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.

Pandemic books, like pandemics, keep coming

September 2021 in the U.S.: vaccines are widely available for those over 12, yet people are still suffering and dying from Covid-19 at a higher rate than last September, newspaper articles keep telling me. This is a comparatively trivial point, but for related reasons, it continues to be a tough time to launch a book. I feel for those authors who postponed and postponed, thinking this fall would be the moment.

Things are better for authors now than when I launched The State She’s In in March 2020 and Unbecoming in May 2020. Businesses have found workarounds and vaccinated people are rightly less afraid to enter them; an occasional literary event is in person, with caveats; organizers are more skilled at running virtual events and authors are better at presenting from a distance. Zoom presentations tend to be less engaging, but it’s no secret that live ones are a pretty mixed bag, too, as when a tweedy writer is staged at a podium, symbolically elevated above the audience and enforcing the sacred Literary Appreciation Hush. Yet even when in-person events are stuffy and formal, there’s a surprising amount of multisensory mutual feedback happening. That dynamism has been widely observed to result in better book sales. I think one lesson of the last year and a half is that authors and audiences benefit from virtual events–I’m now a firm believer that they should be in the mix–but that virtual promotion works best when it supplements rather than replacing presence.

I’m be swamped with teaching work soon, but with all this in mind, I just spent some time on Goodreads, giving stars and occasionally brief reviews to books I read this summer. This is an especial kindness to small press authors. None of us can afford to buy every book we might like by every author deserving more attention, but here’s a reminder to do what you can–Goodreads and Amazon reviews, social media praise, library requests, putting new books on your syllabi, whatever sounds doable for you. That circulation of dollars and attention rarely puts much money in a small-press author’s pocket, but it does enable indies to stay afloat, therefore publishing good writers who haven’t hit it big (yet) and keeping the literary world more lively, quirky, and full of risk. It’s much easier for a writer to place the next book when the previous one has done decently. And, of course, love gives a writer heart. This pandemic would have hurt worse without the company of books.

I’m also pondering what I can still do for my 2020 publications, knowing that plenty of people who might like them haven’t got around to checking them out yet. The plan:

  • I arranged a local signing of Unbecoming at a new Lexington, Virginia bookstore, Downtown Books, on Tuesday September 14th from 5:30-7:30. There will be wine, snacks, and goody bags stuffed with little doodads I began gathering pre-pandemic. The goody bag candy, however, will be newly purchased, because the chocolate eggs I bought to match the cover of The State She’s In, and which I had planned to scatter on the Tinderbox table at my AWP signing, are REALLY OLD.
  • I’m reading poetry at Randolph College at 8 pm on September 22, with Fran Wilde. We were the fall and winter Pearl S. Buck Writers in Residence but our readings were postponed to this academic year, with the aforementioned optimism. Despite masks and distancing and that frisson of risk, I’m really looking forward to it.
  • I’ll be presenting in person at some winter gatherings: DisCon III, an SF convention in DC in December; a NEMLA panel on hybrid writing in Baltimore in March; the Virginia Festival of the Book in March; and maybe, verdict out so far, at AWP in Philadelphia (also March, so that month is starting to look pretty nuts). Late fall booster shot, anyone?

I’m thinking I should try to arrange more events like readings or workshops at regional bookstores, places I can drive to. I’m also wondering if, instead, I should cool it, go gentler on myself. Applying for literary opportunities is a ton of work, and then doing events is a ton of work, but we all have to take care of our damn selves. People keep telling me that teaching stressed-out students while you yourself are masked and nervous is even more tiring than teaching was formerly. I guess I’m about to find out how much will be left of me at the end of each workday. My Tarot cards say that my life is in balance now but I’m about to totally lose control. Yee-hah.

Celebration & consolation

This morning I thought with a start: does “console” mean with-alone? It doesn’t, it turns out. According to the OED, it comes from the Latin con- (with) + sōlārī (to solace, soothe). We used to say “consolate” until Dryden, Pope, and others shortened it. But I like my pretend etymology, too. There’s inwardness to mourning, but it’s also touching how many people reach out kindly.

Last spring I found it deeply strange that the world was coming to life so beautifully as a virus ravaged populations all over the world. This spring, as the human social world stirs in harmony with the natural one, I’m thinking about how my mother would have appreciated the warm weather, the annual sequence of blooms, and the lift of mask mandates (I worry about the latter, but I bet she would have flung hers away triumphantly and gone to brunch with her friends, to her children’s exasperation). It’s strange not to text and call her. Guilt and shame sometimes flood in about the times I wasn’t kind to her. I woke up in the middle of the night mad at a relative who wouldn’t talk to her during the last year (although he’s also elderly, I thought in the morning, and deserving of compassion, so I will NOT be extending the grudge). I wish my mother had one more summer.

