Rereading Sedgwick, or, Oh Yeah, I Like Teaching

The first paragraph from this famous essay by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick just stopped me cold:

“Sometime back in the middle of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, I was picking the brains of a friend of mine, the activist scholar Cindy Patton, about the probable natural history of HIV. This was at a time when speculation was ubiquitous about whether the virus had been deliberately engineered or spread, whether HIV represented a plot or experiment by the U.S. military that had gotten out of control, or perhaps that was behaving exactly as it was meant to. After hearing a lot from her about the geography and economics of the global traffic in blood products, I finally, with some eagerness, asked Patton what she thought of these sinister rumors about the virus’s origin. ‘‘Any of the early steps in its spread could have been either accidental or deliberate,’’ she said. ‘‘But I just have trouble getting interested in that. I mean, even suppose we were sure of every element of a conspiracy: that the lives of Africans and African Americans are worthless in the eyes of the United States; that gay men and drug users are held cheap where they aren’t actively hated; that the military deliberately researches ways to kill noncombatants whom it sees as enemies; that people in power look calmly on the likelihood of catastrophic environmental and population changes. Supposing we were ever so sure of all those things—what would we know then that we don’t already know?’’ -from “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You”

Very different epidemic–AND a remarkably speedier development of treatments and vaccines (an observation I don’t think is paranoid)–but still, what foreshadowing in a piece originally published nearly 20 years ago! The essay goes on to analyze the contagiousness of suspicion as an approach to texts taken by literary critics and theorists, as in, “Let me expose the prejudices lurking behind this poem.” Rather than strive to forestall humiliation by the author-poet who wants to put one over on you, a reader could, she suggests, seek pleasure from a piece of literature, because life is pretty hard and art can make us feel better. That’s a gross oversimplication, and I’m not even touching on some really important aspects of the essay: how she describes each method working in queer theory plus the Freudian stuff (so much Freud…). Yet this essay grants a professor permission to be a fan as well as an analyst of poetry, and many others have taken it that way, too. What a pleasure to revisit it.

My first full week of teaching was exhausting, full of positive feelings about my students but inflected by pandemic fears, too. Cases are rising fast here. We’re in person, masked, but students are having tons of unmasked encounters–let’s call them encounters–in residence and dining halls and, I presume, at parties. Prepping for and teaching 6 90-minute classes is as hard as I remembered, even before the grading starts; things are high-powered here, with smart students chewing through material fast, something that’s both lucky and sometimes a major challenge to keep up with. And there are all the extras like advising, reference letters, department meetings and consultations, university-wide meetings and events, etc etc. I’m beat.

Yet I’m having fun, too. I’m prepping Sedgwick’s essay for a senior seminar called “Taking Literature Personally”; during that session we’ll try some paranoid and reparative reading of Frank O’Hara’s poetry (no spoilers, but my lesson plan involves crayons). For yesterday’s class, we read the poem “Philomela” and the essay “Nightingale” by Paisley Rekdal as well as the Ovid tale for background, which is infinitely darker material though just as powerful. Whatever the literature at hand, the flow experiences of rereading then planning discussions feels really good. I wish I had more time to linger in it, but I’m being strict with myself about stopping work when I’m tired. I’m an introvert who HAS to recharge and a grown-up person who HAS to rest and sleep. I’m doing okay at it for now.

The picture below is from my book signing here in Lexington this week. Office hours, teach two classes, assemble cheese plate, then hold court at an author event for 2 hours–it was ambitious for a Tuesday. Yet pleasurable, too. I’m sure I’ll feel the same about my Randolph College reading next week, where at least I don’t have to cater the refreshments. Meanwhile, here comes Friday night, a drink with a friend, a gentle hike tomorrow morning. As I used to tell myself during college hangovers: pacing, Lesley. Everything’s more fun when you get the pacing right.

When revisions are even harder

I’ve been working flat-out on honing the manuscript of an essay collection, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, due from Tinderbox Editions late this year or early next (I suspect the latter at this point). It’s a blend of memoir and criticism with a good dose of cognitive science and narrative theory, plus thirteen 21st century poems reprinted in full to anchor the short chapters. Recounting the close of my con-man father’s life, it’s also the story of reading poetry through personal crisis AND an analysis of how “literary transportation” works when you enter a poem’s pocket universe (that’s immersive reading or getting lost in a text, for the layperson). I’ve been drafting this book since 2012 so it’s really important to me. Closing in on a final version I’ll submit to an editor, though, always makes me nervous. You’re down in the weeds, seeing ways a sentence here and there could be made more elegant, checking the bibliography, and wondering whom you’ve inadvertently omitted from the acknowledgments. But it’s also the last time you can try for the 30,000 feet perspective, imagining how the book will be received by others and trying to catch those moments of obtuseness or under-explanation that inevitably linger. Hard work in multiple ways.

This book, though, works through challenging personal material. On the good side, there are stories of travel, particularly my 2011 Fulbright in New Zealand; reflections on growth and change; and positive representations of sustaining relationships. The dark stuff involves, of course, tales of my dishonest and narcissistic father but also workplace harassment; a long-ago sexual assault; Chris’ mother’s dementia; and my mother’s first round of lymphoma in 2015. It shook me to spend time with that material again. Worse, since my mother died of the lymphoma’s recurrence in April, I had to put my sentences about her into the past tense. No wonder I was resisting finalizing the ms.

