News flash: in April, poet feels moody

Spring’s been happening in fits and starts–blossoms one minute, wind-strewn petals the next. I walk a nearby trail most mornings, and on Tuesday, Woods Creek churned and roared from heavy rains; parts of the path were massive puddles, and the lowest bridge was half-underwater. The next day was frigid; others have been balmy and still. National Poetry Month basically occurs during the year’s moody adolescence.

I’ve been just as inconsistent. Every April since 2013 I’ve tried to have some kind of daily poetry-related practice. In 2013, I was pent-up and just exploded in daily drafts. In 2014, I wrote a section of a long poem every day according to Vladimir Propp’s numbered phases of folk tales, and that became last year’s chapbook, Propagation. In 2015 I worked on poems in response to images by Carolyn Capps, and that collaboration became an exhibit. In the Aprils since then, I haven’t been as focused, but tried at least to work on poetry every day, often by drafting something new, sometimes by revising or submitting work. This year, it’s been really, really hard, and I’m not sure why.

I do know my monkey mind has been up to serious mischief, in part because I had a very intense winter term, working round the clock just to stay afloat (around here, the twelve-week “winter” term ends the last week of April, and the four-week intensive spring term begins tomorrow–oy). I don’t know if this is a symptom or a driver of my stress, but I have noticed my reading patterns changing dramatically. I’m normally a hungry novel-reader, averaging one a week on top of classwork, and that’s supplemented by fairly heavy poetry reading and a lot of journalism and magazines. I keep a list of the books I finish, in part so I don’t draw a total blank if asked to write a year-end column somewhere. There’s usually a balance among genres in my novel consumption, depending on time of year and state of mind, including challenging literary stuff, pulpy mysteries, and a good share of speculative fiction.

2018-02-22-igloria-final-250pxThis year, since January 1, I’ve finished just three novels. That seems demented to me. I’ve been sustained by partial residence in fictional universes since early childhood, because this world kind of sucks, even for a person like me whose life has been pretty lucky. I can and do read lots of short-form stuff, including many poetry books, some by our first Glasgow Writer in Residence, Luisa Igloria, who’s settling in now to teach an advanced seminar on hybrid genres. Right now I’m in the middle of Beth Ann Fennelly’s micro-memoir collection Heating and Cooling. I also watch various novelistic TV series. But my lifelong drive towards narrative immersion in long fiction just seems broken. I’m not sure whether to nudge myself back into the old reading patterns, which I’ve always found calming, or just let the monkey mind swing how it wants to.

So far, I’ve been doing the latter, both in my reading and my NaPoWriMo practice. I sent a bunch of work out, and received a quick acceptance and a quick rejection; the other poems wait for editors to have opinions about them. I think I’ve drafted a couple of poems that will be keepers. I’ve also written poems about being too discouraged to write poems. I’ve been collaborating with my spouse on some visual poems here and there, and I also spent much of this week, our spring break, revising my own novel, because I received some helpful feedback and that’s what I wanted to do. Perverse, but so be it. The very best thing I did for myself, poetry-wise, was join a group of women poets just sending their daily drafts to each other for the month of April, with no apologies and no judgments. It’s felt like everything I love about poetry, with none of the striving–what a blessing.

On a probably related note: last weekend was the first time I  completely broke my commitment to blog something poetry-related weekly in 2018. This vow was in response to a challenge Kelli Russell Agodon and Donna Vorreyer leveled in December–see Donna’s awesome list of participants here–and has been facilitated by the great gift of Dave Bonta’s weekly roundups (most recent one here). I realized Monday morning I hadn’t posted anything and thought, well, damn. Then I decided I’d rather spend a few more hours on poetry subs, then work on the novel. It was good to prove to myself that I could focus immersively on something.

