Currents and circuits

I’ve been revving high without going anywhere for a while, having entered the work-around-the-clock part of the term, so I’m going flat-out all day and it’s hard to calm down at night, much less write poems or do other creative work that makes me feel peaceful. Thinking about how to manage my energy better made this poem come to mind. It appeared in a 2018 anthology, Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle edited by Marilyn L. Taylor and James P. Roberts, and I’ll probably include it in my next poetry collection, providing the publishing world wants book number 6 from me.

Return Path


The only way to pray is through my feet,
earthward, jolted in return by the fizz
of a spiking current. I never thought a circuit

would loop through me, believed I was separate, 
alone, done with gods, but here it is:
I’ve found a way to pray. Through my feet,

I reach down. There’s something animate,
chthonic, that touches me back. It’s a species
of love, a thinking-spike, a zinging circuit

of energy and dirt, blood and spirit—
plutonic conversation, mostly wordless.
The way I’ve found to pray is through my feet,

sole bared to wooden boards, or rug, or slate,
or buggy grass, just as you want to press
skin to a beloved’s, sparking a current, a circuit.

Not that earth loves me, exactly. Matter’s what
matters. She wants me to return the mess
of my only body, pray from head through feet
as I sink, unthinking ash, into love’s circuit.

I call myself agnostic mainly, atheist occasionally, but I pray sometimes. I don’t discuss it much: saying you talk to the underworld is likely to concern religious friends on behalf of your soul and skeptical friends on behalf of your brain. But while praying the way I was taught in Sunday school felt terrible–addressing formal words to a pale and distant father in the sky who never answered–connecting imaginatively to soil and rock settles me. I even get good advice sometimes. Yep, what’s returning my calls may be a deeper part of myself rather than an outside force, yet I have an inkling that the inside-outside distinction is wrong-headed anyway, so I don’t worry about it. I’ll take whatever help the universe is offering.

Right now, I’m focusing on connecting gears so the revving gets me somewhere–with small and partial success. I just received edits on the second half of my essay collection, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, so I’m starting to enact those revisions, even though it’s a difficult time of year to carve out any hours. I also discovered an absolutely lovely blurb for the book in my inbox, from someone I had contacted out of the blue. A friend generously helped me research some cover ideas. I’m getting ready to speak at a virtual Writer’s Week held by the University of South Carolina at Wilmington, and then physically attend World Fantasy Con in Montreal, if the gods allow. A panel I’m on was just accepted for the virtual AWP but two others were rejected from the in-person one, though, so I’m second-guessing my intention to apply for university funds to attend. It’s hard to make decisions as the winds pick up.

In the shorter term: please let me know (at wheelerlm@wlu.edu or in the comments) if you’d like the Zoom link for a reading at 6pm Eastern on October 21, hosted by Lucy Bucknell of Johns Hopkins. She doesn’t post the links on social media so it’s usually an intimate group of 6 readers doing 10 minutes each–nice vibe. Next week’s lineup will include:

Elias Baez is a poet from New York.  He’s Poetry Editor at GAYLETTER magazine and has work in The Bitchin’ Kitsch and The Daily Drunk

Helena Chung is a Korean American poet currently living in Brooklyn. She is a recent graduate of the MFA program at UVA.

Linda Campbell Franklin, aka Rowena Sunder & Barkinglips, messes around with words, pictures, dogs, cats, outsider art, and antiques; and writes/illustrates all kinds of books.   

Jalynn Harris is a poet and book designer from Baltimore. Author of Exit Thru the Afro, she earned her MFA from the University of Baltimore. 

Caroline Preziosi is a poet and artist from Baltimore. She is currently pursuing an MFA at School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  

…with me at the end reading a couple of poems from The State She’s In and a couple of new poems, too. I hope our circuits connect and I see you there.

Learning, unlearning, and #AWP21

You know the way somebody makes a remark and it clangs in you, your body vibrating with recognition? A friend recently told me that she’s learned a lot over the past year about what she needs to be happy. Yes. I’ve had other lesson years: for instance, I learned during my long-ago stint as department head is that I start falling apart if I don’t have an hour or so of flow experience each day, usually through reading or writing. Even class prep–rereading books, thinking about how to inspire engagement–can satisfy that hunger. Answering emails from the Business Office cannot.

