Obliterature

“Obliterature draws attention to the gendered formation of literary value while also denoting the casual, minor, repurposed, and ephemeral writing expelled from literary criticism’s traditional purview. Such writing might include letters to the editor, junk mail, diary entries and their twenty-first-century digital descendants: blog entries, comments on a newspaper and magazine site, Instagram posts, LiveJournals, Snapchats, Tumblrs, or tweets. Obliterature, fittingly enough, is also popular parlance for a ‘letter or email written while drunk off your ass’…The concept, as we develop it in this article, explains the literary phenomenon of not being fully in control of one’s words and the labor phenomenon of not being fully in control of one’s work.”

– from “Obliterature: Towards an Amateur Criticism” by Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde in the September 2018 Modernism/ modernity, a special issue on “weak theory”

None of us knows if our writing careers will be of much interest to literary critics in the future–or whether there will continue to be literary critics, or a future–but I have to add a few more categories of ephemeral writing that consume a LOT of my time these days: comments on student poems, response papers, quizzes, and essays; assignment sheets; teaching notes; course descriptions; recommendation letters; private editorial comments on Submittable; and the smartphone text-i-verse with its debris of emoticons. I’ve also been a lead drafter on a surprising number of university-related guidelines and reports, having been here for 24 years and generally preferring to do the writing portion of committee work over other tasks.

So I like this term “obliterature” a lot, although it’s from an article I’ve so far only read a portion of, because I’m tight on time but got snagged by the title as I was sorting mail. I recognize obliterature as an object of fascination for me as a critic–all the scraps and commonplace books kept by Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Anne Spencer, and many other women as they tried to find time for poetry amid domestic chores, tough jobs, and political urgencies. I also recognize it, with more chagrin, as denoting a body of seemingly-necessary writing I constantly perform, obliterating time for other kinds of writing I am constantly saying I should prioritize.

Trying to keep my head above water as a teacher, I’m writing very little for any current or future public these days, except for this blog. But I have been stricter with myself than usual about finishing revisions on long mss and making sure they’re under submission–one of which is a book of criticism mixed with personal narrative, which editors keep telling me they like but can’t publish or persuade their boards to take on. Writing personally is just too feminine, maybe. To quote from later in the same essay: “To read like a girl, or throw like a girl, or run like a girl, is to do it the wrong way.”

I love the feminist call from Micir and Vadde for passionate amateurism, for questioning the grounds of expertise and its forums, but I also observe how professionally the call is constructed, in a top-notch scholarly journal, with 6+ pages of fine-print endnotes. In other words, their petition arrived on my desk via the very mechanisms they put under critique. I just hope they and I are right that there’s a readership for such writing in its long, less familiar, less prestigious, and perhaps girlier forms–and that publishers become more willing to take it on.

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A few of the many cards collected among Anne Spencer’s papers

Same old love

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The picture above is of a Christmas postcard from Anne Spencer to Langston Hughes, postmarked 1943. Of course, I’m thinking about the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville a year ago; I’m also sick about the escalating damage the current administration is doing to people and the planet. But I don’t have anything fresh or wise to say on those subjects, so here’s a little out-of-season love instead.

As of this past Tuesday, my husband and I have been married twenty-five years. I’d say “happily married,” which is true, but cliches mute the ups and downs. Figuring out, in our twenties, how to be good to each other while being good to ourselves was hard, and the math on that is always evolving. Raising kids is hard. Finding good employment in the same region for two ambitious people is really, really hard. Illness, dying parents, house floods, a host of other crises–well, you get the idea. Now one kid is twenty-one and the other nearly eighteen, so Chris and I celebrated our milestone on a July trip, while both children were away. We forgot on the actual day until my mother texted congratulations. In the middle of a mixed college-visit/ research trip, Chris and our son were doing a tour in Massachusetts when my mother reminded me of the date. I was reading Anne Spencer’s correspondence, some of which is archived at Yale’s Beinecke Library.

