I’ve been sick in a not-clearly-diagnosed way, so I’ve been resting and trying to read the signs. What “resting” looks like for me almost always involves books (the big exception was during my second pregnancy, when concentrating on anything, even the radio, made me throw up–but you don’t want to hear about that circle of hell). I’ve been keeping on top of hard work deadlines, but otherwise just trying to nourish myself–and also, through reading verse, nourishing the poems I’m somehow drafting each day for National Poetry Writing Month. That may count as a kind of rest, too, in that I’m not worrying if my drafts are good or bad or building toward something. The judging part of my brain isn’t working well and I’m done with the teaching year, so even though the soft deadlines will eventually come round to face me, for the moment I may as well play.
I therefore have a few recent poetry collections to recommend, all of which inspired me to keep playing. The first of them I carried around Haverford on Accepted Students Day last weekend–did I mention my son decided to go to Haverford? Since the book is all about family, loss, and finding consolation in tiny moments amid the chaos of middle age’s mundane struggles–which for the author involves single motherhood in New York City, and a child with special needs–it felt like the perfect thing to tote in my purse next to the ibuprofen I shouldn’t have been mainlining. The Miracles by Amy Lemmon is big-hearted and sad and sweet and wry and lovely. Here’s “Another Day,” about shopping for grain-free crackers when you really, really want an almond croissant.
The Bones of Winter Birds by Ann Fisher-Wirth went into the purse a couple of days later, at a very low moment, when the strep seemed to be bouncing back, or was it something else–could it be mono, the nurse practitioner asked? A couple of needle stabs later, the verdict is probably not, but this snow-covered beauty of a book was great company in uncertainty. The first poem in Fisher-Wirth’s book is a gigan, a form invented by Ruth Ellen Kocher that I’d never tried before, so I had to experiment immediately, and you should go for it, too. (As soon as you start getting stuck you have to repeat a line, which is handy. My prompt to you: write a gigan about something BIG.) After I scratched that itch and jumped back in, I was moved again and again. There is a sequence mourning a sister Fisher-Wirth didn’t know well, and there are also a number of small gems, talismans of grief transformed into beauty, like “Vicksburg National Military Park”. Here’s a slightly longer one, funny-heartbreaking: “Love Minus Zero.”
Like Fisher-Wirth’s book, Martha Silano’s Gravity Assist is deeply ecopoetic: she’s trying to rocket out to the big picture, taking in species loss, disastrous pollution, and other terrors of the anthropocene. Silano is one of our best science poets, in my opinion, but she’s also a specialist in awe, exuberant about beauty and love and the good things that persist in this damaged world (for the moment!). Her gorgeous “Peach Glosa” reminds me I’ve never successfully attempted that form…hmm. Also, it’s not online, but if you’re a tired and overextended woman irritated by exhortations to tranquility, you need to get this book and read “Dear Mr. Wordsworth.”
And to come back to cosmic signs: my Saturday afternoon binge was 3 Nights of the Perseids by Ned Balbo. These poems aren’t quite as astronomically-sited as Silano’s, despite the title. They’re starriest in their concerns with power–often power misused–and persistence, particularly how poetry, art, music, and speech itself just keep shining on. Balbo’s iambic riffs on social media are funny-creepy (check out “deadbook”); the elegies for Prince, Bowie, and other artists are beautiful; and his testimonies from Adjunctlandia are incisive and priceless.
I read the latter while reclined on the sunroom sofa, window open; from there I can scent lemon balm and mint on the chilly breeze. The air makes me feel connected to a world I’ve felt quarantined from. The poems do, too. I’ve reviewed titles by three of these writers in fancier venues than this blog, and shared meals with all of them at conferences, coming to know them in that distant-intimate way you sometimes know poetry compatriots, whose brains you’re on good terms with even if you don’t hang with them in person very often. What a balm, a bright and breath-restoring rest their company is–definitely preferable to prednisone and gummy vitamins.
If I told you I’m just screwing around this week, I’d be exaggerating. This is exam week after our twelve-week winter term, so there’s lots of grading, as well as chores involving grants, event programming, etc. Liberation from the rigors of my former schedule, though–during which I was trying to do much of the same work while also prepping and teaching–is making me feel giddy. It helps that my antibiotics have kicked in, because I came home from a tiring AWP with strep throat. Bonus: it’s really spring!
