Virtual Salon #4 with Elizabeth Hazen

We've been called so many things that we are not,  
we startle at the sound of our own names.  
          -Elizabeth Hazen, from "Devices" 

I’ll be teaching a virtual Whitman and Dickinson course in our May term, and because it may be pass/ fail only, it’s especially urgent to come up with assignments my undergraduates will genuinely want to do. Here’s one, although I forget where I picked up this idea because I’ve been doing SO MUCH READING about virtual education: create a virtual meal based on the reading, including a menu and place settings. Dickinson has so many poems about the lack of food (“It would have starved a Gnat–,” etc.) that this idea is weirdly perfect for her poems.

There’s a similar concern with binge and privation in Elizabeth Hazen’s Girls Like Us, as she describes in the interview below. Sometimes zooming in on pain, sometimes regarding it from a wry distance, Hazen focuses on intense material: gender-based violence, addiction and recovery, and, not least, the damage even language itself can do. In style, she’s what Marilyn Taylor has called a “semi-formalist,” sometimes writing in slim columns of free verse but elsewhere deploying meter and rhyme; these shapes work the way Adrienne Rich said her own formalism did, as a way of approaching a conflagration with “asbestos gloves.” The heat in Hazen’s second collection is fierce, but so is the beauty. See, for example, the last poem in the book, which makes my heart ache: “Monarch,” among the earliest poems Beth and I chose for the new Shenandoah.

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

This is a tough one . . . many poems in the book explore alcoholism and its fallout; others allude to disordered eating and anorexia – so the question of appropriate refreshments to go with this book is fraught . . . If one wanted to emulate the women in many of the poems, straight liquor – any kind – would be a fitting refreshment; another version of the party’s menu could be the austere black coffee and stale donuts or off-brand cookies so often associated with recovery. A wild array of mocktails would be better suited to a celebration, though, and I do love kombucha. Powerbars would be an suitable snack – not for their substance, so much as for their names; this collection looks closely at power dynamics, particularly those related to gender, and I’m a sucker for puns.

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

So far, I would say, I am physically healthy. My mental state is stable. I have adopted a “one day at a time” approach to moving through these weeks and months. I am trying to actively practice gratitude each day, lest I fall into the trap of bemoaning all the canceled events and missed opportunities. I am getting used to my own face staring at me as I record videos for my students. I realize that I miss them, and this is bittersweet; I will be very happy to be back in my classroom again.

When I’m not busy with school-related work, I putter. I completed a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, and my crossword game is growing fiercer; I have been considering cross-stitching. Writing comes in sharp little bursts, then eludes me for days. I am trying to be patient, to find a voice that’s louder than the one telling me all the things I “should” be doing. I am finding a new rhythm, as we all are, and trying to remember that this, like everything, is temporary.

How can your virtual audience find out more?

You can find me at elizabethhazen.com, but the best way to learn more is to check out my publisher’s website, https://alansquirepublishing.com/book-authors/elizabeth-hazen/

Still at the Egg-life–

I’m dormant these days, sometimes “chafing the shell,” as Dickinson wrote, but also conserving energy and trying to stay focused. Some hibernaculum thoughts:

