Diversity in Creative Writing Programs (AWP Prep, Pt. 1, Updated)

A Creative Writing Program Head in the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S.–of which I am now Council Chair–recently asked me if the AWP could provide a list of published resources on supporting diversity at the programming/ curricular level. It seems to me we need both a set of sources (research, testimonies, provocations) and a list of best practices. Here’s what an afternoon’s search turned up, as an interim measure, although I will keep working towards richer resources posted in more official places. And I’ll keep revising this post until those exist, so let me know what I’ve missed. (Updates on the original post are marked with an asterisk.*)

  • Online essays about race, culture, diversity, and the creative writing MFA:

“Degrees of Diversity: Talking Race and Diversity” by Sonya Larson, Poets & Writers, September/ October 2015 http://www.pw.org/content/degrees_of_diversity?cmnt_all=1

“Dr. Craig’s 11-Step Program to Curing ‘Mainly White MFA’ Sickness” by Craig Santos Perez, October 2015 https://craigsantosperez.wordpress.com/2015/10/02/dr-craigs-11-step-program-to-curing-mainly-white-mfa-sickness/

*”They Pretend to Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist” by Jenny Zhang, Buzzfeed Books, September 2015 http://www.buzzfeed.com/jennybagel/they-pretend-to-be-us-while-pretending-we-dont-exist#.ubvY8pXW9M

“Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK” by Sandeep Parmar, Los Angeles Review of Books, December 2015, https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/not-a-british-subject-race-and-poetry-in-the-uk/

“If We Want Diverse Books, We Need Diverse MFA Programs” by Hope Wabuke, The Root, September 2014 http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2014/09/why_we_need_diverse_mfa_programs.html

“MFA vs POC” by Junot Díaz, New Yorker, April 2014 http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/mfa-vs-poc

“It felt like a door had opened: An Interview with Cornelius Eady” by Joshua Barnes, Sampsonia Way, June 2011 http://www.sampsoniaway.org/literary-voices/2011/06/22/it-felt-like-a-door-had-opened-an-interview-with-cornelius-eady-2/

“Growing Diversity in Graduate School” by Rochelle Spencer, Poets & Writers Nov/Dec 2007, p.77-82. http://0-literature.proquest.com.fama.us.es/searchFulltext.do?id=R04237370&divLevel=0&area=abell&forward=critref_ft

*A terrific list of additional pieces collected by Erika Meitner and Sarah Gambito is herehttps://muut.com/raceandmfa/.

  •  Other resources on building and nurturing creative writing programs (advocating for multiculturalism but not exploring the issues at length):

AWP Guidelines and Hallmarks: https://www.awpwriter.org/guide/hallmarks_quality

“Policies and Practicalities: Examining the Creative Writing Doctorate” by Kroll, Jeri and Webb, Jen. New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing9.2(2012 July): 166-178.

  • On diversity in higher education (with some relevance to academic creative writing):

TuSmith, Bonnie and Reddy, Maureen T., eds. Race in the College Classroom: Pedagogy and Politics. New Brunswick, NJ,  Rutgers UP,  2002.

Lisa M. Stulberg and Sharon Lawner Weinberg, eds. Diversity in American higher education: toward a more comprehensive approach. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Darrell Cleveland, ed. When “minorities are strongly encouraged to apply”: diversity and affirmative action in higher education. New York: Peter Lang, 2009.

  • History/ background of creative writing as a discipline:

D. G. Myers. The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996.

Paul Dawson, Creative Writing and the New Humanities, New York: Routledge, 2005.

Tim Mayers, (Re)Writing craft : composition, creative writing, and the future of English studies. U of Pittsburgh P, 2005.

This inadequate list emphasizes race and ethnicity, but there’s hard thinking to be done, too, about sexuality and gender, disability, and the economics of higher education–what sometimes-invisible impediments people face in the quest for degrees, and who never gets a chance in the first place.


Extinction burst?

Last Monday, I found a KKK recruitment flier on my front lawn. Just a week or so earlier and a few blocks away, the first physical memorial to enslaved African-Americans was meminstalled at Washington and Lee University, an institution that benefited financially from slavery but, until recently, bruited that terrible fact much less than, say, its debt to certain slave-holding generals. (See this post from last
year on a virtual memorial that, for me, marked the beginning of a better-informed conversation.)

I find myself trying to draw a line between those two opposing gestures, the plaque to honor the dead and the dishonorable flier. Maybe my sense of meaningful patterns is just a poet’s delusion.

