Mother of stories

My mother died early Friday morning of lymphoma in my sister’s house in New Jersey. There’s a lot to process–the good way the family gathered around and helped her through rapidly worsening illness; all that she said to us as we nursed her; great kindness and serious failures in the medical treatment she received–and the logistics have been and continue to be challenging. My brother as executor now has a million kinds of paperwork to do in Pennsylvania, where he and my mother lived together. My sister has a roomful of equipment and supplies to clear, having expected my mother to stay there for months (it turned out to be just 36 hours), and she’s taking the lead with the funeral home. I arrived back in Virginia last night after spending April as a tri-state nomad, helping negotiate facilities and doctor appointments as well as caring for my mostly bedridden mother for five or six days in my brother’s house. I’m also in charge of obituaries, and I’m sure I’ll work through the experiences and feelings of the past few weeks in five bazillion new poems. In this blog, though, where writing intersects with with the complicated business of being a person muddling through, I’m honoring the ways my mother shaped my literary life.

My mother, Patricia Cain Wheeler, wasn’t a writer, but she was an avid reader. Born in Liverpool during World War Two, in a crowded tenement that she longed to escape, books helped her imagine other, better worlds. She was the storyteller-in-chief during my own childhood, conjuring Liverpool in the nineteen-forties in all its sharp contrasts with my suburban New Jersey comforts. I learned about the coal-heated houses she grew up in, with privies and bomb shelters in their back gardens, and in at least one of them, a swing she loved to ride as she daydreamed. My sister and I mapped our respective territories by upholstery seams in the backseat of an Oldsmobile; my mother’s sister drew chalk lines to construct a sort of privacy in their tiny shared bedroom. Rationing meant food was scarce for my mother and her three siblings; I grew up on Cheese Whiz, bacon-draped meatloaf, Wonder Bread, and the British chocolates my grandmother stuffed in her suitcases when she flew over for long visits. My mother’s educational opportunities were very limited, but she won a scholarship to Calderstones High School, where she played Caesar and Macbeth in school plays because, at 5’5”, she was the tallest girl in the class. At sixteen she left to study nursing at Royal Liverpool Babies Hospital, but it was difficult work. She left it to clerk at a store then, in 1962, to emigrate to the US and give in-home care to the children and elderly relatives of rich Long Islanders before she married. I wrote about these and other stories in my 2010 book Heterotopia. They’ve always exerted a powerful hold on my imagination.

My mother taught me to understand my life as a series of tales in which I was the adventurous heroine. She also gave me books. Each Christmas, the best present was a heavy shirt box filled with paperbacks, with the implication that at nine or ten, I was plenty old enough to enjoy them. They included most of the Alcott and Brontë novels plus works by Shakespeare, Jules Verne, Sir Walter Scott, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, George Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Homer, Chaucer, and much more. I remember walking down stairs carpeted in cream shag to ask her the difference between “impudent” and “imprudent.” When I was having trouble making sense of Wuthering Heights, she reread it and explained the story to me. Her taste wasn’t all high-flown, though. I also devoured her Reader’s Digests and Harlequin romances. It’s largely due to her that I always had my nose in a novel or play or epic poem, depending on them for escape and education. I told her how much I owed her for this a week ago, when she lay semi-conscious in a hospital bed, and it won me a rare smile.

She was also the parent who read all my poems and stories and, eventually, my published books, cheering me on. I owe certain teachers, too, for encouraging me to write poetry particularly, but I wrote Unbecoming because my mother taught me to love character-driven genre fiction (though she would never have used those words!). There’s a maybe-supernatural character in my novel because she loaded me up with tales about fairies and brownies and ghosts. I can’t believe that’s all in the past now, but my mother will survive as the stories we tell about her. Below are a couple of poems inspired by her life, the first from Heterotopia, the second from The State She’s In, in which she’s also a presiding spirit.

The Third Child Counts Her Options, 1949

We did own roller skates. I sometimes strapped
one over my shoe, gliding down Vronhill
Street like a sad flamingo. My sister

buzzed by on the other, pretending to
be a Luftwaffe raider. My brothers
rowed over the bicycle. There were four

of us, three fighters, and never enough
biscuits. One of us had to read the old
books instead. One of us had to sit still.  
Ambitions: Liverpool


