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.

Boarding around and some valentines

“Barding around” was Frost’s way of describing a poet’s itinerant life, giving readings anywhere and everywhere for your supper. “Boarding around” is the variation on Frost’s phrase that’s been running through my head lately. I’m the chair of the Mid-Atlantic Program Directors’ Caucus for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, which means attending the annual convention is a little like being a minor sub-sub-host of a tremendous, complicated literary party. I’m not at all in charge but I will be helping with various kinds of hospitality, introducing the introducers and cruising the book fair to ask vendors how they’re doing. I’ve also organized a small reception at an alum’s nearby apartment on Friday evening, 6-7:30. Some of our current students will be there (it’s rare for an AWP convention to be so close to my little rural college), as well as alums, professors, and friends. If you’re around and want to sip beverages and nibble food with us, please let me know and I’ll send details.

I’m also delighted to be hanging out at the Poetry by the Sea table in the bookfair on Saturday from 2-3, signing copies of Radioland. I’m going to steal a friend’s idea and donate the money from any sales to the ACLU–$10 per copy or whatever you can afford (cash or check, because I don’t have a swipe thingie, or you can just promise to donate $ later). I hope you’ll stop by and say hello. Also, I hope you’ll buy LOTS of poetry from authors and editors at the bookfair who need the funds more than I do, and maybe even support the AWP with a donation, if you can. Art offers counter-truths that have never been more vital. We really need the cash-strapped organizations that support literature to remain healthy.

Finally, check out the new issue of Talking Writing. I have a couple of poems in there, one of them last year’s science fiction valentine to Chris–I hope you’ll hear the Bowie echo. And I’ll leave you with a view from my Payne Hall window sill, with orchids from a friorchidend. Work has been seriously terrible for the last few months–really, for almost five years. Some welcome news has just mitigated that, and I’m really excited about a search we’re currently running. I feel damaged–talk about gender shrapnel!–but also have hope spring is around the corner, at last. I never would have staggered toward this finish line without the solidarity of many friends, the orchid-giver included, and I’m beyond grateful. Flowers for all of you in my sisterhood of sanity!

W&L Writers Resist

mlk-parade

photograph by Stephanie Wilkinson

The work ahead of us is overwhelming, so how to prioritize? I’m watching my friends make various choices, and I respect all of them. Some have stepped up their political activism and local volunteerism. Others have turned off social media and are writing their hearts out. Still others, feeling their words stolen away, unable even to read the news, are focusing on the small good things they can do for their families and in their jobs and classrooms. What kind of effort counts most? Ask me in twenty years.

But I’m proud of my town, which has not always been the case. Friday was Lee-Jackson Day in Virginia, as in Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, leaders of the Confederacy. (If you’re a puzzled reader from outside the U.S. wondering why my state honors a history of treason and slavery, well, don’t get me started.) Lexington, where both generals are buried, is ground zero for the “flaggers,” so we get swarmed annually by outraged white people in period dress. It is seriously intimidating to walk through a cordon of men in Confederate uniforms, some of them waving battle flags on heavy wooden staffs. Then you reach the corner and your sigh of relief is stifled by the apparition of a group of women in hoop skirts, à la Scarlett O’Hara. I hurried along, feeling sick, resonating with that shock many of us felt at election time: when and where do I live?

Yet Saturday, hundreds of people marched down Main Street waving rainbow flags and images of Martin Luther King, Jr. I was at the Bridgewater Poetry Festival, where I heard several really outstanding–and politically urgent–readings, but my phone was buzzing with heartening pictures like the one above. My kids are in that beautiful crowd.

I’m also proud of my colleagues in English. Many of them marched; Sydney Bufkin labored mightily to help organize the marchers. Like most of our efforts to communicate, a parade is ephemeral, but surely this work matters enormously to many, many people. On to the Women’s March in Washington next weekend, to manifest our resistance in the capital.

The creative writers at Washington and Lee are dazzling me, too, with their efforts to make change real. Ellen Mayock and Chris Gavaler are among the founders of a new activist group, 50 Ways Rockbridge, so in addition to blogging fiercely, Ellen about “gender shrapnel” and Chris about the politics of comics, they’re basically trying to counter-balance the Tea Party with kinder voices and grass-roots power. (At least one national umbrella group for these local energies is emerging, as well: check out Indivisible.) For both of them, this activism has deep connections to their research agendas. I admire this synergy even as I struggle with the problem of where best to spend my writing energies, an issue I blogged about recently for Modernism/ modernity under the title “Scholarship and justice.”