The flier was one of many found in my neighborhood. It was protected from rain by a plastic baggie and weighted with a handful of rice. (White rice, and yes, I’m working on a poem with that title.) My more immediate media responsibilities, however, were to fire off a letter to the local paper and alert the police. Before that, like a real twenty-first-century American, I posted a query on Facebook, wondering how to respond given that the terrorist literature was probably legal–the threat of violence is latent, all right, but the flier doesn’t overtly advocate physical harm to others. The picture of a broad-shouldered, masked, accusatory Klansman carries a frightening charge, as do the all-caps format and the hateful associations of the initials themselves, as well as the not-so-metaphorical phrases “White Power” and “Join the Fight.” The flier certainly scared me; I went inside and locked the doors. But the organization itself is legal, and the politics it advocates are too, despite the KKK’s history of atrocities.

It was interesting how people responded via social media. Many recommended I contact the Southern Poverty Law Center (they never returned my call KKKbut I know other locals had already reported the fliers there). I learned that one local trigger for this flier-bombing was a day of memorial services for the Rev. LaVert Taylor, a black Civil Rights activist. But it’s not just a local thing, and in fact, friends reported similar recruitment efforts in other parts of the country. A certain Republican front-runner is, through toxic rhetoric, empowering white supremacists and other haters to come out swinging, everywhere. The state of U.S. politics, at the national level, is just dire beyond belief.

I’ve since given the flier to a student journalist trying to report the larger story, and there’s a rally against racism arranged for this Monday at 5 pm in Lexington’s Hopkins Green. So maybe this abhorrent attempt to rouse “white pride” is a wake-up call of a useful variety. And I look forward to the dedication ceremony for W&L’s memorial, at 4:30 pm on April 5th, around the side of Robinson Hall (though that back-door location does make me wince–I hope there will be a lot more remembering in the next few years, much of it front-and-center).

When another FB friend, a psychiatrist, said he hoped the flier was an “extinction burst,” I got excited, realizing what the term must mean. When a conditioned behavior stops receiving the expected reward, it gradually dies out–but before it decreases, instances of the undesired behavior might increase for a while. I’m glad to have an official-sounding shorthand for a phenomenon I’ve observed. Does this surge of KKK malevolence represent desperate flailing of a group about to shrink right out of existence? I like that idea, but am not counting on it.

I see a lot of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other prejudice in daily life, but those biases are less socially acceptable now than in my childhood, or than they were in the 90s, at the beginning of my teaching career. My first-hand experiences of prejudice involve not racism but sexism, sometimes vicious and sometimes quietly insidious. I’ve been discriminated against, harassed, and assaulted. But I have many more opportunities than my mother did, and my daughter lives in a freer world than I knew at 19–and maybe all 3 of us will be able to vote for a female presidential candidate this fall, a development that has been absurdly long in coming. It’s obvious that the revolutionary reality of an African-American president and the possibility of a female one have created a lot of backlash. The whole Drumpf-o-rama extravanganza of the last few months, including the poisonous trash I found by my doorstep, could be a sort of final or near-final tantrum of some ancient varieties of stupid.

I don’t actually believe racism’s on its way out, rationally, or sexism, for that matter. If recent eruptions constitute an extinction burst, it’s extinction on a glacial time-frame, with many more explosions of hatefulness still to come. My seasonally recurrent hope for us all, though, isn’t entirely irrational, either. The Darth Cheneys, Grand Dragons, and other super-villains of this all-too-real world are getting pretty creaky in their cyborg parts. They won’t be pulling puppet-strings forever. And I don’t think this W&L memorial, small and belated as it is, could have gone up twenty years ago.  We haven’t made nearly enough progress, and making any gains at all seems incredibly, insanely, criminally difficult, yet I’ve seen growth happen. Happy spring equinox, friends. Imperfect closure, I know, but I’ll keep trying to rhyme with it.

kkk letter

Watch me listen


On Saturday I met my daughter at Union Station in D.C. and we ended up at the National Portrait Gallery, standing in front of paintings until our feet ached. I’ve done the rounds there a few times but don’t remember seeing “The Hermit Thrush” (1890), above, by Thomas Dewing. I love those postures of keen, blissful listening. And the precision of the figures against the passionate blur of a landscape–they’re immersed in that meadow, melting into it as they listen.

Being a poet and poetry critic means focusing on verbal rather than visual representations of listening. The song of the hermit thrush is important near the end of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” but what I thought of first was an earlier poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”–one of Whitman’s elegies for Lincoln. For Whitman, the thrush’s song is a “carol of death,” and yet he hears praise in it, and his own song echoes it.

