For Wednesday, my “Poetry and Community” students are required to judge the U.S. inaugural poems from Frost to Blanco: which is best and why. “Define best however you like,” I told them: most beautiful? politically galvanizing? original? traditional? appropriate to a formal ceremony with a gigantic audience? inappropriate yet for that reason surprising and memorable? How my senior capstone students frame that “best for what” question may be more interesting than the answers. What should an inaugural poem be or do, anyway?
Here’s my vote for the next inaugural poem. It should be: 1. Powerful and surprising enough that people not predisposed to listen just have to. 2. Designed for the medium of the voice, not print, because a lot more people will hear it than will ever google the text. 3. Short.
My ballot, alas, is totally meaningless even before hanging chads and voting machine shortages short-circuit my participation in the democratic process. Inaugural poets already have way too many imperatives to handle. First order of the day: don’t cause a ruckus that derails the administration. Meaning, don’t be offensive or even very strange; minimize risks. The huge publicity and pressure, I imagine, would also activate any poet’s inner critic, some imagined or internalized teacher, parent, contest judge—whoever’s disapprobation would make us feel worthless. (More on the actual critics later.) In addition to “A Few Don’ts for an Inauguraliste,” there would be the positive force of ambition: I feel sure each poet desired to inspire listeners, to remind them of what matters. Occasional poetry can be a great gig, but also an overwhelming one, and on this scale…
So, poets, everyone gets a prize just for participating.
“Most Imperialist”: Robert Frost steals this award, both for the poem he wrote for the occasion, “Dedication,” and for “The Gift Outright,” the one he recited from memory when glare made the first piece too hard to see. Ian Crouch wrote a great piece for the New Yorker blog about inaugural verse; I want to believe him when he says Frost’s phrase “land vaguely realizing westward” “suggests the lurching and darker qualities of Manifest Destiny, and plants doubt about the supposed purity of the American experiment.” But, man, that’s NOT the drift of this sonnet—“the land was ours before we were the land’s,” indeed. Instead, the word “vaguely” strikes me as a handy bit of near-sightedness: oops, were people already on this continent? Crouch’s assertion is, sadly, crap (see “Most Scatological,” below).
“Most Beautiful”: James Dickey might not have been entirely trustworthy on an inaugural podium; at any rate, he delivered “The Strength of Fields” at one of Carter’s inaugural balls instead. I find it the loveliest of the set, full of beautiful lines: “Moth-force a small town always has,” “Tell me, train-sound, / With all your long-lost grief,” “We can all be saved / By a secret blooming.” In many ways, Dickey’s offering is deeply suited to a farmer-president’s rise to office; he recalls Frost’s presumptions somewhat critically, too, when he compares the sea’s “fumbling, deep-structured roar” to the “unstoppable craving / of nations for their wish.” Unlike most of the poems, however, in which first-person-plural pronouns dominate, “The Strength of Fields” deploys a strong singular “I” and articulates a sense of personal responsibility for changing the world: it ends, “I will do what I can.” For all its beauty and big-heartedness, it’s not entirely a public poem.
“Most Scatological”: Clinton’s first poet, Maya Angelou, really socks Frost in the kidneys with this animistic poem. Rocks and rivers speak their own minds. Angelou includes, for good measure, the names of many brutally displaced and disenfranchised indigenous tribes AND calls out “the Ashanti, the Yoruba, and the Kru, bought / Sold, stolen, arriving on the nightmare” (though I question whether rhyming “Jew” with “Sioux” was felicitous). I could anoint her “Most Enamoured of Whitmanian Catalogs,” though this is a common strategy among inaugural poets. However, I’m most surprised, rereading this poem, by the first stanza’s account of “the dinosaur, who left dried tokens / Of their sojourn here.” Maybe she means fossilized footprints? But then there’s “dust” and “waste” and “debris” and “private need.” The verses strain slightly toward the excremental.
“Most Appropriate to Middle School Civics Class.” Miller Williams, “Of History and Hope.” “The children. The children.” I endorse the politics of this poem, and the impulse to write for all ages seems valid to me. School is a recurring scene in inaugural poems, too, perhaps because poets of the past fifty years hope that poetry will continue to find a home there, even if it thrives nowhere else. Still, I confess, despite my prize-giving beneficence, this one’s not my favorite, ahem.
“Smartest.” At the time, I was disappointed by Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day.” Like every other exuberant progressive in the country, I was ready for a radical overhaul of Bush administration policies, inaugural poetry platitudes, everything. Then came Alexander’s undramatic rendering, and networks cutting away, and students reporting how people just turned their backs on her reading, started talking loudly and meandering away (my college is just a three hours’ drive from D.C. so I have live witnesses in my classrooms). Now I reread her poem and find it brilliant. As you might expect, given the nature of the ceremony, inaugural poems trope endlessly on dawn, morning, hope, beginnings, but Alexander places her whole poem at that expectant hinge of a moment before work, school, safety, surety—this measured, perfect poem contemplates the existential state of being “on the brink, on the brim, on the cusp.” I love the notion and Alexander’s intellectual approach to the genre, but at the time wished for something more rousing. [Here a sentence drawing a parallelism to Obama’s first term was deleted.]
