Why You Should Be Reading About Menopause

You know how obsessions grow on you and into you, like fungal hyphae bursting through carpenter ants’ heads and disseminating spore? I’m currently fixated on fungi, but a few years ago I developed a more explicable obsession with perimenopause and its sequel. Like puberty, this process has major effects on mind and body. I know post-menopausal people who say it wasn’t a big event, but it was huge for me, and I had a hard time finding information about it, much less encouragement. My novel, Unbecoming, imagines the so-called change of life as a positive time: the main character develops weird powers. I wrote the book I needed to read, and meanwhile developed the magic power of novel-writing. It was mainly as I neared a final draft that I started finding other literature about menopause, beyond crappy self-help books. I list some below and would love to hear of others.

I wish I’d known earlier what Darcey Steinke reports, that many women experience something like auras before hot flashes, occasionally accompanied by a sense of doom. I used to wake with a jolt in the middle of the night, have no idea why, then feel the heat rumble up. Instead of soaking through my clothes, I got to throw off the covers preemptively. During the day, this early-warning system gives me time to yell at anyone trying to cuddle, “GET AWAY FROM ME RIGHT NOW!”

What Beth Kanter says in her McSweeney’s bingo card about hoarding super-plus tampons: again, I wish I’d known. I attended an AWP Conference without a sufficient supply and ended up bleeding through everything, everywhere, way more gruesomely than the archetypal middle-schooler surprised in white pants. (Fortunately, muscle atrophy and metabolic slowdown, by which I mean weight gain, result in an all-black wardrobe). I bled for 7 weeks, went to the doctor, discovered I was seriously anemic, and was rushed in for an emergency ablation–basically having my uterine lining fire-blasted. Afterwards, my enthusiastic gynecologist gave me before-and-after pictures of my uterus and encouraged me to put them on Facebook.

Most scary for me was the mental health upheaval. Midlife crisis is a cliche, as is empty-nest syndrome; hormones aside, a lot of 50ish people have trouble adjusting their ambitions and mustering optimism about the next phase. For a few, according to the medical literature I eventually found, these recalibrations coincide with brain-chemistry apocalypse. I’ve always been prone to depression and anxiety, but in spring 2019–when I was 51–therapies that had kept me sane for years stopped working. I was as messed-up as I’ve ever been, not suicidal but not wanting to live, increasingly sure this shift was permanent. I tend to maintain an appearance of control, so most people I confided in didn’t seem to believe me (or maybe didn’t know how to talk about it, which is common with illness and grief). I finally hit a new equilibrium in winter 2020–very lucky, considering what was ahead. I’m okay now, except for the standard 2020 stew of sadness and frustration.

Of course, mental health crisis doesn’t happen to most menopausal people, but women should know in advance that changes are coming, and as Mary Ruefle says, hot flashes are the least of it. In the essay I link to below, Ruefle also writes, “This was not depression, this was menopause,” somehow making it droll that she wanted to kill herself with a steam-iron. While I admire Ruefle’s writing enormously, I don’t find that joke helpful. When Sarah Manguso writes about rage, likewise, I’m skeptical of it as a symptom, except of women’s rational midlife appraisals of the world.

Here’s my pitch: menopause is relevant to everyone, whether or not it’s on your list of past or future rings of fire. More poets, journalists, novelists, and scientists need to write about it, storming past the editors who think it’s icky. We read about lots of crises we may not personally experience, right? Learning about others helps us be kind and wise. Further, like adolescent coming of age stories, menopause is full of dark passages but it’s also wild, weird, and often really funny (as Moira Egan makes clear). Menopause has been social kryptonite, but it should be literary gold.

Poems and a bingo card (thesis: ALL poems are hot flashes):

Prose nonfiction (literary, scholarly, journalistic):

Fiction (not just about midlife generally, but about menopause–there must be others)

  • Catherine Lundoff, Silver Moon
  • Doris Lessing, The Summer Before the Dark 
  • Samantha Bryant, Menopausal Superheroes (3 book series!)

Bonus: my rondeau from The State She’s In, written more or less synchronously with Unbecoming and originally published in Cherry Tree. Extra bonus: I can’t find those pictures of my uterus to include in this post, so count yourself lucky.



