Future schmuture

No NEH grant again, a magazine acceptance, a solicitation of poems from a magazine I’d never cracked (!), several poem rejections, some drafting and revising, lots of Shenandoah work, a vague but persistent headache, short days and blustery cold–hello from a mixed-blessing November in Sabbatical Land. I hereby mark the sixth-month birthday of my novel Unbecoming, and remind you that you can message me if you want a signed bookplate for that OR The State She’s In. (Here, by the way, is a new and very lovely review of the latter by Luisa Igloria in RHINO.) I can’t say I’m in much of a mood for hustle, though; it feels like crawling-under-a-rock season. I’m not doing a ton of writing, nor am I experiencing that burst of energy I’d hoped for after the election, but maybe that’s because there’s no “after”? It’s more like an intensification of suspense, a “now” that just keeps spreading its tentacles.

As a mood of hibernation comes on, I’m also cleaning closets and readying us for an actual trip, first through a flurry of lists and shopping and now by hunkering down. We have to pick up my son from Haverford College on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and a lot of my family lives around there, so I brainstormed this whole elaborate trip protocol. After testing and a period of isolation, we pack the car within an inch of its life and visit my bored-out-of-her-mind mother; then we meet up with our kids at a rented house in the Poconos for a few days; then we meet my sister and maybe some of her kids for a socially-distanced hike in the woods; finally, we return home and hide for the rest of this third wave, however long it lasts. The theory is that I’ll drive Cameron back to Haverford at the end of January for his spring term, but I have a feeling college openings will be delayed. I believe Biden WILL be inaugurated and will run the pandemic response sanely; vaccines are clearly coming; but winter may well be a long blank chapter. If we’re lucky.

In case you’re trying to do some writing yourself and like prompts, I give two in this five-minute reading:

It’s one of many launched this week by the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival, thanks to Stan Galloway, Nicole Yurcaba, and their students. However, Bridgewater College, like many others, is laying off people, including Nicole, so the conference has an uncertain future (aren’t you tired of that phrase?). If you’re in the mood to write more spell-poems on the off-chance it will make you or the world a bit better, I just dug up this post, “Uncanny paneling,” for a friend. The second half of it consists of writing prompts from six people, including me, and having been reminded of them, I plan to try them myself.

Hocus, pocus, try to focus…

Gossip, news, & poems

Gossip is a derogatory and strongly gendered word for how nonpowerful people share information. I have only been called “a gossip” to my face once–by a colleague–but it felt like a mild slur with a smelly pile of patriarchy behind it. I mean, we all know mean-spirited people of various genders who are delighted to share bad news about others’ personal lives, and I’m not endorsing that. I don’t know where I’d be, though, without friends, mostly women, who share intel over the equivalent of a backyard fence. Inside knowledge–any knowledge–often helps me navigate tricky situations, and it helps me help others, too. Unless a secret is really necessary to protect a vulnerable person, I share the useful things I know like candy on a non-2020 Halloween.

You probably know this quote from a Williams Carlos Williams poem: “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” The word “news” suggests politics as well as missives from the mind and spirit. That’s great, but I also want it to include the wall-busting personal stuff sometimes derided as blabbing, tattling, chinwagging, and nosyparkering, all of which sometimes constitutes whistleblowing and the glue of sustaining friendships. My love of whispers comes from the poet in me, and also from my history in a messed-up family, where secrets festered. Secrets can poison your life. Luckily, they can also metamorphose into fierce literature.

Writing prompt: write a gossipy poem. Optionally, include a whisper, a fence, and a whistle.

This distinction is probably on my mind because I’m trying to dial down my obsessive consumption of political news. Election week sucked, as I’m guessing you noticed. Clicking vote counts every five minutes, I didn’t sleep, picked up a cold, endured a nosyparker nasopharyngeal swabbing, waited anxiously for a different kind of information, and ended Monday singing the “I don’t have Covid” song. At the same time, I started exchanging daily poems with a group founded by a long-distance friend. We don’t comment except for occasional appreciation and encouragement; we just write and share. It feels good to be drafting poems again–most of them pondering secrets–as well as to eavesdrop on others through the frank privacy of their poem drafts.

