All the synthesized sentiment at this time of year used to irritate me, but right now it’s too resonant, despite some intellectual resistance. That’s probably why I’m most struck, in the fall/winter issue of Hayden’s Ferry Review, by poems that riff on nostalgia. “I have this memory and it’s really poignant to me”: there’s a whole lyric subgenre that can be summed up this way. Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” for instance, or Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” and half the British Romantic canon.
For the rest, see my guest blog for Hayden’s Ferry Review. And more here soon, when the exams are graded!
In my first (pre-Google) years as a teacher I was in a perpetual state of fear and trauma: someone would ask me about the obscure name in a poem’s dedication, and I wouldn’t know the answer, and I would therefore be exposed as an ignorant imposter. I’ve relaxed since, having learned that everyone is an imposter. I can always answer a student’s question like a psychotherapist: “How does it make you feel not to know?”
My latest blog for Shenandoah discusses how the presence of a dedication–famous name, cryptic initial, or some other variation on that little tag under a poem’s title–alters how you engage with the verse. I react either smugly because I’m an insider, with the guilt of half-recognition, or with anxious cluelessness, but I’m assuming some readers have a wider emotional range. Would you weigh in either here or by following the link above? I’d really like to know.
I was just outed as a ghost-whisperer in Amy Balfour’s article about campus spirits. Balfour recounts several spooky stories about the building I teach in, Payne Hall, on the south end of Washington and Lee University’s historic colonnade, in a Civil-War-haunted town where garage doors are left open for spectral horses…
I’m blogging for Shenandoah this month and that passage above is the opening of my first entry. Read the rest here.
What if one of the few places you feel intellectually at home is a once-a-year gathering that shifts from city to city and disperses after three days? At the annual Modernist Studies Association meeting I can’t sleep for worrying about what I said or didn’t say during the panels. I sometimes feel like a clown from the wilderness, behind on the reading that everyone else seems to manage, failing to remember what I actually have read.
I also have conference friends with whom I’m instantly relaxed and cheerful, and I always feel energized by the intensity of the conversations. I missed fully half of the 2011 modernist materialization in Buffalo, New York last weekend but crammed in as much as I could while on site. The panels and especially the roundtables were terrific. I was on a roundtable organized by Helen Sword about innovative scholarship; my co-panelists were brilliant and I’m still chewing on their propositions. Another, Marsha Bryant’s “Re-thinking Poetic Innovation,” presented an electrifying investigation of a ubiquitous word. When it’s used to describe contemporary poetry, “innovative” vexes me no end and lo! I am not the only resister!
Some scraps from my notebook follow—smart questions, sharp observations, and other bon mots. I identify speakers when I know them. Caveat: I may have details/phrasing completely wrong. I was pretty worked up.
Alan Golding: What does fetishizing innovation stop you from doing?
Bob Perelman: “Avant-garde” is an increasingly quaint period term.
Steven Yao referred to “the phenomenon of the usual suspects” and asked what modernism would look like if we acknowledged the bigger picture of literary production. Following up on that point later, Mike Chasar pointed out, “when you read distantly you first have to identify your archive,” and then described going into debt buying strangers’ poetry scrapbooks via E-Bay.
Elisabeth Frost recalled another poet asking her, “But isn’t all good poetry innovative?” Discovering that her conversational partner “held all the rhetorical cards,” she rethought the term and proffered “transformational poetry” instead, being interested in identifying “what poetry can do.” The transformational critic, she went on to say, “tries not to be smart so much as connected.”
From the audience: “Innovation can be contextual. A Harlem Renaissance poet using the sonnet is doing something transformational.”
Another man asked how we can talk about innovation without destruction—the adolescent impulse to smash? Some enthusiastic/mocking pounding of tables ensued.
Jed Rasula offered the following distinction: experiments can fail while innovations have already succeeded; their status is beyond failure.
Meredith Martin asked why we’re still buying the “make it new” tag Ezra Pound sold us. It’s easy to teach, she answered herself, and Alan Golding commented that the problem with the great project of blowing open the modernist archive is that it becomes unteachable.