And now it’s back to running at top speed, with a seminar on African American poetry starting tomorrow. On the creative community front, I’m also also looking forward to a reading at 7 pm this Friday, April 27th, in Staunton, at the Black Swan. And I’m SO grateful to Gettysburg Review for including my poem “L” in its pages–that’s my poem about turning 50, in 50 50-character lines, which I drafted at 47 because I like to plan my crises in advance. An ambitious poem about the problems with ambition, it felt like a turning point for me and I’m so glad it found a good home–confirmation that springs of moody weather can, in the long run, bear fruit.

poetry reading poster

Oceanicartography

No, that’s not a real word. But last week, certain currents in my thinking converged, all having to do with maps and oceans. On Saturday, we dropped our daughter off at the Charlottesville train station then headed over to Chroma Projects to see a show by an old friend and collaborator, Carolyn Capps, called “Deep Sea Calculations”:

These pieces owe a lot to old-fashioned illustrated maps, but in a way they chart the mind, too–they’re process drawings, in which one image inspires the next in visual/verbal association. I was at the same time preparing to teach Ocean Vuong’s 2016 debut collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, a collection I find attractive but sometimes opaque. The book, reflecting on Vuong’s immigration from Vietnam to the U.S. and a family history of domestic assault, is full of thresholds crossed in violence. In sex, too. He registers a New York School influence through all those curly ampersands and via talky, sexy meditations like “Notebook Fragments,” but Vuong also deploys persona poems, footnoted blank spaces, punctuation experiments, perhaps the shortest “About the Author” page ever–in short, a host of strategies that occlude the poet’s presence.

During our first class session, we focused on the almost-title-track, “Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds,” a poem I found intensely mysterious until I happened upon his published note about it (press “more” at the poets.org link). It helps to know that this poem’s perspective follows the trajectory of a bullet, even though the missile’s path transgresses the law of physics, crossing decades as well as geography. It’s a beautiful and disturbing piece, but my class couldn’t make much sense of the ending. How can the “I” lower himself “between the sights” of the gun? Vuong is identifying with both shooter and target for reasons the rest of the book makes clear, yet none of us could see the final image of the “self-portrait.” I confess I was hoping the hunters in the room could explain something about rifles I was missing, but they shook their heads. Usually when I bring a problem to a roomful of smart English majors, we figure it out together, but none of our readings were satisfying to me–except the general one suggested by the phrase “exit wounds,” that this book is a chronicle of absence and damage.

Sometimes you reread a book of poems and it all comes clear; other times it turns to mist in your hands. So for the second session, I deployed a teaching strategy chronicled here: asking students to produce a one-page visual representation of the volume. What else, I wondered, were my students seeing and not seeing, as they charted paths through all the lovely words?

One student, Bailey Brilley, reinvented the cover. The images brilleyhe photoshopped together include an aerial photo of a Vietnam bomb field, a propaganda poster by a Cuban artist, a Pulitzer-prize winning photo of a Vietnamese man’s execution (the arm and gun), and WWII-era beach towel ads depicting troops in the South Pacific.

Dana Gary made a Magritte-influenced wordless broadside for a single surreal pov danaoem, “Queen Under the Hill.” Thomas Ferguson tracked references to hands and aligned them to illuminate their associations with intimacy and violence.

ov thomas

Charlotte Doran found images and articles about the war and the fall of Saigon, streaming “White Christmas” across them as Vuong does, verbally, in “Aubade with Burning City.” Rosy-fingered dawn, and all. These visual and emotional engagements with the poems seem an especially apt way to handle poems that resist rational schema.
ov charlotte

And tomorrow, we all talk to Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street before their public reading–mappers of the ecopoetry’s territory, plus Ann is the author of one of my favorite long poems, Carta Marina, inspired by a phantasmagoric old woodcut-printed map that puts me in mind of Carolyn’s drawings again. And so we sail to the edge of winter term, to tell stories about where we’ve been.

