I write my way out of it

One of my talisman poems is section 6 from H.D.’s “The Walls Do Not Fall.” The poet imagines herself as a worm, emblem of lowly persistence, among mist-jeweled grass blades. Her mantra: “I profit/ by every calamity;/ I eat my way out of it.” The calamity for H.D. was living in London during the Blitz.

The apocalyptic trilogy of my summer 2012 is on a much smaller scale: the death of my father; workplace disaster (more to come on that subject); and, just for fun, that derecho last weekend tearing open a beautiful four-story maple and dumping half on our roof and porch. Damage from the latter wasn’t terrible, but I’ve already had enough of insurance, repairs, and power outages. And the dark green canopy I once faced from my desk is stripped away in favor of a long, jagged wound of pale wood.

So, yes, I’ve been eating my way through psychic debris—that’s a family tradition. Wheelers don’t waste away from anxiety and grief; we gird our loins against it with peach pie. But so far, I’m also having a good writing summer. Some of the pages I’m churning out are just letters, though I’m enjoying even the promotion reviews. I just wrote a supporting document for a project to digitize Columbia’s modernist-era audio holdings: some of those strange metal disks can only be played from the inside out, or by the application of a cactus needle to the grooves! I’m drafting poems, revising slightly fermented ones, and working on essays. I expected to descend into brain fog, but I’m not. Writing is consoling me. It reminds me of what I care about, what I’m good at, what I have some modicum of control over.

I also just finished the galleys for The Receptionist and Other Tales, my forthcoming speculative feminist academic novella in terza rima. This stage involved a little re-writing but mostly careful reading, with the help of wonderful Aqueduct editor Kath Wilham: are the italics and capitalization consistent? How often may I use the word “moron”?

Drafting “The Receptionist,” though, was an act of survival. I was a new department head, never an easy gig, but a few factors made it harder—bureaucracy ramped up sharply in those years and many systems needed reinvention. Easily the worst aspect of the job, though, was having a lousy relationship with the dean, a person I wanted to look to for strategic advice and moral support. I was a friend of his predecessor, a woman treated badly by university administration, and while I wrote to him immediately that I in no way held him responsible for that debacle and looked forward to working with him, he clearly didn’t like me for having objected to those events. The years immediately following his arrival were also terrible for women on this campus and this time he was partly responsible. He had inherited an associate dean from his precursor, another smart and industrious woman, and I watched him undercut her at meetings, listened to her accounts of physical intimidation, and tried to be her ally when he nudged her out of the position before her term was up. I saw him put his arm around other female professors and staff and watched them shrink back. I talked to colleagues from various departments who felt impotently furious about his ominous or badgering notes. He spoke to people in derogatory ways more often than any administrator I have ever worked with. A lot of these incidents were trivial, in isolation. Further, I’m not saying everything this dean touched was poison; he actually gave me better raises than other deans, and even the new red tape isn’t all bad. Better bureaucracy than back-room deals. And some people worked well with him, a few of them women. He was sometimes pleasant, even to me.

Even having received so many anguished confidences about this dean’s behavior, I was still somehow shocked to be on the receiving end as chair. I would be chastised for missing reports handed in weeks earlier (organization was not his strong suit), or told I was in the wrong in a conflict before he learned the details. The dean seemed to be scanning for weaknesses to pounce on while my achievements were invisible. Then, during a tenure and promotions meeting, when I was making a point he disagreed with, he started poking me under the table, jabbing me in the arm. I wish I’d yelled, “Stop touching me!” Instead, I shut up, pulled back. You know the story. I told his supervisor, the provost. She said no one had ever complained about such behavior from him before, and I wouldn’t want her to fire the guy for that, would I?

So, I invented a campus and a set of oddball academics. The main character, an administrative assistant and mother of two young boys, is obsessed with fantasy tropes, so when the dean at her campus commits some very different kinds of malfeasance (the kind you do get fired for), she starts thinking of him as the Dark Lord and wondering if she can be a Hero. On Tuesdays and Thursday mornings, I stayed home until I’d drafted a canto and mapped out the next; around ten o’clock I’d head in to triage demoralizing emails. The craziness of the project, a brilliant secret joke, sustained me until I could create a buffer against toxic interactions by becoming an ordinary professor again.

In early June, about a week after my father died, one of those real-life time-for-a-change-of-leadership emails came through. The dean would be relieved of his responsibilities as of July 1 and join my department (he was a literature professor elsewhere before he began deaning around). It’s like a big storm that clears the air but leaves a hunk of deadwood on your house.

