“No,” she said (I’m paraphrasing), “you have to post your daily poem. That’s how you learn to stop worrying about what other people think. It frees you.” Luisa Igloria, who gave a great reading here a few days ago, has published a poem a day at Dave Bonta’s Via Negativa since November 20th, 2010, so she should know. I’m still resisting, although like many other crazy versifiers, I’m drafting a poem a day this April for NaPoWriMo. Part of my resistance to posting them all is just plain ego and ambition: what if I write something brilliant, self-publish it in my blog, and then it’s not eligible for a starring role in some luminous magazine venue? (I do realize I could profitably let that reservation go.) Another part is skepticism that people really want to read my first drafts: I read students’ unpolished lines for a living and while helping people become better writers is an awesome job, I am not hungry to read more drafts in my spare time. I believe in and regularly practice radical revision, brooding over pieces for months or years. Many of my favorite poems convey hard thinking about knotty problems. I know their authors banged their heads against walls for a long time to figure out what’s really at stake in each of those babies. The flipside to that Bishopian sense of caution is that some great poems do pop, Athena-like, out of writers’ heads fully-grown, and you’re much more likely to receive those gifts if you hold yourself accountable to a daily practice.
My last reason for not posting my daily poems is the most artistically urgent, I think. I tried this regimen for the first time last April and the constant drafting did free me, in a way. I was writing so much it removed the pressure on each poem to be serious or even good. I started tackling subjects I’d never dared address before. I wouldn’t have been willing to take those risks on a public stage (if you can call a poetry blog “public”).
But, because Luisa has earned the right to recommend it, I’m going to post a few of my April poems here this year. The one below was occasioned by a gift she brought, and also by my recent reading of Trilogy with the talented students in my seminar on British and Irish poetry.
For another pretty book, this one full of less pretty drafts, see my exhibit in the wonderful Tapa Notebooks archive at the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre coordinated by Michele Leggott and Brian Flaherty. The first of the pages in the digital archive is a brainstorming exercise on terza rima I did with a group of poets in Wellington in June, 2011 (they called it “torture rima”). In the subsequent pages you can see lists of possible rhymes, a recipe for farro risotto, a blog draft, and notes from a wonderful conference on African-American poetry held at UT Austin. While I kept the first half of the journal as a commonplace book, I eventually called on other poets to fill up the back: I asked the writers I met to put down a few lines of poetry by another writer that had been haunting them lately. You can see some of those pages, too: Leslie Marmon Silko from Deborah Miranda, Terrance Hayes from Roger Reeves, Myung Mi Kim from Dawn Lundy Martin, Wallace Stevens from Dean Young, and more. Having excerpts of my writing journal online makes me feel a little naked, but it’s a terrific project and being involved is an honor. Another American whose Tapa Notebook just got archived: Joy Harjo.
She Must Have Been Pleased With Us
the pages, I imagine, are the blank pages
of the unwritten volume of the new
H.D., “Tribute to the Angels”
She gave me a journal as small as a camel
cricket. I don’t have visions like other
poets, just an occasional auditory or
olfactory hallucination, but Maria Luisa’s
gift reminded me of Lowndes Square
in wartime. Bryher thought to raise chickens
there—Belgravia!—but they ate their own eggs.
The Lady with the Book came to Hilda in May
1944. Those interminable blackouts, long
confinements in the flat, began to shorten;
one might keep the window open late,
imagining the scent of apple blossom
from a charred tree. Perdita’s darning needle
limned by the dim glow from a clock-face.
Waiting for the zrr-hiss. I can’t see it.
My book whirs along a fine bronze chain
around my neck. A lady gave it to me
in an egg-shell. I would need a camel-
hair brush, a single fiber, to paint a poem
there. Each syllable a sensillum.
H.D. thought, she was satisfied
with our purpose, and heard campanili
call the names of angels. I hear
the sky creak with cold: no cricket music
yet. I smell candlelight, a long-ago
poet toasting bread over a little blue jet.
April 3, 2013
You thought I meant poetry readings, I’m sure, and yes, we will talk dirty to you in bookstores, classrooms, cafés, and other marginal spaces, for little or no compensation. But at the moment I’m referring to another kind of freebie. The wheel of the year has turned and it’s time to get Feral for National Poetry Month. At the prompting of verse alchemist Susan Rich I’m participating in The BIG POETRY GIVEAWAY (follow the link if you’d like to give away some books yourself). As she says in her invitation:
“Anyone with a blog can giveaway 2 books of poems. Anyone with an email address can enter any or all of the giveaways. Yes, poetry is that easy! You can give it away and you can also sign-up to receive it! You don’t need a blog to participate, you just need to visit different participating blogs.”