There were a couple of specific research questions I would have liked answers to, but I didn’t find them. Instead I enjoyed watching Spencer’s friendship with James Weldon Johnson unfold and deepen over many years. He encourages her to write and submit her work, staving off discouragement. They recommend books and articles to each other: Johnson suggests, for example, that Spencer read Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, and she responds with enthusiasm about what she’s found. Spencer encourages Johnson and his wife to visit for spring flowers and Christmas festivities, noting she feels more alive when she can look forward to their conversation. There’s plenty of politics in the letters but also ordinary stuff, like worry about Spencer’s children. It was especially sweet to notice how the salutations evolved over time: from the relatively formal “My dear Mrs. Spencer/ Mr. Johnson” to “Dear Anne” and “darling Grace-‘n’-Gem.”

The surviving correspondence between Spencer and Langston Hughes adds up to a much slimmer folder, but there’s also a lot of warmth and play in it. Spencer tells Hughes, for instance, about naming birds in her garden after distant literary figures. There’s “one named Langston–quite too proud of his black and gold-bronze plumage…and Mencken so yclept because of a certain spurious bitterness–mostly pose.” What a lonely world she lived in, and yet so populated. It’s not totally unlike writer-friends in far-off places now, messaging in ways that will be difficult to archive.

For all the violence in Spencer’s time and ours, there was and is a lot of love zinging around. I hope we can keep protecting it from the general heat. Write from the saving coolness of it. But it’s so, so hard.

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Poetry and suspense: more twists

I’m almost always suffering some dire form of suspense and trying to ignore it. Long publishing cycles are a large part of that–I have many mss out there and the odds of success don’t favor me. Often I can receive a rejection with a philosophical shrug, or go for weeks without thinking about a particular submission. On a rational level, I know it’s not personal, and it’s not helpful or healthy to get revved up over such extended, uncertain processes. But I am not rational every hour of every day. Ahem.

Because I spend so much effort trying to calm the hell down, it’s funny to realize I like suspense. In all forms of writing, it helps keep readers on the line. In novels and Netflix, I crave a zippy plot–strong characters in some condition of risk, to which events and feelings keep happening, unpredictably. In poems, I love that gasp-inducing opener that keeps you suspended, sometimes with a plot question (what’s going to happen?) and sometimes with another kind of problem, an image that begs unraveling or a pattern that needs resolution.

I started writing about poetry and suspense four years ago, for a book ms I spent a few years finishing and revising and am still in suspense about. I just reworked that material for a craft talk I’m giving Tuesday for the brand-new Randolph MFA in Creative Writing, at which I’ll be a visiting professor (seriously, click on that link and check out their regular faculty–Gary Dop is doing an amazing job). I hope to revise it again after this week’s adventures and send it out as an essay. In the process, I dug up a related blog from 2014, and it’s fascinating to see what I was in suspense about then: a ms, of course (it became Radioland), and a bad situation at work (which got worse before it got better, but is vastly improved now).

The latter involved a sickening rather than interesting variety of suspense, but a little suspense in life, as in art, can be good. I’m in many ways in a lucky situation, but I don’t want my life to be exactly the same or completely predictable for the next twenty years.  That’s partly why I drafted a novel a couple of years ago, to try something new and see where it took me. I revised it heavily this spring–not for the first time!–and it’s now with a second reader at a small press I greatly admire. I’m in suspense about it, but the reader is expecting twins soon, so she’s in rather more suspense than I am. I need to cool my jets. It’s not easy.

In the meantime, for partial closure, I’ll end where this week began–a long weekend with my spouse in Portland, Maine, for an early celebration of our 25th anniversary (on the actual date, we’ll be visiting colleges with our son, a rising senior in high school). That city deserves its foodie rep–we ate REALLY well, drank great beer, and walked 5-6 miles every day to balance it out. There’s a picture below from the room where Longfellow wrote “The Rainy Day,” on a rainy day, although otherwise the weather was beautiful. I particularly liked taking the ferry to Peaks Island and then biking around the perimeter. On one rocky beach, as the tide rose, we watched a mama duck lead eight ducklings up boulders they could barely scale. All eight eventually reached safety, but it was a nail-biter. We were mostly successful in ducking suspense of other kinds for the duration of the trip, but watching the repercussions from that insane Helsinki summit did ratchet up our nerves. Here’s hoping I revisit this blog in another few years, after some blue elections and writing success, and marvel how it all turned out.