So how do I write my way out of it? I’m working on it.

Dead Father Poems

The best condolence note so far was an offer from a former student who grew up in New Orleans: “Let me know and I’ll put the voodoo on her.” It came with an anecdote about an effective curse on a scheming widow. Her jinxed swimming pool cracked as if buckling under an invisible burden of guilt. This is one good outcome of teaching poets. They rarely make the dough to create scholarships in your name or loan you their tropical islands for vacations, but they do know just what to say.

A few notes from the last few weeks:

  • Please don’t be disappointed in me but I did not read a poem at my father’s funeral. It was a brief military service at Washington Crossing National Cemetery, involving a small but very mixed crowd: my brother, sister and brother-in-law; my spouse; my kids and their cousins, ranging in age from five to sixteen; my father’s most recent wife, a woman my age who had served him divorce papers in hospital a week before he died; a few of her friends and relations; and a couple of people from the senior center where my father played bridge and began an affair with his widow-to-be. I knew I would be the only speaker and decided I just needed to say a few true things plainly.
  • Writing a eulogy is appallingly like writing a blog post. You have a limited window of composition, although you may have been mulling over the material for years (I basically had a day); it has to be pithy; it’s an ephemeral piece but you know if you screw it up those mistakes could dog you for a long time. This means you choose a theme, pound it out, revise once, put your dress on, and blurt. The audience is as blank-faced as the ether but afterwards a few post comments or hit the “like” button.
  • My words were sort of literary. I spoke about our afterlives in the tales others tell about us. A storytelling motif seemed appropriate, given that I’m a poet, my dad was not honest, and neither of us feels/felt certain about any other kind of heaven. It allowed me to tell a factual story about his life, bringing in memories of other family members, acknowledging the bad while honoring the good. That’s what I tried for, anyway.
  • Of course I was THINKING about poems, two in particular, both of them monuments. Lines from Sylvia Plath’s “The Colossus” kept rising before my eyes, with a vision of a tiny woman sitting on scaffolding, scrubbing down a giant statue of her father with pails of Lysol: “I shall never get you put together entirely… Thirty years now I have labored/ To dredge the silt from your throat./ I am none the wiser.”
  • And, of course, there’s Dylan Thomas. I told a poet-friend months ago about the dissolution of my parents’ marriage and she replied, “Talk about ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’!” Just days before the funeral I was talking to someone else about villanelles and she agreed that, perfect as it is, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” seems stupider in its basic sentiment the older one gets. I am now trying to write a villanelle containing the phrase “Enough with rage.” I have low hopes for it but need to give my two cents to Mr. Thomas. (It makes no sense that while I believe my father can’t hear me, I CAN talk to dead poets. I’m entitled to irrationality for the time being, right?)
  • Did you know that poets.org has a mini-anthology of “Dead Father Poems”? Go to the “Do Not Go Gentle” page and look left. Scott Hightower’s “The Father” is pretty great.
  • This post sounds flippant, I’m guessing, and angry; to use Thomas’ language, there’s more cursing than blessing. I am angry at my father’s widow, who behaved badly at the funeral. Letting us see the will without a legal injunction shouldn’t be too much to ask, and she should have directed the flag and condolences to his children, given the circumstances, instead of sending over her sister to whisper promises that “you will get what you want, just not today” (meaning: I’ll tell you anything to keep you quiet in front of my friends). She should let his grandchildren have some worthless keepsakes; otherwise, three of the six don’t have a single pleasant memory of the man. She should be a less awful person.
  • But, you know, people are awful, and she can’t do us any long term hurt. My father can’t hurt us anymore, either; it’s done, and I can see my way towards forgiving him. It would dishonor everyone to forget mean things he did and said, but I think there’s a way to let the bad stuff float off without disappearing. To live at a scenic distance from it. It will involve a lot of writing and remembering and attention.
  • What it doesn’t seem to involve so far, though, is grieving as I recognize it from other losses, not to mention novels, movies, and all those fierce dead father poems. I heard my spouse telling someone: “She had to put her feelings in a box and we don’t know where the box went.” He could be right; I’m waiting for the alleged box to burst, but I don’t think my feelings are unfolding that way. I worked hard before he died to surrender hope he’d transform into a loving person. “No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel/ On the blank stones of the landing”: I suspect Plath never did stop listening, but I did attain strategic hopelessness, after lots of grieving. One sad true thing: I don’t miss who he was, just who he never was. I’d like to be done with rage and with Lysol.