The pandemic has been a tough teacher. I’ve had to be more deliberate this year about pairing periods of work-output with periods of restorative activities, and the range of possible restorative activities is necessarily smaller. I discovered how much travel had scaffolded my emotional life–choosing destinations and planning trips as well as the sheer relief of escaping my small town–and how sad the days felt without even small adventures to anticipate. I dealt with the restlessness through spring, summer, and fall by planning a new hike every Saturday, but tendonitis hobbled me in January, and February was just too icy as well as being crammed with deadlines, meetings, guest classes, and other tiring Zoomy things. I’m introverted enough not to mind some isolation, but projecting energy and enthusiasm via screens really takes it out of me. I entered March both revved up and melting down.

At my worried spouse’s suggestion, we spent 3 nights at a rented house by a deserted lake, which helped me reset. One reason I travel is because it puts distance between me and laptop-oriented work vigilance; I can’t seem to assert that boundary in my own house. I wasn’t looking forward to coming home and retethering myself to professional effort by “attending” this AWP, for which I had registered in a long-ago fit of optimism. Plus I’d learned that most of the sessions were pre-recorded, which I thought would remove that last frail shred of human interactivity. Virtual conferencing at its worst, I thought.

Somehow, though, I’ve done okay. I tried to watch multiple sessions on the first day then managed to listen to myself: I have it in me to pay high-quality attention to one session per day and reduced attention to a second, but that’s it. Why beat myself up about an incapacity to do more? The live chats enabled by the platform are more interactive and interesting than I expected, but I’m still not fulfilling that old, anxious “see and be seen” AWP imperative anyway, so, I told myself, just chill.

Oddly, I find myself choosing and enjoying the sessions on essays and fiction-writing more than the poetry events (although I particularly enjoyed a few generous-spirited poets talking about small press publicity last night). I wonder if that’s chance, or whether it’s about the pleasure of brain-expansion. I know a lot about poetry. I know something about writing creative nonfiction and novels, but I’m way lower on those learning curves, and I’m deeply interested in getting the lay of the land. In all the panels, I’m appreciating using camera-off listening time to stretch, when I’m not taking notes. And I finally did one of those AWP morning yoga sessions, and it was amazing!–not led by a super-fit woman approaching the practice athletically, but by a calm person emphasizing breathing and loosening joints, who kept reminding her invisible audience that yoga is all about feeling good and increasing happiness. Back to happiness, as if that might be an important subject.

Is that a lesson I can take to the next AWP–do less, concentrate on what’s pleasurable about the conference, what I can learn? Or should I skip the next AWP, even though it will be in Philadelphia where my kids are, and concentrate on smaller events where there’s a greater chance of really talking to people? No decision yet, especially given how unknowable the future is now, but I’m pondering.

In the meantime, a reminder that I’m participating in what I hope will be an inspiriting event this Monday 3/8 at 7pm ET (by Zoom, sorry), with poet-editors Celia Lisset Alvarez and Jen Karetnick, about rebounding from rejection. I plan to talk a little about what I’ve learned about it from both sides of Submittable, and why I persist. Sign up here (FB) or here (Eventbrite–but free tickets close a half hour before the event). Plus, I have to tell you, at the lake, there was an outdoor hot tub, and I saw a shooting star when I was lounging in the water (overchlorinated, but never mind). More happy astronomical phenomena, please, and may they be omens of good journeys ahead!

#Virtualbookfair, disappointment, little gifts

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This week has been a bummer. I voted for Elizabeth Warren, whom I love love love but who did poorly across the country in Super Tuesday. It’s been clear for many weeks that she wasn’t going to win, so I’m more resigned than some to this country being a sexist retrograde mess, but still… I’m also worried about coronavirus–not freaked out yet but worried, less for myself than for all the immune-compromised people out there, including my mother and many friends, some of whom lives very close to the quarantine implosion in Seattle. Further, colleges are a petri dishes, although I can see that mine is taking this chance of pandemic seriously. So many people at W&L just got back from travel to hot zones, so I and many others think the bug is already here, incubating. One little fact that struck me: I have a relative who’s a VP at a major insurance company and she said they’ve been preparing for one of these hundred-year major pandemics for 5 years, because it’s due. If Big Money is worried, the risk seems more real. I sure hope this is a false alarm; I’d be delighted to have egg on my face. I am, after all, a Cold War baby who did nuclear bomb drills in grade school–the threat of apocalypse has always been on my mind. But, worrisome.