  1. I clearly know nothing about words or publishing, because I posted my most popular tweet ever this week and it was about…boots. Success, if that’s what that is, isn’t always confidence-inspiring.
  2. I am working hard to launch my books with a bang, but this effort is grounded in sheer stubborn grit. Made a promise to myself; gonna keep it.
  3. “February is not my favorite month,” I told a kind person who is also my hairdresser. He answered, “Good title for a poem.” Maybe I’ll write it when I hatch.
  4. I’d be lying like a Fox newscaster if I didn’t admit to cracks in my self-containment. Thanks to Colleen Anderson for posting a Q&A with me in her Women in Horror Month series. Two magazines with my work in them just arrived, too–Hampden-Sydney Review and 32 Poems–and those editors have placed my poems in dazzling company.
  5. I am also reading the news and issuing an occasional plea to representatives (talk about horror!). I suspect and fear this corrupt and compassionless president will be voted into a second term, not least because he’s doing his best to disempower voters. I want a President Warren and don’t understand this country’s grudge against competent women–of everyone in the running, she’s the person I trust most profoundly to fix what’s broken–but whoever wins the Democratic nomination, I’ll be all-in. The stakes are so high for vulnerable human beings and for the more-than-human world.
  6. A zone that’s smaller, but in which my power and responsibility are greater: I am, again, amazed by my students’ energy, talent, and ambition, and I am determined to serve them well, but I am struggling to keep my teaching and advising load within a reasonably-sized container. This term it’s a composition course on speculative fiction; a general education course called Poetry and Music; and a small senior seminar on documentary poetics (we’re currently reading poems responding to Hurricane Katrina). I’m also advising an honors thesis and prepping a brand new Whitman-Dickinson course for our May term, all of which is fun, but could easily keep me in my eggshell office around the clock. The grading alone!
  7. Yet I AM making some time for those double book launch preparations–not a ton, but some. I’m inquiring, applying, and updating my Events page when something comes through, all the while trying to tamp down my delicate-flower dismay about asking for things AND pondering how much busy-ness Future Me will be able to handle (Chris sometimes says, “Former Chris, the one who put me in this position, was an asshole.”) Next year is my sabbatical, so there has to be time in there to write, revise, recharge.
  8. Tiny triumph: please check out the book launch party flier below, which despite its simplicity took much of Saturday morning to put together.
  9. I also finally squashed down my loathing of being photographed to book a headshot session with Anne Valerie Portrait. Turns out the photographer is a lovely person with a calming vibe. When she said, during our first meeting, that she usually has a long preparation process but had read my blog and recognized that I need to do this efficiently, conserving energy, I almost burst into tears. Maybe it can be good to be seen.
  10. What I’d like to do right now? A box of mss just came from Cider Review Press, because I’m serving as this year’s judge. I want to read read read–something I know for sure I’m good at. Pondering them will be good work for February’s closed-in evenings, when wind rattles the tin roof and poems are the only hubbub I feel drawn to.

Not with a whimper but a bang!

Actually, that title sounds sexual–sorry. I MEAN to tell you how my year is ending, show off some cool student work, and wish you a happy solstitial impeachment frenzy.

My happy news–honored above by a photo of Ursula ecstatic about catnip–is receiving a Katherine Bakeless Nason Scholarship to Breadloaf Environmental Writers Conference this June. This is also the season I gear up for book publicity, and I’m SO glad to have ONE set of dates in stone now, as I query bookstores and reading series and the like. I’m thinking I’ll roadtrip to Vermont and book a few dates at mid-points along the journey, since both the poetry collection and the novel will be out by then. I’m also applying for additional conferences, residencies, etc., which is a ton of work. I’m really grateful that of the dozen or more applications I’ve already put out there, one came through. In the spirit of making visible my shadow c.v.: I’ve also received a cartload of rejections and non-answers (if you can imagine those ghostly silences filling up a cart, anyway). That’s just the way it goes, but it’s good to have one nice shiny “yes” to light up these long dark nights.

I’m also preparing, intellectually and socially, for the MLA conference in Seattle in January, where I’ll be speaking on a panel organized by Janine Utell called “The Space Between Creative Nonfiction and Literary Criticism:  Theorizing, Writing, Publishing Critical/Creative Hybrids.” Right up my alley, but I still have work to do on my remarks. I have a lovely date set up with Jeannine Hall Gailey for the day I arrive, and I’ll also be reading with her on Saturday the 11th at Open Books, but I’d love to see as many friends as possible, so please let me know if you’ll be there.

That’s on top of Shenandoah and tenure-file reading, holiday prep, and all the other little tasks I fell behind on during the term, so this week has been pretty intense. I hope to put up a blog around new year’s, though, about the year’s reading, and another about certain resolutions that are forming in my stubborn brain. In the meantime, some delights from last week’s grading.

In U.S. Poetry from 1900-1950, my fall upper-level seminar, the students became so excited about researching little magazines that I ended up giving my students an experimental option in lieu of a second conventional essay: they could create 8 pages of a little magazine from the period, including a cover, masthead, mission statement, table of contents, and a few “solicited” submissions (mostly real poems from the period, but they were allowed to make up one or two plausible imaginary modernists, too, and write poems in those personas). They also had to write reflective essays explaining their literary and design choices and providing a bibliography of models and other sources they consulted. You’ll notice that’s actually MORE work than a conventional essay, but perhaps more fun. I’m sneaky that way. Pictures below, plus a particularly cool videopoem from my creative writing workshop.

Moving Poem by Amanda Deans

Modernism in Native American Heritage Month

Getting crafty with Langston Hughes, by Avery Younis–you can move the strips to recreate poems

Some terrific people at my university just organized our first ever Native American Heritage Month, involving two lectures, two documentaries, and a poetry reading with tastings of traditional foods. I made it to four out of five events, and every one was interesting, moving, and really fun–I’m so grateful to the organizers for their work.

