Lesley Wheeler is the author of THE STATE SHE'S IN, her fifth poetry collection, and UNBECOMING, a debut novel. Forthcoming is an essay collection, POETRY'S POSSIBLE WORLDS; previous books are RADIOLAND; THE RECEPTIONIST AND OTHER TALES; HETEROTOPIA, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize; HEATHEN; VOICING AMERICAN POETRY; THE POETICS OF ENCLOSURE; and the chapbooks Propagation and 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 W&L 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. She is Poetry Editor of Shenandoah.
Okay, so my cats weren’t impressed with the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers Workshop, but I was–although since I would have been able to attend in person, the virtual format was a bit of a bummer. (I know virtualness makes a weeklong workshop so much more accessible for others, though, and cheaper. Tradeoffs.) The scoop:
I was assigned to a poetry workshop with 5 other poets led by Dan Chiasson, whose writing I follow but about whom I knew nothing as a person. First blessing: he’s smart and generous with praise and help. We met for three two-hour workshops based on 10-page mss we had each submitted, and we also had individual half-hour conferences with Dan. I’m sure the various workshop teachers varied in style, but I felt lucky–this class was the best part of the conference for me. I learned a lot about my own work and spend the week revising like a demon. Another big benefit: the other people in the class were ALSO talented, kind, and wise, although our styles and concerns varied quite a bit. I felt grateful for their attention and really hunkered down over their work, too, trying to give what I received.
My classmates’ comments were sometimes contradictory, in the way of all workshops, but that can be useful. You gain a sense of what’s working for some readers and what’s not, but it’s up to you to pick through the suggestions and figure out how to address the issues they raise. What’s typical for me: I get praise for the sound textures of my poems, told they’re beautiful, but sometimes that I’m shying away from unfolding their deeper stakes. And of course some things are a challenge for any poet, such as closing with punch yet unpredictability. My job this week was to crack many of the poems open and figure out how to keep the language good while also going for broke on the material. I think I made progress, which is all anyone ever does, right? Part of the pleasure of poetry is that it’s an art no one ever masters.
There were also three lectures from the Environmental teachers and a bunch more from the Translation conference, which runs simultaneously. These were very good, but none was the state-of-the-field lecture I was craving. There’s so much brilliant environmental writing out there now and I know I miss a lot, so I had hoped for at least partial maps of current practice–a cross-genre mini-course, basically. This conference wasn’t that, although to be fair they had never promised it, either. If I were empress, I would have set up a panel discussion among a few experts in related fields to compare notes. The other thing I missed was time and space for unscripted, spontaneous interaction among participants (there was a Slack channel but no one really used it). I ended up setting up a final Zoom happy hour for my small cohort, just to chat a little more, but I did that too late to figure out how to make the party wider. We introverts need to connect with each other, but we also need a nudge to do it.
The other stuff: the tech was well-run and the staff responsive and friendly. There were also chances to meet with agents and editors in 15-minute segments, and I signed up for two of them. That’s not like me, I’m deficient in hustle, but I had promised myself to make the most of the conference, even the elements that unnerved me. I prepped like hell for each meeting and I think they went well? It is way too early to know how big a difference the whole experience will make in my writing or my ability to find audiences, but I didn’t let myself down, despite all the anxiety I described in my last post. I brought my best energy to meet what felt like a rare opportunity. It was a LOT of energy, though. I seriously need to wind down and sleep like a cat.
Two other parts of my conference plan worked out in a mixed way, in case it’s of interest. My husband went off to visit family so I could simulate a writing retreat at home. I was able to work hard, but it took a major effort of will to stop spending my nervous animation on cooking and cleaning. I think, if I had the means, I’d try to find another space if I did this again. I did, as I hoped, manage to rough out a draft of a possible next collection; that’s what Poe’s rolling around on above. It’s a mess but a start. Submissions felt impossible, but I’m going to try again tomorrow. Today I’m resting my brain, catching up on chores, and having a back-porch drink with local friends during which I’m very unlikely to think about the po-biz at all.
I don’t have major stage fright about teaching, and I’ve come to feel like I can give a decent Zoom reading. My upcoming conversation with the brilliant writers Anjali Sachdeva and Brittany Hailer–Friday 6/4 at 7pm Eastern, hosted by the White Whale, register here by 6:30 that day!–will amp me up for the night, but talking to them about fabulism vs. realism basically sounds fun to me. Yet GOOD LORD am I nervous about participating in a weeklong fancy virtual writers’ workshop starting June 6th.
I have a pretty good idea why. For most virtual presentations, you have to be prepared, come across as warm and engaged, and stay attuned to others. The latter two tasks are harder via screen, but I now have experience managing it. What I have completely forgotten how to do: 1) interact in a substantive, sustained, open way with strangers; and 2) be my most sparkly, enthusiastic, professional self among people with literary power. That second one was never easy for me. I’m an introvert whose battery for socializing has to be recharged by solitude, and my self-confidence ebbs and flows. But the pandemic means I’m REALLY out of practice. Grief doesn’t help, either–I’ve been low and spacey since my mother’s death, and when I work too hard, my brain and body conk out.
I came across an article the other day that reminded me that instead of hopelessly dreading my likely failure to make the most of a good opportunity, I could consider planning ways to manage stress. Self-help is not my preferred genre, and I have successfully avoided lots of pieces about social reentry post-Covid, but I was click-baited this time by a title about “using sobriety strategies,” about which I know little. Plus I’m desperate. The Washington Post article by Erin Shaw Street is here, although I don’t know if the link will work for everyone.