Mike Chasar informed us that Edgar Guest is the most published US poet of the 20th century—he published a poem a day for 30 years—and no one has written critically about him.
Lynn Keller suggested that innovation is a professional term: “WE want to be innovative, justifying what we do. The word has to do with the profession more than with the literature.”
Even just one provocative conversation justifies a few stupid airplane hops, especially when it’s framed by reunions over free pastries. I walked into breakfast on Saturday and Annette Debo and Marsha Bryant called out, fully as if they were happy to see me, “It’s Lesley! Where WERE you?” People greeted me like that all morning. I concluded the evening at the bar with a former undergraduate, John Mellilo, who now has a PhD and an ACLS fellowship and honeymoon plans and a wildman beard. Now, of course, I’m back on the heath, bags and brain stuffed with winter provisions
This week, one of the two most productive writers I know wondered aloud, “Is this it? Is the brain case empty now?” as she rapped her skull smartly. Last week, I asked the other one, who is going through a bad time, whether she was writing about it. “Nope,” she pronounced with authority from within her crenellated citadel of books and papers. Both are scholar-teacher-poets with lots of service commitments to the university, the larger profession, and various other communities, and I’ve recently seen both of them drop everything to tend to a family member in crisis.
September and October are always the absolute worst months for me as a writer (northern hemisphere bias alert: I definitely mean early fall and the beginning of school). Maybe it’s different when you don’t have teachers or students in the house; I wouldn’t know. At the office, classes, committee work, and special events force an intense schedule, and there’s all that leftover summer work to finish—the deadlines you didn’t quite meet. At home, the kids are stressed out by transition. They need both firing up and talking down so they can reestablish homework/practice routines and manage to sleep at night. For us, there are two September birthdays, conferences, and book promotion in the mix.
It’s not just time, though, especially where poetry is concerned. There’s a quality of attention I find hard to manage. To write, you have to notice what’s strange, urgent, lovely, or interesting and I’m just moving too fast. All weekend, even: feed the kids, grade the papers, get some minimal exercise, pay the bills, have postponed conversations about practical things like whether we have to take that tree down and what’s that growth on your thumb and what happens this Thanksgiving. Worse, because I’m moving rapidly from task to task, I fill free moments with similarly quick and not-too-difficult activities: check Facebook and email, read The New Yorker. I don’t have a lot of time, but there’s an hour every once in a while, and I don’t spend it on what I care about the most.
I’m drafting this entry early Sunday morning. My task today, having graded the papers and planned Monday’s class, is to prepare comments for a conference roundtable on innovative scholarship. As in, I’m supposed to be someone who produces it and can explain how. This does strike me as funny. My brain case isn’t empty—there are several big questions percolating in there—but at the moment I have too many options and wouldn’t know what to tackle if some power stopped time for a week and sent me to Yaddo or the Beinecke. Or how to tackle it. Would I be aiming my prose at venues with scholarly or literary prestige? Small coterie journals with great editors and no resources? My neglected blog? Or would I just play around? Self-indulgent, apparently pointless experiment has produced some of my better poems, though I revise with several editors’ heads bobbing facelessly over my shoulder like Sylvia Plath’s disquieting muses. I know that if I want to be a better and more productive writer, I have to be ready to waste time, stare at the wall, obsess fruitlessly, ignore responsibilities, and do it again and again.
Someone told me last night at a dinner that he’s going to read poetry when he retires and he has time to savor it. I’m going to look for writing windows sooner than that. Like, maybe, November.
That’s Allen Ginsberg quoted in Gordon Ball’s memoir, East Hill Farm. Ginsberg must rank as one of the most generous, sociable poets ever, so his complaint about togetherness makes me feel better: my vague guilt this time is that I’m just not sorry to have missed the fifties and sixties. I do envy the cultural urgency poetry had then. Some of the gatherings sound wonderful. However, I also really like plumbing, goat-free living space, monogamy, and savings accounts. If Dr. Who offered to take me back to the Six Gallery reading I’d jump, but I’d surreptitiously wipe the mouth of Kerouac’s bottle before I tasted his wine, and I’d stash some clean matching socks in the Tardis.