W&L writers are also publishing POEMS of resistance, bless them. Many of my recent efforts have had an incantatory quality, like spells or prayers, so it’s interesting to see other local poets wielding similar strategies. Not that we weren’t writing political poems before–we all were–but I see a strong attempt in recent work to summon all the force words can carry to fight, transform, and heal. See, for example, Deborah Miranda’s “Prayer of Prayers,” dedicated to “The Water Protectors at Standing Rock.” Or, more recently, in Terrain.org’s excellent “Letters to America” series, R.T. Smith raining down curses in “Whirling Disease.”

My own most recently published poetic take on the election appeared last week in the journal Rise Up Review: “Imperfect Ten.” I’d been reading Rattle‘s “Poets Respond” series, especially Barbara Crooker’s “Election Ghazal” and Richard Garcia’s “Canada.” Why ghazals? I wondered, then tried my own. I felt compelled to break a rule of this elegant form–the tradition that each couplet is self-contained–because, as another poet said, something there is that doesn’t love a wall, especially lately. You’ll also see that I was reading about the spike in hate crimes reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center. And, finally, that I was stinking mad. I still am, although starting to try to channel it differently. Rage is important, but you can’t set up house there forever.

P.S.: For a more skeptical picture juxtaposing the MLK marchers against the Lee-Jackson “history and heritage” banner, see my daughter on Instagram. She’s right. I confess to feeling some hope these days, but it’s probably irrational. I have great friends. But this country: still crazy.

 

 

Repress the year, but read the books

Countdowns and confetti: bah humbug. By New Year’s Eve, I’m tired of festivity. Middle age has clearly settled in, because I now regularly find myself closing out the year by binge-reading.

December is always a good month for catching up on The Year’s Big Poetry Books. My university library orders the US National Book Award poetry longlist and the Pulitzer finalists annually, so after grades are in, I rush in to the circulation desk and beg them to finish “processing” my slim volumes. This year I’ve only perused a fraction of them so far. Someone had already checked out Dove’s Collected Poems and while I’m a big fan and have written about her work, I’m letting the anonymous poetry-reader keep it for the moment, with blessings. But I’ve at least glanced at the other finalists and almost everything seems worth attention. While I’ve only read the first few pages of the NBA top selection, Borzutzky’s Performance of Becoming Human, it’s powerful and I will finish it.

The oh-my-god discovery in this stack, however, was Diane Seuss’s Four-Legged Girl. What a fierce, smart, funny book! An old lesson affirmed: read the finalists, Lesley. I always respect the winners but fall madly in love with a runner-up.

4-legged

Four-legged girls

Also worth noting: my favorite chapbook was Elizabeth Savage’s Parallax, but the chaps listed below by Janet McAdams, Carrie Etter, Natalie Diaz, and Rosemary Starace are also terrific(Is there a best-annual chapbook post-publication prize? There should be.) For YA poetry, although it doesn’t need to be characterized that way: Marilyn Nelson’s American Ace. Among the books I read for Kenyon Review micros were several charmers, but Ned Balbo’s Upcycling Paumanok impressed me as especially ambitious, crafty, and big-hearted. Books I read for various reasons and liked so much I put them on syllabi include Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Field Guide to the End of the World, Susan Briante’s The Market Wonders, Erika Meitner’s Copia, and Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds.

Other genres: I’m finishing Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad right now and am totally dazzled. I was also delighted to discover, a little belatedly, Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being and N. K. Jemisin’s sf. But all the novels I read this year were good, with the likely exception of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, of which I cannot remember one scene. My book-length nonfiction reading was more uneven–a few brilliant tomes, a couple of weak choices–but I hope to do better in 2017.

And on that note, I would REALLY like to catch up with NZ poetry this year–I’m appalled to see not one item here from a country I remain so in love with. Please put the word out I’d be happy to get review copies, print or electronic, for my micro-review gig at Kenyon Review Online. I probably won’t lose 10 pounds or exercise more, but sit around with cups of tea and new poetry collections? THAT’s a resolution I can uphold.

Best wishes for everyone to thrive in the new year, except the orange man, upon whom I wish shame, frustration, and disaster.