I did the same thing to myself in July, at the Sewanee Writers Workshop. I had to finalize my workshop ms in May, and it was full of poems about my mother’s death and other tough material. Somehow, for the last couple of years, I’ve finally been writing about childhood abuse and mental health. My mother always read my poetry books, but I think at some level I knew she wasn’t likely to read this new stuff. I’m freer to be honest than before, and some of what hurt me long ago was my mother choosing not to protect us from my father. Again, no wonder Sewanee was emotionally intense.

I came to a good pause point on Poetry’s Possible Worlds this morning, and I go to Chris’ play The Zombie Life in Richmond tonight, so next week I’ll be turning my attention to different things: a department retreat, course prep, reference letters, poetry submissions, and as many other smaller writing-related tasks as I can squeeze in. That sounds like a lot, but except for the poetry subs, it isn’t nearly as difficult. Writing, as I tell my students, is a complex task with many factors always in play, which is why even a short, imperfect essay or poem is such an achievement. It’s salutary to be reminded, as I approach another academic year, that it can be hard in other ways, too.

Convertible and weird

I’m home from Sewanee followed by a pretty decent week at the beach. It was wet in North Carolina, but we hot-tailed it to the beach whenever the rain stopped for a couple of hours. The surf was wild, the water hospitably warm. Our rental house on the sound had kayaks and bicycles we made the most of, plus an insane parrot and flamingo decoration scheme, which I’m inclined to put down in the “plus” column. If you see some metaphors in my beach report, so do I. This summer was packed with challenges–and sometimes opportunity–for me, my family, and friends. It’s not over, but my tan is fading. My tarot spreads, a pandemic hobby that hasn’t run out of gas, are full of aces and fools, signs of new beginnings, but also upside-down wheels and travelers. They hint that it’s time for change, although I’m resisting it.

Our teaching year begins properly in September, preceded by buckshot meetings that I will dodge as possible. In the meantime, I’m prepping for one last summer event. ReaderCon, which I’ve never attended but which has a rep for being the most serious and interesting U.S. speculative fiction convention, kicks off this weekend for its first virtual iteration. I’m moderating two panels, one on historical sf by women, the other on critical theory and sf. I’m bemused to realize I actually do have some expertise in the latter. Among English PhDs, I definitely don’t count as a theoryhead, but among sf writers who read for writerly inspiration, I think I’ll do okay. Wish me luck. And if you’re intrigued, it’s still possible to register here for just $25.

I’m also revising like crazy, converting drafts workshopped at Sewanee into snazzier models. That involves sifting through a lot of advice, putting much of it aside, then tinkering with suggestions small and large. Mostly I like this work, but there’s too much of it for a compressed late-summer timeframe, and I’m afraid that if I put it off I’ll forget what my scrawled notes mean. I thought I was going to do the Sewanee Workshop in the summer of 2020 then cruise into the relative intellectual leisure of a sabbatical, but, you know, best-laid plans. The upside: better poems! I’d like to get some submissions out during August magazine reading windows, but we’ll see, because I’m ALSO also completing final revisions on my forthcoming essay collection, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, as my editor’s advice rolls in.

Too much, right? I like all of the projects I have underway, just as I’m excited about each of my three fall classes, but I also can’t work this hard all the time, keeping the engine just this side of overheating. Meanwhile, I hear my university’s administration wants to raise caps on our fall courses, basically because they miscalculated, underhired, and don’t have enough seats for first-years (strategically, would be my guess). My question for them at a Zoom meeting last spring was “how are you planning to lower the stress next fall for your burnt-out and exhausted faculty?” (Demoralized, too–we had voted to change Robert E. Lee’s memorialization in the university name and the trustees said “nah.”) Instead, the administration is putting out ask after ask, even during the summer, which was once time we were urged to protect for research and recharging. There’s an analogue here to the U.S. “worker shortage,” meaning people resisting working too hard for too little money under bad conditions. I’m personally fine, with way more options than most if I can just make myself rev down, but generally, the university’s aspirations to remain a top-ranked liberal arts college do not jibe with undermining the faculty’s ability to teach well and thrive.

Speaking of change: my poem “Convertible Moon,” a sapphics-ish elegy for my mother-in-law, appears in the new issue of One. I wrote it maybe five years ago, right after she died, and rewrote it many times, struggling to open a hyper-compressed poem to the air. Meanwhile, an etymological riff of a poem, “In Weird Waters Now,” appears in Smartish Pace 28. That one came fast. I drafted it, polished it, sent it off, and it was taken on the first try. I’d like more magic like that in my life, but in my experience, you earn the breakthroughs only by keeping your writing practice alive, and that’s time an overstuffed workday tries to edge out.

Finally, if you’re in Virginia and can make it to Virginia for a play in Richmond, please buy a ticket to The Zombie Life, written by my brilliant spouse, Chris Gavaler. There’s a feature on it here. Talk about weird transformation. It’s as if it’s a theme in our lives, or something.

Teaching guide for “A Grimoire” in Shenandoah 70.2

The Slightly-Later-Than-Spring 2021 issue of Shenandoah is live! I curated a themed section called “A Grimoire: Poems in Pursuit of Transformation.” My editorial note describes what I mean by “uncanny activism,” but in short, these are poems that try to make things happen, often by using the features of spells, prayers, charms, and other petitions to the more-than-human world. I describe how I see the poems speaking to the portfolio’s theme, but below I also provide lists and links for how these poems might fit onto syllabi for various literature and creative writing courses. Free online content can be a pretty useful way to add richness to a reading list, and of course I think these poems are amazing.

