Modernism in Native American Heritage Month

Getting crafty with Langston Hughes, by Avery Younis–you can move the strips to recreate poems

Some terrific people at my university just organized our first ever Native American Heritage Month, involving two lectures, two documentaries, and a poetry reading with tastings of traditional foods. I made it to four out of five events, and every one was interesting, moving, and really fun–I’m so grateful to the organizers for their work.

The commemoration also made me return to a teaching/ research question that’s bothered me for a long time. My “modernist” poetry course hasn’t, in fact, carried that label for years, because I find it limited and misleading. Instead, I teach “U.S. Poetry from 1900-1950.” Alongside the modernist canon I was trained in, and the white women poets I added to my mental list of innovators during my PhD years, we read the formalisms of Frost, Millay, Cullen, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and others, and the poetic experiments of the New Negro Renaissance (these people and bodies of work overlap, of course). I’m currently teaching the most inclusive version of this course I’ve ever constructed. So where are the Native American poets?

There are a few modernist scholars out there doing great work to answer that question. I read a 2017 essay by Kirby Brown last week that I found really helpful: “American Indian modernities and new modernist studies’ ‘Indian Problem.'” He trains some light on Native prose writers–some of whom I knew, like Zitkála-Šá, and some novel writers of the 1930s I’d never heard of, especially John Joseph Mathews, D’Arcy McNickle, and Oskison. Of course, many scholars would say my periodization is wrong. I’m ending my course around 1950, and it’s easier to find work by marginalized writers in the modernist style, or bearing some relation to the style some call modernism, in the 50s and 60s. The prime example there is always Scott Momaday, whose hybrid novel (containing lots of poems) House Made of Dawn was published in 1969. Once you get into the 1970s and 80s, there’s a much richer array of Native writers publishing in every genre, and there’s no excuse for syllabi surveying those periods excluding them.

But what it I want to focus on the jostle of poetic styles and agendas in North American in the first half of the century–defining the class by decade instead of by style? I know Native America was visible and interesting to certain white writers, especially Marianne Moore (who taught business English in the Carlisle Indian School as a very young woman), H.D. (mostly in her novels), and William Carlos Williams. I have also observed that numerous biographies ascribe Native American heritage to poets of the New Negro Renaissance, although usually in a vague, distant way. Anne Spencer knew she had Seminole forebears and identified with that nation; biographers of Georgia Douglas Johnson and Langston Hughes, however, merely say they had “French, African, and Indian blood,” with no hint of how to find out more. I point out those intersections to my students, but it still doesn’t seem like enough.

Kirby Brown did give me one lead I’m excited to follow up: Lynn Riggs (Cherokee), most famous as a playwright (he wrote the play upon which the musical Oklahoma! is based), also published poetry. I’ve ordered the one collection he published in his lifetime, The Iron Dish (1930), and the posthumous collection, This Book, This Hill, This People (1982), but they’re out of print so might take a while to arrive. In the meantime, I showed my students a few poems published by Poetry and therefore easy to find online (bless the Poetry Foundation!): a sonnet about loss, “Dawn–Late Summer,” and an incantatory, mysterious poem in quatrains, “The Room” (1943). Maybe I can assign a more robust grouping, with more understanding of how to read them, next time. That’s always the hitch, and the intriguing puzzle, isn’t it? As the endlessly irritating and yet not wrong T. S. Eliot observed, each new writer makes you reconsider everything that has come before. I need to find ways to read Riggs, and doing so will put the whole canon in a different light, just as making a deep study of Millay, Hughes, and modernist poetry performance did.

In the meantime, my students have given me permission to share their visual readings of my favorite long poem, Montage of a Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes. They’re pretty great, including one reading typgraphy as musical notation, and another, by Garrett Clinton, clocking the poems’ hours. (See here or here for more on how I construct the assignment.) There’s just one more week of classes after the Thanksgiving break (on George Herriman’s Krazy Kat). As usual, I feel sad about that–and not a little grateful.

Same old love

clinton and beinecke 2018 032

The picture above is of a Christmas postcard from Anne Spencer to Langston Hughes, postmarked 1943. Of course, I’m thinking about the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville a year ago; I’m also sick about the escalating damage the current administration is doing to people and the planet. But I don’t have anything fresh or wise to say on those subjects, so here’s a little out-of-season love instead.

