Dear Poetry Professor,
How do you get the writing done?
-Lots of People
This has been a super-hard September, beginning with emotional transitions–dropping my son off for his first year at college, establishing my daughter in her first apartment–and proceeding through too many doctor visits and grant applications on top of the usual stuff. And the usual stuff brings its own challenges. It’s hard to kick off classes well; students and advisees need and deserve a lot of attention. One of this month’s biggest difficulties, though, arose from the good luck of having two books scheduled for spring publication. Edits for my poetry collection arrived in late August, but while finalizing any ms makes me super-anxious, those edits weren’t heavy. As soon as I turned them in, though, the novel edits began arriving, and they have been much more demanding, in large part because I’m newer at prose fiction. I had more to learn about economy and precision than I realized.
In short, I don’t really have time to blog! I just felt a drive to get some thoughts down about a question people address to me frequently. And that’s usually part of the answer, isn’t it?–something like drive. Honestly, I find time for certain things, even when frantically busy. This week I taught my classes, went to meetings, and handled a zillion pieces of apparently urgent paperwork; I also texted cat pictures to my kids, watched some lame Netflix, did the New York Times spelling bee puzzle every day, finished Atwood’s The Testaments, and started King’s The Institute (both novels are marvels of effective pacing, by the way–you can’t put them down). I also edited the hell out of my forthcoming novel, Unbecoming, following advice from my editor that the middle was kind of flabby. You’ve set up the world with vivid detail in the early chapters, she said; in the middle chapters, that detail is just clogging the gears. Pick up the pace.
I haven’t, however, been able to work on Unbecoming for more than two hours at a sitting, and that’s on the freest days. The aforementioned medical problems have cost me concentration, but it’s not just that. Work too long, and the quality of your attention starts to degrade, and a book ms is not something you ought to rush through tiredly. I get upset, too, if I feel like I’m shortchanging my students or my loved ones, or if I have no downtime, as happens when you’re trying to find myriad extra two-hour blocks in a full schedule. I overworked myself into a run of illness last year–that’s another way pacing matters. I’m mostly fortunate in the health department (there’s luck and privilege as well as drive in being able to get the writing done), but I have to keep reminding myself that when I push myself to the wall, I lose more than I gain.
I can be ruthless about writing, and sometimes that’s okay, especially when it’s a matter of shirking a minor chore or squeezing out just a little more work at the end of a long day. No one really cares, for instance, that in putting so much overtime this week, I never found time to clean that gunk off the front door (what even is that?), or do extra reading about Millay before class, or keep up with social media. I try to make lists and keep reminding myself what’s actually important, but playing hooky is necessary, too. My friend is probably right that I should make time to read The Slow Professor…when I get through this run of craziness, that is.
But one last point, something I’ve observed in others as well as myself: I’m most likely to push myself when the writing obligation involves someone else’s time and effort, as is the case in delivering mss to editors, and if you’re like that, too, you can find ways to create obligations that don’t involve imminent book contracts. One colleague made a lot of writing progress this summer, for instance, by blocking off non-negotiable writing time on her calendar and making public commitments to get a certain amount done. Another has started a writing group for two hours a week: with snacks, in silent camaraderie, we sit together and work on something not related to teaching, then set goals aloud for what we’ll do in the week ahead. I’m usually very solitary about writing–I’ll always choose a shut door and a quiet room over a cafe, for instance–so I’m surprised to be enjoying it, at least in small doses. I’ll probably be happier when I can use that time on new work rather than face up to the endless failings of this endless ms, but it’s good to be reminded that all the writers you know are waging similar battles with themselves.
Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever just hang up the towel on the stress of publication, but I guess this post is one possible answer: I would keep writing even if no one wanted to listen anymore. I seem to rest from writing by writing in other modes, or at least reading. Lunacy, probably, but here I am.
