How and why

70000I’m not the only writer who’s fascinated by the processes of inspiration, composition, and revision, but horrified by the processes of self-promotion. And  I do mean full-on gothic trauma complete with repressed guilt rising monstrously from a shallow grave and chasing me through the Cemetery of Dead Projects. Brave heroine that I try to be, I conquer fear enough to submit work, ask for blurbs and reviews, and nominate myself for various kinds of attention, especially if I can do so in writing, without face-to-face contact with my potential rejecter. I always feel haunted, however, by the ghosts of opportunities lost.

So I was surprised, browsing the Jan/Feb Poets & Writers, to feel inspired by the “Practical Writer” column–a piece by Frank Bures called “Brand You: Questioning Self-Promotion.” It’s print-only, but the gist, as I explained it during a chilly walk with my writer-spouse, is Bures’ recommendation to think like “politicians and cult leaders”–in a good way. The existential nausea of self-promotion recedes when you proselytize for the book itself: why you wrote it, why you imagine some group of readers needs or wants it. “Which means the ‘why’ should be deep in a book’s DNA,” Chris said. Yes.

Hows and whys are on my mind because I have a recent book out, but also because my writing life just took a weird turn. A year ago, I had an idea for a novel and started mentally toying around with it. I put a few paragraphs down last summer but didn’t go further.

Then, while balking at other kinds of work in late fall–my mother’s illness colored life with urgency–an opening scene arrived. I wrote it then, to my shock, kept on going. Every day I could, I’d write for six hours in my pajamas, then shower, run errands, exercise, whatever, and go back to work in late afternoon or evening. I generally work hard on sabbatical–seven or eight hours a day, five days a week, which is a lot of writing–but this was full-bore. I wrote in passenger seats and Christmas outfits, at the crack of dawn and in the middle of the night. During respites my brain would fill with sentences like a bucket under a roof leak. I’d put a bunch of tops in motion and just had to keep touching them, maintaining the spin. I ended up drafting 70,000 words in five weeks, adding a few thousand more during the first revision. It’s not ready for prime time, but it’s not terrible, either.

The whole process was a revelation–that I knew how to tell the story, that I loved the work. I will, at some future point, see if readers like it, too. The aforementioned spouse just finished it–thumbs up–but he gave smart suggestions, too, and there’s lots of work ahead.

I thought this experiment worth undertaking even if I never published a word–that I’d learn from the adventure–and already that seems true. Last week I looked at a languishing memoir-critical hybrid piece and, bam, knew how to fix the thing. Distance helps, but I also understand more now about rhythm and pacing in prose. Trained in poetic compression, I had just been eliding too much. I have infinitely more to learn about time in prose narrative, but practice has sped up my education. I’m curious what lessons I’ll bring back to poetry.

I just finished reading a book that holds up a mirror to this experience: Ben Lerner’s 10:04. His semi-fictional narrator Ben figures out how to write a prose book during a five-week residency that he devotes, contrarily, to writing a long poem, even though he just signed a six-figure contract and desperately needs to get some bill-paying prose underway.  A disobedient excursion through one genre teaches him how to approach–maybe even reinvent–the other.

Unfortunately, the milieu of 10:04 brings me back to the publicity dilemma. If I never again read a novel in which bright young literati in Brooklyn earn fabulous amounts of money, it won’t be too soon. It’s a testament to Lerner’s gift that I couldn’t dislike the book. It wasn’t long ago that an author visiting W&L (not Lerner) said, “I don’t know why anyone living outside Brooklyn even bothers to write.” The remark, leveled at Virginia writers over artisanal cocktails, was brutal, but I do get it: I live far from the publicity machines that might amplify my promotional effort a thousandfold.

Disheartening, sometimes, but as a Philadelphia friend reminds me, I do get a lot done in my tiny boring nowhere-town. On the subject of smallness: check out my microreview in a new Kenyon Review series. And thanks to Hampton-Sydney Poetry Review for publishing my poems and reflections about undergraduate teaching, and also to Valerie Duff-Strautmann for reviewing Radioland so intelligently in the new Salamander. Hurrah for all these great people striving to amplify poetry’s signal!

As I gladly receive their broadcasts, I think about the “why” of Radioland, which is a good book but Sisyphean. It’s about how incredibly difficult it is for human beings to get through to one another, and how vital it isSalamander to try anyway–basically a skeptic’s big pitch for listening and love. Which means it’s a qualified pitch, a little wry. Un-Trumpery from the poet as charismatic loser, as Eileen Myles brilliantly puts it.

I hope you’ll accept the connection and read it, whether you buy, borrow, or cadge a free teacher/ reviewer’s copy. (My link’s to the press but it’s also available from your favorite monstrously convenient online retailer). Or come see me at the VA Festival Book or at the AWP–I’m working on keeping my Events page updated, when I’m not, that is, hiding with my exiled friends behind the tombstone of Literary Recognition Undemanded, R.I.P.

