Big-ears plots her escape

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.

Some sparklers on a dark, hot night

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.

Dear poetry professor: self-doubt

Giant squid considers applying for a poetry opportunity then second-guesses herself

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.

Dear poetry professor on submissions (plus dropped balls, tombstones, & “Hap”)

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.

We are all steam engines

In The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction, Peter Atkins conveys an impressive degree of excitement about entropy. “No other scientific law has contributed more to the liberation of the human spirit than the second law of thermodynamics…because it provides a foundation for understanding why any change occurs,” he writes (37). Later in the chapter, after reminding us that we are basically steam engines, he describes how “wherever structure is to be conjured from disorder, it must be driven by the generation of greater disorder elsewhere” (61). (Is that why my house and office get so messy when I’m writing?)

For example, in human beings: “the dispersal that corresponds to an increase in entropy is the metabolism of food and the dispersal of energy and matter that that metabolism releases. The structure that taps into that dispersal is not a mechanical chain of pistons and gears, but the biochemical pathways within the body…Thus, as we eat, so we grow. The structures may be of a different kind: they may be works of art. For another structure that can be driven into existence by coupling to the energy released by ingestion and digestion consists of organized electrical activity within the brain constructed from random electrical and neuronal activity. Thus, as we eat, we create: we create works of art, of literature, and of understanding.”

I am reading about thermodynamics and quantum theory in order to better understand some poems, naturally. A former undergraduate student–a poet and a Physics/ English double-major, Max Chapnick–is now an English PhD student at Boston University, and he contacted me last summer about putting together a panel on physics and poetry for the International MLA Symposium. It was accepted, so now we’re all going to Lisbon in late July (hurrah!). This requires me to spend a few preparatory weeks analyzing Samiya Bashir’s excellent 2017 collection from Nightboat, Field Theories. I understood what she was doing with thermodynamics and quantum theory just enough to generate a proposal, but to be able to write in some depth about what radiation means in her book, how blackbodies function, whether or not that one poem is meant to resemble the “ultraviolet catastrophe” graph, etc.–well, it’s hard.

Work is motion against an opposing force,” Atkins writes, and I’ve definitely been feeling the weight of my own intellectual resistance. It’s not that I don’t want to do the writing or even the thinking; it’s a privilege, truly. But I’ve been puzzling through problems laboriously, in a mood of worry. I’ve written before about the annual difficulty of kicking my brain into a different gear, and surely that’s part of it, but I’m also experiencing one of those bouts of insecurity that afflict most writers I know, no matter the genre. It’s not only “am I interpreting these difficult poems in plausible ways?” but something more like “are my scholarly/ interpretive moves sufficiently interesting that anyone would really want to read or listen to me, or is everyone just humoring me because I once showed some intellectual promise and remain a reasonably nice person who tends to do the work and show up on time?” It doesn’t help my morale that I was just informed that I’ll receive an average raise this year, percentage-wise, when I know my DH recommended me for an exceptional one. Between you and me, I did a monstrous amount of good teaching, service, and publication in 2018, but my radiation did not seem to fall into the spectrum of visible light.

This is not my first self-doubt rodeo, so I can reassure myself that continuing to work is better than the alternatives, and confidence comes back. Besides, delivering Bashir’s accomplishments to new audiences is in itself worthwhile service to an art I love. And when self-doubt veers into guilt, as it should sometimes–a mediocre raise, how sad for you! or why do I get to eat a nice lunch and metabolize the results into criticism while refugees ail at the border in dangerously overcrowded detention camps?–I should make a donation or put that rally on my calendar, but still keep dispersing most of my daytime labor among tasks I’m competent at and believe are worthwhile.

Scholarship is a smaller portion of that array of tasks than it used to be, in part because it sharpens my existential angst more than other kinds of labor. I’ve been studying a couple of brilliant, well-written books about literature and science by scholar N. Katherine Hayles, for instance, and realizing again: look how amazing this is, how much work and hard thinking it represents, and here I am skimming the damn stuff. I would so much rather read and be read than keep participating in the scholarly skimmability system…so whenever I reenter this arena, I end up pondering ways to reinvent the universe.