“Closest.” When he slams Blanco in favor of Alexander for the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Randy Malamud is being mean-spirited—kind of, in fact, an ass. So the poem he’s had time to think about, live with, seems richer. Duh. Alexander’s poem is more polished than “One Today,” but better? For what? Malamud’s complaint about Blanco’s reference to the Newtown shootings seems most wrong: that’s the moment a shiver ran down my spine and I sat up quite straight, thoroughly focused. It’s ethically as well as aesthetically risky to reference a recent tragedy. No, “impossible vocabulary of sorrow” doesn’t cover it, but what would? The shooting is on our minds, even its meaning is “undigested” (Malamud’s indictment), so Blanco’s right to hold up a poetic mirror. I haven’t finished processing this poem—I’m hoping class discussion will help—but I like its tone of gratitude, its mesh of personal feeling and public urgency.
The puzzlement I’ll bring to my seminar is over the ending of “One Today”—its strangest section, most imagistic and dash-ridden. Like others, Blanco moves his gaze from east to west with the sun’s passage, marshaling those unifying first-person-plurals:
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together
Blanco may have lifted that plum from William Carlos Williams’ icebox; am I imagining that the gloss of rain suggests the glaze of rainwater on a red wheel/ barrow? The allusion to Whitman’s “Drum Taps,” though, a work of war and mourning, is loud and clear. Clearly Blanco is listening to other American poems. Still, I’m confused by the image of the moon—it’s like a round drum face, but grammatically it’s perpetrating rather than receiving the tapping: moonlight is calling on all of us, waking us up to look at the rearranged stars. In any case, I’m gratified that Blanco won’t name that constellation by himself. He says “or” more often than “and,” as if he doesn’t feel complete personal ownership of the language and the land. Not a bad beginning, for an ending.
Every other U.S. poet reading this: start working on your inaugural poem now, in case, in three years and ten and a half months, the moon taps you.
While we’re on the subject, enormous thanks to Diane Kendig for tracking down many of these links for her own teaching and then passing them on to me.
Some other pieces worth looking at:
Katie Waldman from Slate on Blanco and the inaugural poems Yahoo commissioned: http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/01/22/richard_blanco_one_today_and_other_inaugural_poems_from_yahoo_news_reviewed.html
If you want to know why Kennedy asked Frost to recite an inaugural poem in the first place, read this great little essay (and think about how much has changed, that a president might be grateful for a poet’s publicity help): http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20540
Inauguration, schminauguration—what we’re all truly excited about is HEARING RICHARD BLANCO’S POEM. And then digging up the two other poems rejected by the president’s staffers (the New York Times says Blanco offered them three), and blogging about how those dumb politicos eschewed the more risky, exciting options.
Anyway, that’s what I’ll be listening to this week, along with the Lumineers, on heavy rotation at the Wheeler-Gavaler dinner table lately. I won’t be reading much beyond what I’ve assigned for classes: spoken word in print from Rattle’s excellent 2007 Tribute to Slam issue for my senior seminar; Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Thomas Sayers Ellis for tomorrow’s workshop; Wilfred Owen for my British and Irish poetry class. In a three-course-term, with brilliant medievalist job candidates rotating through and lots of conference and editing deadlines, there isn’t a lot of time for consuming art purely for pleasure’s sake—or for blogging. I will try to write in coming weeks about the inauguration poem and other matters, but in the meantime, here’s a quick update and a re-posting of my December blog for Aqueduct Press.
What I’ve read/ watched since then: I hallucinated my way through the Gormenghast books for the first time over my flu-heightened Christmas break. They’ve really stayed with me—beautiful and strange. I’d like to watch the BBC series now but haven’t yet; we just finished catching up with the first two seasons of Homeland. Spoiler alert, in case you’re even behind me: I’m really happy they didn’t kill Brody, because for reasons I can’t understand, I am bizarrely fond of the lying murderous terrorist bastard. The last fat novel I’ll probably read for a while is the new J.K. Rowling. 100 pages in I was tweeting “all Dursleys, no Hogwarts.” I eventually changed my mind, in part because of how vivid and important all the teenage characters came to be. It’s dark and long, maybe not a journey you want to take during a northern-hemisphere January, but Casual Vacancy does invoke a vivid, complicated world inhabited by vivid, complicated characters coping with the blistering awfulness of life, occasionally gracefully. And, while I’m a Harry Potter devotee too, I have to say that in this venture Rowling’s sentences are a LOT better.
Poetry: I’m now in the middle of Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec. Deborah Miranda, it’s just as terrific as you promised.
Here’s my December venture for Aqueduct’s “Pleasures of Reading, Watching, and Listening in 2012” series, but really, read it on their website, and then check out all the other awesome postings by authors much hipper than I am.