In short, the advice is to “start with acceptance”–this reentry thing will probably take a while, and that’s okay. “Have a plan, but stay flexible”: well, I always have a plan. My idea was to turn the week into a writer’s retreat at home, so my spouse is visiting family. Next week I’ll order out, let the dust pile up, and refuse to answer email. Write write write, I thought, and get back on the submission train, too. Maybe even use the empty house to lay out all my recent poems and see if they’re beginning to form a new collection! My revised plan: sure, try all that stuff, but if it doesn’t work, just do my workshop, make the best of my two 15-minute meetings with fancy editors, forgive myself if some of it falls flat, and otherwise chill. That’s the “pay attention to your feelings” part, which lately have made themselves very clear. “Practice gratitude and mindfulness”: well, all right, I know breathing exercises and I’ve actually worked on mindfulness lately, in my distracted way. What I’m proudest of, by the way of emotional planning, is in the “having a group of trusted friends to call on” category. I have actually scheduled a phone chat with Jeannine Hall Gailey right before the conference, because she is the best literary cheerleader I know. How about that! Me, planning a social interaction for my own sake, because it will make me feel connected and maybe even slightly more confident!! Miracles can happen. I also wrote the principles on a post-it note and stuck it on my office window frame, hoping I’ll stick with the program.
If you have ideas about doing your best in this kind of setting when you’re kind of a mess, I’d be glad to hear them. Most of this blog’s readers are writers, and I don’t think introversion is rare in our tribe. The conference is the Breadloaf Environmental Writers Workshop, by the way, with my individual group of six poets led by Dan Chiasson. I actually won a scholarship to it, so it would be rational to have some faith in myself. At the very least, I plan to learn more about environmental writing as well as gathering ideas for sharpening my poems–and, based on past experience, tricks for my teaching, too. It’s useful to play student occasionally, see how others run things, and be reminded how it feels to watch others examine your work.
Meanwhile, spacey-dopey-nervousness notwithstanding, I did make my most important May deadlines. Saturday I finished a monster participant packet for another fancy workshop, Sewanee, which will be in person at the end of July (another scholarship, ahem). And yesterday I turned in a short essay solicited for a new critical collection, Eliot Now. My piece discusses work by Jeannine Hall Gailey and Paisley Rekdal in relation to “The Waste Land.” In brief, Gailey and Rekdal highlight the prominence of sexual violence in Eliot’s poem while portraying their own experiences with assault. (Gee, I wonder why I felt depressed working on it?)
Sending out good vibes to everyone for a peaceful and/or productive June, whatever you need it to be. I’m not sure how much blogging is in my immediate future, although I bet I’ll have some things to share about the workshop when it’s all over.
That’s a line from “Pushing Toward the Canopy,” a pantoum in Blackbird and The State She’s In, and it’s an example of one of my own lines becoming an earworm, which happens to me all the time, although I probably shouldn’t admit it. Being at sea suits me sometimes. I like learning. It’s why I’m always trying unfamiliar forms and genres. I just published a short essay, “Hand of Smoke,” in Speculative Nonfiction, that’s about being a student and also demonstrates me in a state of experiment–what am I willing to say about myself in the plainer mode of prose, and is this a risk I can succeed at? Enjoying being at sea can shipwreck into stress pretty quickly.
The future is rushing at me fast, after a couple of months first in the bubble of my mother’s illness then riding grief’s first hard wave. My badly named college is graduating its class of 2021 tomorrow. The Board of Trustees has apparently already voted on whether we’re dropping Robert E. Lee from the name, but they’re not announcing the decision until June, citing security reasons. Either decision could change my relationship with the job. Would I search for a new position rather than continue to work for a place resolute in its association with white supremacy? Not sure yet, and I know I’d wait a year in any case, because I’m still cashing in on W&L’s college tuition benefit for my son’s pricey education.
The town is emptying out, the weather is steamy, the peonies are wilting, and there are only three months left of my sabbatical. I have an essay due to editors on Monday–it ain’t ready–and a twenty-page packet of poems for the Sewanee Writers Workshop in July. The following Sunday, Breadloaf Environmental Writers Workshop starts, and I have homework! I’ll be dedicating myself wholly to poetry during those times, but otherwise, I really only have five solid writing weeks left. Which is more than many people get in a year, I know. But I have three teaching preps in the fall, two of them new, plus editing and reviewing commitments to Shenandoah and the Fulbright Foundation, so my writing life is going to shriek to a stop come September.
The other side-effect of my mother’s death, though, is a changed perspective on what’s urgent. Apparently I CAN put everything aside for big swaths of time to take care of others and myself. I’d lost that muscle memory since my kids became independent. It’s a lucky thing to like your work, but work doesn’t always like you back. When it’s too much, it really is fine to say screw it. Literature is watertight and unsinkable.
This morning I thought with a start: does “console” mean with-alone? It doesn’t, it turns out. According to the OED, it comes from the Latin con- (with) + sōlārī (to solace, soothe). We used to say “consolate” until Dryden, Pope, and others shortened it. But I like my pretend etymology, too. There’s inwardness to mourning, but it’s also touching how many people reach out kindly.
Last spring I found it deeply strange that the world was coming to life so beautifully as a virus ravaged populations all over the world. This spring, as the human social world stirs in harmony with the natural one, I’m thinking about how my mother would have appreciated the warm weather, the annual sequence of blooms, and the lift of mask mandates (I worry about the latter, but I bet she would have flung hers away triumphantly and gone to brunch with her friends, to her children’s exasperation). It’s strange not to text and call her. Guilt and shame sometimes flood in about the times I wasn’t kind to her. I woke up in the middle of the night mad at a relative who wouldn’t talk to her during the last year (although he’s also elderly, I thought in the morning, and deserving of compassion, so I will NOT be extending the grudge). I wish my mother had one more summer.