Ginsberg established East Hill Farm in Cherry Valley, New York as a refuge from “needle drugs” for “used poets.” Ball, a professor-scholar-writer-photographer-filmmaker at Virginia Military Institute, has been my neighbor for a long time, but in the late sixties he helped manage this cultural experiment. There he learned how to grow vegetables, use snowshoes, and keep a rotating array of inhabitants warm, fed, watered, reasonably sober, and somewhat cooperative—not easy in any conditions, much less a rickety old farmhouse without electricity. At any given moment Ginsberg might be composing settings for Blake on a harmonium while Peter Orlovsky barreled around deranged by speed and Orlovsky’s nearly-mute brother blew his nose with the dishtowel. Ball’s engaging new book gives detailed descriptions of all the orgiastic craziness, dark and light: beautiful walks among hawkeye flowers, with or without acid’s intensification; days of peaceable hard work in the fields; Gregory Corso taunting children with the steak he refused to share; an ecstatic excursion to a Jewish wedding also attended by Bob Dylan; sex in every human combination; car accidents; broken hearts; and a few women who thanklessly did more than their fair share of the kitchen work.
One of this memoir’s virtues is Ball’s willingness to criticize as well as recount, evoke, and marvel. Those women, not surprisingly, kept leaving. He looks back on his own obliviousness to their feelings with considerable chagrin. (That’s one of the many reasons I wouldn’t dial the clock back; I can see myself resentfully, dutifully trapped at that stove surrounded by loveable men who mean well.) Ball clearly loved Ginsberg, who appears here as far more open-minded than some of his companions; able to talk to anyone; so giving that he often suffered financially, physically, emotionally; brilliant, politically committed, spiritual, and wise. Ball portrays even Ginsberg, though, as a quirky, inconsistent human being—not a saint. Of course, that makes Ginsberg’s example of artistic achievement matched by active kindness all the harder to live up to.
For all Ginsberg’s openness he got the work done, refusing to go to the movies, asking for quiet when he needed it. You can want and need connection and still feel its drag: sociability can be terribly expensive in time and energy. Sometimes I feel my meter running when my kids’ friends parade noisily through my orderly kitchen, or emails rack up while phone messages blink and the cat yowls at the door. This past weekend was like that—I was slammed by unexpected, urgent work while Chris was away. I became short-tempered with the kids, didn’t give them the intervals of full attention they deserved. There’s only so much of me: tick, tick, tick.
Friday night, at least, I had a great visit with an old friend; we talked about all kinds of things over glasses of red and a plate of local figs. I want more hours like that. Impossibly, I also want many more of the kind of hour that followed. One kid was in bed, one at a sleepover, and I was alone, writing in my notebook, listening as tree frogs told their mantra and my well-stocked, ice-dispensing, bourgeois refrigerator answered om.
“Who Wants to Be a Scholar Anyway,” “The Academic Strategic Planning Blues,” “Ballad of the Executive Director of Alumni Affairs”: the titles in my poetry folders suggest that I write a lot of doggerel when I’m all steamed up. Most jobs present occasions for indignation, even when you like the work and feel fortunate to have it. I’m starting my 18th year at this selective liberal arts college, and while the job itself is a great fit for me—the emphasis on teaching and support for scholarship hit the right balance, and I have brilliant, dedicated colleagues—university and local culture still estrange me on a regular basis. Co-education came late, in 1985, and it was painful. The Civil War is still underway: General Lee is buried on campus and the local paper is full of letters, this week, from people who want our town to fly the Confederate flag. Undergraduate rates of sexual assault are too high. I love my students but know that a few of them must be committing those crimes; the dissonance is hard to live with. Things are better than they were, and being a full professor in a strong department insulates me somewhat, but these aren’t great consolations.