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/? Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds* (multiple good reviews)

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)

7/18 Dietrich and Ferguson, eds., Drawn to Marvel (reread for class planning)

7/21 Thompson, The Myth of Water* (review)

7/30 Carlson, Symphony No. 2 (review)

8/2 Paschen, Infidelities (AWP board member)

8/30 Baca, Selected Poems (class prep—coming to campus)

9/2 Wood, Weaving the Boundary* (regional author I’ve heard at readings)

9/24 Rackin, The Forever Notes (met at reading)

9/24 Campbell, Dixmont (met at reading)

9/30 Eliot, Prufrock and Other Observations (for class)

10/8 Miller, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (friend’s recommendation)

10/8 Briante, The Market Wonders* (future campus visitor)

10/10 H.D. Sea Garden (for class)

10/22 Savage, Parallax* (by a friend)

10/24 Eliot, The Waste Land (for class)

11/? Hughes, Montage of a Dream Deferred (for class)

11/? Gailey, Field Guide to the End of the World* (for class)

11/? Anderson, Stain (to blurb)

12/16 Diaz, The Hand Has Twenty-Seven Bones (follow her work)

12/16 Balakian, Ozone Journal (Pulitzer winner)

12/22 Sharif, Look (NBA finalist)

12/28 Seuss, Four-Legged Girl* (Pulitzer finalist)

12/31 Gizzi, Archaeophonics* (NBA finalist)

 

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)

7/16 Hoffman, The River King (friend’s recommendation)

7/28 Brodie, Adulterer’s Club (unpublished, to comment on ms)

7/31 Kohrner-Stace, Archivist Wasp (interest in Small Beer Press)

7/31 Thorne & Tiffany, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child* (couldn’t help it)

8/8 Walton, Necessity* (favorite author)

8/20 Nguyen, The Sympathizer (dual Pulitzer/ Edgar wins intrigued me)

8/27 Millet, Sweet Lamb of Heaven (recommended by friend)

9/10 Morganstern, The Night Circus (recommended by friend)

9/28 Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate* (sequel I was waiting for)

11/? Willis, Crosstalk (author I follow)

12/14 Jones, Mongrels* (recommended by a friend)    

 

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)

7/25 Mayock, Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace (by friend and colleague)

7/27 Culler, Very Short Introduction to Literary Theory (course prep)

8/10 Biss, On Immunity (widely recommended)

9/1 Gay, Bad Feminist (audiobook, widely recommended)

9/30 Shumer, Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo* (audiobook, whiling away a car trip)

10/29 Meehan, Imaginary Bonnets with Real Bees in them* (poet I research)

12/24 Connors, Milkweed Matters * (writer is a friend)

12/31 Greene, Time’s Unfading Garden (research)

*2016 publication or pretty damn close

 

Reasons to be cheerful, part 4

We’re supposed to be cheery in late December, right? Ho ho ho.

I’ve been having a rough time, for reasons I can’t write about at the moment. But like H.D., when times are bad, I eat my way through it. This can be literally true: hello, Christmas pudding! But I also mean that I chew through piles of work. Writing and reading are never more important to me than when I’m feeling down and powerless. I can’t always work on the stuff I’m supposed to–my focus is more fragile–and I can hardly talk to other people, sometimes, even the kind people who don’t run in the opposite direction after a glimpse of me glowering. (Most people run, the cowards.) But I do hunker down, and this slow desperate doggedness adds up, and eventually some work bears fruit. A reference letter helps someone win a fellowship. An essay builds, paragraph by paragraph.

There are worse ways to cope than hypergraphia, I guess, even when it means isolated days of typing in pajamas.

Out of heaps of fermenting crap, small good things grow. And here I sit in that stinky paradox, feeling lucky and, alternately, choked by fumes. Ho ho cough cough.

The most surprising small good thing this December: my poetry chapbook Propagation, a fable in which a middle-aged woman in crisis enters the woods and weirdness ensues, was just accepted by Dancing Girl Press for publication in October 2017. I first drafted it in April 2014, writing a poem per day for thirty days, using Vladimir Propp’s 31 functions of the folk tale as prompts (I dropped one function and I’m not sorry). It took me a while to revise, obviously–long poems are complicated creatures. But now my protagonist gets a genuinely happy ending.

Other mss I completed last year are still gestating, but I’m receiving supportive notes and friendly feedback. This is rare, and lucky.

Additional amazements: for all the rejections I’ve received this year, and there have been a boatload, an oil tanker load, a number of generous editors have helped deliver my work to the world. Since summer, poems have appeared in Fjords, National Poetry Review, Thrush (that’s the first poem from Propagation), Tahoma Literary Review, and Queen of Cups. I’m also delighted to have a poem in the outstanding anthology edited by Jane Satterfield and Laurie Kruk, Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland. Next year will bring an essay in Crab Orchard Review and more poems in journals. Again, I labored hard to make those pieces and keep them in circulation–I’m not saying I didn’t earn a few laurel leaves. But I am also lucky.

I’ll post sometime around the new year about some terrific books I’ve been reading. The good company of dead or distant writers sustains me always. But it also feels urgently necessary to express gratitude for the friends and family near and far who keep checking in on me and cheering me on. Their persistence is the primary reason to be cheerful. Bless them, and bless leftover Christmas pudding, and bless Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and bless the antisocial hours I can spend revising mss over pots of tea.