Each day I’m carving out a little time–maybe just fifteen minutes–to draft something, a poem or the seed of one. This morning I responded to a request from someone who wants poems about Mina Loy. I ended up rereading most of The Lost Lunar Baedeker, which is really teaching-prep, too, because I’ll teach Modern U.S. Poetry in the fall and book orders are just around the corner. I hadn’t spent serious hours with this collection in years and was newly struck by all the beautiful poems about aging. When I was 49, I thought I’d write a suite of poems about my poetic idols when THEY were 49. I ended up writing one sonnet about Edna St. Vincent Millay then quit, because it was so damn depressing. 49 is apparently not the happiest age for women poets. Now, past the hinge of 50, finding Loy’s intelligent take on what she calls the “excessive incognito” of “An Aged Woman” is such a gift. Plus Loy’s coinage “Bewilderness,” which appears in a poem about widowhood called “Letters of the Unliving,” is my new favorite word. I have the most fun when wandering a vague landscape you could call by that name–sort of working, sort of playing around.
One side effect of this work-play is reflection on how I’m spending time. I was just catching up with Dave Bonta’s Poetry Blog Digest and found this great post by Erica Goss about just that–a procedure for carrying the intensities of a major literary conference into a quieter, post-conference writing zone. I think it would mitigate the post-AWP blues I always feel, whether or not I get sick.
Of course, one of the things I’m reflecting about is the very teaching year I’m finishing up (I teach our four-week May term every other year–but not this one!). I honestly don’t know what my creative writing students thought of the first blended-genre workshop I’d taught in years. Many of them did outstanding work, but the vibe in the room was hard to read. My general education course in Protest Poetry, however, was warmly enthusiastic, although plenty of the conversations we had along the way about politics, privilege, and anger itself were very tricky. I posted earlier this term about a benefit reading we organized together. Their final project was to choose their own causes and find a way to advance them through poetry, then write reflective essays about the results. I was so proud and delighted by the variety and quality of their efforts! One student took poetry commissions to benefit Project VOICE; another broadcast a feminist radio show of songs and readings; others waged broadside campaigns about body positivity and the collapse of bee populations. Final products included found poems drawn from community participation; a poetry-infused brochure on the indigenous history of this area; and beautiful little chapbooks on climate change; water crisis; the experiences of queer students at W&L; and addiction and recovery, all distributed to the people who would most appreciate them.
I was so glad I experimented with this assignment, even though, at moments, I was alarmed by my own ambitions. It’s easier for me to play around in my teaching than it is for many others: I’m tenured, my college has great resources, and I teach small classes full of talent. But the Bewilderness, that zone of not knowing what you’re doing and being willing to risk mistakes–it’s where the good stuff happens. I need this breather from the classroom for a while and will make earnest use of it. One of the ways I’ll do so will be dreaming about fall’s wild experiments.
On a flight crowded with sleepy creative writing professors—the kind with teaching-intensive jobs who can’t escape to the AWP convention until late on Wednesday—I probe for existential dread the way you tongue a loose tooth. No, not sore, not yet.
This surprises me, given how my children’s current transitions have predisposed us all to panic. My daughter is applying for jobs plus finishing her senior honors thesis at Wesleyan; her adviser is moody and keeps missing meetings. My son will hear about the rest of his college applications while we’re at the conference, and he’s anxious, too. I’m not actually worried about either of them, not in the long run, but suspense is keen.
This is my first AWP since stepping off the Board of Trustees and even though I have a few residual duties, I feel giddy. Or is that jetlag? On Thursday morning before heading to the convention center, I pull out a small sewing kit I’d packed, intending to reattach a button on my favorite velvet jacket. The needle has rusted from disuse and I can’t thread it. I’m having issues with orderliness and containment.