What cave paintings illuminate

The cave art near Montignac reminded me that in the grand scheme of things, I’m a total prima donna as an artist. I do appreciate a quiet room with a view, please, and the assurance no one will bother me for an hour or two, and a decent computer, and tea with honey. My fragile ego is hurt by rejections or simply being forgotten by the editors to whom I’ve applied for recognition. Other contemporary writers I know are even touchier and fussier. But those beautiful animations sponged onto limestone fourteen to seventeen thousand years ago? They required preparing candles by smearing reindeer fat on concave rocks and lighting juniper wicks (which smoke white). Minerals had to be ground to powder. Soft bits of hide could apply the paste of water and pigment, or lines of color blown through hollow bones–more prep work. Cro-Magnon artists studied the shape of the rocks, releasing bison or horses from the cave’s own curves, rather than imposing their own visions onto blank canvas. Then their grand museums fell into disuse, many of their paintings just silting away unless a layer of clay prevented seepage, as in Lascaux’s closed galleries. In those that survive, certain symbols may constitute signatures–of individuals, or of clans?–but no one can read them anymore. Oh, probably plenty of the artists were irritable and full of themselves, I’m sure, but what’s left of them is a spiritual submission to materials and landscape. There are no cave self-portraits like those in the Musée D’Orsay (or, ahem, in any blog). Hardly any anthropomorphic figures at all, and those deformed. Just beautifully evoked animals processing peacefully into the caves’ darkest reaches.

imageWe are now in the second half of a family adventure in France. During the first week in Paris, we ate baguettes and sorbet and toured every museum we thought our thirteen-year-old could possibly tolerate (the poor kid felt the need to avert his head from every female nude, so he developed a semi-permanent crick in his neck). I gave a reading in the wonderful Poets Live series, meeting the poet-organizer Pansy Maurer-Alvarez and having great but too-brief conversations with two of the writers sharing the stage (really, one end of a medieval cellar under an Irish pub): the terrific poets Sabine Huynh and Jennifer K. Dick. My French translator (isn’t that phrase glamorous?), Jean Migrenne, made a drive of more than two hours to come and hear me, and I had the pleasure of speaking with him for a little span, too. The whole experience felt charmed. In the next few days, in addition to waiting on line at the Eiffel Tower etc., I also did some legwork and writing toward a critical project–more on that another time.

Then we put poetry aside for a bit for three days in the Dordogne, visiting the reproductions at Lascaux II and miraculously getting 4 of the 78 visitor spots per day allowed in the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume–the last site of multicolored prehistoric cave paintings in the region still accessible to nonspecialists. The region’s food is amazing and we also spent an afternoon canoeing down la Vézère, so the weekend was perfect, really. imageNow we’re in Angoulême and I’m relaxing with the kids while Chris conducts research at the comic book museum. This is why I have time to write, being a prima donna who does not want to type after long days tromping through museums. Well, I do have a poem going about the cave paintings, but I’m doing much more note-dashing than actual writing during this leg of the trip. The children seem to be of the opinion that they deserve nutella crêpes every two hours, which cuts into my auroch-sketching time considerably.

See? Excuses, excuses, and I don’t have to grind up any ochre, even. Well, I’ll consider these weeks the equivalent of staring at herds and drawing hind-quarters with a stick in the sand. You have to stock your head with images, think things through, before you head into the cave, right? And even so, cave-painting is a mysterious business. No one really understands why people do it, or where the shadowy animals of their imagination may be heading.

Next stop, Brittany, cider, galettes. Then home before Independence Day. Since art is on my mind, too, I’ll mention a mid-July event: see here for notice of a reading at Writer House in Charlottesville. I’ll be talking about Carolyn Capps’ exhibition there and reading some poems based on her work.

In which I procrastinate with snacks, parties, and fake-writing

The peony heads slump over in their lushness. I can hear the baccalaureate speaker’s voice faintly behind the air conditioner’s hum, and I wonder again: in what sense does featuring another white Christian minister make this religious event “more inclusive”? Well, I’ll sit it out in my office but don my robes tomorrow for another long hot graduation ceremony on the lawn, then rush to the departmental luncheon to scarf down a little fruit and chicken salad before the students arrive with their dads sweating through cotton jackets and little old grandmas tottering around on the edge of heat exhaustion. I like the luncheon—praising students quite genuinely to their emotional parents, shaking damp hands, asking neutral questions that don’t imply a new BA should have firm post-grad plans yet, celebrating when they offer up good news about a job or grad school acceptance. It’s a happy kind of closure after a long hard year, especially since the mini-saunas of our dress clothes will have purged us of old grade disagreements.

