2012. I know I’d recently read some monorhyme sonnets and thought hey, that’s cool–but I can’t remember whom I’m echoing here. I didn’t quite get the form to work–only the twelve middle lines close on the “n” sound–but I ended up liking the way lines 1 and 14 call to each other across a distance.

I do remember writing it when, on a family vacation in North Carolina, we went on “safari” in the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge. This meant a bunch of cars following rangers at twilight. Bullfrogs sounded loudly among the reeds, but our guides never managed to stir up a wolf howl. I lingered last, though, and after everyone else drove away, finally heard their weird cries. Listening felt like connection–like responsibility.

Red Wolf Howl

Their cries rise sweet and high like questions, cross
each other’s tracks in the air, the wildest din
you have ever heard.
Some rangers caravan
with tourists down a gravel road. No one
can see the wolves: they hide among the pine
and cedar, rusting in the pocosin,
trailing the white-tailed deer. While everyone
parks, two guides hike closer to the breeding pen
and howl encouragement. The canids listen,
but why should they answer us? Some insects moan
to sharpen the silence; secret frogs complain.

The group gives up. It’s nearly dark. Our van
loiters as the other tail-lights vanish. Open
windows. Then we hear them. They ask, and ask.

 

Gender shrapnel, from one foxhole

“The first time you’re hit by it, you have no idea what it is, what it came from, or why…If you ever try to confront the events, you feel half crazy and afraid…People start to tell you to calm down, to pick your battles more carefully, and to be grateful for what you’ve got…As you obey and shut yourself up, you start to notice more of what is happening to other women around you. The shrapnel itself and the silence surrounding it start to seem more and more absurd. You start coming up with nine-block cartoons and lyrics for a sexual harassment musical. You wonder who’s crazier now…” (4)

I just finished a new book, Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplaceby colleague and friend Ellen Mayock. It’s useful and even funny, as in the passage above, but painful to read, too. It’s hard to face being valued less in a demanding workplace because of your gender. I’m more comfortable acknowledging good luck than discrimination. My identity has brought me many advantages, but what what I’m thinking about today is how I’ve hated being a girl for as long as I can remember.

I hate the cultural implications–that my appearance matters so much to strangers and to me. But the ways that culture and biology intersect are no fun, either. I’ve spent so much time feeling physically afraid. Weak. And menstruation, pregnancy, lactation–oh my god. Having two healthy children prospering in the world is part of my luck, and it’s healthy for an intellectual to be reminded she is, in fact, a mammal, connected to natural cycles in the very tissues of her body. Yet I would gladly have shared the costs of gestation with my husband and I can’t wait for menopause. If you identify as a woman and love it, that’s great, truly. But womanhood as I’ve known it is, at best, a royal pain.

Is this a bad attitude to admit? Does it make me a lousy role model, or render hypocritical the solidarity I feel with women writers? I don’t know. Certainly it’s a kind of frustration no one should have to feel. But it’s the truth, for this one person.

I’m not the only professor who throws herself into work to get away from the limits of embodiment just to find work directing her back to that very body. Gender Shrapnel offers smart analysis of harmful ways an academic workplace can keep reminding a striver, “nope, you’re a woman, before all.” The chapters on “silence” and “tempered radicalism” are particularly powerful, as well as the idea that women who speak up become “radioactive,” tainting anyone they try to help. And Mayock is great on insidious factors that can reinforce gender power structures: when and where a meeting is set, for instance. A few other passages I dogeared:

131: “Administrators who appreciate strength, even divergent, possibly competing types of strength, in their employees also exhibit real strength, for they are modeling the type of intellectual debate that their organizational mission statements are promoting.”

171: On making place for critique of an organization, within the organization: “Ponder the possibility that all workers have the good of the organization in mind.” (I do, even in my angriest moments.)

175: “Leaders who can express ‘humility and modesty’ are de factomen. Why is this? Because it is a given that they are excellent and, therefore, they are provided the luxury of presenting themselves as humble or modest. Women leaders and/or aspiring women leaders do not have this luxury, and I believe that the same is true for people of Color.”

197: “The leading study on maternal wall stereotypes found that, compared to women with identical resumes but with no children, mothers were: 79% less likely to be hired, 100% less likely to be promoted, offered $11,000 less in salary for the same position, held to higher performance and punctuality standards.”

I dread taking this female body back to full-time teaching as my sabbatical ends. I love teaching, and other parts of my job can be great, too–helping students and colleagues thrive, advancing the arts on campus. But a boss who bullied and undermined me for years is still parked in my building, proof to me, forever, that my employers don’t consider my professional well-being important. I don’t feel safe, even cushioned as I am by so many privileges–tenure for starters. Whiteness. None of us is ever safe, I know, but I wish we could show more respect for each others’ fears and impose consequences on aggressors.