I can’t decide what metaphor to use for genre-betweenness: borderlands? The noise or static between radio stations? Twilight has been co-opted. At any rate, while I consume my share of fantasy novels and anyone-would-agree-this-is-realistic television—this year, for example, my winter Game of Thrones reading binge and summer of watching The Wire could represent those poles—I do a lot of my reading-listening-viewing in the gloaming. In fiction, this zone has many labels: slipstream, Fabulist, the New Weird. The same edgy neighborhoods exist in all the arts, though. A poem, play, or song may or may not claim a relation to speculative fiction but still present a version of human experience that feels strange, skewed, maybe magical.
I’m working on an article about speculative poetry that no one really notices is speculative, so I’ve been seeing weirdness everywhere. This year I loved Tracy K. Smith’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Life on Mars: she writes about her father’s death and I read the book right as I was coping with my own father’s final illness (I blogged about it here). I also cackled through weird volumes by Thomas Sayers Ellis, Bill Manhire, and Jeannine Hall Gailey (many of those books are a few years old). I find both David Wojahn’s The World Tree and Paula Meehan’s Painting Rain spooky and brilliant; I’m enjoying dipping in and out of Ursula K.
Le Guin’s New and Selected; and I’m entranced by the poem-by-poem emergence of a Peter Pan series by Sally Rosen Kindred through various magazines. I prefer single-author collections to anthologies and journals, but it’s been interesting to see so many mainstream mags putting out calls for speculative writing. I was frustrated that the New Yorker’s otherwise engaging speculative issue didn’t even try on the poetry front (Paul Muldoon, I admonish thee!). At the time, I forecast that the forthcoming Tribute to Speculative Poetry in Rattle would do better (again, see my blog on the subject), and I’ve just had the pleasure of reading that folio (Number 38, Fall 2012). The poems by Burt Beckmann, Amorak Huey, John Philip Johnson, John Laue, Aimee Parkison, Marilee Richards, Claire Wahmanholm, Natalie Young, and several others—few of whom I’d ever heard of—are fantastic in multiple senses. I’m grateful to receive Richards’ revelation about how God adjudicates competing prayers by athletes at sports games; Johnson’s “Stairs Appear in a Hole Outside of Town” is haunting me.
In fiction: this was My Year of Finally Reading Kelly Link, which, I know, reveals that I’m years behind everyone else (in case my Game of Thrones/ The Wire reference didn’t already make that clear). I was riveted by Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf and Talulla Rising. In YA, I admired Julianna Baggott’s Pure—it’s surprisingly disturbing to identify with a protagonist who has a plastic doll for a hand (I’m glad it’s doing well because the dystopian premise was alienating enough that my own kids, voracious readers, slunk away from it). I recently finished Louise Erdrich’s National Book Award-winning The Round House, too. I’ve read her books religiously since the first novel and I’ve never noticed anyone calling them speculative. After all, notions of reality are culturally specific, and in her view ghosts, visions, and totems are well within the bounds of realistic representation. (This is a huge problem in defining speculative lit. Who decides what’s strange?) Erdrich is an extraordinary world-builder, though, and the narrator of the latest book even has an obsession with Worf from Star Trek’s Next Generation. I wonder if it would be fruitful to start thinking of her work in relation to slipstream.
A lot of what I listened to in 2012 was the vinyl I bought as a teenager, once the adult me finally got a record player set up in the kitchen. David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix composed some pretty weird song-universes. I love the free podcasts from The Moth and am looking for the poetry equivalent, in case anyone has any tips. An ephemeral voicing that recently charmed me was a reading by Lev Grossman from his book in progress, a sequel to The Magicians and The Magician King. He offered a passage from the recurring character Eliot’s perspective, a hilarious description of a Narnian-style battle involving magical creatures and Grossman’s pseudo-Viking answer to Lewis’ Calormenes. The reading slayed us all, so stay tuned for the book.
My small-town location, compounded by parenthood and a massively absorbing job, means that I only see good theater a few times a year, at best. On our latest urban-fix-weekend, though, we scored tickets for David Grieg’s “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart,” a bizarre and funny musical staged in a pub. The main character is a female grad student obsessed with Scottish border ballads, so the work begins surreally with a parody of academic papers, but then she meets the devil and things get seriously crazy. It’s not a perfect play but the damn thing is in verse, it’s all about the boundaries of the fantastic, and it works. The Washington, D.C. run is over but if a portal opens near you, it’s worth entering.
Otherwise, the stuff in my “watching” category isn’t surprising. I’ll end, though, with what I wish I could see. After my fiction-writing superhero-obsessed spouse Chris Gavaler mused aloud about this, I can’t get the idea out of my head. Why can’t Doctor Who visit other BBC shows/ universes, like Merlin or Sherlock? Neil Gaiman, episode-writer-extraordinaire, if you’re listening, here is my challenge: in 2013, presuming we all survive that long, I am looking forward to sipping eggnog in front of “A Very Special Doctor Who Meets Downtown Abbey Christmas Special.”