On the “with” side of lonely brooding, I’m thinking about traveling and connecting with friends, in person. I rebooked last June’s cancelled trip to Iceland as well as an August week at a NC beach house with my kids–and I’ll come to the latter straight from the Sewanee Writers Conference, which I’m looking forward to with excitement now. This Thursday Chris and I are driving up to NJ to spend three nights at my sister’s beach house before attending a small memorial for my mother in my sister’s backyard, with a few friends and relatives I haven’t seen in ages. I’ve picked out a poem from Heterotopiato read, and I’ll share a letter from my mother’s best friend while growing up in England, but other than that, this writer has no idea what to say. There’s so much, and a lot of it feels private.
Another emotionally confusing thing: my mother’s final illness somehow occurred between the first anniversaries of my 2020 books, The State She’s Inand Unbecoming. This weekend marks the book-birthday of the latter, and I want to celebrate it! I went back and savored some blurbs and reviews. Here’s a lovely one from Emily Croy Barker (who also puts poetry in her tales!): “The story of a woman leading an ordinary life who discovers within herself extraordinary powers, UNBECOMING is sage, funny, and warm, like a long conversation with your best friend about all the strange and wonderful things that have been happening to her lately. Lesley Wheeler’s writing is so deft and magical that I’m convinced that she must have learned it from the fairies.” And from Gary K. Wolfe in Locus: “Unbecoming is framed largely as a satirical academic tale, but one leavened with more than a bit of witchery and magic, principally the notion, which begins to haunt the narrator, that certain women entering middle age somehow develop magical powers…there are occasional hilarious echoes of the sort of gonzo academic satire we used to see in the novels of David Lodge and others.” It would be a great book to read over the summer, hint-hint.
I also gave the novel a photo shoot and a few social-media shout-outs. Further, I’m thinking toward a virtual conversation I have planned with two AMAZING writers, Anjali Sachdeva and Brittany Hailer, at 7pm on June 4th, hosted at the wonderful indie bookstore The White Whale in Pittsburgh (they’ll also have copies of my book for sale). This event comes from the bout of planning I was doing in late winter, before my mother got sick, and I’m glad I managed to arrange this one good thing. I hope you’ll sign up at Eventbrite or Facebook. We all work in the zone between literary and genre fiction, so we’ll read a little from our books but also talk about those borderlands.
Other good things: my poetry book just received a lovely and unusual review from Seth Michelson in storySouth. I have two poems in the new issue of Nelle and a few more forthcoming soon from other magazines. I also had a great conversation about linebreaks with Tacey M. Atsitty and Ron White, hosted by Stan Galloway at Pier-Glass Poetry and later posted here. I wasn’t sure if I could manage it, honestly, but it was fun and stimulating, reminding me that the literary life is consoling and worth celebrating.
In what’s probably a common response to grief, two scripts are running through my head constantly: “I wish I” and “At least I.” I’m so glad I interviewed my mother about her life for my writing; that I spent a lot of time with her in April, memorizing her the way you do when you care for a sick person in intimate ways; and that we made a fuss of her 80th birthday in February 2020. My siblings and I did two things that she loved. We bought her one of those motorized reclining chairs–lift off without moving a muscle!–and we treated her at a restaurant in Philadelphia where all the waiters sing opera. For a Mother’s Day gift in 1994, before I moved to Virginia, we had escorted her to a matinee at the Metropolitan Opera and then a fancy dinner out, but she wouldn’t have had the energy for that much travel anymore, so the restaurant was a sweet compromise. I’ll always remember her thrilled face upturned to the waitstaff during solos. “Let’s do that again next year,” she said. My head is also full of all the adventures she didn’t have, especially the travel she didn’t get to do to Bermuda, the Mediterranean islands, Australia and New Zealand, and a host of European capitols. In emigrating from England to the U.S. and then zipping around the country with my father when she was younger, she did travel more than many, but except for a trip to England that a bunch of people supported in various ways, she was both too anxious and too cash-strapped to fly in her later years (my father burnt through all their retirement savings, but that’s another story).
This week since her death has flit by strangely. I spent time with my kids, both based in Philadelphia, before driving home. I’ve written a little: a poem my hairdresser dictated the title for (he’s both a literary person and wise about grieving, and the title is “First in Line for Takeoff”); some notes of my memories of her last days; her obituary; responses to condolence notes and gifts; this blog post and the last. I’m thinking about other writing-related work: submitting mss for the virtual Breadloaf Environmental conference in June and the live Sewanee workshop in May; the Mother’s Day promotion I was going to do for Unbecoming; a short article on Eliot due at the end of May; whether it would be consoling or ridiculous to try working on my creative mss-in-progress again. The book of essays I will deliver to Tinderbox Editions before too long–Poetry’s Possible Worlds is scheduled for November publication–currently ends with my mother’s recovery from her first bout with lymphoma in 2015. Does my coda need a coda? I can hardly bear to think about it. And, of course, I’m spending a lot of time doing nothing. There’s so much to think about and avoid thinking about. I’m most comfortable perched at an intellectual distance from big feelings, noticing how the people around me process it, for instance, and my own preference for matter-of-fact conversations about her death. That’s part of what makes me a writer–metaphor itself involves displacement as well as insight–but it can also be maladaptive.
Oddly, I just published a poem about letting go this week. “The Red Door” (who knows where that image came from?) appears in the new issue of Nelle (not online but pictured below), along with a slightly longer poem called “Early Cretaceous Walks Up to the Bar,” inspired by an apparently phosphorescent gar in the Hillsborough River and very much about standing at a distance from feeling. A friend once pointed out there’s a lot of running water in my poems. O river of life, you can be a very tired metaphor, but maybe a big weird fish flying through redeems it.