I. In ‘62, my young mother flew from known melodies, from clouds rolling up and down the Mersey with the tides.
II. Where would I be otherwise? Each curved person a lattice of contingency. Weak sunlight filters through.
III. She was born in a curved iron and glass shed, Lime Street Station platform eight for London Midlands, with a hissing exhale and a rocking momentum.
IV. Corridors of red sandstone, arched brick, concrete bearded with soot and moss. Four pairs of rails rusted pink. The city’s muscles contract.
V. Towers topped with empty nests. Where are the birds? 
VI. My return ticket bought by her departure. My diplomas. My pay stub. My upwardly-mobile American refusal to pick up after men.
VII. Brakes whine softly until the country opens and I pick up speed.
VIII. Far away, joint-sore, she is throwing off a duvet, opening blinds, creaking downstairs to her son’s kitchen, listening to news of brutal collusions.
IX. Daisies, buttercups, yarrow—flowers that cannot be suppressed—and sheep-cropped hills beyond.
X. Clouds are heavy, sorrowful. They resist breakage but wind has its own ideas. Look at the azure vents it opens, with a tearing cry. 

Diagnosis / verdict

I was waiting outside a Penn Medicine dermatology clinic when I learned that the verdict in George Floyd’s murder case was near. In mid-March, a sore on my mother’s left leg had become ferociously bad; she was hospitalized for infection, seemed to improve for a while, and then got worse (her condition aggravated by poor care at the local hospital); eventually she received a diagnosis of pyoderma gangrenosum, which is every bit as bad as it sounds. A recurrence of her 2015 lymphoma is a likely contributor, but we’ve been waiting more than a week for the results of a biopsy of two small masses in her abdomen. On 4/11, right after my second Moderna shot, I arrived at my brother’s house in Pennsylvania, where my mother has also lived for many years. I finally visited her in the hospital, cleaned the house, shopped, and helped set up a hospital bed and commode in the living room. We brought her home on 4/14. She was so miserable at the hospital. My sister found a wheelchair, so we’ve been trying to make it work while my sister, in New Jersey, sets up her own house for my mother’s long-term care (plus sorting out interstate insurance, because it’s America).

It’s been hard. Excellent visiting nurses came in daily for extremely painful and elaborate wound care, but meanwhile I was learning to keep a mostly-incapacitated elderly woman safe, clean, fed, hydrated, and as content as possible. She was very grateful to get home. From her bed or the nearby recliner, she was following the Chauvin trial and news of violence across the country; she was also interested in the “helicopter” on Mars and in Prince Phillip’s funeral procession. When a phlebotomist couldn’t find a vein, my mother slyly said, “It’s Prince Phillip’s fault,” although I don’t think anyone understood she was joking but me. When she slept, I read some news, a bit of a mystery novel, and a bit of social media. I’ve been able to do maybe an hour a day of my own work, but it’s hard to concentrate. Logistically and emotionally, there’s a lot going on. I started writing a poem a few days ago involving the strange in-betweenness of illness, the haunted noises my mother’s refrigerator makes during the middle of the night, and her repeated statement that someone was trying to get in the front door–maybe those three weirdnesses could hang together? Anyway, I was interrupted.

Coming home from the dermatology clinic, it became clearer how weak my mother was–not just tired, but suddenly not able to hold a cup, sleepy, hard to rouse. I called the GP. Their verdict: get her to the ER. I phoned 911 and my husband and I followed the ambulance to the hospital (a different one). I sat in the ER waiting room during my mother’s intake. Everyone was watching the talking heads on the TV saying, We’ll know the jury’s verdict any minute now. An orderly called me backstage to sit with my mother while various specialists did an EKG, blood work, CAT scans, x-rays. Messages floated up on text chain with the long-time friends to whom The State She’s In is dedicated. Guilty on all three counts. Mixed feelings of relief, hope, continuing anger.

“Diagnosis,” at root, means distinguishing a condition by setting it apart from others. From the Latin, “verdict” means true speech, and it has designated a jury’s decision since the 1530s. So is this week’s verdict uneven access to good healthcare, the diagnosis capitalism? In another sphere, a guilty verdict but a diagnosis of systemic racism, an illness that rots US life to its core?

I don’t know where I’ll be from one day to the next, much less what role poetry will play in the last week of this awful, beautiful National Poetry Month, but I do have an NPR StoryCorps interview lined up for tomorrow in regard to my novel Unbecoming. I have received a poem acceptance and a poetry batch rejection since I’ve been here, because tis the season. I also gave an Instagram Live reading from my mother’s upstairs bedroom, which was insane, but it was scheduled for 9 pm ET, after my mother fell asleep, so I pulled it off. It’s just 15 minutes and archived at the Instagram page of The Arkansas International (@thearkint), along with many other readings in honor of their new “Galactic” issue. My poem in that issue is “For Metamorphosis, with Bibliomancy,” so I read that along with a few other spells and invocations. Say a few words to your favorite deity for my mother, if you have the spirit for it–or call your congressional rep. There is so much to feel and to do.