Searching for habitable planets

Otherworldly poetry is an adaptable traveler—it can thrive in many climates and habitats—but the new science fiction-themed issue of the New Yorker does not, apparently, possess a life-sustaining atmosphere.

My favorite reading bandwidth is slipstream, new fabulism, whatever you call it: that place on the dial where so-called literary values of complexity, moral ambiguity, and linguistic precision fuzz into the world-skewing tendencies of speculative fiction. Various definitions include any narrative that makes you feel strange, that reframes reality as a somewhat random consensus, though the main uses of these categories seem to be a) marketing and b) giving critics, teachers, and students something to argue about. (My recently graduated student Mathew, now off to do micro-finance in Mongolia, prefers the term post-realism; my rising senior student Eric growls when you put “post” in front of anything.)  I like realism too, and straight-out fantasy when the dragons are handled responsibly. The problem with the former, though, is that it can be too much like life—isn’t the real world mean, sad, boring, and pointless enough?—and the latter can be different from life in ways that are too predictable. My Darth Vader died a few days ago and I would like literary support, but no symbolic castrations, please, or death-bed reconciliations (in my family, last words run along the lines of “I need you to go retrieve cash from a secret compartment in my spaceship while my third wife is at church”—not something you want ringing in your ears during battle scenes).

So I awaited this New Yorker optimistically, eager to escape into a bracingly cool slipstream. It’s a decent issue. The stories by Junot Díaz and Jennifer Egan are terrific; the ones by Jonathan Lethem and Sam Lipsyte are passably entertaining; and the essays by Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Karen Russell, Colson Whitehead, and others are interesting and often very funny. I also really appreciated Emily Nussbaum’s piece on “Doctor Who” and “Community”: one theme of these shows, she observes, is that “the fan’s experience of loyalty and loss is its own, legitimate form of romantic love.” Inspector Spacetime, I love you madly.

But Paul Muldoon, you blew it! I guess I knew you would. I saw the names Kay Ryan and Charles Simic, though, and hope flickered in my dying warp drive. Both are wonderfully weird poets. Ryan’s “The Octopus” focuses on the extreme oddity of the titular creature, estranging it for us further: what does it have eight of, exactly? Arms or legs? And why is it so smart? She envisions some production factory where “Sometimes a brain-feed/ sticks until the brain/ that gets delivered has/ a hundred times the/ strength it needs in/ nature. Which changes/ nature.” Ryan’s a “strange intelligence” too. I like her questions, and it’s OK that none of her eight appendages is pointing to an answer, but this isn’t a world-skewing poem. And it’s short on the soundplay and crazy lineation that give some of her apparently slight poems their black-hole-gravity.

Not a speculative poem, and not a great poem either. Same goes for Simic’s “Driving Around,” sadly. He’s performing that surrealistic trick: imagine small town Main Street as “an abandoned movie set/ whose director/ ran out of money and ideas.” The unhappy woman in the bridal shop window becomes an out-of-work actress. I suppose the poignancy he intends is how a Hollywood metaphor makes ordinary desolation more vivid: aren’t we bad people, grieving more for the actress than we would for Miss Nobody? Simic is applying an alien perspective to a familiar scene, a strategy that once made James Fenton describe poet Craig Raine as “Of the Martian School.” This way of writing is a little science fictiony—hence the name—but in these particular cases, it’s also a little disappointing.

I speculate Tim Green at Rattle will do better (see his call for sf poems here). In the meantime, I’d be grateful for summer reading suggestions for half-orphaned poet-heroes: anything absorbing, preferably a little otherworldly; goofy is good as long as it’s not dumb. Elven stereotyping has gotten totally out of hand.

Future tense

My father checked himself into the VA Medical Center in Philadelphia a few weeks ago and it’s not clear when or if he’ll be able to leave again. He’s been managing congestive heart failure for a while. Now he needs surgery for a leaky valve and just isn’t well enough to undergo it. Every time I think of him my heart starts racing, triggering a tickly cough that faintly echoes my father’s wet gasping. It’s funny how you can be annoyed by your body’s speech—the symbolism of this sudden ailment is too obvious, like bad writing—but your body refuses to shut up.