“What’s with you?” Chris asks as I keep dropping stockings, medications, and granola bars then being unable to locate them again in a small hotel room. Of course, he forgets to buy the lunch he’d promised to bring while I signed chapbooks at the Terrain.org table. Between missed meals and time changes, I only remember I’m due for ibuprofen when my bum right knee and angry right elbow start aching. At the Shenandoah offsite event I barely reach in time, readings by contributors Alicia Mountain, Isaac Yuen, and Shamala Gallagher event move me intensely, but I can’t stay to thank them because I’m starving to death.
Listening to a terrific panel about poetic influence, borrowing, and appropriation, I learn the word “cryptamnesia”: references that are unconscious because the writer has forgotten the source, mistaking the memory for something original. I can’t remember which panelist used the term.
We run into a poet-friend late afternoon Thursday and head to a brewpub together for an hour. We follow signs through doors and down stairs–ow, ow, ow–to stainless steel vats and barstools located in a basement, and I drink a Black Walnut Celebration Lager, chewing two magic ginger lozenges from my friend’s pouch and talking about literary sexual harassers. She tells me she recently read an excellent review of Rita Dove’s Mother Love in the course of her teaching prep and only belatedly noticed my name at the bottom. I laugh, sort of remembering the review but not where I’d published it. The beer and the lozenges do not improve my mental acuity, but it’s lovely to see her and other friends. Over dinner, part of a powerful reading by deaf and disabled writers, and Colson Whitehead’s hilarious plenary, the buzz wears off, and at 10:30 I am terrifically grateful to be reunited with my hotel bed.
Chris notes how many people at the conference greet me happily and thank me for something. I cock my head when he remarks this, again surprised. I had assumed those were just social niceties, but maybe some AWP attendees actually are pleased to see me? There’s a performance of authenticity you do at events like this, but I genuinely like the people I greet warmly. Well, most of them.
“Voice is a textual rendering of the body,” Adrian Matejka says in another outstanding panel, “Beyond Voice”–I remember the title for this one!–then gives a writing prompt I intend to follow soon. I WILL start drafting poems again, somehow, starting April 1. He told us, “Write down three favorite phrases, five favorite works, and the three most important things outside yourself, then use them in a poem.” I have to leave this panel early because my son receives a rejection from a fancy college in the middle of it and I need to call and check his existential angst levels. He’s okay, but my husband wants to punch Yale in the face. (“Who the fuck wants to go to Yale anyway?” my poet-friend with the lozenges remarks. I love her so much.)
In the bookfair, I say thank you to a lot of journal editors and meet the editor of my new poetry press, Molly Sutton Kiefer, for the first time. Next year I’ll be trying to sell my new book from Tinderbox. This year I’m loopy with tiredness, but also from the relaxation of not having to hawk anything, ask for favors, or run an event. How uncanny. But the hours I’d scheduled there fly by, time spilling from my tote bags.
I finish Friday with a panel on Teaching Spec, another big sf event in too-small room (a mistake this conference keeps making). The rows are packed and many listeners sit on the floor. Kelly Link quotes Holly Black: the first page of any story asks a question and makes a promise, and the latter is often a promise about genre. Karen Joy Fowler counters that just because you make a promise to the reader doesn’t mean that you have to keep it. Also, that one of the things genre offers is rules to be broken. Also, that when she mixes genres in her teaching, the sf writers and poets bond quickly, while realist fiction writers mainly complain. Basically, I write down everything Fowler says in a little turquoise notebook Jeannine Hall Gailey gave me.
We’re supposed to have dinner with Jeannine and Glenn, but she’s exhausted between obligations. Chris and I go to the fancy tapas restaurant on our own and it is utterly amazing. I want to go to several simultaneous evening readings, but instead we’re asleep by 8:30. Saturday involves three flights, during which I alternately read and draft this blog. I start to crash mood-wise, although this time it’s not that competitive angsty thing I’ve had to fight against before–there are so many good writers out there, most of whom could give a rat’s ass about my poems. I’ve got joint pain plus a to-do list as long as the walk to the Portland Ballroom, so I can’t get too bothered about my own obscurity. It’s more sadness about how many friends I didn’t see, brilliant readings I missed, even bookfair tables I never found–I wanted one of those Ecotone pencils!
