Hope, in spite of and because of

I felt really blue about dropping my youngest off for his second year of college, so I self-medicated by putting my head down and writing for long hours each day. The west coast on fire, more anti-Black violence, high infection rates–it’s not easy to pay attention and help in little ways without becoming self-destructively obsessed. Receiving the new issue of Kestrel, though–which contains an unexpected review of The State She’s In–is a big boost today. The review is a three-pager in a print journal so I can’t give you the whole thing, but Brittany Winland writes: “There is a particular resonance reading Wheeler’s collection in our present moment–with Confederate statues being toppled and Black Lives Matter protests energizing the country…The State She’s In throbs with danger: in everyday encounters like the Kroger check-out line, a racist ad in the newspaper, even deep inside the body susceptible to illness and pain…Wheeler’s willingness to examine and question herself with the same searing vision she aims at her uneasily-adopted state infuses the collection with an integrity that makes every damning observation that much more potent.” I especially loved that Winland heard my struggle to keep an eye on a better future: “Wheeler’s wonderfully prickly, unfailingly honest collection [is] also, ultimately, a hopeful one…These poems suggest that a state of hope–in spite of and because of all our grief, anger, and shame–is a deliberate and necessary place to live.” (Winland writes graceful, punchy sentences herself, doesn’t she?) I feel really lucky to have received such a generous reading.

In other good news, I’m getting ready for a virtual bookstore reading from my novel Unbecoming “at” A Novel Idea in Philadelphia this Weds, September 16th, at 6:30 pm. You can register for free here. I’ll read for no more than 15 minutes, answer questions, and of course you can order the book from this great indie bookstore to be mailed, or, if you’re local, picked up. (There’s a totally optional button for small donations, too, if you have the mood and the means–it’s not easy to be running a small business right now and word is that the sales bookstores enjoy from these events are much lower than from the live versions.) I’d love to have a few friends in virtual attendance. I had timed it so I could give my kids a visit around Cameron’s birthday, but I’m glad it can still happen in a different way.

Thanks as well to Thrush for including a poem of mine in their September issue: “Tone Problem.” I wrote it in April and submitted it in June, which is faster than I usually work, but it’s small and charm-like, with references to spring moons that I suspect were triggered by a post from Jeannine Hall Gailey, who is always attentive to those cycles. It felt especially hard then NOT to write about this world-changing pandemic, but I didn’t feel sure that my own experiences would be all that interesting to anybody, especially a couple of years from now, so I kept trying to approach it from an angle. In this case, I focused on how deeply surreal it felt to watch the natural world coming to life, gorgeously indifferent to human crisis.

Finally, that panel I moderated for the Outer Dark Symposium last month has just been released as a podcast. Called “Weird Metamorphosis or Life Change: Where the Body Becomes the Setting,” it ranged over genres–Weird, sf, body horror–and how gender, sexuality, disability, race, and many other factors affect what transformation means. Change isn’t all tentacles and violation. Sometimes it’s what we need.

Work: 25 notions & reveries

  1. This is my twenty-fifth fall teaching poetry at my first real job, at a liberal arts college in Virginia. I never thought I would stay this long.
  2. When I arrived, I was twenty-six with a new PhD and limited experience. A bunch of publications and a bazillion classes later, I am a better teacher, scholar, and poet, but I am still learning.
  3. During the same period, I brought into the world and helped raise two children. Five days ago, we moved the youngest into his first college dorm. He seems to be enjoying orientation but also has an appetite for academic work. His classes start tomorrow.
  4. So much change! This Labor Day weekend, I helped settle the eldest into a third-floor studio in a Philadelphia brownstone so she can start HER first real job. Her furnishings include items from my own post-graduation apartment: wooden chairs we picked up at a college surplus sale and a table we bought with one of Chris’ first paychecks as a high school teacher.
  5. It was fun to have a little spending money after a couple of years of grad-student penury, to buy a couch rather than lug a castoff away from a New Brunswick curb!
  6. Chris loved that teaching job, where he had stellar colleagues. The high school gig he started once we moved to Virginia was less rewarding in all ways.
  7. He taught there a while; then was a stay-at-home dad for a few years; then earned an MFA in fiction; then adjunct-taught at my college; and then, twenty years after the big move, earned a tenure-track slot in my department. He loves his job again.
  8. I mostly love mine, but I’ve seen it change massively. In the 90s, many students were amazing and some colleagues were role models, but classes were big, loads heavy. I still work sixty hours a week during the term but I can serve the students better; it feels saner.
  9. And they’re different students–more diverse in every way, in a century growing hotter by the minute. Demographics and politics change the job; these students need different things from me.
  10. I like change, I’ve realized, or at least some of it.
  11. Change is built into academic life. Tired of a certain course dynamic? No worries. The term is nearly over. You can reboot radically any minute now.
  12. Writing is like that, too. Within a poem, you pivot. Between projects, you reinvent what you aspire to do.
  13. Maybe I’m more fond of pivoting than some people?
  14. As I become an empty-nester, I am also becoming a stronger prose writer. My forthcoming novel will be called Unbecoming and it concerns midlife transitions.
  15. I’ll be doing final edits on the novel this fall, in between classes and committee work and grant applications and Shenandoah work. Yikes.
  16. I’m doing final edits on my forthcoming poetry book, The State She’s In, this week. Hard work, but fun, too.
  17. We have a launch date for the poetry book: March 17th, with prelaunch copies available at AWP!
  18. Awesome! Terrifying!
  19. This poetry book, my fifth full-length collection, feels like a big one.
  20. Everything feels momentous right now. Cusp, limen, hinge.
  21. My cat Ursula isn’t interested. She alternately sits on my neck, so I can’t type this post, and bites my toes, so I can’t type this post.
  22. When my daughter was applying for policy jobs in D.C., she felt anxious about it. Understandable, I thought–what a transition!–but I also admit I felt impatient. What would be the next step in her life, and therefore in mine?
  23. When she started applying for teaching jobs instead, her anxiety shifted to excitement. (Oh, I thought: it wasn’t just anxiety before, but inner struggle over a deeper uncertainty.) This Thursday, exactly one week after submitting her first four teaching applications, everything clicked. She was hired by a progressive preschool, a place that seems like a great fit for her–to start five days later. Double yikes.
  24. Follow the excitement is a pretty good life motto. It’s certainly a good way to write. If a project feels bogged down, I try to pivot, play around, think about what would make it fun again.
  25. Paychecks are important; doing useful work in the world is important. But the biggest question on my mind (besides, um, can I really meet all my obligations this school year?) is: how can I make these sad, hard, exhausting, exciting, whirlwind changes also, somehow, fun?

