Virtual Salon #4 with Elizabeth Hazen

We've been called so many things that we are not,  
we startle at the sound of our own names.  
          -Elizabeth Hazen, from "Devices" 

I’ll be teaching a virtual Whitman and Dickinson course in our May term, and because it may be pass/ fail only, it’s especially urgent to come up with assignments my undergraduates will genuinely want to do. Here’s one, although I forget where I picked up this idea because I’ve been doing SO MUCH READING about virtual education: create a virtual meal based on the reading, including a menu and place settings. Dickinson has so many poems about the lack of food (“It would have starved a Gnat–,” etc.) that this idea is weirdly perfect for her poems.

There’s a similar concern with binge and privation in Elizabeth Hazen’s Girls Like Us, as she describes in the interview below. Sometimes zooming in on pain, sometimes regarding it from a wry distance, Hazen focuses on intense material: gender-based violence, addiction and recovery, and, not least, the damage even language itself can do. In style, she’s what Marilyn Taylor has called a “semi-formalist,” sometimes writing in slim columns of free verse but elsewhere deploying meter and rhyme; these shapes work the way Adrienne Rich said her own formalism did, as a way of approaching a conflagration with “asbestos gloves.” The heat in Hazen’s second collection is fierce, but so is the beauty. See, for example, the last poem in the book, which makes my heart ache: “Monarch,” among the earliest poems Beth and I chose for the new Shenandoah.

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

This is a tough one . . . many poems in the book explore alcoholism and its fallout; others allude to disordered eating and anorexia – so the question of appropriate refreshments to go with this book is fraught . . . If one wanted to emulate the women in many of the poems, straight liquor – any kind – would be a fitting refreshment; another version of the party’s menu could be the austere black coffee and stale donuts or off-brand cookies so often associated with recovery. A wild array of mocktails would be better suited to a celebration, though, and I do love kombucha. Powerbars would be an suitable snack – not for their substance, so much as for their names; this collection looks closely at power dynamics, particularly those related to gender, and I’m a sucker for puns.

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

So far, I would say, I am physically healthy. My mental state is stable. I have adopted a “one day at a time” approach to moving through these weeks and months. I am trying to actively practice gratitude each day, lest I fall into the trap of bemoaning all the canceled events and missed opportunities. I am getting used to my own face staring at me as I record videos for my students. I realize that I miss them, and this is bittersweet; I will be very happy to be back in my classroom again.

When I’m not busy with school-related work, I putter. I completed a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, and my crossword game is growing fiercer; I have been considering cross-stitching. Writing comes in sharp little bursts, then eludes me for days. I am trying to be patient, to find a voice that’s louder than the one telling me all the things I “should” be doing. I am finding a new rhythm, as we all are, and trying to remember that this, like everything, is temporary.

How can your virtual audience find out more?

You can find me at elizabethhazen.com, but the best way to learn more is to check out my publisher’s website, https://alansquirepublishing.com/book-authors/elizabeth-hazen/

Virtual Salon #3 with Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers

There’s one scar
             a river carved, but this ground isn’t
a bible you know. True,

there are chapters
            of basalt and clay,
but no leaves get saved between them.
           -from "Amazonis, Mars"

The Tilt Torn Away from the Seasons by Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers documents a different crisis than the one we're currently, ineffectively navigating: people depart from Earth's terrible environmental damage to help settle a colony on Mars. As a big fan of Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars trilogy, and as someone who fantasized in childhood of rocketing off in interplanetary travel, I love this premise and its inventive execution. Rogers' language is lovely and surprising, and she's exceptionally formally adventurous. "Red Planet Application," in which she mimics, you guessed it, an application form, reminds me (in a good way) of Oliver de la Paz's powerful "Autism Screening Questionnaire" series in another wonderful new book, The Boy in the Labyrinth. (At least I remember that as a series--I'm away from most of my books now.) There are also loose riffs in The Tilt on more traditional forms, such as two unrhymed sonnet crowns and "Lolita's Rover Ballad."  Often Rogers uses the page as field in the tradition of Charles Olson, a strategy that particularly suits the book's strange terrain. Finally, like all good sf, this book interrogates history, such as the gendered violence that accompanies all kinds of missionary experiments. Below, she attends the next meeting of my Virtual Salon.