On the “with” side of lonely brooding, I’m thinking about traveling and connecting with friends, in person. I rebooked last June’s cancelled trip to Iceland as well as an August week at a NC beach house with my kids–and I’ll come to the latter straight from the Sewanee Writers Conference, which I’m looking forward to with excitement now. This Thursday Chris and I are driving up to NJ to spend three nights at my sister’s beach house before attending a small memorial for my mother in my sister’s backyard, with a few friends and relatives I haven’t seen in ages. I’ve picked out a poem from Heterotopia to read, and I’ll share a letter from my mother’s best friend while growing up in England, but other than that, this writer has no idea what to say. There’s so much, and a lot of it feels private.

Another emotionally confusing thing: my mother’s final illness somehow occurred between the first anniversaries of my 2020 books, The State She’s In and Unbecoming. This weekend marks the book-birthday of the latter, and I want to celebrate it! I went back and savored some blurbs and reviews. Here’s a lovely one from Emily Croy Barker (who also puts poetry in her tales!): “The story of a woman leading an ordinary life who discovers within herself extraordinary powers, UNBECOMING is sage, funny, and warm, like a long conversation with your best friend about all the strange and wonderful things that have been happening to her lately. Lesley Wheeler’s writing is so deft and magical that I’m convinced that she must have learned it from the fairies.” And from Gary K. Wolfe in Locus: “Unbecoming is framed largely as a satirical academic tale, but one leavened with more than a bit of witchery and magic, principally the notion, which begins to haunt the narrator, that certain women entering middle age somehow develop magical powers…there are occasional hilarious echoes of the sort of gonzo academic satire we used to see in the novels of David Lodge and others.” It would be a great book to read over the summer, hint-hint. 

I also gave the novel a photo shoot and a few social-media shout-outs. Further, I’m thinking toward a virtual conversation I have planned with two AMAZING writers, Anjali Sachdeva and Brittany Hailer, at 7pm on June 4th, hosted at the wonderful indie bookstore The White Whale in Pittsburgh (they’ll also have copies of my book for sale). This event comes from the bout of planning I was doing in late winter, before my mother got sick, and I’m glad I managed to arrange this one good thing. I hope you’ll sign up at Eventbrite or Facebook. We all work in the zone between literary and genre fiction, so we’ll read a little from our books but also talk about those borderlands.

Other good things: my poetry book just received a lovely and unusual review from Seth Michelson in storySouth. I have two poems in the new issue of Nelle and a few more forthcoming soon from other magazines. I also had a great conversation about linebreaks with Tacey M. Atsitty and Ron White, hosted by Stan Galloway at Pier-Glass Poetry and later posted here. I wasn’t sure if I could manage it, honestly, but it was fun and stimulating, reminding me that the literary life is consoling and worth celebrating.

Grief metaphors flying

In what’s probably a common response to grief, two scripts are running through my head constantly: “I wish I” and “At least I.” I’m so glad I interviewed my mother about her life for my writing; that I spent a lot of time with her in April, memorizing her the way you do when you care for a sick person in intimate ways; and that we made a fuss of her 80th birthday in February 2020. My siblings and I did two things that she loved. We bought her one of those motorized reclining chairs–lift off without moving a muscle!–and we treated her at a restaurant in Philadelphia where all the waiters sing opera. For a Mother’s Day gift in 1994, before I moved to Virginia, we had escorted her to a matinee at the Metropolitan Opera and then a fancy dinner out, but she wouldn’t have had the energy for that much travel anymore, so the restaurant was a sweet compromise. I’ll always remember her thrilled face upturned to the waitstaff during solos. “Let’s do that again next year,” she said. My head is also full of all the adventures she didn’t have, especially the travel she didn’t get to do to Bermuda, the Mediterranean islands, Australia and New Zealand, and a host of European capitols. In emigrating from England to the U.S. and then zipping around the country with my father when she was younger, she did travel more than many, but except for a trip to England that a bunch of people supported in various ways, she was both too anxious and too cash-strapped to fly in her later years (my father burnt through all their retirement savings, but that’s another story).