Forms and modes:

Ecopoetry:

Social justice and generally surviving a world than can be awful:

Poems engaging religion and spirituality (well, more directly than the others):

I hope this list might be helpful to teachers, although I think putting poetry into thematic categories involves some sleight-of-hand. Poems transcend labels like “ecopoetry” and “about religion,” if they’re good. Yet academic study, at least as constituted here and now, depends on categories, due to the sheer necessity of narrowing down some fraction of the literary universe into non-insane portion sizes for courses. Curricula typically divide material by the author’s country of origin, century of publication, literary school, gender, sexuality, race, religion, or other identity category; genre and theme play in, too. None of these categories is “natural.” We’re just used to them. Further, no reading list is fully coherent; every one generates borderline cases. I’d be interested to hear if you think I got any of these categories wrong for these particular poems.

I’m focusing here on the portion of the issue I edited, but I proofread the entire publication (even while on leave, because I love the magazine). I can testify that there’s terrific work all through it. The comics Rachel Cruz curated about survival are very powerful; check out the special translation section on Arabic poetry; BIPOC Editorial Fellow DW McKinney presents nonfiction about home and belonging (Sara Marchant’s “Haunted,” for example, is a memorably weird ghost story). Please check out the regular fiction and nonfiction, too. Beth Staples and her partner-in-crime Morgan Davis choose riveting pieces full of strong feeling that are also often experimental in structure and voice.

Every issue is a huge collective effort brought to wonderful fruition, and it means a lot when other people read it. When any issue of any magazine delights you, let the editors know! Or share it on social media, or do whatever you do to celebrate art you like. The world needs more of that.

In the meantime, I’m revising some pieces, submitting a bit, and preparing for the literary work and logistics of attending the Sewanee Writers Workshop next week–as a student instead of a syllabus-writer, which is delightful. I’m also planning for fall teaching with the kind of open-mindedness sabbaticals can generate, because they detach you for a while from the habits that help you survive an intense job. Toward the process, I’m reading Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop. It’s full of useful, specific ideas that are smart extensions and articulations of good classroom values: anti-racist pedagogy is here a way of being pro-empowerment for students of many identities who would benefit from thoughtful support. Sewanee is kicking off with an “Ethics of the Workshop” session, too. I’m excited to learn from these conversations, meet actual (masked) human beings, and just sink into the writing life for a while, although September’s mountains loom in the distance.

Conference anxiety times a million

Socializing in Rockbridge County, Virginia

I don’t have major stage fright about teaching, and I’ve come to feel like I can give a decent Zoom reading. My upcoming conversation with the brilliant writers Anjali Sachdeva and Brittany Hailer–Friday 6/4 at 7pm Eastern, hosted by the White Whale, register here by 6:30 that day!–will amp me up for the night, but talking to them about fabulism vs. realism basically sounds fun to me. Yet GOOD LORD am I nervous about participating in a weeklong fancy virtual writers’ workshop starting June 6th.

I have a pretty good idea why. For most virtual presentations, you have to be prepared, come across as warm and engaged, and stay attuned to others. The latter two tasks are harder via screen, but I now have experience managing it. What I have completely forgotten how to do: 1) interact in a substantive, sustained, open way with strangers; and 2) be my most sparkly, enthusiastic, professional self among people with literary power. That second one was never easy for me. I’m an introvert whose battery for socializing has to be recharged by solitude, and my self-confidence ebbs and flows. But the pandemic means I’m REALLY out of practice. Grief doesn’t help, either–I’ve been low and spacey since my mother’s death, and when I work too hard, my brain and body conk out.

I came across an article the other day that reminded me that instead of hopelessly dreading my likely failure to make the most of a good opportunity, I could consider planning ways to manage stress. Self-help is not my preferred genre, and I have successfully avoided lots of pieces about social reentry post-Covid, but I was click-baited this time by a title about “using sobriety strategies,” about which I know little. Plus I’m desperate. The Washington Post article by Erin Shaw Street is here, although I don’t know if the link will work for everyone.

In short, the advice is to “start with acceptance”–this reentry thing will probably take a while, and that’s okay. “Have a plan, but stay flexible”: well, I always have a plan. My idea was to turn the week into a writer’s retreat at home, so my spouse is visiting family. Next week I’ll order out, let the dust pile up, and refuse to answer email. Write write write, I thought, and get back on the submission train, too. Maybe even use the empty house to lay out all my recent poems and see if they’re beginning to form a new collection! My revised plan: sure, try all that stuff, but if it doesn’t work, just do my workshop, make the best of my two 15-minute meetings with fancy editors, forgive myself if some of it falls flat, and otherwise chill. That’s the “pay attention to your feelings” part, which lately have made themselves very clear. “Practice gratitude and mindfulness”: well, all right, I know breathing exercises and I’ve actually worked on mindfulness lately, in my distracted way. What I’m proudest of, by the way of emotional planning, is in the “having a group of trusted friends to call on” category. I have actually scheduled a phone chat with Jeannine Hall Gailey right before the conference, because she is the best literary cheerleader I know. How about that! Me, planning a social interaction for my own sake, because it will make me feel connected and maybe even slightly more confident!! Miracles can happen. I also wrote the principles on a post-it note and stuck it on my office window frame, hoping I’ll stick with the program.