Live From the Surface of the Moon
The landing leg (porch) jets
a web of shadows across lunar
powder while brilliantly bleached
astronauts lope across the frame
On Sunday July 20th 1969
I am not yet two : : do not divine
how the moon mirrors the sun
and the magnificent desolation
of a Rockland County building site
bald of grass : : each split-level home
a lunar module far from inflation
Vietnam race riots assassination
I cannot possibly remember thirty-
plus hours with Walter Cronkite and
Wally Schirra : : parents buzzing
as transmissions crinkle and flicker : :
much less an animation of the Eagle
advancing toward the Sea of Tranquility
or shots of the LEM’s quadruped replica
in Bethpage Long Island : : bug face
with a long metal snout between
wide black reflective window eyes
(choked-up Cronkite says those kids
who are kind of pooh-poohing this thing
I’d like to know what they thought
at this moment when our mouths
were in our throat : : How can anyone
turn off to a world like this)
With one-sixth of adult gravity
I bound through oversized rooms
careful not to jag my special suit
on an exposed martini glass : : every
high-altitude glance or word
a UFO : : ‘One small step for man’
the anchor explains but I didn’t get
the second phrase : : until static
lulls me to sleep : : The grown-ups
tip themselves into a queen-size
while Aldrin and Armstrong tuck
each other in on an airless satellite
perhaps under yellow foil blankets
but how could I know : : each maybe-
memory overwritten now like
boot prints in moondust
by footage on my little screen
(who would have thought the future
would be small) : : What I carry out
in my sample bag is not mankind leaping but
a nightmare : : Giant mechanical
spiders chasing me across the dead
land : : I lope to a quilted islet
hop up on the shadowy porch : : only
my groggy parents do not want me
Precarious love : : Any moonman might
splash down safely and find home
isn’t safe and never really was
Several years ago, I was running a workshop at the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival, using “moon” as an example of how different kinds of rhyme work (slant rhyme: can or boot; pararhyme: man; macaronic: la lune, and so forth). When we did a free-write, the idea for a poem percolated up. I had never written about my indirect memory of the 1969 moon landing. My mother told me there had been a party and I had watched some of it, but all I remember is a nightmare later about what the poem calls “giant mechanical spiders” traversing a cratered black-and-white landscape. To fill in the details, I watched hours of the original broadcast on YouTube, learning that some of the most famous remarks from that night were misheard or bungled, and gained a much deeper sense than I’d had before of the landing’s cultural context. I’ll always be a romantic about space travel–I love good sf about it, I subscribed to Astronomy as a girl, and for a long time I wanted to grow up to be an astronaut–but it turns out I’ll only walk in the moon in poems.
It took me days to research and draft “Live From the Surface of the Moon,” then months to revise it, although certain formal considerations crystallized early. I wanted quatrains to echo the four-legged Lunar Excursion Module. I liked the run-on urgency of the way some lines arrived, so in looking for a less-than-final-sounding system of punctuation, the colon I experimented with turned into the double colon (resembling the LEM’s footprint). Notre Dame Review published the poem a couple of years ago and, just a week ago, I turned in edits on the poetry book that will reprint it: The State She’s In, forthcoming in March from Tinderbox editions. It’s not an especially moony collection, but it contains a lot of work about history, and also about whiteness–and one ends up thinking a lot about different meanings of whiteness, watching those old news programs.
So on this full moon weekend, I’m posting a brief clip from revision-land. Edits for my poetry book and my novel came in basically simultaneously, right as the school year started, so I’m really tired and overwhelmed lately. And once the edits are mission-accomplished, there’s a LOT more to do, of course, to launch these books. But I hope to have covers to reveal in coming weeks!–and till then, one small step at a time.
Lots of stress on this bucket of bolts lately–family, health, and writing-related–but I’m tickled to report that my first poetry comic has been published by the gorgeously-redesigned Split Lip Magazine. My spouse Chris Gavaler and I created it a couple of years ago; he made the images and I wrote the words, although there was some cross-influence in revision, more or less as we’ve cross-influenced each other in life (“Go for it!”/ “Don’t wear that!”). To me, this comic is about a pretty-long-running partnership from a midlife perspective, very much inflected by the self-reassessment that happens when your kids grow up and move on (my daughter graduated in May and just returned home after a summer gig, and my son starts college in about 10 days). We’ve changed so much since we were undergrads together, and I love the way the images capture our disintegrations and haphazard rebuildings from odd materials at hand, bringing forward the idea of resourcefulness under constraint. Chris built these robots rather laboriously in an outmoded program; my constraints were spatial, meaning seven lines per poem, with the line-length controlled by panel-width and the letters of Chris’ homemade font. It’s so gratifying when you make something weird in a weird way, for fun, and other people like it enough to publish it!
Not much other luck in that department lately. Rejections are flying; I haven’t had a poem accepted in months. As I’ve said here before, though, I actually feel more philosophical about that since beginning to work on Shenandoah. You just have to keep trying, revising and targeting your work as intelligently as you can, but knowing there’s a heap of luck involved. Submission rates are very high, and chances of hitting the right reader in the right way at the right moment are low, so it’s a numbers game. I did some poetry revision/ submission work this week, though, and I’ll keep at it until the semester swallows me whole–I’ve also got essays to tweak and keep in circulation plus a difficult grant application to finish. The meetings and new-tech-training-sessions, all that late summer jazz, starts tomorrow.
I’m also sighing, but philosophical, about the timing of book edits. I’d hoped to have feedback in hand on two mss–or at least one of them–by early August so I could do at least some of the work before the term starts, and that no longer seems likely. Editors are heroes, and like me they have chaotic lives–so be it. There’s still a TON to do without waiting on anyone else, not least preparing my courses, finishing those submissions, and organizing all the book promotion work I have ahead of me during this very busy school year.