The commemoration also made me return to a teaching/ research question that’s bothered me for a long time. My “modernist” poetry course hasn’t, in fact, carried that label for years, because I find it limited and misleading. Instead, I teach “U.S. Poetry from 1900-1950.” Alongside the modernist canon I was trained in, and the white women poets I added to my mental list of innovators during my PhD years, we read the formalisms of Frost, Millay, Cullen, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and others, and the poetic experiments of the New Negro Renaissance (these people and bodies of work overlap, of course). I’m currently teaching the most inclusive version of this course I’ve ever constructed. So where are the Native American poets?

There are a few modernist scholars out there doing great work to answer that question. I read a 2017 essay by Kirby Brown last week that I found really helpful: “American Indian modernities and new modernist studies’ ‘Indian Problem.'” He trains some light on Native prose writers–some of whom I knew, like Zitkála-Šá, and some novel writers of the 1930s I’d never heard of, especially John Joseph Mathews, D’Arcy McNickle, and Oskison. Of course, many scholars would say my periodization is wrong. I’m ending my course around 1950, and it’s easier to find work by marginalized writers in the modernist style, or bearing some relation to the style some call modernism, in the 50s and 60s. The prime example there is always Scott Momaday, whose hybrid novel (containing lots of poems) House Made of Dawn was published in 1969. Once you get into the 1970s and 80s, there’s a much richer array of Native writers publishing in every genre, and there’s no excuse for syllabi surveying those periods excluding them.

But what it I want to focus on the jostle of poetic styles and agendas in North American in the first half of the century–defining the class by decade instead of by style? I know Native America was visible and interesting to certain white writers, especially Marianne Moore (who taught business English in the Carlisle Indian School as a very young woman), H.D. (mostly in her novels), and William Carlos Williams. I have also observed that numerous biographies ascribe Native American heritage to poets of the New Negro Renaissance, although usually in a vague, distant way. Anne Spencer knew she had Seminole forebears and identified with that nation; biographers of Georgia Douglas Johnson and Langston Hughes, however, merely say they had “French, African, and Indian blood,” with no hint of how to find out more. I point out those intersections to my students, but it still doesn’t seem like enough.

Kirby Brown did give me one lead I’m excited to follow up: Lynn Riggs (Cherokee), most famous as a playwright (he wrote the play upon which the musical Oklahoma! is based), also published poetry. I’ve ordered the one collection he published in his lifetime, The Iron Dish (1930), and the posthumous collection, This Book, This Hill, This People (1982), but they’re out of print so might take a while to arrive. In the meantime, I showed my students a few poems published by Poetry and therefore easy to find online (bless the Poetry Foundation!): a sonnet about loss, “Dawn–Late Summer,” and an incantatory, mysterious poem in quatrains, “The Room” (1943). Maybe I can assign a more robust grouping, with more understanding of how to read them, next time. That’s always the hitch, and the intriguing puzzle, isn’t it? As the endlessly irritating and yet not wrong T. S. Eliot observed, each new writer makes you reconsider everything that has come before. I need to find ways to read Riggs, and doing so will put the whole canon in a different light, just as making a deep study of Millay, Hughes, and modernist poetry performance did.

In the meantime, my students have given me permission to share their visual readings of my favorite long poem, Montage of a Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes. They’re pretty great, including one reading typgraphy as musical notation, and another, by Garrett Clinton, clocking the poems’ hours. (See here or here for more on how I construct the assignment.) There’s just one more week of classes after the Thanksgiving break (on George Herriman’s Krazy Kat). As usual, I feel sad about that–and not a little grateful.

In a Samhain state of mind

Not to get too pagan on you, but this week I can feel wheels turning, for good and ill. On the good side: above is the cover of my first novel, to be released in June 2020. I’ve been so grateful for the excitement people have expressed about it. As I keep saying, this venture feels more like a leap into the dark than poetry publishing. I’m getting publicity gears grinding for my March 2020 poetry collection, too, but I know perfectly well that except for rare cases, “Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon,” as Don Marquis poetically said, “and waiting for the echo.” I worked insanely hard on that novel, I’m proud of it, and I WILL get out there to give readings, etc.–but will it be like dropping a moderately-sized rose bush into the Grand Canyon, meaning, not much more echo-producing? I really have no clue. I feel pretty philosophical about it these days; I just want to know, a year from now, that I gave all my pretty rose petals the most energetic pitch possible.