Forest view: ranks of slender trunks shoot up vertically in a bid to catch a bit of direct light. The rare anomaly, the difficult-to-spot wolf tree, spreads its limbs horizontally, luxuriously, because it occupied the meadow before all the others grew up around it. I learned the term reading Paula Meehan’s poem “The Wolf Tree” in Painting Rain, where it becomes an emblem for how the past survives in the present—all times coexist always, if you know how to look. Her instructions for finding wolf trees remind me of practicing art or meditation: scanning for a wolf tree involves a counterintuitive process of relaxing one’s focus, becoming fully present, and waiting “until the moment when your attention snags—”
Paula Meehan’s poetry is a wolf tree for me in the woods of contemporary verse. I know it’s better than much of what’s out there, but I’m not jumping to claim that it’s the best and the strongest and should crowd other poetry out of my attention. I just know that when I stare at it, it spreads out branches. It helps me see the forest in a new way, in psychedelic layers.
Meehan came across the idea of the wolf tree while reading “Slashes” in Adrienne Rich’s The School Among the Ruins. Adrienne Rich’s poetry is enormously important to Meehan and to me, but I read it most intensely in the eighties and early nineties, and my attention never snagged on this 2004 collection. I barely understand “Slashes,” really, although I can reason my way through it with the help of Rich’s notes. The title connotation of violence haunts the poem, but she directs our attention first to the slash as punctuation mark used in dates. Various images of connection and division throughout the poem suggest the strange duality of the slash: it can mean “or” (refusing to choose, setting up equivalence) and “and” (forging a joint between terms). From the middle of the poem (WordPress keeps erasing the spacing, but the words come through, at least):
Slash across lives memory pursues its errands
a lent linen shirt pulled unabashedly over her naked shoulders
cardamom seed bitten in her teeth
watching him chop onions
words in the air segregation/partition/apartheid
vodka/cigarette smoke a time
vertigo on subway stairs
Years pass she pressing the time into a box
not to be opened a box
quelling pleasure and pain
You could describe something like this
in gossip write a novel get it wrong
In wolf tree, see the former field
For Rich, in this poem at least, the past can be evoked but not told, witnessed but not explained. I appreciate the ethics of that position but the poem doesn’t help me live. Rather than being beautifully warned against misrepresenting experience, I’d rather have a clumsy explanation of how to get it right.
I talked to Paula Meehan in Dublin last August but ran out of time to look for wolf trees on the grounds of Malahide Castle, where she first spotted one. A week or so later found myself in Coole Park, Yeats territory, trying for a quiet moment in the woods as my kids smashed their noisy way towards the lake. I never got my timeless interval of blissful communion, but some quality of the light snagged my attention and I snapped one picture of the lit-up greenery. Long after we downloaded the photos and arrived home, I scrolled through, chose this one for desktop wallpaper, blew it up on my screen, and finally saw it: a wolf tree, right in the middle of the shot.
Maybe some uncanny force guided my eye and hand; maybe I liked the angle because I unconsciously perceived the break in symmetry; maybe the whole thing’s a coincidence. Barring a personalized revelation courtesy of some God/ fairy spirit, I’m choosing “and” over “or,” horizontal over vertical. I believe not in a higher power, but in other powers: not in kneeling and praying, but in watching and listening. Light is still/always everywhere.
Want a free signed copy of Heathen, Heterotopia, or The Receptionist? Email me at wheelerlm at wlu dot edu and tell me you’ll review one for Amazon. Let me know which you’ll review; which one you want (it can be the one you’ll post about or a different book); and where to send it (I’m happy to send a signed copy as a gift to a friend, if you’d rather).
And as always, I can send you a desk copy if you’re considering adopting one of these books for a course, or you can contact the press directly. I really enjoy visiting classes and book clubs, in person if travel’s cheap enough, by Skype if not.
I wonder if I’m totally deluded in thinking of poetry as intensely intimate, emotionally and intellectually heightened conversation. As a reader I experience deep, demented, introvert’s friendship with Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, James Merrill, and other poets whose work I’ve spent many, many hours with. Whenever I’ve loved the literary personality projected by a living writer and then met that author, I’ve felt an instant and slightly eerie camaraderie. But that’s crazy, right? Those people don’t know me. As a poet, I love to hear from readers who like my poems, feel a connection to me through them, but I could imagine that phenomenon being creepy, too. Poetry can come from some deep interior place but it’s never cleanly autobiographical or even quite trustworthy. It’s art.
But then a real conversation happens, in verse, and I think yes, poetry IS communication, at least partly. Even when the formal parameters are strict, poetic talk has a radically open up-all-night cosmic associativeness. My collaborations in loose sapphics with Scott Nicolay felt like that–an exercise in friendship, a game of one-upmanship, but also a wild, sprawling gab across geographical and other kinds of distance. Scott and I were friends in college but he moved a couple of thousand miles away, to New Mexico. We’re both parents and teachers who write obsessively in our few spare hours, so we have few blocks of time for visits or phone calls. How else but in poems can we sit under the stars together and just talk?
Last week a former student sent me an email chain from 2009. Adam used to ask for appointments via haiku. He graduated, went to teach in Japan, and randomly 5-7-5’ed me again months later. I responded in a sort of renga about May at Washington and Lee that began:
flipflops and skimpy floral
I’ve never seen so many
well-coiffed hungover children
I’d forgotten it, like I’ve forgotten 99% of the emails I’ve ever sent, because talk is meant to be ephemeral. Something precipitates out of the reaction and settles in you—friendship as sediment, where is this metaphor going?—but I mean that the details of talk evaporate while its effects survive. It’s vital to my happiness that books of poetry exist, that the art has permanence, but I’m also delighted to zing it around in play, focused on the exchange, not the outcome.