In the midst of all this, I followed a link yesterday to a powerful article in n+1 called “Sexism in the Academy.” ” Depending on the funding agency, the gender gap in winning grants is about 7 percent,” Troy Vettise writes in this heavily-researched and very persuasive piece, adding, “when women are successful in their grant applications, they usually receive less funding, about eighty cents to a man’s dollar.” Talk about constraints! Discouraging, but I was grateful for all the work Vettise pulls together here, documenting everything from discrimination in resources to the costs of harassment, and more. And the recommendations at the end are provocative in an exhilarating way, including radical structural changes to universities and foundations.
Our robot comic is, I think, also about ambivalence toward gender roles, both in Chris and in me. It’s hard to be your best self and do your best work with all the gender shrapnel flying–as if teaching and writing aren’t hard enough.
Well, “keep your skin on,” as the robots say. There’s change ahead, good and bad. My visor may be foggy, and my sensors all scratched up, but I just have to be a self-reconfiguring modular robot, slipping free of my programming and adapting to my own increasingly buggy hardware as well as the unpredictable terrain. I can do it. Right?
“Admit that Mexico is your double, that she exists in the shadow of this country, that we are irrevocably tied to her. Gringo, accept the doppelganger in your psyche. By taking back your collective shadow the intracultural split will heal.” (page 108)
“This land was Mexican once/ was Indian always/ and is./ And will be again.” (page 113)
“So this is what happened to someone living at the border like me: My ancestors have always lived with the land here in Texas. My indigenous ancestors go back twenty to twenty-five thousand years and that is how old I am in this country. My Spanish ancestors have been in this land since the European takeover which pulled migration from Spain to Mexico. Texas was part of a Mexican state called Tamaulipas. And Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and part of California and Colorado, were part of the northern section of Mexico. It was almost half of Mexico that the U.S. cheated Mexico out of when they bought it by the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. By doing so they created the borderlands.” (Interview, page 274)
The above quotes are from Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Fourth Edition. The book was first published in 1987; I encountered it a couple of years later, in graduate school, although I can no longer find my first copy. I’ve been meaning to reread it, because I’m advising a senior who wants to make it part of her thesis next year.
This was definitely the week. I’m sickened by U.S. gun violence and epidemic hatred without having a new or insightful word to say about them, but it felt just slightly sanity-restoring to spend time with Anzaldúa. After all, how can there be a “Hispanic invasion,” as the Texas shooter alleged, in a place to which the U.S. government has only the most recent and most dubious of many claims? Aside from the book’s reminders about history, it’s also big-hearted and wise and full of insights about language, culture, queerness, trauma, depression, artistic process, sacredness, and dreams. Plus, I loved remembering my twenty-something astonishment at its hybrid of prose and poetry: holy shit, you can do that?!
I’ve done a slightly terrifying amount of reading and rereading this summer. Some of it was planned: I wanted to know queer theory better for a course I’m devising; I had to process some of the literature of “postcritique” and more ecocriticism to revise Poetry’s Possible Worlds; and I always use academic breaks to catch up on recent poetry collections and throw myself into various novels, serious and escapist and everything in between. Health issues made me need books more–and made writing harder. My son goes to college in a few weeks, and friends are undergoing similar transitions, so I’m extra-emotional; reading is work I can do when my concentration is poor.
Otherwise, a lot of what I’ve been doing boils down to paperwork: moving galleys along (because I used to write things!), proposing courses, and sorting out plans for the larger-than-usual number of conferences I’ll be a part of this year. I organized a panel called “Uncanny Activisms” for the C.D. Wright Conference–check it out. Now that I’m fully off the AWP Board, I was part of three proposals for that highly competitive conference, too, and two were accepted. The one I organized but will sit on the sidelines of is called “Big Shoes: New Directions at Old Magazines,” featuring Melissa Crowe of Beloit Poetry Journal, Gerald Maa of Georgia Review, Wayne Miller of Copper Nickel, Emily Rosko of Crazyhorse, and Beth Staples of Shenandoah–having played a small role in changes at the latter, I’m excited to hear what everyone has to say. The panel I’ll speak at is “Teaching in the Confederacy,” organized and moderated by Chris Gavaler, also featuring Lauren K. Alleyne, Tyree Daye, and Gary Dop, in which we’ll talk about the challenges and responsibilities that come with regional links to white supremacy. Plus I’ll have a Shenandoah table to sit at, and at least one new book to sign…more on that soon, I hope!
In the meantime, thank god for Anzaldúa and all the other writers who have been challenging my thinking and just keeping me company. I’ll sign off with a few pictures of artists’ books from the Serralves Museum in Porto–we had no idea they had such a great collection until we stumbled on the exhibition.