“O singer bashful and tender, I hear your notes, I hear your call,
I hear, I come presently, I understand you…
As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night,
Sadly sinking and fainting, as warning and warning, and yet again bursting with joy,
Covering the earth and filling the spread of the heaven…”
Why does Whitman’s poem, with its fragrance of lilac and cedars, absorb me more deeply than Dewing’s painting? Vision presupposes distance, while sound enters your body through the ears’ uncloseable portals–but after all, a poem in print only pretends to sound, or at least, I only sound it mentally. A poem is, most days, a visual artifact. Maybe the answer lies in me, not any quality intrinsic to the artworks. After all, I wrote and drew and painted furiously as a kid, but poetry was the art that stuck–I’m just a reader more than a gazer. In any case, I do love Dewing’s luminous rendering of a practice so central to my life. (Not that I’ve ever heard a hermit thrush specifically, except here.)
Lately I’m cocking my ear to piles of criticism and theory, as I brush up the now-complete manuscript of Taking Poetry Personally and try to decide if I’ve missed some source that deserves a respectful endnote. I’ve also been listening to my own heart’s rhythms. “Premature ventricular contractions,” the Holter monitor told me, which rarely means anything serious, but it’s uncomfortable to have an unhappy bird in your rib cage. I’m logging symptoms and activities to see if I can get a handle on triggers (caffeine?) while I wait for the cardiology appointment. Tick, tock, nix my tea and I will balk.
I recommend Ecotone‘s new Sound issue loudly, by the way, especially for anyone who’s obsessions echo mine. And I’m looking forward to doing some listening of my own next week at the Virginia Festival of the Book. Here’s where you can hear me:
Tuesday, 3/15:  Author Talk with Lesley Wheeler and Chris Gavaler,  5 pm, Leyburn Library Book Nook, Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Refreshments served.

Thursday, 3/17: Together and Apart: A Poetry Reading with Gary Dop, Erika Meitner, and Lesley Wheeler, New Dominion Bookshop, 2 pm, for the Virginia Festival of the Book.


As if suspense were a permanent state

Poetry isn’t generally associated with suspense. It seems like an art of uncertainty–and a consolation for that uncertainty. Yet I find myself more and more convinced that poetry’s fragmentariness needs to be anchored by story (earlier post related to this idea here). I’m also wishing I could see the shape of my own story more clearly. As usual, I’m projecting my life into poetry, and vice versa.

On life suspense: my mother is ailing, and so am I, and so are several other people dear to me. Being ill without a clear diagnosis is definitely a bad kind of suspense. My mother has lymphoma and while chemo is triumphing over the tumor, it’s also wearing her down–the doctors are still figuring out why this week has been so bad. I’m a six-hour drive away, so I spend a lot of time waiting for my phone to buzz.

During my 2005-6 sabbatical I researched poetic voice; during this one, I’m making a long-term study of my mother’s intonations by telephone. It’s not just what she’s saying and in what mood, but hoarseness, shortness of breath, and when things are really bad, her difficulty tracking the conversation. Slurring in October first alerted us that something was seriously wrong. I’m judging my sister’s level of worry, too, through tones and texts. All this close listening makes me think of Dickinson only consenting to medical examination through a crack in the door. Not much for a diagnostician to go on.

I’m not so sick as all that. Asthma, swelling, palpitations, lightheadedness–I’ve had the basic tests done to know I’m not in the middle of some cardiac cataclysm, but these medium-annoying symptoms could spring from about five million different problems, and lord knows how long it will take to narrow it down. Another research project.

I’m medicating myself in the interim by reading and writing. I’m revising Taking Poetry Personally and figuring out what presses to query, but that requires high concentration. What I seem to want to do most is read and write poems. Since I have stacks of poetry books around, some sent for review and others I’ve been meaning to get to for ages, I’m picking one up every time I feel low.

Plenty of them are good, but too often I’m disappointed by the first few pages. Every published poet knows, I think, to pick a strong opener, a well-wrought poem that inaugurates the themes and strategies of the collection. It’s surprising, however, how few poets use those early pages to generate suspense–the good kind that keeps a reader on the hook. I don’t mean a murder should be discovered in the first stanza, leaving us to ponder who done it over seventy pages of clever line breaks. Yet there should, I think, be at least one urgent question percolating. And the poems that follow should sustain interest in those questions, so that, by the last few lines of the last verse, we have some provisional, partial, fragmentary sense of an answer.

Narrative isn’t the only tension-generator: poems can also be arguments, spells, and riddles, to be resolved by sound or formal elements as well as, or even instead of, sense. The best poetry book I’ve read recently is actually pretty experimental: Anne Carson’s Nox (what? you demand, and shh, I reply, because my yet-to-be-read list is really embarrassing). I bet many of you have already cracked that box, unfolded the astonishing accordion pages, and pondered her artful use of collage, translated verse, dictionary glosses, etc. The book certainly doesn’t tell a straightforward tale. Yet Carson has such a strong sense of story–she is one of the best living poets, I think, when it comes to writing suspensefully.