Perimenopause
  
Unstoppered. Uncorked. The spilt mess
of the body’s plan puddles in the john,
useless now. Recurrence gone wrong.
Broken verses and a bloody chorus.
 
Who could have predicted red excess,
unspeakable clots of denouement?
My mouths are unjammed, endless mess
of me congealing at the bottom of the john.
 
Ready now to lose the losing: night sweats,
palpitations, insomnia, floods of gore, done.
Dried up, a long fluent speech in crimson.
Dissolved and flushed. Yet the song carries
on, uncorkable pour of me, shameless.

 

Dreaming

Blue Ridge Mountains from Glen Maury Park
Deferred Action
 
Look at the mountain, find my boots, abandon
     walls, look at the mountain. It’s all I do.
The president tweets DACA is dead while
     the magnolia publishes other news: the future
will be pink. Whom should I listen to?
     Beets for lunch. Do not think of my father,
who loved them, as juice bleeds over the salad. Do not
     remember my mother-in-law, whose jewelry I wear,
glassy teardrops strung along a chain.
     She died far away, last verses unheard.
It’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall,
      he plays, the curator of beatness who
visits class with Dylan on cue. Scratches
      under scratches. No one’s allowed to dream
anymore. A student comes by with poems and fear
     of deportation. So many words; so few.
Evening, home, where once I found on the lawn
     a note from neo-nazis. Look at the mountain,
crowned in rose. Where black is the color and none
     is the number, the singer foretold. Still I talk,  
fail to talk, and grant some songs their visas.
     And look at the mountain, its gloomy hunch, its glow.

House Mountain, visible from my desk past telephone wires, is a daily reference point that appears in many of my poems, often as a way to touch base with forces much larger than my own little life. The piece above was in 32 Poems; in the final poem of The State She’s In, now three months old, the same mountain gives me a stern talking to about ambition. This morning House Mountain is invisible behind haze. It doesn’t mind giving me a metaphor for an uncertain, unforecastable future, apparently. Nor does my cat Ursula, who has taken to chasing her tail on a staircase newel. The other day she fell off, busted a lamp, and slid down rump-first behind the upright piano–clearly enacting the state of my brain.

DACA survives, at least for a while: good. A monstrously destructive president slides in the polls: all right. My daughter’s stories of recurring police brutality to Black people in Philadelphia: the record keeps spinning. I’m not writing much these days, but I think the 2020s are going to be another great decade for protest poetry. There were two powerful ones in the New Yorker I flipped through yesterday, by the always amazing Marilyn Nelson and Terrance Hayes. They remind me that I don’t have to be writing; I can just wait out the mists. Being a reader, voter, donator, person at rest: those are all fine, too.

A few good things I’ve been a part of lately: the Practices of Hope reading I participated in a week ago was warm, lovely, inspiring, and pretty much ego-less (recording here, the About Place issue it’s based on here). Verse Daily kindly featured a poem of mine, “Unsonnet,” that recently appeared in Ecotone. I have a gigan about my parents’ pine green Gran Torino in Literary Matters: anybody else old enough to remember those seatbealt-less rides in the “way-back”? Sweet interviewed me here. And I have an essay about teaching in my part of the south in Waxwing (a former colleague calls this place “Confederatelandia”). That one I did write recently–miraculously, really, given how hard this spring was!–but it’s just a 1500-word expansion of comments I would have made on an AWP panel called Teaching in the Confederacy, organized by Chris Gavaler and featuring Lauren K. Alleyne, Tyree Daye, and Gary Dop. Editor Todd Kaneko urged me to keep digging deeper into my own evasions, making it a better piece, but I presume it will be outdated in about five minutes. As I just wrote to a former student, now a professor himself and wondering about how to be a better teacher-scholar during Black Lives Matter, I’m in a constant process of self-renovation these days.

As is necessary. I think about Breonna Taylor every day, and the dreaming she can no longer do.

Practicing Hope

I’ve never had much talent for hope, and what hope I’ve managed to summon tends to get squashed. It’s a feeling I’ve learned to distrust. Yet widespread public outrage at police assaults to Black lives and dignity: it springs from that four-letter-word. Protests and anger, imply at least some tiny spark of faith that the world can change.