Books read since May (first poetry, then fiction, then nonfiction, not including chapters, essays, and other short stuff):
5/1 Kaneko, The Dead Wrestler Elegies (planning for his visit)
5/4 Youn, Ignatz (Krazy Kat fandom)
5/5 Xie, Eye Level (strong reviews)
5/14 Miller, Emily Dickinson’s Poems As She Preserved Them (teaching prep)
5/18 Larsen, What Penelope Chooses* (fandom)
5/18 Hayden, Exuberance* (fandom)
5/18 Selznick and Whitman, Live Oak, With Moss* (comics version, teaching prep)
5/18 Seay, The See the Queen (teaching/ visit prep)
5/18 Alleyne, Honeyfish* (teaching/ visit prep)
5/23 Camp, The Turquoise Door* (campus visit)
5/23 Nguyen, Ghost Of* (good reviews)
6/4 Nelson, The Freedom Business (forget where I bought it!)
6/10 Frank, Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country (bought at a reading)
6/12 Bashir, Where the Apple Falls (research)
6/17 Campbell, Noctuary* (fandom)
6/18 Rekdal, Nightingale* (fandom)
6/20 Bashir, Gospel (research)
6/21 Gray, Radiation King* (received review copy)
6/22 Schwartz, Miraculum (found it on my shelf)
6/23 Phillips, Reasons for Smoking (found it on my shelf)
6/23 Honum, The Tulip-Flame (found it on my shelf)
6/23 Baker, waha / mouth (fandom)
6/24 Phan, Reenactments* (fandom and research)
7/1 Choi, Soft Science* (for review)
7/4 Matejka, The Big Smoke (found it on my shelf)
7/8 Satterfield, Her Familiars (reread for research)
7/11 Bray, Small Mothers of Fright (research)
7/12 Ginsburg, Dear Weather Ghost (research)
7/12 Ginsburg, Double Blind (research)
7/13 Dawson, Big-Eyed Afraid (fandom)
7/14 Legros George, The Dear Remote Nearness of You (found it on my shelf)
7/15 Calvocoressi, Rocket Fantastic (found it on my shelf)
7/16 Ali, Sky Ward (research)
7/17 Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard (bought at a conference)
7/20 Winslow, Defying Gravity (by a friend)
5/3 Herriman, Krazy & Ignatz (teaching prep)
5/8 LaValle, Destroyer (teaching prep)
5/19 Garstang, The Shaman of Turtle Valley* (local writer)
5/28 McLaughlin, Bearskin* (local connections plus Edgar win)
5/31 Atkinson, Transcription* audiobook (friends’ recommendation)
6/17 Walton, Lent* (fandom)
6/22 Crouch, Recursion* (NYT review)
6/23 Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (reread for teaching)
7/1 Hubbard, The Talented Ribkins (gift)
7/7 Kim, Miracle Creek* (reviews)
7/12 Ginsburg, Sunset City (research)
7/19 Ray, Whiskey Tales* (translator is a friend)
7/20 Rosenberg, Confessions of the Fox* (daughter’s recommendation)
8/1 Adieche, Americanah (teaching)
8/3 Waters, The Little Stranger (fandom)
5/? Gay, The Book of Delights (fandom)
5/21 Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (reputation)
5/22 Davis, Why Art?* (gift)
6/4 Hayles, Chaos Bound (research)
6/10 Atkins, The Laws of Thermodynamics (research)
6/10 Polkinghorne, Quantum Theory (research)
6/22 Darling, Je Suis L’Autre: Essays and Interrogations (research)
6/22 Kiefer, Nestuary (fandom)
6/24 Anker and Felski, Critique and Postcritique (research)
7/10 Vargas, Dear America* (teaching)
7/14 Moore, 16 Pills* (pressmate)
7/17 McSweeney, The Necropastoral (research)
8/7 Anzaldúa, Borderlands/ La Frontera (reread for teaching)
Away from my normal routines for ten days in Portugal, I looked at Twitter occasionally and kept seeing references to “that essay” by poet Bob Hicok. I’ll scout it out later, I thought, first busy with the MLA International Symposium in Lisbon; then laid up in my hotel room with a stomach bug; and finally traipsing around Porto, making up for lost time and calories. I arrived home late this Thursday, and catching up with other people and tasks seemed more important. Scrolling through social media Saturday morning, though, I saw a smart set of questions Paisley Rekdal had posted in response to the piece, along with a link to the essay itself (which had been a little hard to find–people clearly don’t want to promote it). Okay, okay, FINE, I grumbled, brewed another pot of chai, and read it.
The essay isn’t good, no matter what you think of the argument. It belabors its point, which is basically that Hicok is “dying as a poet” (meaning, apparently, not attracting as many readers as he used to), and while it’s good, he concedes, that writers who are not “straight white men” like him are now getting attention, and he’s grateful to have had a good run, he’s sad to lose the limelight. If a writer-friend had told me this privately, over drinks, I would have felt embarrassed for him–listen to yourself, dude! Literature is not a zero-sum game, and nobody has taken your micro-celebrity away from you! I suppose it’s useful, though, that someone has voiced all this in print. I know other people think similarly: I’ve heard the asides, and seen the facial expressions, by white writers of various ages and genders, although whenever I’ve sensed a lament like this emerging in my company, I’ve either cut it short or walked away.