On shrapnel and poetry: I know of two recent cases in which talented women poets were pushed out of academic leadership positions for reasons that had a lot to do with gender. And women writers suffer flak from more distant battles, too–VIDA has done a lot to highlight how much gender shrapnel is flying around in the publishing world. Small data points have big consequences.

But harassment, mobbing, and other destructive behaviors rooted in gender bias affect literature more deeply than that. Sometimes people are so demoralized they can’t or don’t write in the first place. Sometimes, more positively, suffering redirects writing into new channels.

Writing remains a primary way for me to probe inequity and imagine a better order. Here, in disembodied language, I feel as strong, as pretty as any of you. So among Mayock’s many lists in this book, I particularly relished “Stages of Confronting Sexual Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation in the Academic Workplace” (50-2). The whole thing is priceless, beginning with #1, “What the hell was that?” But I note how much time I spend at #15, “Anger, frustration at the injustice,” in which the harassed person, coming to voice in ways others may find inappropriate, “consider[s] writing cartoons or musicals.” For me, speculative feminist novellas in terza rima, and I ain’t done yet.

Bless activists who make change in the courts, the streets, the boardrooms. For me, it’s mostly the classroom, the student conference, the printed page, the blog. Also, the voting booth. Small spaces. The consequences remain to be seen.

Lastly, because performing gender is a drag, here’s some joy:

Book promotion, reading, butt-sitting

Lately I’ve been reading in a fragmentary way–journalism, parts of books, letters in archives–in the shadow of crises. Too much death and division in the news; too many friends ill. The latest small, stupid pain came from a hornet’s sting Sunday. I guess the hard crying afterwards was cathartic, but my foot is still swollen and my stalled condition seems symbolic.

Yet I am lucky to be sitting on my keister reading, writing, and revising–work I love. Since I’ve got three + book projects in the works, and since we’re now more than halfway through 2016, I started thinking about my readerly habits. I’ve been keeping a list like the one below for a few years now, but the latest variation involves jotting down, in parenthesis, why I picked up that particular volume. I imagined this way of keeping records might help me figure out where to put my own publicity energy in future.

It turns out a good chunk of what I read is, in one way or another, on assignment. Usually I’d be prepping for class as well as conducting research, but this spring, on sabbatical, a lot of my assignment-reading related to monthly micro-poetry-reviews for the Kenyon Review Online, as well as reviewing for other journals (at a rate I will not be able to keep up…). But what about the rest, the reading I do for pleasure, out of general curiosity?

Turns out reviews do matter, but primarily when I admire the reviewer. I’ve never met N.K. Jemisin, for example, but I like her own books and her taste, so her new sf roundup column for the New York Times has been shaping my choices. Friends’ recommendations are highly influential, too, via published reviews  or when the guy who cuts my hair says, “I know My Name Is Lucy Barton sounds like a depressing premise, but it’s really not that sad–I loved it.”  

There are certain authors whose work I watch for and read immediately–King, Erdrich, and Le Guin lately–and others who have been languishing in my must-read pile forever. I also read books by old friends and new acquaintances, often spurred to do so by the prospect of seeing the person soon. My project since joining the AWP board, for instance, is to read one book by each of my very lovely fellow board members–but I paused halfway through, right after the conference.

I rarely read a book because of the press or cover design or fancy blurbs, although those factors can get me to open the book and spend a little time with it, sometimes even to buy it. But as much as sales matter, are they more important than actually getting read? If I don’t warm to the work on its own merits, after all, I just put it down. I’m middle-aged, man. Millions of good books and no time to lose.

Moral: luck, timing, acquaintance, readings, and word of mouth all get a book into my hands. But unless some big obligation is sitting on me, I won’t actually finish it unless it’s somewhere between good and awesome. Below are the mostly good-to-awesome books (not magazines) I’ve read completely (or listened to) during the first half of 2016 (asterisks for those published this year, to help me if I get a year-in-review gig next December). I would be VERY interested to hear how various books make it to the tops of YOUR piles.