So I remind myself: just write the conference paper, Steam Engine. Next week, start re-revising your book of hybrid criticism, which WILL come to print in 2021. Keep submitting and revising shorter works around the edges and planning some exciting new courses. At an undetermined date (but soon?), you will be asked to submit your poetry ms to Tinderbox Editions, then there will be edits, then galleys. In August, after Lisbon, come novel edits (the pub date for Unbecoming has been pushed back to March-ish, same as the poetry collection, yikes). In the mix should be book promotion planning, reviews and reference letters, grant applications for that 2020-2021 sabbatical. There’s a lot of landscape to cover, Steam Engine, but address one task at a time. Don’t panic and increase the pressure unsustainably, but don’t quit either. It’ll take as long as it takes.

Chug, chug.

Also a steam engine, believe it or not

Commencements



“I, too, am not unhopeful,” Saidiya Hartman said to Wesleyan University’s Class of 2019 during a long, hot ceremony on a bowl-shaped lawn. Soon-to-be-alumni/ae in the audience, including my daughter, wore robes of Handmaid’s Tale scarlet. I was turning scarlet in the sun, wondering what we were all on the threshold of.

I loved Hartman’s oration, which was deliberately weird. She analyzed the genre of the commencement address and explained why she wasn’t going to fulfill its conventions by offering advice towards a shiny future that it’s currently impossible to believe in. Her beautiful lines sounded more like poetry than persuasive rhetoric. I scribbled down some fragments, like “the gift of bare uncertainty that hurls you into adulthood.” The longest chunk I captured: “These remarks are really an elaborate ask. Speculate how the world might be otherwise…we pause in anticipation of the world you might make.” As she then pointed out, the expectations attached to commencement addresses were sucking her in after all: how can a speaker, and just as importantly, a teacher, address such a cusp without a glimmer of curiosity about what comes next?

After the cap-tossing and the toasts, my family of four headed to Cape Cod for a few days, to take a breather and contemplate other borderlands. We stayed on Lieutenant Island, which is only an island for 1 or 2 hours a day, when high tide reaches the salt marshes and makes it impossible to cross the wooden bridge. I drafted a couple of commencement-themed poems there, and we took lots of walks and ate lots of delicious seafood. Also, to be unsocial-media-ish: I had nightmares, and my daughter was sick, and plenty of bad news penetrated our bubble. It’s good to have all the ceremonies behind us, and I’m really proud of what my children have achieved. I feel grateful, as well, for so many lovely moments–long breaths poised on the water’s edge, not looking forward or backward–but I can’t say my heart is peaceful.

We’re home again now, trying to get sorted for a summer of work, about which I am a little anxious, always, but not unhopeful. I have writing and revising to do as my graduation sunburn peels; my son is doing math research for a W&L professor; and my daughter will soon be teaching in a summer camp while she applies for policy-related jobs in D.C. (employment leads welcome!). In the meantime, anyone in the Charlottesville, Virginia area can look for me at 2nd Act Books on the downtown mall on Sunday, June 9th. I’ll be reading there with Sara Robinson from 2-4 pm. I promise a few writing prompts toward the possibility of a peaceful, productive summer. A wild dream, I know.



A view from the masthead

I read Beth Staples’ Editor’s Note to the new issue of Shenandoah aloud, in the car, from my phone. Chris and I were on our way to a poetry reading by Sara Robinson, Patsy Asuncion, and others at Ragged Branch Distillery–a gorgeous setting–while sun and clouds chased each other across the mountains. We had read an earlier draft of Beth’s essay, which was prompted by a piece of hate mail:

She nailed the revision, we agreed, and then argued about which was the funniest line in the piece. “From a person with questionable taste in fonts,” Chris insisted. No, it’s her rewrite of the opening of Pride and Prejudice, I countered. In any case, Beth’s remarks are important, reflecting questions I often think about while reading submissions AND reading for fun. In much contemporary fiction by white authors, nonwhite characters are typically described by race, while white characters get to be defined by other characteristics, like status or occupation or temperament–which makes me sputter with irritation when I want to be lounging with a paperback.

In verse, how a white author addresses, or sidesteps, whiteness comes through more clearly over a suite of pieces than in a single poem, mostly because a poem contains fewer words and less story than your average prose piece. A poem gives you select glimpses from which you intuit and imagine a landscape. Race, therefore, is sometimes a matter of hints and absences in the poems from this Shenandoah issue. I love them all, and I delight in the ways they refract different identities and experiences: 68.2 contains poetry about language, immigration, aging, abortion, artificial insemination, difficult parents, difficult children, difficult neighbors, food, friendship, nonhuman animals, love, anger, political treaties, sexual harassment, disability, music, apocalypse, and clowns. Race joins that heady mix, but mostly in poems by authors who are not white–and that’s something an editor, and an author, must think about.