“Time is not linear, not circular. All time is simultaneous,” Rick Campbell said at the Kestrel table. Apropos of what, I have no idea. If he’s right, how do I extend each non-moment to connect with all the people and books I love in AWP’s overwhelming simultaneity? While also spending as much time at home with my son as I can, because I’ll miss him very much next year? When you’re half-knotted, half-unraveled, time feels short.
Originally appearing in December, 2016 in Queen of Cups, my poem “House Call” is a crossroads between the novel and the poetry collection I’ll be publishing in 2020. It’s based on a dream–now I realize, one of a series of dreams–of numinous other-than-human figures visiting with some kind of message or advice. After drafting the poem in 2015, I gave a version of this dream to the protagonist of Unbecoming, although it means something different to her than it did to me. Below is the version of the poem that will appear in my book, or very close. Check out the original site, too: it contains a tarot reading that fits the crisis I was then, and a good writing prompt!
The black fox kept eluding me,
quick among the party shoes,
chrysanthemum scent of twilight
blowing through lamplit rooms.
Its fur was tipped with flame,
brushed by crimson characters.
Out the door, down the steps
to mist-damp grass. Gone, gone
under sharp-leaved rhododendrons.
What did you bring me, kitsune?
Twigs and dead matter Come sleep
Where are you now? Under your nails
your skin flashing through veins
Will I be fortunate? This dream
is your luck this restlessness
You feared warm rain had ceased falling—
that the onion moon had rolled
beyond night’s uneven floor.
Try to read spirit and this
ensues: writing shivers, a trick,
a tease. Creatures shifting shape
can’t pause at the mirror to preen.
Someone wears nine tails;
something prepares to change
by burning all the words.
A smoke of fox escapes.
This uncanny crossing is on my mind because I’m about to read part of the novel aloud to a real live audience for the first time (although it has had plenty of readers so far, and I’m reading big chunks aloud to myself as I edit). Our old college friend Scott Nicolay–now a prize-winning author as well as editor, translator, podcaster, and cave archaeologist–is a co-organizer of the Outer Dark Symposium on The Greater Weird, this year on March 22-23 in Georgia. I’ll only be reading for 10 minutes, but I can get a short, weird novel scene in there, plus a poem or two. And I’ll have poems in the souvenir program, which sounds like a beauty. It occurs to me that as well as learning how to excerpt fiction for different kinds of audiences, I’m going to have to practice toggling between genres during various public soundings. Here goes!
Part Two of the month of March–the sequel to a wonderful visit by Aimee Nezhukumatathil and a really nasty cold–involves a lot of travel, so I’m going to have to keep hitting the ginger tea and taking care of myself. Thursday I’m hitting a poetry panel at the Virginia Festival of the Book and seeing a couple of old friends; I’m sad I can’t stay and hear Kyle Dargan, but I have to hit the road south Friday. I’ll be immersed in weirdness all weekend, but my reading is:
10:50 am, Silver Scream FX Lab, 4215 Thurman Rd, Conley, Georgia
I come back to teach Monday-Wednesday (and do some Skype interviewing Tuesday), and then I’m off to Portland, Oregon. Come say hello to me at the Terrain.org table, #9029, in AWP’s bookfair on Thursday, March 28th from 12-1. I’ll be signing my recent chapbook Propagation ($5 and VERY light for your luggage), but I’d be delighted just to chat and give you one of my beautiful new Shenandoah business cards. Shenandoah doesn’t have a table this year–we will next year–but we are hosting a reading at 1:30 Thursday at the Jasmine Pearl Teahouse. Chris and I will be home again Saturday night, earlier than originally planned, but that’s probably good. Not only is the first week of April the last week of winter term, and therefore an academic crunch time, but these are the weeks my eighteen-year-old son hears back from the six colleges he applied to (two acceptances so far!), and he’s holding down the fort at home alone for the first time, while Chris and I conference together.
Send us all good vibes, please, and if you spot me at one of these places, please say hello. I’ll report back in this space sometime around the kick-off of National Poetry Month. In the meantime, may March winds blow you some good!
One of the first sonnets I wrote, as an undergraduate, contained the lines: “A mouth of purple crocus opens through/ the snow, wild to speak the store beneath. / It carries coin.” I don’t remember the rest, although the poem is probably in a bin in the attic somewhere. The lines have been running through my head all week as the weather flips from warmish to snowy to springlike again. March is always a crazy month in my academic calendar, but I am ready for the madness, as long as it brings me color!