So when, in 2005, the planning committee for the 20th anniversary of coeducation asked me to commemorate this milestone poetically, I was electrified and stumped. My standard response to writer’s block (tellingly) is to conduct research. I studied occasional poems by Heaney, Auden, Brooks, and others. I also trudged down to Special Collections, where press coverage of coeducation is archived (we co-educated so late that the national media made a fuss). The latter was pretty horrifying. Some professors, alumni, and administrators argued eloquently for coeducation, but they won because finance aligned with feminism: men’s single sex colleges could no longer attract large numbers of highly qualified applicants, resulting in shrinking student bodies and loss of prestige. Coeducation’s opponents, meanwhile, flaunted obnoxious bumper stickers, and to the press, certain anonymous professors lamented the dilution of a noble enterprise.
I thought, okay, the asbestos gloves of form for dangerous materials, but I need a capacious form that can handle prosey rhythms. I labored over a sestina, toned it down, toned it down some more, and then tested it on friends, who still found it intensely angry. Clearly addressing coeducation head-on was a bad idea since I couldn’t celebrate that fraught occasion. Plan B: a totally different poem in tribute to a series of women students. Them, I could celebrate.
Neither the poem I presented (“Office Hours”) nor the one I kept to myself satisfies me. Maybe the process spelled doom in itself. I write first drafts in an exploratory way, turning off the editor’s voice and my compulsion to be nice; I couldn’t do that here. Ambivalence is my engine and I had to mute it. “Office Hours,” felt honest, at least, drawing on my direct and positive experience of coeducation as a teacher who arrived after the controversy. I’d be totally game to try again, but the whole thing does make me think of a student evaluation I once received: “I learned that writing poems is easy but writing good poems is really, really hard.” Writing good joyous poems is harder than writing good ambivalent ones. Writing good joyous poems for a specific audience on a specific topic might require divine intervention.
A veteran professor declared, seriously, ‘The education of women is a trivial matter. The education of men is a serious matter. I don’t think the frivolous and the serious should mix.’ -from a Newsweek article by Ron Givens on co-education at Washington and Lee University, October 1985
The banner, a bedsheet really, cleared its throat as day-
light changed George Washington to gold: “NO
MARTHAS,” it politely recommended. Serious
banter draped beneath a finial image of the gentleman
whose once-warm original gave necessary sums
and his name to Washington Academy. Tradition
honors his largesse even though, says tradition,
George liked Martha. “A Roll in the Hay, but Not All Day,”
bumperstickers prescribed, heedless of allergy, but some
feared that immoderate exposure to women, with no
respite from estrogen, could harm young gentlemen
more than sexually-transmitted rhinitis. Serious
fears in frivolous words but their frivolity is seriously
funny, admit it, and shocking, as if tradition
might really mean privilege only for gentlemen,
gentlemanly in wallet more than character, not today
but back in the eighties, of course, when privilege brought not
just good cars, shoes, and liquor but keys to some
fraternity-shaped hay barn. Crass capital, sums
and debits, admitted women, found the Titanic. Serious
money ebbs and flows with SAT scores, and, no
joke, Goshen was in drought. Wealth is a tradition,
too. Brushing hayseeds off the sheets, Yesterday
went to bed grumbling; Tomorrow woke the gentlemen
with perfume and pink curtains. A gentleman
does not lie, cheat, or steal, suggested somebody,
or gripe about girls during African famine. The days
of men swimming naked in the gym pool sank into serious
dusk. Of course, we still pontificate about tradition
with little frivolity and less sense of history. No
school year stumbles by without slurs, although no
one drinks bourbon in legwarmers or whines, ungentlemanly,
that “everybody is worried about academics” now. Tradition
originally meant surrender or betrayal. Some
say it does still. Is Martha lucky to be here, seriously,
or does she surrender, betrayed, every day?
The gentlemen were seriously lucky that Martha
respected no tradition, flounced bravely in past Gorbachev,
Reagan, New Coke. Prevailing like Live Aid, like some MacGyver.
Jeanne placed her backpack
so that the pink triangle
pointed square at me.
The “C” hit Nora
like spume on a cat: green sparks,
salt, then pride and grit.
Meg left her poems and
fled. The poems themselves, bolder,
stayed and stayed and stayed.
Up North I am a
dogwood May, said Carroll. Here
I am heat, flood, storm.
In England I felt
like a woman, Lisa said.
Here I just feel black.