May 22, on the train from New Jersey to Penn Station, I review the poems I’ve decided to read in Bryant Park. Then I pick up Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars. Before the Pulitzer, I’d ordered it for the David Bowie/ sf title, read it quickly and liked it but put it away for a while. Recently I started rereading it slowly and had arrived at section two. Rushing past Princeton Junction towards Newark, I open to “The Speed of Belief.” It’s about sitting in a hospital room with a dying father. Soon I’ll be walking through the city at the center of the world—I think Smith and Bowie both live in New York—on my way to the library. I’ll admire the rotunda, pore over the Shelley exhibit, take my turn at the microphone, and then listen to the human voices of poets I know through their smart, kind books: Ely Shipley, Scott Hightower, Richard Blanco. Behind each of them will be a statue of William Earl Dodge, only visible to the waist. I’ll study it, imagining him young and happy and relaxed, and be surprised by his upper half when I google him days later. Stern businessman’s face, bushy mutton-chops.

I will visit my father the next day after a harrowing drive into Philadelphia. Only my sister has been there; his young third wife has never shown up, although she served him divorce papers in hospital, probably afraid of being stuck with his bills. My sister has seen some bad days, but the nurse tells me this is a good one. He’s sitting calmly, sometimes coherent, sometimes disoriented. I see relationships in his newly-gaunt face: a resemblance to me, my siblings, my children, but also to his Swedish mother and grandmother. Martha Carlson’s slanting blue eyes and prominent cheekbones, there all along. Suddenly his dentures seem too big for the smallness of his jaw. “I don’t need much in my old age but I’m not getting what I need,” he says. “What do you need?” I ask. “Peace and quiet,” answers the former sailor who still fights with everyone he meets, whose three ex-wives, five children, and many old friends and girlfriends can’t tolerate his company. He chose life on Mars, is choosing it.

He’s still friendly with his roommate, though; that hasn’t exploded yet. I chat with Harry, who grew up in Puerto Rico and then taught social studies to elementary students in Camden for many years.  Harry lights up when he learns I’m a writer. “Ah, poetry,” he sighs. “Poetry makes life bearable.”

I need to write about Smith’s Life on Mars, although my head’s too noisy today. I resonate like a bell whenever she alludes to Bowie, but there’s a lot more—the poems are skeptical-spiritual, a paradox I love. Certain poems about reincarnation made me wonder if she’s a fan of James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover. And all the science fiction! I’ve been wondering why no one seems to write poems in the future tense, and there on page 7 is “Sci-fi”: “the word sun will have been reassigned/ To a Standard Uranium-Neutralizing device/ Found in households and nursing homes.”

My physical heart is rushing, so part of me wants to know the ending of my father’s sad story. The projection booth in my head, though, is just a big tangle of film, past-present-future looped together. The tangle is upsetting but also sort of beautiful and interesting, at least when I can regulate my breathing, anyway. The soundtrack helps.

Conversations and mixtapes

Around the time I started reading Ginsberg and Keats, enraptured by anaphora and alliteration, I was also spending all my babysitting dollars on record albums by David Bowie, The Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop—and when the money ran out, checking beat-up Janis Joplin LPs out of our town’s tiny cedar-shake library, a repurposed chapel. All this art addressed the same longing: I was lonely and bored in my single-sex Catholic high school. I had too few friends who cared about books and music. The time I spent plugged into a Walkman, or lying on the floor next to speakers at the softest possible volume (audible music irritated my parents), didn’t seem all that different from the hours poring over City Lights paperbacks. It was all about tuning into those anguished, sympathetic voices however I could.

I still read and write poetry when I’m lonely. I know it’s perverse to open a book when you want conversation but, off campus, it’s often hard to get down to serious talk: the intellectual, emotional, shockingly impolite high-stakes stuff good books are full of. I bring this need to music much less often than I used to, partly because poetry occupies center stage—but also, ridiculously, because my eyes went bad. I lost the argument about keeping LPs downstairs (I’m re-waging the war this summer); Chris insists on stacking the CDs in a dark corner where I can’t read the spines; from the beginning I found the celebrated tininess of iPods just irritating. And while I can’t read music or carry a tune, my spouse and daughter are musicians with strong opinions, and so far teenage eye-rolling has thwarted my desire to get to know old-time music better. In the eternal spousal divide-and-conquer allotment of skills, commitments, and obsessions, I just threw up my hands: OK, Chris, music is yours.