The two books I’ll be giving away at the beginning of May are my most recent poetry collection, The Receptionist and Other Tales, and Janet McAdams’ 2007 book Feral. Both have a slipstream vibe, occupying the littoral zone at the edge of speculative fiction. I like to call the long poem “The Receptionist” a feminist fantasy campus novella in terza rima; it’s followed by shorter poems involving revenants, hallucinations, zombie apocalypse, and other alarming lyric materializations.
Feral explores another kind of wildness—tales of feral children—although Janet McAdams also populates this intensely lyric book with fish girls, polar explorers, and others who hover between worlds. McAdams is a brilliant writer who teaches at Kenyon College in Ohio; other equally fabulous books include her novel Red Weather and her first poetry collection, The Island of Lost Luggage. She founded the Earthworks series for indigenous poetry at Salt Press.
If you’d like a chance to win these books, leave a comment below that includes a way to reach you. At the end of April I’ll develop some magical randomizing process for choosing a name. Like any of the participating bloggers, I’ll cover postage to any place in the universe. Here’s a teaser from Janet’s book.
What She Will Sing to You
My mother cast into the wave that nudged my birth
and I finned out with a slime-covered flipper
and learned a different kind of love:
this dorsal fin could cut you through like a razor.
You will learn to breathe here after all. Over these joined legs
are two fat breasts and a mouth, soft and open. A tongue to wrap
around the words I might whisper, through water, salt water.
Sailor, you can learn to breathe here. Come down, come
down. I was never human, not your fairy tale. I will teach you more
than breathing. I will make your body ache open with salt pleasure.
I’m risk-averse, at least financially. My mother felt trapped in a bad marriage by her lack of education and her sense that she couldn’t earn a decent living. I remember thinking as a child: come hell or high water, I WILL have my own salary, health insurance, retirement fund. I will never have to sit and swallow it while a man puts me down, mocks what I don’t know and can’t do.
There’s no such thing as perfect safety in money or anything else, but tenure’s about as close as I’m going to get: I have a job I love, a fair amount of freedom in what I say and write, and even a little fund for annual conference attendance. This year I spent a big chunk of the latter at the AWP in Boston, an 11,000-person conclave of writers blowing all kinds of crazy smoke. I had several gigs to perform. One of them was to describe modernist poetry performance for Iris Jamahl Dunkle’s very rich panel, “Shaking the Burning Birch Tree: A Celebration of Amy Lowell.” Another was to interview Rafael Campo for a magazine. A third was to emcee a panel I’d devised with the distinctly risky title of “Career Suicide.” As I said to the well-populated room, I had worried for months that audience members would rise up and berate me for being too flip about one word and too serious about the other—that is, using suicide as a metaphor for risks that are typically less apocalyptic, and for implying that writers should think in terms of “career” at all. After all, publishing and professorships are in some ways pretty tangential to the difficult and important business of getting the words right. Isn’t conceiving of writing as a career the beginning of a whole mess of problems?
I did register a number of people grimacing painfully when I told them the name of the panel, but no one stormed out. Instead, we had a pretty good conversation; I’m still pondering what we said and what we left unsaid. How much is any one of us willing to reveal, really, when the room is full of current and future readers, editors, and grantors? Talk about career suicide.
What we did say: a big topic was the risk inherent in switching or bridging genres. Lawrence Schimel has some particularly compelling stories about how writing gay poetry and erotica has been an obstacle to publishing children’s fiction under his own name in the US, but a useful credential-builder in Spain for the same enterprise. Place was a major theme, too. Luisa Igloria described leaving a thriving career in the Philippines for a position in the US where her previous accomplishments seemed to weigh little. She and Lawrence spoke movingly, too, about how marriage laws and cultural understandings of gender make a big difference in a writer’s life. Ann Fisher-Wirth told us about leaving a prestigious job where she was unhappy and eventually creating a career that fit her needs and talents just right. There were similar stories from the audience: sometimes, if you’re stubborn enough about what you want and/or what you feel compelled to write, you survive the hostility and resistance to make a decent place for yourself. We talked a little about physical risk, some about financial risk, probably most about reach and reputation. We broached the topic of the astounding generosity I see in many writers, but probably didn’t address it sufficiently: for example, editorial work, university service, or outreach to underserved populations make it difficult to get your own writing done but can make the world better. There’s so much to say about risk, really. It encompasses everything from how you word the first line of a poem to how you live on earth.