I’ve been trying to write more poetry from and about hope during the past couple of years, and one of those pieces, “We Could Be,” appeared recently in About Place: Practices of Hope. I’ll be reading it–and listening to some of the other fabulous contributors–in a group reading today, Friday 6/12, at 7pm EST on YouTube Live (details above). I find poems of joy, hope, gratitude, and love hard to generate. For me, poems grow more readily from complex, often negative, emotions and situations: conflict often powers the turn or volta that makes a poem surprising; ambivalence and ambiguity somehow sharpen the language (I’m not sure how that last process works, but I certainly feel it). “Unsonnet,” a poem of mine recently published by Ecotone and reprinted by Verse Daily, operates in the latter mode of darkness and uncertainty. It comes from grief about my son growing up and getting ready to leave for college, and it ends not with optimism but denial and a wish to turn back the clock. I like the vivid language of “Unsonnet,” a poem that came relatively easily last spring; I started “We Could Be” four years ago and revising it was monstrously difficult. I don’t know if one is aesthetically better than the other. But the way the latter poem puts hope out there does seem ethically better. (Those are fighting words, I know, that poetry can have an ethics, but I think it can. It’s just slippery, as language itself is.)

Both the above poems will be candidates for a next collection, one day. Sweet published two more poems of mine recently, again about desperation struggling towards something better–there are links in this mini-interview. Honestly, being able to write more poems, and think concretely about a next book, seems far off, right now. Most of the drafts I’ve accumulated in 2020 strike trivial and less-than-half-baked. But poetry has always come back to me. Fingers crossed it will again.

I’m ending this ambivalent post with one last piece of writing: a statement my English Department just published. I’ve often described how alienating it can be to work or study at a place named partly after Robert E. Lee, where the general lived after the Civil War and is buried. I vacillate on whether to use the college name in my professional bios anymore (they do support their professors pretty well financially, and heading into a sabbatical, I feel grateful for that). My mixed feelings are common here. Many former students have put away their diplomas and tee-shirts, having learned that the name of their alma mater makes people assume they’re racist. I’ve stuck my neck out in campus protests many times, and I’ve often been punished for it while making little headway, so I didn’t make the slightest move, during this crisis, toward proposing an English Department statement that Black Lives Matter. But then a small group of younger colleagues did so, and they made it more meaningful than the rote statements most institutions are issuing so toothlessly: building in a fundraising campaign for two regional groups, a fund for Black educators set up by the local NAACP and the Richmond Community Bail Fund. From a group of under 20 people, they raised more than $1000 for each cause in under 12 hours. I’m amazed and nourished by the hope their work represents.

Virtual Salon #13 with Sonia Greenfield

This intense week, I’m featuring a new collection by activist-editor-poet Sonia Greenfield (check out Rise Up Review sometime, too, for brilliant poems of resistance).

Letdown consists of 64 numbered prose poems about pregnancy, birth, raising a special needs child, miscarriage, grief, and recovery. No poems can be assembled into tidy chronologies–they slip and blur, associate and meditate–but the book has a strong emotional arc, through an underworld of pain, to emergence into love and compassion. I love that the book ends in empathy for other parents, but that’s enabled by Greenfield’s own difficult rebirth: “Though I am better now, sometimes I can feel a kite string tied inside cut through me when what I want yanks.”

Maggie Smith gets it right, too, when she calls Greenfield “a master of the prose poem.” Each has a boiled-down lyric intensity. Many investigate the meanings of words, putting the lie to the literary-critical truism that pain short-circuits expression. Poems about diagnostic language, the tone-deaf consolations and blame friends offer, and her sons words are very powerful. Her son is on the autism spectrum and the recurrent description of his “weird energy” could describe the book, too. This collection channels a strong charge of loss and love. As she says, “It takes a while to strip expectations away, to peel off the layers until we’re holding our child’s happiness in the palm of our hand, as pure as the simplest silicate mineral, and say it is enough.” This is a testament to celebrate.

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

We would eat cannoli and Dick’s Burgers (drive-in burger place in Seattle), both of which I craved when I was pregnant. We would eat quesadilla, because that’s my son’s favorite food. We would eat falafel and gelato and zeppoles (in the book), and we’d wash it all down with coconut water and whiskey (also in the book). Then we’d finish up with an Alka-Seltzer, naturally.

2. 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?