Talking to mountains

claudia corThere’s a mountain I talk to on a fairly regular basis–really, two mountains, Big House Mountain and Little House Mountain. From the window of my study, one shoulders the other nearly out of view. On a clear day, sometimes I can see the difference. Today both are occluded by dull white mists.

Instead of trying to engage a sulky landscape in conversation, then, I’m browsing the last in-print issue–really, two issues–of Crab Orchard Reviewthe first magazine ever to pay me for a poem. I have an essay in the general half, 21.1. The company is brilliant: Kaveh Akbar, Kim Bridgford, Chelsea Dingman, Annie Finch, Afaa M. Weaver, and many others. The prize-winning essay, “Slight” by Kristine Langley Mahler, is a stunner. A spooky poem by Emily Rosko, “A Phase,” seems to be about a lost friend, as is my piece, “Women Stay Put.” I have no objectivity at all about this essay, but I can testify that whatever the end results are worth, it was really hard to write. I’m weaving together meditations on place, friendship, and what it meant to labor, in the mid-nineties, alongside an extremely talented poet who occupied a lower rung in the local academic hierarchy than I did. “Women Stay Put” is a hybrid of personal and critical essay–a memoir of Claudia Emerson that also analyzes her first collection, Pharaoh, Pharaoh.

From that essay, first drafted in January, 2015: “My life is patterned by love and meaningful work, but winter’s dark days make me low and antisocial. Lavender clouds pile onto House Mountain.” I talked to the mountain a lot back then, too.

Thanks to Allison Joseph and Jon Tribble for including me. And I love that the issue I’m in is followed by a themed issue called “Weather Reports,” full of pieces that look backward, like mine, but also others testing literature’s predictive powers. When the issue goes live, look, for instance, for “Spell to Bring the Fall” by Ann V. DeVilbiss as well as poem by Michael Hurley, in which the title slides into the first line: “A Persimmon,” begins “when ripe, can be used to predict the weather.” The poem instructs you to split a seed and examine the shape inside for foreknowledge of winter snow and wind.claudia texts

I predict we’ll have more grieving weather soon, eventually followed by hope weather, although they’ll keep cycling. I predict I’ll photograph these trivial texts from Claudia then finally delete them from my phone, and that no one will ever ask to read them, although people will keep loving her poems. I predict I’ll see the mountain again one of these days, and it will reflect the sunrise, like a mirror.

 

Bialosky, Logan, and taking poetry personally

Scandals in the poetry world seem sweet from a distance, like triolets blooming in epic slush pile. When, for instance, author and Norton editor Jill Bialosky publishes a memoir, Poetry Will Save Your Life, and William Logan excoriates it in Tourniquet Review, accusing Bialosky of “plagiariz[ing] numerous passages from Wikipedia and the websites of the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation”—you might be forgiven for not caring. Some of you, like me, are buried in not-so-golden leaves of student writing, committee reports, etc. And then there are the environmental and political upheavals threatening to wipe out civilization. It’s hard to get het-up about a distant executive passing off biographical cliché as her own prose.

There are also reasons to root for Bialosky, beyond dislike of Logan’s harsh take-downs. I find myself wanting to defend her not because of her other accomplishments—she has devoted her professional life to an art I love—but because of the nature of this book. She’s performing an experiment in literary criticism from outside the academies, writing a hybrid kind of nonfiction Joyce Carol Oates has dubbed “bibliomemoir.” Taking poetry personally, showing that universities don’t own any art form—this is urgent work. Yet the project deserved more life-saving attention than Bialosky gave it.

It’s not that I disrespect scholarship written for specialists. I’ve found reams of it brilliant and useful. I’ve written some. I teach it, gladly, while leading cerebral discussions of prosody and metaphor in seminar rooms. Yet while universities may be the best patrons poetry has ever had, verse ought to thrive in many habitats, and its appreciation ought to take many forms. Snap your fingers at a good line during an open mic, recite it during a bout of insomnia, analyze it in a scholarly article or a trade memoir: it’s all good.

I’m especially hungry for fresh ways of writing about poetry, because my undergraduates deserve a wide range of models. Only a fraction of them will teach, after all. While they benefit from applying their full intelligence to art made out of language—reasoning through ambiguities, conducting research, acknowledging the insights of earlier readers, and generally writing their hearts out—learning MLA conventions shouldn’t be their top priority.

