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. 

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.

Learning, unlearning, and #AWP21

You know the way somebody makes a remark and it clangs in you, your body vibrating with recognition? A friend recently told me that she’s learned a lot over the past year about what she needs to be happy. Yes. I’ve had other lesson years: for instance, I learned during my long-ago stint as department head is that I start falling apart if I don’t have an hour or so of flow experience each day, usually through reading or writing. Even class prep–rereading books, thinking about how to inspire engagement–can satisfy that hunger. Answering emails from the Business Office cannot.

The pandemic has been a tough teacher. I’ve had to be more deliberate this year about pairing periods of work-output with periods of restorative activities, and the range of possible restorative activities is necessarily smaller. I discovered how much travel had scaffolded my emotional life–choosing destinations and planning trips as well as the sheer relief of escaping my small town–and how sad the days felt without even small adventures to anticipate. I dealt with the restlessness through spring, summer, and fall by planning a new hike every Saturday, but tendonitis hobbled me in January, and February was just too icy as well as being crammed with deadlines, meetings, guest classes, and other tiring Zoomy things. I’m introverted enough not to mind some isolation, but projecting energy and enthusiasm via screens really takes it out of me. I entered March both revved up and melting down.

At my worried spouse’s suggestion, we spent 3 nights at a rented house by a deserted lake, which helped me reset. One reason I travel is because it puts distance between me and laptop-oriented work vigilance; I can’t seem to assert that boundary in my own house. I wasn’t looking forward to coming home and retethering myself to professional effort by “attending” this AWP, for which I had registered in a long-ago fit of optimism. Plus I’d learned that most of the sessions were pre-recorded, which I thought would remove that last frail shred of human interactivity. Virtual conferencing at its worst, I thought.

Somehow, though, I’ve done okay. I tried to watch multiple sessions on the first day then managed to listen to myself: I have it in me to pay high-quality attention to one session per day and reduced attention to a second, but that’s it. Why beat myself up about an incapacity to do more? The live chats enabled by the platform are more interactive and interesting than I expected, but I’m still not fulfilling that old, anxious “see and be seen” AWP imperative anyway, so, I told myself, just chill.

Oddly, I find myself choosing and enjoying the sessions on essays and fiction-writing more than the poetry events (although I particularly enjoyed a few generous-spirited poets talking about small press publicity last night). I wonder if that’s chance, or whether it’s about the pleasure of brain-expansion. I know a lot about poetry. I know something about writing creative nonfiction and novels, but I’m way lower on those learning curves, and I’m deeply interested in getting the lay of the land. In all the panels, I’m appreciating using camera-off listening time to stretch, when I’m not taking notes. And I finally did one of those AWP morning yoga sessions, and it was amazing!–not led by a super-fit woman approaching the practice athletically, but by a calm person emphasizing breathing and loosening joints, who kept reminding her invisible audience that yoga is all about feeling good and increasing happiness. Back to happiness, as if that might be an important subject.

Is that a lesson I can take to the next AWP–do less, concentrate on what’s pleasurable about the conference, what I can learn? Or should I skip the next AWP, even though it will be in Philadelphia where my kids are, and concentrate on smaller events where there’s a greater chance of really talking to people? No decision yet, especially given how unknowable the future is now, but I’m pondering.

In the meantime, a reminder that I’m participating in what I hope will be an inspiriting event this Monday 3/8 at 7pm ET (by Zoom, sorry), with poet-editors Celia Lisset Alvarez and Jen Karetnick, about rebounding from rejection. I plan to talk a little about what I’ve learned about it from both sides of Submittable, and why I persist. Sign up here (FB) or here (Eventbrite–but free tickets close a half hour before the event). Plus, I have to tell you, at the lake, there was an outdoor hot tub, and I saw a shooting star when I was lounging in the water (overchlorinated, but never mind). More happy astronomical phenomena, please, and may they be omens of good journeys ahead!

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)