Hope, ambition, and other tricky green things

“Let him who is without my poems get assassinated!” Walt Whitman wrote, when the self-published 1855 Leaves of Grass didn’t make much of a splash, despite the three glowing reviews Whitman himself wrote and published anonymously. I’m reading him for a 4-week, all-remote Whitman and Dickinson seminar I’m teaching right now, and bonus: it helps to know that even a famously self-celebratory poet had bad days. Next up: discussion posts plus selfies of students reading “Song of Myself” on the grass or at least next to something green. After that sprawling long poem, I’ll have the pleasure of talking with them about a great cryptic recluse poet, who seems pretty well-suited to this moment. I’m both having fun with the class and anxious about it. It’s really hard to read social cues over Zoom as I usually depend on doing in person, and I suspect some of them are nervous about the queer theory part of the course, which also counts for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. My mantra is that I’m doing my best, and so are they, and we’re lucky to have this interlude of fun reading in a spring that continues to be shaded by sad and worrisome news.

It’s hard to say yet whether April was the worst month for the pandemic in the US, but I’m still glad it’s over! I tried to kick the poetry-writing part of my brain into gear, attempting to write a poem a day and share drafts with a small group of friends. What I wrote was neither great nor daily, but it felt like a productive practice and a way to feel connected across distances. I also devoted time and energy to getting word out about The State She’s In, although time and energy both seemed to be in short supply. (It’s a book about gender and ambition, among other subjects, which is another reason why I’m finding Whitman interesting to reread.) Maybe I’ve set myself up better for May. April’s unpredictability was getting me down so I organized my May class better: M/W for online discussion forums, T/Th for Zoom discussions, and Fridays and weekends, I hope, for poetry revisions, submissions, and publicity.

Any of you poets trying to submit work have probably noticed, too, the rush of editor verdicts lately. I’ve had some acceptances and some rejections (without wanting to assassinate anybody). It probably helps me stay philosophical that another April task was to reject some damn fine poems submitted to Shenandoah (650 subs for 12-15 spots). There was much hair-tearing and teeth-gnashing on my part, truly, so I now mostly see people who reject me not as nepotistic demon kings but as other stressed-out people making hard calls. Spring journal issues are also busting out all over. Thanks to About Place for including my poem “We Could Be” in their “Practices of Hope” issue, which is full of good writing and very well-timed. I’m grateful also to the print journal Cave Wall where the last two poems from The State She’s In were just published: “Invocation” and “No Here Here”–which are also poems of hope, or at least I aspired for them to be, because that’s what I’ve needed most in the past few years and I’ve been guessing others crave the same. Not to deny the bad days–it helps, as I said, to have company in them–but to imagine them gusting through me and not sticking.

More Virtual Salons are coming soon, but in the meantime, consider checking out the ROCKED BY THE WATERS: Poems of Motherhood anthology Facebook Live launch reading, hosted by the English Dept. at Normandale Community College in Minneapolis, MN, May 7, Thursday, 7-8 PM, CST. Reading with me will be Kris Bigalk, Teri Cross Davis, Camille Dungy, Rebecca Foust, Hedy Sabbagh Habra, Athena Kildegaard, and others (note that’s 8 pm for friends on the east coast of the US). This book is also well-timed! It’s a wonderful collection, full of literary luminaries and just plain luminous poems speaking to many experiences of mothering and being mothered, the losses as well as love. No matter what you’re able to read, write, or do these days, I hope you’re well and enjoying sparks of optimism once in a while.

Pleased as punch (with recipe)

pudding

Maybe I need to blog about poetic self-doubt more often. As soon as I did, my luck seemed to shift under my feet. I had been doing math some of you have surely done, too: I’ve been showing the ms around for a while now. What if this poetry collection I thought was so great doesn’t strike any editors the same way? The poems have done well in magazines, but what would I do with the larger structure, with its support beams and fancy finials, if no press wanted I genuinely wanted to work with returned my affections? Keep trying while I write another one, I realized.

I don’t feel that way about literary criticism; blogging about poetry is fun and I care very much about boosting the poetry that inspires me, but there’s no way I’d keep writing footnoted articles if no one wanted to publish them. I’ll write the best poetry I can for as long as I can, however. It’s work I love desperately. Returning to it after occasional absences, with renewed interest, joy, and creative ambition–that’s been one of the deepest rhythms of my adult life.