Being skeptical of what Philip Larkin bemoaned as the “cunning merger between poet, literary critic and academic critic,” I am eager for books like Bialosky’s, but Logan’s critique has merit. Some of the gaffes in Poetry Will Save Your Life reflect hasty copy-editing: not great, although not catastrophic, either. The plagiarism is more serious. As much as I respect the signatories to a recent letter defending Bialosky—it’s a dazzling list—they did not persuade me that the New York Times, “by giving a large platform to a small offense, has tainted the reputation of this accomplished editor, poet and memoirist.” Bialosky’s respect for literary achievement shines through this book, but just as poetry requires slow care from its makers and readers, so does poetry criticism.

To appreciate a poem is to step into an expanded moment and give words your undivided attention. To write about that poem, whether in an online review or a book-length study in print, you have to linger longer, reading recursively, pondering the marks on the page, their origins, and their effects. One should commit criticism with full attention, too. Most readers won’t or can’t visit archives, count pronouns, study every essay published on the topic, or otherwise duplicate whatever persnickety strategies a critic employs. But critics can give valuable tribute to literature’s power and make a new kind of sense from it. Reading criticism should confer insight or at least complicate the meanings of art worth pondering.

Apparent hastiness is what I regret most about Poetry Will Save Your Life, because I like Bialosky’s premise. The memoir portions brim with moving stories from her own life, interspersed with great verses reprinted in full. Yet she connects her autobiography to the poems only superficially, and she rarely enriches her own reactions by referring to the many insightful readers who arrived there before. About the ending of James Wright’s “A Blessing,” for instance—“if I stepped out of my body I would break/ Into blossom”—Bialosky tells us, “reading the poem fills me with the wonder of this phenomenon. Is this a love poem or a nature poem? No matter. A love poem can be disguised within a nature poem.” Instead of feeling wiser about the poem, or pondering new emotional associations Bialosky has bought to bear, I’m just wincing.

Being dumbstruck by a powerful piece of art, unable to address the uncertainties it provokes—that’s a valid response. A tribute, even. Yet it’s not an occasion for criticism. Failing to forge bridges based in interpretation or research or both, Bialosky ends up stranding autobiography and poems on alien shores. They just don’t communicate with one another. A memorable chapter on “Motherhood” works best because she makes scenes of reading and rereading painfully vivid. But the author isn’t a great explainer.   

So where does a reader go for meditations on how poetry, embedded in daily living, can enrich and be illuminated by personal experience? Plenty of scholarship is grounded, at least fleetingly, in the circumstances of the researchers’ lives, although it uses specialist shorthand (try Alice Te Punga Somerville, for instance). Less professorially, there are splendid poet-critics past and present: Adrienne Rich on Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Alexander on Paul Laurence Dunbar. The latter, however, are compelling in part because the subjects of the critiques are as interesting as the objects. It’s not clear yet whether William Logan, Jill Bialosky, my undergraduates, or I will ever command such fascination in our own right. Frankly, the odds are against us.

The criticism I find in literary, as opposed to academic, journals, is less jargon-ridden but often ill-informed. Yet exceptions inspire optimism. For example, the first line of Bruce Snider’s recent essay in New England Review has the drama of gripping nonfiction: “The first gay man I knew was the undertaker.” Addressing a topic he calls “the gay rural,” Snider conveys the significance of his own early reading experience: after childhood in a small town, he immersed himself in poems by Frank O’Hara, Mark Doty, James Schuyler, and others, deriving the moral that “if you were gay, you needed to live in the city”—and, if you were a poet, write urbanely. Snider’s bibliography contains mostly poetry and criticism by poets; there’s no attempt to reference the full research field of sexuality in American poetry. I wouldn’t call Snider’s essay scholarly. Yet it’s a compelling, insightful piece of criticism that shows a reader in conversation with other readers. It’s worth attention.

