Poetry & change & cocktail recipes

When someone says, “Poetry changed my life,” you expect to hear of a high-stakes transformation. Former students have told me, for example, how poetry gave them permission to embrace and admit their sexuality. Reading and writing poetry sustains people through all kinds of crises, and hearing it helps people feel moved and connected at weddings, inaugurations, and other happy occasions. There’s experimental evidence that reading certain kinds of stories can decrease a person’s racial prejudices–I expect that’s true of poetry, as well. On a less inspiring note, dedication to poetry has probably strained or destroyed plenty of love affairs and bank accounts.

Most of the metamorphoses triggered by poems, however, are much smaller. You are changed by a poem if you recall some of it afterwards: your memories have been altered. As you read, you might enter a state of happy concentration and experience physiological changes: respiration and pulse calm, so that briefly, your focus and mood shift. Or a poem might provoke an unfamiliar thought, or bring to mind some forgotten association, or prompt you to imagine the scene described. I am commonly changed in all these small, low-impact ways by reading and writing.

This week, however, I can report something bigger. This year has been full of difficult transitions: my eldest went off to college, my baby started high school, my mother got sick, and, not only for those reasons, I am feeling my age. My body has been a royal pain. And all this comes shortly after a series of changes in my workplace, some of them good but others distressing. In September I was definitely struggling with a sense that I had entered the second half of my life and it was going to suck.

So I wrote. My poetry and prose have all centered, more or less, on crisis as I looked for ways to redefine loss as change. A qualification: certainly it’s not always possible, or even a good idea, to revise grief into optimism. Responsible people look backwards as well as forwards and acknowledge what’s terrible as well as heartening. But I’ve been cultivating a sense of possibility all the same, and I swear it’s made me more resilient.

This week I, and others, got tested. A dear colleague suddenly left. Information has trickled out slowly; I’ve been enjoined not to say what I know, but in fact I still know very little. I’m left torn up about it but also with relief that the process seems to have been fair. While I hate the way universities tend to be run by legal fears and not by ethical imperatives–THEY ARE NOT THE SAME THING–in this case, I wouldn’t divulge more anyway.* People need to pick up the pieces and I truly wish for everyone involved to heal and flourish.

My point is, the past few days have been totally rotten and my fragile department has taken another blow, but I feel somehow ready to roll with it. Maybe the last few years have just battered into me that life isn’t as stable as I once thought, and I actually learned the lesson. I really think, though, that writing has been at least as big a factor in my restored ability to bounce.** I’ve practiced telling new stories about myself, about middle age, about opportunities that sometimes spring up under winter’s worst ice-lock, and maybe the repetition is actually helping me believe them. It’s all hocus-pocus but I seriously find storytelling, beautiful repetition, and other literary strategies essential for thriving during the long, slow, catastrophic crash that is most anybody’s life.

If you have a less healthy strategy in mind for coping with your own crappy week, here’s help with that, too. Below are a few recipes best shared with people you like. And full of immune-boosting vitamin C! I suppose you should shake then strain them, but life is short–I just put the ingredients into a glassful of crushed ice and stir. Then I nurse it, and myself, slowly along towards a bouncier future.

The Absinthe-Minded Professor: one part each absinthe, elderflower liqueur (such as St. Germain), lime juice, simple syrup. Based on something tasty I drank locally, at The Red Hen.

Screwdriver from Hell: one shot each vodka and pomegranate liqueur (such as Pama), topped with a few ounces of orange juice

Elderflower Lemonade: one part each Deep Eddy’s lemon vodka, elderflower liqueur, lemon juice, simple syrup

BONUS: I’ve been making a version of the above with grapefruit vodka and grapefruit juice, and it’s delicious enough that it really needs its own name. I suggested Vitamin G–too flat–and a friend countered with G-Spot, which I eventually decided was too Ft. Lauderdale. Suggest something good in the comments and if I like it I’ll send you a free signed copy of one of my poetry collections. (Judging will be subjective, arbitrary, and doubtless very irritating.)

*But stop calling it “gossip,” administrators. Gossip is a gendered term of dismissal for the kinds of conversations women need to have to survive the stupidity of life. I do not gossip. I TALK, and I’m not sorry.

**Blogging also represents a deliberate strategy of indiscretion for keeping myself ineligible for upper administrative positions, in which you earn boatloads of money but have to deal with traumatic personnel issues unbolstered by real time for writing and teaching–ugh. So far, so good.

 

How and why

70000I’m not the only writer who’s fascinated by the processes of inspiration, composition, and revision, but horrified by the processes of self-promotion. And  I do mean full-on gothic trauma complete with repressed guilt rising monstrously from a shallow grave and chasing me through the Cemetery of Dead Projects. Brave heroine that I try to be, I conquer fear enough to submit work, ask for blurbs and reviews, and nominate myself for various kinds of attention, especially if I can do so in writing, without face-to-face contact with my potential rejecter. I always feel haunted, however, by the ghosts of opportunities lost.

So I was surprised, browsing the Jan/Feb Poets & Writers, to feel inspired by the “Practical Writer” column–a piece by Frank Bures called “Brand You: Questioning Self-Promotion.” It’s print-only, but the gist, as I explained it during a chilly walk with my writer-spouse, is Bures’ recommendation to think like “politicians and cult leaders”–in a good way. The existential nausea of self-promotion recedes when you proselytize for the book itself: why you wrote it, why you imagine some group of readers needs or wants it. “Which means the ‘why’ should be deep in a book’s DNA,” Chris said. Yes.