My mother died early Friday morning of lymphoma in my sister’s house in New Jersey. There’s a lot to process–the good way the family gathered around and helped her through rapidly worsening illness; all that she said to us as we nursed her; great kindness and serious failures in the medical treatment she received–and the logistics have been and continue to be challenging. My brother as executor now has a million kinds of paperwork to do in Pennsylvania, where he and my mother lived together. My sister has a roomful of equipment and supplies to clear, having expected my mother to stay there for months (it turned out to be just 36 hours), and she’s taking the lead with the funeral home. I arrived back in Virginia last night after spending April as a tri-state nomad, helping negotiate facilities and doctor appointments as well as caring for my mostly bedridden mother for five or six days in my brother’s house. I’m also in charge of obituaries, and I’m sure I’ll work through the experiences and feelings of the past few weeks in five bazillion new poems. In this blog, though, where writing intersects with with the complicated business of being a person muddling through, I’m honoring the ways my mother shaped my literary life.
My mother, Patricia Cain Wheeler, wasn’t a writer, but she was an avid reader. Born in Liverpool during World War Two, in a crowded tenement that she longed to escape, books helped her imagine other, better worlds. She was the storyteller-in-chief during my own childhood, conjuring Liverpool in the nineteen-forties in all its sharp contrasts with my suburban New Jersey comforts. I learned about the coal-heated houses she grew up in, with privies and bomb shelters in their back gardens, and in at least one of them, a swing she loved to ride as she daydreamed. My sister and I mapped our respective territories by upholstery seams in the backseat of an Oldsmobile; my mother’s sister drew chalk lines to construct a sort of privacy in their tiny shared bedroom. Rationing meant food was scarce for my mother and her three siblings; I grew up on Cheese Whiz, bacon-draped meatloaf, Wonder Bread, and the British chocolates my grandmother stuffed in her suitcases when she flew over for long visits. My mother’s educational opportunities were very limited, but she won a scholarship to Calderstones High School, where she played Caesar and Macbeth in school plays because, at 5’5”, she was the tallest girl in the class. At sixteen she left to study nursing at Royal Liverpool Babies Hospital, but it was difficult work. She left it to clerk at a store then, in 1962, to emigrate to the US and give in-home care to the children and elderly relatives of rich Long Islanders before she married. I wrote about these and other stories in my 2010 book Heterotopia.They’ve always exerted a powerful hold on my imagination.
My mother taught me to understand my life as a series of tales in which I was the adventurous heroine. She also gave me books. Each Christmas, the best present was a heavy shirt box filled with paperbacks, with the implication that at nine or ten, I was plenty old enough to enjoy them. They included most of the Alcott and Brontë novels plus works by Shakespeare, Jules Verne, Sir Walter Scott, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, George Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Homer, Chaucer, and much more. I remember walking down stairs carpeted in cream shag to ask her the difference between “impudent” and “imprudent.” When I was having trouble making sense of Wuthering Heights, she reread it and explained the story to me. Her taste wasn’t all high-flown, though. I also devoured her Reader’s Digests and Harlequin romances. It’s largely due to her that I always had my nose in a novel or play or epic poem, depending on them for escape and education. I told her how much I owed her for this a week ago, when she lay semi-conscious in a hospital bed, and it won me a rare smile.
She was also the parent who read all my poems and stories and, eventually, my published books, cheering me on. I owe certain teachers, too, for encouraging me to write poetry particularly, but I wrote Unbecomingbecause my mother taught me to love character-driven genre fiction (though she would never have used those words!). There’s a maybe-supernatural character in my novel because she loaded me up with tales about fairies and brownies and ghosts. I can’t believe that’s all in the past now, but my mother will survive as the stories we tell about her. Below are a couple of poems inspired by her life, the first from Heterotopia,the second from The State She’s In, in which she’s also a presiding spirit.
The Third Child Counts Her Options, 1949
We did own roller skates. I sometimes strapped
one over my shoe, gliding down Vronhill
Street like a sad flamingo. My sister
buzzed by on the other, pretending to
be a Luftwaffe raider. My brothers
rowed over the bicycle. There were four
of us, three fighters, and never enough
biscuits. One of us had to read the old
books instead. One of us had to sit still.
I. In ‘62, my young mother flew from known melodies, from clouds rolling up and down the Mersey with the tides.
II. Where would I be otherwise? Each curved person a lattice of contingency. Weak sunlight filters through.
III. She was born in a curved iron and glass shed, Lime Street Station platform eight for London Midlands, with a hissing exhale and a rocking momentum.
IV. Corridors of red sandstone, arched brick, concrete bearded with soot and moss. Four pairs of rails rusted pink. The city’s muscles contract.
V. Towers topped with empty nests. Where are the birds?
VI. My return ticket bought by her departure. My diplomas. My pay stub. My upwardly-mobile American refusal to pick up after men.
VII. Brakes whine softly until the country opens and I pick up speed.
VIII. Far away, joint-sore, she is throwing off a duvet, opening blinds, creaking downstairs to her son’s kitchen, listening to news of brutal collusions.
IX. Daisies, buttercups, yarrow—flowers that cannot be suppressed—and sheep-cropped hills beyond.
X. Clouds are heavy, sorrowful. They resist breakage but wind has its own ideas. Look at the azure vents it opens, with a tearing cry.