It’s also four years now since another group of friends, upset over the election, formed a text group of six “Nasty Women” who eventually became the Nasty Tea Sippers (don’t ask me how, it’s been a long four years). The chain is still very lively, full of political and personal updates, workplace drama, ranting, cheering, and astonishing information. Some of the Nasties are hero-activists in my region, and one earned national notoriety with an act I thought was brave and righteous, but right-wingers apparently thought merited mailings of gorilla feces and threats to her children. I am unrepentant that we are gossips all. The State She’s In is dedicated to them.

Otherwise, it’s not a big news week in WheelerLand, compared to good and bad tidings from the larger world. The nicest small news was a Pushcart nomination from Thrush for “Tone Problem,” a poem I drafted last April with the same email poem-a-day group. I have a brief online reading coming up on the 17th in the digital fall version of the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival (flier below and I’ll post a link when it’s up). Magazine rejections are flying, aren’t they? And I’m trying to focus on writing again after weeks of poor concentration. It’s hard to tune into whispers when my news sources are shouting.

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall

The dark threw its patches down upon me also, Walt Whitman wrote in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Nearly as often as he reflects on his own tingling senses, Whitman, it turns out, writes about distance and solitude, sometimes expressing pain about it and reaching for touch across impossible gaps. “It avails not, time nor place–distance avails not,” he insists. We can be together, apart. This violent week has proven again that in my country, unity is a fiction. Some U.S. citizens are protected by police; in overlapping territory, other U.S. citizens are murdered by police. I admire Whitman’s desire to heal damage and division, but I can’t love my country the way he did.

Yet the fellowship of writers in other places, even other times, helps my heart. I wrote last week about feeling rested by the kind intelligence of Ned Balbo’s new book The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots, and before that the pleasure of revisiting Martha Silano’s Gravity Assist. Silano also has a powerful poem in the issue of Shenandoah that will debut on June 5th; I’ve been proofreading it and appreciating the authors we’re about to publish. I also have thanks to give to many writers, editors, and event programmers who have recently shown me generosity.

First, here’s to writer and publisher Rose Solari for praising The State She’s In in the Washington Independent Review of Books. First official review and it’s a beauty!

A couple of new pieces about writing as a practice: Massachusetts Review, in conjunction with an essay of mine about Millay they just published, recently put up a “10 Questions” interview about the how and where of research and drafting; in both the interview and the essay itself, I talk about finding camaraderie with dead women poets, in this case wondering how authors I admired bore children or refused to. Next, Celia Lisset Alvarez has started a blog series at Prospectus about writers’ first publications. In “Unbecoming Hubris” I post about daring to write my first novel and some of the comeuppances I experienced before holding the book in my hands. This is a good place, too, to say thank you to my spouse Chris Gavaler for “My Unbecoming Spouse,” a post about book covers and messing with Audubon’s cross fox.

I have a couple of recent poems full of cosmic dread in Sweet. And if you’re in the mood to listen, I have recorded readings here for the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival and here for the Social Distance Reading Series hosted by the Vermont School and Green Mountains Review.

My school year has wound down now and I have a lot to catch up on, especially in deferred publicity work for my books–and being sad and worried makes it hard. I’m wondering if my deferred spring 2020 readings should happen in spring 2021, not this fall. As usual, I’m prone to dark crises of confidence, too, but good to know Whitman suffered them before me. The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,/ My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre? I feel ya, Walt.

I’ll close with a hopeful poem from my own new collection, one I wrote with the stupidity of U.S. politics in mind. The spell I’m trying to weave won’t soothe anything except maybe a reader’s blood pressure for a minute, but hey, sometimes a moment’s glimmer is the best we’ve got.

State Song

Because I call you, wind strips trees
of little limbs they did not need.
The streambed tilts a muddy ear

and I pour words into its drain, the cup-
shape someone’s heel dug filling up
as if with rain. Because I call us

together, the mountain blushes. A curtain
parts, dissolves into rags of steam. Sun
and clouds pattern fields with roving

spotlights. Because I call you, power
thrums the ground. Now is the hour,
gilded, grand. I call this dazzle ours.

Rainbows, snakes, and book launches

Among my latest thrills: nearly stepping on a hissing snake; a double rainbow over an empty Main Street; a frisbee arriving by mail; and, oh yeah, publishing my first novel. On launch day for Unbecoming, I was shut in my house responding to student project proposals; my March launch for The State She’s In came at an even more stressful time. Honestly, though, I’ve fumbled through a bunch of book launches now and, pandemic or not, they’re more work than fun–I like giving readings but otherwise the chore list is mighty long. What is fun: finishing a draft that feels right; opening an acceptance or a nice note from a friend or stranger; and, at least on the good days, writing itself. I’m very lucky to be starting a sabbatical this summer, and I hope it will create enough headspace for finding flow again. Any genre, O muse–I’ll be ready for you in a hot sec!