I’ve been thinking, though, that I need to bring music back into my classrooms, beyond the occasional illustrative track for a class on blues or jazz poetry. My colleague Gordon Ball at VMI has been talking about an undergraduate poetry and music symposium in 2013 and I’m having fantasies of a Claudia Emerson/ Kent Ippolito concert. I just taught “Introduction to Poetry” again for the first time in years—it used to be my big major-recruiting class, sacrificed during my stint as department head—and I don’t know why I let slip that little unit on poetry and music I always closed with. There are certain students who will follow you to the ends of the earth if you let them write a paper on their favorite Bob Dylan song; it’s a good thing to snag those kids early. A lot of my very best students came to poetry through music. John Melillo of Algae and Tentacles, for example, is now an ACLS New Faculty Fellow at the University of Arizona and basically specializes in noise. The day he recited “Howl” to my class through a voice changing device, I laughed so hard I achieved a sort of anoxic nirvana.

When I started teaching, students would sometimes make me those labor-intensive mixtapes, involving hours of recording vinyl to cassette. The mixers were almost always male, the memorable exception being the always exceptional Jeanne, who offered up a compilation of lesbian folk singers. Listen to this, they’d urge, pressing the Maxell tape or, later, CD into my hands, because that’s how boys tell girls what they’re thinking about. I studied James Merrill’s “The Book of Ephraim” with Brandon, knowing it would take root it him, and he insisted I study The Decemberists, knowing those songs would take root in me. Lately, it hasn’t been music, but the impulse is the same: Marino emailed me links to his favorite spoken word tracks on YouTube and Drew to podcasts from The Moth. Drew muttered that I needed a better phone for listening to them, too, as he programmed his number in; I complained I can’t see all those tiny little buttons but I expect he’s right. It’s good to listen to, for, with each other. To stay in the conversation, I probably need to make friends with machines smaller than microwave ovens.

More immediately, though, I’m reading student portfolios for a Poetic Forms workshop, arguing with sleep-deprived Tal about whether he needs an article before “pose” (I’m right, but he doesn’t believe me), and writing back and forth to Annie, who reports having a hard time chatting about her poems but, in poetry’s sacred space, is honest about the very hardest subjects. Max surprised me with a poem that talks back to my own “Horror Stories,” which responds to Frost’s “Out, Out–,” which itself cites Shakespeare—that’s a discussion with some legs (audio of my poem is allegedly here, although I can never bear recordings of myself so can’t check). As I listen to them all, my window’s open to pelting rain and cardinals chip-chip-chipping in the maple. Some neighbor’s playing Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl.” And I’m thinking I need to make copies of “Boy Breaking Glass” for Jack and “Southern History” for Amy, unless they’re reading this, I guess. You never know who’s going to pay attention, or when.

The Head-Space of Revision

One more day in NaPoWriMo. I’m wondering: could May be NaPoRe(vision)Mo, and June NaPoSub(mission)Mo? Not sure I’m capable of it—the next few weeks are about as busy with teaching, domestic stuff, committee work, and miscellaneous deadlines as they could possibly be—but I’ll try. One potential snag: drafting is about openness and dreaming, restorative activities when your life is too busy. Revision, though, while it can be about receptive listening, also requires intellectual focus and decisive ruthlessness. The needle might be hovering around empty on those tanks, given this month’s grading, administrative, and report-writing obligations.

Whatever happens next, I’m shocked by the sheer amount and intensity of what I’ve written. Not one poem from the inventory below is ready for prime-time yet, but most of them contain interesting ideas, juxtapositions, and bits of language. It’s as if I squeezed in a writing retreat through random 30-60 minute blocks. The numbers refer to dates; I started storing drafts in an “april12poems” folder about three days in, when I realized I really was committed and would lose track of process otherwise.

1 He Likes Road Runner Best (sonnet treating Merrie Melodies, my son, Afghanistan)

2 The Opposite of Elegy (drafted outside Lee Chapel thinking about recent memorial services)

3 Acoustic Niche (terza rima about birdsong and creative writing workshops)

4 In Praise of Slogging (haiku expressing frustration about slacker students through an apple blossom metaphor)

5 OLD, Petersburg Virginia, by Gordon Stettinius (ekphrastic and syllabic, from a photograph in Staniar Gallery that made me think of my daughter’s recent birthday)

