Wonders, discoveries, & #thesealeychallenge2020

This crazy August, when no one could concentrate on anything, turned out to be the very first time I completed The Sealey Challenge, instituted by Nicole Sealey in 2017. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to be so diligent again. I’m on sabbatical right now, and in other years August can feel frantic. My annual poetry binge is typically In December and January, when I slow down and look around for the books that have been gathering buzz.

But I’ve learned some from trying. The most important result was just getting acquainted with some fabulous work. Like a lot of people, I put Sealey’s own Ordinary Beast on my August reading list, and it’s amazing–it’s a crime against poetry that I hadn’t read it before. There are several other terrific poets on the list below whose work I hadn’t read in book form yet, including Tiana Clark, Rosebud Ben-Oni, and first-book author Leila Chatti whose urgent Deluge I still can’t get out of my head. (I chose it, by the way, because it kept popping up in other Challenge posts–another benefit of the project–and the same thing happened with today’s pick from John Murillo, also a knockout.) Mostly I had no fixed idea about which book I’d pick up next, although I began with Kyrie because it’s about the 1918 pandemic. Other reasons for reading: I looked for recent collections by Shenandoah authors like Jessica Guzman and Armen Davoudian, although I’ve by no means snagged them all, and I caught up with authors whose books I always look for, out of fandom and friendship. I did purchase some books some at the beginning of the month, in part because I would have anyway but also to make sure my list would be inclusive in various ways. I wasn’t enough of a planner to be fully stocked in advance for 31 entries, but there was something felicitous about that. I dug into some pretty dusty to-be-read piles; grabbed poetry comics and image-texts from my spouse’s collection (those books by Eve Ewing and Jessy Randall are amazing!); and downloaded a few free digital chapbooks. I liked how this resulted in in unexpected diversities in style and medium. I found books I’ll teach in future and others I’ll give as gifts. Others I’m just really glad to know about and to help celebrate.

It WAS hard to keep up the pace, though. I devoured books at the start of the month, often reading over breakfast or lunch (I take actual lunch breaks on the porch now–it’s the bomb). I wisely began reading at the end of July to give myself a head-start and likewise worked ahead before the middle weekend of August, when I had an intense 48-hour virtual conference. Sometimes, though, when my own writing was going gangbusters, I’d delay the book of the day until late afternoon or evening, and then I just didn’t feel excited to read something challenging–although I never regretted it once I got going. At this point, I’m a little fried, so there’s no way I’ll manage many entries under the #septwomenpoets hashtag. I’ve got some other deadlines to catch up on, anyway, plus two brief trips: tomorrow I drive my son up to Haverford for his shortened fall term (my first interstate travel since February–yikes), and later in the month, on my birthday weekend, Chris and I are renting a very small house in Virginia Beach. We’re both worried about crashing when it’s just the two of us again, so we’re thinking about what low-risk adventures we can plan.

A last word on my cheat book of the month (lyric essays by a poet, so it’s Sealey Challenge adjacent!). I strongly recommend the brand-new World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. The subtitle is “In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments,” and it’s definitely eco-writing with a deep investment in and fascination with the more-than-human world. I’m most in love, though, with how the essays interweave research with compelling personal stories about moving around as a child and young adult, often feeling out of place as the only brown person in her mostly-white classes, until she found a sense of belonging in Mississippi. This book is often joyous and funny, but predation is a recurrent theme, and that spoke to me. I think it would teach beautifully–I admire its craft–but I also just really appreciated how it urges readers to care. In an unexpected way, it resonated with the Tiana Clark collection I’d read the day before, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood: both of those authors eloquently argue that environmental justice should be inseparable from social justice, both in literature and in the world.

I was surprised to appear in the acknowledgements of Aimee’s book, maybe because I tried to be a good host during her campus visit and encouraged her to submit to Shenandoah? I don’t feel like I deserve the honor, but it’s in keeping, somehow, with the generosity writers have been showing each other this month. Here’s to small kindnesses in the hellscape that is 2020!

  • 8/1 Voigt, Kyrie
  • 8/2 Atkins, Still Life with God
  • 8/3 Guzman, Adelante
  • 8/4 Hong, Fablesque
  • 8/5 Davoudian, Swan Song
  • 8/6 Matejka, The Big Smoke
  • 8/7 Hedge Coke, Burn
  • 8/8 Sealey, Ordinary Beast
  • 8/9 Chang, Obit
  • 8/10 Perez, Habitat Threshold
  • 8/11 Corral, guillotine
  • 8/12 Neale, To the Occupant
  • 8/13 Bailey, Visitation
  • 8/14 Chatti, Deluge
  • 8/15 Muench, Wolf Centos
  • 8/16 Flanagan, Glossary of Unsaid Terms
  • 8/17 Nuernberger, Rue
  • 8/18 Kapur, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist
  • 8/19 Farley, The Mizzy
  • 8/20 Avia, Fale Aitu | Spirit House
  • 8/21 Andrews, A Brief History of Fruit
  • 8/22 Taylor, Last West
  • 8/23 Harvey, Hemming the Water
  • 8/24 Ben-Oni, 20 Atomic Poems
  • 8/25 Ewing, Electric Arches
  • 8/26 Mountain, Thin Fire
  • 8/27 Randall, How to Tell if You Are Human
  • 8/28 Davis, In the Circus of You
  • 8/29 Clark, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood
  • 8/30 Nezhukumatathil, World of Wonders
  • 8/31 Murillo, Kontemporary American Poetry

the salonnière introduces …the state she’s in!