The books and surprising curvy apparitions overshadowed news that would have made me ecstatic on another weekend. I’ve never been to the Sewanee Writers Conference before and I’d been hearing good things about the new director, so I applied in poetry just before it became clear we’d all be sheltering in place for a long while. They’ve postponed till 2021, but I was accepted with a scholarship. It’s such a relief to know I WILL be talking poetry with people in person next year, and that I’ll still have ways to nudge these books into the eyelines of potential readers. Social media helps socially-distanced writers, but it tends to look deserted in July/ August–not a good time for promoting much beyond sunblock.

Which brings me to the big thanks I owe so many good people for how they’ve cheered me on, over various platforms. I’m awed by how kindly authors, editors, and friends are helping each other make the best of a hard time. I’m sending out gratitude, too, to the organizers of two May 2020 conferences that are going virtual. The readings I recorded for both of them go live this week.

The Bridgewater International Poetry Festival will, this Wednesday through Friday, release short recorded readings (under 5 minutes each) by Richard Blanco, Seth Michelson, Lauren Camp, Hedy Habra, Gerry LaFemina, and many other wonderful poets. They’re released on YouTube each day at noon and mine, from The State She’s In, will go up Friday.

The WisCon feminist science fiction & fantasy conference is always held Memorial Day weekend, and this year they’re calling it WisCONline. You have to register for it by May 20th, but the fees are moderate and tiered for financial ability, right down to $0. I’m looking forward to tuning in for a lot of exciting readings, especially from Guest of Honor Rebecca Roanhorse. The schedule is here. I’m in the “Dangerous Women” slot on Saturday 1:00-1:45 Central Time. This will be my first reading from the published novel (although I read a not-final-version excerpt at the Outer Weird symposium in 2019). I’d ask you to wish me luck, but I’m caught in a Zoom-recorded time loop on this one, so wish me a broken leg last week, or something like that?

Live from the surface of the moon

 Live From the Surface of the Moon
   
The landing leg (porch) jets
a web of shadows across lunar
powder while brilliantly bleached
astronauts lope across the frame
 
On Sunday July 20th 1969
I am not yet two : : do not divine
how the moon mirrors the sun
and the magnificent desolation
 
of a Rockland County building site
bald of grass : : each split-level home
a lunar module far from inflation
Vietnam race riots assassination
 
I cannot possibly remember thirty-
plus hours with Walter Cronkite and
Wally Schirra : : parents buzzing
as transmissions crinkle and flicker : :
 
much less an animation of the Eagle
advancing toward the Sea of Tranquility
or shots of the LEM’s quadruped replica
in Bethpage Long Island : : bug face
 
with a long metal snout between
wide black reflective window eyes
(choked-up Cronkite says those kids
who are kind of pooh-poohing this thing
 
I’d like to know what they thought
at this moment when our mouths
were in our throat : : How can anyone
turn off to a world like this)
 
With one-sixth of adult gravity
I bound through oversized rooms
careful not to jag my special suit
on an exposed martini glass : : every
 
high-altitude glance or word
a UFO : : ‘One small step for man’
the anchor explains but I didn’t get
the second phrase : : until static
 
lulls me to sleep : : The grown-ups
tip themselves into a queen-size
while Aldrin and Armstrong tuck
each other in on an airless satellite
 
perhaps under yellow foil blankets
but how could I know : : each maybe-
memory overwritten now like
boot prints in moondust
 
by footage on my little screen
(who would have thought the future
would be small) : : What I carry out
in my sample bag is not mankind leaping but
 
a nightmare : : Giant mechanical
spiders chasing me across the dead
land : : I lope to a quilted islet
hop up on the shadowy porch : : only
 
my groggy parents do not want me
Precarious love : : Any moonman might
splash down safely and find home
isn’t safe and never really was

Several years ago, I was running a workshop at the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival, using “moon” as an example of how different kinds of rhyme work (slant rhyme: can or boot; pararhyme: man; macaronic: la lune, and so forth). When we did a free-write, the idea for a poem percolated up. I had never written about my indirect memory of the 1969 moon landing. My mother told me there had been a party and I had watched some of it, but all I remember is a nightmare later about what the poem calls “giant mechanical spiders” traversing a cratered black-and-white landscape. To fill in the details, I watched hours of the original broadcast on YouTube, learning that some of the most famous remarks from that night were misheard or bungled, and gained a much deeper sense than I’d had before of the landing’s cultural context. I’ll always be a romantic about space travel–I love good sf about it, I subscribed to Astronomy as a girl, and for a long time I wanted to grow up to be an astronaut–but it turns out I’ll only walk in the moon in poems.