Elements of recent frenzy: I injured my right knee a week ago (I don’t know how) and my mobility has been limited; now that knee is improving but I’m realizing there’s background noise of inflammation and low-grade pain that I need to figure out and deal with. My son is at the state chess tournament in Charlottesville this weekend, which meant extra driving, although I’m happy for him. This afternoon’s report is that he played really well. Even though his rating is finally high enough that he was required to play in the championship division–meaning basically everyone he matched with was higher-rated, many of them drastically–he won half his games. And my daughter drove down yesterday for spring break, and it’s her birthday tomorrow. AND Aimee Nezhukumatathil was due to arrive yesterday for the second part of her residency, and got grounded overnight in Memphis, so we’ve been scrambling to rearrange things. That’s all on top of the usual busy-ness of the teaching year, plus trying to resolve all Shenandoah poetry submissions from the reading period that recently closed, plus hitting the crux of the AWP search for a permanent executive director (I’m off the AWP board, but on this committee), plus being stern with myself about carving out time for novel revisions (minimum of an hour 3x/ week).
All this means a lot of juggling, but except for the joint/ mobility problems–and the pain of rejecting good poems, because Shenandoah gets SO MANY GOOD POEMS–I’m feeling optimistic. Put that little spark of good feeling against a big gray landscape–the treatment of refugees at our borders looms large for me, as well as the worsening environmental crisis–and a bunch of purple crocus isn’t worth much, I know. But I’ll take it.
Almost everything I do that might make the world slightly more kind and just, I do with literature’s help. Teaching feels like my main avenue for helping others; in writing and editing, too, I try to increase the general light. I’ve failed in those activities many times, but I’m also sure I’ve done good, perhaps in a more lasting way than by attending rallies, signing petitions, and writing letters to congresspeople or newspaper editors. The latter work is vital–my daughter wants to make a career of improving how the government works, and I am so grateful for her intelligence and commitment! But I’m personally better, I think, at kinds of activism that tap the deepest wells of my knowledge and skill.
Poetry’s usefulness can be exaggerated. Writing verses is NOT a particularly effective way of influencing politicians, getting a law changed, or (god knows) attracting money. So even though I created a new course for this term, Protest Poetry, in the deep conviction that poetry helps people, I brought some skepticism to the topic, too. The course is designed for exploration and experiment, and while I’ve done research into its central questions, I’m a genuine student here, with lots to learn. When literature does influence people, how does that work? What poetic strategies are most likely to affect someone’s biases or even, possibly, alter their behaviors? We read a suite of Civil Rights poems and are now working through The Ecopoetry Anthology, discussing (without agreement) the costs and benefits of writing angry poems, grieving poems, and poems of praise; drawing on personal feeling or using the imperative voice; creating works of sonic beauty, grammatical difficulty, or narrative force; and much more.
“Protest Poetry” also carries my college’s “experiential learning” designation, which means the students are creating a couple of public-facing projects. The first, a collaborative venture, happened this Wednesday. We began planning it a few weeks ago, after a tour of the Rockbridge Area Relief Association as well as reading poems about hunger on the Split this Rock database. The assignment was (for very low stakes, grade-wise) to raise money for RARA through poetry. I told them a benefit reading would work–I’ve organized them before–but it was up to them. We toyed with the idea of a Haiku Booth or poetry-related crafts, but decided on an hourlong event that would be organized, promoted, and emceed by students in the class. They chose and booked a campus space, issued invitations to the readers, created fliers, set up sound equipment, decided the flow of the event, and brought refreshments (I acquired a small budget for the latter).
My undergraduates also did some extra work I did NOT expect or require, because, I think, they became genuinely invested in the cause. Some of them made another trip to the food pantry with questions for the clientele, cleared in advance by RARA staff, such as “What’s your favorite meal?” and “If you had to describe RARA in one word, what would it be?” They constructed poems out of the answers, performing them at the event as well as interspersing information between the poems about RARA’s work. They also set up a fundraising table for three days in the Commons, where they offered soft drinks and home-baked treats. Talking to unsuspecting muffin-eaters about how much food RARA can buy for a dollar, they then sweetly solicited donations in any amount. All told, they raised $470!
