Errant in the Bewilderness

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.

Small amid the sparkle

Is that a cormorant on that piling near St. Augustine, Florida, drying its wings? Because all the poets at the AWP convention in Tampa the week after next will look comparably, awkwardly exhibitionistic. Yo! I’m not totally unimposing! Come buy my book!

Including me, of course. I’ll be carrying around copies of my new chapbook, Propagation, for sale ($5) or trade (I like books, dark chocolate, and flattery). I’m already feeling goofy about it. I’m also delighted to be participating (briefly) at the Black Earth Institute Reading on March 8th at 4 pm in the Attic Cafe on Kennedy. Otherwise, I’ll mostly be conducting AWP Board duties: attending the board meeting all day Wednesday and the Awards Celebration Benefit that evening; speaking at the program directors’ plenaries Thursday morning; thanking bookfair participants and doing bookfair office hours; introducing the introducers and taking speakers to dinner. This is all a privilege, plus it’s my last year as Mid-Atlantic Regional Chair so I need to savor the fun bits, but I will feel some relief when it’s behind me.

I’m struggling to stay zen this weekend, with a larger world in bloody shambles and my own life as busy as I can handle. Last weekend was W&L’s weeklong midterm break, which we kicked off with a wonderful three nights at the beach followed by hunkering down to catch up on work, most seriously starting Thursday, when my son embarked for the Model UN in Chapel Hill. As usual, I was partly successful. I finished grading, but more comes in tomorrow; I’m ready for Monday, but then comes Tuesday; I caught up on revision and submission work, which was good but also reminded me how much work is languishing. I could use good news, but then again, I don’t want to fail to appreciate successes that ARE happening. For instance, 3 years ago (when I was 47, because I’m precocious), I wrote a poem named “L” about ambition on the cusp of age 50. I thought it was especially strong but just couldn’t place it–until last week, when it was snapped up by a journal I greatly admire. Pale rainbows in mist, right? Not world-changing but lovely all the same.boilinbag

Before I get back to it, huge thanks to Cherry Tree for another great issue, which includes two of my poems in the “Literary Shade” section: a bit of terza rima called “Native Temper” and this sonnet-rant about the KKK flier that landed on my lawn in 2015, weighted down in a baggie by white rice, of all the damn things. I knew before then that I lived and worked at ground zero for what remains of the Confederacy, and everyone could feel the nastiness intensifying as a terrible election approached, but that particular moment remains a watershed for me. May all of us small writers keep boiling for as long as it takes.  I need to believe each grain of good effort adds up, and there will be a tipping point.

Unmade boundaries of acts and poems

I had a long bout of wakefulness last night, but W&L cancels classes on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, so I slept until the cold January sun had actually risen, hallelujah. Over my first pot of tea, I picked up a section of Sunday’s paper, and found this article about the amazing playwright, memoirist, and poet Adrienne Kennedy, who in her eighties is still producing strong work. The opening made me laugh out loud:

“The playwright Adrienne Kennedy never wanted to move to Virginia… ‘Unfortunately, I’ve been here six years,’ she said of her new city [Williamsburg]. ‘I hate it.'”

The article also mentioned a new poem of hers that I’d missed–check out “Forget” in The Harvard Review. Major Jackson, I will forgive you for continuing to reject my poems as long as you’re putting Adrienne Kennedy out there once in a while. In “Forget,” she writes of her white grandfather, “like the South itself, he was an unfathomable.” Yes.

I never wanted to move south, either. Lexington makes Williamsburg look urban and hip by comparison. I often feel disconnected from literary conversations that would nourish me; attitudes here towards the Civil War and U.S. history can be both offensive and deeply surreal. But I don’t hate it here. There’s good work to do. My surroundings have beauty. It’s intellectually and artistically useful to be in constant talk with people who don’t share my pieties. And what Kennedy says about getting a lot of writing done  “because there’s nothing to do in Virginia”–well, I laughed with recognition there, too.

And then I bundled up and marched in our local parade, which was peaceful and joyous. And now I’m back to my desk, prepping for classes. My senior seminar on “Documentary Poetics” just finished working through Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead,” which I’d never taught before, but which I will definitely teach again. The title of this post is from the title poem of that series, which you can find here. I’m not entirely sure about the social good poetry does, even poetry of history and witness–compared to more direct kinds of activism, I mean–but I know lines from long ago and far away sustain my courage. I’m endlessly grateful for poetry’s camaraderie.

A few last marching words, from the same Rukeyser poem:

What three things can never be done?
Forget.     Keep silent.     Stand alone.

 

 

“The wonder is that you are here”: poetry, community, and Anne Spencer

One of my favorite visiting-writer stories involves a New York-based author who, while guzzling artisanal cocktails in a local restaurant, said something like, “I don’t know why anyone would bother to write if they don’t live in Brooklyn.” That was a hilariously awful remark to make to his Virginia-writer-dinner-companions, but I get it. The literary path I’m hiking seems to point only uphill, through tangles that hide my efforts from sight.

asm nasturtiumAs a break from the trail and for inspiration to persist, I recommend visiting the Anne Spencer House and Museum in Lynchburg, Virginia, about an hour and a quarter from where I live, just over the Blue Ridge. The lesson it teaches: how to surround yourself with what you find beautiful–how to fight for it–and write anywhere, on anything, with spirit.

The Lynchburg-based Harlem Renaissance poet gave hospitality to many luminaries, during an era when African-Americans didn’t have many safe spaces to stay while, for example, traveling between D.C. and Atlanta. Spencer became close with frequent visitors W. E. B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, and Langston Hughes, and published, sometimes with their urging and assistance, more than two dozen poems in magazines such as The Crisis. Her home is still welcoming: you can arrange a wonderful tour led by her granddaughter, Shaun Spencer-Hester, and the gardens are open to anyone without appointment from dawn to dusk. The house built by her husband, furnished colorfully and full of art, still feels like a good place, full of sunny nooks for reading, brimming with evidence of authors at work. The long garden with its writing cottage, abundant flowers, grape arbor, and lily pond remains an oasis.

asm spare bedroomHow Anne Spencer lived is worth remembering, but so are her poems. The title of this blog is from “At the Carnival”, and the poem above, painted on a kitchen cupboard by artist and architect (and neighbor) Amaza Lee Meredith, is the second stanza of “Lines to a Nasturtium”. Many of her writings, however, are uncollected and unpublished. asm-boxtop.jpgCheck out these fragments (a poem?) jotted inside the cover of a panty-hose boxtop. Plus she scribbled all kinds of things on the walls, as the phone booth under the stairs attests. I’m looking forward to studying her papers at the University of Virginia later this summer. One of the questions I’m considering is the relationship between art and activism, in Spencer’s life and generally. The local branch of the NAACP, for example, was founded in Spencer’s living room, and her work as a librarian supported African-American literacy. Nor did she submit to Jim Crow segregation–J. Lee Greene’s book, Time’s Unfading Garden, is full of stories of spirited resistance. But her poems are rarely overtly political, with “White Things,” about lynching, offering a powerful exception.

I’ll leave you with a few more pictures plus a link to a recent column I wrote for Modernism/ modernity whose themes resonate with this post: “How to Do Things with Poetry Criticism, or Scholarship and Justice, Part II.” If you’re in the region and have time, I hope you’ll visit 1313 Pierce Street. If not, go write a poem on a boxtop, or paint it on the wall, and read, remembering all the people who fought for the right to.