6 Past Meridian (fourteen word sonnet about middle age)

7 How Study Abroad Transforms You (couplet-sonnet depicting the Notorious New Zealand Paintball Outing)

8 Distractible (cruel and sexy April)

9 Semi-colons (extended sentence about teenage romantic drama)

10 Art Film (talked about that one in the last blog)

11 The Size of It (ditto; also 1989 cross-country trip)

12 Photoautotrophic (getting a little ecstatic, one of this month’s many long-lined free verse poems)

13 Working Assumptions (how I thought life operated when I was nineteen)

14 Powder Burn (remembering the guy who told me, “if you had long hair and a southern accent you’d be the perfect woman”)

15 Zut, Zut, et Zut (more melodramatic teenagers)

16 Earth, Air, Fire, But Mostly Water (looking at Deborah Miranda’s mountain, then pretty much on fire)

17 Chorophobia (look it up)

18 Reverberation Room (double sonnet that begins with the friendship between Liz and Jack on 30 Rock and ends up rhyming “obscene” with “feeling”)

19 Anti-Dinosaur Haiku (commissioned)

20 Enter the Wormhole (based on Janet McAdams’ rock-paper-scissors prompt from BookBalloon, though I broke the rules)

21 Science Fiction (I am definitely not done with this as a poetry topic)

22 The Sun Went Down Then I Felt Sad (response to a dare)

23 The End of Talk (using “talk” in epistrophe—does one say “in” epistrophe?)

24 Werewolf Arm (a sonnet referring to Chris’ birthmark)

25 That Small Item You Forgot Was In There (litany based on phrase “my first home,” the beginning of Robert Sullivan’s “Boyle”)

26 Lessons/ Reflecting Water (swimming pool haiku series, watching Cam splash after Sullivan glossed “waiata” in class)

27Aubade (playing with a three-step line)

28 Uncanny Valley (you know that theory about how too-lifelike robots inspire revulsion?)

29 Falling (lame title, but the poem uses trochees and dactyls to talk about marijuana)

30 ? (but what I’d like to pull off is a response to Craig Pleasants’ gallery exhibition)

Suggestions for tomorrow are very welcome, but you have about 11 hours until I’m at risk of starting to write without you.

NaPoWriMo=Write more, sleep little

It’s probably not the poetry; I’m drunk on light. I spent January-July 2011 in the southern hemisphere, so this is my first spring in two years, and I feel transformed. I sit outside every spare minute, grading papers on campus leaning up against a white column or watching the sun set over House Mountain from my front porch, shivering over a glass of carmenere. I’m less interested in sleep and food, presumably because I’m photosynthesizing. And I’m drafting a poem a day according to the National Poetry Month regime, though I’m not following prompts or being at all systematic about it. I’ve written at midnight, three a.m., dawn, lunchtime, late afternoon, after dinner. I’ve composed on laptops and in notebooks, in the study at home or at my office, at a picnic table downtown, in the front yard, tonight on a hotel balcony swarming with sand flies. The process is less difficult, more fun, and far more revelatory than I expected it to be.

I started off exercising the usual reflexes. On April Fool’s Day, following an argument with Chris and Cameron on the relative appeal of Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner, I started typing: oh, look, I seem to be rhyming; my goodness, it seems to be a sonnet. I stayed with received forms for a few days because they always give me something to go on, a sound to chase (I identify with the ingenious, pathetic Coyote). I noticed that my poems were getting sexier as spring unfolded and that the maple outside my house was a recurring character: golden flowers, expanding leaves, and suddenly samaras. Since then the poems have been about sex, particularly during my years in college—a bullying first boyfriend, rape by a stranger at a party, another assault in a fraternity, falling in love with Chris and owning my desires, various weird pickup lines along the way and wondering what those glib young men could possibly have been thinking, what I looked like to them, how I seemed to myself. I’d never written poems about any of it, the bad or the good or the extremely funny; those experiences were just too big, it seemed, to become material. The verse is very messy and I’m not sure much of it will ever see the light of day, but it’s worth writing. It feels like digging. If I didn’t keep at it, the tide would come in and silt over the excavation, reshape and soften the marks of the shovel.

I recommend this, even though I’m sitting awake most nights, not upset or tired, just a little more alive than is entirely comfortable.

My daughter the spy and other angles on poetry classes

I’m usually more giddy than blue at the end of a term. I like my students, even the slackers and con artists, and I love talking about poetry for a living, but I also like addressing a new set of problems with a new group every time the season turns. And you just need a break occasionally from the practice of intense alertness that discussion-based teaching requires, even if “rest” constitutes a stack of papers and facing some looming research deadline. But as this winter term closes, students keep moving me through office-hours confessions, poetry conversion testimonies, and spasms of insight and art. Over my shoulder, a three-course term that had seemed only moderately successful suddenly looks blossomy.