As of this past Tuesday, my husband and I have been married twenty-five years. I’d say “happily married,” which is true, but cliches mute the ups and downs. Figuring out, in our twenties, how to be good to each other while being good to ourselves was hard, and the math on that is always evolving. Raising kids is hard. Finding good employment in the same region for two ambitious people is really, really hard. Illness, dying parents, house floods, a host of other crises–well, you get the idea. Now one kid is twenty-one and the other nearly eighteen, so Chris and I celebrated our milestone on a July trip, while both children were away. We forgot on the actual day until my mother texted congratulations. In the middle of a mixed college-visit/ research trip, Chris and our son were doing a tour in Massachusetts when my mother reminded me of the date. I was reading Anne Spencer’s correspondence, some of which is archived at Yale’s Beinecke Library.

There were a couple of specific research questions I would have liked answers to, but I didn’t find them. Instead I enjoyed watching Spencer’s friendship with James Weldon Johnson unfold and deepen over many years. He encourages her to write and submit her work, staving off discouragement. They recommend books and articles to each other: Johnson suggests, for example, that Spencer read Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, and she responds with enthusiasm about what she’s found. Spencer encourages Johnson and his wife to visit for spring flowers and Christmas festivities, noting she feels more alive when she can look forward to their conversation. There’s plenty of politics in the letters but also ordinary stuff, like worry about Spencer’s children. It was especially sweet to notice how the salutations evolved over time: from the relatively formal “My dear Mrs. Spencer/ Mr. Johnson” to “Dear Anne” and “darling Grace-‘n’-Gem.”

The surviving correspondence between Spencer and Langston Hughes adds up to a much slimmer folder, but there’s also a lot of warmth and play in it. Spencer tells Hughes, for instance, about naming birds in her garden after distant literary figures. There’s “one named Langston–quite too proud of his black and gold-bronze plumage…and Mencken so yclept because of a certain spurious bitterness–mostly pose.” What a lonely world she lived in, and yet so populated. It’s not totally unlike writer-friends in far-off places now, messaging in ways that will be difficult to archive.

For all the violence in Spencer’s time and ours, there was and is a lot of love zinging around. I hope we can keep protecting it from the general heat. Write from the saving coolness of it. But it’s so, so hard.

clinton and beinecke 2018 024

Poetry, politics, and friendship

In the early nineties, I was lucky enough to hear Toni Morrison introduce a reading by Maxine Hong Kingston. Both of them had recently lost manuscripts and many other precious belongings in house fires, and Kingston read a riveting piece about driving toward her neighborhood that day and realizing her home was ablaze. It became part of The Fifth Book of Peace; the burned manuscript was The Fourth Book of Peace, Kingston’s sequel to three legendary books also destroyed by fire.

It was an astonishing evening, but what recurs to me frequently is Morrison’s introduction, in which she described spending a lot of time on the phone with Kingston. “I only wanted to talk to people whose houses had burned down,” Morrison said.

I’ve been in a version of that space lately, avoiding people with dissimilar views about local and international politics. I know, I know, that’s a bad long-term plan. People have to be able to talk across ideological gaps, blah, blah. Being a teacher means centering your working life around that laudable proposition, but when the news is full of cruel parent-child separations and a crooked president trying to do as much damage to democracy as possible; your neighbors are writing bone-headed letters to the paper; and the local KKK capitalizes on it all by leafleting the town–well, you only want to talk with people whose houses have burned down. I am beyond grateful to a smart and feisty group of local friends who will bring wine to my kitchen and hang out to chat about hate mail, colonoscopies, how Sarah Huckabee Sanders is rather petite in person, and publishing poems about Hillary Clinton’s vagina (they say it needs to be a sequence–a “vagenre”–but we’ll see if I, ahem, have it in me). (And thanks, Rise Up Review! Smart and feisty writers, editors, and publishers who do their good work at a distance from small southern towns are also doing a lot for people’s morale.)

So it’s interesting that friendship conditioned by hateful politics turns out to be central to the writing and research I’m doing. This week I visited Virginia State University to read the papers of Amaza Lee Meredith, an African American artist, architect, and teacher who was a sometime neighbor and longtime friend to the poet Anne Spencer. I leafed through scrapbooks Meredith kept full of letters from students, memorabilia about Spencer, and poems she either copied out or clipped from magazines. She also preserved clippings about a few favorite politicians and a receipt from her $5 donation to Adlai Stevenson’s campaign. Meredith and Spencer were friends during the Jim Crow era and they clearly talked urgently and often about educational inequality and school segregation. I’m not comparing my experiences to theirs–Spencer and Meredith and their families were in physical danger, as well as being subject to daily degradations, because they were black in mid-twentieth-century Virginia–but I think negotiating this political moment is tuning my awareness to aspects of Spencer’s situation.

