Nibbling on gigans and glosas

I’ve been sick in a not-clearly-diagnosed way, so I’ve been resting and trying to read the signs. What “resting” looks like for me almost always involves books (the big exception was during my second pregnancy, when concentrating on anything, even the radio, made me throw up–but you don’t want to hear about that circle of hell). I’ve been keeping on top of hard work deadlines, but otherwise just trying to nourish myself–and also, through reading verse, nourishing the poems I’m somehow drafting each day for National Poetry Writing Month. That may count as a kind of rest, too, in that I’m not worrying if my drafts are good or bad or building toward something. The judging part of my brain isn’t working well and I’m done with the teaching year, so even though the soft deadlines will eventually come round to face me, for the moment I may as well play.

I therefore have a few recent poetry collections to recommend, all of which inspired me to keep playing. The first of them I carried around Haverford on Accepted Students Day last weekend–did I mention my son decided to go to Haverford? Since the book is all about family, loss, and finding consolation in tiny moments amid the chaos of middle age’s mundane struggles–which for the author involves single motherhood in New York City, and a child with special needs–it felt like the perfect thing to tote in my purse next to the ibuprofen I shouldn’t have been mainlining. The Miracles by Amy Lemmon is big-hearted and sad and sweet and wry and lovely. Here’s “Another Day,” about shopping for grain-free crackers when you really, really want an almond croissant.

The Bones of Winter Birds by Ann Fisher-Wirth went into the purse a couple of days later, at a very low moment, when the strep seemed to be bouncing back, or was it something else–could it be mono, the nurse practitioner asked? A couple of needle stabs later, the verdict is probably not, but this snow-covered beauty of a book was great company in uncertainty. The first poem in Fisher-Wirth’s book is a gigan, a form invented by Ruth Ellen Kocher that I’d never tried before, so I had to experiment immediately, and you should go for it, too. (As soon as you start getting stuck you have to repeat a line, which is handy. My prompt to you: write a gigan about something BIG.) After I scratched that itch and jumped back in, I was moved again and again. There is a sequence mourning a sister Fisher-Wirth didn’t know well, and there are also a number of small gems, talismans of grief transformed into beauty, like “Vicksburg National Military Park”. Here’s a slightly longer one, funny-heartbreaking: “Love Minus Zero.”

Like Fisher-Wirth’s book, Martha Silano’s Gravity Assist is deeply ecopoetic: she’s trying to rocket out to the big picture, taking in species loss, disastrous pollution, and other terrors of the anthropocene. Silano is one of our best science poets, in my opinion, but she’s also a specialist in awe, exuberant about beauty and love and the good things that persist in this damaged world (for the moment!). Her gorgeous “Peach Glosa” reminds me I’ve never successfully attempted that form…hmm. Also, it’s not online, but if you’re a tired and overextended woman irritated by exhortations to tranquility, you need to get this book and read “Dear Mr. Wordsworth.”

And to come back to cosmic signs: my Saturday afternoon binge was 3 Nights of the Perseids by Ned Balbo. These poems aren’t quite as astronomically-sited as Silano’s, despite the title. They’re starriest in their concerns with power–often power misused–and persistence, particularly how poetry, art, music, and speech itself just keep shining on. Balbo’s iambic riffs on social media are funny-creepy (check out “deadbook”); the elegies for Prince, Bowie, and other artists are beautiful; and his testimonies from Adjunctlandia are incisive and priceless.

I read the latter while reclined on the sunroom sofa, window open; from there I can scent lemon balm and mint on the chilly breeze. The air makes me feel connected to a world I’ve felt quarantined from. The poems do, too. I’ve reviewed titles by three of these writers in fancier venues than this blog, and shared meals with all of them at conferences, coming to know them in that distant-intimate way you sometimes know poetry compatriots, whose brains you’re on good terms with even if you don’t hang with them in person very often. What a balm, a bright and breath-restoring rest their company is–definitely preferable to prednisone and gummy vitamins.