Pitching, however, is a LOT of work. The “bad” of this liminal season is feeling stressed and anxious as I step from the overwork of October (teaching, grading, applications, event programming) to the overwork of November (teaching, conferencing, applications, and exceptionally heavy committee work). I just keep plotting out tasks on my calendar, trying to prove to myself that it CAN be done, and hoping I reach Thanksgiving in one piece. I’m also trying, to whatever extent possible, to pare off obligations that rev up my worries and spend time instead on what makes me feel better.

Ridiculously, that sometimes means work, but the kind of labor that produces an experience of flow rather than jitteriness. I gave Monday morning over to intensive lesson-planning, doing some background reading on William Carlos Williams and getting ready for tomorrow’s campus visit by the fabulous Lauren K. Alleyne, and you know what? I felt noticeably better after those hours of concentration. Answering email: not so soothing.

Today’s treat was reading a splendid new anthology I am lucky enough to have a poem in: the brand-new Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia, edited by Rose McLarney and Laura-Gray Street. They commissioned pieces on various plants and creatures from poets with connections to the region, and so many of the poems are gorgeous and moving. Each species, too, is described by naturalist L.L. Gaddy and illustrated in black-and-white by seven Southern Appalachian artists. The resulting book is both local and diverse, and truly a stunner.

The next task: prepping for the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference starting on 11/8, because I’ll be away this weekend, visiting the kids (it’s Haverford’s Family Weekend). That’s downtime I sorely need, as I keep telling myself as I watch work pile up on either side of it… but I’ll be striving to be in the moment there, and at the conference, too. Check out the program; it looks kind of brilliant.

What I want to do most of all is work on a short story I’m feeling excited about; the poetry hasn’t been coming lately. And that leads to one last Samhainish thought: one of the funny things about publication is that by the time the work gets out there, you’re often mentally and emotionally moving on to new ideas. When you give a reading or do other kinds of promotion, you can feel like you’re trying to call up the dead and hoping the doors to the otherworld open, as they’re supposed to do this time of year. Come, ghosts, and help me out. I have, in fact, been thinking about my father and dreaming about my maternal grandmother, as if spirits are visiting–and I’ve also been remembering that tarot card reading I got around New Year’s, when the psychic told me two ghosts were following me around. If they are, and they want to be of use, maybe they could help with the committee work?

Teaching US Poetry from 1900-1950

I started teaching modernism as a graduate student, leading discussion sections for Walt Litz at Princeton in ’91. When I arrived at W&L in ’94, I resolved to teach much more diverse syllabi: I put the version of modernism I’d studied in conversation with the New Negro Renaissance and included many women writers (Walt’s syllabus was all white and male). Soon I was bringing in formalist modernism, too–featuring the so-called “songbird poets” and analyzing various kinds of experiment that earlier discussions of the field hadn’t made much space for. Something I love about teaching, though, is that you can’t just rest on your laurels: I’m teaching you a version of modernism that’s fuller and more complicated than the one I received–aren’t I the greatest? Changes in scholarship and theory demand renovated approaches, but so do the students themselves.

I posted on Facebook recently that my students have never been so alert to questions of gendered and sexual violence in “The Waste Land” as they were this October. I was really glad I had this recent suite of short essays from Modernism/ modernity to bring to class, organized by Megan Quigley and centered on how #metoo has changed conversations about a modernist poetic monument. My current students think sexual violation, as reality and metaphor, is at the very foundation of modernism, and while I’ve always highlighted those elements in certain poems, I’m still trying to get my head around that as a perspective shift on the whole field. They’re very interested, too, in modernist portrayals of mental illness and how it’s persistently feminized; the more I consider those questions, the more foundational they seem, as well. Honestly, I wish I had more than twelve weeks with these students, so we could deepen our reading together.

We are, however, past midterms already! This weekend I’m reading their first essays, and the scholar to whom I owe the most for the success of this assignment is Suzanne Churchill at Davidson, a scholar of modernist little magazine culture and another Princeton survivor (it was a messed-up place back then). When W&L’s Digital Humanities cohort brought Suzanne here a few years ago, she visited a version of the class I’m now teaching; for the occasion, she loaned me a little magazine assignment she’d been using in her own courses. I’ve since modified it into a sequence of steps: we read Suzanne’s essay “Little Magazines” from Companion to Modernist Poetry; used class time to compare poems from our texts to their original presentations in little magazines; and read this excellent website on Georgia Douglas Johnson that Suzanne created with her students. Then we devoted a session to informal presentations of this response paper assignment:

“Go to the Modernist Journals Project site and either browse through the magazines or search for an author you’re interested in and follow the links (search last name, first name—it’s not case sensitive). Find an issue of a journal that interests you. It should be published between 1900 and 1945, and it should include at least one poem. Then post a brief reflection (~300 words) in which you identify and briefly describe the issue you chose and why you chose it, saying something about how a poem within it relates to other content and/or design elements. What kind of readership does the magazine seem to be projecting? How do font, layout, juxtaposition, and/or illustration affect the poem’s meaning?”