Also, and I know this will rightly seem trivial to many, I’m so sad about AWP. I decided to opt out for several reasons: I have a cold and didn’t want to expose people to it on the plane, nor deal with their alarm at my sniffles, nor pass through security wariness. Further, one of my panels got canceled, I knew attendance levels were crashing, and my press (very understandably) decided to not to come. Advance sales at AWP are a big deal for the success and visibility of a poetry collection, which is my best yet and which I’ve been hoping would make a tiny splash. If you’re interested in it, I hope you’ll consider ordering it at an excellent discount from the Tinderbox Editions website. Just use the discount code AWP2020. In fact, check out all your favorite small presses, many of which canceled and are giving similar #virtualbookfair deals. I’ve been buying a lot of books myself.

There are compensations, plus more than my share of good things happening. I sorely needed some rest and time, and since I had already arranged makeup assignments for my classes, I’m taking it. Bonus: many friends who couldn’t attend AWP are enjoying these bookfair perks. A few lovely people have lately offered to review The State She’s In (which, by the way, is a pretty political book–let me know if you’d like a copy for reviewing or teaching). If you can, I hope you’ll look at some of my recent publications: poems in Kestrel and Literary Matters; microreviews of recent collections by Erin Hoover and Amy Meng in the very first issue of Revolute; an interview in the anthology Inside the Verse Novel, edited by Linda Weste. Please, friends, stay well, and if you get stuck at home, read poetry!

A slightly terrifying amount of reading

“Admit that Mexico is your double, that she exists in the shadow of this country, that we are irrevocably tied to her. Gringo, accept the doppelganger in your psyche. By taking back your collective shadow the intracultural split will heal.” (page 108)

“This land was Mexican once/ was Indian always/ and is./ And will be again.” (page 113)

“So this is what happened to someone living at the border like me: My ancestors have always lived with the land here in Texas. My indigenous ancestors go back twenty to twenty-five thousand years and that is how old I am in this country. My Spanish ancestors have been in this land since the European takeover which pulled migration from Spain to Mexico. Texas was part of a Mexican state called Tamaulipas. And Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and part of California and Colorado, were part of the northern section of Mexico. It was almost half of Mexico that the U.S. cheated Mexico out of when they bought it by the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. By doing so they created the borderlands.” (Interview, page 274)

The above quotes are from Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Fourth Edition. The book was first published in 1987; I encountered it a couple of years later, in graduate school, although I can no longer find my first copy. I’ve been meaning to reread it, because I’m advising a senior who wants to make it part of her thesis next year.

This was definitely the week. I’m sickened by U.S. gun violence and epidemic hatred without having a new or insightful word to say about them, but it felt just slightly sanity-restoring to spend time with Anzaldúa. After all, how can there be a “Hispanic invasion,” as the Texas shooter alleged, in a place to which the U.S. government has only the most recent and most dubious of many claims? Aside from the book’s reminders about history, it’s also big-hearted and wise and full of insights about language, culture, queerness, trauma, depression, artistic process, sacredness, and dreams. Plus, I loved remembering my twenty-something astonishment at its hybrid of prose and poetry: holy shit, you can do that?!

I’ve done a slightly terrifying amount of reading and rereading this summer. Some of it was planned: I wanted to know queer theory better for a course I’m devising; I had to process some of the literature of “postcritique” and more ecocriticism to revise Poetry’s Possible Worlds; and I always use academic breaks to catch up on recent poetry collections and throw myself into various novels, serious and escapist and everything in between. Health issues made me need books more–and made writing harder. My son goes to college in a few weeks, and friends are undergoing similar transitions, so I’m extra-emotional; reading is work I can do when my concentration is poor.