It took me days to research and draft “Live From the Surface of the Moon,” then months to revise it, although certain formal considerations crystallized early. I wanted quatrains to echo the four-legged Lunar Excursion Module. I liked the run-on urgency of the way some lines arrived, so in looking for a less-than-final-sounding system of punctuation, the colon I experimented with turned into the double colon (resembling the LEM’s footprint). Notre Dame Review published the poem a couple of years ago and, just a week ago, I turned in edits on the poetry book that will reprint it: The State She’s In, forthcoming in March from Tinderbox editions. It’s not an especially moony collection, but it contains a lot of work about history, and also about whiteness–and one ends up thinking a lot about different meanings of whiteness, watching those old news programs.

So on this full moon weekend, I’m posting a brief clip from revision-land. Edits for my poetry book and my novel came in basically simultaneously, right as the school year started, so I’m really tired and overwhelmed lately. And once the edits are mission-accomplished, there’s a LOT more to do, of course, to launch these books. But I hope to have covers to reveal in coming weeks!–and till then, one small step at a time.

My mother as live-in nurse, 1962

pat 1965
The photo’s from ’65, actually–best I could do

 

Numismatics, 1962

Strange to feel inferior, but that
was the job of live-in European servants:
to confer shine for a pittance. English nurses,
Scottish maids, Estonian women doing laundry,
German POWs pruning roses.

Out through glitter, back to the dock.

Mrs. Anthony motored around town
in a humble Ford wagon, but in her garage,
a Daimler banked its gleam. I had to study
eight degrees of grandeur for the table,
a bewilderment of china. Her daughter
Kitty curtsied to me once, a faux-pas.
Those manners were too silver for the help.

Economical strokes, green
folded neatly behind her.

Come summer, I decamped with the Anthonys
to Fishers Island. Another empire. Eight more
sets of china. Kitty and brothers buffed
by swimming, boating, tennis. Another domestic
and I liked to steal an early hour
on the courts, a pretty German girl
who volleyed dares: ask for a raise, learn
to drive. Sporty in hand-me-down whites.

I didn’t know who Susan was. Mr.
Anthony’s aunt, maybe. Unmarried. No fuss.
She swam every day, climbing down the ladder
from the quay. I wobbled over with tea.
Thought eighty, but I was too young to gauge.
Craggy-featured, slim, her metallic bob
tucked into a rubber bathing cap.
She urged me to paddle out, but I clung
to the ladder. Which one of us was the nurse?

Out and back, resisted and
supported by the water.
If the sea had corners.

She asked: You traveled to America
to remake your life. Why linger here?
Women’s roles are changing. Later I guessed
she was Susan B. Anthony, but the dates
were wrong. Her circulation, she hinted, had been
limited. She left me a tip: five Liberty dollars.

I left the job before my year was up.
Nicer to tend babies for less wealthy
Jewish families. Funny how they worshiped
Winston Churchill, the political failure. I
was welcome at their dinner tables while
their black maids went home for the night.

Somewhere it’s still happening—
four springer spaniels jingling into the car,
bound for the ferry in New London. Harvard
boys trade books for boat shoes. Servants
fly in from poorer countries to chip
gilt dessert plates in the stainless sink.
Another Susan, having withdrawn
from the exchange, launches herself seaward.
Her issue is impervious to salt.

*

That’s a poem I wrote about five years ago, submitted to magazines for a while without success, lost track of, and just searched through old files to find again. I brushed it up a bit for the occasion but I don’t really know how well it works as a poem. I just love the story–my working-class mother having her first real encounter with serious wealth and snobbery in the supposedly democratic U.S., and that independent elderly feminist with the suggestive name. I dedicate it here to my mother, my daughter, and daring women everywhere.

Onto the last week of classes here, followed by the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival, where I’ll read on Saturday morning at 10. Have a liberated week!