My mother, left, as a nurse in training at Royal Liverpool Babies Hospital, circa 1956

Feeling Across Distance

This Saturday (4/10, 4pm to 5:15 ET), I’m moderating a panel called “Feeling Across Distance” with four fabulous poets: Lauren K. Alleyne, Tafisha A. Edwards, Luisa A. Igloria, and Jane Satterfield. It’s part of this year’s C.R.A.F.T. Festival: Panel and Workshop, for which you can still register here. The theme is “Empathy.” It was kicked off yesterday with a generous and inspiring talk by Molly Peacock. I’m so grateful when writers discuss not only their survival strategies but their emotions around rejection and competition. She recommended ambition to poets, by the way, defining it as “self-respect.” Brilliant!

Here’s the panel description: In this hybrid panel/ reading, Lauren Alleyne, Tafisha Edwards, Luisa A. Igloria, Jane Satterfield, and Lesley Wheeler discuss poetry that bridges geography, time, opposing perspectives, and even species boundaries. Migration can divide us from families and cultures, history is full of gaps, yet poetry is an art of presence in absence. It can create space for contemplation of loss but also for connection despite difference. Panelists will discuss desire for contact and understanding as motives for poetry, then read some of their own work addressing this theme. They will also address the craft of feeling across distance—how line breaks, metaphor, and other poetic strategies enable emotional leaps—and provide writing prompts to inspire poetic exploration.

This post functions as a virtual handout, so below are prompts from each panelist. On the panel itself, I’ll be discussing the temporal jumps The State She’s In makes through historical research; my struggle to imagine the past without projecting myself into it in a way that obliterates other truths; and the ecological aspects of the book, which similarly involve engaging the landscape and its other-than-human inhabitants without overwriting their otherness. It’s all hard work that I think about a great deal. Whether or not you can join the conversation, I hope these give you ideas for April writing.

Lauren’s prompt:

  1. Think of a place you’ve been
  2. Think of a story in or about that place you’ve heard or experienced
  3. Recall a memory/story of yours unrelated to that place
  4. Have yourself or an object from the memory ask a question to you or an object in the other place
  5. Answer, if you can.

Tafisha’s prompt: Think about the walk from your bedroom to bathroom during a winter night. How far is the walk to the bathroom when you aren’t wearing socks? How quickly do you need to move to get back into the warmest pocket? Write a poem about how time dilates during that moment.

Jane’s prompt: Recent lockdowns remind us of the power of technologies, new and old, to cross distances and weave connections across time and space, cultures, cartographies, and species. Is there someone—a family member, literary forebear, or familiar of your ecotone—whose presence calls out to you? Try reaching out using the form of the invocation: name a problem, include an ask, and imagine some form of consolation or healing for the future.

Luisa’s prompt: Open Google Street Views and enter a specific location or address that has emotional resonance for you, or that you once lived in/near. Take a look and “walk” around, noting the street names, buildings, houses, landmarks, landscape, vegetation. Notice where you stop and linger. Give yourself an “errand” as you make your rounds (i.e. buy bread from the corner bakery you used to visit as a child). Write a poem about what comes to meet you. 

Lesley’s prompt: Choose a non-human being—a plant or animal—that dwells near you without human permission. Research where its ancestors came from, what conditions it needs to live, and what its role in the ecosystem is. Consider what it knows that you don’t, and write it a letter-poem asking for advice.

BIOS:

Lauren K. Alleyne hails from the twin island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Her fiction, poetry and nonfiction have been widely published in journals and anthologies, including The Atlantic, Ms. Muse, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Interviewing the Caribbean, Crab Orchard Review, among many others. She is author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and Honeyfish (New Issues (US) & Peepal Tree (UK), 2019).

Tafisha A. Edwards is the author of THE BLOODLET, winner of Phantom Books’ 2016 Breitling Chapbook Prize. You can find more of her work in The OffingPHANTOMBodega MagazineThe Atlas ReviewThe Little Patuxent Review, and other print and online publications. A graduate of the University of Maryland’s Jiminéz-Porter Writers’ House, she is a Cave Canem Graduate fellow, a former educator with the American Poetry Museum, and recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, The Minnesota Northwoods Writers’ Conference and other writing workshops and conferences.