“I wanted to fill my elegy with light of all kinds,” she writes early on, addressing the death of her brother. “But death makes us stingy. There is nothing more to be expended on that, we think, he’s dead. Love cannot alter it. Words cannot add to it. No matter how I try to evoke the starry lad he was, it remains a plain, odd history.”

Who was her brother, you wonder, and how did he die? What’s “odd” about his life and death? Isn’t there something odd about this speaker, too–the mix of grief and cool detachment in those lines? Carson doesn’t reveal complete or stable answers to any of these questions. She replies, rather, as poets do, through patterned fragments. Nox is really a long poem and therefore much more unified than most collections, and maybe my own distraction makes me a cranky reader right now, yet I really, really wish more poetry books had some part of its propulsive drive.

In considering all this, I realize the guiding question of my next book of poems is already crystallizing. It’s: Where am I? Really, interest in place runs through all of my poetry collections (think of the titles Heathen, Heterotopia, Radioland), but I’m further out on that question’s ledge than ever.

One answer: nowhere. I’m a middle-aged striver laboring in an obscure small town. As I try to promote Radioland, and feel enormously grateful for the reviews I’ve received and the events coming up soon (W&L next week, and also the VA Festival of the Book, AWP, Kenyon College, and Poetry by the Sea), I’m also struggling. It is HARD to inspire people to order and/or open a poetry book, much less decorate it with laurels, no matter how  engaging its interior might be. One kind of suspense I’m suffering from: of all the threads I’ve recently cast into the void, trying to launch the poems toward a larger audience, will any catch?

Well, I keep telling myself, suspense in this case is better than having hit the canyon floor. I’m proud of the book, plus the new work is worth doing in its own right. I’m finding the somewhere in nowhere and having a hard look around. These badlands have some interesting features.


Marginalia and interleavings

When you read, you think someone else’s thoughts–which is why it’s interesting and good to read books by people whose experiences are different than yours. Sometimes, however, there’s an intermediary spirit in the mix. Pick up a heavily marked used book and you end up glimpsing another reader’s mental processes, too. Students experience this all the time, through used textbooks; in a boring class, you can even get a little obsessed by trying to extrapolate a personality from the highlighter marks and marginal jottings (as a certain Harry Potter episode demonstrates).

I’ve been contemplating this, in part through the lens of a poem I admire from the November 2015 issue of Poetry by Hai-Dang Phan. You should read it, but in short, the speaker traces to understand his father through the notations he made in a Norton anthology, for an English class he pursued after emigrating from Vietnam to the U.S. As I was writing a short discussion of it in my critical book’s introduction, I also happened to serve as anonymous reviewer for an article ms that concerns, in part, interleavings–the clippings etc. readers store in their books, and that booksellers often strip out before resale.

I’ve published a poem called “Bequest” that references the one book I own of my father’s, a Bible from Sunday School. On the reverse of the title page, my father, in a childish hand, penciled a reference to a passage from Job. It strikes me now as having some eerie resonances with the last years of my father’s life. Thinking about marginalia and interleavings, I suddenly remembered: wasn’t there a newspaper clipping, too?


Yes! My father was born in 1925, the Bible is inscribed to him in 1937, and the newspaper scrap references films from the 40s and 50s. They’re matinees, so this could even be from the 60s or later. How did it get in there, man? I guess I need to see Passage to Marseilles.

Sitting in my office Monday reading H.J. Jackson’s Marginalia, I started thinking about my own inscriptions. I make a lot of what Jackson calls reader’s indexes in the backs of books, especially when I plan to teach or review them. Here’s one from the back of Ann Fisher Wirth’s Carta Marina. This practice of making readers’ indexes goes back centuries.margins3

And that’s not even to mention crumbs, food-stains, and other signs of the reading life! The grass-chain I left in a copy of Whitman makes the book awkward to handle–it’s a fragile remnant of a gradumargins2ate school seminar held out on the lawn by Firestone library–but I feel too sentimental about that spring to discard it.

You will be relieved to know I don’t write, or store organic debris, in library books, but the remnants of other peoples’ readings don’t bother me. They clearly annoy others, because I was just wiping eraser dust yesterday out of a book of literary criticism–someone had underlined passages, and the same person, a librarian, or later reader effaced the markings. I find it more depressing, as Jackson says, when there’s no sign a book has been read before at all. Sadly, the library copy of his own book is pristine.

One thing I treasure about the older books in our university collection: some of them still have cards and signatures in the back. I often see traces there of professors long gone. For example, Barbara Hernnstein Smith’s Poetic Closure is on my shelf. The first library user, from 1970, was Sid Coulling, an eminent and much loved English professor who retired before I even arrived. I love seeing his elegant old hand. It increases my sense of participating in a community of readers. Sorry about the clementine, Sid, but as you know, scholarship is a hungry business.