Books of mine currently in the publication pipeline–especially a novel and my next poetry collection–DO concern whiteness. In early drafts of these works, I made mistakes, because my skill and thoughtfulness were inadequate. Many editors rejected many of those efforts–rightly, I now believe, although it was discouraging at the time. Writing about race in a contemporary or historical way, from the perspective of a white person who hasn’t always been required to pay attention to it, was/ is risky, and I’m not sure the products are thoroughly successful–I’m worried there are failures in the books I can’t yet see, and really hoping, if so, that my editors will call me out–but in any case, I did learn some things and end up with at least some good writing. I decided I’d rather fail by trying than by silence.

So I especially appreciate Beth’s Editor’s Note. If you find it provocative and/ or useful, also check out the “Gutting the Chicken” feature, about a flash fiction piece by Stephen Graham Jones that was initially rejected. The editors focused on gender questions the piece raised and missed some things about race, and I would say the author did something similar but in reverse, although all parties are brilliant and careful (I think Jones’ work is amazing). The intro, flash fiction, and accompanying interview would be a great suite to teach, raising some pretty interesting editorial and writerly conundrums.

But every piece in the issue is worth reading! I’m particularly excited about the novel excerpt (and eager for Joukhadar’s book–he’ll give a reading here in February). Don’t miss the special features at the bottom of the page, either, which are full of their own insights and challenges. I’m happy, heading into summer, that there’s so much cool stuff to read, even (or especially?) when it makes me uncomfortable–as long as the author doesn’t address me as “girl.”

The ambit of ambition

A former student, visiting campus for her 20th reunion, was telling me about deciding to remarry, as we shared glasses of wine by the window in a local bar. She recounted how the man she was dating said apologetically, as they started to get serious, “But I’m just not ambitious.” Her face brightened as she described her delighted reply: “That’s fine! I’m ambitious enough for the both of us!”

I love hearing about my students’ ambitions–may they change the world, because it needs changing!–especially when I once knew them as brilliant but underconfident young women. This former student is happily working long hours, while her husband has happily shortened his to care for their two young children. If I helped model that for anyone now building the life she wants, veering from the inherited scripts to do work that lights her up, that would be AWESOME. I felt so guilty about my own choices for so long, but I’ve reached a moment, with my kids aged 18 and 22, when most of that guilt feels quaint. Yes, I failed as a parent sometimes, but never because I had an intense job or wrote poems in my scant spare time. The things I was stupid about, I would have been stupid about regardless of occupational and vocational status, because then, and now, I’m still learning how to be a decent human being. In fact, teaching and writing help me be a better person. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self some things.

After that glass of wine, I walked home through a small town under construction and swarming with alumnae/i, pondering ambition. It was very much on my mind in my mid-forties, when I started writing the poems in my forthcoming collection. My current working title for the latter is The State She’s In, but whether or not my editor ultimately agrees about that, I’m polishing the ms now and the book will be out in March or April 2020. The collection, in fact, contains a sequence of five list-poems called “Ambitions,” and I considered whether I could or should incorporate the word in my book title. I guess I was asking common midlife questions: what is all this striving for? Am I on a path towards something good, goals I genuinely care about? Am I fulfilling my responsibilities to other people, to my work, and as a citizen–not the trivial stuff, but the deep obligations? Then an ambitious woman ran for office, and a man who despises women trumped her, and some of my struggle over that episode is in the book, too.

As I veered off Main St. onto the smaller road that leads home, I realized I may have turned a corner where ambition is concerned. I’m not sure how much of the change comes from turning fifty, or other revolutions in my life, or even just the fact that three books I worked on for years all have contracts now, so I can afford to be less anxious! Maybe my state of relative equilibrium is temporary. But while I still think many kinds of ambition are good and important, and anyone who’s nervous about ambition in women is a sexist jerk, I find I’m not fretting about productivity this summer, for once. I can’t even drum up worry about the reception my poetry book will eventually meet (the novel’s a bit different–still feel like an imposter there). I have a number of writing projects percolating, and I’ll be helping my kids launch into college and the working world, but I’m mainly grateful that a summer slow-down is allowing me to strengthen these mss and plan for how I can help them find audiences. My chief ambition, I’m realizing, is to make the books as moving and crafty and complicated and inspiring as possible.