Luisa A. Igloria, the 20th Poet Laureate of Virginia, is one of two co-winners of the 2019 Crab Orchard Poetry Open competition for her manuscript Maps for Migrants and Ghosts (Southern Illinois University Press, 2020). Originally from Baguio City, she was the inaugural winner of the Resurgence Prize (UK), the world’s first major award for ecopoetry. Her many books also include The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-Life Crisis and Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser. She is a Louis I. Jaffe Professor and University Professor of English and Creative Writing at Old Dominion University.

Jane Satterfield‘s prize-winning poetry collections are Apocalypse Mix, Her Familiars, Assignation at Vanishing Point, and Shepherdess with an Automatic. Her book of nonfiction prose, Daughters of Empire:  A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond, explores maternal legacies through interconnected essays on music, popular culture, literary mothers, and personal history. Satterfield’s honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry and three Maryland Arts Council poetry grants, as well as residencies in poetry or nonfiction from the Vermont Studio Center and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. 

Change of State

The poetry collection I published almost exactly a year ago, The State She’s In, roughly coincides with the moment the U.S. started taking Covid-19 seriously. I was on alert in February, to the point that when we took my mother out to dinner for her eightieth birthday, I wondered whether I would ever see her again. I was an outlier then but most people caught up soon. On Friday March 13th, 2020, my university announced that it was going virtual. A few days before, when he was at home with a friend for spring break, my son’s college did, too. I had already panic-bought a lot of food, but I snagged canned vegetarian soup for my son’s friend, because I expected us all to get sick and it was possible his friend wouldn’t be able to fly home to India (he managed it, with difficulty). No one wore masks because we didn’t know the virus was airborne and the government told civilians not to snap them up. I mourned my book party, which was organized to the hilt and scheduled for the following week. I also felt like a selfish jerk for being sad about it. I still have the favors I meant to give out then (message me if you want stickers or a signed bookplate!).

As fast as the world was changing, the material in this book didn’t date as fast as I expected. It contains a bunch of poems about approaching 50 and menopause, and I had already fallen off those cliffs in March 2020 (although the hot flashes seem like they’ll linger forever). Yet menopause has become a more openly-discussed subject than ever and it was cool to catch that wave. The State She’s In also addresses the Trump apocalypse, but as I started giving virtual readings, that topic still seemed pretty damn relevant, and continued to be so at least until January 2021. The parts of the book about learning the history of where I live and the fights about local memorializations are still very much underway.

There are lots of poems in the book, too, about the landscape I inhabit, and the pandemic has acquainted me with it more deeply. We’ve tried to take a weekly hike in a different site most weekends, and yesterday we explored the countryside north of Staunton and hiked a bit of the Wild Oak Trail along the North River (picture below). There are vestiges of a former railroad boomtown up there, Stokesville, that I’d never even heard of, and while rolling pastures are common in this region, they were especially dramatic. Driving the country roads felt like riding a yo-yo. I’m very tired of my small town and ready to travel for book promotion, if that becomes possible and/or bookstores will feature aging books among the new releases (please check out my novel Unbecoming, too–it’s fun, I swear!). Yet clearly there remains a ton to learn about where I live.

And meanwhile, who could have predicted the state I’m in now? My teacher daughter, my mother, and I all received our first shots in the last ten days. (I’m eligible because having a BMI over 25 makes me elevated-risk, which seems both bogus and dispiriting, but I’ll take it.) I received the Moderna vaccine, and the following day, I was intermittently woozy and headachey and even more insomniac than usual. Honestly, the latter could be a kind of future shock. I’m a veteran student of apocalypse, but I hadn’t imagined this.

The vaccine site epitomized the current weirdness. There was a Peebles department store on the edge of town for decades that went out of business a couple of years ago. Then it became a Gorman’s, which also died, and then the state leased the empty building for vaccinations. I arrived there Friday morning and a line snaked out the building, the most people I’d seen in one spot in ages, but it moved with rapid efficiency. Cheerful guards at the door kept us spaced six feet apart. Inside, I checked in then waited on along a switchback line made of yellow caution tape strung along traffic cones. Above our heads hung purple retail signs saying “big names not big bucks!” and “fashion is fierce!” The jab with a tiny needle was painless. I waited in the sea of chairs for longer than the required 15 minutes, just watching people and feeling stunned. It looked sf, surreal. Even more strangely, the people inhabiting the dreamscape were fizzing with hope.