When we talked about the event during Friday’s class, they were awed by the amount of money raised but also reflected that the event in itself felt good. RARA staff attended and my students watched them tear up during poems. I’m pretty sure a couple of my students choked up, too. They’ll be devising individual activist projects using poetry next, serving whatever cause they feel most invested in, and I’m excited to see what they come up with. I’ll give you an update at the end of term!
Raising money: a clear win. Did the poetry itself change anyone’s thinking? My gut feeling is that it’s way too early to tell. Nobody in my class spoke about having personally experienced food insecurity (not that they necessarily would have), so I’m pretty sure our readings conveyed new information about that flavor of suffering to many, as well as making space for deep thinking about our obligations to each other. Maybe the example of those RARA staff and volunteers mattered most of all.
Back now to more ordinary good works: responding to student writing, preparing for class, reading for Shenandoah, working on the search for AWP’s new director, and maybe, maybe, squeezing in an hour or two for my own writing projects. Whatever you’re up to this week, I hope it involves good art and good food. I’ll leave you with a shot of me reading a poem by Lauren Alleyne from her book Difficult Fruit, plus the poem itself: “Grace Before Meals.” It’s a nourishing one.
With both a novel and a poetry collection due to editors this spring, this winter is all about revision. I’ve been combing through my poetry ms, trying to get the opening tracks right (I’ve tried five million variations) and forcing myself to fix or cut iffy but beloved poems. I’m also organizing a last round of submissions, alerting magazine editors to the publication date, and thinking hard about the title. Finalizing the title may entail yet more re-tuning, as well as research into cover images. Eventually I’ll hand it over to Molly Sutton Kiefer at Tinderbox, and I’m sure she’ll will find more for me to do!–but it’s exciting to be circling in.
Then I switched gears to my novel, Unbecoming. (This week is an academic break, which helps.) Timmi Duchamp at Aqueduct asked me to read it aloud before handing it over. I’m finding plenty of klutzy sentences to fix as well as an unbelievable number of adverbs, although I thought I’d weeded them out in the last round–they’re like bunnies or dandelions, proliferating in a fallow ms as soon as you turn your back. Like my poetry book, Unbecoming has survived more than a dozen major revisions, but the last ones focused on character, pacing, and a tendency to summary and over-explanation. I still have traces of the latter to expunge, but what I’m really striving for now is clean, direct sentences.
I like revision, even though it hijacks ALL my creative energies. (With these rewrites to tackle, plus Shenandoah poems to read and grant proposals to draft for my 2020-2021 sabbatical and this pesky full-time job as teacher-adviser-program coordinator, I feel like I’ll never write a new poem again.) It’s rewarding to hone old efforts and feel sentences click into their grooves. But I’ve been thinking about the word “revision.” Its emphasis on “looking anew” doesn’t entirely capture what I’m doing. In both genres, I’m re-sounding lines, trying to hear them freshly, managing echoes within mss. I’m also thinking hard, as I revise, in order to revise, about giving readings. What passages or poems would I choose to read aloud to audiences, and why? Do they sound right in my voice? If I would want to kick off a reading with this poem, or end it with that scene, do those preferences have implications for the arrangement of a printed book? Or do the mediums of print and live reading simply have different requirements?
Can you hear the anxiety? I’m really happy about these books but subject to fizzes of terror, too. I know the poetry book is my best ever and I have decent credentials to make that judgment; what puts me on alert is mainly my drive to do right by the work, shining it up and showing the widest possible audience that my poems are worth their time. I know that sounds arrogant, but I actually believe it. Fiction, though! Giving readings from a novel!! At least Ursula finds revision relaxing.
For I will consider my Kitten Ursula.
For she is the servant of Chthonic Forces and daily serving them.
For she detests clocks and smashes them so I may no longer be ruled by Time.
For with supernatural quickness she jumps upon my plate and eats my breakfast eggs.
For all ping-pong has become Cat Pong, with Ursula perched upon the table the better to intercept each ball with unholy dexterity.
For I used to consider Poe a handful.