And, finally, thanks to anyone whose reads this far. I hope, most sincerely, that whatever kind of holiday you’re laboring to create for yourself and loved ones, it bears surprising fruit, and it doesn’t stink.

 

 

Tough Guide to the Field Guide to the End of the World

field-guide-gaileyJust a postcard here from the end of a very tough term–a cheery note from amid the ruins to show off some good work my students just completed. The last book my composition class read was Jeannine Hall Gailey’s excellent new collection, Field Guide to the End of the World. For a final writing assignment after a series of more conventional persuasive essays, my students had the option of writing another essay, OR writing speculative fiction or poetry based on our readings, OR participating in a weirder project. Imagine, I told the intrepid explorers who chose the third path, that Gailey’s End of the World is a real place. Create a web-based travel guide for tourists wishing to visit it, mining the poems for clues about its character.

As we geared up, Gailey Skyped into my class to chat and answer questions, handling some apocalyptic technical glitches, ALL on our end, like a pro. Lonely planet writer and W&L alum Amy Balfour visited in person to talk about going on assignment and constructing punchy, economical descriptions full of revelatory details. We scoured guide books, noting their stylistic tics, and were trained in WordPress by W&L’s Senior Academic Technologist Brandon Bucy.

Here is the mock-travel-website seven students created. I think it’s hilarious, but more so if you read Gailey’s book, which you totally should (sample poems here, for starters). And according to the reflective essays students submitted yesterday, they had more fun with it than seems quite proper for a composition course. (And here, for comparison, is the travel guide to Gaileyland students from an earlier course created, based on Jeannine’s first collection, Becoming the Villainess. Her books have a combination of light, darkness, and just plain weirdness that makes them a really good fit for this world-building assignment.)

May all your grading be this entertaining. And if it’s not, rethink those syllabi for next term. These students, after all, stretched their writing skills significantly and came to know a book of poetry really deeply. As long as everyone’s working hard, why shouldn’t the end-times be fun?

writ-100

Writ 100 students conferring, and a blackboard in Early Fielding full of topic ideas

Don’t read this if you’re focusing on gratitude

As I slice sweet potatoes and cube challah bread for stuffing, I’m feeling not grateful or festive but sick at heart about two things: the injustice at Standing Rock, and what this election is going to mean for my children’s generation. I am fortunate to have my daughter home from college and a visiting cousin to cook for and a warm house full of food, and I think people absolutely need and deserve those consolations between the political storms, but this year, a sense of peace is just not something I can conjure with cups of tea and wedges of apple pie.

“And as the numbers came in on election night I watched him head to his room, his head down, his shoulders curving into his chest…he was slowly beginning to understand new truths: that the people who love you cannot always protect you, that unkindness can be a platform for the presidency.”

That’s Jacqueline Woodson writing about her 8 year old son for the New York Times. Over the last two weeks, as I’ve struggled with my own feelings, I’ve also been watching understanding sweep over the children and young people I know. The Wednesday morning after the election, my phone lit up with texts from friends, telling me their daughters were sobbing uncontrollably. Lots of kids are now worried that they, or their friends, or their parents will get deported or suffer violence. Sometimes they just feel humiliated–here is proof that half the whole country thinks less of them because of their gender or the color of their skin. I don’t know how to name what my own 16-year-old white son seems to be feeling–fury at systemic injustices, certainly, but mixed with a kind of crushed shame. And of course, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has been reporting, hate crimes are up, a high proportion of them in schools. Fear and shame are appropriate reactions, much as I hate to see them in children and teenagers. Most of the young people I know want to believe in justice and want to be good, although those impulses seem to burn out for many by full adulthood.

Kids who can’t remember much about pre-Obama politics are now seeing the backlash, or, as Larry Wilmore put it, the “Blacklash.” They’re only now realizing how impenetrable that glass ceiling for women still remains. They need to know these truths, but it’s still beyond awful to watch them learn it.

And while I’ve always loved Thanksgiving–at least the version of it without my father, who was usually filled with right-wing rage at this time of year–the holiday itself is basically Fake Racial Unity Day, a whitewashing of genocidal histories. The traditional narrative of cooperation is especially unconsoling given the current brutal fight over oil rights on Sioux land in North Dakota. Water cannons. Protest met by police violence. Looks a lot like a Civil Rights struggle but national media outlets are barely touching it. Where is my president now? If even President Obama has his head in the sand–or is unwilling to speak out against big oil–well, is there anything we can be proud of our country for anymore?