I was waiting outside a Penn Medicine dermatology clinic when I learned that the verdict in George Floyd’s murder case was near. In mid-March, a sore on my mother’s left leg had become ferociously bad; she was hospitalized for infection, seemed to improve for a while, and then got worse (her condition aggravated by poor care at the local hospital); eventually she received a diagnosis of pyoderma gangrenosum, which is every bit as bad as it sounds. A recurrence of her 2015 lymphoma is a likely contributor, but we’ve been waiting more than a week for the results of a biopsy of two small masses in her abdomen. On 4/11, right after my second Moderna shot, I arrived at my brother’s house in Pennsylvania, where my mother has also lived for many years. I finally visited her in the hospital, cleaned the house, shopped, and helped set up a hospital bed and commode in the living room. We brought her home on 4/14. She was so miserable at the hospital. My sister found a wheelchair, so we’ve been trying to make it work while my sister, in New Jersey, sets up her own house for my mother’s long-term care (plus sorting out interstate insurance, because it’s America).
It’s been hard. Excellent visiting nurses came in daily for extremely painful and elaborate wound care, but meanwhile I was learning to keep a mostly-incapacitated elderly woman safe, clean, fed, hydrated, and as content as possible. She was very grateful to get home. From her bed or the nearby recliner, she was following the Chauvin trial and news of violence across the country; she was also interested in the “helicopter” on Mars and in Prince Phillip’s funeral procession. When a phlebotomist couldn’t find a vein, my mother slyly said, “It’s Prince Phillip’s fault,” although I don’t think anyone understood she was joking but me. When she slept, I read some news, a bit of a mystery novel, and a bit of social media. I’ve been able to do maybe an hour a day of my own work, but it’s hard to concentrate. Logistically and emotionally, there’s a lot going on. I started writing a poem a few days ago involving the strange in-betweenness of illness, the haunted noises my mother’s refrigerator makes during the middle of the night, and her repeated statement that someone was trying to get in the front door–maybe those three weirdnesses could hang together? Anyway, I was interrupted.
Coming home from the dermatology clinic, it became clearer how weak my mother was–not just tired, but suddenly not able to hold a cup, sleepy, hard to rouse. I called the GP. Their verdict: get her to the ER. I phoned 911 and my husband and I followed the ambulance to the hospital (a different one). I sat in the ER waiting room during my mother’s intake. Everyone was watching the talking heads on the TV saying, We’ll know the jury’s verdict any minute now. An orderly called me backstage to sit with my mother while various specialists did an EKG, blood work, CAT scans, x-rays. Messages floated up on text chain with the long-time friends to whom The State She’s Inis dedicated. Guilty on all three counts. Mixed feelings of relief, hope, continuing anger.
“Diagnosis,” at root, means distinguishing a condition by setting it apart from others. From the Latin, “verdict” means true speech, and it has designated a jury’s decision since the 1530s. So is this week’s verdict uneven access to good healthcare, the diagnosis capitalism? In another sphere, a guilty verdict but a diagnosis of systemic racism, an illness that rots US life to its core?
I don’t know where I’ll be from one day to the next, much less what role poetry will play in the last week of this awful, beautiful National Poetry Month, but I do have an NPR StoryCorps interview lined up for tomorrow in regard to my novel Unbecoming. I have received a poem acceptance and a poetry batch rejection since I’ve been here, because tis the season. I also gave an Instagram Live reading from my mother’s upstairs bedroom, which was insane, but it was scheduled for 9 pm ET, after my mother fell asleep, so I pulled it off. It’s just 15 minutes and archived at the Instagram page of The Arkansas International (@thearkint), along with many other readings in honor of their new “Galactic” issue. My poem in that issue is “For Metamorphosis, with Bibliomancy,” so I read that along with a few other spells and invocations. Say a few words to your favorite deity for my mother, if you have the spirit for it–or call your congressional rep. There is so much to feel and to do.
This Saturday (4/10, 4pm to 5:15 ET), I’m moderating a panel called “Feeling Across Distance” with four fabulous poets: Lauren K. Alleyne, Tafisha A. Edwards, Luisa A. Igloria, and Jane Satterfield. It’s part of this year’s C.R.A.F.T. Festival: Panel and Workshop, for which you can still register here. The theme is “Empathy.” It was kicked off yesterday with a generous and inspiring talk by Molly Peacock. I’m so grateful when writers discuss not only their survival strategies but their emotions around rejection and competition. She recommended ambition to poets, by the way, defining it as “self-respect.” Brilliant!
Here’s the panel description: In this hybrid panel/ reading, Lauren Alleyne, Tafisha Edwards, Luisa A. Igloria, Jane Satterfield, and Lesley Wheeler discuss poetry that bridges geography, time, opposing perspectives, and even species boundaries. Migration can divide us from families and cultures, history is full of gaps, yet poetry is an art of presence in absence. It can create space for contemplation of loss but also for connection despite difference. Panelists will discuss desire for contact and understanding as motives for poetry, then read some of their own work addressing this theme. They will also address the craft of feeling across distance—how line breaks, metaphor, and other poetic strategies enable emotional leaps—and provide writing prompts to inspire poetic exploration.
This post functions as a virtual handout, so below are prompts from each panelist. On the panel itself, I’ll be discussing the temporal jumps The State She’s In makes through historical research; my struggle to imagine the past without projecting myself into it in a way that obliterates other truths; and the ecological aspects of the book, which similarly involve engaging the landscape and its other-than-human inhabitants without overwriting their otherness. It’s all hard work that I think about a great deal. Whether or not you can join the conversation, I hope these give you ideas for April writing.
Think of a place you’ve been
Think of a story in or about that place you’ve heard or experienced
Recall a memory/story of yours unrelated to that place
Have yourself or an object from the memory ask a question to you or an object in the other place
Answer, if you can.
Tafisha’s prompt: Think about the walk from your bedroom to bathroom during a winter night. How far is the walk to the bathroom when you aren’t wearing socks? How quickly do you need to move to get back into the warmest pocket? Write a poem about how time dilates during that moment.