POETRY
1/10 White, LettERRS (review assignment)
1/18 Rankine, Citizen (reread for work event)
2/15 Stone, Poetry Comics (friend’s recommendation)*
2/19 Francis, Forest Primeval (review by friend in Kenyon Review)*
2/19 Dungy, Suck on the Marrow (scouting historical poetry)
2/20 Barnstone, The Beast in the Apartment (friend’s recommendation)
2/22 Carson, Nox (knew it would be great and was saving it)
2/23 Gray, Photographing Eden (AWP staff)
2/25 O’Reilly, Geis (review assignment)
2/27 Okrent, Boys of My Youth (review assignment)
3/19 Bridgford, Human Interest* (ms to blurb)
3/20 Robinson, Sometimes the Little Town* (friend and local author)
3/21 Meitner, Copia (bought after her reading at VA Festival of Book)
3/23 Dop, Father Child Water (ditto)
3/25 Powell, Useless Landscape (preparing to meet him at AWP)
3/27 Leahy, Constituents of Matter (AWP staff)
4/2 Rocha, Karankawa (AWP prize winner)
4/3 Day, Last Psalm at Sea Level (picked up at AWP)
4/7 McAdams, Seven Boxes for the Country After* (friend and poet I admire)
4/10 Clarvoe, Counter-Amores (reread prior to Kenyon visit)
4/11 Meeks, The Genome Rhapsodies (review)
4/23 Le Guin, Late in the Day* (review)
5/1 Kildegaard, Ventriloquy* (review)
5/4 Hoppenthaler, Domestic Garden (possible campus visit)
5/4 Dubrow, The Arranged Marriage (heard her read from it 2 years ago)
5/13 Duncan, Restless Continent (review assignment, also recommended by friend)
5/27 Stallings, Olives (had been meaning to for years)
6/1 Nelson, American Ace* (poet long admired, picked up at conference)
6/2 Preston, Centennial Poem for Washington and Lee University (research)
6/4 Starace, Unseen Avenue* (friend and poet I admire)
6/13 Davis, Traditional Ballads of Virginia (research)
6/14 Frank, The Opposite of People (review assignment)
6/26 Jackson, ed., Selected Poems of ESV Millay* (review)
7/4 Schroeder, Inked* (met author at conference)
7/11 Tribble, Natural State* (review)

FICTION
1/16 Lerner, 10:04 (daughter’s recommendation)
1/20 Butler, Kindred (reread for guest-teaching)
1/31 Anders, All the Birds in the Sky* (Jemisin’s NYT review)
2/7 Gavaler, Patron Saint of Superheroes (unpublished, to give the author feedback)
2/15 Penny, Still Life (friend’s recommendation)
2/19 Atwell, Wild Girls (writer recently moved to my town)
3/13 Jemisin, Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (friend’s recommendation)
3/18 Jemisin, Broken Kingdoms (continuation of trilogy)
3/22 Jemisin, Gods’ Kingdom (continuation of trilogy)
3/29 Jemisin, The Awakened Kingdom (novella postscript to trilogy)
3/29 Grimes, Rainbow’s End (audiobook it took me 5 months to finish)
3/29 Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton* (friend’s recommendation)
4/17 Ozeki, Tale for the Time Being (recommended by friend)
5/4 Martin, Dance with Dragons (reread for TV show)
5/12 Myerson, The Stopped Heart (Weber’s NYT review)
5/23 Weber, True Confections (met author at Kenyon)
5/30 Erdrich, LaRose* (longstanding favorite author)
6/18 King, End of Watch* (another favorite author)
6/22 Sittenfeld, Eligible* (curious about her work for a while, NYT review)
7/10 Hairston, Will Do Magic for Small Change* (Jemisin’s NYT review)

NONFICTION
1/30 Kolbert, Sixth Extinction (daughter’s recommendation)
2/8 Jackson, Marginalia (for research)
2/8 Scholes, The Crafty Reader (for research)
2/8 Coates, Between the World and Me (recommended by a zillion friends)
2/9 Freedman, Frey, Zauhar, Intimate Critique (for research)
2/11 Tompkins, Reader Response Criticism (for research)
3/4 Christman, Darkroom (AWP board)
3/8 Eakin, How Our Lives Become Stories (research)
5/12 MacDonald, H is for Hawk (audiobook; widely recommended)

2bread

One of several intimidating to-be-read piles in my life

 

Mathy Radioland

I was tickled that JoAnne Growney wanted to put “Concentric Grooves” from Radioland on her blog “Intersections–Poetry with Mathematics,” but her request also jogged a memory of an unpublished poem from the same era that was even MORE mathy. I finally found “Disaster Math,” a poem I sent out a couple of times then gave up on, never entirely confident I had it right. After a several-year gap, however, I saw a few tweaks that might help, so I brushed it up and include it below–another Radioland outtake.