Which doesn’t mean that poetic conversation is particularly light. Last summer I blogged about a bad situation in my workplace here; it inspired me to buy an office mini fridge so I could hide as needed from a difficult colleague. (I just checked to see if mini fridge was one word, two, or hyphenated–inconclusive–but I found the Urban Dictionary definition—oh my.) I told Ellen Mayock, another colleague and a friend, about this strategy; she had done the same thing in response to a similar situation. She’s a Hispanist and only lately began publishing creative writing, but she wrote a poem in response, excerpted below:
I didn’t inherit the white, cold box that kept a college boy’s beers cold for four years;
I went after it. I knew it needed a new owner, and I knew I needed a hole in which to hide.
I drove far out into the county to buy a used, four-year old mini-fridge for fifteen dollars.
I brought it to my office, plugged it in,
and knew that I could hide out in that white, cold box for months,
years, if necessary.
She goes on to describe the appliance as a “bright little coffin.” I was so moved when Ellen read this recently at a lecture, “Gender Schrapnel in the Workplace”—it was a public validation I didn’t expect but suddenly realized I needed badly—I promptly wrote the following and sent it to her in an email. Ellen’s poem can stand alone so it’s worth saving for a magazine; mine feels like an occasional piece that can’t really be divorced from context, a gambit as much as a poem. So here it is, contextualized and blogged, and now you and I, reader, whoever you are, are in a secret silent radically open cosmically associative up-all-night poetic conversation.
My mini fridge doesn’t have the sordid history of your
mini fridge, being purchased new from the politically abhorrent
big-box store, while yours is retired like some albino greyhound
from the rigors of cooling college-guy beers in the county
for years. Mine does currently house (in addition to one jug
of goddess dressing, some shriveled carrots, and a boxed-up
duck leg) three Pilsner Urquells from the six I lugged in
for a five o’clock workshop with my internship students, both
twenty-two, I swear. I’d forgotten an opener but senior men
tend to have them on keychains, so that was OK, until they left
and I stayed here in the office eyrie I rarely venture from, alone
and thirsty. In some sense, I guess, all mini fridges are sisters,
coffins for sealed beverages and other tightly-capped deeply chilled
things, women, thin-skinned plaintiffs, whatever noun floats your
leftovers. Your “Gender Shrapnel” performance—I won’t
call it a lecture because that’s a boring form, in my generally disregarded
opinion, and your presence was too warm, occasionally flaring blue-
hot like when you minced across the stage in imaginary heels—
was a sort of open-air bonfire, controlled but wild too.
I need to get outside more. I am more frightened of that stupid
man downstairs than I ought to be. Thank you for owning
that stage and holding up a mirror to my symbolically small
meekly-humming sleeping dog of a self-defense appliance.
The one time I tried to smoke a cigarette, my friends mocked me: “Cut that out. You look totally ridiculous.” By common consensus, I couldn’t pull off foul language either. I thought the problem might have been some crisp Englishness lingering in my elocution—my mother’s British and allegedly I started kindergarten with an accent. I pondered further: despite U.S. stereotypes about English prissiness, I knew, they carry off expletives quite well in the British Isles, so that shouldn’t be it. Perhaps my tendency to ponder obscenities in polysyllabic latinate diction was somehow symptomatic of the same issue?
In any case, nobody mocks how I swear anymore, and I live with 12- and 15-year old children, so you’ll know that I am mocked about various shortcomings hourly. I’m told, for instance, that my sense of humor is totally immature, which may be why I still get a thrill when a poet suddenly veers towards crudeness. In slam, of course, the climactic curse is practically inscribed into the requirements of the form. See Taylor Mali’s “I Could Be a Poet” for that bit of critical analysis put into hilarious action. At least, I think the “fucking” in that poem is hilarious, but according to my daughter I’ll laugh at anything—it’s just embarrassing.
Usually profanity concerns sex or excrement, both of which are, of course, intrinsically funny. So-called bad language desecrates, too. While powerful poetry often (always?) engages notions of sacredness, if a poem’s good it’s never simply pious—instead, it knocks some god off a pedestal to set up another. Think about Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” or T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” or Deborah Miranda’s “Things My Mother Taught Me”: all of them get to sacredness via irreverence, anger, and resistance to romantic visions. For the Magi it’s liquor and refractory camels plaguing their journey to God. Miranda’s villanelle offers a mantra for holy ordinariness culminating in an unglamorous brand-name ingredient: “Four paths to payday: beans and rice, flour, Crisco.” Swearing isn’t required but it’s one way to shake up the over-serious regard that can kill a poem.