 

Poetic housekeeping

The main piece of housekeeping wisdom my mother passed down to me was just make it LOOK clean. If the counter is wiped down, people will admire your kitchen. They’ll never know about the dust under the fridge or even see the crumbs on the floor. Was the family home immaculate? Rarely. Did the below-eye-level debris matter? Not at all.

That advice from a stay-at-home mom adapted pretty well to the life of a mother with a sixty-hour-a-week job, although when the appliance repair guy pulls out the fridge and uncovers some unholy dustscape, I do wince in anticipation of that look: what kind of woman are you, sitting around in sweatpants with piles of books, when THIS is growing HERE? Not that I feel guilty; it just annoys me to suffer raised eyebrows when I don’t have time to make speeches about gendered divisions of labor. I take Chris as a role model, since, in his focus on writing, he is completely impervious to looks the neighbors probably give him about our raggedy yard and the dire lichen blossoming on our siding.

The same principle converts fine to most kinds of work. At home, if the kids are thriving, it doesn’t matter if the weeds are, too. Likewise, at the office, if you’re giving students and colleagues the help they really need, you can leave certain emails to rot; you just have to be clear in your priorities and thoughtful about whether a small task completed now will matter enormously to someone later, or whether it’s really, genuinely small after all.

But what about writing? Scholarship is supposed to be meticulous. A small error now can be quoted and requoted twenty times, distorting arguments made decades later. Yet pore-over-every-source perfectionists may get scooped or never see publication at all, because research is endless, like housekeeping. Once you’ve scoured the whole field, dust is already gathering in the room where you started–there’s always a new angle, or an overlooked one, to worry about. At some point, you just have to say good enough and cross your fingers that the inevitable crumb on the floor stays invisible.

I have made mistakes in print. Blogging and social media make error even more likely–no editors, little time for patient scrubbing. I remind myself I’m not a surgeon–my slips usually cost someone proper credit for his or her hard work, not life and limb–but it still feels bad, as it should, I guess.

This season, as I’m delivering a new poetry book to the world, I realize I’m more fastidious about verse than any other kind of writing. A poem’s room is so little–nowhere for the trash to hide. I also know I can take my time with a poem. Unlike an article, whose reference list quickly spoils, a good poem has a long shelf-life.

Appropriately enough given today’s metaphor, my reflections on editing Radioland appear as a “House Guest” feature this week on Ecotone‘s blog. I’m still not sure if I got everything right in my new collection–my other books have flaws, although I refuse to name them here–but I worked on it word by word, comma by comma, at least as scrupulously as on any project I’ve ever undertaken. Go ahead, run your white gloves all over it and tell me what you find.

And, of course, I had tons of help; my acknowledgements page doesn’t cover the half of it. In addition to everyone named in the book itself, Mary Giaimo does meticulous copy-editing for Barrow Street Press. Sarah Kruse is laboring hard to fulfill orders and help publicity. IMG_1688 (1)Still further behind the scenes, many, many magazine editors made the poems better. (And on that note, hurrah for editors everywhere! I am delighted to have new poems lately in Eleven Eleven and the sci-fi issue of New Orleans Review.)

This week I hit pause on my critical project to complete some more invisible housekeeping. Some of it is unpaid work for others–reviewing articles and promotion files, writing references, and learning how to be a trustee for the AWP (did I mention I’m now Mid-Atlantic Council Chair?–yikes). For my own poetry’s sake, I’m working on a radio essay, with help from W&L people, and who knows if it will ever hit the airwaves? I’m sending out review copies, applying to festivals, and nominating myself for prizes. Most of that work won’t make any difference at all, it’s costly in time and money, and–let me show you behind the oven here–all the self-promotion gets kind of embarrassing.

But, well, hell, let the lichen grow all over the house and the dust bunnies fatten. Boosting the signal for Radioland–that’s high priority. And I am beyond grateful to everyone who has helped, or is helping now, by buying the book, ordering a copy for their library, reviewing it, teaching it, secretly plotting to invite me to read from it, or whatever else you’re doing for poetry rather than wipe out the kitchen cupboards. Seriously, nobody looks in there.

Hey you out there in radioland!

radioland thumbnailMy new book of poems, Radioland, is now available for purchase! My own box is supposed to arrive today, although I live in such a small town we don’t receive daily UPS delivery, so it could be tomorrow. I’m jittery with suspense.

In the meantime, I thought you might find a couple of my answers to a Barrow Street publicity questionnaire interesting. It’s always a little tricky to say what a poetry book is “about,” and what I thought I was doing may be different than what I actually accomplished, but below I give it my best shot.