My main excuse to go outside: photographing books on the weed “lawn”

Poetry at the Border: Ann Fisher-Wirth

This blog’s intermittent “Poetry at the Border” feature returns with two excerpts from the powerful new collection Mississippia striking large-format collaboration between poet Ann Fisher-Wirth and photographer Maude Schuyler Clay. While focused on a specific state, this book is full of borderlands and hinges: between poetry and photographs, between history and the present, and among races and realities. I’m fascinated by the relationship between word and image here–each poem, untitled, is coupled with a photograph, and the pairings tend to defamiliarize rather than illustrate one another. Next to “He ain’t done right to whistle,” for example, is an image of a ruin. So is the racism that led to Emmett Till’s murder a gutted edifice, still standing but increasingly fragile, doomed to be pulled down by kudzu? If so, what’s a person to do about it?–Look at it, surely. Head-on.

The voice-driven poems in Mississippi also urge us to listen to one another; while including dialogue and depicting multi-voiced negotiations, they sometimes possess an eerie quality, too. This is a spiritual collection, both in image and text. Many of Fisher-Wirth’s poems suggest how mundane world borders a more mysterious one or, as in the second poem below, describe someone in extremity praying for intervention. Words are bridges, creating connections between people, or perhaps among people and the other-than-human world.

from Ann Fisher-Wirth:

There are a number of poems in Mississippi about race, in a variety of voices. Specifically, the two poems here, “He ain’t done right to whistle” and “Well you know back then”–are companion poems, which embody two very different responses to the murder of Emmett Till.

At the heart of Mississippi’s Civil Rights history is Emmett Till, an African American boy murdered on August 28, 1955, at the age of fourteen. He had come from his home in Chicago to visit relatives in the Delta town of Money, Mississippi. Reportedly he spoke to or whistled at twenty-one-year-old Carolyn Bryant, the married proprietor of a small grocery store in Money. Several nights later, Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J. W. Milam came and got Till from his great-uncle’s house, and took him away to a barn. There they beat him and gouged out one of his eyes, then shot him through the head, weighted his body with a cotton gin fan tied around his neck, and disposed of his body in the Tallahatchie River. Three days later, Till’s body was discovered and retrieved. It was prepared for burial in Tutwiler, Mississippi, and returned to his mother in Chicago. There, she insisted on an open casket funeral, insisting that the world see what had been done to her son, and images of Emmett’s barely recognizable face were broadcast all around the world. Bryant and Milam were acquitted in court; subsequently, protected from double jeopardy, they admitted their guilt in an interview in Look magazine. Emmett Till’s death and the worldwide horror that it awoke became a pivotal force in the African American Civil Rights movement. The Money store is now in ruins.

“Well you know back then” mentions Mose Wright. He was Emmett Till’s great-uncle, and he acted with enormous courage when he stood at the trial to identify Bryant and Milam as the men who had taken Till. Nevertheless, the jury took only 67 minutes to acquit.

afw1

He ain’t done right to whistle
and talk hi y’all baby and filth
to Carolyn Bryant even if he come

from away he ought to known
how we do around here and I sure
as hell don’t believe his uncle

shoulda stood up and pointed out
Roy and J.W. in that courthouse
I am so blessed tired of people

students and all coming down here
to interview us just because we
was alive then making out like this

is a bad town y’all don’t know
what we do for those who know
their place why just yesterday

Polly I said to the woman who
takes care of me my husband don’t
use this red tee and these shoes

take em for Brewster as for the rest
why that was a long time ago
most folks dead and store collapsed
to ruins why you raking it up again

***

Well you know back then couldn’t noafw2
black man see justice
down here

so when Mr. Wright come out that door
after standing up in court and
pointing out the killers he

was marked for a dead man
had to hightail to the station
leave his cotton in the fields

and get on out of here
I was just a kid
didn’t think like my folks

was ashamed what they be doing
so when they was talking that night
over chicken and collards

saying get the sheets
go rough up some a them teach em
what’s right I snuck off

hid in my closet prayed Pray Lord
didn’t have no words
for my misery just Pray Lord