If you have ideas about doing your best in this kind of setting when you’re kind of a mess, I’d be glad to hear them. Most of this blog’s readers are writers, and I don’t think introversion is rare in our tribe. The conference is the Breadloaf Environmental Writers Workshop, by the way, with my individual group of six poets led by Dan Chiasson. I actually won a scholarship to it, so it would be rational to have some faith in myself. At the very least, I plan to learn more about environmental writing as well as gathering ideas for sharpening my poems–and, based on past experience, tricks for my teaching, too. It’s useful to play student occasionally, see how others run things, and be reminded how it feels to watch others examine your work.

Meanwhile, spacey-dopey-nervousness notwithstanding, I did make my most important May deadlines. Saturday I finished a monster participant packet for another fancy workshop, Sewanee, which will be in person at the end of July (another scholarship, ahem). And yesterday I turned in a short essay solicited for a new critical collection, Eliot Now. My piece discusses work by Jeannine Hall Gailey and Paisley Rekdal in relation to “The Waste Land.” In brief, Gailey and Rekdal highlight the prominence of sexual violence in Eliot’s poem while portraying their own experiences with assault. (Gee, I wonder why I felt depressed working on it?)

Sending out good vibes to everyone for a peaceful and/or productive June, whatever you need it to be. I’m not sure how much blogging is in my immediate future, although I bet I’ll have some things to share about the workshop when it’s all over.

The present and future of pandemic poetry

Like a sad dragon, I’m currently sitting on a diminishing hoard of potential poems for future issues of ShenandoahFall ’21 and Spring ’22, presuming we get there–knowing I can’t keep ALL the gold. I’m already rejecting good poems, trying to get down to 20-ish from more than 700 batches. The last couple of weeks have been largely a sifting process: holding each poem against the light, seeing how pieces might fit together.

One issue I’ve been pondering, in part triggered by a tweet from Kelli Russell Agodon: how are the poems I’m reading manifesting the extraordinary pressures of a global pandemic? The answer I gave Kelli is that the poetic worlds seem a notch smaller: I’m getting more poems about the flora and fauna close to hand, fewer about conversation and art and the randomness of being a human walking around in the built world. That’s not a bad thing, but it can make the submission pile less various. I’m certainly coming across references to Covid-19, too, as well as elegies and poems about anxiety, depression, and isolation, but not as many as I expected. This may be because poetry has such a slow burn that we won’t really see the literary results of any crisis for a few years. It may also be because a lot of people just can’t write lately–their lives are busier and their brains can’t rev down enough for reflection. I’m interested to see how things shake out in the literary world and otherwise.

“Haunted and Weird Futures” was actually the title of the final session of the poetry master class I just finished teaching at Randolph College. The assignment:

To read for class: Juliana Spahr, excerpts from “Will There Be Singing”; Jeannine Hall Gailey, “The Last Love Poem,” “Calamity,” “The End of the Future,” “Introduction to Writer’s Block”; Natasha Trethewey, “Theories of Time and Space”; January Gill O’Neil, “Hoodie”

Prompt: Write a poem that looks toward the future. Some part of it should use the future tense.

It went well, although I was glad I’d lightened the reading for the last session, because the students are tired and stressed. One poem we discussed intensively was Gailey’s “Introduction to Writer’s Block”, because another group of students at Randolph, in a BFA program discussion group, asked me how I keep writing in a difficult time. I talked about switching things up–trying a different genre when one isn’t working–but also just forgiving yourself and spending time on activities that nourish what is depleted in you (whatever it is–a craft, exercise, reading, watching TV, games and puzzles, talking to friends, taking a bath). I love Jeannine’s persistence in the face of pre-pandemic calamity, her declaration that “If you wait long enough, something inside you will ignite.” She writes plenty of poems considering the possible failure of poetry, but they tend to nurture some wit and spark and hope, whatever the trampling Godzilla of the moment is. And I think she’s right: if you keep showing up to the page, cultivating whatever openness you can however you can, the words eventually come.

Because discouragement is also epidemic this year, I am joining in on an event organized by Celia Lisset Alvarez and including Jen Karetnick, both of them poets and editors extraordinaire. We’re going to talk about rejection in the context of our own recent books, and how we work to overcome it. It’s called She Persists and it’s happening at 7pm on Monday March 8th. Sign up here and I promise I’ll try to cheer you on and cheer you up!

Oh, February. Oh, amygdala.

I realized this morning that I’ve been concentrating with clenched-body intensity on my mother’s and my daughter’s needs for vaccine appointments–my mother is 81 and immune-challenged, my daughter is a pre-school teacher–as if my constant vigilance was necessary to help them rise to the top of the list. That’s magical thinking, obviously, except that it wasn’t obvious to me until I made it conscious. I’ve always been like the mother in The Woman Warrior, who must mentally hold airplanes in the sky so her loved ones don’t crash in fiery balls of flame. I’m a seriously terrible backseat driver for the same reason. I find it especially hard to release the habit of vigilance when there’s real risk involved that I might have a tiny bit of control over: what if I notice the speeding truck but the driver doesn’t, and I yell and death is averted? Could happen. Not likely.