What sustained Spencer when social injustice and literary rejection demoralized her? Her garden. Reading and writing. And friends like Amaza Lee Meredith, to whom she signed “I love you,” late in life, in a shaky hand.

 

Twitter as commonplace book

I’ve done just enough archival work to be fascinated by poets’ commonplace books. It’s been more than a decade since I worked among Marianne Moore’s papers at the Rosenbach, but I was impressed by her fantastically crabbed hand in a series of tiny notebooks, recording quotations she liked. At the Library of Congress, you can leaf through Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sparser notes, mixing drafts, travel plans, and lists of poems that might go together in her next collection. And how I wish Anne Spencer had kept notebooks! Instead, I learned last summer how hard it is to date any of her drafts, many of which must be lost in any case, because she penciled ideas on any scrap of paper or cardboard within reach.

I’m more organized that Spencer, but not by much (you can see one physical notebook

asm-boxtop.jpg
Some notes by Spencer on a pantyhose box

I kept here, and read a reflection about it here). If the internet ever disappears, much of my “archive” will go with it, not that I really expect anyone to care. This blog is the closest I come to an intellectual/ artistic journal, supplemented by Facebook posts. They’re all personal, although I’m performing and curating a version of myself: in these media, I’m honest, but not always intimate. My poetry and creative nonfiction feel much closer to the bone–riskier.

The space that feels most like a commonplace book for me is, of all places, Twitter. Like many other writers, some of whom the future will actually care about, I occasionally jot lines there from whatever I’m reading, or tweet links or photographs of pages. I like following what other poets are reading, too. I suspect if you peruse a year’s worth of some authors’ tweets, you’d only get a partial sense of the media they’re consuming, but that’s true of my 2017 list of books below, too (kept in Word). I can’t keep similar track, after all, of the vast number of posts and essays and magazines and portions of anthologies I read, much less the Netflix series and SNL clips I watch or the paintings I gaze at. It’s just too much. I’m a hungry art-consumer!

terracotta soldier
Art survives empires–terracotta soldiers at VMFA

So, belatedly, here is my very partial new year’s account of myself as a book-reader. I gave the sf highlights in a Strange Horizons’ summary review. In addition to those, I liked Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s first book, Ornament, enough to teach it in a poetry and music class this winter. I was excited by and admiring of all the poetry collections that made the most prestigious year-end lists, but I’d add that David Wojahn’s 2017 collection, For the Scribe, was just as strong as the ones receiving fizzier receptions. Among slightly older collections, Majmudar’s Dothead and Miller’s The Cartographer Maps a Way to Zion were new to me last year, and I loved them. Among nonfiction books, Tisserand’s Krazy probably had the biggest influence on me, and aside the more sf-y novels by Saunders, Hamid, Jones, and others I mention in Strange Horizons, I greatly enjoyed the latest mystery from Livesey, Mercury. Between submitting the review and New Year’s Day, I also finally read Alderman’s The Power, which both riveted and irritated me. It’s definitely a book to talk about. “Chewy,” as reviewers keep writing.

For future record, or for naught (if I remain obscure, or if 45 presses his really big nuclear button and civilization collapses, taking the internet down with it):

POETRY

1/3 Kaufman, Krawiec, Levin, Parker, eds, Intimacy* (teaching possibility)

1/15 Briante, The Market Wonders* (reread for class)

1/22 Blanco, Looking for the Gulf Motel (reread for class)

1/24 Sexton, Transformations (reread for class)

2/5 Camille Rankine, Incorrect Merciful Impulses* (micro-review)

2/7 Kei Miller, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (reread for class)

2/12 Etter, Scar (reread for class)

2/19 Hankla, Great Bear (by local author I admire)

2/21 Evans, Superheroes and Villanelles* (traded books at AWP)

2/25 Shire, Our Men Do Not Belong to Us (reread for class)

2/26 Smith, Life on Mars (reread for class)

3/3 Carson, Autobiography of Red (reread for class)

3/3 Givhan, Landscape with Headless Mama (scouting for teaching)*

3/20 Diaz, When My Brother Was an Aztec (reread for class)