Told you not to read this. Because I do believe, however, most wholeheartedly, in dessert, I’ll leave you with a scrap of a David Remnick article. Remnick asked the president what he told his own daughters about the election, and this was the reply–sane and yet inspiring, a feat Obama seems to manage improbably often:

“What I say to them is that people are complicated…This is not mathematics; this is biology and chemistry. These are living organisms, and it’s messy. And your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding. And you should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be inside you and you have to vanquish. And it doesn’t stop…You don’t get into a fetal position about it. You don’t start worrying about apocalypse. You say, O.K., where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward.”

He’s a good man. I’ll raise my untrusting, ungrateful glass tonight to the hope that at Standing Rock, he’ll follow his own advice.

 

 

Battles lost

awp-sunset

I’ve always had the sense that people looked at me skeptically when I characterize my life as damaged by sexism. I’m a US-born person of European descent who never had to go hungry. I obtained a good education, was legally able to marry the person I love, and now earn a respectable living. How bad can it be?

Yet I’ve also been discriminated against, groped, and raped. I’ve done work I’m proud of despite the constant battery–I’ve fought hard, that is, to prove myself, even as others hurt or just underestimated me–but those achievements are often disparaged or overlooked. The message: as a woman, I am less than a full person; I don’t have rights over my body; I can’t be trusted to lead. And now roughly half the voting adults in my country have confirmed that message by electing a woman-despising groper to the presidency.

Yes, I’m taking this election personally. It is personal. As I write, at dawn, my phone is buzzing with misery. Downstairs, my son and husband are choked up and slamming around. I feel terrible for my brilliant feminist children, and for my students, even though some of the latter surely voted for our criminal president-elect. They’ll have to live with the repercussions longer than I will, and who knows what the world is in for?

At the top of this post is a sunset picture I took a few days ago in Tampa from the River Walk. I was in town for an AWP board meeting, trying to serve an underfunded organization that serves writers mightily, but I was also just aching from a brutal week at work, so I thought, well, I should take care of myself, by spending a couple of hours walking, looking, breathing. It felt good. Tampa is going to be a great site for the AWP conference in 2018–how awesome will it be to duck out of the convention center between terrific readings and walk along the water in balmy weather? I was, in short, tired and worried but also optimistic. I thought, well, there’s a lot of poison at my college and everywhere else, but I know an awful lot of good people who are working to clear it out. That’s auspicious, right?

I guess it still is. The same good people–like the AWP staffers who left the Gwendolyn Brooks quote below at my place setting–will keep battling to make the world better, one word at a time. And this morning’s news certainly clarifies my work as a writer and teacher.

I don’t feel safe, but now it seems even more vital to voice that persistent truth. I don’t know how I’ll be handling all this in my classes today, but I will convey that I like and respect all of my students and hope to help them thrive. That is, I’ll make safety, or try to, while, somehow, we live in the along.

awp-card

Ligeia’s fleas

fem-eyesThe following fragment was received telepathically from our feline boarder Poe on October 27th, Black Cat Day, about a month after my mother-in-law’s cat joined the household.

I cannot, for my soul, remember how or when I became aware of Female’s* residence in the empty bedroom. Or, perhaps, I cannot now bring these points to mind, because, in truth, the character of my beloved, the singular way her belly sways as she waddles on toothpick legs, and the thrilling eloquence of her quacks and growls, made their way into my heart by paces so steadily and stealthily progressive.

There is one dear topic, however, on which wit fails me not. It is the alluring beauty of Female. In stature she is tiny, although astonishingly rotund and possessive of the kibble upon which I had heretofore made solitary repast. I would in vain attempt to portray the majesty, the supreme crankiness, of her demeanor, or the incomprehensible thumping of her footfall. She comes and departs as a cannonball. Her loveliness is the radiance of a catnip-dream. Yet her features are not of that regular mould which we have been falsely taught to worship. “There is no exquisite beauty,” says Bacon, Lord Verulam, without some strangeness in the proportion.” Yet, although I see that the features of Ligeia–I mean Female–are not of a classic regularity –I have tried in vain to detect the irregularity and to trace home my own perception of “the strange.” I examine the contour of the short fuzzy forehead –faultless. I regard the whiskers, ivory and sable–her bared teeth glancing back, with a brilliancy almost startling, every ray that emanates from the reading lamp. And then I peer into the large eyes of Female.

They are, I must believe, far larger than the ordinary eyes of Felis catus. They are even fuller than the unnaturally azure eyes of the newborn Florida panther. The hue of the orbs is the most brilliant bronze, foxed with brown spots. The “strangeness,” however, must be referred to the expression. The expression of the eyes of Female! How for long hours have I struggled to fathom it! Those eyes! those large, those shining, those divine orbs! they became to me ominous meteors, and I to them devoutest of astrologers.