I would tell the friend that I had to go back on anti-depressants because of how scattered and unfocused I am, that I feel like a pinball bouncing off the contours of my life. And, no. I haven’t been able to write much– just a couple poems. But things will change, I tell myself. 

3. How can your virtual audience find out more?

If my virtual audience wants to know more, they can visit my website at soniagreenfield.com, and I’m also on all the social media with no fancy names. Just Sonia Greenfield with an @. 

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall

The dark threw its patches down upon me also, Walt Whitman wrote in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Nearly as often as he reflects on his own tingling senses, Whitman, it turns out, writes about distance and solitude, sometimes expressing pain about it and reaching for touch across impossible gaps. “It avails not, time nor place–distance avails not,” he insists. We can be together, apart. This violent week has proven again that in my country, unity is a fiction. Some U.S. citizens are protected by police; in overlapping territory, other U.S. citizens are murdered by police. I admire Whitman’s desire to heal damage and division, but I can’t love my country the way he did.

Yet the fellowship of writers in other places, even other times, helps my heart. I wrote last week about feeling rested by the kind intelligence of Ned Balbo’s new book The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots, and before that the pleasure of revisiting Martha Silano’s Gravity Assist. Silano also has a powerful poem in the issue of Shenandoah that will debut on June 5th; I’ve been proofreading it and appreciating the authors we’re about to publish. I also have thanks to give to many writers, editors, and event programmers who have recently shown me generosity.

First, here’s to writer and publisher Rose Solari for praising The State She’s In in the Washington Independent Review of Books. First official review and it’s a beauty!

A couple of new pieces about writing as a practice: Massachusetts Review, in conjunction with an essay of mine about Millay they just published, recently put up a “10 Questions” interview about the how and where of research and drafting; in both the interview and the essay itself, I talk about finding camaraderie with dead women poets, in this case wondering how authors I admired bore children or refused to. Next, Celia Lisset Alvarez has started a blog series at Prospectus about writers’ first publications. In “Unbecoming Hubris” I post about daring to write my first novel and some of the comeuppances I experienced before holding the book in my hands. This is a good place, too, to say thank you to my spouse Chris Gavaler for “My Unbecoming Spouse,” a post about book covers and messing with Audubon’s cross fox.

I have a couple of recent poems full of cosmic dread in Sweet. And if you’re in the mood to listen, I have recorded readings here for the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival and here for the Social Distance Reading Series hosted by the Vermont School and Green Mountains Review.

My school year has wound down now and I have a lot to catch up on, especially in deferred publicity work for my books–and being sad and worried makes it hard. I’m wondering if my deferred spring 2020 readings should happen in spring 2021, not this fall. As usual, I’m prone to dark crises of confidence, too, but good to know Whitman suffered them before me. The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,/ My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre? I feel ya, Walt.

I’ll close with a hopeful poem from my own new collection, one I wrote with the stupidity of U.S. politics in mind. The spell I’m trying to weave won’t soothe anything except maybe a reader’s blood pressure for a minute, but hey, sometimes a moment’s glimmer is the best we’ve got.

State Song

Because I call you, wind strips trees
of little limbs they did not need.
The streambed tilts a muddy ear

and I pour words into its drain, the cup-
shape someone’s heel dug filling up
as if with rain. Because I call us

together, the mountain blushes. A curtain
parts, dissolves into rags of steam. Sun
and clouds pattern fields with roving

spotlights. Because I call you, power
thrums the ground. Now is the hour,
gilded, grand. I call this dazzle ours.

Virtual Salon #12 with Ned Balbo

...the landline's cut & no one's listening 
-Ned Balbo, from "Vortex"

The imaginary book party below is the twelfth in a spontaneously invented series–how did this milestone come so fast? In March, events I’d planned to launch The State She’s In fell apart, which in some ways felt like the very smallest loss in an enormous crisis and in other ways was hard. Through this blog feature, I hoped I could do a small good thing for other writers in my position. I’m having fun with it, but it’s a little crushing that we still need to conduct most of our lives virtually.