3/24 Vuong, Night Sky as Exit Wound (reread for class)*

4/3 Michelson, Swimming Through Fire (by friend; reread 12/4 for teaching)*

4/8 Hogue, In June the Labyrinth (by friend)*

4/? Satterfield, Apocalypse Mix (by friend)*

4/? Brown, The Virginia State Colony for the Feebleminded (recommended by friends)*

4/30 Sevick, Lion Brothers (local author)*

5/? Campbell, First Nights* (for review; reread 12/3 for teaching)

5/18 Borzutsky, Performance of Becoming Human (Prize winner)*

5/29 Friman, The View From Saturn (bought at conference)

7/6 Dwarf Stars Anthology 2017 (to vote on winners)

7/18 Rauk, Buried Choirs* (comp copy from press I ended up reviewing)

7/19 Willoughby, Beautiful Zero (gift)

7/20 Anderson, Rough (unpublished, to give feedback)

7/29 Wojahn, For the Scribe* (poet I admire)

7/29 Phillips Bell, Ornament* (by a friend)

7/30 Majmudar, Dothead* (heard NPR piece & bought book ages before)

7/31 Campana, The Book of Faces (research)

8/1 Campana, Natural Selections (research)

8/20 Stewart, Cinder* (research)

9/4 Bashir, Field Theories* (research)

9/29 Taesali, Sourcing Siapo* (review)

10/13 H.D., Trilogy (reread for class)

10/24 Pollard, Outsiders* (by a friend)

11/5 Forche, The Country Between Us (for class)

11/7 Michelson, ed, Dreaming America* (by friend and colleague)

11/21 Cooley, Girl after Girl after Girl* (review)

11/25 Smith, Don’t’ Call Us Dead* (in response to reviews)

12/19 Akbar, Calling a Wolf a Wolf* (good reviews)

12/21 Long Soldier, Whereas* (daughter gave it to me)

12/24 Der Vang, Afterland* (NBA list)

12/31 McCrae, The Language of my Captors* (NBA list)  

 

FICTION

1/2 Whitehead, Underground Railroad* (good critical attention/ year-end lists)

1/14 Muth, Zen Shorts (gift from a colleague)

2/4 Gonzalez, The Regional Office Is Under Attack* (Christmas present)

3/5 Goldstein, The Oven (scouting for teaching)

3/6 Gaiman, Norse Gods (for fun)

3/7 French, The Ticking (scouting for teaching)

3/11 Hamid, Exit West* (scouting for teaching)

3/26 Butler, Duffy, Jennings, graphic adaptation of Kindred (scouting for class)*

3/30 Zoboi, American Street (scouting for class)*

4/8 Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo* (fan of his work)

4/18 Livesey, Mercury* (heard at the AWP)

4/23 Kidd, Himself* (reviewed well by author I admire)

5/20 Strout, Anything Is Possible (audiobook on car trips)

5/26 Robinson, New York 2140 (always read his books)*

6/10 Gavaler, Kill the Messenger (unpublished, to give feedback)

6/16 Rash, The Cove (people had been recommending his work for a while)

7/13 Herriman, The Kat Who Walked in Beauty (research)

7/14 Yuknavich, Book of Joan* (good reviews)

7/16 Croy Barker, How To Talk to a Goddess (unpublished, to give feedback)

7/23 Perry, The Essex Serpent* (NYT Times review, I think)

7/27 Gowdy, Little Sister* (NYT review)

8/6 Atkinson, Life After Life (recent classic I’d never gotten to)

8/13 Mandel, Last Night in Montreal (for research)

8/14 Dickinson, Poison Oracle (fan of his work and Small Beer Press)

10/1 Jemisin, The Stone Sky* (for fun)

10/8 Mandel, The Singer’s Gun (for research)

10/15 Mandel, The Lola Quartet (for research)

10/21 Mandel, Station Eleven (reread for teaching/ research)

11/8 Egan, Visit from the Goon Squad (reputation)

12/1 Erdrich, Future Home of the Living God* (for fun)

12/22 Hoffman, Rules of Magic* (for fun)

12/31 Alderman, The Power* (reviews)

 

NONFICTION

1/24 Culler, Literary Theory (reread for class)

2/18 Smith, Ordinary Light* (I love her poetry)

3/10 Rekdal, Intimate (I heard her give a great AWP reading)

6/24 Tisserand, Krazy* (research project)

6/30 McDowell, O’Connell, de Havenon, Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman (research)

7/5 Gailey, PR for Poets (in ms, to give feedback)