After this trio (poetry and a novel in 2020, an essay collection in 2021), I may have a few more books in me, but my writing years no longer feel limitless. The lightning of major post-publication attention doesn’t strike most people and probably won’t strike me; I can live with that. I can’t control the luck, but I can make each book deserve readers and find at least some of the people who would enjoy them, and that’s what I’m really striving for. Well, deep down. I’m sure I’ll keep getting distracted by the other stuff, but the kind of ambition that ties a person up in unproductive knots seems to have less of a stranglehold on me than once upon a time.

Is this a Mother’s Day post? Maybe; work and motherhood have been tangled up with each other for my whole adult life, both logistically and emotionally. Plus, on Mother’s Day itself I’ll be reading at the Ox-Eye Vineyards Tasting Room in Staunton with Lauren Camp and Susan Facknitz, thanks to Cliff Garstang’s organizational genius, and then bringing Lauren back down to W&L for a reading on Monday, all of which is right after launching the new issue of Shenandoah this Friday–in other words, there won’t be much blogging time. I will be leafing through poems, though, trying to find the best pieces I’ve written on being a mother and a daughter, and maybe pondering whether I have any other important things to say on the subject. Because, you know, if it matters, I could find a couple of hours.

Nibbling on gigans and glosas

I’ve been sick in a not-clearly-diagnosed way, so I’ve been resting and trying to read the signs. What “resting” looks like for me almost always involves books (the big exception was during my second pregnancy, when concentrating on anything, even the radio, made me throw up–but you don’t want to hear about that circle of hell). I’ve been keeping on top of hard work deadlines, but otherwise just trying to nourish myself–and also, through reading verse, nourishing the poems I’m somehow drafting each day for National Poetry Writing Month. That may count as a kind of rest, too, in that I’m not worrying if my drafts are good or bad or building toward something. The judging part of my brain isn’t working well and I’m done with the teaching year, so even though the soft deadlines will eventually come round to face me, for the moment I may as well play.

I therefore have a few recent poetry collections to recommend, all of which inspired me to keep playing. The first of them I carried around Haverford on Accepted Students Day last weekend–did I mention my son decided to go to Haverford? Since the book is all about family, loss, and finding consolation in tiny moments amid the chaos of middle age’s mundane struggles–which for the author involves single motherhood in New York City, and a child with special needs–it felt like the perfect thing to tote in my purse next to the ibuprofen I shouldn’t have been mainlining. The Miracles by Amy Lemmon is big-hearted and sad and sweet and wry and lovely. Here’s “Another Day,” about shopping for grain-free crackers when you really, really want an almond croissant.

The Bones of Winter Birds by Ann Fisher-Wirth went into the purse a couple of days later, at a very low moment, when the strep seemed to be bouncing back, or was it something else–could it be mono, the nurse practitioner asked? A couple of needle stabs later, the verdict is probably not, but this snow-covered beauty of a book was great company in uncertainty. The first poem in Fisher-Wirth’s book is a gigan, a form invented by Ruth Ellen Kocher that I’d never tried before, so I had to experiment immediately, and you should go for it, too. (As soon as you start getting stuck you have to repeat a line, which is handy. My prompt to you: write a gigan about something BIG.) After I scratched that itch and jumped back in, I was moved again and again. There is a sequence mourning a sister Fisher-Wirth didn’t know well, and there are also a number of small gems, talismans of grief transformed into beauty, like “Vicksburg National Military Park”. Here’s a slightly longer one, funny-heartbreaking: “Love Minus Zero.”

Like Fisher-Wirth’s book, Martha Silano’s Gravity Assist is deeply ecopoetic: she’s trying to rocket out to the big picture, taking in species loss, disastrous pollution, and other terrors of the anthropocene. Silano is one of our best science poets, in my opinion, but she’s also a specialist in awe, exuberant about beauty and love and the good things that persist in this damaged world (for the moment!). Her gorgeous “Peach Glosa” reminds me I’ve never successfully attempted that form…hmm. Also, it’s not online, but if you’re a tired and overextended woman irritated by exhortations to tranquility, you need to get this book and read “Dear Mr. Wordsworth.”