Anybody who reads deeply, widely, and intelligently is going to disagree with the prize committees sometimes. Good books fly under the radar all the time, and mediocre ones (including plenty of books by privileged people) win the love–although when the latter seems to happen, a reader ought to ask herself whether her judgment could have been wrong. Sometimes, I know, I miss what’s exciting others because I’m not ready for a book, or even just in a bad mood. But Hicok’s examples, for heaven’s sake–including Claudia Rankine, Ross Gay, Ada Limón–they’re brilliant writers who take great risks and produce great books, partly rooted in their identities and experiences and wholly illuminated by talent and hard work. All have had luck, I’m sure, but all have overcome obstacles, too, and continue to do so, because there’s always someone trying to chip away at their achievements, treating them like interlopers, and sometimes even threatening their safety. In the U.S., “straight white men” are just more free than everyone else, and dealing with unfreedom wears you down. It can make achieving art at all seem like a miracle.
A little example: I have plenty of friends who couldn’t afford a trip to Portugal, or whose disabilities would make it extremely difficult, so I thought about how lucky I was constantly (except while vomiting in the hotel toilet). Being at a liberal arts college insulates me from the high-level territory battles at R1 institutions, as I remembered while listening to a roundtable on the state of literary criticism, with lots of anxious references to postcritique and presentism. People are sweating about how to do relevant work when academic protocols can be so conservative and advancement is so tricky, but my main worry is finding publishers for my more boundary-busting work; at a teaching-focused institution, most people don’t publish as much as I do, so even my small wins look good. Beyond the conference, too, being a middle-aged cisgender American of European descent means I can generally get a taxi or a seat at a restaurant, even when I’m grungy from climbing all those cobbled streets, because no one objects to my skin color and everyone knows I have euros in my pocket.
Yet for all that luck, the trip home sucked, because I’m a woman. The otherwise polite white guy next to me, average-sized and not more pressed for space than anyone else, seemed delighted when his nearest rowmate turned out to be me. He promptly claimed his god-given right to the armrest and then, by degrees and apparently obliviously, he leaned his arm against my ribcage. No matter how I contorted myself away from him, his body intruded into my space, and not in an impersonal, occasional, shoulder-bumping kind of contact, either. Like about a quarter of the women you know, I’m an assault survivor. Being unable to avoid close physical contact with strange men–well, it’s upsetting. Once the aisles were clear I asked my husband to switch seats with me, and then Mr. Man-Spreader kept to himself, because of course it would be inappropriate to lean against another man’s ribcage or even his arm, right? Men deserve a little breathing room.
This happens to me all the time, and sometimes the men are far more aggressive. I’ve spoken up and had men respond by pretending to stay asleep, pressing against me while staying on the safe side of “page the attendant” obvious harassment territory. I get panicky, and eventually angry, while doubting that anyone would believe me; I rehearse all the times my space has been violated before; I wonder whether it’s worth flying to conferences on my own, in overstuffed understaffed airborne tin cans; and all of this upset is completely invisible to anyone around me. I’m not in any danger, to be clear; these violations are minor, in the long run. I just get triggered in an exhausting, demoralizing way, and I fear inappropriate touching on airplanes even when it doesn’t happen, so that travel costs me extra stress.
Bob Hicok thinks this gender-specific #MeToo-ish history gives me some publishing cred. I don’t think so, yet even if it did, I would trade that publishing edge in a heartbeat for not having to worry about moving through public territory as a woman. For people who get denied space for multiple intersecting reasons, things are much harder. While plenty of us feel, as Hicok does, that our work merits more attention than it gets, he’s underestimating freedoms he has enjoyed and continues to enjoy because of his own identity, as well as the cost of identity-related struggles that occasionally lead, by twisting paths, to powerful writing.
It is certainly true that while there are more presses and contests than ever before, there’s now a larger pool of people competing for them, as well as a real hunger from readers for stories and poems from less-familiar perspectives. I’m one of those readers, and I’m very glad publishing is more inclusive than it used to be–I hope the trend continues, and as poetry editor of Shenandoah, I try to help it along. Such richness benefits everyone who cares about literature. It’s also true that I’m striving, meanwhile, for my own foothold in the scene, and I get sad about the difficulty of that sometimes. What I keep coming back to: the only way to stay sane is to make sure your writing is urgent, well-crafted stuff, and to use whatever space and advantages you have to help others do good work, too, and feel some love for it. Then, whether or not you earn a lucky spot on the stage yourself one day, you’ll feel okay about how you’ve spent your hours.
Also, as Jeannine Hall Gailey puts it in a post she was clearly writing as I composed this one: once you’ve won two NEAs and a Guggenheim and published ten books with a dream press, as Hicok has, this racist, sexist, ableist complaining is not going to win you any sympathy. The guy has already claimed nearly all the armrests.