 

Good reads

One of my 2014 resolutions was to track my reading via Goodreads, and I’m here to say I hated it. Record-keeping in itself is a good thing. It’s interesting to know I read or reread at least 95 books last year (a few weren’t in the Goodreads system and I can remember a few more I seem never to have logged), in addition to the beginnings of many books I didn’t finish; a ton of journalism and literary magazines; articles, blogs, and posts; and many manuscripts and student papers. That’s 36 poetry books, 11 books of nonfiction, and the rest fiction, including a few YA titles, lots of genre and literary fiction, and one short story collection (George Saunders). 55 were authored by women—phew—but only 8 by nonwhite authors (excluding a few multi-author anthologies), a number that shocks me with its single-digit lameness and teaches me I have to do better. A third were books I taught; the rest I read for pleasure or, as described in my last post, from professional curiosity about contemporary prize culture.

Unless I have a major obligation bearing down, I won’t finish a book I don’t find engaging, so almost everything on my 2014 list was worth attention or at least fun. Some of it was outstanding, but then, I reread Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bishop, and Gwendolyn Brooks. I’ve also been on a classic-mystery kick so I plunged into Wilkie Collins and P.D. James for the first time. The Moonstone was one of my favorite books of 2014 (and 1868), but mentioning that probably doesn’t do the contemporary publishing industry much good.

Some recent books I loved: a week or two ago I praised two 2014 National Book Award poetry choices: the long-listed Gabriel by Edward Hirsch, and the finalist Citizen by Claudia Rankine. However, lots of less-recognized books offer the NBA selections serious competition. A few comparisons among books that share affinities: Cynthia Hogue’s Revenance rivals Fanny Howe’s Second Childhood in eerie resonance. Rafael Campo’s Alternative Medicine is just as skillful, high-stakes, and risky as Spencer Reece’s The Road to Emmaus. Martha Silano’s Reckless Lovely outshines Maureen McLane’s This Blue. I was moved by Sally Rosen Kindred’s Book of Asters and Laura Gray-Street’s Pigment & Fume. A couple of 2013 poetry volumes I didn’t finish until 2014 but admired were Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec and Maria Hummel’s House and Fire.

My favorite new literary fiction this year was Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, a book that has earned plenty of attention. In nonfiction, Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read is pretty extraordinary. I was really looking forward this year to new speculative fictions by Lev Grossman, Jo Walton, and Stephen King, and I liked them all, especially Walton’s My Real Children. I got even more of a kick, however, out of slightly older books I didn’t get to until 2014: Elizabeth Knox’s Mortal Fire and Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child. Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet has stayed with me and, older still, Carol Emshwiller’s The Mount. And I loved spending time with Wayne Koestenbaum’s My 1980s in preparation for his fall visit to campus.

In other words, 2014 brought lots of good reads. I can also see a tilt towards British fiction and U.S. poetry, as well as towards white authors generally, so I’ve learned I need to widen my range. I just don’t find the Goodreads platform convenient or useful as a way of discovering personal trends. There are too many clicks to enter and date titles. Nor does the year-in-review feature sort titles by the factors that most interest me.

And then there’s the tyranny of the rating system. I gave precious few threes, which to me means “a decent book but not my cup of tea,” and I wouldn’t even bother to finish the ones and twos. Which leaves me the grand range of four and five to handle poetry books I admire and would recommend as well as, you know, Sylvia Plath. The same binary system has to handle the last in Glen Duncan’s werewolf trilogy, the Tina Fey memoir that cracked me up as an audiobook, and Jane Austen. I feel mean giving fours to contemporary books I hope others will invest their time and money in, but shouldn’t five stars be saved for must-reads, the most powerful works around? Maybe the problem is that I’m temperamentally more critic than booster.

At any rate, this year I’m listing books in a word processing document. I’ll still give you the upshot next January, but without that gold star for stress.

In the meantime, the new term is grinding into gear, with classes beginning Monday. I owe a couple of shout-outs to the Tahoma Literary Review for publishing “Sticky” (a poem about reading and teaching!) and nominating it for a Pushcart; and to editors Albert Bendixen and Stephen Burt for including my essay “The Formalist Modernisms of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Helene Johnson, and Louise Bogan” in the new Cambridge History of American Poetry. And I’m looking forward to hearing unfamiliar poets and meeting old friends at the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival next week (I read on Friday afternoon).

I feel like hibernating with poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh, but apparently work must be done. Zero stars for the weather and one for the month of January in principle. I’m saving the rest of my shiny stickers for spring.