Jane’s prompt: Recent lockdowns remind us of the power of technologies, new and old, to cross distances and weave connections across time and space, cultures, cartographies, and species. Is there someone—a family member, literary forebear, or familiar of your ecotone—whose presence calls out to you? Try reaching out using the form of the invocation: name a problem, include an ask, and imagine some form of consolation or healing for the future.
Luisa’s prompt: Open Google Street Views and enter a specific location or address that has emotional resonance for you, or that you once lived in/near. Take a look and “walk” around, noting the street names, buildings, houses, landmarks, landscape, vegetation. Notice where you stop and linger. Give yourself an “errand” as you make your rounds (i.e. buy bread from the corner bakery you used to visit as a child). Write a poem about what comes to meet you.
Lesley’s prompt: Choose a non-human being—a plant or animal—that dwells near you without human permission. Research where its ancestors came from, what conditions it needs to live, and what its role in the ecosystem is. Consider what it knows that you don’t, and write it a letter-poem asking for advice.
Lauren K. Alleyne hails from the twin island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Her fiction, poetry and nonfiction have been widely published in journals and anthologies, including The Atlantic, Ms. Muse, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Interviewing the Caribbean, Crab Orchard Review, among many others. She is author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and Honeyfish (New Issues (US) & Peepal Tree (UK), 2019).
Tafisha A. Edwards is the author of THE BLOODLET, winner of Phantom Books’ 2016 Breitling Chapbook Prize. You can find more of her work in The Offing, PHANTOM, Bodega Magazine, The Atlas Review, The Little Patuxent Review, and other print and online publications. A graduate of the University of Maryland’s Jiminéz-Porter Writers’ House, she is a Cave Canem Graduate fellow, a former educator with the American Poetry Museum, and recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, The Minnesota Northwoods Writers’ Conference and other writing workshops and conferences.
Luisa A. Igloria, the 20th Poet Laureate of Virginia, is one of two co-winners of the 2019 Crab Orchard Poetry Open competition for her manuscript Maps for Migrants and Ghosts (Southern Illinois University Press, 2020). Originally from Baguio City, she was the inaugural winner of the Resurgence Prize (UK), the world’s first major award for ecopoetry. Her many books also include The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-Life Crisis and Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser. She is a Louis I. Jaffe Professor and University Professor of English and Creative Writing at Old Dominion University.
Jane Satterfield‘s prize-winning poetry collections are Apocalypse Mix,Her Familiars, Assignation at Vanishing Point, and Shepherdess with an Automatic. Her book of nonfiction prose, Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond, explores maternal legacies through interconnected essays on music, popular culture, literary mothers, and personal history. Satterfield’s honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry and three Maryland Arts Council poetry grants, as well as residencies in poetry or nonfiction from the Vermont Studio Center and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
You’ve got to keep an eye on April: it’s slippery. I’m seeking discipline I lacked this winter, wanting to make the most of this brief season, although I’m skipping #NaPoWriMo in favor of surveying and refining older drafts. Mid-March, I overhauled a lot of poems and put them under submission; two have been accepted already, and maybe I’ll earn a couple more wins as the months pass. It’s a long process, but it’s wise to submit work in spring if you can, because so many markets close in summer. I’m also writing to bookstores and submitting conference proposals, in hopes there will be an in-person future for the literary world. I get my second Moderna shot on April 9th. I’ll be careful even after the T-cells multiply, but already I feel less anxious about brief forays into the populated world, as well as happier about the down-time I’m taking outdoors.
Shortly after I hit a better work rhythm, though–moving from revising and submitting poems to overhauling some fiction projects–my mother went into the hospital. She lives in eastern Pennsylvania, so for unvarnished information (she downplays every ailment), I depend on my adult brother, with whom she lives, and my sister, who lives 45 minutes away but has seen less of my mother during the pandemic. Turned out my mother had a very bad wound on her leg that had become severely infected. The usual hell-zone of diagnosis was harder than usual because of the limits on visitors, the busy-ness of medical staff, and my mother herself being too sick and drugged to pick up the phone. Eventually they ruled out the scariest things. Her circulation is just terrible, so damage is easy to do and hard to mend. She’s in rehab now, getting on her feet again while her wound slowly heals, so the crisis period is probably over, but it was intense. Intensely concerned and wondering if I would need to drop everything and drive 5+ hours, I alternately read medical websites, texted furiously with my siblings, and distracted myself with more revisions. I rewrote a short story from scratch, for instance, without looking at the original; that’s not a strategy I’ve tried much before, but it worked really well. Yay?
This all reminds me of my last sabbatical, when my mother was diagnosed with lymphoma and I spent many months shuttling back and forth, doing what I could to help my on-the-ground siblings. (That’s also the year I drafted what became my first novel, Unbecoming–go figure.) Here’s another way time is tricky. Spring always reminds you of previous springs, for better and worse. Academe, too, is structured by seasonal recurrences: semesters and breaks, registrations and grading, and the longer cycles of teaching years and sabbatical interludes (if you’re very lucky). The latter are big markers in my memory. 2015-16, when my mother was sick; 2010-11, when a life-changing Fulbright brought us to New Zealand; 2005-6, when I wrote Voicing American Poetry in “Mod Hall,” overflow office space in a decrepit trailer by a stream; and my first leave in 2000-1, when my son was born, my first scholarly book went under contract, and in the long deep breath after achieving tenure, I thought about what I wanted for my liberated writing life. Perhaps I have two sabbaticals left before I retire–again, if I’m lucky.