The uneasiness of that expression transferred itself to me until my own shaggy mane itched. And too, too slowly, understanding dawned. The obsessive scratching and rolling on Indian carpets–the chemical stink she bore home from a mysterious expedition by automobile–the humans’ alarm and fussing with sprays and tinctures–my beloved’s moon-white dandruff and the rare irritability of her temper–Female has a persistent case of fleas. And yet, helplessly drawn, I continue to stalk her during her restless wanderings, scrambling from piano to coffee table to evade her claws, scratching in devoted mimicry, until naptime doth us part.

Fin

*Female rhymes with Emily. The reason my mother-in-law thought this name funny remains shrouded in impenetrable mists. The reason I thought transcribing this tale a wise use of time, while stacks of grading loom, also remains veiled, except that this dare from Shenandoah worries me like a parasite. And I am beside myself with distress about some sex-based bullying at work, which I spoke up against, then the Title IX officer launched a formal investigation of the perpetrator which is proceeding whether or not I help, so I’m helping, without hope of a good resolution, because my university will protect its own legal interests, as it always has, counting on me to remain better-behaved than the bully, or at least not counting my avoidance of meetings and general stress and alienation as a significant cost–anyway, I’m writing Poe tales to escape the fact that I’m living one, sleepless and upset all the time, which is maybe what Poe himself did too, come to think of it. It’s uncanny, too, to watch a larger and more noxious version of it all play out on a national stage, and I don’t think I’m an unreliable narrator projecting my sense of endangeredness onto the political weather. I really, really wish I could just work and help other people work, and all of us could thrive according to our will and talents, but I suppose such a paradise has never existed, for most of us. Consider this post the unfathomable expression in a female’s eyes.

At any rate, some work of a few months back rises from the dead: my latest Kenyon Review micro-review is up, this time of Jon Tribble’s new book. A review of the new Millay edition appears in American Literary History (scroll down). 

Finally, Happy Halloween, with thanks to the friends who are pulling me through the madness somehow. Safety, justice, and chocolate to all.

 

More on Diversity in Creative Writing Programs (updated 11/3/16)

Last March, I published this list of resources addressing how to make Creative Writing programs more inclusive at the programming and curricular level. Since then, good things have happened. David Haynes has formed an AWP Committee on Inclusion for which I’m serving as librarian, until a list of resources can be posted on the AWP web site itself. Here’s a revision including updates from David. Please comment or contact me if you have further suggestions–I’d love to see it grow. As I wrote at the close of my March blog, this list emphasizes race and ethnicity–subjects on which hard work remains to be done–but we also have to keep talking about sexuality and gender, disability, and the economics of higher education. Students face many invisible impediments while seeking degrees, and too many talented people never get a chance to learn and thrive.

  • Online essays about race, culture, diversity, and the creative writing MFA:

“Why I’m Done Talking About Diversity” by Marlon James, Literary Hub, October 2016

In Our Way: Racism in Creative Writing” by Claudia Rankine, Writer’s Chronicle, October 2016

Ferguson, Whiteness as Default, & the Teaching of Creative Writing” by David Mura, Writer’s Chronicle, October 2016

“Addressing Structural Racism in Creative Writing Programs” by Kazim Ali, Writer’s Chronicle online, October 2016

“Towards a New Creative Writing Pedagogy” by Fred D’Aguiar, Writer’s Chronicle, October 2016

“Challenging the Whiteness of MFA Programs: A Year of Confrontations at UW” by Kristine Sloan, The MFA Years, April 2016

“Degrees of Diversity: Talking Race and Diversity” by Sonya Larson, Poets & Writers, September/ October 2015

“Dr. Craig’s 11-Step Program to Curing ‘Mainly White MFA’ Sickness” by Craig Santos Perez, October 2015

“They Pretend to Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist” by Jenny Zhang, Buzzfeed Books, September 2015

“Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK” by Sandeep Parmar, Los Angeles Review of Books, December 2015, https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/not-a-british-subject-race-and-poetry-in-the-uk/

“If We Want Diverse Books, We Need Diverse MFA Programs” by Hope Wabuke, The Root, September 2014

“MFA vs POC” by Junot Díaz, New Yorker, April 2014

“It felt like a door had opened: An Interview with Cornelius Eady” by Joshua Barnes,Sampsonia Way, June 2011

“Growing Diversity in Graduate School” by Rochelle Spencer, Poets & Writers Nov/Dec 2007, p.77-82.

Also see an excellent list of additional pieces collected by Erika Meitner and Sarah Gambito: https://muut.com/raceandmfa/. David Fenza’s PowerPoint on race in education will also be of interest: educational-attainment-2015.