Kyle’s illness brightened
her, like snow in the sun. She
will heal everyone
she meets. Stanzas can’t
contain them or Rebecca,
Jessica. My cramped office,
rough as an eggshell,
cannot confine them.
Washington and Lee holds them
just a little while,
like a rockfall on
the interstate, like the soft
banks of a spring creek,
like a phrase or an
idea you consider while
it considers you.
Either immediately, because you’re procrastinating about some other task, or after a long period of dusty avoidance, as if reading poetry were a chore. Bad poet. This summer, after nearly six months in New Zealand, the pile is high and dust rules.
Primed for irritation, because so many poems will be dull and yet the editors chose them over your brilliant productions. Even when a poem catches you, there’s another kind of irritation, because you want to follow that voice but turn the page and the spell dissolves. This makes you a hypocritical magazine submitter, because you prefer individual collections. Bad, bad poet.
Skimming analytically: what is great poet A, or overrated poet B, or obscure genius poet C up to now? What is the new editor choosing, how is the old editor’s taste evolving, are any trends beginning or ending? This is interesting to you as a poetry nerd (term encompassing scholar, teacher, fan). It is also important in a practical way: you will send poems to magazines X, Y, and Z again, despite the irritation described above. You can’t control how your poems are behaving (long poems with zombies, really?), but you can look for overlap between what your obsessions and what editors seem to like lately. Notice it’s not really long poems in the Thanksgiving Horror genre.
Hopefully, because you really do love poems and all these magazines will contain at least one astonishing thing that lowers your blood pressure again.
Pieces that made me stop skimming and fall into their gravity:
When you introduce multiple characters and tag dialogue in a short poem, you make all kinds of trouble for yourself. Part of it is just fitting it in: most contemporary poetry in print is going for economy, resonance, surprise, evocation in fragments. You can toss out some of the names and the “he said”s by strategic use of titles, typefaces, and margins, but the imperatives of interwoven stories can still add layers of difficulty to a genre most people find difficult enough.
There is a kind of poetry book, though—not narrative epic, not verse drama, not the modernist long poem with its collage aesthetic—that, by arrangement of short poems into sequences, plausibly fuses multiple voices into a noisy, sociable whole. The scope of the collection is defined by place and time more than by perspective, recurring ideas, or a frame of mind. Two of my favorites are Gwendolyn Brooks’ A Street in Bronzeville and Langston Hughes’ Montage of a Dream Deferred. They concern Chicago’s South Side and Harlem respectively, presenting portraits of neighborhoods by giving voice to various residents. Many of the poems stand well alone and are often anthologized, but they work even better in context, returned to their home communities.
If there’s a twentieth-century tradition of this kind of book, it’s pretty obscure. Hughes and Brooks are certainly responding to each other; Claudia Emerson, whose books demonstrate a strong sense of place and character, often expresses admiration for Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie; and the three blurbers of Lumina, Heather Ross Miller’s new book (Emerson is one), all compare it to the most famous example, Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (I say famous, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about teaching it). I suspect that most poets dreaming of a multiple-voiced lyric sequence invent their way forwards with relatively few models to hand. For a contemporary writer, further, lyric sequences can be pretty impractical. It’s hard to build an audience for such work by publishing bits in U.S. magazines, where the one-to-two page stand-alone poem is king, narrative is suspect, and readerships are small and splintered. (Can you tell I’m worrying over some long poems and sequences of my own?)
Miller’s Lumina, named for a fictional aluminum-smelting settlement in North Carolina, is subtitled “a town of voices.” It’s a beautiful and elegiac book, reanimating lost family members and a drowned landscape: the dammed river powering everything is “a dazzled brain-damaged giant just/ gone to sleep a while.” The main character, often the speaker, is Nell Leopard, but voices and perspectives from different generations in the same place jangle together. Miller finds a sonic analogue for those shifting resemblances that is much more like Brooks than Masters: irregular rhyme, often internal, sometimes just a slantwise echo of vowels and consonants. I could pick out almost any passage as an example but here are two:
Engineers came to furnace
our bright falling water
and they meant business.