Otherwise, a lot of what I’ve been doing boils down to paperwork: moving galleys along (because I used to write things!), proposing courses, and sorting out plans for the larger-than-usual number of conferences I’ll be a part of this year. I organized a panel called “Uncanny Activisms” for the C.D. Wright Conference–check it out. Now that I’m fully off the AWP Board, I was part of three proposals for that highly competitive conference, too, and two were accepted. The one I organized but will sit on the sidelines of is called “Big Shoes: New Directions at Old Magazines,” featuring Melissa Crowe of Beloit Poetry Journal, Gerald Maa of Georgia Review, Wayne Miller of Copper Nickel, Emily Rosko of Crazyhorse, and Beth Staples of Shenandoah–having played a small role in changes at the latter, I’m excited to hear what everyone has to say. The panel I’ll speak at is “Teaching in the Confederacy,” organized and moderated by Chris Gavaler, also featuring Lauren K. Alleyne, Tyree Daye, and Gary Dop, in which we’ll talk about the challenges and responsibilities that come with regional links to white supremacy. Plus I’ll have a Shenandoah table to sit at, and at least one new book to sign…more on that soon, I hope!

In the meantime, thank god for Anzaldúa and all the other writers who have been challenging my thinking and just keeping me company. I’ll sign off with a few pictures of artists’ books from the Serralves Museum in Porto–we had no idea they had such a great collection until we stumbled on the exhibition.

Books read since May (first poetry, then fiction, then nonfiction, not including chapters, essays, and other short stuff):

5/1 Kaneko, The Dead Wrestler Elegies (planning for his visit)

5/4 Youn, Ignatz (Krazy Kat fandom)

5/5 Xie, Eye Level (strong reviews)

5/14 Miller, Emily Dickinson’s Poems As She Preserved Them (teaching prep)

5/18 Larsen, What Penelope Chooses* (fandom)

5/18 Hayden, Exuberance* (fandom)

5/18 Selznick and Whitman, Live Oak, With Moss* (comics version, teaching prep)

5/18 Seay, The See the Queen (teaching/ visit prep)

5/18 Alleyne, Honeyfish* (teaching/ visit prep)

5/23 Camp, The Turquoise Door* (campus visit)

5/23 Nguyen, Ghost Of* (good reviews)

6/4 Nelson, The Freedom Business (forget where I bought it!)

6/10 Frank, Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country (bought at a reading)

6/12 Bashir, Where the Apple Falls (research)

6/17 Campbell, Noctuary* (fandom)

6/18 Rekdal, Nightingale* (fandom)

6/20 Bashir, Gospel (research)

6/21 Gray, Radiation King* (received review copy)

6/22 Schwartz, Miraculum (found it on my shelf)

6/23 Phillips, Reasons for Smoking (found it on my shelf)

6/23 Honum, The Tulip-Flame (found it on my shelf)

6/23 Baker, waha / mouth (fandom)

6/24 Phan, Reenactments* (fandom and research)

7/1 Choi, Soft Science* (for review)

7/4 Matejka, The Big Smoke (found it on my shelf)

7/8 Satterfield, Her Familiars (reread for research)

7/11 Bray, Small Mothers of Fright (research)

7/12 Ginsburg, Dear Weather Ghost (research)

7/12 Ginsburg, Double Blind (research)

7/13 Dawson, Big-Eyed Afraid (fandom)

7/14 Legros George, The Dear Remote Nearness of You (found it on my shelf)

7/15 Calvocoressi, Rocket Fantastic (found it on my shelf)

7/16 Ali, Sky Ward (research)

7/17 Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard (bought at a conference)

7/20 Winslow, Defying Gravity (by a friend)

5/3 Herriman, Krazy & Ignatz (teaching prep)

5/8 LaValle, Destroyer (teaching prep)

5/19 Garstang, The Shaman of Turtle Valley* (local writer)

5/28 McLaughlin, Bearskin* (local connections plus Edgar win)

5/31 Atkinson, Transcription* audiobook (friends’ recommendation)

6/17 Walton, Lent* (fandom)

6/22 Crouch, Recursion* (NYT review)