Poetry & change & cocktail recipes

When someone says, “Poetry changed my life,” you expect to hear of a high-stakes transformation. Former students have told me, for example, how poetry gave them permission to embrace and admit their sexuality. Reading and writing poetry sustains people through all kinds of crises, and hearing it helps people feel moved and connected at weddings, inaugurations, and other happy occasions. There’s experimental evidence that reading certain kinds of stories can decrease a person’s racial prejudices–I expect that’s true of poetry, as well. On a less inspiring note, dedication to poetry has probably strained or destroyed plenty of love affairs and bank accounts.

Most of the metamorphoses triggered by poems, however, are much smaller. You are changed by a poem if you recall some of it afterwards: your memories have been altered. As you read, you might enter a state of happy concentration and experience physiological changes: respiration and pulse calm, so that briefly, your focus and mood shift. Or a poem might provoke an unfamiliar thought, or bring to mind some forgotten association, or prompt you to imagine the scene described. I am commonly changed in all these small, low-impact ways by reading and writing.

This week, however, I can report something bigger. This year has been full of difficult transitions: my eldest went off to college, my baby started high school, my mother got sick, and, not only for those reasons, I am feeling my age. My body has been a royal pain. And all this comes shortly after a series of changes in my workplace, some of them good but others distressing. In September I was definitely struggling with a sense that I had entered the second half of my life and it was going to suck.

So I wrote. My poetry and prose have all centered, more or less, on crisis as I looked for ways to redefine loss as change. A qualification: certainly it’s not always possible, or even a good idea, to revise grief into optimism. Responsible people look backwards as well as forwards and acknowledge what’s terrible as well as heartening. But I’ve been cultivating a sense of possibility all the same, and I swear it’s made me more resilient.

This week I, and others, got tested. A dear colleague suddenly left. Information has trickled out slowly; I’ve been enjoined not to say what I know, but in fact I still know very little. I’m left torn up about it but also with relief that the process seems to have been fair. While I hate the way universities tend to be run by legal fears and not by ethical imperatives–THEY ARE NOT THE SAME THING–in this case, I wouldn’t divulge more anyway.* People need to pick up the pieces and I truly wish for everyone involved to heal and flourish.

My point is, the past few days have been totally rotten and my fragile department has taken another blow, but I feel somehow ready to roll with it. Maybe the last few years have just battered into me that life isn’t as stable as I once thought, and I actually learned the lesson. I really think, though, that writing has been at least as big a factor in my restored ability to bounce.** I’ve practiced telling new stories about myself, about middle age, about opportunities that sometimes spring up under winter’s worst ice-lock, and maybe the repetition is actually helping me believe them. It’s all hocus-pocus but I seriously find storytelling, beautiful repetition, and other literary strategies essential for thriving during the long, slow, catastrophic crash that is most anybody’s life.

If you have a less healthy strategy in mind for coping with your own crappy week, here’s help with that, too. Below are a few recipes best shared with people you like. And full of immune-boosting vitamin C! I suppose you should shake then strain them, but life is short–I just put the ingredients into a glassful of crushed ice and stir. Then I nurse it, and myself, slowly along towards a bouncier future.

The Absinthe-Minded Professor: one part each absinthe, elderflower liqueur (such as St. Germain), lime juice, simple syrup. Based on something tasty I drank locally, at The Red Hen.

Screwdriver from Hell: one shot each vodka and pomegranate liqueur (such as Pama), topped with a few ounces of orange juice

Elderflower Lemonade: one part each Deep Eddy’s lemon vodka, elderflower liqueur, lemon juice, simple syrup

BONUS: I’ve been making a version of the above with grapefruit vodka and grapefruit juice, and it’s delicious enough that it really needs its own name. I suggested Vitamin G–too flat–and a friend countered with G-Spot, which I eventually decided was too Ft. Lauderdale. Suggest something good in the comments and if I like it I’ll send you a free signed copy of one of my poetry collections. (Judging will be subjective, arbitrary, and doubtless very irritating.)

*But stop calling it “gossip,” administrators. Gossip is a gendered term of dismissal for the kinds of conversations women need to have to survive the stupidity of life. I do not gossip. I TALK, and I’m not sorry.

**Blogging also represents a deliberate strategy of indiscretion for keeping myself ineligible for upper administrative positions, in which you earn boatloads of money but have to deal with traumatic personnel issues unbolstered by real time for writing and teaching–ugh. So far, so good.


How and why

70000I’m not the only writer who’s fascinated by the processes of inspiration, composition, and revision, but horrified by the processes of self-promotion. And  I do mean full-on gothic trauma complete with repressed guilt rising monstrously from a shallow grave and chasing me through the Cemetery of Dead Projects. Brave heroine that I try to be, I conquer fear enough to submit work, ask for blurbs and reviews, and nominate myself for various kinds of attention, especially if I can do so in writing, without face-to-face contact with my potential rejecter. I always feel haunted, however, by the ghosts of opportunities lost.