They meant deep water
deep enough to spark
the whole hot place.
They meant hard work
hard enough to keep men
all night tasting salt straight
down their bare faces… (“Nell sees them pen the Falls, dam the Yadkin” 2)
The passage begins with a command: “Listen.” What I hear is imperfect rhyme: furnace/ business, spark/ work, place/ straight/ tasting/ faces. Or:
She had asthma sometimes
so bad, she beat through a screen door
to get her breath, beating the screen
to death. People drown beating
their way through a door to the
last breath. It’s true, and more. (“Mark Drowns,” 18)
The most salient rhymes are breath/ death and door/more, but those pairs also chime with “get,” “bad,” and “their,” and the assonance of beat/ screen/ the flows through the lines. Further, these sound-families intermarry in the desperately-linked sight rhyme of beat and breath. And I get hypoxic just writing about the line break on “the”: the dying girl’s last breath is just out of reach. The story of Lumina is moving, the characters compelling, and that’s why Miller’s book is worth reading, really. But it makes a lot of sense for a book about memory and inheritance to play around with echo, and rhyme harmonizes its ingredients in a way that delights me.
I must be forgetting this book’s other kin; if my description of Miller’s achievement reminds you of similarly populated collections, I’d love to be informed/ reminded.
“Page two is a verb tense tour de force,” he says, and I puff right up. I’m pretty new at creative nonfiction as a genre, but prose storytelling is his mastery zone. Who knew the personal essay was all about verb tenses? Transitions, yeah, understood they were trouble. And bending accuracy for elegance (we sometimes ate upstairs from trays, but he wants me to say we ate upstairs from trays): those choices shape poems too but the pressure seems higher when the “I” is more plainly me (“speaker,” hah). Where do I write “Richard Attenborough” and where “John Hammond”? Does “curator of cloned dinosaurs” cover it, in an essay littered with Jurassic Park references? You’d think I’d be worried about the family business I’m rolling out in these sentences, but we agree on ethics quickly, having been discussing them since 1986. That was the Cretaceous Period, when we worked on the Rutgers literary magazine and flirted across the editorial table.
Then he says, “But I think this is the kind of piece that you need to sit on for a couple of months,” and I deflate miserably. I always let poems cool off at least that long but I just wanted to finish something, send off something, and I thought this was it. He spends the next twenty minutes trying to take it back while I make tragic eyes at him.
This is the core of living with another writer. It’s no joke finding time and energy to read each other’s stuff with jobs and kids and domestic crises to tend. When you do, you might like it or you might not, but be careful how you comment because you’ll be in bed with that person all night. And none of it is separate from all the other conflicts that percolate between two people in the same house. One always seems to be finding more writing time, or winning more accolades, or earning more money, and that absolutely affects the force with which the frying pan is lowered onto the stove. What can look from the outside like a steady climb is full of morasses, like when a press closes right after printing your novel and you’re completely on your own for promotion (buy Chris Gavaler’s School for Tricksters now!)
Competition was much alleviated when we parted generic ways in our early twenties (his poems got longer and prosier while I cheered from the sidelines). I was genuinely happy about his successes, but my congratulatory exclamations still felt cleaner once I started having some success of my own. I didn’t like it at all when he started writing short stories about a stay-at-home dad whose English professor wife got pregnant by another man; by the time he posted an offprint of “The Best and Worst Sex Scenes of All Time” on the department bulletin board and colleagues started waggling their eyebrows at me, I’d had it. I regret asking him to get his female characters the hell out of my job description, though, and now I second-guess myself when I want to say: don’t write that, this one’s too personal. The kids deserve veto power but after all, reader, I married him.
Despite the appearance of kiss-and-tell (that character really WAS NOT ME), he’s a better writer-spouse than I am. He reads a higher proportion of what I produce, with less show of angst, and comments more generously. He often fails to notice that a poem is in iambic pentameter (oh yeah, it does rhyme) but he’s invariably smart about structure, where I need to cut or expand, whether I’ve gotten to the urgent you-must-read-this material or whether I need to keep digging. I rarely publish something before incorporating a few of his suggestions.
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