Hows and whys are on my mind because I have a recent book out, but also because my writing life just took a weird turn. A year ago, I had an idea for a novel and started mentally toying around with it. I put a few paragraphs down last summer but didn’t go further.

Then, while balking at other kinds of work in late fall–my mother’s illness colored life with urgency–an opening scene arrived. I wrote it then, to my shock, kept on going. Every day I could, I’d write for six hours in my pajamas, then shower, run errands, exercise, whatever, and go back to work in late afternoon or evening. I generally work hard on sabbatical–seven or eight hours a day, five days a week, which is a lot of writing–but this was full-bore. I wrote in passenger seats and Christmas outfits, at the crack of dawn and in the middle of the night. During respites my brain would fill with sentences like a bucket under a roof leak. I’d put a bunch of tops in motion and just had to keep touching them, maintaining the spin. I ended up drafting 70,000 words in five weeks, adding a few thousand more during the first revision. It’s not ready for prime time, but it’s not terrible, either.

The whole process was a revelation–that I knew how to tell the story, that I loved the work. I will, at some future point, see if readers like it, too. The aforementioned spouse just finished it–thumbs up–but he gave smart suggestions, too, and there’s lots of work ahead.

I thought this experiment worth undertaking even if I never published a word–that I’d learn from the adventure–and already that seems true. Last week I looked at a languishing memoir-critical hybrid piece and, bam, knew how to fix the thing. Distance helps, but I also understand more now about rhythm and pacing in prose. Trained in poetic compression, I had just been eliding too much. I have infinitely more to learn about time in prose narrative, but practice has sped up my education. I’m curious what lessons I’ll bring back to poetry.

I just finished reading a book that holds up a mirror to this experience: Ben Lerner’s 10:04. His semi-fictional narrator Ben figures out how to write a prose book during a five-week residency that he devotes, contrarily, to writing a long poem, even though he just signed a six-figure contract and desperately needs to get some bill-paying prose underway.  A disobedient excursion through one genre teaches him how to approach–maybe even reinvent–the other.

Unfortunately, the milieu of 10:04 brings me back to the publicity dilemma. If I never again read a novel in which bright young literati in Brooklyn earn fabulous amounts of money, it won’t be too soon. It’s a testament to Lerner’s gift that I couldn’t dislike the book. It wasn’t long ago that an author visiting W&L (not Lerner) said, “I don’t know why anyone living outside Brooklyn even bothers to write.” The remark, leveled at Virginia writers over artisanal cocktails, was brutal, but I do get it: I live far from the publicity machines that might amplify my promotional effort a thousandfold.

Disheartening, sometimes, but as a Philadelphia friend reminds me, I do get a lot done in my tiny boring nowhere-town. On the subject of smallness: check out my microreview in a new Kenyon Review series. And thanks to Hampton-Sydney Poetry Review for publishing my poems and reflections about undergraduate teaching, and also to Valerie Duff-Strautmann for reviewing Radioland so intelligently in the new Salamander. Hurrah for all these great people striving to amplify poetry’s signal!

As I gladly receive their broadcasts, I think about the “why” of Radioland, which is a good book but Sisyphean. It’s about how incredibly difficult it is for human beings to get through to one another, and how vital it isSalamander to try anyway–basically a skeptic’s big pitch for listening and love. Which means it’s a qualified pitch, a little wry. Un-Trumpery from the poet as charismatic loser, as Eileen Myles brilliantly puts it.

I hope you’ll accept the connection and read it, whether you buy, borrow, or cadge a free teacher/ reviewer’s copy. (My link’s to the press but it’s also available from your favorite monstrously convenient online retailer). Or come see me at the VA Festival Book or at the AWP–I’m working on keeping my Events page updated, when I’m not, that is, hiding with my exiled friends behind the tombstone of Literary Recognition Undemanded, R.I.P.

 

Thanks David Bowie

…for giving me permission to become a scary monster.

Sigh Like Twig the Wonder Kid

A party tonight with real boys / who needs trouble
Better the problems of representing shadow
Electric snap of static when fingers touch vinyl then
the amplified hush as needle meets its groove
Better to ponder freakishness / whether
the green eye wants what the brown foresees / His tenor
founders on the bridge and she can’t breathe,
as if she’s in love / or gazing in the mirror

Meanwhile she fixes Bowie’s sheen in oils
learning his rouged mouth’s quirks / Not the glam
rock waif who streaked a lightning bolt across
his face / not the corn-pale padded suit of cynical
1983 / but Changes Two
the wet look / Nothing set / nothing dry
Ruffled bedspread / sting of turpentine.
Plaid uniform skirt / her paint-swirled smock
She mixes a bruised hue to smudge around
his eye as cadmium washes from the sky

She applies so little pigment the fibers
of the canvas show / A famished child
a reckless thing / she knows how costumes sink
into the skin / That voice is forever / Yet she claws
up fishnets / finds her cobalt ankle-boots
An ink-and-mustard mini / some Dippity-Doo
Ground Control could learn a thing or two

From RadiolandBarrow Street Press, 2015. The poem was first published in Turbine. The slash marks came later, when I was thinking about punctuation in the book–they seemed a good way to encapsulate the either/ or cruxes of adolescence. Did I have a crush on Bowie, or did I want to be him? I still don’t know, but when I started writing poems I was following his lead, tracking down his every literary reference, studying how he put lines together. I’m sad about today’s news but also just really grateful. He opened strange doors that we’d never close again.