6/23 Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (reread for teaching)

7/1 Hubbard, The Talented Ribkins (gift)

7/7 Kim, Miracle Creek* (reviews)

7/12 Ginsburg, Sunset City (research)

7/19 Ray, Whiskey Tales* (translator is a friend)

7/20 Rosenberg, Confessions of the Fox* (daughter’s recommendation)

8/1 Adieche, Americanah (teaching)

8/3 Waters, The Little Stranger (fandom)

5/? Gay, The Book of Delights (fandom)

5/21 Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (reputation)

5/22 Davis, Why Art?* (gift)

6/4 Hayles, Chaos Bound (research)

6/10 Atkins, The Laws of Thermodynamics (research)

6/10 Polkinghorne, Quantum Theory (research)

6/22 Darling, Je Suis L’Autre: Essays and Interrogations (research)

6/22 Kiefer, Nestuary (fandom)

6/24 Anker and Felski, Critique and Postcritique (research)

7/10 Vargas, Dear America* (teaching)

7/14 Moore, 16 Pills* (pressmate)

7/17 McSweeney, The Necropastoral (research)

8/7 Anzaldúa, Borderlands/ La Frontera (reread for teaching)

A smoke of fox escapes

Originally appearing in December, 2016 in Queen of Cups, my poem “House Call” is a crossroads between the novel and the poetry collection I’ll be publishing in 2020. It’s based on a dream–now I realize, one of a series of dreams–of numinous other-than-human figures visiting with some kind of message or advice. After drafting the poem in 2015, I gave a version of this dream to the protagonist of Unbecoming, although it means something different to her than it did to me. Below is the version of the poem that will appear in my book, or very close. Check out the original site, too: it contains a tarot reading that fits the crisis I was then, and a good writing prompt!

House Call

The black fox kept eluding me,
quick among the party shoes,
chrysanthemum scent of twilight
blowing through lamplit rooms.
Its fur was tipped with flame,
brushed by crimson characters.
Out the door, down the steps
to mist-damp grass. Gone, gone
under sharp-leaved rhododendrons.

What did you bring me, kitsune?
Twigs and dead matter Come sleep
Where are you now? Under your nails
your skin flashing through veins

Will I be fortunate? This dream
is your luck this restlessness
You feared warm rain had ceased falling—

that the onion moon had rolled
beyond night’s uneven floor.

Try to read spirit and this
ensues: writing shivers, a trick,
a tease. Creatures shifting shape
can’t pause at the mirror to preen.
Someone wears nine tails;
something prepares to change
by burning all the words.
A smoke of fox escapes.

This uncanny crossing is on my mind because I’m about to read part of the novel aloud to a real live audience for the first time (although it has had plenty of readers so far, and I’m reading big chunks aloud to myself as I edit). Our old college friend Scott Nicolay–now a prize-winning author as well as editor, translator, podcaster, and cave archaeologist–is a co-organizer of the Outer Dark Symposium on The Greater Weird, this year on March 22-23 in Georgia. I’ll only be reading for 10 minutes, but I can get a short, weird novel scene in there, plus a poem or two. And I’ll have poems in the souvenir program, which sounds like a beauty. It occurs to me that as well as learning how to excerpt fiction for different kinds of audiences, I’m going to have to practice toggling between genres during various public soundings. Here goes!

Part Two of the month of March–the sequel to a wonderful visit by Aimee Nezhukumatathil and a really nasty cold–involves a lot of travel, so I’m going to have to keep hitting the ginger tea and taking care of myself. Thursday I’m hitting a poetry panel at the Virginia Festival of the Book and seeing a couple of old friends; I’m sad I can’t stay and hear Kyle Dargan, but I have to hit the road south Friday. I’ll be immersed in weirdness all weekend, but my reading is:

10:50 am, Silver Scream FX Lab, 4215 Thurman Rd, Conley, Georgia

I come back to teach Monday-Wednesday (and do some Skype interviewing Tuesday), and then I’m off to Portland, Oregon. Come say hello to me at the Terrain.org table, #9029, in AWP’s bookfair on Thursday, March 28th from 12-1. I’ll be signing my recent chapbook Propagation ($5 and VERY light for your luggage), but I’d be delighted just to chat and give you one of my beautiful new Shenandoah business cards. Shenandoah doesn’t have a table this year–we will next year–but we are hosting a reading at 1:30 Thursday at the Jasmine Pearl Teahouse. Chris and I will be home again Saturday night, earlier than originally planned, but that’s probably good. Not only is the first week of April the last week of winter term, and therefore an academic crunch time, but these are the weeks my eighteen-year-old son hears back from the six colleges he applied to (two acceptances so far!), and he’s holding down the fort at home alone for the first time, while Chris and I conference together.

