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.

urs

The ending’s beginning

manifest west

One cheerful thing about bare trees is the omen of changed rhythms: the hard work of fall is coming to fruition, with dream-time ahead. Two more weeks of teaching, then I hope I’ll finish making decisions about the terrific poems lingering in Shenandoah‘s inbox. Editor-in-Chief Beth Staples is frantically gearing up to relaunch that magazine in the next couple of weeks (the new logo, for instance, will debut by Twitter count-down any minute now, so watch @ShenandoahLit). Other editors are obviously sorting through their leaf-duff, because I had a rejection over Thanksgiving that made me sigh, and an acceptance that made me giddy (Beloit Poetry Journal!–a magazine I’ve long admired but never before cracked). I have poems in the handsome new issues of Cascadia Subduction Zone and Manifest Westand Sweet very kindly featured me on their blog on Thanksgiving Day. I also had the pleasure of slowing down for a few days in a Virginia Beach rental house with my immediate family, my mother, my brother, and one of my daughter’s housemates–as well visiting nearby egrets, sea turtles, sting-rays, and more. I love my students this term and have some cool lesson plans for the end-game, but lolling around with books and pie, as well as taking long walks on chilly beaches and in the Back Bay Wildlife Refuge, were very much needed.

One task I completed just before the trip was a residency application for 2020 (!), which gave me cause to reflect on where my poetry has been and where it’s going. I knew midlife had been a big topic in recent years, but I realized more clearly just how much of my poetry has also been about anger, more specifically women’s anger. Now I’m thinking about the consequences of anger, how it can be useful but also harmful, so my poems seem to concern healing and metamorphosis. My new magazine publications contain some of each–poems from a complete ms, in which I’m coming to terms with being middle-aged in the middle of nowhere in an especially messed-up part of a messed-up country, and from a newer ms, just taking shape, that I feel superstitious about describing yet (except in grant/ residency applications, in which you basically have to act like you know EXACTLY what you’ll be writing for the next two years). Peeks at two of the older poems, “Fifty-Fifty” and “White Noise Machine,” are below.

white noisefifty

That’s why they call it a practice (NaPoWriMo Day 29)

malaThreads

Meditation pisses me off. All that non-striving
time on the floor, therapist-prescribed, noticing
the rope of my breath swinging up and down,
ringing me like a shivered bell, adds up to another
chore I must perform and I have a lot of them—
twisted muscles to lengthen, children who need
the brushed-hand of a long-distance text or a note
for school, packed with the peanut-butter sandwich.
And after I unwind the trail with my spouse and find
clean trousers and deliver the visiting poet to campus—
why is every poem I write a list?—my students face me
with skeptical looks and I know I must hand over every
spool in my basket, every kindness and needle and tangle
of literary lore. I unwind sentences with them
and we watch them catch light, catch shadow, too.
Later, caught in the net of a computer screen, an email
reminds me to be mindful, to mind the mindfulness
competition beginning now: log-in to record for my employer
the minutes I turned off the phone to follow my breath.
Complete two weeks and earn an emotional wellness token.
Turns out meditation capitalized also pisses me off.
Instead I resolve to scatter any mystical currency my clean
trousers pick up accidentally. Spirit-lint. This is my log-in.
Breathe. What is the thread-count of anger? How soft,
how durable? Can I knot rages into a ladder and escape
myself? A chime sounds. List and day unravel but the bright
skein of breathing keeps slipping along, connecting me
to feeling, to tomorrow, to you, whether or not I mind it.

That was Day 24 of National Poetry Writing Month. I haven’t drafted a poem every single day, but I’ve still done a fair amount of work, some of which might last, all of which did me good anyway. Meditation isn’t going as well–a kind friend sent me the mala pictured above, but I tried so hard to race through the beads and get on with my day that I kept hyperventilating. I notice I like writing poems about failed meditation better than I like meditating about failed poems…

Poetry and injustice

I don’t have anything wise and insightful to say about our epidemic  losses of African-Americans to police violence. At the “Black Lives Matter” rally at Washington & Lee on Friday—yes, a rally here, and the crowd was big!—I didn’t speak. African-American undergrads, law students, and community members bore witness to fear and humiliation that are offensively common in their lives: being pulled over without cause, followed around department stores by security guards, challenged in their right to walk their own neighborhood streets. Their testimony was more moving and convincing than anything I could contribute.