I did paint countless album covers in oils when I was a teenager; here are two, from my Virginia attic. Wish I still had the cobalt ankle boots. Bowie

 

 

 

Close-reading the 2015 National Book Awards

Forecast: capricious poetry weather ahead.

Last year I tackled the National Book Award’s poetry long list in time for a new year’s post and learned a lot from the exercise. This year I was completing the same task, reading with admirable industry and dedication, when I picked up Sunday’s New York Times Book Review and found it dedicated to the year in verse. Out of seventeen volumes receiving substantial mention there, it turned out I had only read two–and those had been granted relatively brief notice. Further, one of those, by Rankine, was a 2014 collection that continues to sell briskly. Granted, a few of the reviewed collections were newish–I follow Kay Ryan and Major Jackson faithfully and I’ll get to their new work eventually. Still, what a crummy percentage!

Let me repeat, then, that I despair of ever being very well-read in US poetry, much less in the verse of the English-speaking world, and I am not well-versed at all in contemporary poetry’s full polyglot splendor. Seriously, anyone who claims her best-of list is authoritative is kidding you, or herself. Some books, like Citizen, really are big events, aesthetically complex achievements speaking to the historical moment. And a collection must be skilfully written, thoughtfully edited, and attractively published to get media attention; as I observed last year, a suspiciously large percentage of books on these lists were published by fancy NYC operations. I’m sending out Radioland to post-publication prizes and can testify that thorough engagement in the awards game takes serious resources. Most presses don’t have the staff or the dough, and most poets can’t personally pick up the slack.

According to my partial survey, not from a mountain-top but an overgrown hill surrounded by cellphone towers and other scenery-blockers, I can testify that many of the year’s most exciting collections do appear on the NBA list.  Robin Coste Lewis’ winning collection is stunning poetry of witness–the central collage is impressive but the framing lyrics really blew me away. I liked Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things so much I spent an afternoon just before Christmas reading bits aloud to my relatives. (I can’t find the title poem online, but look for it–it wowed my teenage daughter.) I’d characterize a good poetry collection as either deliciously crafty, or presenting a powerful take on urgent material, or both, but here’s another criterion: you want to share what you’re reading with loved ones. Limón’s book wasn’t perfect–a few weaker poems diluted the grand ones–but it hit me that way, as a collection I wanted to tell people about.

I also thought, however, that some books didn’t belong on the long list at all. They were, as I said, skilful, but there were a couple I wouldn’t have bothered to finish if I hadn’t committed myself to the task. And on the finalist list, I’m happy to see strong books by Terrance Hayes and Ross Gay, but the collection by Patrick Phillips just wasn’t especially engaging, even for a poet who’s been mining similar material (dead fathers). I found Marilyn Hacker’s entry more impressive–that title sonnet crown is amazing!–and the books by Jane Hirshfield and Lawrence Raab trumped Phillips–well, both Phillipses–in emotional power, at least for me.

Also, while I’d have to reread my year’s favorites to be sure which collection I’d personally choose for the laurels, it’s a shame Claudia Emerson’s Impossible Bottle wasn’t in the running. No 2015 book moved me more than that one. Other achievements that won’t get enough attention: the interdisciplinary ecofeminist gorgeousness of Bindle, an art and poetry collection by Elisabeth Frost and Dianne Kornberg; or the gender adventure of Stephen Burt’s All-Season Stephanie. Both have lingered in my mind, the way risky books do. Neither looks like an NBA book for various reasons–Burt’s, for instance, is a chapbook–but they and many other collections shouldn’t get blown away like so many autumn leaves.

Radioland wasn’t eligible for the 2015 NBA list, by the way, and won’t be for 2016, either. 2016 books have to be published on or after Dec. 1 2015; my book came out Oct. 1, but galleys weren’t ready in time for the NBA’s summer deadline. I don’t think these grapes are sour, therefore, but as I said, I don’t believe in the fiction of impartiality, either. I know I missed or misread good 2015 collections, and I would like to hear other people’s favorites, too. Seems to me the party could use some new refreshments.

In the meantime, I was floored to receive mention on Bill Manhire’s reading list–scroll down to see. Thanks to Emma Neale for pointing it out. And any NZ readers who are having trouble getting Radioland, please let me know. That’s another problem with small presses, of course; I have trouble reading widely in the poetries of other countries unless I can browse their bookstores in person, and I know many other poetry-readers, wherever they are, feel the same frustration.

Today I’m also looking back at 2015’s literary weather in general, my own capricious reading as compared to what I’m supposed to admire. Here’s my count: 48 books of poetry read or reread; 54 novels; and 16 books of nonfiction, not including a jillion articles as well as books in various genres I didn’t feel like finishing. I don’t see how a person with a needy family and a full-time job could read much more, yet I still feel behind–it’s crazy out there. 77 of those books on my personal list were authored by women, and my 2015 reading was diverse in many other ways, too, but I didn’t read very internationally in 2015, except for a pile of British, Scottish, and Irish poems in the summer, and a host of classic British mysteries that kept me sane through the year’s roughest patches.

