The present and future of pandemic poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Haunted and weird poetry: a lesson plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The prompt to go with their postcard:

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

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

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

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

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)

Wall, whatcha got?

My son, a college sophomore, is a fiend for math and loves teaching it, too. Since he’s finishing the term at our dining room table, I get to eavesdrop on the tutoring he does by Zoom as well as his study groups’ conversations. Sometimes he and I break for a midday walk in the middle of it, and yesterday he reflected that when he comes to an impasse in his work, he’s more willing than his friends to just sit with the problem and wait for inspiration. He told me something like, “When I hit a wall, I’ll just sit and look at it and say, “Wall, whatcha got for me?'”

This is mostly just temperament–he and I are both stupidly resistant to asking for help, and we both enjoy puzzles. But he also said that he prefers hard math problems to easy ones because the answers to easy problems are just “coincidence,” whereas you know you’ve solved a “proofier” question because the solution comes with a deep click, a sense of rightness. I’m not sure I fully understand that, but I’ve been thinking about it as I bash my head against poem revisions, unable to decide when each ornery little piece is finished.

This hasn’t been a good workweek. My simple goal for Monday was to gather some poems to submit to the annual Poetry Society of America contests. I rarely throw in, but I thought that hey, this year I have time, right? But mostly these awards are for unpublished poems so I thought I’d finish up recent ones, pieces I haven’t sent elsewhere yet, and it’s NOT going well. I know none of us should be beating ourselves up for poor concentration right now; the soaring virus rates are horrifying and the political circus depressing. I had the added suspense this week of a couple of family members waiting for test results (everyone is negative and feeling fine). I never handle suspense well! Still, my fuzzy-headedness feels frustrating.

My son is right, though, that facing hard problems can lead to more interesting math or art–and that the way forward involves just showing up, again and again. None of these poems is easy: my tabs are open right now to pieces about giant tube worms, domestic violence, viral replication, divination…So I try to solve for x, take breaks, and circle back, hoping for flashes of intuition. History suggests that tough writing patches eventually end. I didn’t like it when my phone autocorrected “I was told” to “I am old” recently (!), but aging does bring a kind of equilibrium in knowing that time, careers, etc. aren’t just linear. They’re cyclical, too.

In the meantime, here’s my latest little mag publication, two poems occupied and preoccupied by catbirds, with thanks to Carol Dorf at Talking Writing. And if you missed my unusually cheerful post-election reading with the brilliant Anna Maria Hong–part of the Hot L series, it launched Sunday–you can catch it on YouTube (and below). Stephen Reichert is a great online-event organizer and promoter. After another stupid workday, I’m about to raise a glass to Stephen and to everyone else who is helping poetry shine in these dark nights.

December cadralor

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

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

Bog Fog Recipe

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

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

Mulling a la poetesse

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

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…

Gossip, news, & poems

Gossip is a derogatory and strongly gendered word for how nonpowerful people share information. I have only been called “a gossip” to my face once–by a colleague–but it felt like a mild slur with a smelly pile of patriarchy behind it. I mean, we all know mean-spirited people of various genders who are delighted to share bad news about others’ personal lives, and I’m not endorsing that. I don’t know where I’d be, though, without friends, mostly women, who share intel over the equivalent of a backyard fence. Inside knowledge–any knowledge–often helps me navigate tricky situations, and it helps me help others, too. Unless a secret is really necessary to protect a vulnerable person, I share the useful things I know like candy on a non-2020 Halloween.

You probably know this quote from a Williams Carlos Williams poem: “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” The word “news” suggests politics as well as missives from the mind and spirit. That’s great, but I also want it to include the wall-busting personal stuff sometimes derided as blabbing, tattling, chinwagging, and nosyparkering, all of which sometimes constitutes whistleblowing and the glue of sustaining friendships. My love of whispers comes from the poet in me, and also from my history in a messed-up family, where secrets festered. Secrets can poison your life. Luckily, they can also metamorphose into fierce literature.

Writing prompt: write a gossipy poem. Optionally, include a whisper, a fence, and a whistle.

This distinction is probably on my mind because I’m trying to dial down my obsessive consumption of political news. Election week sucked, as I’m guessing you noticed. Clicking vote counts every five minutes, I didn’t sleep, picked up a cold, endured a nosyparker nasopharyngeal swabbing, waited anxiously for a different kind of information, and ended Monday singing the “I don’t have Covid” song. At the same time, I started exchanging daily poems with a group founded by a long-distance friend. We don’t comment except for occasional appreciation and encouragement; we just write and share. It feels good to be drafting poems again–most of them pondering secrets–as well as to eavesdrop on others through the frank privacy of their poem drafts.

It’s also four years now since another group of friends, upset over the election, formed a text group of six “Nasty Women” who eventually became the Nasty Tea Sippers (don’t ask me how, it’s been a long four years). The chain is still very lively, full of political and personal updates, workplace drama, ranting, cheering, and astonishing information. Some of the Nasties are hero-activists in my region, and one earned national notoriety with an act I thought was brave and righteous, but right-wingers apparently thought merited mailings of gorilla feces and threats to her children. I am unrepentant that we are gossips all. The State She’s In is dedicated to them.

Otherwise, it’s not a big news week in WheelerLand, compared to good and bad tidings from the larger world. The nicest small news was a Pushcart nomination from Thrush for “Tone Problem,” a poem I drafted last April with the same email poem-a-day group. I have a brief online reading coming up on the 17th in the digital fall version of the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival (flier below and I’ll post a link when it’s up). Magazine rejections are flying, aren’t they? And I’m trying to focus on writing again after weeks of poor concentration. It’s hard to tune into whispers when my news sources are shouting.