Sometimes the news just silences me: children suffering in camps, the Justice Department refusing to seek justice after the killing of Eric Garner, racist tweets from the white-nationalist-in-chief. I make donations and sometimes participate in political action, but mostly I’m sitting around like Ursula, all ears and touchy whiskers, no words. I will say, having just heard members of the “Squad” on the radio explaining, with some exasperation, that they do not comprise a conspiracy: for years, if I stopped on campus to talk to a distinguished woman professional or two, or went out to lunch with those women, male professors and administrators passing by would, without fail, pause with looks of alarm or mock-alarm and exclaim, “Uh-oh, you’re plotting!” It’s interesting that strong women in conversation inspire such paranoia. Let’s keep being scary.
Here’s a scary poem, with thanks to the editors at Verse Daily and at the original publisher, Cimarron Review. It’s from a blizzard of sonnets that overcame me during the last presidential election, the best of which will be in my next poetry collection. Otherwise I’ve just had my head down lately, revising Poetry’s Possible Words and ticking down my to-do list: minor jobs under deadline (reviews of various kinds), and house and family chores. Self-care is on the list, too: continuing to negotiate health problems but also talking to friends, reading a ton, searching for fox-themed clothes I can wear when I have a fox-themed novel to read from…
I’m pleased at how strong Poetry’s Possible Worlds has become, by the way. That’s my forthcoming essay collection (Tinderbox, 2021), a hybrid of contemporary poetry criticism and personal narrative, perhaps along the lines of “creative criticism” as Lesley Jenike describes it here (also see a cool example of it by Jenike in the most recent Shenandoah). One chapter of PPW appeared a few years ago in Ecotone; I’ve adapted another that’s under submission; and a third is nearly ready to go out. I’ve been trying to crank because I’m leaving Sunday for the MLA International Symposium in Lisbon, Portugal; we’ll spend 5 days there and then take a train up to Porto to vacation for several days. We return at the start of August, also known as the beginning of summer’s end–and final edits of my novel are supposed to arrive then, which I’ll need to throw myself into before the school year gets me in its clutches.
I may post a few pictures from the trip, but in general I’ll be trying NOT to work or fuss with social media. Aside from the conference, I just want to eat and drink deliciously, see lots of sights, and read novels for pleasure. It might frustrate Ursula and Poe to be in the care of an oblivious 18-year-old math whiz for 11 days, but I’m sure he’ll remember to feed them, and himself, occasionally. And I’m really grateful to be getting out of here for a while.
I was advising a writer-friend lately to celebrate small wins. Then I thought, hey, I should do that, too. Since my last couple of posts explored self-doubt, and a lot of people in my orbit are having rough summers (for example, catch up with Jeannine Hall Gailey’s inspiring posts), I thought I’d share some shine.
I’m getting ready for more visibility in 2020-2021 by applying for conferences, festivals, etc., and making lists of opportunities to apply for later. For instance, I’ll be attending the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference this November for the first time. I organized a panel, recently accepted, called Uncanny Activisms, about poems that resemble spells, prayers, and curses. My co-panelists include writers I know as well as writers I’ve never met but have been admiring from a distance: Cynthia Hogue, Anna Maria Hong, Hyejung Kook, Ashley M. Jones, and Anna Lena Phillips Bell. I’m very excited to hear what these smart women have to say about a poetic mode I’ve found indispensable these last few years.
On that note: two of my poems just appeared in the new issue of Ecotone. “State Song,” pictured above, is the shorter piece, and I’m SO delighted it’s placed near an essay called “Erasing the Border” by artist Ana Teresa Fernández (the image above is hers). “State Song,” from my forthcoming collection, is in that spiritual-political zone my panel will be addressing, and I hope it speaks against borders and fences, too. (The other poem of mine is “Turning Fifty in the Confederacy”–yikes.) Do read the whole issue if you can, for it’s full of challenging, beautiful writing. I love Ecotone‘s new department, “Various Instructions,” plus I found a new menopause-themed poem there for my growing collection: “Elegy for Estrogen,” by V. Penelope Pelizzon.
More fireworks: Amy Lemmon just published an essay in Diane Lockward’s July Poetry Newsletter about how to mine another poet’s book for writing prompts–and then revise out traces of the other writer’s words to create poems fully your own. The nicest part: the book that inspired her was my last one, Radioland! Lemmon’s piece is inspiring and accessible–check it out.
Cider Press Review has just announced the judge for their 2019 book prize–and it’s me! See the rules here but in short, poets at any career stage can enter mss between Sept. 1 and Nov. 15. The press winnows down the entrants to a manageable dozen or so, which I’ll read during the winter and report on in spring. When the Cider Press editors came knocking, I had just admiringly read the book by their previous winner, Jeanne Larsen’s What Penelope Chooses (judged by Lauren K. Alleyne, who is visiting W&L this fall), so it was a nice convergence. Note that this press has a strong track record of supporting women writers.