So I was surprised, browsing the Jan/Feb Poets & Writers, to feel inspired by the “Practical Writer” column–a piece by Frank Bures called “Brand You: Questioning Self-Promotion.” It’s print-only, but the gist, as I explained it during a chilly walk with my writer-spouse, is Bures’ recommendation to think like “politicians and cult leaders”–in a good way. The existential nausea of self-promotion recedes when you proselytize for the book itself: why you wrote it, why you imagine some group of readers needs or wants it. “Which means the ‘why’ should be deep in a book’s DNA,” Chris said. Yes.

Hows and whys are on my mind because I have a recent book out, but also because my writing life just took a weird turn. A year ago, I had an idea for a novel and started mentally toying around with it. I put a few paragraphs down last summer but didn’t go further.

Then, while balking at other kinds of work in late fall–my mother’s illness colored life with urgency–an opening scene arrived. I wrote it then, to my shock, kept on going. Every day I could, I’d write for six hours in my pajamas, then shower, run errands, exercise, whatever, and go back to work in late afternoon or evening. I generally work hard on sabbatical–seven or eight hours a day, five days a week, which is a lot of writing–but this was full-bore. I wrote in passenger seats and Christmas outfits, at the crack of dawn and in the middle of the night. During respites my brain would fill with sentences like a bucket under a roof leak. I’d put a bunch of tops in motion and just had to keep touching them, maintaining the spin. I ended up drafting 70,000 words in five weeks, adding a few thousand more during the first revision. It’s not ready for prime time, but it’s not terrible, either.

The whole process was a revelation–that I knew how to tell the story, that I loved the work. I will, at some future point, see if readers like it, too. The aforementioned spouse just finished it–thumbs up–but he gave smart suggestions, too, and there’s lots of work ahead.

I thought this experiment worth undertaking even if I never published a word–that I’d learn from the adventure–and already that seems true. Last week I looked at a languishing memoir-critical hybrid piece and, bam, knew how to fix the thing. Distance helps, but I also understand more now about rhythm and pacing in prose. Trained in poetic compression, I had just been eliding too much. I have infinitely more to learn about time in prose narrative, but practice has sped up my education. I’m curious what lessons I’ll bring back to poetry.

I just finished reading a book that holds up a mirror to this experience: Ben Lerner’s 10:04. His semi-fictional narrator Ben figures out how to write a prose book during a five-week residency that he devotes, contrarily, to writing a long poem, even though he just signed a six-figure contract and desperately needs to get some bill-paying prose underway.  A disobedient excursion through one genre teaches him how to approach–maybe even reinvent–the other.

Unfortunately, the milieu of 10:04 brings me back to the publicity dilemma. If I never again read a novel in which bright young literati in Brooklyn earn fabulous amounts of money, it won’t be too soon. It’s a testament to Lerner’s gift that I couldn’t dislike the book. It wasn’t long ago that an author visiting W&L (not Lerner) said, “I don’t know why anyone living outside Brooklyn even bothers to write.” The remark, leveled at Virginia writers over artisanal cocktails, was brutal, but I do get it: I live far from the publicity machines that might amplify my promotional effort a thousandfold.

Disheartening, sometimes, but as a Philadelphia friend reminds me, I do get a lot done in my tiny boring nowhere-town. On the subject of smallness: check out my microreview in a new Kenyon Review series. And thanks to Hampton-Sydney Poetry Review for publishing my poems and reflections about undergraduate teaching, and also to Valerie Duff-Strautmann for reviewing Radioland so intelligently in the new Salamander. Hurrah for all these great people striving to amplify poetry’s signal!

As I gladly receive their broadcasts, I think about the “why” of Radioland, which is a good book but Sisyphean. It’s about how incredibly difficult it is for human beings to get through to one another, and how vital it isSalamander to try anyway–basically a skeptic’s big pitch for listening and love. Which means it’s a qualified pitch, a little wry. Un-Trumpery from the poet as charismatic loser, as Eileen Myles brilliantly puts it.

I hope you’ll accept the connection and read it, whether you buy, borrow, or cadge a free teacher/ reviewer’s copy. (My link’s to the press but it’s also available from your favorite monstrously convenient online retailer). Or come see me at the VA Festival Book or at the AWP–I’m working on keeping my Events page updated, when I’m not, that is, hiding with my exiled friends behind the tombstone of Literary Recognition Undemanded, R.I.P.


Thanks David Bowie

…for giving me permission to become a scary monster.