Finally, they wrote 8-page essays comparing poems in little magazines to other published versions, either building on that response paper or switching focus, if they preferred. I shouldn’t report on their discoveries here because this assignment resulted in some actual original scholarship–illuminating publishing circumstances that haven’t been discussed in print before, to my knowledge, although, of course, we’d all have to do a LOT of work to determine that for sure. This means that grading their essays has been slow (I have a lot of backtracking to do, as everyone wrote on different pieces/ publications) but genuinely exciting.

I had originally cancelled this coming Friday’s session, requiring them to go to at least part of a department retreat instead, but the scholar whom we had invited to visit cancelled. So, I asked these students, what would you prefer? Go to a different lecture or reading as class make-up, or reinstate that class and choose readings for it, anything you like? To my surprise, they wanted the class back, and they wanted to focus it on contemporary poems responding in some way to the modernists we’re studying. I’ve had a lot of fun assembling a reading packet! Not surprisingly, many of my own poems have been triggered by modernism, but I’m mostly steering clear of my own stuff in favor of Bishop on Moore; Wendy Cope and Jeremy Richards on Eliot; Evie Shockley on Anne Spencer; Honoree Fanonne Jeffers on Helene Johnson; William Woolfitt and Cynthia Hogue on H.D.; David Ray, Lauren K. Alleyne, and Hilde Weisert on Frost; Kenneth Koch on Williams; Terrance Hayes and Franny Choi on Hughes; and more (many of these great poems are not online). Thanks to Diane Kendig, Max Chapnick, and others for suggestions–please post more in the comments!

In short, in a busy season, this class is absorbing a lot of energy and creativity. I could use an extra weekend every week, one for the work and one for some downtime…but I’m also really happy that I can teach this class for so many years and still, well, make it new.

Work: 25 notions & reveries

  1. This is my twenty-fifth fall teaching poetry at my first real job, at a liberal arts college in Virginia. I never thought I would stay this long.
  2. When I arrived, I was twenty-six with a new PhD and limited experience. A bunch of publications and a bazillion classes later, I am a better teacher, scholar, and poet, but I am still learning.
  3. During the same period, I brought into the world and helped raise two children. Five days ago, we moved the youngest into his first college dorm. He seems to be enjoying orientation but also has an appetite for academic work. His classes start tomorrow.
  4. So much change! This Labor Day weekend, I helped settle the eldest into a third-floor studio in a Philadelphia brownstone so she can start HER first real job. Her furnishings include items from my own post-graduation apartment: wooden chairs we picked up at a college surplus sale and a table we bought with one of Chris’ first paychecks as a high school teacher.
  5. It was fun to have a little spending money after a couple of years of grad-student penury, to buy a couch rather than lug a castoff away from a New Brunswick curb!
  6. Chris loved that teaching job, where he had stellar colleagues. The high school gig he started once we moved to Virginia was less rewarding in all ways.
  7. He taught there a while; then was a stay-at-home dad for a few years; then earned an MFA in fiction; then adjunct-taught at my college; and then, twenty years after the big move, earned a tenure-track slot in my department. He loves his job again.
  8. I mostly love mine, but I’ve seen it change massively. In the 90s, many students were amazing and some colleagues were role models, but classes were big, loads heavy. I still work sixty hours a week during the term but I can serve the students better; it feels saner.
  9. And they’re different students–more diverse in every way, in a century growing hotter by the minute. Demographics and politics change the job; these students need different things from me.
  10. I like change, I’ve realized, or at least some of it.
  11. Change is built into academic life. Tired of a certain course dynamic? No worries. The term is nearly over. You can reboot radically any minute now.
  12. Writing is like that, too. Within a poem, you pivot. Between projects, you reinvent what you aspire to do.
  13. Maybe I’m more fond of pivoting than some people?
  14. As I become an empty-nester, I am also becoming a stronger prose writer. My forthcoming novel will be called Unbecoming and it concerns midlife transitions.
  15. I’ll be doing final edits on the novel this fall, in between classes and committee work and grant applications and Shenandoah work. Yikes.
  16. I’m doing final edits on my forthcoming poetry book, The State She’s In, this week. Hard work, but fun, too.
  17. We have a launch date for the poetry book: March 17th, with prelaunch copies available at AWP!
  18. Awesome! Terrifying!
  19. This poetry book, my fifth full-length collection, feels like a big one.
  20. Everything feels momentous right now. Cusp, limen, hinge.
  21. My cat Ursula isn’t interested. She alternately sits on my neck, so I can’t type this post, and bites my toes, so I can’t type this post.
  22. When my daughter was applying for policy jobs in D.C., she felt anxious about it. Understandable, I thought–what a transition!–but I also admit I felt impatient. What would be the next step in her life, and therefore in mine?
  23. When she started applying for teaching jobs instead, her anxiety shifted to excitement. (Oh, I thought: it wasn’t just anxiety before, but inner struggle over a deeper uncertainty.) This Thursday, exactly one week after submitting her first four teaching applications, everything clicked. She was hired by a progressive preschool, a place that seems like a great fit for her–to start five days later. Double yikes.
  24. Follow the excitement is a pretty good life motto. It’s certainly a good way to write. If a project feels bogged down, I try to pivot, play around, think about what would make it fun again.
  25. Paychecks are important; doing useful work in the world is important. But the biggest question on my mind (besides, um, can I really meet all my obligations this school year?) is: how can I make these sad, hard, exhausting, exciting, whirlwind changes also, somehow, fun?