I’d like to do better as a global poetry citizen in 2016, but given a daughter in college and sabbatical austerities and a looming dental implant, I don’t expect to be springing for plane tickets. Nor am I in a mood for resolutions, except to keep reading and writing. Mostly I follow literary whims (my novel draft is at 45,000 words and counting!)–I read what genuinely calls to me as much as possible–but I will perform the NBA short-list-reading exercise at least one more time. It’s good to study the company I aspire to keep, one of these days.2015 NBA

 

 

Distraction and vegetables

I have been misbehaving again. Instead of finishing  a draft of my critical book this month–it’s close to done–I seem to have shelved it temporarily in favor of writing fiction, a genre I haven’t done much with since college. Ten thousand words last week alone, so the project is thundering along, and I’m having SO much fun. I guess that’s good?–it fits my rule of productive procrastination, anyway. If I can’t work on what I’m supposed to, I just work on something, and things seem to get done on the end. Plus, experiments are generally worth making; even if the project withers, you learn by the attempt.

In the meantime, Radioland was just accepted to the Virginia Festival of the Book–it looks like I’ll read there on Thursday March 17th, but I’ll add the details (and some other upcoming things) to my events page when they’re confirmed. And I am THRILLED to see the first two reviews available online:

Both reviews are insightful and generous, but it’s interesting to reflect on their differences. Writing for a NZ magazine, Cresswell stresses the book’s Aotearoan content, but also the theme of dislocation. I see that place has become a big subject for me, but often in a perverse way, as I write about imaginary, damaged, or vanished locations, so I’m gratified to read her thoughts on the subject. Michaels, on the other hand, cocks her very good ear to themes of distance and intimacy, especially as they arise in parent-child relationships. Since I started writing about voice and medium in my scholarship a decade ago, I’ve been obsessed with them. Communication was the original organizing theme of the collection–although poems do take on a will of their own after a while. A poetry book is a broadcast that too often goes just one way, out into an unresponding world amid a blizzard of other signals. It’s wonderful when listeners out there in radioland actually beam their responses back!

I’ll be doing the same soon. Sometime around the turn of the year I’ll put up some thoughts about 2015 reading. I’ve taken on way too many commitments lately in wild sabbaticalesque enthusiasm–I’ll have various columns and reviews to cross-post in coming months–but I do think there’s a kind of writerly karma involved in buying, reading, and talking about books that move or help or entertain you, just as you hope others will do for you.

However, I also need to dial down the static enough to enjoy my family and the holidays. I haven’t been exactly centered, oscillating between light and dark moods as I am between writing projects. I’m tuning in to political outrage, too, and then overcompensating by shutting out most media for days, horrified by the headlines, afraid if I open my own mouth I’ll just start yelling. This can be a weird, hard time of year and I send good vibes out to the many, many folks having a rougher time than I am.

So, lest I give publicity to the forces that just enrage me, I’ll just say: merry cauliflower to you, beets on earth, and I hope you get some time with a good book soon.

cauli

Stealing the scholars’ wi-fi

The still eye of November’s hurricane was, improbably, a modernism conference in Boston. I scudded in a day late, only half an hour before my first meeting. I was recovering from illness, and my son and husband were sick, and I’d packed badly, especially considering how chic modernism scholars tend to be, with their Calder-mobile-style earrings and funky eyeglasses and fabulous boots. I often feel out of sorts at academic conferences, too—the poet-scholar failing at both sides of the hyphen. Yet the fancy hotel was full of friends: people who have helped me, people whom I have helped, and people I just like to talk and listen to. It was restorative and made me think hard about mentoring.

My autumn, as reported in the previous post, had the plot arc of a killer storm: the happy family was sailing along, backs to a swelling bulk of thunderheads. The first smashing wave was my mother’s sudden illness, eventually diagnosed as lymphoma with some dangerous complications. I think she nearly died twice, but was rescued by my sister driving in from New Jersey to drag her to the ER (my mother lives in eastern Pennsylvania, about a five-and-half hour drive from me). Double-crisis is the formula for a thriller; the danger seems at first to be averted, and then a bigger threat arises. Her treatment now seems to be proceeding effectively, but the past weeks taught us all vigilance. My concentration is terrible. I did finish my conference paper, write a few references, submit a micro-review. I know I drafted a few desperate poems, too, but haven’t had time to look at them—did I mention my laptop is also dying?

To help a little during the week before Thanksgiving—my sister is carrying most of the burden—I traveled to the Modernist Studies Association meeting by car, visiting Pennsylvania on the way. When I arrived at my mother’s hospital on Wednesday afternoon, they discharged her, and I spent a day and a half getting her settled at home: counting out pills into a dispenser, buying supplies, cleaning, doing laundry, cooking, phoning the insurance and visiting nurses, and helping my brother move a bed downstairs. I still can’t believe how much we did, even while I was absorbing seismic changes in a lifelong intimacy. One of my earliest memories is being carried shivering out of a bathtub by my mother, who rubbed me dry and unrolled lacy white socks over my ankles as I protested the cold. Suddenly I was dressing my mother, fetching layers as she shivered. Age goes this way for most of us eventually, and it’s good when we can help each other along. Still, it’s tiring work emotionally and physically.