Report from hagdom

I’ve been sending missives from menopause and perimenopause over the last few years, and sometimes they feel like dead letters. Well, almost all poems land softly–but the so-called change of life feels so BIG to me that it feels like there ought to be a much larger body of literature about it. So I was really happy when “Oxidation Story” was accepted by Kenyon Review Online this fall, and even happier to receive lots of positive responses when they published it yesterday. I’d worked on this one for years. Maybe I got the words right, or the subject matter called to people, or the prestige of the venue attracted attention? In any case, it made me feel seen for a shining moment, for the writer in me.

That’s one of the weird side effects of crossing over to this side of 50: you’re catcalled, harassed, and menaced for most of your life, then you become invisible. I prefer invisibility on the whole, but it would be even better to become, say, “distinguished.” Most TV shows and movies provide illustrations of how impossible that seems to be. As my spouse and I burn through all the shows streaming services have to offer, we just tried “The Undoing,” which pairs Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman as high-powered professionals in unholy matrimony. Kidman is ultra-fit and facelifted and bewigged into a simulacrum of Pre-Raphaelite maidenhood; Grant is carrying more pounds than in his lean thirties, hair grayed and face a little jowly, but he remains very much the leading man. It’s not that I’d put Grant on a diet; I’d rather see Kidman, or any older woman, allowed to wrinkle and accumulate a spare tire and still play a complicated, vital main character. The disparity gets old. (As does the effort to discern facial expressions in an actor post-botox.)

Even in the underresourced world of literary publishing, most successful women-identified authors are glamorously slim and able-bodied. I sometimes wonder if the best thing I could do for my career would be to go paleo and get my eyebrows done, but I’d rather jump my game-token right to witchy croneland.

A big thank you to the new editorial team at KR for giving a hag some bandwidth. I’m also wildly grateful to Julie Marie Wade for this review of The State She’s In in The Rumpus–what a gift! I love that she analyzes poems about gender and middle-aged bodies (such as a gory rondeau, “Perimenopause”), as well as the politics and the violent histories the book puts front and center. I continue to think all those subjects are deeply connected, often in ways that most people just don’t want to look at.

Some of my new-ish work is, like “Oxidation Story,” about the processes of anger and gendered physical transformation–material that I certainly have a strong personal claim to! I’m also writing much more explicitly about depression, anxiety, diagnosis, and medication, also aspects of embodiment that make people uneasy. It’s been interesting to watch more and more writers claim neurodivergence as an identity and think about whether I should. I feel a strong connection to conversations about neurodivergence, disability, and queerness, and while I’m emerging out of the old fears of making that plain, I’m also hesitant to claim difference that has been way more costly to others than it has been to me. I just received a request from the editors of an anthology of queer ecopoetry to include one of my poems, “Absentation,” and I said yes gratefully but also uncertainly (I didn’t answer a call for work–they just found me somehow). As I reread the poem, it does seem nonbinary, holding multiple identity possibilities in its mind. Is that good enough? Is what the work does the most important thing?

In any case, most of my poetry that directly addresses psychiatric diagnosis hasn’t been picked up by magazines, for whatever reason. Maybe I haven’t got the words right. Yet.

My brain hurt like a warehouse

It is a truth universally acknowledged that middle-aged women sleep poorly. Hormones, hot-flashes–pandemic and political ugliness are just icing on the cake, really. From what I can see, middle-aged women, although they don’t seem like an envied or celebrated category of human, do a LOT, and it weighs on their brains. They pile myriad many obligations onto their full-time jobs, including caretaking of growing children and aging parents; all the invisible labor of maintaining social ties at home and at work; organizing the resistance; community service of a million kinds; some tolerable minimum of housework and the vocations that may or may not overlap with what they do for pay. I’m not the most overworked by a long shot, but I often fall asleep (eventually) worrying about my latest failure of compassion as well as what I’m not doing to nurture a career; I wake up planning chores, meals, and tweets. In between, I now have anxiety dreams about teaching in person and suddenly realizing that no one is wearing a mask. Meanwhile, apocalyptic Bowie lyrics repeat on a loop: “My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare,/ I had to cram so many things to store everything in there.”

I gave myself some time this week to write and revise, and it reminded me how happy that makes me, to concentrate on one kind of work at a time. Instead of hurting like a warehouse (I love that simile), my brain shifts into a mode of focused exploration; I can fall asleep all right, and I wake up almost cheerful. It’s amazing to me how even sabbatical, a time supposedly dedicated to focused reading and writing, gets fractured into a million tasks. Or, I mean, I fracture it; there is a world of need out there, but there’s also my guilt and, often, restless energy. The problem with the writing-dream being my salve is that it eventually begets more busy-work: submissions, proofs, getting word out on social media even when I know social media makes me unhappy (oh, FB)… Again I think of Bowie, whose 1970s diet allegedly oscillated between cocaine and milk.