It probably overlaps too much with the sonnet crown “Damages” to have worked in the book. I do that a lot, writing numerous poems about a single crisis, trying to understand it, so some versions get factored out. Mathematical language features in a lot of writing from this part of my life because my father was a civil engineer–I remember his slide rule being replaced, in the 70s, by an obsession with programmable calculators. Oddly, while more mathematical than “Damages,” “Disaster Math” is also more focused on stories. What I often felt, trying to process my parents’ break-up from a great distance, was that I was a creature made of stories, and the universe had suddenly insisted on radical revisions, unbalancing an equilibrium I’d lived with for decades. Thanks so much to JoAnne for featuring one poem and reminding me of the others!

Disaster Math

Before instruments detected
his infidelity, one man began deleting
his wife, three children, bridge partners.
85 leaves 71 for 45.
Everyone a node of intersecting stories.

One snap among the snagged lines
reengineers a whole system:
20,000 on the withdrawal slip, therefore
a wife opens drawers and solves for x.
Reports it to their daughter, 43,

who lives on a strike-slip fault
9000 miles away, just north of a 6.3
shock as Australian and Pacific plates grate.
Death toll 159, but it rises in the falling action.
How can these outcomes coincide?

the daughter wonders, vibrating
alongside the numbers, waiting
for their force to dissipate. Propose
it never does. Propose broken columns,
integer debris. She studies the latest stats:

central business district closed till Christmas at least;
some bodies may never be identified; the cost
may never be tallied. Tangles wires and roads
and words and digits and code:
dividends of underground geometry.

She tells it over and over. Buildings collapsed and I
was too far away to feel it. I am safe. He
is a fissure emitting no signal but people build bridges
all the time, they cross as I am crossing, fibers
of plot chafing my palms. Listening ahead, calling behind.

triangles

Triangles–my father’s ruler and a Mobius strip he carved

Radioland, an outtake

The world’s going to hell, but my writing is going well…Mostly revising and submitting, these days. I now have THREE projects under submission: 1. Taking Poetry Personally: Twenty-First Century Verse and the Multiverse; 2. a chapbook-length long poem, Propagation; 3. and a first novel, The Changeling Professor, although that one is just at the beginning-to-query-agents phase. Meanwhile I’m keeping poems under journal submission, and in the process I keep finding verses I drafted quickly and then forgot about. Whenever you put together a poetry book a LOT ends up on the cutting room floor.

I think the poem below was just too specific to my life at that moment–it didn’t seem inclusive enough of readers outside my bubble. I’d just attended a memorial service for Severn Parker Duvall III, the grand, legendary, reportedly cranky old poetry professor whom I’d replaced at W&L (I say “reportedly” because the man left behind some astonishing stories, all of which I believe, but he was always beautifully genteel to me). The immediate scene is the lawn in front of Lee Chapel on campus, where I was leading a workshop in a writing prompt (and doing some drafting myself, obviously). Like a lot of poems, though, this one has a heterotopia, an other-place: I’d been back from my Fulbright in New Zealand for less than a year and clearly missed it.

I’m looking forward to reading from Radioland at Washington College in MD next week. In the meantime, a poem for the road. Maybe it’s about running out of time and not entirely minding.

The Opposite of Elegy

The shadow of a chapel spire ticks over
my shoulder; the students write. Severn said,
“Do you mean of my departure?”

when his granddaughter asked, “Are you scared?”
Struck like a bell but finally amused
by the notion of fearing death.

Last night’s dead-hour dream fused
everything I’ve been thinking of: I
visited an old hotel, beachy views,

near Nelson, New Zealand. Bill Manhire
was running a poetry conference
that was really the afterlife.

When told I had to jump back over the fence,
return to the living for a while, I cried…
My students are still writing. Present tense

continuous, sprawling all over a spikily
germinating lawn. Younger and smarter
every year. Sere leaves brushed aside.

I guess that’s spring for you. Clock for a heart.

April 2, 2012

roseoneill

 

In favor of impurity, or, I’m sick at heart and I want to lie down

My daughter told me about the mass killing in Orlando in the car Sunday, as we drove up Route 81 on an errand. We bought summer shorts and solar lights for the back walkway, ate pho and spring rolls, stopped at a bookstore, drove home, and she kept updating me all evening. Mostly Latino and LGBT, she said. The orange guy says ban Muslim immigrants. Countries are issuing travel advisories against the U.S.: it’s not safe here.