It was strange to arrive at the Boston hotel in this condition, put on my professional clothes, and launch a reading I’d organized. Yet it eased my mind to hear those poems and have a series of conversations with other people negotiating their own crazy lives brilliantly. One friend’s major health crisis, she told me, was immediately followed by her husband’s heart attack; she knew exactly what I meant when I described my own juggling of caretaking and professional urgencies. Her glance, that reassuring touch to the arm, helped me exhale. A lot of my friends, of course, are middle-aged people with mortal parents and/or still-needy teenagers plus their own ambitions, but I also sat for a few minutes on the lobby carpet with a former student’s sleepless toddler as she deconstructed a lily. I don’t know who is mentoring whom in some of these interactions, but it’s all reassuring.

When I departed on Monday morning, I listened to Mindy Kaling’s recent audiobook, Why Not Me? Kaling commissioned one mini-chapter from a mentor—perhaps improbably, a middle-aged white guy. In the audiobook, he reads aloud his own words, “On Being a Mentor,” a bit of which I’ve transcribed below. After describing his own role-models, Greg Daniels speculates:

“I know a lot of people are probably thinking, ‘Oh, good for you, but nobody’s ever wanted to be my mentor.’ I don’t think any one of them wanted to be my mentor, either. My advice is: you take your mentoring wherever you can find it, whether it’s being offered to you or not. Have you ever used your neighbor’s wi-fi when it wasn’t on a password? If you have the opportunity to observe someone at their work, you are getting mentoring out of them even if they are unaware or resistant. Make a list of the people you think would make the greatest mentors and try to get close enough to steal their wi-fi.”

I agree with Daniels. Since grad school, a mess to discuss on another day, I’ve hijacked my mentors’ attention against their better judgment, or jostled in close to busy people to learn what I could. Most but not all of them were feminist women, and I don’t know whether that’s because women were more open to helping me, or whether I felt more comfortable sidling up to them. But I’ve attended most MSAs since the organization started in the late nineties, and again and again I see women there modeling an intellectual generosity I aspire to. Linda Kinnahan, Cynthia Hogue, Marsha Bryant, Dee Morris, and Cris Miller not only give dependably rockin’ talks but attend small panels with warm engagement; direct questions to the speaker who’s getting the least attention; redirect blowhards; and do the behind-the-scenes work, too, of tenure reviews, anonymous reader reports, and cleaning up complicated professional messes. I’m singling out a few who have been models for me, but there are many others—plus people at earlier career stages who impress me with similar gifts. Most of them could probably say no more often, and I should, too. If you don’t get good work done, after all, your own ability to help others shrinks. I really want to just hunker down and write this December, ignoring everyone beyond my closest family and friends. Still, strong signal, no password: that is a beautiful way to broadcast.

For the pic below with Cynthia Hogue and her dashing handbag, thanks to Marsha Bryant. You can see more from the MSA reading at Aldon Nielson’s blog.

cynthia msa

All my words small but costly: Emerson, illness, and work

Sometimes there’s a poetry-sized gap in your life. Today I filled it with a vintage stored against future need–Claudia Emerson’s final collection, Impossible Bottle. This was supposed to be one of those golden weeks, too rare even on sabbatical, when I had no big obligations and could just write and revise, but it’s not happening. Presumably the meds will kick in soon, but a sinus infection has made me sleepy and dizzy, plus I’m just tired from doing too much: an unexpected trip to visit my mother in hospital was followed by zooming down bad roads in the dark and rain to a 2-day AWP board meeting in DC (an impressive group–check it out). On the Saturday after, I had a sore throat but couldn’t resist a few hours at the Library of Congress looking at Millay’s papers. Next was writing an interview about Radioland from Frances Donovan’s wonderful blog Garden of Words, a joint signing with Chris Gavaler at Lexington’s Bookery, Bookeryand making soup to bring to my mom on the way to Family Weekend at Wesleyan, which I totally shouldn’t have attended, not only because I was getting sicker but because my son was, too. We ended up leaving Connecticut very early on Saturday to get my son back to a doctor. He was diagnosed with walking pneumonia so he’s still home from school, and from my fainting couch (not really) I’m nagging him constantly (really) about hydration, rest, and make-up work. And above it all I’m deeply worried about my mom, who has an aggressive lymphoma and starts chemo this Friday. Really, who could concentrate?

Emerson’s spare and lovely poems about illness, though, are good medicine. Honestly, while there are a lot of strong 2015 collections I have not yet read, I can’t imagine many are more deserving of notice on the best-of lists than Impossible Bottle. Full of gorgeous ruins and scenes of beauty gone wrong, it has the spiritual quality of H.D.’s war poem Trilogy, although Emerson’s crisis is more personal–instead of bombings, metastasis, and instead of Europe, a vividly evoked Virginia. In fact, a Virginian reader can date many of its poems in relation to public disasters. Our 2011 earthquake makes an appearance as well as the 2012 derecho. But cancer is primary, and outer storms only the “vaguest mirror” to a deeply inward book. The predominance of couplets reminds me of Trilogy, too, although many lines are left single, as if widowed. Formally, “Infusion Suite” is particularly brilliant–these twelve poems feel like a sonnet crown, but they turn out to consist of thirteen lines each. Emerson’s lyric is ominous and foreshortened.