For she is teaching me many lessons by scratching them upon my hands in hieroglyphics.
For first she laps tea from my unattended cup.
For secondly she jumps upon Poe with her legs splayed then bites him on the neck while he meekly submits.
For thirdly however high we store the ping-pong balls she will find them, so don’t place them near vases or computers.
For fourthly I apologize, Christopher Smart, I am too exhausted by Ursula to continue this list you inspired.
For last night while I slept Ursula chewed my phone off its charger, knocked it off the counter, and dragged it to her wildcat cave, meaning under the table, where she also stores stuffed animals she kills again and again because they deserve it.
For Stephanie calls her U-Slay-R.
For the phone was Ursula’s chief competitor so she lay in wait then dominated it.
For she is tenacious of her point.
For if you do not hear from me come look for me under the table.
For we all are studying how best to show her obeisance which may in the end be insufficient, although we thank the Chthonic Forces for giving us a slim chance by not granting Ursula opposable thumbs.
It’s fall, 2015. I’m on sabbatical. My mother is direly ill with what turns out to be lymphoma. I’m mourning my daughter’s departure for college and worrying about her experience there; my son, new to high school, faints in a clinic and is diagnosed with pneumonia. My own body is going haywire, perimenopausally. Amid doctor visits, road trips, and existential crises, I can’t concentrate on anything.
I have, however, been batting around an idea. I spent my girlhood writing stories and have always been an avid novel reader–literary fiction but also fantasy, science fiction, mysteries, horror, and a lot of the slippery genre-crossing stuff. Could I write a novel myself? A short one, maybe, drawing on worlds I know well to ease the learning curve? Could I do it–what the hell–right now?
I’d been inventing character backstories and had a couple of narrative threads in mind. Aside from artistic curiosity about the practice of novel-writing, though, the motivating impulse was to rewrite transitions like my own–which seemed at the time wholly about loss–so that they became empowering. In so many tales, magic or superpowers hit at puberty, and the physical changes I was undergoing were basically puberty in reverse. So wouldn’t menopause ALSO be a logical time for a person’s power to change? Why should teenage characters get all the joy?
So I wrote round the clock from November 2015 to January 2016, joyously, shocked at how fun and absorbing the work was, until I had a full draft. It was pretty terrible, but luckily for me, I’m married to an excellent teacher of fiction-writing. I rewrote it a few times and started sharing the ms with other friends. Many gave tough criticism in an encouraging way, bless them forever. Putting the ms under revision after revision, I killed some of my darlings and maimed a few, too. I deleted characters, complicated others, overhauled plot twists, faced a number of things I hadn’t wanted to admit about myself, and cut summary and adverbs and pretty descriptions and clever metaphors (I am a poet…). I queried agents; a bunch asked to see the whole ms but then passed, because I’d been deluded about its readiness. I revised some more.
Somewhere in there I queried Aqueduct Press, whose editors had been good to me during the publication of my speculative poetry collection, The Receptionist and Other Tales (all my poetry books feature ghosts and other flavors of uncanniness, but only The Receptionist is speculative through and through). The verse novella at the heart of it was named to the James Tiptree, Jr. Award Honor List, something I never would have thought I could even be in the running for.
Revise and resubmit was Aqueduct’s verdict, with some challenging, even deflating advice that I quickly recognized the utter justice of. More brainstorming, more character and plot overhauls, and a lot of the smaller screw-tightening fine-tooth-combing stuff. And then, a couple of weeks ago, with yet more notes about revision because that’s the writing life, came the offer of a contract.
So apparently, one of the magical transformations of midlife is that a poet can become a novelist. I have moments of elation about that, and moments of alarm. My turn to novels is a way bigger change than anything that’s happened in my writing life since I won a prize for Heterotopia ten years ago. It’s NOT a turn away from poetry, which is still very much at the center of my daily life, but it will be a turn away from traditional scholarship, I think. My novel, Unbecoming, and my next poetry collection, whose title I’m still fiddling with, will be out in 2020 (there’s a small chance of late 2019 for the novel, but I’m not banking on it). AND I have a book of poetry-based nonfiction, a hybrid of criticism and memoir, scheduled for 2021 (more details on that soon!).