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

Whiskey, I believe, is the only true drink mentioned in the collection–it’s pretty dry on Mars–and maybe we could use it to make red-planet themed cocktails in space-aged looking glasses.

Eats: Olive varieties from the old Gethsemane (referenced in “Arcadia, Mars,”). Lolita’s candy stash, which includes old-school jawbreakers (“Lolita’s Rover Ballad”). Fried rice, eggs, and magic mushrooms (from “Seven Catastrophes”). 

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

Right now, on top of the terrifying crisis we’re all a part of, I’m dealing with the disappointment of having my robust book tour cancelled.  Some things will be rescheduled, but it’s not the spring I was expecting. I’ve been mostly home with my baby since he was born last April, and instead of going out into the public, I’m home with our kid. 

This pandemic is going to change us as a culture in ways I can’t even imagine. We’ll be talking about it for the rest of our lives.

Writing-wise, I’m in a period of relative quiet, I would say. We have a small human here, and it’s been so hard to write this year; it’s hard to even think. My biggest goal this year is to make sure he was taken care of. I’m always writing–slowly, badly–and it takes a very long time for me to figure out what the next project really is.  I’ve been writing a lot this year about parenthood and climate change. One of those subjects is perennial for me; the other is new. I also have a book of essays I’m trying to publish. Stay tuned.

How can your virtual audience find out more?

Acre Books’s page; author‘s page; and you can order the book here. The Tilt Torn Away from the Seasons was a Rumpus Book Club pick, and you can read our various conversations here: https://therumpus.net/2019/12/why-i-chose-elizabeth-lindsey-rogerss-the-tilt-torn-away-from-the-seasons-for-the-rumpus-poetry-book-club/ Here‘s an interview with the journal MEMORIOUS about the book.

*Finally, dear readers, please check out an interview about The State She’s In on Will Woolfitt’s terrific Speaking of Marvels blog. It includes my thoughts about research, giving readings, and the difficulty of writing whiteness, plus a PLAYLIST for the book. All kinds of writers and editors are volunteering to bruit new poetry books now. I’m so grateful to Will and all of the rest of them!


			

Virtual Salon #2 with William Woolfitt

The season of cracking open, bloodroot,
egg strings. My grandmother chops the cloddy
ground. Many years without him. Onion sets,
new moon peas. 
          from “Chorus Frog” by William Woolfitt

It’s alarming to watch Netflix now: all those strangers in unconcerned proximity, sharing bread, shaking hands! Poor hygiene is not, I suspect, what those directors wanted me to focus on. So when I say that William Woolfitt’s lovely third collection is crowded with isolates, full of hungry survivors, am I distorting the book through a lens of present anxieties? When I notice that many of the landscapes he evokes are like the places I walk through daily–degraded, haunted, but beautiful–am I biased? I think a person always reads from where she is, and that’s okay, although that’s one of the reasons I like in-person, open-ended discussions about books, too. It’s helpful when someone else’s reactions knock your own perspective ajar.

Still, I feel sure that Woolfitt’s book is exceptionally musical, both in its references and in the sonic density of his own alliterative lines (you’ll find listening suggestions in the mini-interview below, to boot). Spring Up Everlasting gives witness to human hardship, vulnerable creatures, and environmental damage with love and compassion: the author sees fully and justly, and the poems he builds from those observances are beautifully weighted, crafty in rhythm and structure. And one last point: Woolfitt really does describe people washing their hands a lot, from Rulina who plunges an arm into “icy creek-water” that “chills her blood, needles her with stars of pain,” to the laborer in “Red Notes” who dreams of release and reunion:

Before they meet, he’ll wash with a bucket,
scrub the pulp off his hands, sing the notes
he’s strung for her, tomato lonesome, tomato blue.

  1. If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

The food menu would include Rulina’s elk tenderloin, half-moon pies, sawhorse tables laden with bowls of potato salad, deviled eggs, and chow-chow. And also hulled corn soup, hardtack, porridge and fried plantains with daybreak sauce, tacos, and figs. The poems of Spring Up Everlasting wander from Appalachia to Mali, then back to Appalachia, then to Newfoundland, to California, and so on, visiting sacred grounds, desecrated wastes, reclaimed lands. The drink menu would include spring water, rain-barrel water, living water: it’s a book that looks again and again to creeks, ponds, oceans, and underground streams.