Flagging

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In the screenshot above, a racist organization celebrates my university president. It’s been quite a week.

Backstory: in August 2017, as neo-Nazis rallied in Charlottesville, W&L’s then-new president set up a Commission on Institutional History and Community to study how we teach and represent our history here. “Here” is Washington and Lee, a highly selective liberal arts college with a law school attached, named after one of our early benefactors, George Washington, and another university president, Robert E. Lee, who held that role for five years after the end of the Civil War. The violence and hate displayed in Charlottesville is relevant to W&L not only because of proximity, but because our campus and small town  have been strongly shaped by white supremacy. Three buildings on campus are named for Lee–who for 150 years has been the focus of Lost Cause nostalgia–as well as a city street, a nearby highway, a church (until very recently), and lord knows how many other institutions I’m repressing memory of. The Confederate general is buried on campus and his right-hand man, Stonewall Jackson, is buried in town. Confederate reenactors regularly march down Main St. and pool in sullen groups at intersections, protesting local resistance to displaying Confederate battle flags on city flagpoles. The KKK periodically leaflets the neighborhood, soliciting membership. Ground zero for much of this is our college chapel–Lee Chapel, of course–which is full of Lost Cause memorabilia and sits atop the Lee family crypt. If you think these conjunctions are terrifying, eye-rollingly stupid, offensive, pernicious, a tempting target for more neo-Nazi rallies: yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

In May 2018, the Commission issued a long report recommending many changes, some of which involve altering the role of the chapel in university life; renaming buildings and changing the balance of what’s memorialized; and correcting myths to present a far more complex picture of Lee. After 24 years of being upset by the way W&L presents Lee, I appreciated much of the straight talk in the report, although I know plenty of people who didn’t think it went far enough. The Commission included stakeholders from many generations, backgrounds, and political persuasions, so its consensus surprised me and gave me a little bit of wary hope.

Well, the president just issued a response that started the flaggers cheering (and presumably plenty of deep-pocketed conservative older alums, too). Basically, he was very specific about keeping intact the tradition of whitewashing Lee, and very vague about how other report recommendations might one day, possibly, very quietly be partially adopted. I’m not surprised, but like all the other professors I’ve been talking to, I’m sad and disappointed. What a waste of momentum towards change. What a way, too, to disrespect an already demoralized teaching community. I feel particularly bad for colleagues and students who put hundreds of hours of work into the commission, many of which involved fielding bile from enraged right-wingers, who are invariably louder than anyone with a moderate or left-of-center perspective.

Am I angry? Not really; too tired. I am mad at myself for signing up to moderate diversity discussions during first-year orientation, which will add up to 10-12 hours of unpaid labor, some of them over this “holiday” weekend. Why volunteer to facilitate those conversations when the larger organization won’t support the values behind them? I am worried about the students, though–the first-years moving in this morning as well as my returning students and advisees. I want everyone to feel welcomed, supported, and able to be full participants in the intellectual and artistic community we try to foster. I know many students who felt disenfranchised and demoralized last year; I’m afraid the president’s letter just made things much worse. What DOES seem utterly worthwhile, and what I’ll try to keep my focus on, is continuing to give students what help I can in my classrooms and office hours. Aside from the extra dose of complicity in white supremacy (!!!), I like teaching here a great deal: small classes, great resources, talented students, talented colleagues. It’s not the worst corner a poet can get backed into.