Introduction to Poetry can be difficult to teach—the students have wildly different academic backgrounds, aptitudes, attitudes, goals. While my section is full of amazing people, I make some strategic mistakes in assignments and the magic chemistry thing never quite happens. Yet when some students choose to write a portfolio of poems in traditional forms instead of a third essay, the results floor me.

  • A shy first-year interviews her brother with Asperger’s syndrome and turns his answers into a gorgeous pantoum.
  • Another first-year writes a series of pieces about a nude self-portrait she’d been required to do for studio art. During the required class reading, she projects the portrait on the document camera. How brave is that?
  • Another first-year, an enthusiastic, self-assured spoken word poet when he walked in the door, kills the group with an incantatory piece about what drives him to write.
  • A woman who never says hello, please, thank you, or goodbye—basically, I’ve never had a clue what she thought about anything—submits a strong piece about how much safer she feels in the language of numbers. She tells me she was inspired to write it by the aforementioned spoken word guy. I hear versions of this story a couple of times, about one student excited by another student’s poetry and trying to channel its power.
  • One late afternoon, a sweet and very smart young man comes in with a suite of love poems about his relationship with another guy. At another college, maybe business as usual for a creative writing teacher? Not here. Seniors do come in annually to tell me they’re gay, trying to come out, struggling with it. I have mixed feelings, honored to be in his or her confidence but sad it’s always so hard. Having that conversation, though, with a sophomore who’s calmly out, wildly in love, and mostly just worried about the poems—that’s pretty beautiful.

Introductory Poetry Workshop: I have to find a totally new way to prep this course to differentiate it from the Poetic Forms course I’ll be doing in our four-week May term, and again, I make some syllabus miscalculations and things don’t go as brilliantly as I’d hoped. And then they keep coming in, saying thank you, telling me how sorry they are the course is over. They show me the drafts they’re working on and suddenly the work looks a lot better.

My upper-level seminar on poetry and place is one of those rare classes you love unreservedly from beginning to end. I’m actually glad to see them three times a week instead of two (not my preferred schedule, ever). The students are wacky in a variety of ways, offering me their weird nicknames, Springsteen fetishes, and sundry odd takes on various assignments, like an electronica composition instead of a response paper. Some of their presentations and class comments are uproariously funny, and always smart and interesting; I’m working through ideas along with them and learning a great deal from their essays, questions, and frequent skepticism. Occasionally they snow me—pulling the conversation along strange tangents to distract me from discovering they haven’t done the reading—but I don’t even mind.

The last session’s on Good Friday and one of them takes charge, arranges for the seminar to meet in the basement room of Blue Sky Bakery. My 9th grader is off school so she sits in the corner with a pastry and a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. I see her scowl a couple of times and ask her later what that was about. “That dark-haired girl was texting the whole time and I wanted to slap her. Don’t you know what’s going on when someone has a sweater on her lap or her purse set down in front of her?” Uh, now I do. “And they all kept staring at me.” “No one was staring at you!” “Yes, they were. That one guy came over for a napkin and he just, liked, glared right at me. The hot guy, not the short hot guy, the one who’s tall-nerdy-hot.” So many ways not to answer that remark.

Maybe I’ll finish grading, read the course evaluations, find they’re snarky after all, and march into May term unsentimentally, a ruthless gleam in my eye. This soft-focus lens is nice for the moment, though. And I’m really excited about some of the experiments I’m planning to inflict on these spring term students.

Poems and chapels

When Alice Te Punga Somerville walked out of Lee Chapel a week ago Sunday, she looked around for water and ended up rinsing her fingers in a puddle, flicking the water back over her head. “Don’t want to take anybody with me,” she remarked. I had forgotten that traditional gesture upon leaving a burial place. Robert E. Lee is below the chapel in his family crypt, his horse interred just outside; their graves are just a few steps from my office, and my office is above the room where the former confederate general was inaugurated president of Washington and Lee. It didn’t seem worth rinsing my own hands. I live with these ghosts. Each night Alice was here, in fact, I dreamed of the afterlife—in one case an eternal poetry conference on the beach near Nelson, New Zealand, run by Bill Manhire.