Dear poetry professor on submissions (plus dropped balls, tombstones, & “Hap”)

The New York Times ran a “Working Woman’s Handbook” section in the print edition this Sunday, and I read it from cover to cover, even though it defeated the REASON I get the print edition on Sunday mornings, the whole indulgence-with-a-pot-of-tea-on-the-sofa vibe. The handbook made my adrenaline surge and muscles tighten: “Negotiating While Female,” “Ditch the Mommy Guilt,” “Document Everything”–all too close to home! The feature was very business-oriented, and some of it underplays the self-questioning that SHOULD be part of an artist or an intellectual’s working life no matter the gender, but I’m still keeping it open to the article by Jessica Bennett on impostor syndrome. Self-talk and visualization feel goofy, but I am SO guilty of some of the self-undermining behaviors Bennett describes, and I need to stop.

This post is occasioned by another piece from that suite: “Work Life Balance Is a Myth” by Tiffany Dufu (this one doesn’t seem to be online although Dufu has published these ideas in other venues). On the way towards the subheadings “Drop Balls” and “Say No” (Drop the Ball is the name of Dufu’s book), Dufu offers a “visualization exercise adapted from the book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’: Imagine three people eulogizing you at your funeral. What would they say about you? What do you hope they say about you?…Now ask yourself: Are you on the path to becoming the person they describe?” 

In grad school, I had a running joke with some friends that I wanted my tombstone to read “Brilliant and Lovable.” I’m not invested in those particular adjectives anymore–I think I was beginning to worry, back then, about the implicit conflict between them, the idea that for a woman to be brilliant (work first) requires violating the social requirement to be nurturing (people first), and that therefore a brilliant woman is unwomanly. Anyway, I’d rather sidestep THAT mess these days, but the content of my aspirations is similar: while I don’t care if Joe Schmoe finds me “nurturing” and I resist spending my whole life on care-taking activities, I do hope my friends and loved ones feel loved by me. I hope my writing is valued and enjoyed by others. And I hope my students find me to be a good and generous teacher. 

It strikes me that these hopes are not entirely consonant with Dufu’s admonitions to “Drop Balls” and “Say No.” My list does reveal that I don’t care about appearances, not in a deep way, so I should ditch those vestigial anxieties. But being a good and generous teacher means saying “yes” a lot, even when you’re tired and overextended–giving students your full and open attention, when you can. And I’ve been in this job for 25 years, and many former students are still looking for help, so it can be a lot! For instance, I received another out-of-the blue query last weekend from someone who graduated maybe 10 years ago. I thought, first, this is the sort of ball I should drop; and then, second, but I want to be helpful; then, third, maybe I can repurpose the help I give by editing these occasional, mostly off-screen scraps of mentoring. Maybe if I collect and, occasionally, post them, they’ll help others. One exchange is below, a little edited and developed, name redacted. I hope to do it again sometime, so let me know if you have a question, whether or not you’ve ever been enrolled in one of my classes!