Fantasy, The Weird, & the Big Picture

I attended my first World Fantasy Con this weekend, which didn’t stop me from tracking election news and Covid-19 spikes, but gave me some wonderful hours of forgetting to doomscroll as I listened to writers talk about storytelling and publishing. I don’t mean that this was an escapist event or that I forgot the burning world. When you become absorbed in a good poem or story in any genre, you’re still thinking about identity, justice, the past, the future; you’re just pulling back from the minutiae of your surroundings to imagine different perspectives and, sometimes, different scales of meaning. To quote Karen Joy Fowler quoting Samuel Delaney (I’ve probably mangled this): “sf writers come in with a big picture of the world,” their attention potentially encompassing everything from interplanetary politics to small, character-based dramas.

A few fragments from the Con:

  • The “Queering Fantasy” panel was one of the first I attended, and it was generous and empowering. The speakers encouraged writers to learn and take risks toward the goal of building better worlds. It made me look forward to getting my brain back so I can plunge into my own novel again (one day soon, I hope?).
  • I spoke on a panel called “The Weird Side of the Fantastic,” organized and moderated by Anya Martin and also including Brian Everson, Michael Kelly, Craig Laurance Gidney, and Zin E. Rocklyn (teri.zin). I was by FAR the newest to this conversation, so I felt abashed to talk at all, but they were nice to me. The Weird, or so the consensus in this group went, isn’t really a genre or clique of writers so much as a slippery, unpredictable incursion of irresolveable, disturbing, and sometimes empowering strangeness into any kind of tale. I’ve garbled that, but I feel at home in the Weird’s way of challenging what passes for realism, as I think many poets do (poetry is so often trying to close in on some weirdness that can’t be expressed). The panel was also a good corrective to an old association between the Weird and Lovecraft’s powerful but toxic version of horror. As teri.zin said (again, I’m approximating, being too absorbed to take perfect notes), Black life in the U.S. has always involved existential threat that is invisible to many white Americans. Weird fiction can be a good fit for those experiences.
  • A moderated conversation with one of my current favorite authors, Stephen Graham Jones, may have been the peak of the Con for me. It was deeply moving, very funny, and unpretentiously framed by the experience of someone who wasn’t expected to go to college but ended up, by a circuitous path, arriving at acclaim and best-seller lists. Again, it was also generous, making room for everyone in big conversations about craft and ambition.
  • Do you know the experience of feeling more nervous reading for a tiny group than for a big one? I had given a W&L-based Zoom reading to 75 enrolled participants a few days before, and while I was mighty wound up, I felt good about that event. Yet I gave a reading in the “Weird Cluster” event this weekend and felt like I bungled it. It’s okay. Win some, lose some. (It didn’t help that the event started 10:30 pm Eastern; I suspect the last time I stayed up past midnight was around 2005.) As it happened, a significantly larger audience wandered in later and my cohort carried the night brilliantly. All hail Christi Nogle, Anya Martin, Zin E. Rocklyn, and Eugen Bacon! The picture below is one of Eugen’s screenshots.
  • Listening to Karen Joy Fowler talk about Ursula K. Le Guin was lovely. Fowler also talked about how when she’s in literary circles, people react with dismay to learn of her genre connections, but at Cons, people say, “Sf AND The Jane Austen Book Club? YEAH!” Those biases smacked me in the face when I published The Receptionist and Other Tales, an sf poetry collection; it was short-listed for a great sf award, but when I told some poets about the book, they backed away slowly as if fearing genre-cooties. I’ll say it again: snobs of the lit-verse need to cool it. There’s great and awful work in every marketing category; stereotyping a whole slice of the literary world is just ignorant.
  • Also from Fowler, reporting what Le Guin said about getting some writing done as a woman: “One person cannot do two jobs but two people can do three jobs.”
  • One random crazy moment: I watched an audience member fall asleep during a Zoom reading, the whole head-nod-and-neck-snap slow catastrophe. Zoom has facilitated much worse behavior, but jeez.

It wasn’t all amazing. During many panels, including “Queering Fantasy” and “Black Speculative Futures,” panelists called out deep problems with World Fantasy Con, both historical and recent. Apparently the first version of the 2020 program wasn’t diverse and featured panel descriptions full of stereotypes. I haven’t even seen it–it occurred to me very late that I could try this Con, because it was virtual and I no longer had to scrape up funds for Utah–but vestiges of a much narrower vision of fantasy were perceptible in the version I attended, as well as what you’d have to call obtuseness, at best. Some very accomplished white speakers whose writing I adore dismayed me when they said things like, “humanity is terrible but everyone where I live is so nice,” apparently unaware of how whiteness shelters people from even noticing discrimination and violence; also, it’s not cool to mispronounce names and laugh about it, even though we all make mistakes. Generally, though, I steered my viewing away from events that didn’t feature speakers from marginalized groups. That’s best practice at every conference I’ve ever attended, simply to find the interesting conversations.

I don’t know if I have an accurate impression of this Con when I say I perceived tension about who gets to define these interlocking genres and traditions, plus some reluctance, in some people, to address those conflicts forthrightly. I can say, though, that this WFC did make space for some large and exciting discussions. Many Weird and sffh authors (science fiction-fantasy-horror) are deeply thoughtful about whose realities come into play in fiction, and how; they keep expanding these interlocking fields in incredibly exciting ways. It felt like a gift to spend time with them on this of all weekends.

Don’t freak out, but those beautiful earrings were a gift from Hyejung Kook and they have scavenged fox bones in them