English teachers are supposed to say that swearing demonstrates a lamentably poor vocabulary. Sure, sometimes. It can also convey linguistic range and daring; turn up emotional intensity at a key moment; and it can hurt and demean people, too. I think the beginning of Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” is brutally perfect: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do.” While his “High Windows” also haunts me—scraps of it come back to me in all kinds of dismal situations—the obscenity in the beginning of that poem just drives home everything hateful about the author. I lose that crucial thread of connection to the mind behind the poem. I feel sworn at, violently, because I’m part of a major demographic (women) that filled Larkin with longing and distaste. More generally, I think people should be able to work and study without being sworn or leered at—although they’re just going to have to tolerate some profanity-laced poems on my syllabi, because they’re among the most resonant in recent literary history.
While swearing might win you points in a poetry slam, it can still be a liability in print venues (and in some live readings, too). The famous obscenity trial over “Howl” happened a long time ago but certain kinds of explicitness still generate wild discomfort. I once received a nice-note rejection from a very generous editor saying that the word “crotch” in one of my poems (“Lucky Thirteen”) was a deal-breaker. I meant it to be tricky and distasteful: it’s a poem about depression, for fuck’s sake. (Ha!) Still, experimentally, I revised it out. The poem was promptly accepted by another magazine in the next round of submissions. Some version of this happens to me a lot. Apparently I still can’t pull off the colorful verbiage.
Are they right, the editors and readers who resist the cringe? Risks are worth trying, but sometimes you can’t pull them off, or a phrase that was important for generating a poem doesn’t fit in the final version. I keep looking at a poem I first drafted a couple of years ago, working title “Douchebags,” trying to figure out if it’s the title/ blunt treatment of sexual material earning rejections or whether the poem just isn’t quite successful on other grounds. (Anyone who wants to read it and tell me, backchannel!) I can’t revise out the crudeness this time, though. The poem concerns my first sexual experience; this involved a guy who did me some lasting harm but who was also damaged and sad, and whom I did not treat honorably either. When I broke up with him, his lament was: “You douched me over, you douchebag!” At eighteen, I knew this was very funny, and also that I was being a condescending jerk by finding this very funny. He was hurting badly and that was all the language he had to express his emotion. Although he treated me awfully, at some level I had always possessed the power of just being smarter and knowing, deep in my douchebag heart, that I could and would do better.
And this probably gets back to why I’m attracted to foul-mouthed poems, especially when the profanity is mixed up with lyricism, wit, and erudition. I want to believe these worlds can coexist, if not harmonize—that their native speakers can talk to each other, across hurt and difference. Those languages coexist in me.
Happy Thanksgiving, and may your stuffing and sweet potatoes touch illicitly on the plate while brown rivulets of gravy dribble into the cranberry sauce.
October 29th: Hurricane Sandy is swiping her long arms of rain and wind over the eastern seaboard of the U.S., feeling around for houses to smash. Ann Fisher-Wirth has to cancel and I can’t reach my co-organizer Mattie, so I study the weather forecasts and follow my gut: the Writers at Studio Eleven reading, featuring a mikeless open mic, is ON. I’m hungry for literary camaraderie.
October 25th: A talented student with whom I’ve been working closely is playing the Elvis role in Bye Bye Birdie. I’m not a fan of musicals unless Joss Wheedon is involved, and a problematic colleague is in the show, and I’ve been disorganized for weeks since a plumbing disaster forced us to move out of the house; all these factors mean that I’m slow buying tickets and they sell out. But lo! A friend, another non-musical-fan, has a spare and wants my company!
October 30th: Many of our brilliant English majors at Washington & Lee end up running their own classrooms, but only a few earn PhDs in English and score those rare university jobs. John Melillo is one; now teaching a graduate seminar on “Critical Theories of Voice” at the University of Arizona, with a few chapters from my book Voicing American Poetry on the syllabus, he asks me to Skype in. I’ve Skyped a little on my daughter’s laptop but that’s it, so I set up my own account, install a webcam, and get nervous. Why do I say keep saying “yes” to scary projects?
Only one of these performances is drama in the usual sense, but they all turn speaking into doing, conjuring an experience of community out of skeptical individuals. I’m no expert on Gaelic harvest festivals, but I vaguely know that this is a magical time of year, when the door to the otherworld hangs ajar. It’s the beginning of winter: move those cows to winter pasture, conduct ceremonies around the bonfire, and don your disguises, for spirits are abroad. It doesn’t matter if you believe—the turnip lantern must be lit.
This is how the rituals proceeded and these are the demons invoked:
On the 30th: I’m a decent orchestrator of the theater of seminar discussion, but converting those skills to the medium of Skype was hard. In conversation you make eye contact and lean your body towards your interlocutor; you glance around the room to check on the level of engagement; you can sense little cues like people shifting, sighing, clearing their throats. I kept making eye contact with the face on my screen—not the camera eye—and trying to peer around the edges of the frame, which surely made me look like a crazy person. We talked about Edna St. Vincent Millay’s innovative poetry radio broadcasts in ’33 and I felt a sudden deep sympathy for Vincent at that long-ago mike: how distracted she must have been by the technology, how much she would have missed the feedback loop of a present, responsive audience. And yet, she fundamentally got it: the medium required not staginess but intimacy, the quieter voice of someone reading to her family in the living room. She did better than I. I really liked John’s students and was glad to try the whole Skype thing but it’s not as well-suited to a conversation in multiple directions, I think, as it is to the serial intimacies of just two people talking across a spatial chasm. John reflected afterward that “in a weird way you and I became a kind of united / split teacher assemblage, as you were the voice, speaking (amazing!) thoughts and I became the eyes, scanning the classroom.” Spooky.