I like to bloviate about myself as much as any author, but I genuinely did call this panel together to hear what others had to say rather than dispense pearls of dubious wisdom. My own genre experiments were certainly on my mind, though. I’m thrilled by the good reception so far of The Receptionist and Other Tales, starting with those blurbs from sf writers I’ve never met but have adored for years, and peaking recently in a great review by Sally Rosen Kindred in Strange Horizons and a place on the Tiptree Award Honor List. I’m unequivocally proud of the book. But I do see now how a genre change can jeopardize the audience you’ve been building instead of, or in addition to, expanding that audience to include new readers. When I tell poets and editors about the venture, some of them just get this look, and I know they won’t even read the first page. I wonder about the implications for future reviews, grants, and opportunities.
But you know, while I’m scared, I’m not the least bit sorry. The creative dangers of this project have started conversations I’m enjoying wickedly. They’ve also somehow authorized more risk-taking in my new writing: I’m a little more likely to leap before I look.
Sally Rosen Kindred tapped me for this game of blog-tag in which I contemplate my ms-in-progress as a high-concept Hollywood thriller starring James Franco minus apes. Let the bidding war begin.
What is your working title of your book (or story, or project)?
Radioland or some variation involving additional nouns, verbs, and/or prepositions. For a long time I was calling it Signal to Noise, but radio is emerging as a recurrent metaphor, and I like the idea that listening establishes a virtual place full of attentive ghosts: hey you out there in radioland… Plus, the latter is also the title of a graphic novel and I don’t want to annoy Neil Gaiman.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
Writing requires a reception-transmission loop. You always have antennae up.
What genre does your book fall under?
On the lyric poetry radio dial, it’s that faint yet tantalizing broadcast, almost impossible to tune in, between the expensively-boosted signals of certain New York stations.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Who is the star du jour for all poet roles? In addition, my father, a major character in the manuscript, will be played by Alan Rickman.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Receiving a welter of signals from uncanny sources suggesting the approach of the end of days, the brave poet assembles a crack team of spirit-bards who help her save the human race from possessed Tea Party Republicans. (Illegal second sentence: afterwards, her parents divorce, her father dies, her house floods, and the world ends anyway, but she remains implausibly cheerful.)
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Being an Ah-tist, I am too busy wrestling the Muse in my unheated garret to acknowledge the frenzied door-knocking of agents and publishers. Or, to put it another way, I’ll write the best book possible and then send it out with my fingers crossed, no guarantees. Heathen took years and years to place while Heterotopia and The Receptionist and Other Tales found congenial homes without epic questing, so who knows.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I was playing with the same ideas when I started writing The Receptionist in the winter of 2008-9 and poems are still coming, but I have a critical mass now and hope to organize a full draft of the book during a VCCA residency in April. I’m not yet sure which poems will make the cut.
What other books would you compare this collection to?
It’s not much like Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Second April, H.D.’s Sea Garden, Langston Hughes’ Montage of a Dream Deferred, James Merrill’s Divine Comedies, Bill Manhire’s Lifted, Thomas Sayers Ellis’ Skin Inc., Paula Meehan’s Painting Rain, or Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars, but all of those books helped me think through certain problems—how to risk weirdness, tune in something bigger without blowing out the speakers.
This book will also contain a suite of poems about my father’s mean, sad death—at eight-five, he remarried a woman forty years younger and died in a veteran’s hospital nine months later, alone and alienated from nearly everyone who would have taken care of him. His funeral was another apex of awfulness. I thought a lot about famous dead father poems by Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, and Sharon Olds.
Actually, come to think about it, yes, my book is exactly like those weird works of genius Ariel and The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats. All my books are. Don’t try to live without them.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Radio in the 80s; red wolves; spring light; dreams; other writers.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
If you’re pure of heart and not sexually active, push past the fur coats in one poem—I can’t tell you which, and you must hold the book receipt in your left hand—and you will be transported to a magical kingdom. Plus, you really need to experience the book early on your own terms. Otherwise, movie posters of Franco in my sweaters and pink paisley eyeglasses will completely co-opt your inner life.
Poems that may be in Signal to Noise:
“Dead Poet in the Passenger Seat,” Prairie Schooner, reprinted as Shenandoah Poem of the Day
“Red Wolf Howl” in Valparaiso Poetry Review
“The Book of Neurotransmitters” in Fringe
Three more in Talking Writing
Also see the journals Kestrel, Puerto Del Sol, Rattle, Notre Dame Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Rabbit, Studio, and 32 Poems, all of whom have awesome editors.
More takes on “The Next Big Thing” here:
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.
I make photographs and poems to please myself (and share them to please you).
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