This week since her death has flit by strangely. I spent time with my kids, both based in Philadelphia, before driving home. I’ve written a little: a poem my hairdresser dictated the title for (he’s both a literary person and wise about grieving, and the title is “First in Line for Takeoff”); some notes of my memories of her last days; her obituary; responses to condolence notes and gifts; this blog post and the last. I’m thinking about other writing-related work: submitting mss for the virtual Breadloaf Environmental conference in June and the live Sewanee workshop in May; the Mother’s Day promotion I was going to do for Unbecoming; a short article on Eliot due at the end of May; whether it would be consoling or ridiculous to try working on my creative mss-in-progress again. The book of essays I will deliver to Tinderbox Editions before too long–Poetry’s Possible Worlds is scheduled for November publication–currently ends with my mother’s recovery from her first bout with lymphoma in 2015. Does my coda need a coda? I can hardly bear to think about it. And, of course, I’m spending a lot of time doing nothing. There’s so much to think about and avoid thinking about. I’m most comfortable perched at an intellectual distance from big feelings, noticing how the people around me process it, for instance, and my own preference for matter-of-fact conversations about her death. That’s part of what makes me a writer–metaphor itself involves displacement as well as insight–but it can also be maladaptive.

Oddly, I just published a poem about letting go this week. “The Red Door” (who knows where that image came from?) appears in the new issue of Nelle (not online but pictured below), along with a slightly longer poem called “Early Cretaceous Walks Up to the Bar,” inspired by an apparently phosphorescent gar in the Hillsborough River and very much about standing at a distance from feeling. A friend once pointed out there’s a lot of running water in my poems. O river of life, you can be a very tired metaphor, but maybe a big weird fish flying through redeems it.

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

Spring’s nonlinearity

You’ve got to keep an eye on April: it’s slippery. I’m seeking discipline I lacked this winter, wanting to make the most of this brief season, although I’m skipping #NaPoWriMo in favor of surveying and refining older drafts. Mid-March, I overhauled a lot of poems and put them under submission; two have been accepted already, and maybe I’ll earn a couple more wins as the months pass. It’s a long process, but it’s wise to submit work in spring if you can, because so many markets close in summer. I’m also writing to bookstores and submitting conference proposals, in hopes there will be an in-person future for the literary world. I get my second Moderna shot on April 9th. I’ll be careful even after the T-cells multiply, but already I feel less anxious about brief forays into the populated world, as well as happier about the down-time I’m taking outdoors.

Shortly after I hit a better work rhythm, though–moving from revising and submitting poems to overhauling some fiction projects–my mother went into the hospital. She lives in eastern Pennsylvania, so for unvarnished information (she downplays every ailment), I depend on my adult brother, with whom she lives, and my sister, who lives 45 minutes away but has seen less of my mother during the pandemic. Turned out my mother had a very bad wound on her leg that had become severely infected. The usual hell-zone of diagnosis was harder than usual because of the limits on visitors, the busy-ness of medical staff, and my mother herself being too sick and drugged to pick up the phone. Eventually they ruled out the scariest things. Her circulation is just terrible, so damage is easy to do and hard to mend. She’s in rehab now, getting on her feet again while her wound slowly heals, so the crisis period is probably over, but it was intense. Intensely concerned and wondering if I would need to drop everything and drive 5+ hours, I alternately read medical websites, texted furiously with my siblings, and distracted myself with more revisions. I rewrote a short story from scratch, for instance, without looking at the original; that’s not a strategy I’ve tried much before, but it worked really well. Yay?

This all reminds me of my last sabbatical, when my mother was diagnosed with lymphoma and I spent many months shuttling back and forth, doing what I could to help my on-the-ground siblings. (That’s also the year I drafted what became my first novel, Unbecoming–go figure.) Here’s another way time is tricky. Spring always reminds you of previous springs, for better and worse. Academe, too, is structured by seasonal recurrences: semesters and breaks, registrations and grading, and the longer cycles of teaching years and sabbatical interludes (if you’re very lucky). The latter are big markers in my memory. 2015-16, when my mother was sick; 2010-11, when a life-changing Fulbright brought us to New Zealand; 2005-6, when I wrote Voicing American Poetry in “Mod Hall,” overflow office space in a decrepit trailer by a stream; and my first leave in 2000-1, when my son was born, my first scholarly book went under contract, and in the long deep breath after achieving tenure, I thought about what I wanted for my liberated writing life. Perhaps I have two sabbaticals left before I retire–again, if I’m lucky.

All of which is to say I’m feeling the cyclicality of time right now just as much as the forward march of my precious writing year and uneasy anticipation about the difficult-to-plan future. I’m more than okay, plenty anxious, glad to be balancing different kinds of writing work, well aware of how spinning plates can unexpectedly crash. Meanwhile, the trees are budding maybe a little earlier than they have before, as the world heats up. It’s freshly amazing how beauty and danger arrive together.