I don’t know how much of my slowness to chime in is my scholarly training (don’t speak unless you’ve read EVERYTHING) versus an ethics of carefulness or just personal insecurity—but I tend to keep my strong political opinions on the quiet side. When you speak, you risk being stupid, wrong, even hurtful. I have certainly said my share of seriously dumb things over the years. Not speaking, though, has a huge social cost. The difficulty/ urgency of speaking for others has been a contentious topic in my mid-century U.S. poetry seminar lately, as one of my students reflects in a recent blog post for Shenandoah. I’ve been attracted to Adrienne Rich’s work for decades—I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis partly on her work—because of poems like “Frame,” in which she negotiates between her responsibility to bear witness and the dangers of using others’ trauma as material. Many privileged poets don’t get the balance right, in my opinion, or if they do, they don’t manage to transform the balancing act into poetry. On the whole, though, it seems better to try and fail than not to try at all.

There’s also the perennial question of what poetry can do to help in any case. So many people are talking and writing, and yet so little changes. I am deeply moved by Gwendolyn Brooks’ strategies in “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.” She imagines the white woman with whom Emmett Till was supposed to have flirted changing her mind—recognizing the links between the brutalities white women and African-Americans of all genders endure. Brooks had such a generous imagination and such amazing skill at inspiring others, but we still live in a world where African-American boys are murdered without legal consequence. When I read Danez Smith’s recent and much more fiery call to arms, and to song, I remember: art is a powerful answer to the stupidity of the world. Poets see. It gives me hope, as heated classroom debates give me hope. Hope is small and personal, though, and while it does save lives, violence and suffering still rages in the world around the reader.

“How can a person make poems out of anger?” a student poet asked me recently. He’s hurt and furious and he craves practical advice on how to turn his experience into something positive. I don’t know, I said, but practicing compassion helps me, because it generates complicated language to match a complicated world. When I think compassionately, I know children of any race are seldom loved well enough and may grow up broken; our schools and communities are full of damaging injustice and rarely teach us how difficult it is to be good, how much hard thinking it requires; our biggest decisions are often made in the blink of an eye but can have terrifyingly wide implications; and intensely hierarchical institutions bring out the worst in people.

Recognizing how those forces may act on police officers as well as kids on the street doesn’t mean the abusers shouldn’t be held responsible. I think even fierce, polarizing language can have positive uses. Ultimately, though, I’m on the side of breaking down “us” and “them” into messy complexity. The fact that nothing is simple, though, is cause for another kind of sadness. When the causes are so manifold, where do you start?

So, it was a hard week. I’m grieving, too, for my long-ago colleague Claudia Emerson, killed by cancer. One poison in the early years of that friendship was an institutional one: I had the privilege of being tenure-track while she was hired year-to-year as an “adjunct” professor, a disparity that definitely did not map onto merit, even though in those early days her greatest accomplishments were still ahead of her. She was one of the most important role models in my poetic and teaching life, but our relationship suffered strains because of systemic injustice. Several people told me last week that W&L treated her badly. I know individuals did, and I’m sure in my own panicky obliviousness I missed a lot, but W&L’s badness, if you can describe it that way, is common and persistent. She was undervalued as other contingent professors, here and elsewhere, remain undervalued. W&L hasn’t risen above the deeply unfair system that permeates U.S. academia, but our version is not unique or especially egregious. Even twenty years later, as a department head, I can’t see any fix except to keep saying “the system isn’t right and it damages all of us.” I have an essay to write, I think, but I’m trying not to get too far in until I have time to reread Claudia’s first book, Pharaoh, Pharaoh—the one she finished in an office downstairs from me, with fewer resources than those I enjoyed.

Really, I don’t have to try very hard as far as not-writing is concerned! This will be the last week of classes, followed by a week of exams and meetings, and my schedule is chock-full of student conferences and other obligations like reading job applications and oh, maybe decorating a tree or two. This Wednesday my class will put on a Haiku Death Match in the Elrod Commons Living Room at 11:15 a.m.—if you’re local, stop by. I don’t expect any of the students’ little poems to rock the world, but there will be coffee and good cheer. Poetry is a good church in which to worship, even if when you step out again, the streets are as messed-up as ever.

Forgiveness, gratitude, and other things I suck at

Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday—historically, emotionally, even logistically. (Reason #647 to be grateful: I don’t have to get on the highway this year.) And yet I love all the rituals leading up to the feast. Last weekend, I made stock and baked pumpkin bread to freeze. This Saturday I scribbled out long lists and laid in ingredients. Now homemade cranberry sauce is chilling in the fridge and cranberry-orange bread is perfuming the kitchen. Wednesday is for pies; Thursday morning I embark on an elaborate plan that will theoretically get all the food hot in time for dinner with Chris’ brother and his family. This orderly sequence—a crazy amount of work for one meal, but carved into small steps doable over time—seems all the more beautiful because I know it will have to change before too long. My daughter goes to college next year, and who knows how our traditions will need to alter as our children’s lives expand?