So here I am in the backseat, struggling to relax and enjoy the scenery. This February is a holding-pattern of a month; it’s also busy. I’m halfway through the master class I’m teaching at Randolph College. I’m virtually attending the Poetry and Pedagogy Conference hosted by West Chester starting tomorrow and looking forward to hearing panels about teaching. The workshop I’m running on Saturday morning, on how and why to teach single-author collections, is nearly ready, and I’m giving a reading with the other workshop leaders on Saturday night. Meanwhile, my department is assembling a list for the registrar of our fall courses, so I’m in planning mode for my own fall offerings. The clock is definitely ticking on my sabbatical, even though the second half of the leave year remains fuzzy in many ways, for obvious reasons. (Deep breaths through the diaphragm. Amygdala, calm down.)

Nope, amygdala thinks my editorial load is fight-or-flight. It’s a privilege to work for a great magazine with a great Editor-in-Chief; accepting poems and promoting their wonderfulness is a thrill. Yet, open for submissions for the first two weeks of February, Shenandoah received 736 batches of poems. 736!!! I’m working hard, but when I get down to the most irresistible poems I’ll still have more than enough for multiple issues, which means more hours of difficult siftings and rejection letters that can be wrenching to write. (I have 19 spots max for Fall ’21 and Spring ’22 combined, with some reserved for a portfolio curated by our BIPOC Editorial Fellow in poetry, Sylvia Jones.) I’m trying to take it more slowly than usual and not feel so overwhelmed, but it’s a lot.

The stressy busy-ness is only partly about work, after all. Part of my brain is always rehearsing the vigilance script: steer clear of that maskless man; what can I cook over the next several days to postpone another trip to the supermarket, because it never feels safe there; my mother and daughter are on that airplane, how do I keep it aloft from down here? Oh, February. Oh, amygdala.

Please enjoy the photos below of progress toward our future screened-in porch, to replace a rotted deck that was older than our children. It’s slow work, especially with all the snow we’ve been getting, but I like to imagine sitting back there reading, come spring. Not a metaphor at all…

Haunted and weird poetry: a lesson plan

My visiting writer gig at Randolph College started yesterday. As the Pearl S. Buck Writer in Residence (virtually), I’m teaching a 4-session workshop each Thursday night in February, 7-9pm. There are only 4 members, all advanced poetry students, so it’s a pretty nice gig. The topic is “Haunted and Weird,” since the organizer told me these students were also jazzed about speculative fiction–but also because strangeness and surprise make for complicated, interesting, powerful poems.

Designing the syllabus, I gave each session a title/ theme. Yesterday’s was “Pleased to Meet You” and it worked like a charm. In case the topic appeals, here’s how it played out. I asked each poet to post a poem the Tuesday before our session, following this prompt (it’s keyed to a care package sent in advance):

If you dare, light the votive candle in your care package, without burning your house down, please. Prepare to tell a story of an encounter with something potentially supernatural in five sentences. It should be based on an incident you have experienced, OR you can ask a friend or a family member for a story and use your imagination to fill in the details. Instructions for each sentence:

  1. Write a sentence beginning, “The weirdest part was.” (You may revise that phrase out later, but start with the eeriest moment of your tale.)
  2. Describe what the setting or the apparition smelled like.
  3. Ask any question that you don’t know the answer to. It can be unrelated to the scene.
  4. Describe, with at least one sensory detail (involving sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch), how your body felt when the apparition left or you left it.
  5. Describe, with at least one sensory detail, how the apparition felt after the encounter.

Here are some poems they had to read for class, as well as each other’s drafts. I also asked them to be ready to explain which poem unsettled them most and why.

I started us off with “Monsters,” which triggers all my parent-fear. One student named Mariani’s “Ghost” as the most unsettling–that’s another poem full of guilt, and very crafty in how it sets up situations and then dissolves them. For everyone else it was “The Mango,” in which the speaker hears voices–and yet it’s more political than supernatural. One way all of these poems are shifty: what’s “real” is up for grabs, although there’s plenty of realistic detail within them.

I ran out of time to run a three-staged prompt I’d invented. At the end of class, they had to open a sealed envelope, also in the care package. I had put an antique postcard in each, having ordered a batch from Etsy (some of them are dated as early as 1906). Here’s one I didn’t send; I’m planning to use the extras in a fall workshop on the same theme.

The prompt to go with their postcard:

  • First study the picture side and write for 3 minutes about what messages the picture conveys all by itself
  • Then read the message—think about ink, the handwriting, writing style; also look at the postmark, stamp, and address; write for 3 minutes about what you see
  • Now imagine the sender is a ghost and write back to them.

They can build on that idea for next week’s poem, or research the meanings of the tarot card I also put in each envelope (I figured some students might not like to mess with them, so that’s just an option). Next week’s assignment:

  • Choosing a night when you’ll have 20 minutes to write the next morning, sleep with something unusual beneath your pillow (one of the cards from the care package, or anything else that feels like it has some mystery about it). Have pen and paper by your bed—real writing tools, not your phone. As soon as you wake up, write for a while about anything that’s on your mind. Put the paper away, forget about it, and later on come back and write a poem about possible relationships between the object and your free-write.
  • Write an epistolary poem (a letter poem) to someone or something that can’t answer.
  • Write any other poem based on a religious ritual or uncanny procedure. If tarot interests you, study the card I gave you and research its meanings, or you can do a free online reading here.