Then a piece of fan mail popped up from Molly Sutton Kiefer at Tinderbox Editions, to whom I sent the ms a year ago. Submittable still said “In Progress” but I figured she’d given it a pass. Au contraire. She loved the book. Was it still available?

If you don’t know it, Tinderbox Editions is a small press based in Minnesota; their titles are beautiful inside and out, appealingly designed and carefully edited. I’d reviewed a couple of them and talked to one of the authors, Athena Kildegaard, about her publishing experience, so I’d long felt the press would be a good home for my work. When Molly contacted me, we talked about timing, too, which has gotten messed up for me in the past; if you don’t have a cover and galleys/ advance copies months before the official launch, publicity becomes much harder to do well. She had really good answers about a 2020 launch and working backwards from that due date through a nine-month process to make sure we get it right.

So I am all in, and wildly grateful. My poetry book has a home!

And there’s more! I’ve blogged about my role as poetry editor for the redesigned Shenandoahpublicizing the new issue and celebrating its contributors has felt really great. Plus I’m going to publish my first venture into poetry comics: Split Lip Magazine has just accepted a longish piece Chris and I co-authored called “Made for Each Other.” (Don’t go “awww”–it’s about decrepit robots, as I just told the generous blogger Bekah Steimel in an interview which will be posted sometime today.) The editors at Flockbless them, have nominated one of my poems for a Pushcart–that issue will be live soon, too. And even though I’m receiving my share of literary journal rejections, as everyone seems to this time of year, I do have another bit of loveliness I can’t reveal yet, and that’s dizzying. This middle-aged cyborg isn’t too old yet to pivot, but still, the good news feels overwhelming. Now, if we can just get Trump in prison and solve a few geopolitical crises, I’ll be outright cheerful.

Delicious Holiday Punch I Invented Last Night

*1 cup each pear juice, pear vodka, and ginger liqueur (Domaine de Canton)

*1/2 cup simple syrup (1:1 sugar dissolved in boiling water; I add lemon peel)

*juice of a lemon or two

*ice and Asian pear slices for the punch bowl

Proportions can be doubled or tripled for a crowd. Add lemon seltzer or prosecco to each glass for celebratory fizz.

 

Coniferous forests of hard thinking

When your child takes a summer internship in Siberia, you think, hmm, THAT’s a long way for a teenager to go to escape parental interference. Maybe you made the normal adolescent struggle for independence a little difficult?

Parents can follow their kids now through multiple technologies and social media platforms, and I do. With trust, and love!–but it doesn’t give a twenty-year-old a ton of room. I went to college only an hour from home, but without cellphones or email or Facebook or any other mode of mutual visibility, just a payphone at the end of the hall that, occasionally, someone would pick up after twenty rings. That could be hard, but also a huge relief.

I’m not saying M. went to Siberia BECAUSE the word is synonymous for “as far away as possible.” She’s long been fascinated by all things Russian, studying the history, literature, and politics. But my eldest has finally, ingeniously escaped my range!

So I’ve been sending my thoughts so far east it’s west again, in between revising mss, organizing submissions and queries, recovering from an annoying back injury (totally unrelated, I’m sure, to stress over packing my child off to the Altai Mountains for six weeks), and building up new research for an August conference in Amsterdam, which has involved the usual leaps and dead ends, excitement and wailing. You know–the coniferous forest of hard thinking, prowled by tigers of self-doubt. The tundra of isolated work, wondering when you’ll find a settlement. Supply your own ridiculous poet-parent Siberian metaphor here.

altai kraiI’m also watching my phone for updates from the countryside south of Novosibirsk, but trying not to appear desperate for them. I’m happy to report that a twenty-first-century voyager can text even from Siberia, and that, from what I can judge, my daughter is having a fabulous adventure. She’s teaching English to kids and working hard to learn as much Russian as possible (from a teacher with a Kazakh accent). The locals are friendly and her fellow interns are a cheerful group of Brits from Bristol Uni (though most of them leave soon, with a couple of new interns coming from other countries). The lowlands have been balmy and beautiful, and they’re heading towards a new camp, higher in the mountains (have you seen The Eagle Huntress?). The stresses are sleep deprivation–it’s light all the time–and food, but neither is dire. M. has become a connoisseur of kasha, preferring the barley-millet version served at lunchtime, with its tantalizing flavor of “burnt electrical cord,” over the less describable breakfast variety. What she can’t get behind, not surprisingly, is the meat–“myaso,” I think, in my alphabet. (“What kind of meat?” Blank looks: “Just myaso.” Ah, mysteries.) I wish I’d insisted on packing another bag of almonds.