I’m still in that delusional dilatory state in which I think I ought to clear the deck before I really write. This is delusional because there is ALWAYS another bit of paperwork to finish, emails to send, clean-up from the previous term or planning for the new one. Though some colleagues still linger over dwindling piles of student writing, I tend to get my grades in as fast as possible, read and summarize course evaluations, move books from the “on deck for class” spot to regular shelving, and proceed to other marginally OCD term-closure rituals. May always brings magazine rejections and acceptances, too, as faraway editors clear their own desks, and I get a little frisson of record-keeping joy as I document their decisions and list the lucky yeses on my curriculum vitae and Faculty Activities Report.

I do know this is a little crazy, even though as procrastination goes, clerical work is more productive than painting my toe nails a new color or watching funny cats on YouTube (not to cast aspersions on those venerable amusements, but I do feel pleasantly smug when that FAR comes due and I am ready to hit send). I do have to remind myself every year that it is procrastination, not some exercise of virtue. Writers write even when their desks are messy and that faculty development event they attended isn’t properly logged. My spouse is a good reminder of this. He writes even when he’s showering, running, folding laundry. This time of year—once heavy teaching work is on pause for three months—I need to seek a similarly single-minded focus instead of, say, mentally drafting memos or dreaming about my next snack.

I am showing early, hesitant signs of hunkering down. During April I drafted a crazy long poem in a section per day, using Vladimir Propp’s thirty-one functions of the folk tale as prompts; the quester is a middle-aged woman taking a three-hour walk in the April woods, pondering a career change and worrying about whether she may be pregnant. I reread it last weekend, shaped it up a bit, sought the aforementioned spouse’s feedback, revised it again, and gave it the provisional title “Propagation.” It was really fun to draft, requiring lots of, you guessed it, long walks in April woods, and at least for now, I like the results. I just shipped it off to a friend who wants to trade critiques this summer. That’s work, right?—although I always start summer’s meal with dessert.

This project has been good preparation for a presentation I’m giving on “The Receptionist,” a very different long poem, two weeks from now at the West Chester Poetry Conference. The panel is “Narrative and Non-Narrative in the Book-Length Poem” with the very accomplished and hip poets Dolores Hayden and Jehanne Dubrow (Saturday June 7th at 3:15, in case you’re around). We’re going to discuss problems of genre and composition then read from our various works. I find myself thinking particularly about how all narrative is time-management—deciding when to work through a scene in slow detail, and how to handle those sudden, disparate jumps of an hour, a day, a month of story-time. The form I chose for “The Receptionist” was highly symmetrical, involving thirty-three terza rima cantos of thirty lines each, and that made time-jumps harder to regulate and clarify. Grounding the story in an academic year, September to June, helped, as did liberal seasonal and holiday references.

I wouldn’t say I’m ready to give that presentation yet, but at least I’m finally turning my mind into the right groove. I’m hoping to segue right from working up my talk into writing a narrative-themed chapter for my prose-book-in-progress, Taking Poetry Personally. I’ll lay some groundwork, at least, and do a little more research during a work-and-pleasure trip to France in the second half of June. More on that here before takeoff, I hope.

In the meantime, back to “work” on the conference by arranging meals with friends, including poet Rafael Campo, who is sage and inspiring in this recently published interview for Shenandoah. Oh, and there’s a reference letter I have to write, and this really fun collaboration with artist Carolyn Capps that’s been languishing (see a bit of it at the new issue of Levure littéraire), and I’m really behind on my literary-magazine reading after which, whoops, it will be time to race home and get dinner on before my son’s band concert, and of course tomorrow will be all ceremonies and parties, and who could squeeze in writing time then? And maybe Friday I should begin to update my poetry submissions—I haven’t sent work out for ages, and while submission has its own agonies, it’s not as hard as actually writing. But soon, very soon, I’ll definitely, seriously get cracking.