And to come back to cosmic signs: my Saturday afternoon binge was 3 Nights of the Perseids by Ned Balbo. These poems aren’t quite as astronomically-sited as Silano’s, despite the title. They’re starriest in their concerns with power–often power misused–and persistence, particularly how poetry, art, music, and speech itself just keep shining on. Balbo’s iambic riffs on social media are funny-creepy (check out “deadbook”); the elegies for Prince, Bowie, and other artists are beautiful; and his testimonies from Adjunctlandia are incisive and priceless.

I read the latter while reclined on the sunroom sofa, window open; from there I can scent lemon balm and mint on the chilly breeze. The air makes me feel connected to a world I’ve felt quarantined from. The poems do, too. I’ve reviewed titles by three of these writers in fancier venues than this blog, and shared meals with all of them at conferences, coming to know them in that distant-intimate way you sometimes know poetry compatriots, whose brains you’re on good terms with even if you don’t hang with them in person very often. What a balm, a bright and breath-restoring rest their company is–definitely preferable to prednisone and gummy vitamins.

My main excuse to go outside: photographing books on the weed “lawn”

Errant in the Bewilderness

If I told you I’m just screwing around this week, I’d be exaggerating. This is exam week after our twelve-week winter term, so there’s lots of grading, as well as chores involving grants, event programming, etc. Liberation from the rigors of my former schedule, though–during which I was trying to do much of the same work while also prepping and teaching–is making me feel giddy. It helps that my antibiotics have kicked in, because I came home from a tiring AWP with strep throat. Bonus: it’s really spring!

Each day I’m carving out a little time–maybe just fifteen minutes–to draft something, a poem or the seed of one. This morning I responded to a request from someone who wants poems about Mina Loy. I ended up rereading most of The Lost Lunar Baedeker, which is really teaching-prep, too, because I’ll teach Modern U.S. Poetry in the fall and book orders are just around the corner. I hadn’t spent serious hours with this collection in years and was newly struck by all the beautiful poems about aging. When I was 49, I thought I’d write a suite of poems about my poetic idols when THEY were 49. I ended up writing one sonnet about Edna St. Vincent Millay then quit, because it was so damn depressing. 49 is apparently not the happiest age for women poets. Now, past the hinge of 50, finding Loy’s intelligent take on what she calls the “excessive incognito” of “An Aged Woman” is such a gift. Plus Loy’s coinage “Bewilderness,” which appears in a poem about widowhood called “Letters of the Unliving,” is my new favorite word. I have the most fun when wandering a vague landscape you could call by that name–sort of working, sort of playing around.

One side effect of this work-play is reflection on how I’m spending time. I was just catching up with Dave Bonta’s Poetry Blog Digest and found this great post by Erica Goss about just that–a procedure for carrying the intensities of a major literary conference into a quieter, post-conference writing zone. I think it would mitigate the post-AWP blues I always feel, whether or not I get sick.

Of course, one of the things I’m reflecting about is the very teaching year I’m finishing up (I teach our four-week May term every other year–but not this one!). I honestly don’t know what my creative writing students thought of the first blended-genre workshop I’d taught in years. Many of them did outstanding work, but the vibe in the room was hard to read. My general education course in Protest Poetry, however, was warmly enthusiastic, although plenty of the conversations we had along the way about politics, privilege, and anger itself were very tricky. I posted earlier this term about a benefit reading we organized together. Their final project was to choose their own causes and find a way to advance them through poetry, then write reflective essays about the results. I was so proud and delighted by the variety and quality of their efforts! One student took poetry commissions to benefit Project VOICE; another broadcast a feminist radio show of songs and readings; others waged broadside campaigns about body positivity and the collapse of bee populations. Final products included found poems drawn from community participation; a poetry-infused brochure on the indigenous history of this area; and beautiful little chapbooks on climate change; water crisis; the experiences of queer students at W&L; and addiction and recovery, all distributed to the people who would most appreciate them.

I was so glad I experimented with this assignment, even though, at moments, I was alarmed by my own ambitions. It’s easier for me to play around in my teaching than it is for many others: I’m tenured, my college has great resources, and I teach small classes full of talent. But the Bewilderness, that zone of not knowing what you’re doing and being willing to risk mistakes–it’s where the good stuff happens. I need this breather from the classroom for a while and will make earnest use of it. One of the ways I’ll do so will be dreaming about fall’s wild experiments.

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