The energy in the class felt good, I think? Only teaching two hours a week, P/F so nobody’s worked up about grades–pretty sweet. In September I’ll be back to a full teaching load, a million advisees and meetings and committees, but now I get to just swoop in and be the Spirit of Poetry Fun, here to distract you.

A Very Good Anti-Best List

It’s exasperating when people refer to a work of art as “great” as if that were an objective pronouncement. Great for what? The idea that there could be stable, neutral criteria by which literature could be judged more or less worthy is at best nonsensical. In practice, it’s often a way for powerful people to consolidate power and invalidate contradictory views so they can keep controlling resources, while calmly holding that their views are apolitical, unlike the allegedly hysterical screeds of propagandistic forces celebrating “minority” voices. In English department canon wars, these power-conserving arguments often mutate into claims about “influence”: a work is great because it has been important to many other writers. There’s validity to that; whether or not they find literary monuments beautiful, it’s useful for students of literary history to encounter them, the better to understand books that set out to repurpose or smash the monuments. If you’re serious about literature, though, you also read horizontally across fields, trying to understand the networks and processes of inclusion and exclusion, knowing that you can’t read it all, taking joy in what you love but also listening to arguments based on values/ tastes other than yours. You recognize that what’s “good” for classroom discussion and paper-writing at your institution might not be “good” in another educational setting, much less for a grief group, an open mic, or reading alone when you’re down. And, of course, even a classroom at an apparently homogenous college (like mine) is a gathering of wildly various experiences and needs. What it boils down to: many syllabi and anthologies are carefully curated, inclusive among many axes, and generally wonderful, but they remain documents of networks, access, and other specific, temporary conditions.

Emerging from English department hothouse-politics into the different canons and procedures of Creative Writing, I have to say, oh, man, here we go again. Plenty of people who publish annual best-of lists know perfectly well that what they really mean is “what I liked most among the books that presses sent me or I heard publicity for or came across randomly.” Their newspaper or magazine editors just won’t allow such an egregious headline. Still, these lists bug me, even though, probably hypocritically, I would be quite happy to see one of my books appear on almost any of them. I’m more than delighted when something I wrote delights anyone, and a media boost is awesome. I just don’t like this annual critical abandonment of knowing better.

So here are some 2020 poetry books I like that didn’t appear, to my knowledge, on any best-of-year list or major postpublication prize longlist (I also liked a lot of books that are critical faves, but I’m putting them aside for the moment). The beauties in the picture happened to be in my home office this week (I had already toted others to my work office). Among those shelved across town, special praise to Kaveh Bassiri, 99 Names of Exile; Tess Taylor, Last West; Jessica Guzman’s Adelante; and all the books I had the pleasure of featuring in my spring-summer Virtual Salon (which I’d be happy to reboot if you contact me with a newish book–just message me). There are many, many other exciting collections I haven’t read yet, and everything I found rewarding enough to finish in 2020 is listed below the photo. An asterisk doesn’t mean it’s “better,” just that it was published during the year before I read it. I notice I read a ton of poetry this year but much less prose than usual–that has to do with fragmented concentration–although there are many new books in those categories I also loved.

Best wishes to all of us for a good new year full of good-for-something literature, good-enough health, and please-be-better government. On the reading side, nourish yourself with books, buy from indies when you can, give love to small presses without publicity machines, and like what you like no matter what the critics or professors say!

POETRY (82 books and chapbooks)