In between revising/ developing other mss, I’ve also just handled some anthology proofs, one for an essay in Deep Beauty, coedited by Catherine Lee and Rosemary Winslow, and the other for a poem in Choice Words, edited by Annie Finch. In short, there’s a lot of goodness happening in which I play some role even though I, like a lot of people, am too prone to underplay gifts and exaggerate losses.
A patriotic holiday in the middle of the humanitarian crisis at U.S. borders–well, I’m not waving flags and eating cotton candy this week. But all the artists and writers mentioned above are producing powerful work, American an an open-minded, open-bordered way, and I’m in their party. That’s worth singing about.
Q: I question the worth of my writing on a near-daily basis. Is there a way to just get over it?
A: Okay, okay, I admit it, that question comes from Dr. Ms. Poetry Professor herself, but it’s a genuine one. If you have better answers, please post in the comments. In the meantime, here’s what I’m telling myself.
I should say, before I start, that I’m speaking from a well-supported life, with access to friends and meds and counseling. My own self-sabotage AND successes are rooted in having grown up with many privileges and some challenges; my well-educated engineer father, for example, constantly undercut and disparaged my bookish mother, who left her British high school at sixteen to apprentice at Royal Liverpool Babies Hospital. As the first woman in my family to go to university, I felt like both of them and neither, struggling to find a different way. Through hard work and good luck, I’ve won some great honors and opportunities, but I’ve also been underestimated for most of my professional life because of my gender, and I’ve endured episodes of assault and harassment. The laws of my time allowed me to marry the person I loved, who loves and supports me still. While I’ve had health problems, I’m more able-bodied than many. The thoughts below arise from a stew of factors, many nourishing and some toxic.
First: there are different kinds of self-doubt. Some are salutary. Every writer SHOULD say to herself sometimes: hmm, I’m not sure this poem/ essay/ story etc. is very good–because most drafts aren’t. Without self-doubt, weak first starts would never go the distance, yet many eventually do. The most constructive response to this species of doubt, if you can recognize it as reasonable, is to work harder. If your standard repertoire of tweaks (strengthening diction, cutting adverbs, etc.) doesn’t banish that tentacle of uncertainty, can you free write about what makes the material so important and interesting to you, then try to bring that urgency/ clarity back into the piece? Maybe there’s a missing link you need to develop. If neither of those strategies fly, maybe talking to a smart friend about it would help? Or take a break–exercise, adjust your blood sugar, or do some unrelated task–and come back when you can see the piece clearly. Maybe that’s weeks from now, and unless you’re under external deadlines, that’s fine. Poetry keeps.
Even a giant squid-sized portion of self-doubt can be helpful, to a degree. It’s good to think long-term about your aspirations as a writer and whether you’re really taking the necessary steps to accomplish your goals. Your imagination won’t always obey your agenda, but that’s why it’s good to have a couple of projects at different stages. If something stalls, you can then procrastinate productively. I find it grounding to return, too, to the less-elevated kinds of writing that directly help people, like reference letters and reviews. The sentences don’t have to be beautiful and you KNOW you’re being of use.
But misgivings attached to the work rather than your capacities as a person–well, that kind of doubt isn’t really what motivated my question, although I find it useful to remind myself that self-questioning helps smart people work smarter. Nor am I all that worried about the occasional acute episode of writing-related panic. I had a rough time getting started this summer and tried slogging doggedly through the doubt. Then I put myself on a course of related and unrelated reading, and that helped more. Reading is the best tonic I know (which probably explains some things about my career choice). I finished a draft of the short project that was killing me, put it aside, and then moved onto work that feels more congenial. This is a standard cycle in my writing life, and some combination of grit and rest always gets me through it, eventually.
The self-doubt that I find hardest isn’t about my relationship to the work itself. It’s about my relationship to other people. Like the juvenile giant squid in the video above, I’m both curious and wildly reticent. I’d much rather submit work towards publication or a grant from a distance, say, than approach an editor in person, at a conference. I’ve shied away from conversations and connections that might have helped me about a zillion times. And when you’re a middle-aged woman without influential mentors, no one’s rushing to hand you opportunities because you’re doing such good work in your quiet corner of the deep. I mean, it happens–I’ve put the work out there steadily, and sometimes nabbed a win–but it would happen more if I didn’t sabotage myself and hide in the murk. I’ve vowed to do better, especially with new books coming along. I WILL put myself and my work forward, because I DO believe in it fiercely. We’ll see.
The New York Times ran a “Working Woman’s Handbook” section in the print edition this Sunday, and I read it from cover to cover, even though it defeated the REASON I get the print edition on Sunday mornings, the whole indulgence-with-a-pot-of-tea-on-the-sofa vibe. The handbook made my adrenaline surge and muscles tighten: “Negotiating While Female,” “Ditch the Mommy Guilt,” “Document Everything”–all too close to home! The feature was very business-oriented, and some of it underplays the self-questioning that SHOULD be part of an artist or an intellectual’s working life no matter the gender, but I’m still keeping it open to the article by Jessica Bennett on impostor syndrome. Self-talk and visualization feel goofy, but I am SO guilty of some of the self-undermining behaviors Bennett describes, and I need to stop.