Sigh Like Twig the Wonder Kid

A party tonight with real boys / who needs trouble
Better the problems of representing shadow
Electric snap of static when fingers touch vinyl then
the amplified hush as needle meets its groove
Better to ponder freakishness / whether
the green eye wants what the brown foresees / His tenor
founders on the bridge and she can’t breathe,
as if she’s in love / or gazing in the mirror

Meanwhile she fixes Bowie’s sheen in oils
learning his rouged mouth’s quirks / Not the glam
rock waif who streaked a lightning bolt across
his face / not the corn-pale padded suit of cynical
1983 / but Changes Two
the wet look / Nothing set / nothing dry
Ruffled bedspread / sting of turpentine.
Plaid uniform skirt / her paint-swirled smock
She mixes a bruised hue to smudge around
his eye as cadmium washes from the sky

She applies so little pigment the fibers
of the canvas show / A famished child
a reckless thing / she knows how costumes sink
into the skin / That voice is forever / Yet she claws
up fishnets / finds her cobalt ankle-boots
An ink-and-mustard mini / some Dippity-Doo
Ground Control could learn a thing or two

From RadiolandBarrow Street Press, 2015. The poem was first published in Turbine. The slash marks came later, when I was thinking about punctuation in the book–they seemed a good way to encapsulate the either/ or cruxes of adolescence. Did I have a crush on Bowie, or did I want to be him? I still don’t know, but when I started writing poems I was following his lead, tracking down his every literary reference, studying how he put lines together. I’m sad about today’s news but also just really grateful. He opened strange doors that we’d never close again.

I did paint countless album covers in oils when I was a teenager; here are two, from my Virginia attic. Wish I still had the cobalt ankle boots. Bowie




Close-reading the 2015 National Book Awards

Forecast: capricious poetry weather ahead.

Last year I tackled the National Book Award’s poetry long list in time for a new year’s post and learned a lot from the exercise. This year I was completing the same task, reading with admirable industry and dedication, when I picked up Sunday’s New York Times Book Review and found it dedicated to the year in verse. Out of seventeen volumes receiving substantial mention there, it turned out I had only read two–and those had been granted relatively brief notice. Further, one of those, by Rankine, was a 2014 collection that continues to sell briskly. Granted, a few of the reviewed collections were newish–I follow Kay Ryan and Major Jackson faithfully and I’ll get to their new work eventually. Still, what a crummy percentage!

Let me repeat, then, that I despair of ever being very well-read in US poetry, much less in the verse of the English-speaking world, and I am not well-versed at all in contemporary poetry’s full polyglot splendor. Seriously, anyone who claims her best-of list is authoritative is kidding you, or herself. Some books, like Citizen, really are big events, aesthetically complex achievements speaking to the historical moment. And a collection must be skilfully written, thoughtfully edited, and attractively published to get media attention; as I observed last year, a suspiciously large percentage of books on these lists were published by fancy NYC operations. I’m sending out Radioland to post-publication prizes and can testify that thorough engagement in the awards game takes serious resources. Most presses don’t have the staff or the dough, and most poets can’t personally pick up the slack.

According to my partial survey, not from a mountain-top but an overgrown hill surrounded by cellphone towers and other scenery-blockers, I can testify that many of the year’s most exciting collections do appear on the NBA list.  Robin Coste Lewis’ winning collection is stunning poetry of witness–the central collage is impressive but the framing lyrics really blew me away. I liked Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things so much I spent an afternoon just before Christmas reading bits aloud to my relatives. (I can’t find the title poem online, but look for it–it wowed my teenage daughter.) I’d characterize a good poetry collection as either deliciously crafty, or presenting a powerful take on urgent material, or both, but here’s another criterion: you want to share what you’re reading with loved ones. Limón’s book wasn’t perfect–a few weaker poems diluted the grand ones–but it hit me that way, as a collection I wanted to tell people about.

I also thought, however, that some books didn’t belong on the long list at all. They were, as I said, skilful, but there were a couple I wouldn’t have bothered to finish if I hadn’t committed myself to the task. And on the finalist list, I’m happy to see strong books by Terrance Hayes and Ross Gay, but the collection by Patrick Phillips just wasn’t especially engaging, even for a poet who’s been mining similar material (dead fathers). I found Marilyn Hacker’s entry more impressive–that title sonnet crown is amazing!–and the books by Jane Hirshfield and Lawrence Raab trumped Phillips–well, both Phillipses–in emotional power, at least for me.

Also, while I’d have to reread my year’s favorites to be sure which collection I’d personally choose for the laurels, it’s a shame Claudia Emerson’s Impossible Bottle wasn’t in the running. No 2015 book moved me more than that one. Other achievements that won’t get enough attention: the interdisciplinary ecofeminist gorgeousness of Bindle, an art and poetry collection by Elisabeth Frost and Dianne Kornberg; or the gender adventure of Stephen Burt’s All-Season Stephanie. Both have lingered in my mind, the way risky books do. Neither looks like an NBA book for various reasons–Burt’s, for instance, is a chapbook–but they and many other collections shouldn’t get blown away like so many autumn leaves.