thxA sense of loss, prospective and retrospective, permeates the rituals. I scored some challah bread at the market because two decades ago, my friend Gayle taught me that it makes the best stuffing—but I haven’t seen Gayle for ages. Some of the recipes, like a maple-glazed sweet potato and apple dish, are from sticky old copies of Bon Appetit, to which I subscribed in the early nineties when I was a grad student learning how to cook. Those first attempts at domesticity are hazy in my memory now. The pumpkin bread recipe was transcribed in a neat hand around the turn of the century by my departmental partner in crime, Suzanne, whom I see much less of since she moved to the dean’s office, although she emails me generous notes of praise after I submit departmental reports. The cranberry bread instructions are scrawled less precisely on a soft green index card given to me by another now-distant friend. She broke off contact with me in long-nursed anger over something I’d said years before. I apologized but couldn’t remember making the harsh remark, or even secretly holding that opinion; I suspected misunderstanding. Not surprisingly, my apology didn’t help either of us—another friendship faded out.

And people near to me are managing much harder losses. I’m giving a poetry reading the week after Thanksgiving at VMI and only belatedly realized the date coincides with a terrible car accident at W&L last year. Over the mountain, the University of Virginia is in the news after the murder of a young woman earlier this fall and more a recent Rolling Stone article about gang rape in its fraternities. In class we’ve been discussing anger in poems and essays by Amiri Baraka, Adrienne Rich, and others—how rage can liberate, how it can harm. This is in the context of our own campus troubles with assault. You want a university to be a place where everyone can discuss their differences passionately yet respectfully, where good arguments can change minds, where everyone is safe to pursue their intellectual curiosities. But it is very, very difficult to cultivate and maintain even a temporary bubble of safety around one seminar or workshop, much less a college that has a million points of intersection with a dangerous world.

What I am truly most grateful for is that my spouse and children are safe and well, that my son can whine about his World History project and Chris can get so obsessed with his works cited list that, after shopping, he leaves the groceries in the car overnight (at least it’s cold). But my relief is so small it feels almost mean-spirited. I always want to hedge my thanks, too. I do feel very lucky, for instance, to teach great students in this lovely college town, but I want to add “where the campus culture can be toxic and good morale is fragile despite splendid resources.” Not very gracious, am I?

And forgiveness! I was so moved by my colleague Deborah Miranda’s reading from Bad Indians last week. She excerpted a passage about her dad coming home from San Quentin—a honeymoon of cooking and woodwork and gardening—but then segued into their alienation and his death. Deborah’s childhood was vastly different from mine, but my father was also an alcoholic and unpredictably mean, so as I listened I resonated like a bell. She finished on a passage about holding in her mind an image of her father as a child, still innocent, and feeling a wave of cool forgiveness wash over her. I’ve been meaning to ask her since: did the wave ebb, or does it stay with you? I have forgiven my father many times. The feeling seeps away, floods in, seeps away again. That night I sat down opposite a baby picture of my father I’d put up shortly after his death. The frame suddenly smashed face-down, though the room was still and the shelf unjostled. That’s how I feel: peaceful most of the time, but subject to sudden crashes of refusal.

Since I’m an unforgiving obscenely lucky ingrate, you’ll know it must be genuine when I say that I’m recently able to feel a little less angry about something that has chewed me up for years. About a month ago I responded to a small-potatoes bit of bullying in my department—by a guy whose previous behavior added up to gangantuan, ugly, poisonous potatoes that still lurk around campus unacknowledged—by publically saying cut it out. (You’ll forgive that potatoes metaphor, I hope, for getting so mashed up.) A tiny act of self-expression has made a big difference in my sense of well-being. I’ll try to make a habit of it.

I’m also feeling unhedged gratitude to have Deborah and other friends around, giving me recipes for sustenance. Thanks to a long-distance poet-friend, too, Jeannine Hall Gailey, for a shout-out last week on her blog. Thanks to Gordon Ball, soon retiring from VMI, for asking me to read there (Weds. 12/3, 7:45 pm in Preston Library). A generous writer from Ghana contacted me out of the blue a few weeks ago to interview me for his blog, Geosi Reads–I talk about anger and forgiveness there, too. And thanks to magazine editors who recently turned on their personal amplifiers on my behalf: the people at Crazyhorse, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Gettysburg Review, as well as guest editor Anny Ballardini at Truck. Tahoma Literary Review just nominated a forthcoming poem of mine for a Pushcart, too. Does that sound like trivial po-biz stuff? It’s not. All my poems are love-letters, solitary broadcasts, petitions for human connection. I am so grateful to feel heard.