Reading Ned Balbo’s sixth collection is a powerful and eerie experience right now because of its mix of isolation and intimacy. The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots, winner of The New Criterion Poetry Prize and published in December 2019, takes its title from a poem about plants at the Cylburn Arboretum. A companion shows the speaker how leaves recoil at human touch. After they walk away, he wonders about “green fronds unfolding till/ the surface of their sea is calm again”–as if ease can be restored after an interval of shocked separation. Balbo’s title phrase recurs in a poem called “With Magdalene, near Daybreak,” when a resurrected god tells Magdalene, Touch me not. Balbo wonders why Jesus would return only to “order her away” and how she would have felt: “she who’d grieved already,/ shocked, stopped where she stood,/ the world strange, unsteady// though he was radiant…” This book, written well before the novel coronavirus, is about social distance.

Many of the poems in this (paradoxically?) touching collection come from the intimate-yet-distant process of reading other writers; Balbo is also a translator and some of these pieces, especially in the resonant opening sequence including “Vortex,” “began as translations but were transformed along the way,” as he writes in the notes. The book’s middle section focuses on Balbo’s tangled family and I found it, too, intensely moving. Balbo writes often about being raised by his birth mother’s sister, whose story he didn’t learn until his teens. Here he tells of a sister born fifteen months earlier who was raised by their grandmother as a daughter, then later worked in her father’s business–as his “sister.” “There’s just so much/ to carry and keep hidden,” Balbo writes in her voice, “…knowing he exists/ makes me feel more alone…”

I don’t mean to make it sound, though, as if The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots is all about ill-omen and the failure to connect. Loss often frames, and makes more meaningful, romantic closeness rescued from ruins, and Ned’s compassionate imagination illuminates the book. You’ll also see from his answers below that he loves cats, music, and a nice Montepulciano.

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

It depends on the poem. For “In Baltimore, 2004,” which takes place in an apartment above Baltimore’s best-known Indian restaurant, I suggest something from their menu for your meal with a friend: Kashmiri naan, two entrées  (chicken korma, for carnivores; benghan bhartha for vegetarians), and rasmalai for dessert (sneak it in from a different Indian restaurant that serves it). And wine—definitely wine. Maybe a Montepulciano.

For “Social Drinking of a Solitary Couple,” one stanza of which is about a long-ago Long Island New Year’s Eve: tall whiskey sours with maraschino cherries (the cherries are a must).

For “Rondeau: ‘Meaningless Sex,’” gin and tonics (or gins and tonic, for you grammar buffs): sipping a few with the right person is what the poem’s about, after all.

Finally, “For the Garden’s Architect,” which takes place partly in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and partly in its aftermath (i.e., Hell), anything and everything you can gobble or guzzle. You’ll be ending up in Hell anyway, so carpe diem, as the poets say.

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?

Fortunately, yes, I’m writing, though the ripple effects of our universal lockdown and general chaos are having their influence. My new poems are marked by plague masks, wild animals running around the spaces we’ve abandoned, corvids of bleak omen (“corvid” is only one letter away from you-know-what), and the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine’s 2019 exhibition, “The Value of Sanctuary”—a theme that was more prescient than anyone could have imagined.

As to how I am really, it depends on the day and the time of day. But I’m finding refuge in music, as usual: these days, Roger and Brian Eno’s collaborative ambient album Mixing Colours, Andrew Bird’s Echolocations: River, and Sufjan Stevens’ Planetarium, a collaboration with James McAlister, Nico Muhly, and The National’s Bryce Dessner.

How can your virtual audience find out more?

My website’s collection of on-line links is good for convenient one-stop browsing and is more inclusive than my inexcusably dormant Facebook author’s page. There are also two readings that might pass the time for friends sheltering in place: one that Jane and I gave just about a year ago at the Cross Cultural Center in Williamsburg, Brooklyn [poet and essayist Jane Satterfield is Balbo’s partner], and one from a month earlier at the Newburyport Literary Festival where I was paired with the always magnificent January Gill O’Neill.

And since The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots is partly a book about family, you can learn more about mine (and meet Wyatt, our trusty polydactyl guardian) at Eileen Tabios’ Poets on Adoption blog.

Virtual Salon #11 with Martha Silano

Dear Mr. Wordsworth,

It turns out there is no tranquility.