My book is now available from Tinderbox Editions! And, once we get through this, it will also be available in independent bookstores near you.

In the meantime, I hereby introduce a virtual salon for authors launching poetry books plus anyone who enjoys a pretend party. Imagine this space as a high-ceilinged room, art-fans lounging on its velvet divans. The upholstery is a little threadbare, the paint on the moldings chipped here and there, but that just makes everyone feel more comfortable and bohemian. Trays laden with canapés gleam on some of the side tables; others groan under the weight of oozy cheeses, fat grapes, champagne bottles, expensive scotch, and cans of pamplemousse La Croix. The scent of beeswax tapers burning in candelabras mingles with the aroma of a nearby sculptor’s bare feet. An enlivening breeze sometimes wafts through the French doors, which are open to a balcony that overlooks city lights. Someone near the window adjusts their beaded shawl and laughs.

A shameless salonnière, I stand up first, welcome all of you, and introduce my own damn book, The State She’s In. (Did I mention it’s now available from Tinderbox Editions?) Here are my answers to the three questions I plan to ask many guests in turn:

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

Wine varietals mentioned in my book include rioja, garnacha, and chardonnay, so we are well-beveraged; I can add to the menu a Black Walnut Celebration Lager I drank at AWP ’19 in Portland, with my poem “Black Walnut” in mind. After some syllables of cheese, wild rice blini topped with sour cream and caviar, and quesadillas with postlapsarian salsa verde, we will savor ramekins of pawpaw crème brulée.

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

My loved ones and I are well, although we’re all worried, and my son is sad about having his first year at Haverford cut short. He’s also a straight-A student who is suddenly unable to concentrate. That teaches me something about how online instruction is likely to go and how forgiving and flexible we’ll all have to be. I’m not surprised this transition is logistically challenging for a seminar teacher like me, but it’s been emotionally harder than I expected. My identity is wrapped up in being a good teacher. It’s upsetting to let go of some of the standards I hold myself to.

I’m writing emails and texts plus revising syllabi. I also started a Pandemic Diary on paper, because I’ve heard from historians that they often lack as-it-happens accounts of crisis. No poetry at all, but it will come back–and really, when poets are in publicity mode they rarely get much writing done anyway. I’d remind everyone, though, that there’s actual scientific research suggesting that daily expressive writing improves immunity.

How can your virtual audience find out more?

For me, it’s my self-designed and therefore basic website as well as my page in the Tinderbox Editions store, where you can find the amazing blurbs some incredibly generous poets wrote for The State She’s In: Diane Seuss, Oliver de la Paz, and Linda Lewis. They are clicking virtual glasses in this salon, and they look fabulous.

***Stay tuned for future gatherings, and please let me know what books should be on my radar. Many possible factors could affect frequency; also, I want to read each book before introducing it. I’d love to post once a week, though–perhaps more often. Be well, friends!

Poetry and heart

Thanks to the folks at Copper Nickel! The new issue contains my essay on Robert Sullivan, “Uncanny Activisms”

I looked up “heart” and found definitions including feeling, courage, enthusiasm, vital part, “the condition of agricultural land as regards fertility,” personality, disposition, compassion, generosity, character, charity, humanity, and of course love. It has associations with memory, too (“by heart”) and deep concern (“to heart”). Obsolete: intellect, which is pretty much the opposite of what most people mean by “heart” now. My curiosity about the word is probably connected to valentine season, but I’ve also been reading a ton of poetry lately and thinking about what draws me to some poems more than others–a set of qualities I sometimes call heart.

My reading includes twelve finalist mss I’m musing over for a poetry prize as well as assignments for a course on documentary poetry: first Rukeyser’s sequence “The Book of the Dead,” then Forché’s The Country Between Us, then a sampling of poetic responses to Hurricane Katrina including some by Cynthia Hogue (interview poems), Raymond McDaniel (ethically problematic collage), and Patricia Smith (often persona poems). Most recently we finished Nicole Cooley’s Breach, a rewarding book to teach not least because it’s so various in forms and approaches. It was a student favorite and when I asked why, they said “authenticity.” When I asked what the signs or markers of authenticity were, the answers seem to boil down to vulnerability. Self-interrogation; courage; generosity; getting to the heart of things, even when exposure makes you look bad. In Cooley’s return to post-hurricane New Orleans, her childhood home, with her daughters, this sometimes means longing to be mothered rather than to mother, a taboo emotion for a woman to admit.

Extracurricularly, I just read Molly Spencer‘s recent If the House too, and it’s an open-hearted missive from the interior of a body, a marriage, and multiple houses. I love the porosity of Spencer’s containers, the flow of information inward and outward. You could call it circulation.

I’m in a receptive mode; I’m not writing much, except for an occasional blog post or tweet (and a bazillion emails). I often write little poetry in winter and then things turn in spring, partly because of the academic calendar and partly the natural one. My sweetheart and I just took a walk in the woods–every Saturday, we try to get out of our neighborhood, walk elsewhere, this time on trails a bit of a drive away–and it was so bright, cold, and still. Wild onions had sent up curling leaves and the moss was green, but otherwise it was just gray boles, brown mud, fallen branches, leaf duff. Inner and outer weather match.

In town, though, crocus and snowdrops are arriving, early omens of a busier season. I’m not sure I’m ready for spring and the associated book-launch madness, but at least I have the generous blurbs below to reassure me the book is worth at least some attention. That matters so much, when writers you admire will spend their time reading your work and saying thoughtful, encouraging words about it. It gives me heart.

Information and energy

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. fem lemon blam

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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