Lit mags I’m reading–with thanks to BPJ for publishing my poem “Dear Anne Spencer”!

Send us all good vibes, please, and if you spot me at one of these places, please say hello. I’ll report back in this space sometime around the kick-off of National Poetry Month. In the meantime, may March winds blow you some good!



October list, with bright spots

  1. Every U.S.-residing woman I’m in conversation with, of every generation, remains upset about Kavanaugh’s confirmation. For me it’s like trying to do my best work as some disembodied voice mutters in my ear, Even when we believe you, we consider the “assaults” you have suffered laughable. This is worth remembering about people as we walk through the world, how some are raining on the inside.
  2. The day I rotated off the AWP Board of Trustees, the scale read two pounds lighter. You think that’s related to salt consumption, and you’re entitled to that opinion.
  3. Grounded by Hurricane Michael, I missed my last board meeting in San Antonio. I’m sad to have missed catching up with the AWP staff and other board members, who are really the most wonderful people. But I wrote a poem (about Kavanaugh). Rested. Caught up on some work. As soon as I gave up trying to rebook flights, the sun came out.
  4. One of the papers I graded argued that while it was offensive for Sylvia Plath to use Holocaust metaphors in the persona poem “Daddy,” she may have appropriated that collective persecution because she knew that her own story, as a survivor of domestic abuse, would not have been believed. It was such a measured essay, not excusing anything, yet tending towards empathy in a way I found moving. People have to stop trash-talking millennials.
  5. The other essays were pretty damn good, too. Messy, sometimes, but we’re all messes, right?
  6. This is not a to-do list. This is a doing-it-because-I’m-not-yet-undone list.
  7. Have I mentioned that in response to those iffy blood sugar numbers I received in late summer, I’m doing a pretty good job drastically reducing carbs? I’m shocked I can manage it, given all the stresses of the season, but I actually feel better. There’s a certain undergrad I often see walking to school while munching a bagel, however, and every time I pass her, I groan.
  8. Mice are trying to repossess our house. When Poe catches one then absent-mindedly releases it, I’m reminded of the Senate and Brett Kavanaugh.
  9. The president is dog-whistling the KKK again, but my university gave us all some relief this week: a couple of buildings are being renamed (one after our first student of African descent, John Chavis, who was also the first African American in the COUNTRY to receive a college education–and that was here; the other after our first tenured woman professor, Pam Simpson, who was also my mentor); some important alterations are also happening in Lee Chapel.
  10. More sunshine: I received an acceptance this week from The Common, and two other magazines I admire gave me “but send more” rejections. I now understand how very, very kind that is. My thanks go out, too, to Rise Up Review, which featured my sonnet “Inappropriate” last week.
  11. This morning I read Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin and mumbled “holy shit” on every other page. It’s a forever-book. Hayes may be, as he claims in those pages, a Time Lord.
  12. I believe you and will keep on believing you. I’m convinced that matters. I just wish the weather weren’t taking so long to change.

fem lemon blam
Still life with oblivious cat and lemon balm

 

Heard at AWP 2018

The meaning of life: I don’t know and I don’t care. Bells don’t ask questions…When you’re old you have fewer questions about the nitty-gritty of poems. There are bigger fish to fry. Dying fish.               -Mary Ruefle in “Hell’s Bells,” a talk on tone

You cannot trust the sea.           -Ishion Hutchinson, plenary reading

On the days after the election, I had nothing to say, nothing to write.    -Virgil Suárez, plenary reading