When you read any of Martha Silano’s books, all of them fizzing with brio and invention and awe, you want to start a salon just so you can invite her. As Diane Seuss says about Gravity Assist, Silano’s fifth poetry collection is “popping with kinetic energy.” The physics references are sometimes metaphors for rising and falling in mood and body, but they’re not just metaphors: Silano’s worldview is scientific, balancing skepticism with infectious curiosity (am I allowed to use “infectious” as a happy adjective right now?–never mind, I’m sure Martha would tell me to go for broke). I read this book shortly after its 2019 publication then again this week, right after teaching Whitman, and this time I was especially moved by all of Silano’s Whitmanian reaching after connection through study, epistle, and even psychedelic mysticism (“prayer/ is like a bread line, a penny for your/ exploded mind”). There anger and grief here, too, especially about human destruction of the more-than-human world, but this restless, brainy poet often responds to crisis with praise of what continues to amaze. No one can solve all of life’s multitudinous inexplicabilities, but Silano’s asymptotic approaches are always wonderful to observe.

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

First, we would sit down to a plate of antipasti: Genoa salami, calabrese, provolone, garlic-stuffed olives, roasted red bell peppers, Italian bread. For the main course: puttanesca served over linguini, paired with a mixed-green salad with vinaigrette. For dessert: fresh peaches, fresh cream, and squares of dark chocolate. Oh, and plenty of Chianti.

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?

I’m doing better than I would have imagined. At first I was too anxious to write, but once I began drafting a poem a day things got better. I also attribute my wellbeing to going running at a nearby wooded park. Thankfully, my kids pretty much take care of themselves, and I teach online for a living. The California poppies are blooming here in Seattle. If they can be bright and cheery, so can I.

How can your virtual audience find out more?

My website is marthasilano.net.

Q&A,Tethered Letters: https://tetheredbyletters.com/author-qa-martha-silano/

I have new work up at:

Women’s Voices for Change https://womensvoicesforchange.org/martha-silano-when-i-begin-to-dig.htm

Barren https://barrenmagazine.com/i-bring-you-the-uncertain-music/

dialogist https://dialogist.org/poetry/2020-week-19-martha-silano

The Los Angeles Review http://losangelesreview.org/dear-diary-martha-silano/

Rust + Moth https://rustandmoth.com/work/when-i-realized-everything-had-been-said/

SWWIM https://www.swwim.org/blog/2019/11/15/jean-and-joan-and-a-who-knows-who

The Shore https://www.theshorepoetry.org/martha-silano-pain-is-the-foundation

Thrush   http://www.thrushpoetryjournal.com/january-2019-martha-silano.html

Waxwing http://waxwingmag.org/items/issue17/28_Silano-Instead-of-a-father.php

Reviews of Gravity Assist are up at:

The Rumpus  https://therumpus.net/2020/04/barbara-bermans-national-poetry-month-shout-out/

DMQ Review https://www.dmqreview.com/micro-reviews

The Adroit Journal  https://theadroitjournal.org/2020/02/05/measuring-the-future-a-review-of-martha-silanos-gravity-assist/

My books are available at

Independent Publishing Group (IPG) https://www.ipgbook.com/silano–martha-contributor-487072.php

Steel Toe Books https://steeltoebooks.com/books/3-books/books/57-blue-positive-by-martha-silano-sp-1358827673

Two Sylvias Press http://twosylviaspress.com/martha-silano.html

Rainbows, snakes, and book launches

Among my latest thrills: nearly stepping on a hissing snake; a double rainbow over an empty Main Street; a frisbee arriving by mail; and, oh yeah, publishing my first novel. On launch day for Unbecoming, I was shut in my house responding to student project proposals; my March launch for The State She’s In came at an even more stressful time. Honestly, though, I’ve fumbled through a bunch of book launches now and, pandemic or not, they’re more work than fun–I like giving readings but otherwise the chore list is mighty long. What is fun: finishing a draft that feels right; opening an acceptance or a nice note from a friend or stranger; and, at least on the good days, writing itself. I’m very lucky to be starting a sabbatical this summer, and I hope it will create enough headspace for finding flow again. Any genre, O muse–I’ll be ready for you in a hot sec!

The books and surprising curvy apparitions overshadowed news that would have made me ecstatic on another weekend. I’ve never been to the Sewanee Writers Conference before and I’d been hearing good things about the new director, so I applied in poetry just before it became clear we’d all be sheltering in place for a long while. They’ve postponed till 2021, but I was accepted with a scholarship. It’s such a relief to know I WILL be talking poetry with people in person next year, and that I’ll still have ways to nudge these books into the eyelines of potential readers. Social media helps socially-distanced writers, but it tends to look deserted in July/ August–not a good time for promoting much beyond sunblock.