And finally, a request. I am collecting the names of essays, books, and poems for a future blog on literary menopause occasioned by a recent New Yorker review of Steinke’s new book. I have several to start with from the latter piece, but I really wish I could think of more poems (besides Moira Egan’s terrific Hot Flash Sonnets!). It’s personal, too, of course: I’ve been in an exhausting amount of joint pain lately, and still have other doctors to consult, but my not-very-helpful GP suggested yesterday these may be untreatable menopause systems (some people react to a drop in estrogen with painful inflammation). I need medical enlightenment, but I’d also appreciate some literary company.   

Q: Hi Professor, 

I have been published a bunch of times but never poems I expect – my best stuff hasn’t been picked up yet and I am curious – how do you go about editing or curating your poems so that you can get them published? 

A: The short version: time/distance plus persistence, with a garnish of recognizing how random publishing can be.

In more detail: I wait for months until the poem is strange to me, so I can be objective about its strengths and weaknesses. I’ve just been rereading poems I drafted during the past year or two, preparing to submit or re-submit them, and I found a few gems; a lot of poems with strong potential but clunky or underdeveloped passages; and some I was once excited about but now realize might not go anywhere. Some poems I thought were shiny and near-complete disappoint me now, and that’s common–with critical distance, I’m better able to admit that a certain element doesn’t work, even though I’m fond of it. Sometimes I have to excise an opening stanza or two, but for me, problems more often occur at or near the end of the poem. (I’ve observed that some poets are great at punchy beginnings and weaker on closure, and others reverse those traits.) You have to be a ruthless trimmer/ re-developer, both for the good of the art and for publishing success, and it just takes a lot of time. There are SO many good poems out there competing for an editor’s attention: the winners are great, or lucky.

Having a few fellow writers to bounce work off of helps, too, whether it’s an informal/ online writing group or an official class. And sending in batches that hang together well, the poems illuminating one other, can help deepen an editor’s sense what you’re up to.

All that said, I’ve heard multiple book editors and contest judges note that the best poems in a book, when you check the acknowledgments, aren’t ones that have been taken by magazines. I’m polishing my next book ms now, including 50-something poems, most of which have been published independently. I still shake my head over the ones that haven’t been, because I feel they’re among my best. Sometimes that’s because they’re risky in some way that’s supported by the book as a whole, but might seem off to a magazine editor with less context. Other times it just seems random. Or am I just wrong about “my best”?…In any case, in addition to bringing your own work to the highest possible shine, keep reading magazines, thinking about fit, and getting the work out there. Hard work and persistence are under your control but the rest is “Crass Casualty,” as Thomas Hardy might say if he were blogging about the po-biz.

A view from the masthead

I read Beth Staples’ Editor’s Note to the new issue of Shenandoah aloud, in the car, from my phone. Chris and I were on our way to a poetry reading by Sara Robinson, Patsy Asuncion, and others at Ragged Branch Distillery–a gorgeous setting–while sun and clouds chased each other across the mountains. We had read an earlier draft of Beth’s essay, which was prompted by a piece of hate mail:

She nailed the revision, we agreed, and then argued about which was the funniest line in the piece. “From a person with questionable taste in fonts,” Chris insisted. No, it’s her rewrite of the opening of Pride and Prejudice, I countered. In any case, Beth’s remarks are important, reflecting questions I often think about while reading submissions AND reading for fun. In much contemporary fiction by white authors, nonwhite characters are typically described by race, while white characters get to be defined by other characteristics, like status or occupation or temperament–which makes me sputter with irritation when I want to be lounging with a paperback.

In verse, how a white author addresses, or sidesteps, whiteness comes through more clearly over a suite of pieces than in a single poem, mostly because a poem contains fewer words and less story than your average prose piece. A poem gives you select glimpses from which you intuit and imagine a landscape. Race, therefore, is sometimes a matter of hints and absences in the poems from this Shenandoah issue. I love them all, and I delight in the ways they refract different identities and experiences: 68.2 contains poetry about language, immigration, aging, abortion, artificial insemination, difficult parents, difficult children, difficult neighbors, food, friendship, nonhuman animals, love, anger, political treaties, sexual harassment, disability, music, apocalypse, and clowns. Race joins that heady mix, but mostly in poems by authors who are not white–and that’s something an editor, and an author, must think about.