Outside of a very few magazines and university presses—usually the elite ones—there are scant venues for good, general-audience criticism, much less criticism blended with memoir. We need risk-taking publishers as well as writers, so that bibliomemoir haters have more books to lambaste and the genre doesn’t stay islanded in blogs. Literary scholarship, after all, doesn’t always serve poetry well by downplaying story in favor of argument, addressing specialists instead of interested general audiences. We poetry fans know that reading changes us in small, meaningful ways, as well as, once in a great while, performing dramatic rescue missions. Isn’t that worth writing about—slowly, carefully, maybe even with an occasional footnote?

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Poetry fans as Wordsworth and Coleridge this Halloween

Spirals, inspirations

I’m returning to a beloved book this week, Paula Meehan’s Painting Rain (2009), for a class on place, borders, and migration in contemporary poetry. Meehan’s collection inspired a lot of my thinking about place in verse. I suddenly remembered, as I wandered among the poems again, that Meehan has inspired some rockin’ visual art, too. Here’s a meditation I wrote last April-ish about Meehan and painter David Harrison–originally for another source, but since it was never granted residency, I’m giving it asylum here.

david-harrisonFor the “Poem in a Landscape” feature of Ecotone 19, I contributed an essay on place, time, and loss inspired by Paula Meehan’s “Death of a Field.” It turns out I’m not the only artist galvanized by Meehan’s incantatory poem. David Harrison’s recent exhibition “Flowers of Evil” at London’s Victoria Miro Gallery featured an oil painting responding to her verses. A book containing the painting’s image found its way to me this winter—from London via Dublin to Virginia.

I love the way Harrison reimagines Meehan’s pocket universe. The poet powerfully conjures a literary afterlife for a field about to be lost to development, but the painter’s translation of the field possesses its own strong magic. Further, Harrison is, like Meehan, preoccupied with the porous borders between worlds.

In the Flowers of Evil book, Harrison tells interviewer Peter Doig that the exhibition as a whole was inspired by a childhood copy of Cicely Barker’s 1923 book Flower Fairies. Nowadays, he observes, the toxic flowers that preoccupy him are “called weeds—vilified. I thought of doing a modern version of flower fairies, using flowers that are ultra poisonous but also beneficial to mankind. People talk about the spread of these plants as if they are a threat, well, I thought I’d juxtapose them with the spread of these horrific modern housing estates and executive developments that are destroying the world.”

Meehan’s poem in particular influenced a painting called “Death of a Field (Belladonna Fairy).” It features a central stalk of blooming nightshade—a plant not even mentioned among Meehan’s lists of wild herbs. The upper left part of the painting shows a field under a bit of blue sky, but that peacefulness quickly leads down, past a gate, to a sign declaring some developer’s construction plans. From there, things get hallucinogenic. A dizzy spiral emanates from the belladonna plant, and an entity with gauzy pink wings presides over the painting’s right half. Multiple perspectives jostle for dominance.

Harrison walks an interesting line between realism and abstraction. His flower fairy—a mediating spirit—has a realistic head but an abstracted torso, her circular breasts overwritten by five-pointed stars. While some botanical detail, too, is naturalistic, Harrison has painted in an allegorical cartoon of the wrong kind of progress: a businessman’s silhouette rushes past a spider-web towards a death’s head skull.

Harrison also draws our attention to the medium itself. Every creation, he hints, is built over its own dark underworld. “Death of a Field (Belladonna Fairy)” is painted in oil on cardboard, with some of the surface torn away, leaving a crimson seam. “It’s a nod to Dada,” Harrison says. “I love the idea of cheap, throwaway objects and materials…I love the fact that underneath there’s a rib cage, almost. It’s like you’re working with a living material.” It’s not that the ribbed cardboard world is more real than the surface fantasy conjured in brilliant oils. Instead, they coexist, interdependent, enriching each other.

For me, the spiral in the painting’s center just keeps radiating out with new associations, the way Meehan’s original poem does. I think of the triple spiral from prehistoric Irish art, such as in the Newgrange tomb not far from Dublin. The spiral is a natural shape associated with curling ferns and other signs of vitality. Yet it’s also the painting’s most cartoonish element, reminiscent of those squiggles Mort Walker christened “spurls”—comic-strip shorthand for intoxication or disorientation. The fairy’s head and eyes repeat in the arms of the spiral, as if consciousness is dispersed through the plant’s hallucinogenic action. Where am I? the painting asks. Is there a more important question? ∞

Where you are now, by the way, is a redesigned “Taking Poetry Personally.” The header photograph is a retaining wall in my Virginian backyard, to represent my current obsession with boundaries and borders. More on that soon, closer to winter’s finish line and the cool edge of a North American spring.  