Radioland wasn’t eligible for the 2015 NBA list, by the way, and won’t be for 2016, either. 2016 books have to be published on or after Dec. 1 2015; my book came out Oct. 1, but galleys weren’t ready in time for the NBA’s summer deadline. I don’t think these grapes are sour, therefore, but as I said, I don’t believe in the fiction of impartiality, either. I know I missed or misread good 2015 collections, and I would like to hear other people’s favorites, too. Seems to me the party could use some new refreshments.

In the meantime, I was floored to receive mention on Bill Manhire’s reading list–scroll down to see. Thanks to Emma Neale for pointing it out. And any NZ readers who are having trouble getting Radioland, please let me know. That’s another problem with small presses, of course; I have trouble reading widely in the poetries of other countries unless I can browse their bookstores in person, and I know many other poetry-readers, wherever they are, feel the same frustration.

Today I’m also looking back at 2015’s literary weather in general, my own capricious reading as compared to what I’m supposed to admire. Here’s my count: 48 books of poetry read or reread; 54 novels; and 16 books of nonfiction, not including a jillion articles as well as books in various genres I didn’t feel like finishing. I don’t see how a person with a needy family and a full-time job could read much more, yet I still feel behind–it’s crazy out there. 77 of those books on my personal list were authored by women, and my 2015 reading was diverse in many other ways, too, but I didn’t read very internationally in 2015, except for a pile of British, Scottish, and Irish poems in the summer, and a host of classic British mysteries that kept me sane through the year’s roughest patches.

I’d like to do better as a global poetry citizen in 2016, but given a daughter in college and sabbatical austerities and a looming dental implant, I don’t expect to be springing for plane tickets. Nor am I in a mood for resolutions, except to keep reading and writing. Mostly I follow literary whims (my novel draft is at 45,000 words and counting!)–I read what genuinely calls to me as much as possible–but I will perform the NBA short-list-reading exercise at least one more time. It’s good to study the company I aspire to keep, one of these days.2015 NBA



Distraction and vegetables

I have been misbehaving again. Instead of finishing  a draft of my critical book this month–it’s close to done–I seem to have shelved it temporarily in favor of writing fiction, a genre I haven’t done much with since college. Ten thousand words last week alone, so the project is thundering along, and I’m having SO much fun. I guess that’s good?–it fits my rule of productive procrastination, anyway. If I can’t work on what I’m supposed to, I just work on something, and things seem to get done on the end. Plus, experiments are generally worth making; even if the project withers, you learn by the attempt.

In the meantime, Radioland was just accepted to the Virginia Festival of the Book–it looks like I’ll read there on Thursday March 17th, but I’ll add the details (and some other upcoming things) to my events page when they’re confirmed. And I am THRILLED to see the first two reviews available online:

Both reviews are insightful and generous, but it’s interesting to reflect on their differences. Writing for a NZ magazine, Cresswell stresses the book’s Aotearoan content, but also the theme of dislocation. I see that place has become a big subject for me, but often in a perverse way, as I write about imaginary, damaged, or vanished locations, so I’m gratified to read her thoughts on the subject. Michaels, on the other hand, cocks her very good ear to themes of distance and intimacy, especially as they arise in parent-child relationships. Since I started writing about voice and medium in my scholarship a decade ago, I’ve been obsessed with them. Communication was the original organizing theme of the collection–although poems do take on a will of their own after a while. A poetry book is a broadcast that too often goes just one way, out into an unresponding world amid a blizzard of other signals. It’s wonderful when listeners out there in radioland actually beam their responses back!

I’ll be doing the same soon. Sometime around the turn of the year I’ll put up some thoughts about 2015 reading. I’ve taken on way too many commitments lately in wild sabbaticalesque enthusiasm–I’ll have various columns and reviews to cross-post in coming months–but I do think there’s a kind of writerly karma involved in buying, reading, and talking about books that move or help or entertain you, just as you hope others will do for you.

However, I also need to dial down the static enough to enjoy my family and the holidays. I haven’t been exactly centered, oscillating between light and dark moods as I am between writing projects. I’m tuning in to political outrage, too, and then overcompensating by shutting out most media for days, horrified by the headlines, afraid if I open my own mouth I’ll just start yelling. This can be a weird, hard time of year and I send good vibes out to the many, many folks having a rougher time than I am.

So, lest I give publicity to the forces that just enrage me, I’ll just say: merry cauliflower to you, beets on earth, and I hope you get some time with a good book soon.