Books of mine currently in the publication pipeline–especially a novel and my next poetry collection–DO concern whiteness. In early drafts of these works, I made mistakes, because my skill and thoughtfulness were inadequate. Many editors rejected many of those efforts–rightly, I now believe, although it was discouraging at the time. Writing about race in a contemporary or historical way, from the perspective of a white person who hasn’t always been required to pay attention to it, was/ is risky, and I’m not sure the products are thoroughly successful–I’m worried there are failures in the books I can’t yet see, and really hoping, if so, that my editors will call me out–but in any case, I did learn some things and end up with at least some good writing. I decided I’d rather fail by trying than by silence.

So I especially appreciate Beth’s Editor’s Note. If you find it provocative and/ or useful, also check out the “Gutting the Chicken” feature, about a flash fiction piece by Stephen Graham Jones that was initially rejected. The editors focused on gender questions the piece raised and missed some things about race, and I would say the author did something similar but in reverse, although all parties are brilliant and careful (I think Jones’ work is amazing). The intro, flash fiction, and accompanying interview would be a great suite to teach, raising some pretty interesting editorial and writerly conundrums.

But every piece in the issue is worth reading! I’m particularly excited about the novel excerpt (and eager for Joukhadar’s book–he’ll give a reading here in February). Don’t miss the special features at the bottom of the page, either, which are full of their own insights and challenges. I’m happy, heading into summer, that there’s so much cool stuff to read, even (or especially?) when it makes me uncomfortable–as long as the author doesn’t address me as “girl.”

Errant in the Bewilderness

If I told you I’m just screwing around this week, I’d be exaggerating. This is exam week after our twelve-week winter term, so there’s lots of grading, as well as chores involving grants, event programming, etc. Liberation from the rigors of my former schedule, though–during which I was trying to do much of the same work while also prepping and teaching–is making me feel giddy. It helps that my antibiotics have kicked in, because I came home from a tiring AWP with strep throat. Bonus: it’s really spring!

Each day I’m carving out a little time–maybe just fifteen minutes–to draft something, a poem or the seed of one. This morning I responded to a request from someone who wants poems about Mina Loy. I ended up rereading most of The Lost Lunar Baedeker, which is really teaching-prep, too, because I’ll teach Modern U.S. Poetry in the fall and book orders are just around the corner. I hadn’t spent serious hours with this collection in years and was newly struck by all the beautiful poems about aging. When I was 49, I thought I’d write a suite of poems about my poetic idols when THEY were 49. I ended up writing one sonnet about Edna St. Vincent Millay then quit, because it was so damn depressing. 49 is apparently not the happiest age for women poets. Now, past the hinge of 50, finding Loy’s intelligent take on what she calls the “excessive incognito” of “An Aged Woman” is such a gift. Plus Loy’s coinage “Bewilderness,” which appears in a poem about widowhood called “Letters of the Unliving,” is my new favorite word. I have the most fun when wandering a vague landscape you could call by that name–sort of working, sort of playing around.

One side effect of this work-play is reflection on how I’m spending time. I was just catching up with Dave Bonta’s Poetry Blog Digest and found this great post by Erica Goss about just that–a procedure for carrying the intensities of a major literary conference into a quieter, post-conference writing zone. I think it would mitigate the post-AWP blues I always feel, whether or not I get sick.

Of course, one of the things I’m reflecting about is the very teaching year I’m finishing up (I teach our four-week May term every other year–but not this one!). I honestly don’t know what my creative writing students thought of the first blended-genre workshop I’d taught in years. Many of them did outstanding work, but the vibe in the room was hard to read. My general education course in Protest Poetry, however, was warmly enthusiastic, although plenty of the conversations we had along the way about politics, privilege, and anger itself were very tricky. I posted earlier this term about a benefit reading we organized together. Their final project was to choose their own causes and find a way to advance them through poetry, then write reflective essays about the results. I was so proud and delighted by the variety and quality of their efforts! One student took poetry commissions to benefit Project VOICE; another broadcast a feminist radio show of songs and readings; others waged broadside campaigns about body positivity and the collapse of bee populations. Final products included found poems drawn from community participation; a poetry-infused brochure on the indigenous history of this area; and beautiful little chapbooks on climate change; water crisis; the experiences of queer students at W&L; and addiction and recovery, all distributed to the people who would most appreciate them.

I was so glad I experimented with this assignment, even though, at moments, I was alarmed by my own ambitions. It’s easier for me to play around in my teaching than it is for many others: I’m tenured, my college has great resources, and I teach small classes full of talent. But the Bewilderness, that zone of not knowing what you’re doing and being willing to risk mistakes–it’s where the good stuff happens. I need this breather from the classroom for a while and will make earnest use of it. One of the ways I’ll do so will be dreaming about fall’s wild experiments.