On the 25th: I’ve had many exceptionally gifted Theater/ English students over the years and it’s a thrill to see them up there, transfigured, possessed—Jeanne, for example, who trembled when she had to give a class presentation but ruled the stage with complete authority. Bye Bye Birdie was a good production, I thought from the darkened audience, analyzing its strengths with my usual critical eye: vocal talent, great choreography. I was also swept up in self-forgetful delight by several performances, including Drew’s rock and roll apotheosis, and that doesn’t always happen during student theater. Then a feeling of disturbance crept in. It’s a dated play very much concerned with sex and power, all about channeling and constraining women’s out-of-control desire. These are tricky themes for a school where there’s been a lot of assault and sex-based discrimination. I did glimpse an interpretive angle on the material at moments, for example when the rock star sexually menaces a fifteen-year-old girl and then positions flip as a flock of young fans descends to attack the rock star. Yes, I imagined the director whispering, there’s a lot of assault in this play, but ultimately the girls, acting together, are on top. Drew’s intelligence about these issues was there in his performance. In another famous scene, though—the Shriner’s Ballet—ugliness came to the fore in an astonishingly misjudged bit of choreography. The excellent student actor playing Rosie dances through an all-male gathering in her sexy red dress, seeking to seduce someone or obtain general male approbation; it’s a repellant number, especially here, where some version of this plays out frequently in a fraternity-dominated party scene. Then Rosie does a handstand, revealing her polkadot underpants, and a much older actor catches her legs and stares into her crotch for an extended interval. That bug-eyed Shriner? My problem colleague, someone who has had sexual harassment claims leveled against him repeatedly. Who thought that was good theater?
On the 29th: A VMI cadet named Denver began the literary ritual and one of my students, Max, ended it with a sort of cento—lyric poem as collage, many voices subsumed into his own very funny bravura English Nerd performance. Libations were poured. The open mic moved fast, charged with anxious excitement about the storm and the upcoming election. I read my very meanest poem and had the pleasure of seeing a few mouths fall open. Then Chris read a spectacularly dark bit of flash fiction and I couldn’t stop giggling: we’re the most messed-up couple ever. Fewer people attended than usual and we missed the Dabney S. Lancaster Community College crowd but hell, thirty is still a huge audience for listening to art on a Monday night in rural Virginia. We were present to each other, round the bonfire, and it burned hot and bright in the darkness.
For the first time ever, while teaching “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I felt inspired to act out the last scene for my students: look, this is what she means, I said, crawling around the edges of the seminar room, fitting my shoulder into an imaginary smooch in the imaginary decorative wall-covering. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, I’m a little frightened at how much I identify with this narrator today. Did you ever register why she’s having her breakdown in a rental house with gorgeous views? Her own home is being renovated. There is no mention in the tale of plumbing mishaps—postpartum hormone/ neurotransmitter issues seem more immediately relevant—but hey, man, that’s all just leakiness and poor fittings in the house-as-self.
So, this afternoon we’re scheduled to move back in; the house won’t be finished but it should be liveable again. I am not confident that the transition will be smooth, but as I packed up our bits and pieces this morning in the house we’ve been borrowing from Kate, I confess I was muttering like a madwoman in an attic: I’ve got out at last, in spite of you dilatory contractors!
Meanwhile, here’s the list I’ve been keeping in my secret diary: evidence of how flooded with work and craziness our life has been for the past 7+ weeks. This is what’s happened since I last slept in my own bed.
1. I drafted many poems involving plumbing metaphors.
2. Madeleine’s height finally exceeded mine and Cameron outgrew a bunch of clothes. These factors compounded with a seasonal shift and poor Lexington shopping options put us into repeated sartorial emergency.
3. Madeleine earned her learner’s permit, began to motor around Rockbridge with an anxious adult in the passenger seat, had her ears double-pierced, and drove us bananas with her county-dwelling chauffeur requirements.
4. Cameron fractured his left wrist blocking a goal at soccer practice. He now refuses to allow his spiffy blue fiberglass cast with Gore-tex lining to be defiled with Sharpie signatures, which I remember as being the best part of the whole miserable adventure, back in the days of clumsy plaster.
5. Both kids finished their first academic marking periods without major crisis; Chris and I started teaching our fall courses, taught six weeks, and submitted overly generous mid-term grades.
6. Cameron commenced an optional science fair experiment involving varied watering conditions for small plants, because we all thought our lives needed further complication. We do not understand where these plants will live once we complete the move.
7. We started off spending much time in our damaged house talking to contractors and watching progress but, as the general disorder increased, became too depressed by the whole thing to stand being there. It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw—not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.
8. Extremely frustrated with certain contractors, Chris and I took turns weeping, yelling, gnashing our teeth, and picking out tiles, but never gnawing on Kate’s nailed-down beds or tearing off strips of her wallpaper (she has neither, for which we were grateful).