Plus, in meetings yesterday, I saw a revolutionary glimmer in some colleagues’ eyes. Roanoke College professor and general education expert Paul Hanstedt was leading an outstanding workshop on general education and I think the hard-core university citizens in the room were realizing: maybe donors will win all the debates about names, statues, and institutional rhetoric. But the FACULTY is in charge of the curriculum. We can make CHANGES that COUNT.

In the meantime, I loaded some extra protest poetry into fall syllabi. More on poetry teaching soon, and on reading poetry for Shenandoah, which, it turns out, I LOVE–it’s so much fun to read new work pouring in. W&L’s distinguished literary magazine, currently being redesigned by a new Editor in Chief, Beth Staples, is open for submissions now, all genres, no cost to submit, and if you’re accepted, it pays actual money! We’ll do good work with W&L’s resources yet.

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Poetry & change & cocktail recipes

When someone says, “Poetry changed my life,” you expect to hear of a high-stakes transformation. Former students have told me, for example, how poetry gave them permission to embrace and admit their sexuality. Reading and writing poetry sustains people through all kinds of crises, and hearing it helps people feel moved and connected at weddings, inaugurations, and other happy occasions. There’s experimental evidence that reading certain kinds of stories can decrease a person’s racial prejudices–I expect that’s true of poetry, as well. On a less inspiring note, dedication to poetry has probably strained or destroyed plenty of love affairs and bank accounts.

Most of the metamorphoses triggered by poems, however, are much smaller. You are changed by a poem if you recall some of it afterwards: your memories have been altered. As you read, you might enter a state of happy concentration and experience physiological changes: respiration and pulse calm, so that briefly, your focus and mood shift. Or a poem might provoke an unfamiliar thought, or bring to mind some forgotten association, or prompt you to imagine the scene described. I am commonly changed in all these small, low-impact ways by reading and writing.

This week, however, I can report something bigger. This year has been full of difficult transitions: my eldest went off to college, my baby started high school, my mother got sick, and, not only for those reasons, I am feeling my age. My body has been a royal pain. And all this comes shortly after a series of changes in my workplace, some of them good but others distressing. In September I was definitely struggling with a sense that I had entered the second half of my life and it was going to suck.

So I wrote. My poetry and prose have all centered, more or less, on crisis as I looked for ways to redefine loss as change. A qualification: certainly it’s not always possible, or even a good idea, to revise grief into optimism. Responsible people look backwards as well as forwards and acknowledge what’s terrible as well as heartening. But I’ve been cultivating a sense of possibility all the same, and I swear it’s made me more resilient.

This week I, and others, got tested. A dear colleague suddenly left. Information has trickled out slowly; I’ve been enjoined not to say what I know, but in fact I still know very little. I’m left torn up about it but also with relief that the process seems to have been fair. While I hate the way universities tend to be run by legal fears and not by ethical imperatives–THEY ARE NOT THE SAME THING–in this case, I wouldn’t divulge more anyway.* People need to pick up the pieces and I truly wish for everyone involved to heal and flourish.

My point is, the past few days have been totally rotten and my fragile department has taken another blow, but I feel somehow ready to roll with it. Maybe the last few years have just battered into me that life isn’t as stable as I once thought, and I actually learned the lesson. I really think, though, that writing has been at least as big a factor in my restored ability to bounce.** I’ve practiced telling new stories about myself, about middle age, about opportunities that sometimes spring up under winter’s worst ice-lock, and maybe the repetition is actually helping me believe them. It’s all hocus-pocus but I seriously find storytelling, beautiful repetition, and other literary strategies essential for thriving during the long, slow, catastrophic crash that is most anybody’s life.

If you have a less healthy strategy in mind for coping with your own crappy week, here’s help with that, too. Below are a few recipes best shared with people you like. And full of immune-boosting vitamin C! I suppose you should shake then strain them, but life is short–I just put the ingredients into a glassful of crushed ice and stir. Then I nurse it, and myself, slowly along towards a bouncier future.

The Absinthe-Minded Professor: one part each absinthe, elderflower liqueur (such as St. Germain), lime juice, simple syrup. Based on something tasty I drank locally, at The Red Hen.

Screwdriver from Hell: one shot each vodka and pomegranate liqueur (such as Pama), topped with a few ounces of orange juice

Elderflower Lemonade: one part each Deep Eddy’s lemon vodka, elderflower liqueur, lemon juice, simple syrup

BONUS: I’ve been making a version of the above with grapefruit vodka and grapefruit juice, and it’s delicious enough that it really needs its own name. I suggested Vitamin G–too flat–and a friend countered with G-Spot, which I eventually decided was too Ft. Lauderdale. Suggest something good in the comments and if I like it I’ll send you a free signed copy of one of my poetry collections. (Judging will be subjective, arbitrary, and doubtless very irritating.)

*But stop calling it “gossip,” administrators. Gossip is a gendered term of dismissal for the kinds of conversations women need to have to survive the stupidity of life. I do not gossip. I TALK, and I’m not sorry.

**Blogging also represents a deliberate strategy of indiscretion for keeping myself ineligible for upper administrative positions, in which you earn boatloads of money but have to deal with traumatic personnel issues unbolstered by real time for writing and teaching–ugh. So far, so good.