All of which is to say I’m feeling the cyclicality of time right now just as much as the forward march of my precious writing year and uneasy anticipation about the difficult-to-plan future. I’m more than okay, plenty anxious, glad to be balancing different kinds of writing work, well aware of how spinning plates can unexpectedly crash. Meanwhile, the trees are budding maybe a little earlier than they have before, as the world heats up. It’s freshly amazing how beauty and danger arrive together.
Poets among you maybe be interested in an upcoming virtual conference I’m preparing for, the Poetry and Creative Arts Festival at WCU on April 7-10. $50 for general registration isn’t bad; you also get a free workshop, such as Molly Peacock’s “Snap Sonnets.” I’ll be running a panel on Saturday 4/10 called “Feeling Across Distance” with Lauren Alleyne, Tafisha Edwards, Luisa A. Igloria, and Jane Satterfield, and I’ll post writing prompts from all of them here. Finally, here’s a review I wrote of Tyree Daye’s new collection Cardinal, just published in Harvard Review. I hope to write more reviews for them in future, but not just yet, because I want a slower kind of focus. Perhaps because of a mild March 2020 case of Covid-19 I couldn’t get a test for, I couldn’t smell anything last spring, so I need to make up for lost flower-time.
I finished choosing Shenandoahpoems a couple of weeks ago. It’s such a pleasure to accept work, but there was so much strong poetry that I had to turn down, I could have built another good issue out of what I rejected. Honestly, I agonized so much I wondered if I’m cut out for this. Trying to shake it off, I figured I’d use my decision-sharpened mind to start submitting my own poems again–I’ve been delinquent–but I spent most of this week in a spiral of uncertainty (although family worries also contributed to that). I did finally get poems under consideration in a few places. It took me a ton of revision and reading through old folders, as well as research into markets, to make it happen. I’m freshly aware of the odds against making the cut, so I did a lot of hard thinking about the stakes of each poem, trying to delete or change iffy passages as ruthlessly as I could. And now I won’t know how well I managed it for months!
The Zoom conversation I recently had with Celia Lisset Alvarez and Jen Karetnick therefore felt timely. See here for a recording of “She Persists: Rebounding from Rejection” that includes readings and lots of frank talk about our personal stats. Below are some bonus tracks consisting of their answers to my follow-up questions, plus their bios so you can find out about their many projects. I bolded a few bits that strike me as especially useful and inspiriting. At the very end, look for a few footnotes from me, too.
Having work declined can be pretty dispiriting. What’s your best advice about coping with and rebounding from a no?
JK: There’s no denying that rejections sting. And there’s nothing wrong with feeling bad about them for a moment. After all, we’re poets and writers. We feel; that’s what we do. But then you just have to shake it off and get back to work. If that sounds a little too positive like a Taylor Swift lyric, well, so be it. Dwelling on what hasn’t happened can really keep you from moving forward. My best advice is to allow yourself to be disappointed, then turn around and resubmit elsewhere. A lot of elsewheres. Simultaneously submit widely. I shudder when I read a cover letter that tells us they’re only sending these poems to SWWIM Every Day. Why? We allow simultaneous submissions, and we may not get back to you for 1-2 months. Send them elsewhere, too! There are hundreds of journals waiting for your work. You just need to find the one who wants it. It’s like dating – the right editor is out there, waiting to accept the love that you’re offering.
CLA: It’s important to really believe that at least half the time a rejection has nothing to do with the quality of your work, or you’ll become so discouraged you’ll stop writing, since rejections are way more common than acceptances. When you get a rejection, you need to see it as a task. You must find a better home for whatever has been rejected, understanding that it may take many attempts before you find the right place. Never ever change a piece you feel is good to reflect an editor’s comment or what you might perceive as a comment from a rejection. You have to both be confident in your own skill and open to suggestion. If a piece is getting rejected more than you feel is normal, take another look at it. If you still feel it’s good, don’t change a word. There is always the odd chance, however, that there is some kind of flaw you haven’t seen before. If you catch it, then certainly revise. But that is a pretty rare situation; once you’ve sent something out, it’s usually because you’re sure it’s “done.” Unless, of course, you’re sending sub-par work out, which, as an editor, I know happens. Many of the poems or stories I reject needed just one more sweep before being wonderful. The work happens, or should happen, before you submit, not after.
What have you learned about rejection from working as an editor?
CLA: The most salient lesson is that writers are not doing their homework.* They don’t know a thing about the journal they’re submitting to, and they don’t even follow the submission guidelines. That is the number one reason for rejections. I’ve also realized just how hard it is to find a good piece; the myth of the gigantic “slush pile” full of gold going unnoticed is just that, a myth. Most often I am still in need of some good pieces at the end of the reading period. What that means to the writer half of me is that I shouldn’t be intimidated by the idea of sending work to a prestigious journal. Good work will stand out. It’s what the editor is looking for, what she dreams of finding. Finally, I’ve realized how formulaic writing has become, how many people want to be Walt Whitman or e.e. cummings. Writers need to think more about voice and less about style. A piece has to have weight to it; it can’t be some facile observation about the life/death cycle of nature.**
JK: I’ve learned that our work might be polished, accomplished, even wonderfully written. But it might not be as unique as it needs to be. Because being human is something we all share, there are only so many plots and themes. Every experience you’ve been through, someone else has been through — even the awful ones. Every idea you have, someone else has had — even the greatest ones. The way that you stand out is through your voice. Take a good hard look at your diction and syntax. Are they as original as they can be? Are your images fresh and striking? I can’t even count how many poems we get, even from very well-published poets, that still use adjectives like “beautiful” and “soft” and “sweet.” Too many poets and writers rely on easy abstractions when we’re supposed to be the ones making the world a more specifically observed and fascinating place.
I appreciated this conversation and sensed it could have gone on much longer. Is there anything else you wish you had time to say?