Was was what we were.         -Diane Seuss, panel on persona poetry

African-American writers and other writers of the African diaspora–we don’t feel the sovereignty to write in the personal I, much of the time.   –Vievee Francis, panel on persona poetry

As soon as I put the I on the page I am abstracting myself. I can never be on the page…even the notion we can pin down a dialect seems kind of offensive to me.                   -Gregory Pardlo, panel on persona poetry

Forgive me, but you have such amazingly thick hair! Sorry, that was inappropriate.            -very nice editor (with thinning hair) to me, in the bookfair, when I bent down to pull out a business card

Above are some high points from a conference filled with literary geniuses. I can also give you the most awesome Q&A reply ever, useful for all kinds of occasions, courtesy of Mary Ruefle: “That is such a beautiful question I won’t spoil it with an answer.” You’re welcome.

There were low points, too, involving aching feet and feeling cosmically inconsequential, despite my super-elite board-member chartreuse lanyard (preserved in the picture below, since next year I’ll wear civilian colors again). I always find AWP exhausting but paradoxically nourishing, too, both because of literary riches and the presence of friends I rarely see. I was moved especially this year by how many women, old friends and strangers, touched my arm and said kind words, in low voices, about my Claudia Emerson essay, “Women Stay Put.” Sometimes you ring a bell and the sound seems to vanish; other times it resonates back to you. I’m so grateful when the tone returns.

I’ll be working to keep the good vibrations going as I fly back to Virginia today. To echo Diane Seuss and Ann E. Michael: is is what I’ll endeavor to be.

 

 

Small amid the sparkle

Is that a cormorant on that piling near St. Augustine, Florida, drying its wings? Because all the poets at the AWP convention in Tampa the week after next will look comparably, awkwardly exhibitionistic. Yo! I’m not totally unimposing! Come buy my book!

Including me, of course. I’ll be carrying around copies of my new chapbook, Propagation, for sale ($5) or trade (I like books, dark chocolate, and flattery). I’m already feeling goofy about it. I’m also delighted to be participating (briefly) at the Black Earth Institute Reading on March 8th at 4 pm in the Attic Cafe on Kennedy. Otherwise, I’ll mostly be conducting AWP Board duties: attending the board meeting all day Wednesday and the Awards Celebration Benefit that evening; speaking at the program directors’ plenaries Thursday morning; thanking bookfair participants and doing bookfair office hours; introducing the introducers and taking speakers to dinner. This is all a privilege, plus it’s my last year as Mid-Atlantic Regional Chair so I need to savor the fun bits, but I will feel some relief when it’s behind me.

I’m struggling to stay zen this weekend, with a larger world in bloody shambles and my own life as busy as I can handle. Last weekend was W&L’s weeklong midterm break, which we kicked off with a wonderful three nights at the beach followed by hunkering down to catch up on work, most seriously starting Thursday, when my son embarked for the Model UN in Chapel Hill. As usual, I was partly successful. I finished grading, but more comes in tomorrow; I’m ready for Monday, but then comes Tuesday; I caught up on revision and submission work, which was good but also reminded me how much work is languishing. I could use good news, but then again, I don’t want to fail to appreciate successes that ARE happening. For instance, 3 years ago (when I was 47, because I’m precocious), I wrote a poem named “L” about ambition on the cusp of age 50. I thought it was especially strong but just couldn’t place it–until last week, when it was snapped up by a journal I greatly admire. Pale rainbows in mist, right? Not world-changing but lovely all the same.boilinbag

Before I get back to it, huge thanks to Cherry Tree for another great issue, which includes two of my poems in the “Literary Shade” section: a bit of terza rima called “Native Temper” and this sonnet-rant about the KKK flier that landed on my lawn in 2015, weighted down in a baggie by white rice, of all the damn things. I knew before then that I lived and worked at ground zero for what remains of the Confederacy, and everyone could feel the nastiness intensifying as a terrible election approached, but that particular moment remains a watershed for me. May all of us small writers keep boiling for as long as it takes.  I need to believe each grain of good effort adds up, and there will be a tipping point.