My endless little post-writing tasks bore sweet fruit this week. Last winter, I thought about who shine a light on The State She’s In: my small press sends out copies but doesn’t have a publicist, so I was telling myself I needed to make my own luck. I sent out a ton of applications for festivals, reading series, conferences, etc., but I also tried something I hadn’t before: I studied the reviews in The Rumpus, found someone who writes really great ones and seems to be interested in books like mine, and wrote to her out of the blue to ask if she’d like to see my digital ARCs or receive a copy of the published book. Yes, she said, although no promises; even if she got to it, it would be a while. And here it is, an extraordinarily long, thoughtful, generous dream of a review by Julie Marie Wade in The Rumpus.

Most queries and applications are rejected or ignored, and most publications are greeted with what sure looks like silence. I’ll probably never figure out what level of effort is worth it. But here is a notice in my graduate school alumni magazine–I thought they’d ignored me. And a friend just texted me about teaching an essay I published last year in Waxwing: “White Rice: Teaching in the Confederacy.” She said “it was a big hit. It allowed the group to voice apprehensions and see that failure can be a vital process in making art.” I need to do more “pushing through the market square” this week, to quote Bowie–writing bookstores about potential readings in summer or fall–and those little echoes of efforts long past give me heart.

Augurations

 Auguration
  
 Allegedly, spring will come again. 
 January’s collusion with the Russians
 remains unverified. Sources cannot confirm
 that although the horizon’s padded shoulder
 blocks the sun, it is gathering intelligence
 and will dawn at the appropriate time.
 Citizens hunker in the patchy snow
 and wonder. Is whiteness receding?
 What does it mean, that pink rumor
 glittering out east, amid stolid cloud?
 Is this repeating complaint a bird?
 Anonymous bulbs are reported to wait
 just under the crust of disrespected earth,
 devouring their survivor’s cache of rations,
 strategizing for a green surprise. Be alert,
 comrades, if not exactly hopeful, yet.  

I drafted “Auguration” in 2017 and never published it, so I thought this might be a good week to share it. I submitted it to many magazines, and I’m still not sure why no editor took it–except for the perennial reason that slush piles contain too many poems and the competition is ridiculous. It’s an outtake from The State She’s In, omitted because it’s similar to other poems in the book. Maybe leaving it out was the wrong call. The cards are hard to read, sometimes.

I’ve been messing around with a new tarot deck for the sheer calming pleasure of it; producing readings is contemplative and a little like solving a puzzle, trying to understand flows of possible meanings. I don’t claim they have purchase on facts or the future, although I believe that in the hands of an intuitive person they lead, at least, to useful introspection. Lots of poets use them, it turns out. Here‘s an interesting conversation about poetry and Tarot with Airea D. Matthews and Hoa Nguyen led by Trevor Ketner. Matthews calls tarot as “a tool for healing and revealing and critical thinking,” and Nguyen links poetry and tarot through the way they cultivate receptivity and invite otherness into our thinking. I can say personally that since I unboxed these cards, I’m writing poetry again.

I just pulled the three cards below while wondering about the inauguration. Interestingly, in the interview cited above, Nguyen pulled the six of swords just prior to the last inauguration–although below it’s reversed, which changes its significance. My interpretations are only based on brief study, but it suggests a state of transition, perhaps loss; the woman and child being poled away, perhaps against their will, remind me of the trauma of migration. The image also evokes painful baggage carried over from the Trump administration. (I wish the man terrible consequences for his crimes–even as I want the country to move on speedily to address the damage). The first card, the ace of cups, signifies auspicious beginnings and calls for generosity. The Queen of Wands, well, she’s a bold, charismatic, vital woman leader surrounded by symbols of courage and coming back to life. Sounds good to me.

I’m sure my current fascination with tarot is ALSO rooted in frustration about the radical unknowability of the near future; I hear psychics have done good business by phone and Zoom this year. May this week be the beginning of better things for everybody, even if you’re not exactly hopeful yet. And may the youngest inaugural poet ever, Amanda Gorman, blow all of us out of the water!

Winterred

A friend told me to break a leg yesterday and I had to laugh–I’m literally home with a sprained ankle, unable to put weight on my left foot. I apparently did something bad during a beautiful Saturday hike on a bit of the Appalachian Trail, where water rushed by sedimentary rocks flipped almost vertical by some long-ago seismic catastrophe. Weekly walks on unfamiliar paths have been sanity-saving since March, but I guess I’m grounded now, or “winterred,” as Dave Bonta and Luisa Igloria put it in their wonderfully playful new year’s poetry video “NEOLOG” (poetry prompt #1: write a poem using one of their neologisms as a title, crediting their brilliance, of course).