1) Explain the significance of your title.

“Radioland” is an imaginary place: broadcasters used the word to gesture towards their far-flung listeners. Since researching Voicing American Poetry–and especially since my 2011 Fulbright in New Zealand–I’ve been thinking about how and why we transmit our voices over huge gaps in time, space, and understanding. These poems concern many of the ways people send and receive their most urgent messages, including radio but also letters, cellphones, websites, newspapers, literary works, and even dreams and hauntings. Some of the trickiest communications in this book occur between my father and me. He was born in Brooklyn in 1925, so the dated sound of the word “radioland” also conjures the generation gap between us, as well as the difficulties I have decoding my own teenagers.

2) Briefly describe your work, as you would to someone who doesn’t read a lot of poetry. Talk specifically about repeating ideas, themes, and images, and why they are important to the work. What is the overall tone of your work? What do you think you are doing that might be new?

My obsession with sound shows up in recurrent signal-and-static metaphors as well as in rhyme and rhythm. Several natural disasters are important to the book, including the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, NZ; the 2012 derecho in the mid-Atlantic US; and Hurricane Sandy, as well as personal upheavals. Because I’m trying to redefine some kinds of destruction as change, experimental punctuation became important as I revised—a visual way of marking or resisting closure. There are a number of sonnets here, too, including the sonnet crown “Damages, 2011.” As the notes say, I am particularly interested in NZ’s tradition of arranging sonnets in couplets, but I am also thinking about the sonnet’s conventional turn or volta in connection to the idea of self-redefinition. The formal variety of the book, as well as its investments in damaged, irrecoverable, or imaginary places, are probably its most unusual aspects. There is more science here than in most poetry books, as well, including radio wave propagation, geology, meteorology, and neurotransmission.

Radioland’s autobiographical arc includes a 2011 sabbatical in New Zealand with my husband and two kids, during which my parents’ marriage (in the US) unexpectedly imploded; my father’s remarriage, illness, and death within a year of my return; a catastrophic house flood; and other episodes of personal and historical violence. The sequence moves towards consolation through natural cycles and human love. Raising teenagers and watching their rapid transformations emphasize the necessity of listening to other people’s signals. The many dream and ghost poems describe an inner attention, because sometimes we become strange even to ourselves.

*If you’re considering teaching or reviewing the book, contact me or Barrow Street Press for a complimentary copy (info at barrowstreet dot com). And I’m always happy to give a reading or visit a class, virtually (through Skype etc.) or in the flesh, if I can get there without taking out a second mortgage. And local people: my spouse and I will be signing our new books on Weds. Nov 4th from 5-7 pm at the Bookery. I’ll ask the W&L Bookstore to stock Radioland, too. Lots of work in the next few weeks to air this news!

 

Crazed poet-parent launches daughter and book

Mad Wesleyan

Now my daughter is off in radioland–away at college but constantly present in my imagination, and intermittently present through texts and posts. A message with cheerful emoji has such an instant calming effect on my blood pressure–it’s amazing that when I went to Rutgers, I could only communicate with my family once a week or so via a payphone shared by the whole hall. My mother says that after dropping me off, she went to bed for eighteen hours with her first and only migraine. Performing the same ritual thirty years later, I headed towards the tear-blurred George Washington Bridge, driving like a maniac as I fought a very strong urge to turn the car around again. It’s a relief to be off the highway and tuning into my daughter’s increasingly upbeat broadcasts.

The shock of the separation is, of course, a mark of love–it’s better, in some ways, than NOT finding the transition difficult. When my mother went off to nursing school at 16, no one even walked her to the bus. Imagine that, dragging your lonely suitcase down some Liverpool street towards mysterious adulthood, without even the illusion that the Twitterverse is listening.

If I ever regain some mental focus–all these strong feelings crowd my receivers with a LOT of noise–I’ll be hunkering down to the sabbatical version of brisk September labor. In addition to my main writing project, I have conferences to prepare for and I’m behind on the regular work of poetry submissions. I’m also making to-do lists for the publication of Radioland in a few weeks. You can see the cover, blurbs, and a sample poem here, although it’s not quite available to order yet. Poetry presses do the best they can with limited resources, but publicity is mostly up to the poet, so I’m researching post-publication prizes, festivals, and other reading opportunities, and I’ll send out many notices and review copies myself. (Contact me if you want to teach or review it! Barrow Street Press is good about fulfilling orders, too.) This investment of time and money is intense but worth it; I put a lot of heart and hard thinking into the book so I want it to find readers, even if its chance for serious glory is, as always, small.