From the present wilderness, here are a couple of new reviews, a micro of Niall Cambell’s First Nights up at the Kenyon Review, and a longer one of Athena Kildegaard’s Ventriloquy at Valparaiso Poetry ReviewBoth collections are very much worth your time.

For now, back to the quiet life. Well, quiet on the outside. Here’s a glimpse of the current menage, with Chris helping me rearrange a poetry ms, the still-at-home child eating American food in a Doctor Who shirt, and Poe making sure no recyclable grocery bags wing off to Russia, or the next room.

summer 2017

 

Oh, mother

Writing is a confidence game, and while generally I can play it with the necessary brio, occasionally I drop all the cards.

In many ways, I’m having a great spring. I love this new essay on Radioland by Athena Kildegaard in Bloom. I’m happily tinkering with fall syllabi, but I still have a few months before September hits, hallelujah.

I also have some cool events coming up. One is a long weekend with my spouse on Martha’s Vineyard (attending a wedding then just hanging out). Others are work, but the fun kind. With the usual ambivalence–feeling both that my work deserves attention and I am a total impostor–I applied last fall and winter to various series, and some applications resulted in invitations. See my Events page for details on May-June readings In D.C., Maryland, and CT. It reminds me that when you throw out lots of filaments, like Whitman’s spider, a few catch.

So with all that busy-ness ahead, plus a visit with my mother next week and picking up my daughter from her first year of college, I thought: I need to stay focused on the time-sensitive work, which mostly involves tying up the threads on big projects and getting them under consideration. I tried, with some success. I worked, got sick, recovered, worked some more. Then, last weekend, I froze.

I don’t know why I’m having trouble moving ahead, although I always find it harder to send stuff out than to write it in the first place. I know why I write and always will write–building a little world is joyful, healing work. Marketing a little world: less fun. Maybe I don’t want to finish these projects, at some level. Maybe I’m experiencing biochemical chaos, pollen allergies, unresolved anger. I’m worried about my mother, who face-planted in the radiologist’s office recently and knocked out her top front teeth. I was also disheartened by being laid up on the couch all weekend. I’d been so relieved by improved health in the last couple of weeks–I finally seemed to be on a path toward physical well-being, able to take walks again!–and then I twisted my heel and reactivated my plantar fasciitis. Painful for a couple of days, but trivial in the long run. What’s harder is being reminded that all my plans are basically imaginary and can be swept away in a moment.bookcase

At any rate, after that Saturday morning injury came several very low days. Honestly, I’ve gone into deeper holes, and for much longer. I know how to manage an unhappy brain, just like I know the regime of heat, ice, rest, and gentle stretches that helps my foot. I just slow down and do whatever work seems possible; trying to force progress on a project I’m discouraged about doesn’t get me anywhere, so better to clean out a closet or just read. (Although I’m not yet ready to face reorganizing my books–why did I once think all my contemporary poetry would fit in one bookcase?)

So this week I tinkered with writing that felt outward-focused, not self-aggrandizing. I know some people don’t see reviews as acts of generosity, but I receive them that way, and writing them feels like service to poetry. Having finished a couple of tardy reviews, I already feel better. A little.

One obstacle to feeling a lot better is, paradoxically, my basic sanity. A failure of confidence is actual a rational response to the literary market. Most people don’t want to read what any of us is putting out there. Yet, oh my god, am I grateful other writers persist. I need to immerse myself in their consoling fictions when my own imagination fails and I confront the stark truth of things.

Well, my lunatic desire to seek audiences has always resurged before. I just have to accept this latest highly symbolic health problem, that my feet don’t want me to move. Work on it gently, and wait it out. I hear I may be getting breakfast in bed this Sunday with some homemade blueberry muffins. My feet, honestly, ought to calm down–they have it pretty good.