And the winner of the Big Poetry Giveaway is…

Poet and blogger Joseph Harker! I’ve never met him but just looked him up and his last post for NaPoWriMo, “Adam and Steve,” is pretty great. Nice list of favorite poets, too. I’ll be sending him my latest, The Receptionist and Other Talesand Feral by Janet McAdams.

Thanks to Susan Rich for organizing this and to everyone who put themselves into the lottery–27 people, three cubed and always my favorite number. The process: I counted down and gave everyone a number, making sure that the people who posted multiple comments were only counted once. Then I used a random number generator to determine the digit.

If you didn’t win and still want The Receptionist, it’s only $9 from Aqueduct Press, or $6 for an ebook. Or if you can review or teach it, ask for a complimentary review copy. Contact me at wheelerlm (at) wlu.edu if you want a signed book. I’ll also be at WisCon in late May and, this coming Friday, I’m reading new poems at Chroma Projects gallery in Charlottesville, Virginia–that’s May 3rd, 6 pm, in conjunction with a show by visual artist Carolyn Capps called “We Are Not Our Work.” Much of what I’ve been doing during NaPoWriMo is generating new pieces in response to her collages. It’s been really fun but now I have to revise them and read them while the linguistic paint’s still wet. Yikes.

I did keep to the NaPoWriMo program, by the way, often drafting multiple poems in a 24 hour period–but being at an artists’ residency for 2 weeks in the middle of April helped. Some days my output was extremely lame and yesterday, in the very last evening of obligation, I almost decided to bag it entirely. I’ll leave you with the poem from the 29th, one of those I-just-don’t-have-the-energy-for-this days. I was inspired when a former student, now a teacher at a middle school in Baltimore with a community garden, tweeted sadly that there aren’t enough poems about asparagus in the world. Poor neglected vegetable. I tweeted back:

spar grass loves spring’s steamy mood:
from woody shoot to point d’amour
a short and terribly tender fuse

Poets, go revise your April brainstorms, read as much verse as you can get your eyeballs on, and eat your sexy delicious greens.

 

 

I’m sorry I’m abandoning you all

All it takes is a wobble
of ankle or attention—
the other racers fly ahead
and I’ll never catch up.

This is a stupid way
to approach a cherry
blossom. With fear,
I mean. What if,

I ask my spouse, I waste
this gift of two weeks?
I will have betrayed
my family. Counting

games and recitals
at which I will not
cheer, mushrooms
I will not fry. This

week I helped my son
imagine how to draw rain.
I mailed my daughter’s
lopped ponytail to a cancer

charity. All that honey.
Now she runs light.
And I pack the car
with tea bags, soft clothes,

books about other books
because who knows what
a mother of teenagers
will do with solitude?

My spouse laughs.
His first gift to me,
a quarter century ago,
was news that my terror

is funny. We keep walking
past a drowned young
green snake, curled
in a spiral, along the brown

creek, all roiled up
by last night’s rackety
storms. Surprised, he admits,
I slept through the thunder.

My NaPoWriMo poem drafting frenzy continues. One of the most fun projects I’ve started is a collaboration with visual artist Carolyn Capps–she sent me an image, I wrote a poem by way of reply, she’s going to create another image and send it to me, and we’ll see where it goes from there. More on that later, I hope.

This morning’s poem, posted above, had several triggers. My daughter is now on the track team. I read an ominously beautiful poem by Jack Ridl in the new Poet Lore called “Within the Moment of Indefinite Suffering” that begins, “All it takes is a tick.” And, obviously, I took a walk with Chris. He’s just back from Pittsburgh, where he’s settling his mother into assisted living. I’m off tomorrow to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I’ll have a studio, three effortless meals a day, and woods to walk in while I think poetic thoughts. I’m obviously feeling guilty and panicked. I’m wondering if I’m the only person who’s dumb enough to approach the amazing privilege of a 2 week fellowship, no strings attached, with this level of fear, or whether this is a totally normal angsty writer way to siphon off the joy from an amazing spring adventure.