  • On craft and inclusion

“‘PURE CRAFT” IS A LIE’ by Matt Salesses: http://www.pleiadesmag.com/pure-craft-is-a-lie-part-1/  and http://www.pleiadesmag.com/pure-craft-is-a-lie-part-3/

Can Black Art Ever Escape the Politics of Race? http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/20/magazine/can-black-art-ever-escape-the-politics-of-race.html

“Why write a novel about a race that’s not your own? The case of ‘Ginny Gall’” https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/why-write-a-novel-about-a-race-thats-not-your-own-the-case-of-ginny-gall/2016/02/02/ce329aa8-c51e-11e5-8965-0607e0e265ce_story.html

  • Reading race

“White bro reading: Yes, I’m reading men and women equally — but they’re still mostly white”: http://www.salon.com/2016/01/10/white_bro_reading_yes_im_reading_men_and_women_equally_but_theyre_still_mostly_white/

Fighting “Erasure” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/07/magazine/the-painful-consequences-of-erasure.html

GrubStreet’s “What An Author Looks Like: On Race & Writing” Series, featuring Brando Skyhorse, Aminatta Forna, Mia Alvar, Celeste Ng, and many others: https://grubstreet.org/blog/column/what-an-author-looks-like

Toni Morrison. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.

  • On teaching and inclusion

GrubStreet podcast: What Makes a Good Workshop Citizen: https://grubstreet.org/blog/column/sound-skeins

Report from the Field: Gone from My Heart: Violence and Anger in the Poetry Workshop: http://www.vidaweb.org/report-from-the-field-gone-from-my-heart-violence-and-anger-in-the-poetry-workshop/

We Need A Decolonized, Not A “Diverse”, Education: http://harlot.media/articles/1058/we-need-a-decolonized-not-a-diverse-education

Matt Salesses, “WHO’S AT THE CENTER OF WORKSHOP AND WHO SHOULD BE?” http://www.pleiadesmag.com/whos-at-the-center-of-workshop-and-who-should-be-part-4/

Writing Culture Has An Ableism Problem: http://www.ravishly.com/2016/06/14/writing-culture-has-ableism-problem

  • On literary climate

Marlon James: Why I’m Done Talking About Diversity: http://lithub.com/marlon-james-why-im-done-talking-about-diversity/

Claudia Rankine: Why I’m spending $625,000 to study whiteness: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/19/claudia-rankine-macarthur-genius-grant-exploring-whiteness?CMP=share_btn_fb

GrubStreet’s “Writing & Publishing As a Person of Color” Series, featuring prominent authors, agents, and editors of color: https://grubstreet.org/blog/column/writing-publishing-as-a-person-of-color

GrubStreet’s “Writers React” Series: https://grubstreet.org/blog/column/writers-react

Video: GrubStreet’s Writers of Color Roundtable 2016: https://vimeo.com/174363941

Write-up of GrubStreet’s Writers of Color Roundtable 2016 in LitHub: http://lithub.com/at-the-grub-street-writers-of-color-roundtable/

  • On publishing

“You Will Be Tokenized”: Speaking Out about the State of Diversity in Publishing | Brooklyn Magazine: http://www.bkmag.com/2016/02/24/you-will-be-tokenized-speaking-out-about-the-state-of-diversity-in-publishing/

How Chris Jackson Is Building a Black Literary Movement http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/07/magazine/how-chris-jackson-is-building-a-black-literary-movement.html?_r=0

“We’ve Been Out Here Working”: Diversity in Publishing, a Partial Reading List | Brooklyn Magazine: http://www.bkmag.com/2016/02/24/weve-been-out-here-working-diversity-in-publishing-a-partial-reading-list/

“Bare Lit Festival, for Minority Writers, to Make Debut in London”: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/02/24/bare-lit-festival-for-minority-writers-to-make-debut-in-london/?smid=fb-share

The PW Publishing Industry Salary Survey, 2016 http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/71506-the-pw-publishing-industry-salary-survey-2016.html

Why Publishing Is So White http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/69653-why-publishing-is-so-white.html?utm_source=Publishers+Weekly&utm_campaign=1473a2bb65-UA-15906914-1&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0bb2959cbb-1473a2bb65-304652261

Where Is the Diversity in Publishing? The 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey Results http://blog.leeandlow.com/2016/01/26/where-is-the-diversity-in-publishing-the-2015-diversity-baseline-survey-results/

  • On Lionel Shriver’s speech

Lionel Shriver’s full speech: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/lionel-shrivers-full-speech-i-hope-the-concept-of-cultural-appropriation-is-a-passing-fad