Creative writing across the genres, full speed ahead!–I’ve been drafting a lot of micro-essays and some micro-fiction this winter. Reviewing, too. But I can’t do everything. And I know where my heart lies.
Learning to write a novel has been hard and surprising and wonderful, but now I have to learn about publishing one. PLUS do my best job ever at getting the word out about my new poetry collection, simultaneously, while revising the essay collection. It’s a lot. I anticipate a big pivot next year from the introversion of writing/ revision/ submission work to the extroversion required for traveling, reading, guest-teaching, panel-surfing, and all the other stuff. Some of it at SF conventions! And all this will happen right at my empty nest moment–this is also the winter of helping my son get college applications out and waiting for the verdicts. I mean, really–what’s the appropriate cheerful-but-scared expletive for THAT?
It’s pretty cold and dark out there. Confederate flaggers are stomping around my small town; the news from a larger world remains frightening. Perhaps insanely, I’m always looking for omens of something better ahead. As I walk home from work, I notice the sky is just a bit lighter, and wonder what hopes I can pin to the lengthening daylight.
Friday was an especially tough day. We had to put down our most gentle, elderly cat, the confusingly-named Female (rhymes with Emily). She’s the one we took over caring for a few years ago, when Chris’ mother couldn’t manage anymore. Lately Female hadn’t been eating–you could feel the knobs of her spine when you tried to stroke the poor thing–and I swear the way she looked at me, she was asking for help leaving the world. Chris took her to the vet, who said it was time, and then brought Female home to be buried in the yard. I wanted our other cats to have the news, so I brought her body inside for Poe to sniff; he leaned in, then recoiled. The kitten Ursula, whizzing around like a meteor, never noticed.
The one class I teach on Fridays, Protest Poetry, was also hard. On Wednesday I’d taught poems about the death of Malcolm X and while most of our discussion was productive, there had been a couple of bad moments–nothing ill-meaning, but students making insensitive comments as they thought aloud about deliberately disturbing poems. I had anticipated the need to discuss a homophobic slur in Amiri Baraka’s “Poem for Black Hearts,” and that went fine, but I hadn’t anticipated pushback, for instance, against anger itself. (We’d been reading about Emmett Till, the Baptist church bombed in Birmingham, a mounting death toll and litany of abuses–in what world is anger not inevitable and utterly just?–but as present politics continue to teach us, we don’t all live in the same world, and many of the students in my classroom are like Ursula, full of verve but not yet alert to the reality of other perspectives.) I responded in the moment, but in retrospect I realized I hadn’t responded strongly enough. So I began with an apology, asked the students to freewrite about a recent time they felt angry and what they did about it, then handed out “The Uses of Anger” by Audre Lorde. The discussion that followed was raw, messy, respectful, persistently oblivious, emotional, and awe-filled by turns, and I ended up having a couple of intense follow-ups with students afterwards. It didn’t do all the necessary work but it was a start.
Despite all that, while my January so far has been certainly been INTENSE, on balance 2019 has been good. There were also some really splendid local events this week, most of them centered on the first of two residencies by our Glasgow Distinguished Visiting Professor Aimee Nezhukumatathil. She is teaching a one-credit master class in poetry and the eight lucky students taking it are buzzing with happiness. She was also wildly charismatic and inspiring in her public reading–really lighting up a packed room. I’d done a lot of advance work to increase engagement, such as running a book club discussion in December of her newest collection, Oceanic, so as the programmer/ organizer I sighed with relief when I saw the crowd, but it was the quality of the event itself that made it all feel worthwhile. It was that rare cosmic conjunction: community payoff that was genuinely in proportion to the months of hard work! I feel grateful to her and also just deeply satisfied and happy about it. More strong feelings.
“Anger is loaded with information and energy,” Audre Lorde writes, and further on: “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is the grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.” There’s more information in her powerful essay than I’ve been able to process, but I treasure that insight about the deep connection between anger and grief. My heart is full this weekend, but not in a bad way. I feel anxious always; sad and thoughtful; but also joyous about good conversation. Hopeful about what else this young year might bring.
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I imbibe words and consume past minds. As a result, I often awake next to strange sentences and forgotten meanings.
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