***

If you’ll be in Tampa for the AWP, come see Ann and other Black Earth Institute Fellows read from 4-6:30 at the Attic. I’ll be joining them briefly as an About Place contributor.

afwphotoMississippi is Ann Fisher-Wirth‘s fifth book of poems; it is a poetry/photography collaboration with the acclaimed Delta photographer Maude Schuyler Clay. Other books include Dream Cabinet, Carta Marina, Blue Window, and Five Terraces. With Laura-Gray Street she coedited the groundbreaking Ecopoetry Anthology, with an introduction by Robert Hass. Former President of ASLE, recipient of senior Fulbrights to Switzerland and Sweden, she is a fellow of the Black Earth Institute, and has had residencies at Djerassi, Hedgebrook, The Mesa Refuge, and CAMAC/Centre d’Art Marnay. She teaches at the University of Mississippi and directs the minor in Environmental Studies. She also teaches yoga at Southern Star in Oxford, MS.

Early in her career, Maude Schuyler Clay assisted the photographer William Eggleston. She received the Mississippi Arts and Letters award for photography in 1988, 1992, 2000, and 2016, and the Mississippi Art Commission’s Individual Artist Grant in 1998. The University Press of Mississippi published Delta Land in 1999. Her work is in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and The National Museum for Women in the Arts, among others. Mississippi History was published by Steidl in 2016; another book is forthcoming, and Maude will have a major solo show at the Mississippi Museum of Art in 2019. She lives in the Mississippi Delta.

Oceanicartography

No, that’s not a real word. But last week, certain currents in my thinking converged, all having to do with maps and oceans. On Saturday, we dropped our daughter off at the Charlottesville train station then headed over to Chroma Projects to see a show by an old friend and collaborator, Carolyn Capps, called “Deep Sea Calculations”:

These pieces owe a lot to old-fashioned illustrated maps, but in a way they chart the mind, too–they’re process drawings, in which one image inspires the next in visual/verbal association. I was at the same time preparing to teach Ocean Vuong’s 2016 debut collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, a collection I find attractive but sometimes opaque. The book, reflecting on Vuong’s immigration from Vietnam to the U.S. and a family history of domestic assault, is full of thresholds crossed in violence. In sex, too. He registers a New York School influence through all those curly ampersands and via talky, sexy meditations like “Notebook Fragments,” but Vuong also deploys persona poems, footnoted blank spaces, punctuation experiments, perhaps the shortest “About the Author” page ever–in short, a host of strategies that occlude the poet’s presence.

During our first class session, we focused on the almost-title-track, “Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds,” a poem I found intensely mysterious until I happened upon his published note about it (press “more” at the poets.org link). It helps to know that this poem’s perspective follows the trajectory of a bullet, even though the missile’s path transgresses the law of physics, crossing decades as well as geography. It’s a beautiful and disturbing piece, but my class couldn’t make much sense of the ending. How can the “I” lower himself “between the sights” of the gun? Vuong is identifying with both shooter and target for reasons the rest of the book makes clear, yet none of us could see the final image of the “self-portrait.” I confess I was hoping the hunters in the room could explain something about rifles I was missing, but they shook their heads. Usually when I bring a problem to a roomful of smart English majors, we figure it out together, but none of our readings were satisfying to me–except the general one suggested by the phrase “exit wounds,” that this book is a chronicle of absence and damage.

Sometimes you reread a book of poems and it all comes clear; other times it turns to mist in your hands. So for the second session, I deployed a teaching strategy chronicled here: asking students to produce a one-page visual representation of the volume. What else, I wondered, were my students seeing and not seeing, as they charted paths through all the lovely words?

One student, Bailey Brilley, reinvented the cover. The images brilleyhe photoshopped together include an aerial photo of a Vietnam bomb field, a propaganda poster by a Cuban artist, a Pulitzer-prize winning photo of a Vietnamese man’s execution (the arm and gun), and WWII-era beach towel ads depicting troops in the South Pacific.