Which brings me to the big thanks I owe so many good people for how they’ve cheered me on, over various platforms. I’m awed by how kindly authors, editors, and friends are helping each other make the best of a hard time. I’m sending out gratitude, too, to the organizers of two May 2020 conferences that are going virtual. The readings I recorded for both of them go live this week.

The Bridgewater International Poetry Festival will, this Wednesday through Friday, release short recorded readings (under 5 minutes each) by Richard Blanco, Seth Michelson, Lauren Camp, Hedy Habra, Gerry LaFemina, and many other wonderful poets. They’re released on YouTube each day at noon and mine, from The State She’s In, will go up Friday.

The WisCon feminist science fiction & fantasy conference is always held Memorial Day weekend, and this year they’re calling it WisCONline. You have to register for it by May 20th, but the fees are moderate and tiered for financial ability, right down to $0. I’m looking forward to tuning in for a lot of exciting readings, especially from Guest of Honor Rebecca Roanhorse. The schedule is here. I’m in the “Dangerous Women” slot on Saturday 1:00-1:45 Central Time. This will be my first reading from the published novel (although I read a not-final-version excerpt at the Outer Weird symposium in 2019). I’d ask you to wish me luck, but I’m caught in a Zoom-recorded time loop on this one, so wish me a broken leg last week, or something like that?

Becoming Unbecoming

My debut novel launches this Friday, May 15th, 2020. Here’s the story of how the book came to be.

I was in my late forties in 2015, sending my oldest child off to college and feeling glum about the next phase of my life. Hormonal shifts were not helping. On a walk with my spouse, I said something like, It’s not fair that mutant superpowers always come at puberty. Menopause is basically puberty in reverse–I want my superpowers now. He said, That would be a good premise for a novel.

A poet, scholar, and teacher, I thought I’d passed the forking path to novel-writing a long ways back. Chris is a cheerleader, though, and–this is crucial–author of a couple of published novels and many short stories, so he’s a great person to talk to about small, vague story ideas. I’d been fantasizing about another tale I never expected to write: a changeling professor, Dr. Perfect Poet, visits on a faculty exchange program and makes literary triumph look like a breeze. I’d drafted a bad poem about her, in a fit of frustration about my own messy life. (The closest thing I had to a superpower was yelling, Flame on! during a hot flash). As we walked and talked, I realized these two plots could interlock. Chris and I started spinning it out–who this main character might be, with her irritating and uncanny new colleague, and how she might react when weird things started happening.

Even when possible structures appeared in the air, I wasn’t sure I had the will or the stamina to put them on paper. I wrote fiction as a teenager but it always stalled. I’ve never taken a fiction writing class, either, although I’ve been an obsessive novel-reader since childhood. But I was on sabbatical 2015-2016, so I thought maybe I would try to write a short, mediocre novel, told chronologically in a single voice–no pressure, no big ambitions, although I wanted it to be fun to spend time with. Complexity with humor, possibly even hope, plus a world that draws you in quickly and won’t let you go: that’s my sweet spot as a reader. That’s one reason poetry is important to me, by the way. The world can be unrelentingly awful, and I’m ready to stare down that badness in short forms, especially when they deliver the consolations of patterned sound, but you have to live in a novel for days. I need novels to be better than life, or at least absorbingly different.

That fall, my mother came down with a mysterious but devastating illness, eventually diagnosed as lymphoma. My concentration and schedule were broken into fragments. When, stabilized, she moved back into her home (in Pennsylvania, a six-hour car ride from here) and entered a steady chemo regime, I had time again, but still couldn’t seem to finish the book of essays I was supposed to wrap up. A scene came to me in the shower. I dried off and wrote it down. I finished a chapter. I kept going. For weeks, sentences arrived in my head and I typed them in. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had writing, and by late January, I had that short, mediocre draft.