In the meantime, if you’re sending out a prose or poetry ms, check out C&R Press’s call for submissions. They published my first poetry collection, Heathen, but the press has new owners now. I’m impressed with the energy and smarts John Goslee and Andrew Sullivan are bringing to the enterprise. Thanks also to the editors of Time Present: The Newsletter of the T. S. Eliot Societywhere my review of Robert Crawford’s Young Eliot appears.radioland thumbnail

And beam me good vibes if you can spare any, because while I’m trying to be philosophical and appreciate my own luckiness, I am kind of a mess.

Moldy

Some good advice I received from Barrow Street editor Peter Covino about the manuscript of Heterotopia:  stop saying “I remember” so much. After all, he remarked—I’m sure I’m paraphrasing badly—isn’t “I remember” implicit in every poem? I received that comment with chagrined recognition. I’d even published a poem in my first book, Heathen, called “I Remember Last Weekend,” inspired by a friend describing his MFA classmates: their workshop submissions were often based on experiences about five minutes old, because they were, after all, mostly in their early twenties, and hadn’t had much tranquility for recollection yet. My snarky old title anticipated Peter’s suggestion and my subsequent revision program. I’d just forgotten.

This August, I found another bit of lost knowledge stashed and forgotten in a poem’s attic. I’d been having health problems all summer that were escalating from irritating to worrisome: heart palpitations, a persistent cough, and other weirdnesses that I’d been attributing to my increasing middle-aged decrepitude but, well, maybe not. A blood test suggested mold exposure. After I described last year’s flood and extensive renovations to an air quality expert, he said any mold probably wasn’t in the walls but in our old AC units. While I waited for him to come inspect the joint, I worked on old poems, and there it was, in a piece from several years back. I had used my inappropriately racing heart as a metaphor in some rickety ballad stanzas about the onset of summer. A click ensued: I’ve been having palpitations for ages, but only in the hottest months (and the least anxious ones for an academic, which should have tipped me off). When I sleep under a faint cool breeze from the moldy old AC units. Poem as medical history.

Poems can be wiser than their writers in far more significant ways than that. I’m teaching Robert Frost this week in a modern poetry class. He’s an example, surely, of a difficult human being, someone I might have disliked personally, whose poems nevertheless make the world a better place. It startled me, though, to reread his essay “The Figure a Poem Makes” and find such a mysterious description of the writing process there. A poem “inclines to the impulse,” he writes, “runs a course of lucky events,” and lands somewhere the author could not have predicted. He muses about “the surprise of remembering something I did not know I knew.” I recognize this sense of wilderness hovering around the edges of his well-ordered verse—something there is that does not love an iamb. I’d just forgotten.

I suppose all the poets I’m teaching in “American Poetry from 1900-1950” are going to seem strange to me this term, because the second course I’m teaching, on alternate days, is a first-year seminar on speculative fiction. The tales and poems on the latter syllabus obsess over the questions, What’s real? What are the rules? That persistent uncertainty about big problems resonates in me and it’s going to carry over to everything I read. Besides, Millay, H.D., Williams, Hughes, and the rest of the modernist crowd are great enough that if a question’s on your mind, you can probably see an image of it flickering deep in their poetry’s mirror.

Their poems are dirty mirrors, too, speckled by age, the kind that make you look strange to yourself—and the more you know about authors and contexts, the more provocatively filthy the poems seem. Yes, that’s a positive fungus metaphor (my moldy poems will come after my moldy blog posts, because the former take longer to ferment, but expect the motif to propagate). I know my hundred-year-old house will never be entirely free of invisible spore. I presume the spore are present for good reasons, too, even though they got out of balance in my particular secret ducts. I’m not freaked out by their alien proliferation, though I wish I’d noticed the problem sooner, and that it didn’t cost such a fortune to remediate.

I also wish I could clean out the toxins in my workplace as easily. I’m freshly crushed, this September, by the radical reconfiguration of a department I worked so hard to culture. Several individuals moved along of their own accord, for perfectly good reasons, though I miss them; and a former administrator against whom I’d brought complaints, even testified in legal battles, was bumped down into our midst. I can’t be comfortable at department events anymore or even in the halls. No one who has power to remediate the situation cares enough to do so—the trouble I make about it, after all, is almost microscopically small. Conversely, no one does care knows how to clear out the poison.

I can breathe in the classroom, though, and if elements get out of balance there, I can address the disorder myself. The other healthy space is the page: reading and writing can be disturbing and hard as well as joyous, but they’re good occupations. It’s not that these environments are sealed off from the rest of the potentially toxic world—they’re distinctly permeable by everything from market pressures to the Syria crisis to anyone’s lousy mood—but they’re premised on values not evenly respected elsewhere. Reason, fairness, complexity. But the student who is checking her cellphone under the desk, you say, who is cursing, like A.J. Soprano, that “asshole Robert Frost”? I think I can keep even that kid invested in literature’s idealistic questions, but maybe I’m crazy. It’s probably the mold.