A couple of hours later, I returned to the chapel on my own for a memorial service for Severn Parker Costin Duvall III, a W&L professor of modern poetry who retired in the mid-nineties, when I was hired. Learned, eloquent, and sharp-witted, not to mention tall and good-looking, Severn could be intimidating in the classroom. To me, he was utterly charming, always greeting me with a cry of enthusiasm, inquiring about my well-being in a wonderful Tidewater accent, and reflecting on what a brilliant hire I had been.  When I was researching the history of literary readings in the U.S. for Voicing American Poetry, I interviewed Severn, who had been hired to start the Glasgow series, bringing Muriel Rukeyser, Ishmael Reed, Allen Ginsberg, Czeslaw Milosz, and many others. Severn spoke of standing-room-only crowds in that same chapel for James Dickey, and how the all-male student body was riveted in 1973 by a symposium of women writers: Mary McCarthy, Denise Levertov, Carolyn Kips, Barbara Deming, and Penelope Gilliat. He sipped coffee in Elrod Commons while I scribbled furiously, feeling star-struck, for a couple of hours. I would have loved to listen longer.

And a few days later, news of Adrienne Rich. The space in which I’ve been mourning her couldn’t be more different than Lee Chapel. I’m hearing testimonies through Wom-po, a virtual space full of women from different generations, backgrounds, life paths. It’s impressive how many of these poets felt authorized and inspired by Rich’s work. Many of them are already writing essays. I’ll leave them to it. My own experience of Rich isn’t unique or interesting. As a university student in the late eighties, I found her work, fell in love with it, and wrote an honors thesis partly based on “Twenty-One Love Poems.” I heard her read once at a Whitman centennial in Paterson, New Jersey. I teach her work in a range of classes and it always fully engages me—heart, brain, conscience.

What compelled me as an undergraduate reading “Twenty-One Love Poems” were her thoughts on the ethics of telling, of making one’s interior life exterior through words. There’s one scene of two women touching one another as they vomit over the rail of a ferry; diction linking love to pregnancy; and of course that sexy female volcano (which I finally climbed myself this past summer, thinking of Rich). Lots of pain and destruction in those metaphors, but in the end telling is better than keeping secrets.

I’m sorry Severn is gone. It was good, though, to hear one of Severn’s grown-up students talk to us about what he learned from his tough, generous teacher; he vividly conjured up one particular seminar in a room where I’ll teach this spring term. I’m one of Rich’s students, although I never met her, and I can still inhabit the space of thinking she made through poetry. Sometimes the virtual rooms are as vivid, as important, as the real ones.

Undead T. S. Eliot

To my surprise, I’ve been asked to lead a critical seminar on sound in T. S. Eliot’s poetry at the next meeting of the Eliot Society, this September in St. Louis. Don’t tell, but coincidentally, I just published a poetic response to “The Waste Land” in Fringe Magazine. “Zombie Thanksgiving” brings together modernist poetry, George Romero, and family dysfunction with what I fear might be Frankensteinian hubris, but the union felt not monstrous but natural. Withered Sybil, ghosts flowing over London Bridge, buried life painfully reviving, “bats with baby faces” crawling head-first down the walls of Dracula’s castle (well, maybe)—“The Waste Land” has always been a horror story told by one of those erudite Poe characters as his sanity crumbles, right? Eliot’s allusion-gathering is a sort of grave-robbing in order to build a new creature from mismatched parts, stitches showing. (Does that make Ezra Igor?)

All of which has me wondering: where is Eliot’s influence in contemporary U.S. poetry? Ezra Pound, Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, H.D., Wallace Stevens and others have all had a pretty imposing afterlife haunting the House of Verse. I still hear them cited by young and mid-career writers, read new poems in magazines that echo theirs. He was enormously important to his contemporaries and to twentieth-century-poetry’s middle generation, but after that something knocked him out of the club of Literary Influences Cheerfully Acknowledged by Other Poets. His appalling politics or his expatriatism or his personal creepiness as portrayed by Willem Dafoe, perhaps.

I have the impression Eliot cast a longer shadow in Great Britain than in the U.S. My undergraduates still love/hate his otherworldly powers. I remember liking a poem Kim Addonizio had in Poetry a few years back; I haven’t found it yet but I’m pretty sure she shored some fragments of “The Waste Land” against her ruins. Who else is channeling Eliot, though, among contemporary writers? What proudly Eliotic cohort am I not thinking of?

Are half-rotted Prufrocks shambling through poems beyond my peripheral vision?