9. I realized how destructive poll-reporting is to our democracy and, worse, to Chris’s mental health. The man is really suffering this election cycle.
10. When not suffocating under avalanches of student essays and poems, I reread Sarah Waters’ Night Watch, only realizing during the horrible protracted abortion scene that I had, in fact, read the novel before and felt cruelly tortured the first time around. Mindy Kaling’s memoir cured me. I just finished Chabon’s Telegraph Ave: A-. I’m wondering why none of my friends have mentioned Rowling’s book: that bad?
Back to reading student responses to Gilman’s gothic short story. Wish me an unhaunted, clean, peaceful night in my own bedroom tonight even though it is, in fact, painted yellow.
Received by Email While Guest-Editing
I reject your rejection. You are not qualified
to cast me off. I’m a luminary: let me direct
your attention to an interstellar anthology.
You, sir or madam, have provoked a righteous
snit. A catastrophic reversion of my recent
surgery. You institutionalized me. My well-
being’s been battered by bad form letters.
Really, you made me very sad. And angry.
Sad, angry, sad, like stop-motion photography,
the sun rising, flaming, cooling, doused
with all my fondest hopes. You sack of dolts.
I thought we were friends. What a joke
your life is, what a waste of gravity. I project thee
into orbit now, thick-pate lightweight. Respectfully.
So, I wanted a new experience—creative, professional, pedagogical—and I got it, with a vengeance (although I’m hoping I haven’t inspired acts of vengeance). In May I sent out a call for work for a special Shenandoah poetry portfolio to appear in February 2013. By the September 1 deadline we had 103 packets, mostly 5 poems per author, from writers all over New Zealand and a few Aotearoans in exile. When I say “all over,” I really mean a high number from the Wellington area and a smattering from each of the other regions; my network is Wellington-based and I was only partially successful getting the word out more widely. Still, that’s a lot of poetry, and Rod Smith, Shenandoah’s Editor-in-Chief, told us we can publish a maximum of twenty-five.
The intermittent “we” in the above paragraph includes my co-editors Drew Martin and Max Chapnick. Both are senior undergraduates—although I have been suspicious for years about graduate student gatekeepers at other magazines filtering out unfashionable poems, poems that allude to sources beyond their own reading, and poems about aging bodies and other transformations born of getting older. In fact, I did like the submissions about parenthood and middle-aged chagrin more than Drew and Max did, and they liked poems of youthful urgency more than I tended to. I wanted to work with them, though, partly because of these differences. They’re different from each other, too—Drew, a musician, is drawn to oral energy and Max to allusive, intellectual stuff—but they’re both talented, opinionated, and forthright. I thought it would be clarifying to fight over poems, defending what we loved and finding ways to articulate our disappointments.
It turned out that we agreed on almost nothing. Through late August and the first week of September we read all the packets individually, marking them yes, no, and maybe. Max was the soft-hearted maybe-man while Drew and I had larger “yes” and “no” piles. Unfortunately, they weren’t the same piles. In in our first meeting, we discovered that only three authors had inspired unanimous yeses, and in those packets we were drawn to different poems. We then met twice a week for four or five weeks to wrangle each other into aesthetic submission. We came to agreement on seventeen-ish and the rest was bargaining: “you can have this, if I can have that.” Sometimes a weak line was a sticking point and we agreed to accept the poem while encouraging revision of the trouble-spot. I’ve gratefully received suggestions on my own poems from generous editors at Poet Lore, Poetry, Agni and other mags; it always seems like a sign of good editing to me and I wanted to imitate it. I’m thankful even when a rejection comes with a suggestion. Editors have overwhelming jobs, usually on top of other, paying jobs. When they show that much interest in your work, it’s flattering.
I feel good about our issue-in-progress, but for better or worse, this isn’t the issue I would have assembled by myself. I have some regrets over rejected poems. I liked a number of pieces whose virtues I never managed to articulate convincingly enough to my co-editors. One effect of the process, though, that’s probably good: my co-editors were much less cowed by big names, and not having met the submitters, were more impartial than I. (I had several crises—“Right, right, the poem has problems but we can’t reject HER/HIM!”—and they just shot me skeptical looks and waited for me to stop hyperventilating). They talked me into accepting a few poems they love but I merely respect; this is a collaboration so everyone has to win and lose sometimes. They also showed me the power in a few pieces I wouldn’t have read twice. The result: some good work will be left out of the issue because no one fell in love with it. Every poem that willappear had a fervent champion.
Other side-effects: at least for the moment, I’m smarter about revising my own poems, because it’s easier to see what’s reject-able about them. I understand better than ever that good isn’t good enough: you have to provoke delight, passion. And, reading responses to our rejections—notes that are variously chagrined, gracious, and indignant—I can see I might not have the stomach to edit full-time. It’s hard to turn good poems away, especially when the respondents are gracious. It’s even harder to shrug off the angry replies, knowing how often I’ve swallowed the same frustration. Too much fighting! The poem up top was easy to write, not because I feel superior to my irate respondents, but because I identify with them utterly.
(because compost happens)
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