It feels a little false, however, to review this book intellectually, with the critical gaze I’m trained to level at verse. It’s a personal book and, further, I cannot help but take personally, and not only because of my mother’s illness. Claudia taught at W&L in the mid-90s–she was a veteran adjunct professor here as I, ten years younger and much greener, started on the tenure track. Her friendship and example were important to me. I have an essay drafted about that time in relation to her first book, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, but I haven’t managed to polish it up and get it out, probably for the same reason I put off reading this last collection–it all feels too final.

Yet the book itself makes an argument for continuance of the self, for good and ill, through the work we leave behind. In “Well,” for example, she reflects on a relic “more remnant than place,” built by a great-uncle striving for usefulness–but the well draws up toxic water she drank throughout childhood (radon is prevalent in Virginia groundwater, particularly in her family’s region). The fourth poem in “Infusion Suite” concerns a mechanic named Leonard who specializes in repairing “the under-// carriage of a car after a wreck,/ realignment, the stuff nobody ever sees/ and will never notice unless–no, until–// it gets out of whack.” (The latter poem shifts in register to a funny punchline, but I won’t spoil it–go look.) I drew the title of my blog from the same sequence; it refers on its surface level to a game of scrabble. Poetry is work, too, enduring for a little while or longer, but not the only worthwhile kind of labor.

I’m glad, personally, that the speaker of these poems, while immensely sympathetic, is no sainted martyr. “Imagining narratives// worse than my own has become a kind of balm,” she confesses in “Murder Ballad,” and elsewhere Emerson studies bitterness and self-pity and despair. Cancer is an enemy and a metaphor but also just a stupid accident. I find the last line of “Cyst” especially chilling in its examination of awful randomness: “mistake a body can make,” set alone at the bottom of the page, opens up a dark coincidence in language. “Mistake” is “make” with an “ist” or “cyst” in it. Good effort, poisoned.

Praise to good effort! Even though we’re not entirely in charge of where words take us, these are valuable, resonant ones. Impossible Bottle is balm I’m grateful for. Now it’s back to a long list of postponed obligations–reviews, references, book promotion, a conference paper and other prep for the Modernist Studies Association meeting in Boston (see here for info on a reading I’m organizing there). I’ll sign off for now with an image from the Millay papers at the Library of Congress. You need permission to quote from most of the material, but this note to lover George Dillon by Millay (scrawling on her husband’s stationery) is in the “unrestricted” box. It expresses her shock and sorrow at the death of Elinor Wylie. Like Millay, I’d rather my favorite poets continue in life than in words alone, but I guess we have to work with whatever hand appears in the random scrabble pile, that “sorry trough of letters.”Millay on Wylie

Anthroposcenery

Washington and Lee students often refer to their version of Lexington, Virginia as “the bubble,” as if were a protected from the world by those soft, old mountains. It’s not, nor would that be a good thing, and they know that. But seeming out-of-time is part of the attractive weirdness of some universities in the U.S. I know the damages people sometimes suffer even this privileged place, sometimes because of the privilege, and yet I appreciate the fantasy too sometimes as I walk through my gorgeous campus with arms full of library books, thinking poetic thoughts. It’s gothic, as my well-read firebrand of a daughter recently commented. Beneath the floorboards of wonderful intellectual conversations, a heart is beating out an accusation, and everyone tries to ignore the sound. (She really does talk like that and it’s part of why I miss her.)

The uncanny pulse gets louder this time of year, when the town hosts a different crowd every few days–family weekends for the two colleges, or trustee meetings, during which stray piles of cash drift over our academic mission like fallen leaves. Good work depends on that fundraising, so I’m happy it succeeds, but it makes me uneasy, too, because the emphasis so often falls on the wrong things. This past weekend was homecoming at W&L so the streets were rowdy with young alums. The graduates I’m closest to are often skeptical-minded literary types, too clear-eyed for unreserved cheering about a very good college with some very real culture problems. I ask if they’re coming back and many say, um, not my scene, unless they’re a retirement bash for a favorite professor in the offing, or some other content to the weekend than rah-rah-school-spirit. 

So it was unusual but very cool to walk downtown Saturday for a beer with a former student (and football-playing-poet) who became a college counselor and a fierce advocate for literary study at small liberal arts colleges. On the way I bumped into other former English majors, now passionately committed to teaching middle and high-schoolers. All are vocally grateful for those hours talking critically about books, writing and revising essays, figuring out what kind of people they wanted to be. My own elder child, a first-year at Wesleyan University, loves English but worries about focusing on it—will she be able to afford organic vegetables when she grows up? (She is really fixated on the cost of produce.) This question does not make me anxious at all. She’s smart and engaged and will graduate with skills employers want, no matter what undergraduate specialty she chooses. Finding the right path, the kind of job that satisfies employee as well as employer, can take time but I have no doubt others will value her intelligence and fire. My own graduates—lawyers, ministers, physical therapists, doctors, HR professionals, writers, editors, artists, arts administrators, diplomats, FBI agents, teachers at every kind of institution—give me high confidence that studying poetry can lead to a good life, however one measures that. (They could level some pretty smart arguments, in fact, for better ways of measuring of the good life.)