Festival keynote attendee Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s response here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/10/as-lionel-shriver-made-light-of-identity-i-had-no-choice-but-to-walk-out-on-her

Festival organizer Rod Nordland’s New York Times coverage  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/books/lionel-shriver-cultural-appropriation-brisbane-writers-festival.html?module=WatchingPortal®ion=c-column-middle-span-region&pgType=Homepage&action=click&mediaId=thumb_square&state=standard&contentPlacement=3&version=internal&contentCollection=www.nytimes.com&contentId=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2F2016%2F09%2F13%2Fbooks%2Flionel-shriver-cultural-appropriation-brisbane-writers-festival.html&eventName=Watching-article-click&_r=1

Lionel Shriver’s response to the backlash: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/23/opinion/will-the-left-survive-the-millennials.html?comments#permid=19896530

Sonya Larson’s NYT chosen response to Shriver’s op-ed: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/23/opinion/will-the-left-survive-the-millennials.html?comments#permid=19896530

Kaitlyn Greenidge’s breaks down “Who Gets to Write What”: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/25/opinion/sunday/who-gets-to-write-what.html

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s LA Times piece, “Cultural appropriation: It’s about more than pho and sombreros,” here: http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-appropriation-culture-20160926-snap-story.html

What Are White Writers For? https://newrepublic.com/article/137338/white-writers-for

  •  Other resources on building and nurturing creative writing programs (advocating for multiculturalism but not exploring the issues at length):

AWP Guidelines and Hallmarks: https://www.awpwriter.org/guide/hallmarks_quality

“Policies and Practicalities: Examining the Creative Writing Doctorate” by Kroll, Jeri and Webb, Jen. New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing9.2(2012 July): 166-178.

  • On diversity in higher education (with some relevance to academic creative writing):

Tiffany Martínez, “Academia, Love Me Back”

Lisa M. Stulberg and Sharon Lawner Weinberg, eds. Diversity in American higher education: toward a more comprehensive approach. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Darrell Cleveland, ed. When “minorities are strongly encouraged to apply”: diversity and affirmative action in higher education. New York: Peter Lang, 2009.

TuSmith, Bonnie and Reddy, Maureen T., eds. Race in the College Classroom: Pedagogy and Politics. New Brunswick, NJ,  Rutgers UP,  2002.

  • History/ background of creative writing as a discipline:

Paul Dawson, Creative Writing and the New Humanities, New York: Routledge, 2005.

Tim Mayers, (Re)Writing craft : composition, creative writing, and the future of English studies. U of Pittsburgh P, 2005.

D. G. Myers. The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996.

 

Political poem

Credit

Put that on Lesley’s tab, jokes the mayoral candidate
on line in front of me at the supermarket, waking
me from daydreams about a free-range chicken
roasting at home, good bread and arugula. I laugh,
ask if he’ll be watching—his own debate is soon.
We exchange words, each coin stamped with accord
about the world and passed back warm, until he
wheels off. My turn. My soon-to-be chardonnay
and garnacha, six bottles for the discount. The cashier
surprises me, too. Who do you think is going to win?
Temporize: The town hall tonight? He pauses to key
in cilantro. Sure. My mother taught me good manners,
meaning no religion, no politics, meaning smile,
meaning make people comfortable, never hungry,
never ashamed. My books taught me to speak up,
that one person’s comfort is costly to someone else.
And isn’t civil silence also disrespect? So I answer,
Well, I keep waiting for Trump to cancel it, he’s had such
a bad weekend. Slow and calm, moving granola bars
across the scanner, a substantial man, he returns,
I don’t think so. Now we are both trapped in a relation
that serves neither. Troubled, perhaps he’ll be in
trouble with his manager, anyone could hear us.
This worry gnaws me, but other teeth sink sharper
and I insist, He said such terrible things. The cashier,
to his credit, does not shrug. All men talk like that,
he insists, all men but God, and next I know I’m
defending men, not all, I know men who are shocked,
as if men need my comfort, and perhaps John sees me
then filmed by a bubble of womanly innocence,
the soap sheen reflecting protective dollar signs while
also mirroring with distortion his own face. Kroger card?
he asks and sorry, sorry, I answer, dictating my digits,
inserting a silver card in the chip reader, paying
with imaginary money for actual food, wondering
which of us ought to be kinder, knowing his feet
must hurt, his hands look raw, but feeling like dirt,
like a pussy to use Trump’s word, to be grabbed or
judged not even worth grabbing, disgusting forked
breastfeeding bleeding holder of unwelcome opinions
as I take my wealthy self back to a job where I serve
women and men who at least pretend to value me,
although I don’t pretend to know what that’s worth.