Elephant blessing

On Sunday afternoon I took a bubble bath–I know, tough life–during which I was visited by an apparition. My spouse and kids say I overheated myself, and I did emerge flushed bright-red and a little dizzy, but I swear I spent that half-hour with an elephant made of bubbles. This wasn’t just a heap of foam with a snout, but a nicely shaped creature with ears, an eye-dent, and an impressive proboscis. It rocked back and forth on top of the water cheerfully, refusing to dissolve until I pulled the plug.

I had been laboring hard on several projects, including the ninth chapter of Taking Poetry Personally, the critical book I want to finish during this year’s sabbatical. Each chapter–and they’re short-ish, under 5000 words each–concerns a single twenty-first-century poem, paired with an issue I’m thinking about as I consider what it means to immerse oneself in a poem’s possible world. This one, “Brevity,” is keyed to a sonnet by Rafael Campo. I was finding it amazingly hard to be brief about it. Poetic compression is a big issue.

This book blends criticism with personal narrative, too, and the story I’d chosen, with the alleged virtues of smallness in mind, concerned weight. Like a lot of women, I’m a serial dieter. I began counting calories as a teen feeling the usual pressures to be small and feminine, to deny any appetites. Periodically for the next three decades, I’d decide the padding was getting out of hand and resolve to count calories and/or carbs. It was always excruciating, but it always worked, until a few years ago. Now if I eat healthy foods moderately and exercise daily, I slowly gain weight. If I get stricter, I stop the dial’s uptick, but no matter what I do, I don’t lose. Plenty of perimenopausal women experience the same thing, I gather, and medical opinion seems muddled about it. Some sources the body is desperately trying to maintain an estrogen supply–if the ovaries won’t keep producing, fat cells can be made to serve the purpose–so dieting is no use. (But you can game your metabolism if you take our supplements!) Others say you can reverse the gain through a more rigorous diet and exercise program. (1300 calories a day and intense exercise forever–you can do it! It just means making a career of weight control!) It’s all alternately depressing and infuriating. After all, I have other work to do, and I’m healthy. The prescribed level of hunger makes me angry all the time and unable to think straight–and now that austerity doesn’t even work anymore, it just seems like the stupidest kind of vanity. Better to come to terms with occupying more space. And yet, as I drafted the chapter, I felt increasingly crushed, unable to let go of the desire to be thin once more, to feel in-control and approved-of. I have been hungry, hungry, hungry for about a week, spending more time at the gym, and the scale hasn’t budged one ounce.

So it was particularly funny to share my bathtub with the elephant, biggest land mammal around. What does it mean?, I wondered, and the kids said, It means you should stop boiling yourself alive. (They also oppose austerity measures on principle because it means I stop making pasta.) With a pang of guilt, I remembered Asha from a roadside breeder zoo near here. We took the kids sometimes when they were little, but it was a depressing place, and in fact the zoo has been accused since of mistreating its animals. Asha is a female African elephant there who has been alone for nearly 20 years, although elephants are profoundly social. She touched my sneakered toe long ago with her trunk, jolting me awareness of her as a fellow creature, and likely a lonely, suffering one, but I had never done anything for her. On Monday I wrote a letter, signed a petition, thought of her. Was I called to do or learn anything else?

That night I dreamed of an elephant, male. He and I were going on a journey together, not as beast and rider, but as friends. Our house had a special door, like at a car dealership, large enough to admit him. He was thirsty and kept drinking from suburban hoses as we walked down the street. It was a sweet, companionable interlude.

Today I learned that one of the world’s many elephant deities, Ganesha, is a patron of wisdom and learning. People invoke him at new beginnings because he places and removes obstacles. Is that why I dreamed of him, looking for help with my sabbatical, my book? It’s not for the doomed diet: I’m not expecting any miracles as far as my own middle-aged girth. If I could choose my luck, anyway, I’d rather be a good writer than a skinny one.elephant