  • 1/12 Jeanne Heuving, Mood Indigo* (bought at a conference)
  • 1/12 Tyrone Williams, chapbook* (bought at a conference)
  • 1/18 Harjo, She Had Some Horses (teaching)
  • 1/19 Harjo, American Sunrise* (fandom)
  • 1/22 Rukeyser, The Book of the Dead (reread for teaching)
  • 1/26 Forche, The Country Between Us (reread for teaching)
  • 2/12 Cooley, Breach (reread for teaching)
  • 2/15 Spencer, If the House* (fandom)
  • 2/19 Young, Ardency (reread for class)
  • 3/4 Dove, Thomas and Beulah (reread for class)
  • 3/7 Bassiri, 99 Names of Exile* (gift)
  • 3/7 Witte, All Fires Don’t Burn the Same (gift)
  • 3/8 Smith, Wade in the Water (reread for class)
  • 3/20 Nethercott, The Lumberjack’s Dove (reread for class)
  • 3/21 Liz Hazen, Girls Like Us* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 3/22 William Woolfitt, Spring Up Everlasting* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 3/25 Elizabeth Lindsay Rogers, The Tilt Torn Away from the Seasons* (Virtual Salon)
  • 3/29 Phillips Bell, Ornament (reread for class)
  • 4/3 Cabrera, lack begins as a tiny rumble* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/6 Savage, Detail (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/6 Michael, Barefoot Girls* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/11 Taylor, Rift Zone* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/18 Chan, All Heathens* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/19 Green, The More Extravagant Feast* (local friend)
  • 4/27 Dungy, Trophic Cascade (reread for teaching)
  • 4/29 Robinson, Needville (reread for Virtual Salon)
  • 5/9 Kildegaard & Hasse, Rocked by the Waters* (anthology I’m in)
  • 5/10 Dickey, Mud Blooms (for Virtual Salon)
  • 5/15 Silano, Gravity Assist (reread for Virtual Salon)
  • 5/23 Balbo, The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 6/2 Greenfield, Letdown* (for virtual salon)
  • 6/6 Solari, The Last Girl (fandom)
  • 6/12 Walker, Maps of a Hollowed World* (blurb)
  • 6/27 Egan, Hot Flash Sonnets (fandom)
  • 7/6 Petrosino, White Blood* (ad)
  • 7/14 Diaz, Postcolonial Love Poem* (fandom)
  • 8/1 Voigt, Kyrie (friend recommendations)
  • 8/2 Atkins, Still Life with God* (local friend)
  • 8/3 Guzman, Adelante* (Shenandoah author)
  • 8/4 Hong, Fablesque* (fandom)
  • 8/5 Davoudian, Swan Song* (Shenandoah author)
  • 8/6 Matejka, The Big Smoke (reviews/ buzz)
  • 8/7 Hedge Coke, Burn (fandom)
  • 8/8 Sealey, Ordinary Beast (reputation)
  • 8/9 Chang, Obit* (fandom)
  • 8/10 Perez, Habitat Threshold* (fandom)
  • 8/11 Corral, guillotine* (reputation)
  • 8/12 Neale, To the Occupant (fandom)
  • 8/13 Bailey, Visitation* (pressmate)
  • 8/14 Chatti, Deluge* (buzz)
  • 8/15 Muench, Wolf Centos (recommendation)
  • 8/16 Flanagan, Glossary of Unsaid Terms* (gift)
  • 8/17 Nuernberger, Rue* (fandom)
  • 8/18 Kapur, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist (fandom)
  • 8/19 Farley, The Mizzy* (gift from a friend)
  • 8/20 Avia, Fale Aitu | Spirit House (fandom)
  • 8/21 Andrews, A Brief History of Fruit* (was sent to me)
  • 8/22 Taylor, Last West* (fandom)
  • 8/23 Harvey, Hemming the Water (reputation)
  • 8/24 Ben-Oni, 20 Atomic Poems (fandom)
  • 8/25 Ewing, Electric Arches (reputation)
  • 8/26 Mountain, Thin Fire (Shenandoah contributor!)
  • 8/27 Randall, How to Tell if You Are Human (spouse the comics reviewer had it)
  • 8/28 Davis, In the Circus of You (bought at a conference)
  • 8/29 Clark, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (reputation)
  • 8/31 Murillo, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry* (buzz)
  • 9/20 Kuppers, Gut Botany* (fandom)
  • 9/21 Su, Middle Kingdom (research)
  • 9/22 Tolmie, The Art of Dying* (research)
  • 9/24 Phillips Bell, Smaller Songs* (fandom)
  • 9/30 Coleman, Selected Poems* (research)
  • 10/1 Van Duyn, Firefall (research)
  • 10/26 Birdsong, Negotiations* (review assignment)
  • 11/14 Malech, Flourishing* (reputation)
  • 12/1 Erdrich, Little Big Bully* (fandom)
  • 12/12 Gay, Be Holding* (fandom)
  • 12/17 Miranda, Altar for Broken Things* (friend)
  • 12/18 O’Hara, The Ghettobirds (ms for blurbing)
  • 12/19 Igloria, Maps for Migrants and Ghosts* (fandom)
  • 12/25 Beatty, The Body Wars* (fandom)
  • 12/26 Daye, Cardinal* (review assignment)
  • 12/31 Oliver, Devotions* (fandom)

FICTION (32)

  • 1/8 Suma, The Walls Around Us (friend’s recommendation)
  • 1/26 Cho, The True Queen* (fandom)
  • 2/24 El-Mohtar and Gladstone, This Is How You Lose the Time War* (reviews)
  • 3/7 Mantel, Every Day is Mother’s Day (review)
  • 3/29 Erdrich, The Night Watchman* (fandom)
  • 5/9 Mantel, The Mirror and the Light* (fandom)
  • 5/28 Mandel, The Glass Hotel* (fandom)
  • 6/3 King, Let It Bleed* (fandom)
  • 6/10 Ng, Little Fires Everywhere (many reviews and friend recommendations)
  • 6/17 Collins, Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes* (fandom)
  • 6/21 Foley, The Guest List* (review)
  • 6/24 Brooks, Year of Wonders (audiobook, review)
  • 6/28 Hill, On Beulah Height (friend’s recommendation)
  • 7/5 King, Salem’s Lot (review)
  • 7/8 Wehunt, Everything Is Beautiful and Nothing Bad Can Ever Happen Here* (social media)
  • 7/13 Baggott, Seventh Book of Wonders (fandom)
  • 7/18 Jones, The Only Good Indian* (fandom)
  • 7/26 Atakora, Conjure Women* (reviews)
  • 8/8 LaValle, Devil in Silver (fandom)
  • 8/16 Bardugo, The Ninth House* (review)
  • 8/27 Hall, Dread Isle (ARCs, in fandom, and for blurb)
  • 9/18 VanderMeers, ed, Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories (a lot of it, anyway)
  • 9/20 LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom* (fandom)
  • 9/24 Tolmie, The Little Animals* (research)
  • 10/11 Galbraith, Troubled Blood* (fandom)
  • 10/18 Dimaline, Empire of Wild* (review)
  • 11/15 Jones, Night of the Mannequins* (fandom)
  • 11/21 Clark, Ring Shout* (reviews)
  • 12/10 Harrigan, Half* (friend’s recommendation)
  • 12/19 White, As Summer’s Mask Slips* (met at a conference)
  • 12/24 Shawl, New Suns (research for teaching)
  • 12/26 Riley, Such a Fun Age* (many recommendations)