Dana Gary made a Magritte-influenced wordless broadside for a single surreal pov danaoem, “Queen Under the Hill.” Thomas Ferguson tracked references to hands and aligned them to illuminate their associations with intimacy and violence.

ov thomas

Charlotte Doran found images and articles about the war and the fall of Saigon, streaming “White Christmas” across them as Vuong does, verbally, in “Aubade with Burning City.” Rosy-fingered dawn, and all. These visual and emotional engagements with the poems seem an especially apt way to handle poems that resist rational schema.
ov charlotte

And tomorrow, we all talk to Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street before their public reading–mappers of the ecopoetry’s territory, plus Ann is the author of one of my favorite long poems, Carta Marina, inspired by a phantasmagoric old woodcut-printed map that puts me in mind of Carolyn’s drawings again. And so we sail to the edge of winter term, to tell stories about where we’ve been.

Marginalia and interleavings

When you read, you think someone else’s thoughts–which is why it’s interesting and good to read books by people whose experiences are different than yours. Sometimes, however, there’s an intermediary spirit in the mix. Pick up a heavily marked used book and you end up glimpsing another reader’s mental processes, too. Students experience this all the time, through used textbooks; in a boring class, you can even get a little obsessed by trying to extrapolate a personality from the highlighter marks and marginal jottings (as a certain Harry Potter episode demonstrates).

I’ve been contemplating this, in part through the lens of a poem I admire from the November 2015 issue of Poetry by Hai-Dang Phan. You should read it, but in short, the speaker traces to understand his father through the notations he made in a Norton anthology, for an English class he pursued after emigrating from Vietnam to the U.S. As I was writing a short discussion of it in my critical book’s introduction, I also happened to serve as anonymous reviewer for an article ms that concerns, in part, interleavings–the clippings etc. readers store in their books, and that booksellers often strip out before resale.

I’ve published a poem called “Bequest” that references the one book I own of my father’s, a Bible from Sunday School. On the reverse of the title page, my father, in a childish hand, penciled a reference to a passage from Job. It strikes me now as having some eerie resonances with the last years of my father’s life. Thinking about marginalia and interleavings, I suddenly remembered: wasn’t there a newspaper clipping, too?

margins4

Yes! My father was born in 1925, the Bible is inscribed to him in 1937, and the newspaper scrap references films from the 40s and 50s. They’re matinees, so this could even be from the 60s or later. How did it get in there, man? I guess I need to see Passage to Marseilles.

Sitting in my office Monday reading H.J. Jackson’s Marginalia, I started thinking about my own inscriptions. I make a lot of what Jackson calls reader’s indexes in the backs of books, especially when I plan to teach or review them. Here’s one from the back of Ann Fisher Wirth’s Carta Marina. This practice of making readers’ indexes goes back centuries.margins3

And that’s not even to mention crumbs, food-stains, and other signs of the reading life! The grass-chain I left in a copy of Whitman makes the book awkward to handle–it’s a fragile remnant of a gradumargins2ate school seminar held out on the lawn by Firestone library–but I feel too sentimental about that spring to discard it.

You will be relieved to know I don’t write, or store organic debris, in library books, but the remnants of other peoples’ readings don’t bother me. They clearly annoy others, because I was just wiping eraser dust yesterday out of a book of literary criticism–someone had underlined passages, and the same person, a librarian, or later reader effaced the markings. I find it more depressing, as Jackson says, when there’s no sign a book has been read before at all. Sadly, the library copy of his own book is pristine.

One thing I treasure about the older books in our university collection: some of them still have cards and signatures in the back. I often see traces there of professors long gone. For example, Barbara Hernnstein Smith’s Poetic Closure is on my shelf. The first library user, from 1970, was Sid Coulling, an eminent and much loved English professor who retired before I even arrived. I love seeing his elegant old hand. It increases my sense of participating in a community of readers. Sorry about the clementine, Sid, but as you know, scholarship is a hungry business.

margins6

 

Career Suicide

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.