Poets among you maybe be interested in an upcoming virtual conference I’m preparing for, the Poetry and Creative Arts Festival at WCU on April 7-10. $50 for general registration isn’t bad; you also get a free workshop, such as Molly Peacock’s “Snap Sonnets.” I’ll be running a panel on Saturday 4/10 called “Feeling Across Distance” with Lauren Alleyne, Tafisha Edwards, Luisa A. Igloria, and Jane Satterfield, and I’ll post writing prompts from all of them here. Finally, here’s a review I wrote of Tyree Daye’s new collection Cardinal, just published in Harvard Review. I hope to write more reviews for them in future, but not just yet, because I want a slower kind of focus. Perhaps because of a mild March 2020 case of Covid-19 I couldn’t get a test for, I couldn’t smell anything last spring, so I need to make up for lost flower-time.

Multiple worlds in poetry, fiction, and politics

Traveling to an alternate universe of thinking and writing has been helpful lately given an attempted coup, and racist police response, AND the apocalyptic daily death count and a catastrophically lame vaccine rollout. I don’t manage the leap into literary concentration every day, but that’s actually what my next book is about: what helps us slip into the reading trance, where poetry is concerned, and what that border-crossing does for a reader.

I’m polishing and updating my forthcoming essay collection, to be called Poetry’s Possible Worlds or Taking Poetry Personally depending on what my editor says. It requires reading and rereading widely and wildly to make sure my thinking and research are up-to-date: Carolyn Dinshaw’s exhilarating How Soon Is Now, Nicole Seymour’s Bad Environmentalism, and essays on narrative theory, deep attention, presentism, poetry of witness, and much more. New to me is Brian Attebery’s Stories About Stories, of interest partly because I’m thinking about story in poetry but also because of my investment in speculative fiction. Attebery argues that the cultural importance of literary fantasy as a genre lies in how it “redefine[s] the relationship between contemporary readers and mythic texts.” I’m not wholly satisfied with that as a definition, yet the book is useful and interesting. He describes genre, for instance, as “fuzzy sets”: “the question of what genre a particular text belongs to will never be resolved, nor need it be. The interesting question about any given story is not whether it is fantasy or science fiction or realistic novel, but rather what happens when we read it as one of those things.”

In the larger sense, I write in many genres–poetry, fiction, criticism, reviews, literary nonfiction–but I also think of myself as operating in the borderlands between smaller categories. My poetry has appeared and been reviewed in both “mainstream” and sf venues; it’s been called lyric, political, formalist, fabulist, and more, to which I say, cool. My forthcoming hybrid essay collection (blending criticism, theory, and personal narrative) argues that most poetry is not just fiction but fantasy. It’s fiction because framing it on a page as literary art sets it apart from truth and lies; it’s fantasy because, notwithstanding, it’s obsessed with what’s true. I define fantasy in a way that’s tangential to Attebery’s idea; I think of it as fiction exploring questions of what’s real, what matters.

And then there’s my novel Unbecoming. It’s been described as “an excellent feminist fantasy,” Weird fiction, magic realism, a fairy tale, and academic satire. Since it concerns the transformations involved in menopause I thought it might get dismissed as “women’s fiction,” but that’s not how it’s been received at all. No reviewer has called it “domestic fabulism,” either, which might be just as well, although I like some things about the term. The latter refers to books in which the primary world is realistic but into which weirdness makes persistent incursions–a structure that also describes many or most Stephen King novels, and he’s not called a “domestic fabulist.” As much as I enjoy some stories set in secondary worlds, novels that explore the strangeness of what seems familiar are my sweet spot. They’re more realistic than realism, in my experience, and more interesting. Poetry absolutely occupies similar territory, refreshing the ways we encounter the mundane.

Does Unbecoming redefine anyone’s relationship to myth? It does involve crossings in and out of a place like Faerie (called by an acerbic narrator UnWales), considering those crossings as migration tales as well as metaphors for weird bodily metamorphoses (true story: people fall asleep and wake up middle-aged). UnWales seems like an alternate possible reality, too, for characters who are stuck in a bad script or negotiating discrimination. Yet I wonder if the more important myths in my novel are those about menopause, that it’s an end of all good things instead of a beginning. The main character also has to reconsider lots of stories about herself, among them to what extent she’s actually a good person who helps make the world better. I’d give her a mixed grade on that. If you’ve read the novel, I’d be interested to hear what you think.

Back to the allegedly real world where conspiracy theorists in pelts and Viking horns invade the Capitol, convinced they live in a country where the presidential election was stolen, ready to live by and die for their fantasies.

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…