CLA: There was a point where someone asked about sending out collections rather than single pieces. I wish I would have said something of what I learned writing my latest collection, Multiverses. What editors seem to want from collections now more than anything is cohesion, not of style but of content. If you can put together a collection that has a narrative arc to it, you are much more likely to get it published.*** I’ve been shopping around another collection for near twenty years that I still feel is chockfull of wonderful poems, but they don’t build upon one another. On the other hand, Multiverses got picked up the day after I sent it out for the first time. If what you want to publish is a collection, in other words, I think it’s important not just to write good poems, but good stories. Find the architecture of your writing and write the gaps if you can. You are much more likely to be able to publish a collection that way.
Don’t waste time explaining the meanings of your poems in your cover letters unless you’re using a specific form that’s not obvious or it’s pertinent to how the editor will read the work. Don’t offer random details about your life, about how you live on an isolated island in the Caribbean island drinking freshly roasted coffee while you write every morning from 8-10 after a refreshing swim. It’s just not relevant.
Do take time to read the journal’s mission and guidelines, and don’t send if you don’t agree with them. For instance, SWWIM Every Day publishes women, and we have men submitting to us, even men who are aware of our mission statement but say things like “I think you should consider my work anyway.” No. That’s ten minutes of free labor I wasted.****
Also, it’s not personal. If your work is declined, it’s about the work, not you. If it’s accidentally declined twice, it’s because the Internet stuttered and it looked like it didn’t go through, so someone hit the button again. If you get a ghost rejection, well, sometimes Submittable glitches and sometimes a human glitches (there is a way you can decline without sending an email). But more likely it is because responses frequently go to your spam, where they sit for a month and then get erased. If it’s taking too long in your opinion to get an answer, it’s usually because circumstances have intervened; we all have jobs, families, partners, personal lives. Sometimes editors just have too many submissions on their plates and can’t get back to you as promptly as they would like–although I admit that I, too, get angry when a year (or more!) goes by and then I simply get a form rejection or the journal just disappears.
If you’re querying or withdrawing a poem, be sure that you’re using the most direct method. One thing I’ve learned about using the forms on websites is that unless the journal specifically asks that you use them, a lot of journals don’t check those messages. They also tend to stack up on each other in bunches so you can’t see them as individual messages. And no, the “Note” function on Submittable does not send emails to editors! It’s for your personal use. Use the “Messages” function to send a message – that generates an email to the editors. If the “Messages” function isn’t activated, as it sometimes is not, or the journal uses a different system, send an email to the journal.
Finally, as the person responsible for sending out declines (and acceptances), I can tell you it is something I find truly difficult to do, whether or not I know the poet or have published them before. I’m also on the receiving end of declines, so I understand how it feels. Still, that’s all part of being in the literary community and we need to extend each other grace and kindness whenever possible.*****
About Celia and Jen:
Celia Lisset Alvarez is the editor of Prospectus: A Literary Offering. She has three collections of poetry: Shapeshifting (Spire Press 2006), winner of the 2005 Spire Press Poetry Award, The Stones (Finishing Line Press 2006), and Multiverses (Finishing Line Press 2021). Her poems have been anthologized in How to Live on Other Planets: A Handbook for Aspiring Aliens (Upper Rubber Boot Books 2015), Obsession: Sestinas for the 21st Century (Dartmouth UP 2014), and Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books (Minor Arcana Press 2014). She has work forthcoming in the anthologies Poetry Inspired by Cinema (Before Your Quiet Eyes Publishing 2021) and How to Write a Form Poem (T.S. Poetry Press 2021), and in Pensive: A Global Journal of Spirituality and the Arts. She lives in Miami, Florida. You can find her online at celialissetalvarez.com.
Jen Karetnick’s fourth full-length book is The Burning Where Breath Used to Be (David Robert Books, September 2020). She is also the author of Hunger Until It’s Pain (Salmon Poetry, forthcoming spring 2023) in addition to eight other collections. Karetnick has won the Tiferet Writing Contest for Poetry, the Hart Crane Memorial Prize, and the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Prize, among others, and has been an Artist in Residence in the Everglades, a Deering Estate Artist in Residence, and a Maryland Purple Line Transit grant recipient. Co-founder and managing editor of SWWIM Every Day, she has work appearing recently in Barrow Street, The Comstock Review, december, Michigan Quarterly Review, Terrain.org, and elsewhere. Based in Miami, Jen works as a lifestyle journalist and is also the author of four cookbooks, four guidebooks, and more. Find her on Twitter @Kavetchnik and Instagram @JenKaretnick, or see jkaretnick.com.
*This is true for me too, even though it’s also true at Shenandoah that we can ultimately accept only a percentage of the good stuff. Not following the guidelines or understanding what the journal publishes gets you rejected fast. The vast majority of editors do the work as unpaid extra labor on top of day jobs–I do–and as a submitter, I want to convey respect for that. I’d rather an editor feel friendly and read my work carefully before rejecting me. At least, then, my work has found one reader!
**Among a pool of well-crafted poems, what makes a piece stand out for me is often risk. But every editor will have a slightly different answer, I suspect, about what makes them fall in love with a piece.
***How I would put it: the collection might not have a narrative arc, or a slim one, but there’s a story or a web of connected experiences behind all of its poems. Can you say what the book is about in a sentence or two, insufficient as that sentence might be for the nuances the poems deliver? I had Celia’s experience: my first collection, Heathen, was basically all the best poems I’d written to date, and I still think it’s a good book, but I submitted it for 5-6 years before it was taken. My second book, Heterotopia, was about my mother’s childhood in Liverpool during World War II. I submitted it for just a few months before it won a prize.