On Sunday, however, I fell into a bleaker mood, worrying about my mother in hospital, so I picked up a little book by Roy Scranton, whose first-year-seminar my daughter can’t stop talking about. I ordered it a few weeks ago, but hesitated to jump in, given the title: Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (City Lights, 2015). And it is, in fact, a dark book, full of facts and figures about climate change—a rational person can’t deny a catastrophe is unfolding, but most of us prefer fictional televised zombie apocalypse to consideration of how our grandchildren, if they make it at all, might be subsisting on farmed algae in the new temperate zone of the Arctic Circle. That is the future to worry about.

Scranton was deployed to Iraq in 2003 as a private in the US Army. He managed his terror by following advice from an 18th century manual for samurai: Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. He ritually contemplated his own demise in graphic detail, then, “before we rolled out through the wire, I’d tell myself that I didn’t need to worry anymore because I was already dead. The only thing that mattered was that I did my best to make sure everyone else came back alive” (22). He applies the same logic to human civilization: the Holocene is already over; we have to come to terms with living in a different era, with a very uncertain future.

There’s a lot to disagree with in Scranton’s book, but I was moved to watch it turn, eventually, into a fervent argument for the humanities. “Through the ice ages of the past and into the long summer of the Holocene,” he writes, “we carried tools, furs, fire, and our greatest treasure and most potent adaptive technology, the only thing that might save us in the Anthropocene, because it is the only thing that can save those who are already dead: memory” (95). And: “The study of the humanities is nothing less than the patient nurturing of the roots and heirloom varietals of human symbolic life. This nurturing is a practice not strictly of curation, as many seem to think today, but of active attention, cultivation, making and remaking. It is not enough for the archive to be stored, mapped, or digitized. It must be worked” (99).

When we make literature central to our thoughtful lives, generate new art out of ancient myths, or read poetry to remember the dead, we are working the humanities. I’m glad people fund and value the labor, although I wish we could talk more openly and seriously outside the classroom, as well as in it, about the costs and benefits of the apparent bubble, who’s excluded from it, and how. In any case, it’s good to be part of the heirloom-seeds-relay, so that my students can go on to share their favorite poems in Baltimore schools or embassy outreach classes in the Czech Republic. I’m also grateful my daughter has such a humane, eloquent teacher to plant Gilgamesh and Blake in her brain. We need optimists—hopeful people focused on the practicalities of getting each other out alive—but we direly need our bleak rememberers, too. We lose so much, so constantly.

Poetic housekeeping

The main piece of housekeeping wisdom my mother passed down to me was just make it LOOK clean. If the counter is wiped down, people will admire your kitchen. They’ll never know about the dust under the fridge or even see the crumbs on the floor. Was the family home immaculate? Rarely. Did the below-eye-level debris matter? Not at all.

That advice from a stay-at-home mom adapted pretty well to the life of a mother with a sixty-hour-a-week job, although when the appliance repair guy pulls out the fridge and uncovers some unholy dustscape, I do wince in anticipation of that look: what kind of woman are you, sitting around in sweatpants with piles of books, when THIS is growing HERE? Not that I feel guilty; it just annoys me to suffer raised eyebrows when I don’t have time to make speeches about gendered divisions of labor. I take Chris as a role model, since, in his focus on writing, he is completely impervious to looks the neighbors probably give him about our raggedy yard and the dire lichen blossoming on our siding.

The same principle converts fine to most kinds of work. At home, if the kids are thriving, it doesn’t matter if the weeds are, too. Likewise, at the office, if you’re giving students and colleagues the help they really need, you can leave certain emails to rot; you just have to be clear in your priorities and thoughtful about whether a small task completed now will matter enormously to someone later, or whether it’s really, genuinely small after all.

But what about writing? Scholarship is supposed to be meticulous. A small error now can be quoted and requoted twenty times, distorting arguments made decades later. Yet pore-over-every-source perfectionists may get scooped or never see publication at all, because research is endless, like housekeeping. Once you’ve scoured the whole field, dust is already gathering in the room where you started–there’s always a new angle, or an overlooked one, to worry about. At some point, you just have to say good enough and cross your fingers that the inevitable crumb on the floor stays invisible.

I have made mistakes in print. Blogging and social media make error even more likely–no editors, little time for patient scrubbing. I remind myself I’m not a surgeon–my slips usually cost someone proper credit for his or her hard work, not life and limb–but it still feels bad, as it should, I guess.

This season, as I’m delivering a new poetry book to the world, I realize I’m more fastidious about verse than any other kind of writing. A poem’s room is so little–nowhere for the trash to hide. I also know I can take my time with a poem. Unlike an article, whose reference list quickly spoils, a good poem has a long shelf-life.

Appropriately enough given today’s metaphor, my reflections on editing Radioland appear as a “House Guest” feature this week on Ecotone‘s blog. I’m still not sure if I got everything right in my new collection–my other books have flaws, although I refuse to name them here–but I worked on it word by word, comma by comma, at least as scrupulously as on any project I’ve ever undertaken. Go ahead, run your white gloves all over it and tell me what you find.