7/17 Vetter, A Curious Peril: H.D.’s Late Modernist Prose (research)

7/28 Greene, Time’s Unfading Garden (reread for research)

8/09 Frank, Diary of a Young Girl (rereading because I was in Amsterdam)

8/18 Stewart, A Poet’s Freedom (research)

8/19 Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (reread for research)

9/2 Allen, Our Declaration (first-year reading program)

10/19 Bialosky, Poetry Will Save Your Life* (research)

11/2 Leahy, Tumor* (gift, also by a colleague)

12/2 Sulak and Kolosov, Family Resemblance anthology (research and teaching)

12/23 Johnston, My Life As a Border Collie (by friend)

 

 

Urgent: curse for moonlight declamation

Two blessings and a curse–guess which one is the most fun to read aloud? My poxy poem, “All-purpose Spell for Banishment,” written last New Year’s Eve, just appeared in the new issue of SalamanderMaybe if we all chant it naked by moonlight on the solstice, inserting the name of our least favorite president, the new year will bring us more light. On the beneficent side, “Border Song,” from Ocean State Reviewis the way I remember the especially moving 2016 wedding of my friends Jenna and Lucy, bless them both. And check out my poem in the new Blackbirdif you have time, in which I try, through a slightly banged-up pantoum’s repetition, to turn a bad year around.

Benedictions to the editors of all those journals, including interns who slipped issues into the mail during the last sliver of fall term. Blessed be, too, the good people at Modernism/ modernity, who posted my column on archival frustrations last week: “Seeking Anne Spencer.” Blessed be Anne Spencer. Salutations to the gods who permitted me to finish my full-length essay on her and submit it by today’s deadline, as well as to my spouse, who suggested some timely edits at a very busy moment of the term. All hail Janet McAdams, micro review editor at Kenyon Review Online, for assembling such a mighty roster of smallnesses every other month, including, this December, my praise of Nicole Cooley’s Girl after Girl after Girl. 

I haven’t been writing poetry much, but I’m hoping to change energies now by reading voraciously and steaming a Christmas pudding. In the meantime, I hereby beam out good cheer to all my friends, and all poetry’s friends. It’s been a stupid, toxic, nasty year, but there are lots of good words left to utter, and sometimes they make a difference.

Failing that, please enjoy a gratuitous black cat, caught in the act of chewing my tree.

 

Krazy Kat among the nasturtiums

kk 1920

COMICS=POETRY+GRAPHIC DESIGN, says Austin Kleon, who is, in turn, reprising Gregory Gallant, a.k.a. Seth–but wherever the formula comes from, I love the possibilities it raises for both comics and poetry as media. It’s my starting point for a paper I’m giving at the Modernist Studies Association conference very soon. I’ll be discussing the 1920 Krazy Kat strip above by George Herriman in terms of babble and doodle, Northrop Frye’s terms for the axes of poetic making.

I had a slight knowledge of Herriman’s work before, but this summer read the recent biography–which is, among other things, a story of racial passing–and became obsessed. Krazy Kat is very funny and anti-pretentiously brilliant and would be perfectly at home on a modern poetry syllabus. Each strip is as predictable as a sonnet: a linguistically inventive, genderless black ket loves a pompous white mouse with anger management problems, who responds via brick. That’s the form. The variations: endless. 

Being on the krazy side (I’m in denial about any resemblance to Ignatz, the lecture-asm nasturtiumprone control freak), I’m juxtaposing this poetic comic against an Anne Spencer poem presented in visual form. “A Lover Muses” is the second stanza of one of Spencer’s few published poems, “Lines to a Nasturtium” (1926), and was painted onto nasturtium contact paper and fixed to a cupboard by her neighbor and good friend, the African American artist and architect Amaza Lee Meredith. I have some things to say here, too, about babble and doodle but also gender, race, justice, and the meanings of repetition. I’ll be joining Chris Gavaler’s “Modernism and the Comics” panel on Thursday afternoon, August 10th. Wish me luck.

Best of all, the conference is in AMSTERDAM, where we’ve never been, so Chris, the kids, and I are going a week early. Madeleine is home from her Siberian adventures, tired and hungry but eager to keep learning about Russian language and culture. She’s also more than happy to pack up again and see some canals and world-class museums. The scary thing is that, when we come back, our school years will start up again fast. Was my work this summer a howling success?–NO. Never mind. Pancakes and jenever, here we come.

“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.