Monday, I found myself flipping back and forth between online news and the strange old book I bought in Staunton, Traditional Ballads of Virginia, Collected Under the Auspices of the Virginia Folklore Society, edited by Arthur Kyle Davis and published in 1929. I’m no ballad-scholar but they tell sad stories in verse, usually beginning at the end. “There is never an authoritative text,” wrote Robert Graves about the folk ballad, continuing, “it is incomplete without music…it does not moralize or preach or express any partisan bias.” In my “Introduction to Poetry” course, we spend a day looking first at folk ballads and then at literary uses of the form–not-anonymous ballad-like poems circulated in print. We discuss Dudley Randall’s “Ballad of Birmingham” about a 1963 church bombing, and Gwendolyn Brooks’ Emmett Till poems. Randall’s ballad, metered and rhymed, has that communal quality of a song one might pass down through generations. Brooks’ “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon,” instead, blasts that cultural inheritance apart, along with all the racist, gendered baggage it carries about lily-white maids and dark villains. Both poems draw force in different ways from the old tropes and channel that power against contemporary violence.

It’s hard to write a literary ballad. Strict quatrains can sound too predictable now, too light; veer from familiarity, though, and you’ve lost continuity with the old songs. The latter is sometimes better, yet form’s history can help you carry a hard burden. I’m trying to draft a ballad about the hate crime at the Pulse nightclub, but the results so far are somehow both raw and over-intellectual.

To do better, I keep going back to the smoother cadences preserved in this book. There was a vogue, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for collecting traces of a vanishing folk culture, and I’m glad, even if I personally, as a woman, wouldn’t have been safe tramping around the mountains and asking strangers what old airs they knew. But this particular collection was also an attempt by white people to conserve (create?) a particularly Scots-Irish heritage. These folklorists collected British, Scottish, and Irish songs only, further stipulating that they must be orally transmitted, unpolluted by print. Interesting, to discover what songs made that crossing and how they changed. Yet there’s no such thing as media purity, then or now–print and oral cultures intersect all the time. Nor are other kinds of inheritance pure. Listen as the editor, in his introduction, gives away his bias:

“The nearest approach to an American body of folk-lore is the folk-lore of European origin transplanted and adapted in America–unless, forsooth, we should prefer to regard as representatively American the tribal and ceremonial songs of the Red Indian, which are American in no sense except the geographical, or the folk-songs of the Negro, which, beautiful as they often are, are obviously the heritage of the ‘Homo Africanus’ transplanted in America, not the possession of our white majority.”

Forsooth! This book was being assembled as Virginia was implementing its eugenics laws, sterilizing citizens for being indigenous, black, or otherwise American in no sense except, gee, the geographical, legal, logical, and moral. Terms like “Red Indian” and “Homo Africanus” construct and exaggerate difference for rhetorical effect, as if the so-called races belong to different species.

Now flash forward to one 21st century version of the eugenics program: a current candidate’s proposed wall. Barrier contraception writ large. None of it works–no poem or country has ever been pure, and none ever will be, thank heaven–but people do harm striving for purity anyway.

I’ll keep working on my ballad, getting my own hands dirty, as I look for other ways to protest the fear and hatred ruining us. Last weekend’s horror is not particularly my story to tell, but that’s the point of ballads–they’re all our stories, the young man whose mind goes wrong, hopes ruined, lovers separated by violence, children forever lost to mothers wild with grief. To paraphrase Brooks, the Pulse tragedy has the beat inevitable; the old form is latent in the event, in its very needlessness. How many times do assault rifles have to fire in our public spaces before U.S. politicians repudiate the NRA? As in the ballad “Lord Randal”–sometimes converted by Virginians into “Johnnie Randolph”–I’m sick at heart and I want to lie down.

Two ballads for the road. First, as I said, contemporary literary ballads are hard to write, but I did just publish a poem influenced by the form. It’s in a Mezzo Cammin portfolio of poems responding to Edna St. Vincent Millay; the story it tells is Millay’s (successful) attempt to end an unwanted pregnancy by consuming abortive herbs in Dorset.

sir hughSecond, from my new-old book: it turns out that one of the few ballad variants sourced to Lexington is “Sir Hugh”, sometimes called “The Jew’s Daughter,” or, in a sanitized version, “The Fatal Flower Garden.” I can’t bring myself to type it out so I’ve linked to a similar version to the one contributed by “Mr. and Mrs. George McLaughlin” in 1916 (I live very near McLaughlin St.). It tells of a Christian boy whose ball goes over a wall into “the old Jew’s garden.” Tempted by his neighbor’s daughter, the boy ventures after it and is brutally murdered. “Sir Hugh” preserves and promotes the anti-Semitism of medieval Europe; its tale was used to justify pogroms. It’s also, in its toxic way, haunting. Ballads can poison as well as console us–promote violence as well as deplore it. Impure.