Fuzzy at the edges

U-Chris

Meet our new kitten, Ursula! We brought her home from the SPCA yesterday and she’s charming everyone in the house (except our other cats, who are scared to death of her tiny rambunctious self). I thought of titling this post Cranky Poet Goes Soft, because that’s basically the mood around here, although I can’t entirely shake a little holiday anxiety. So much to do, as well as paradoxically worrying that I won’t find time to kick back–but at least I’m reading up a storm, catching up on poetry books I haven’t had time for. I’m hoping to post on the books I read in 2018 around the New Year. I’m also prepping like mad for the new term, which starts Jan. 7th; I have to get everything organized early because we decided to go to New Orleans for a few days right beforehand. The kids have never seen the city, and for me it’s been about 20 years, so we’ll just walk around, eat well, hear some jazz. Traveling is one of the few things that makes me really put work away and we realized we were all craving the break.

 

Another bit of good news: I’ll be seeing Portugal for the first time in July! I’m on a panel just accepted to the 2019 International MLA, held in Lisbon, so Chris and I will go together and extend the adventure by at least a few days. The panel concerns poetry and physics, and I’ll be talking about Samiya Bashir’s Field Theoriestwo of the other panelists are people I love hanging out with, my former student Max Chapnick and another dear colleague in the poet-scholar biz, Cynthia Hogue. I will have to write that paper (!), but that’s too far off to worry about, so I’m just happy to have a very cool trip to look forward to.

Other luck at the hinge of the year, as light finally considers returning: Flock has published two of my poems in its new “Vanishing Point” issue, which you can read online for free through Dec. 25th. “List from John Robinson, 1826” was one of their Pushcart nominees, which moves me for all kinds of reasons–it’s a few years old and was inspired by the history of a group of enslaved people at my home institution. You can see the actual document, which is far more powerful than my poetic response to it, here.

And my copy of Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle, edited by Marilyn Taylor and James Roberts, just arrived–my poem “Return Path” is in its pages, as well as gorgeous work by Ned Balbo, Amy Lemmon, Jane Satterfield, Kathrine Varnes, and many others. I’ll close this post with one of my favorites, “Beach of Edges” by Annie Finch (photographed with one of the shells I keep in my office, although Ursula is doing her best to smash them, crash by fascinating crash). I also love the quote from Annie on the back of the collection: “Based in communal dance rather than individual song, spiraling back repeatedly to the same refrains, often moving from obsession to acceptance through the simple movements of repetition, perhaps the villanelle teaches us something about sharing and returning, integrating, and learning to let go: good lessons for our time.” That feels uncannily right about my own few successful ventures into the form–most villanelles don’t quite fly unless you’re willing to participate in that integration, even if it’s painful.

I’m still most dazzled with happiness to have placed my next poetry ms with Tinderbox Editions, but the smaller pleasures are nevertheless ratcheting up the general shine. Here’s wishing you the light and luck you most desire and a peaceful holiday, with kittens.

villanelle

Points on my poetic license

I have a guilty sense that I’ve deluded people, cast up a falsely shimmering mirage of the Productive Poet-Scholar-Teacher, when someone asks how I get so much done. I feel perpetually behind, anxious about what I should have finished but haven’t started yet, and believe that last year’s publishing rate is a fluke. Really, my bulb has burnt out, and next year they’ll see the illusion flicker off like broken film.

At the same time, like everyone who has the arrogance to try and make art, I think I am an underappreciated genius. When asked how I get so much done, I experience a static charge of irritation. The answer, of course, is that I work really hard even when I don’t want to. That’s the only answer, ever.

There’s another piece, though, and it’s not something a scholar should admit: I am not a perfectionist. I send poems out before they’re done and regret it later. I don’t proofread my emails, dammit. I fail to double-check the spelling of a name or the exact wording of a reference. To anyone not a scholar or researcher or journalist, this probably sounds like silly stuff to worry over, and sometimes it is. I had a reviewer lambaste me for a misspelled name once (in a quick aside, not a major point) and I still think he was unnecessarily snarky; he was looking for errors because he didn’t like my poetic politics.

Sometimes, though, even small errors have ethical weight. I wrote down just the first author of a co-authored source once, and never re-checked and caught my omission of the collaborators. Later, one of those collaborators wrote me in frustration—she had just done me a huge favor and noticed in the process that I had cheated her of credit for a lot of hard labor. You of all people should know better, she said, and I agreed.

I recently made a couple of other mistakes in which I failed to give full credit to women. I just published an article about The Discussion of Women’s Poetry List called “A Salon with a Revolving Door: Virtual Community and the Space of Wom-Po.” One mistake was just a basic confusion rooted in the real difficulty of following tangled threads: I attributed the invention of “Foremother’s Friday” to Ellen Moody, who more or less runs that feature now, instead of to its real originator, Amanda Surkont. The other error is worse, in my opinion, because, again, I really should have known better. In one paragraph, I blithely recognize Charles Bernstein for founding the Buffalo Poetic List and John Kinsella for founding poetryetc. I describe Wom-po, however, not as Annie Finch’s creation but as the collective venture of a group of women.

Yes, it was a collective endeavor—all those email lists are—and my article emphasizes its communal aspect as a feminist achievement. However, all those lists also had leaders, people who steered the conversation through conflicts, navigated technical difficulties, and kept the group lively and growing. In short, I gave full acclaim to the men, but not to the woman. There are enough jerks out there doing things like that with an edge of malice; people who don’t want to be jerks have an obligation to be careful. Annie Finch (in a nice way) called me on it, and I apologized, but I wanted to say again here: I get it and I am sorry.

I never made the omitting-the-coauthors misstep a second time and I don’t expect to make the failure-to-credit-the-woman-same-as-the-men error again, either. I’m pretty sure I will find myself apologizing for other mistakes, though. It’s not that I’m cavalier about it or won’t try hard to get things right, or at least err on the side of generosity. It’s just hot hard work here in the projection booth, with that Productive Poet-Scholar-Teacher film on constant display. My Teacher-Scholar simulacrum likes to finish things, tick them off the list and keep moving. Only the poet really takes things slowly enough, at least some of the time. That’s one of the uses of poetry’s uselessness.