And, of course, I had tons of help; my acknowledgements page doesn’t cover the half of it. In addition to everyone named in the book itself, Mary Giaimo does meticulous copy-editing for Barrow Street Press. Sarah Kruse is laboring hard to fulfill orders and help publicity. IMG_1688 (1)Still further behind the scenes, many, many magazine editors made the poems better. (And on that note, hurrah for editors everywhere! I am delighted to have new poems lately in Eleven Eleven and the sci-fi issue of New Orleans Review.)

This week I hit pause on my critical project to complete some more invisible housekeeping. Some of it is unpaid work for others–reviewing articles and promotion files, writing references, and learning how to be a trustee for the AWP (did I mention I’m now Mid-Atlantic Council Chair?–yikes). For my own poetry’s sake, I’m working on a radio essay, with help from W&L people, and who knows if it will ever hit the airwaves? I’m sending out review copies, applying to festivals, and nominating myself for prizes. Most of that work won’t make any difference at all, it’s costly in time and money, and–let me show you behind the oven here–all the self-promotion gets kind of embarrassing.

But, well, hell, let the lichen grow all over the house and the dust bunnies fatten. Boosting the signal for Radioland–that’s high priority. And I am beyond grateful to everyone who has helped, or is helping now, by buying the book, ordering a copy for their library, reviewing it, teaching it, secretly plotting to invite me to read from it, or whatever else you’re doing for poetry rather than wipe out the kitchen cupboards. Seriously, nobody looks in there.

On judging and being judged

A couple of days ago I finished judging the annual poetry awards for the Science Fiction Poetry Association–a very otherworldly reading assignment! The following reflections on the experience appear in slightly more compressed form in the new issue of Star*Line and are reprinted here with permission. Thanks to the SFPA folks for inviting me to serve and to all the poets who participated. Spending time with their work gave me an interesting view on a literary universe I’m still learning about, and as you’ll see below, it also inspired some thinking about poetic judgment generally.

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Rejections are always showering down on me like micrometeoroids. Learning to tolerate the hail is a character-building aspect of being a poet. Sometimes disappointment burns; mostly I shrug it off. No poem pleases everyone, and besides, judges are fickle. Writing that seems dull one evening, when a reader is tired and grumpy, might glitter in the morning light. Or a triolet about spiders might land on the desk of a rhyme-hating arachnophobe. That is, there’s contingency involved, even when everyone involved is doing their best to read objectively. A poet has to do good work to win a contest, but you also have to be a little bit lucky.

I’m personally calmer about that luck factor now that I occasionally judge as well as suffer judgment. Most recently, selecting the SFPA contest winners, I wondered about my differences from previous arbiters. I didn’t find myself worrying, for example, about degrees of science fictionality. A haiku might only deploy a brief speculative trope but that was okay by me—whereas another judge might be a stickler.

Instead–and my former students will recognize these terms from workshops–I read, as I always read, for power, control, and complexity. By power I mean the energy some poems emanate, perhaps through emotional intensity, narrative suspense, or startling imagery. Sometimes a less-polished poem conveys more power than an exquisitely crafted one, but you can’t disperse prizes on potential—that’s where control comes in. When judging these entries, I reluctantly put aside some poems with heart when I realized line breaks didn’t make sense or cliché dragged down the description. Complexity takes various forms, but in short, good poems work through at least two problems simultaneously. Maybe it’s a human-alien love story in concert with an unusual take on the sonnet, or a folklore revision using hyper-scientific diction—in any case, there’s a lot going on linguistically, emotionally, intellectually, and/ or structurally.

Last week I received three packets of poems stripped of identifying features and had to process them quickly. Over many pots of tea, I marked intriguing poems with sticky notes, took head-clearing walks, and read them again. Sometimes I realized the ending of an otherwise good poem was just too predictable; sometimes verses that had seemed marginal grew on me. I didn’t recognize any writer by his or her style or obsessions and was surprised to learn later that some quite different poems were by the same person. I also had no idea so many of the winning pieces were authored by women and don’t know how that stacks up to the entry pool, proportionally, but given that most of the publishing world tilts the other way (see VIDA for details), that result seems like a good thing. Several entries barely missed an honorable mention—so if you entered but didn’t get named a winner, ask a smart friend to read your piece with a critical eye, then tune it up and get it back into circulation. And as I said above, all judges have moods and idiosyncrasies, so I may simply have failed to render your brilliance appropriate homage.

Among the Dwarf poems, I admired the surreal situation and resonant ending of “Anomaly,” the imagistic freshness of “Methane Snowfall,” and the way “Crater Conundrum Pizza” riffs both on ad-speak and time paradoxes. Among the Short Form entries, “Metis Emits” delighted me with sound play and feisty sweetness. “Phone Tree” and “Some Who Wander Become Lost” juxtapose the mythic against the mundane, the first with wit, the second darkly. (The Short Form category, by the way, received more entries than the other two put together and so offered the stiffest competition: sf poets, keep that in mind for next year!) The three Long Form winners are very different from one another: “Transference” unfolds a complex sf premise in vivid language; in “Arizona Rest Stop” a lively voice projects a wild tale; and the weird sonnet crown “Comet Elm” is formally impressive.

I congratulate the winners but know others will judge the judge benighted—I rarely agree with other referees’ selections, after all. Fortunately, however, SFPA judges change annually, so next year you can take your chances with a different barbarous, stardust-battered hominid. Engage and allons-y!