My friend made this too-timely comment because I was on the verge of two literary events. I gave a reading yesterday in the Poetrio series at Malaprops Bookstore, run generously and flawlessly by poet Mildred Barya and Malaprops Director of Author Events, Stephanie Jones-Byrne. I forgot to take a screenshot or watch the clock because my co-readers Kathy Goodkin and Eric Tran were so amazing, but the recording is here, and you have the option of supporting a great indie bookstore by ordering any of the books (or others) here. (Speaking about clocks, I should say we each kept to our time of 12 minutes-ish, which is basically a holy miracle of restraint where poets are concerned.) Mildred introduces writers not by listing their accomplishments but by reflecting on their poems, setting a mood that was both thoughtful and celebratory. In this case, she noted how many ghosts populate all of our new books. Kathy spoke to that in a wonderful way by reading a poem about the period costumes ghosts are described as wearing, speculating that in twenty years we might be haunted by ghosts in tee-shirts and skinny jeans. Eric began by talking about building an altar to ancestors, noting that everyone wants to escape the ghosts of 2020 but maybe, instead, we could consider how to honor them. It’s a moving idea.

I was also impressed by the emotional range of Kathy’s and Eric’s poems–grief, hilarity, anger, love–and how they talked about that in the Q&A. Eric’s advice for infusing a serious poem with humor is to take your first draft and make it gayer. Add glitter. That can be prompt #2. Prompt #3 is something I try sometimes: after you put down a sentence or two of a potential poem, walk (or limp) away for a while. Each time you come back, put down another sentence or two. Try to do it renga-style, so you’re picking up an element but also moving into a different mood or scene. One of the signal qualities of a strong poem is surprise, and writing slowly can be a way of surprising yourself with unplanned associative leaps.

Today I hope to rest some, submit a story I’ve been working on, and maybe get an x-ray, sigh. I’ll also be prepping for my SECOND reading of 2021, hosted by Cafe Muse tonight. The order of events, in case you can drop in: it begins at 7 pm Eastern with live music, classical guitar I think, to finish your dinner by. At 7:30 Don Colburn reads for 18-20 minutes; then I read; then, if there’s time and interest, we’ll do a brief Q&A. You can register here. I’ll read different poems from The State She’s In (mostly) plus a couple of new ones I haven’t yet aired. It should be fun. Being a clumsy person, I’m also really glad I’m not ascending to a podium on crutches.

cats : making a ruckus :: poets : blogging

My daughter and her cat have moved in for a couple of weeks. We have two cats of our own who were already unimpressed with each other, so the house is full of hissing AND purring, as each cat circles back around for reassurance that they are still the best cat, the most handsome and loved, and certainly everyone’s boss. I know from living with Poe and Ursula that the feline dominance battle never ends. Ursula wins more often–the toy, the spot in the sun–but there are flags Poe keeps re-staking, such as the sill of a certain downstairs window. Without that particular view of sparrows, the mailman, and an offensively brassy groundhog who needs to be shown a thing or two, would life even be endurable?

As you suspected, I’m working myself up to a metaphor: the vehicles are cats, the tenors are moods, and there’s struggle all round. (I could even say that Ursula stands for inexplicably confident cheer, Poe for the rational pessimism of intelligence, and the visitor Sabina for rage behind which is a yearning for peace and freedom, but I think we’ve all had enough of this.) As the season turns to lengthening daylight which is also the start of a long winter, my equilibrium is shaky. I had a challenging year; I had a lucky year and should never complain about anything. It’s all true.

My fifth poetry collection The State She’s In, seems to be doing well. But, and this won’t shock anyone who knows that 2020 has been a bad year for publishing, I just learned that my first novel, Unbecoming, isn’t selling much despite good reviews. I am heartsore. I’ve seen my spouse go through this; in 2011 he published a novel in stories with a university press that immediately went under and eventually learned that the marketing person, last woman standing on the sinking ship, never sent out the review copies or publicity she’d promised. He wrote a couple of great novel mss after that and just couldn’t sell them, because the publishers’ marketing people looked at those numbers and said “bad risk.” This happens in poetry, too–the best way to jump to a press with a big presence is to sell the hell out of your small-indie collection–but the effect is stronger in novel-publishing, probably because poetry has so little money in it anyway. I had felt excited about the new novel I’m drafting but pivoted immediately to fear that no matter how good it is, it might get stuck in limbo. What I care about here isn’t advances or royalties–I have a day job–but to keep writing books, publish them when they’re good and ready, and find appreciative readers.