NONFICTION/ HYBRID (8)

  • 1/4 Reynolds, Walt Whitman (teaching prep)
  • 1/12 Macfarlane, Underland* (recommendation from friends)
  • 4/10 Buntin, Sheffield, Dodd, Dear America* (anthology I’m in)
  • 4/12 Finch, ed., Choice Words* (anthology I’m in)
  • 5/17 Selznick, Live Oak With Moss (for class)
  • 7/6 Sheldrake, Entangled Life* (review and fungal curiosity)
  • 8/30 Nezhukumatathil, World of Wonders* (fandom)
  • 9/? Lee and Winslow, eds., Deep Beauty* (anthology I’m in)

*published within the last year or so

December cadralor

I found a new poetic form this week through Dave Bonta’s always excellent Poetry Blog Digest: the cadralor. JJS quotes a definition in the post “The good, the bad, and the ugly”: “The cadralor is a poem of 5 unrelated, numbered stanzaic images, each of which can stand alone as a poem, is fewer than 10 lines, and ideally constrains all stanzas to the same number of lines. Imagery is crucial to cadralore: each stanza should be a whole, imagist poem, almost like a scene from a film or a photograph. The fifth stanza acts as the crucible, alchemically pulling the unrelated stanzas together…and answer[ing] the compelling question: ‘For what do you yearn?’” I drafted a cadralor for the last entry in my November poem-a-day-effort. (I’m not sure anyone in my group managed consistent daily pieces, but drafting and revising any poetry at all felt like a success!) It also occurred to me that the cadralor resembles a multi-section blog post, so here’s a stab at it.

  1. It’s gusty and cold; my son, home from college, is doing virtual math classes in plaid pajamas at the dining room table; and I suspect I’m not going anywhere for a long time now, beyond sepia-toned trails through the woods. Reading time. I just finished the new poetry collection by Heid E. Erdrich, Little Big Bully–she’s “visiting” virtually this winter as a writer in residence and a group of faculty are having a book-club-style discussion of her book, which won last year’s National Poetry Series. It’s a powerful study of colonialism, sexual assault, racism, contemporary U.S. politics, and how to live against and through it with love for people and the land. Heid is an Ojibwe poet enrolled at Turtle Mountain and she lives in Minnesota, so it’s a wintry book. Strongly recommended.
  2. The apparition of poets’ faces on a Zoom/ petals in a wet dark month: in a weird parallel to Heid’s visit, I’m going to be the virtual Pearl S. Buck Poet in Residence at Randolph College this February! (When I proposed our writer in residence series, I actually modeled it partly on what Randolph was already doing. Here’s something on what Fran Wilde did last semester–she sounds wonderful.) This means a reading, class visits, and teaching a 1-credit master class in four sessions to a small group of advanced undergrads. Apparently some of these poets are also into sf, so I’m developing a syllabus called “Haunted and Weird.” I was offered the honor out of the blue last month, a saving spar in the usual late-fall surge of rejections.
  3. I also recorded a reading for the “Hot L” series in Baltimore recently. Paired with one by Anna Maria Hong, it will air soon. I am reading live (virtually) on Monday, January 4th in the Cafe Muse series, too. Details forthcoming. These are lucky acceptances and I feel like I get the medium now–how to be engaging, project warmth, from a little box on a screen–but it remains, to me, a strange way to connect with audiences. I am rooting for vaccination in time for spring’s pastel emergences.
  4. Meanwhile, I want to hibernate like a bear, which for this poet means writing, reading, and occasionally baking and decking the halls–not talking to anyone, not continuing to promote this year’s books, definitely not planning for the next book, consuming news only in nibbles. I had been hoping for a burst of energy after the stresses of November, but no. Slow metabolism. Plodding work.
  5. In one lovely way, though, my December introversion and my dreams of eventual blossom are about to come together. The new issue of Shenandoah will be live in a week and a half, and Beth Staples and her crew have arranged a launch party this Thursday 12/3 at 7 pm eastern. I hope you’ll join us at https://wlu.zoom.us/j/97991372692 for a bunch of brief readings, songs chosen by writers, and more. The poets will be Samyak Shertok, Hannah Dow, Ashley Jones, and Isabel Acevedo, all of whom have beautiful pieces in the forthcoming issue, which I’m excited to share soon. The interns recommend the following recipe for sipping during the party, and I’ll tell you how I do cider after that. Cheers!

Bog Fog Recipe

1 cup apple cider, 1 cup cranberry juice, 1 cinnamon stick, ¼ cup of cloves, bundled in a coffee filter tied with cooking string (or loose, and filtered when poured)

Simmer concoction in pot on stovetop until the whole kitchen smells like cozying up on a cold winter day. Pour into favorite mug. If holiday cheer is desired, stir in a shot of rum or other favorite booze.

Mulling a la poetesse

Who needs measurement, much less cranberry juice? I warm a pot full of good farmer’s market cider slowly, adding the following in a tea ball: a bunch of cloves, a cinnamon stick broken in half (smashing things is satisfying), and a chunk of fresh ginger. I used to stick the cloves in an orange but that, frankly, is a pain in the butt. A tot of dark rum is strongly recommended. It’s going to be a long winter.