  1. If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

Teaching and parenting are keeping me busy these days, and I’m okay with that. Maggie Anderson says that a poem comes from “persistence, devotion, and a sustaining hope that it was important to write and that it would, eventually, come around to its best shape.” I’d like to believe that I can practice the poet’s verbs—persist, devote, and sustain hope—in whatever task I’m doing. Richard Foster says that “our work becomes prayer,” and I’d like to believe that our work can become poetry too.

  1. How can your virtual audience find out more?

Visit www.williamwoolfitt.com or www.mupress.org/Spring-Up-Everlasting-Poems-P1039.aspx. But I would also like for my audience to look through me to the sources that I’ve drawn from while writing Spring Up Everlasting: Jessie van Eerden’s The Long Weeping; Ida Stewart’s Gloss; Melissa Range’s Horse and Rider; Lucille Clifton’s The Book of Light; Maxine Kumin’s The Retrieval System; photographs by Eudora Welty and Roger May; Ella Jenkins’ “The Wilderness;” Jean Ritchie’s “Black Waters.”

the salonnière introduces …the state she’s in!

My book is now available from Tinderbox Editions! And, once we get through this, it will also be available in independent bookstores near you.

In the meantime, I hereby introduce a virtual salon for authors launching poetry books plus anyone who enjoys a pretend party. Imagine this space as a high-ceilinged room, art-fans lounging on its velvet divans. The upholstery is a little threadbare, the paint on the moldings chipped here and there, but that just makes everyone feel more comfortable and bohemian. Trays laden with canapés gleam on some of the side tables; others groan under the weight of oozy cheeses, fat grapes, champagne bottles, expensive scotch, and cans of pamplemousse La Croix. The scent of beeswax tapers burning in candelabras mingles with the aroma of a nearby sculptor’s bare feet. An enlivening breeze sometimes wafts through the French doors, which are open to a balcony that overlooks city lights. Someone near the window adjusts their beaded shawl and laughs.

A shameless salonnière, I stand up first, welcome all of you, and introduce my own damn book, The State She’s In. (Did I mention it’s now available from Tinderbox Editions?) Here are my answers to the three questions I plan to ask many guests in turn:

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

Wine varietals mentioned in my book include rioja, garnacha, and chardonnay, so we are well-beveraged; I can add to the menu a Black Walnut Celebration Lager I drank at AWP ’19 in Portland, with my poem “Black Walnut” in mind. After some syllables of cheese, wild rice blini topped with sour cream and caviar, and quesadillas with postlapsarian salsa verde, we will savor ramekins of pawpaw crème brulée.

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

My loved ones and I are well, although we’re all worried, and my son is sad about having his first year at Haverford cut short. He’s also a straight-A student who is suddenly unable to concentrate. That teaches me something about how online instruction is likely to go and how forgiving and flexible we’ll all have to be. I’m not surprised this transition is logistically challenging for a seminar teacher like me, but it’s been emotionally harder than I expected. My identity is wrapped up in being a good teacher. It’s upsetting to let go of some of the standards I hold myself to.

I’m writing emails and texts plus revising syllabi. I also started a Pandemic Diary on paper, because I’ve heard from historians that they often lack as-it-happens accounts of crisis. No poetry at all, but it will come back–and really, when poets are in publicity mode they rarely get much writing done anyway. I’d remind everyone, though, that there’s actual scientific research suggesting that daily expressive writing improves immunity.

How can your virtual audience find out more?

For me, it’s my self-designed and therefore basic website as well as my page in the Tinderbox Editions store, where you can find the amazing blurbs some incredibly generous poets wrote for The State She’s In: Diane Seuss, Oliver de la Paz, and Linda Lewis. They are clicking virtual glasses in this salon, and they look fabulous.

***Stay tuned for future gatherings, and please let me know what books should be on my radar. Many possible factors could affect frequency; also, I want to read each book before introducing it. I’d love to post once a week, though–perhaps more often. Be well, friends!