I’m sad but not paralyzed. On the practical side, I’m making to-do lists for post-publication prize entries and other ways 2021 can be an occasion for a second push. On the emotional side, I’m reminding myself how many literary gifts I’ve received in 2020: generous reviews, reading opportunities, and a LOT of nice notes from friends and strangers praising one book or the other. I am truly, wildly grateful, even when so much about the publishing landscape is dispiriting or just plain pisses me off. I’m also trying to pay back the love. Here are a few things I do beyond buying indie books (ideally from independent bookstores), and I hope you’ll try them too:

  • celebrate books I like on social media (especially books from indie presses).
  • rate books on Goodreads and Amazon. I know people don’t like those linked sites for many good reasons, yet it’s a big kindness to authors to post a few stars there. The number of reviews matters much more than the content; I don’t know what the magic numbers are, but more reviews makes it more likely the books will pop up as search suggestions.
  • ask your local/ university libraries to order titles. I’m behind on this myself but will work on it in the new year.
  • teach new work when you have the opportunity, especially when the book can be on the required or suggested list for your class. Many indie authors are willing to Zoom in cheaply or for free–I’m one of them–and that’s a great way to raise the energy of a flagging class.
  • suggest a book for your book club or library event series, also with the potential excitement of a virtual author visit.

You can also look for a year-in-reading post from me soon, featuring a few poetry titles that deserve more love. And please sign up for one of my readings early in the new year! I promise to make them fun as well as quite different from each other. For the Poetrio event, poster below, the wonderful bookstore Malaprops is stocking The State She’s In. Another bit of light from the moody universe! Happy holidays, stay safe, be patient with whatever your feuding cats are, and I’ll see you next week.

Poetrio Series at Malaprop Books with Kathy Goodkin and Eric Tran, 3 pm ET, January 3rd, https://www.facebook.com/events/708758299776747

Café Muse with Don Colburn, January 4th, 7 pm ET, sign up here (https://sites.google.com/view/cafe-muse-events/home)

Future schmuture

No NEH grant again, a magazine acceptance, a solicitation of poems from a magazine I’d never cracked (!), several poem rejections, some drafting and revising, lots of Shenandoah work, a vague but persistent headache, short days and blustery cold–hello from a mixed-blessing November in Sabbatical Land. I hereby mark the sixth-month birthday of my novel Unbecoming, and remind you that you can message me if you want a signed bookplate for that OR The State She’s In. (Here, by the way, is a new and very lovely review of the latter by Luisa Igloria in RHINO.) I can’t say I’m in much of a mood for hustle, though; it feels like crawling-under-a-rock season. I’m not doing a ton of writing, nor am I experiencing that burst of energy I’d hoped for after the election, but maybe that’s because there’s no “after”? It’s more like an intensification of suspense, a “now” that just keeps spreading its tentacles.

As a mood of hibernation comes on, I’m also cleaning closets and readying us for an actual trip, first through a flurry of lists and shopping and now by hunkering down. We have to pick up my son from Haverford College on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and a lot of my family lives around there, so I brainstormed this whole elaborate trip protocol. After testing and a period of isolation, we pack the car within an inch of its life and visit my bored-out-of-her-mind mother; then we meet up with our kids at a rented house in the Poconos for a few days; then we meet my sister and maybe some of her kids for a socially-distanced hike in the woods; finally, we return home and hide for the rest of this third wave, however long it lasts. The theory is that I’ll drive Cameron back to Haverford at the end of January for his spring term, but I have a feeling college openings will be delayed. I believe Biden WILL be inaugurated and will run the pandemic response sanely; vaccines are clearly coming; but winter may well be a long blank chapter. If we’re lucky.

In case you’re trying to do some writing yourself and like prompts, I give two in this five-minute reading:

It’s one of many launched this week by the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival, thanks to Stan Galloway, Nicole Yurcaba, and their students. However, Bridgewater College, like many others, is laying off people, including Nicole, so the conference has an uncertain future (aren’t you tired of that phrase?). If you’re in the mood to write more spell-poems on the off-chance it will make you or the world a bit better, I just dug up this post, “Uncanny paneling,” for a friend. The second half of it consists of writing prompts from six people, including me, and having been reminded of them, I plan to try them myself.

Hocus, pocus, try to focus…