This post is occasioned by another piece from that suite: “Work Life Balance Is a Myth” by Tiffany Dufu (this one doesn’t seem to be online although Dufu has published these ideas in other venues). On the way towards the subheadings “Drop Balls” and “Say No” (Drop the Ball is the name of Dufu’s book), Dufu offers a “visualization exercise adapted from the book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’: Imagine three people eulogizing you at your funeral. What would they say about you? What do you hope they say about you?…Now ask yourself: Are you on the path to becoming the person they describe?”
In grad school, I had a running joke with some friends that I wanted my tombstone to read “Brilliant and Lovable.” I’m not invested in those particular adjectives anymore–I think I was beginning to worry, back then, about the implicit conflict between them, the idea that for a woman to be brilliant (work first) requires violating the social requirement to be nurturing (people first), and that therefore a brilliant woman is unwomanly. Anyway, I’d rather sidestep THAT mess these days, but the content of my aspirations is similar: while I don’t care if Joe Schmoe finds me “nurturing” and I resist spending my whole life on care-taking activities, I do hope my friends and loved ones feel loved by me. I hope my writing is valued and enjoyed by others. And I hope my students find me to be a good and generous teacher.
It strikes me that these hopes are not entirely consonant with Dufu’s admonitions to “Drop Balls” and “Say No.” My list does reveal that I don’t care about appearances, not in a deep way, so I should ditch those vestigial anxieties. But being a good and generous teacher means saying “yes” a lot, even when you’re tired and overextended–giving students your full and open attention, when you can. And I’ve been in this job for 25 years, and many former students are still looking for help, so it can be a lot! For instance, I received another out-of-the blue query last weekend from someone who graduated maybe 10 years ago. I thought, first, this is the sort of ball I should drop; and then, second, but I want to be helpful; then, third, maybe I can repurpose the help I give by editing these occasional, mostly off-screen scraps of mentoring. Maybe if I collect and, occasionally, post them, they’ll help others. One exchange is below, a little edited and developed, name redacted. I hope to do it again sometime, so let me know if you have a question, whether or not you’ve ever been enrolled in one of my classes!
And finally, a request. I am collecting the names of essays, books, and poems for a future blog on literary menopause occasioned by a recent New Yorker review of Steinke’s new book. I have several to start with from the latter piece, but I really wish I could think of more poems (besides Moira Egan’s terrific Hot Flash Sonnets!). It’s personal, too, of course: I’ve been in an exhausting amount of joint pain lately, and still have other doctors to consult, but my not-very-helpful GP suggested yesterday these may be untreatable menopause systems (some people react to a drop in estrogen with painful inflammation). I need medical enlightenment, but I’d also appreciate some literary company.
Q: Hi Professor,
I have been published a bunch of times but never poems I expect – my best stuff hasn’t been picked up yet and I am curious – how do you go about editing or curating your poems so that you can get them published?
A: The short version: time/distance plus persistence, with a garnish of recognizing how random publishing can be.
In more detail: I wait for months until the poem is strange to me, so I can be objective about its strengths and weaknesses. I’ve just been rereading poems I drafted during the past year or two, preparing to submit or re-submit them, and I found a few gems; a lot of poems with strong potential but clunky or underdeveloped passages; and some I was once excited about but now realize might not go anywhere. Some poems I thought were shiny and near-complete disappoint me now, and that’s common–with critical distance, I’m better able to admit that a certain element doesn’t work, even though I’m fond of it. Sometimes I have to excise an opening stanza or two, but for me, problems more often occur at or near the end of the poem. (I’ve observed that some poets are great at punchy beginnings and weaker on closure, and others reverse those traits.) You have to be a ruthless trimmer/ re-developer, both for the good of the art and for publishing success, and it just takes a lot of time. There are SO many good poems out there competing for an editor’s attention: the winners are great, or lucky.
Having a few fellow writers to bounce work off of helps, too, whether it’s an informal/ online writing group or an official class. And sending in batches that hang together well, the poems illuminating one other, can help deepen an editor’s sense what you’re up to.
All that said, I’ve heard multiple book editors and contest judges note that the best poems in a book, when you check the acknowledgments, aren’t ones that have been taken by magazines. I’m polishing my next book ms now, including 50-something poems, most of which have been published independently. I still shake my head over the ones that haven’t been, because I feel they’re among my best. Sometimes that’s because they’re risky in some way that’s supported by the book as a whole, but might seem off to a magazine editor with less context. Other times it just seems random. Or am I just wrong about “my best”?…In any case, in addition to bringing your own work to the highest possible shine, keep reading magazines, thinking about fit, and getting the work out there. Hard work and persistence are under your control but the rest is “Crass Casualty,” as Thomas Hardy might say if he were blogging about the po-biz.
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