Boarding around and some valentines

“Barding around” was Frost’s way of describing a poet’s itinerant life, giving readings anywhere and everywhere for your supper. “Boarding around” is the variation on Frost’s phrase that’s been running through my head lately. I’m the chair of the Mid-Atlantic Program Directors’ Caucus for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, which means attending the annual convention is a little like being a minor sub-sub-host of a tremendous, complicated literary party. I’m not at all in charge but I will be helping with various kinds of hospitality, introducing the introducers and cruising the book fair to ask vendors how they’re doing. I’ve also organized a small reception at an alum’s nearby apartment on Friday evening, 6-7:30. Some of our current students will be there (it’s rare for an AWP convention to be so close to my little rural college), as well as alums, professors, and friends. If you’re around and want to sip beverages and nibble food with us, please let me know and I’ll send details.

I’m also delighted to be hanging out at the Poetry by the Sea table in the bookfair on Saturday from 2-3, signing copies of Radioland. I’m going to steal a friend’s idea and donate the money from any sales to the ACLU–$10 per copy or whatever you can afford (cash or check, because I don’t have a swipe thingie, or you can just promise to donate $ later). I hope you’ll stop by and say hello. Also, I hope you’ll buy LOTS of poetry from authors and editors at the bookfair who need the funds more than I do, and maybe even support the AWP with a donation, if you can. Art offers counter-truths that have never been more vital. We really need the cash-strapped organizations that support literature to remain healthy.

Finally, check out the new issue of Talking Writing. I have a couple of poems in there, one of them last year’s science fiction valentine to Chris–I hope you’ll hear the Bowie echo. And I’ll leave you with a view from my Payne Hall window sill, with orchids from a friorchidend. Work has been seriously terrible for the last few months–really, for almost five years. Some welcome news has just mitigated that, and I’m really excited about a search we’re currently running. I feel damaged–talk about gender shrapnel!–but also have hope spring is around the corner, at last. I never would have staggered toward this finish line without the solidarity of many friends, the orchid-giver included, and I’m beyond grateful. Flowers for all of you in my sisterhood of sanity!

Battles lost

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I’ve always had the sense that people looked at me skeptically when I characterize my life as damaged by sexism. I’m a US-born person of European descent who never had to go hungry. I obtained a good education, was legally able to marry the person I love, and now earn a respectable living. How bad can it be?

Yet I’ve also been discriminated against, groped, and raped. I’ve done work I’m proud of despite the constant battery–I’ve fought hard, that is, to prove myself, even as others hurt or just underestimated me–but those achievements are often disparaged or overlooked. The message: as a woman, I am less than a full person; I don’t have rights over my body; I can’t be trusted to lead. And now roughly half the voting adults in my country have confirmed that message by electing a woman-despising groper to the presidency.

Yes, I’m taking this election personally. It is personal. As I write, at dawn, my phone is buzzing with misery. Downstairs, my son and husband are choked up and slamming around. I feel terrible for my brilliant feminist children, and for my students, even though some of the latter surely voted for our criminal president-elect. They’ll have to live with the repercussions longer than I will, and who knows what the world is in for?

At the top of this post is a sunset picture I took a few days ago in Tampa from the River Walk. I was in town for an AWP board meeting, trying to serve an underfunded organization that serves writers mightily, but I was also just aching from a brutal week at work, so I thought, well, I should take care of myself, by spending a couple of hours walking, looking, breathing. It felt good. Tampa is going to be a great site for the AWP conference in 2018–how awesome will it be to duck out of the convention center between terrific readings and walk along the water in balmy weather? I was, in short, tired and worried but also optimistic. I thought, well, there’s a lot of poison at my college and everywhere else, but I know an awful lot of good people who are working to clear it out. That’s auspicious, right?

I guess it still is. The same good people–like the AWP staffers who left the Gwendolyn Brooks quote below at my place setting–will keep battling to make the world better, one word at a time. And this morning’s news certainly clarifies my work as a writer and teacher.

I don’t feel safe, but now it seems even more vital to voice that persistent truth. I don’t know how I’ll be handling all this in my classes today, but I will convey that I like and respect all of my students and hope to help them thrive. That is, I’ll make safety, or try to, while, somehow, we live in the along.

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