The rest of this origin story is less fun, and not just because it coincides with Trump’s election and presidency (some of my characters saw that coming, by the way, but at least in my conscious mind, I did not). I learned that my draft was considerably more mediocre than I realized and had to put the ms through numerous painful overhauls, fixing everything from clumsy prose and plotting to tricky problems of character I’d been refusing to confront. I queried agents prematurely, earning some requests to see the full ms but never an offer. I revised more, with help from many readers, and eventually received a “revise and resubmit” letter from Aqueduct Press, which specializes in feminist sf. Further excruciating revisions ensued, plenty of them at a rapid pace last fall, as I was teaching full-time and delivering my youngest to college. And here it is. Good early reviews make me hope it’s a decent book now, not god’s gift to literature but engaging and sometimes funny (in Locus, Gary K. Wolfe, whose sf criticism I admire, even said parts were hilarious and evoked the campus novels of David Lodge–whoa). I presume I have plenty of ego blows ahead, but I’m glad I took the risk and followed the spark of impulse.

I’m on sabbatical next year and I have another novel idea, a project that again emerges from a twilight zone between realism and fantasy. I’m not at all sure the drafting process will feel magical again, with characters whispering lines to me. It won’t be a campus novel this time, either, which means much more research. I’ll also work with multiple perspectives–getting more ambitious, basically. It still feels like playing hooky from poetry, knowing I’ll come back to my home genre freshly, having learned a few things.

Virtual Salon #10 with Ruth Dickey

I mark up most of my poetry books–prepare to be shocked–IN PEN. I probably started in grad school, before sticky notes came in all those colors and sizes, and inked notes are more legible when you return to a text to teach or write about it. I recently went back to an old edition of Dickinson’s poems, for example, as I prepare to lead discussions from a newer and better book, Cristanne Miller’s Emily Dickinson’s Poems as She Preserved Them, and I’m so relieved to see all the glosses and discussion questions I’d inscribed there.

One of the first phrases I underlined in Ruth Dickey’s debut collection, Mud Blooms, occurs on page 5 in “Four-twenty-one,” a poem about a beloved calf Dickey’s parents wouldn’t let her name. It’s the last line: “my brother and me leaning on the fence, stretching our hands through.” The first poem, “Somoto, Nicaragua, #3,” tells you Mud Blooms will be about hunger, but by page 5 you see the book also concerns a longing for connection with the human and more-than-human world, past all the barriers thrown up by difference. Dickey expresses humility about these efforts, especially in her deeply moving poems about working at Miriam’s Kitchen in DC. She orders apples people can’t eat before she knows that “almost everyone who is homeless has dental problems”; “my stupidity galls me,” she adds in an intermittent, abecedarian prose poem sequence called “Alphabet Soup Kitchen.” Sometimes, too, Dickey doubts the worth of her own efforts, because homelessness and hunger are such huge, seemingly intractable problems. There’s so much loss and suffering here, but what impresses you most about the book is its big-heartedness and radical openness. I love this collection and the spirit that shines through it.

I’ve only met Ruth in person once or twice, as I exited and she entered intense work on the AWP Board, but I can also tell from her answers below that she’s a skilled party host, perhaps through her current service as Executive Director of Seattle Arts & Lectures. I’m so glad to introduce you to Ruth and her work, in the 10th gathering of this pandemic-inspired virtual salon!

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

The beloved foods that appear in the book – fresh apple cake, strong coffee, and sandwiches (both peanut butter and pimento cheese) – feel not totally sufficient for a celebration. So there would definitely be rosé, and I’d also order us foods I love from places in the poems – gallo pinto with plantains and fresh tortillas, toast with honey and sea salt from Sea Level Bakery in Cannon Beach, and dosas with extra spicy mango pickle from the woman who used to have a shop on R Street NW just off Connecticut Avenue in DC. And as a finale, thick slices of southern layer cakes from Maxie B’s in Greensboro, NC.

  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?

These days I’m stunned and scared and outraged and grateful in equal measures. I’ve been journaling and writing poems that are largely terrible, but it feels helpful to have that space where I’m trying to metabolize and make sense of the world, even if I’m doing it incredibly poorly.  

  1. How can your virtual audience find out more?

More about my book and some poems are on my website – www.ruthdickey.com– and I am frequently posting about books I love and my dog on Instagram at @ruthdickey206. If you are interested in Mud Blooms, you can order a copy at https://bookshop.org/books/mud-blooms/9780988275577– thanks so much for reading!

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