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?

Don’t read this if you’re focusing on gratitude

As I slice sweet potatoes and cube challah bread for stuffing, I’m feeling not grateful or festive but sick at heart about two things: the injustice at Standing Rock, and what this election is going to mean for my children’s generation. I am fortunate to have my daughter home from college and a visiting cousin to cook for and a warm house full of food, and I think people absolutely need and deserve those consolations between the political storms, but this year, a sense of peace is just not something I can conjure with cups of tea and wedges of apple pie.

“And as the numbers came in on election night I watched him head to his room, his head down, his shoulders curving into his chest…he was slowly beginning to understand new truths: that the people who love you cannot always protect you, that unkindness can be a platform for the presidency.”

That’s Jacqueline Woodson writing about her 8 year old son for the New York Times. Over the last two weeks, as I’ve struggled with my own feelings, I’ve also been watching understanding sweep over the children and young people I know. The Wednesday morning after the election, my phone lit up with texts from friends, telling me their daughters were sobbing uncontrollably. Lots of kids are now worried that they, or their friends, or their parents will get deported or suffer violence. Sometimes they just feel humiliated–here is proof that half the whole country thinks less of them because of their gender or the color of their skin. I don’t know how to name what my own 16-year-old white son seems to be feeling–fury at systemic injustices, certainly, but mixed with a kind of crushed shame. And of course, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has been reporting, hate crimes are up, a high proportion of them in schools. Fear and shame are appropriate reactions, much as I hate to see them in children and teenagers. Most of the young people I know want to believe in justice and want to be good, although those impulses seem to burn out for many by full adulthood.

Kids who can’t remember much about pre-Obama politics are now seeing the backlash, or, as Larry Wilmore put it, the “Blacklash.” They’re only now realizing how impenetrable that glass ceiling for women still remains. They need to know these truths, but it’s still beyond awful to watch them learn it.

And while I’ve always loved Thanksgiving–at least the version of it without my father, who was usually filled with right-wing rage at this time of year–the holiday itself is basically Fake Racial Unity Day, a whitewashing of genocidal histories. The traditional narrative of cooperation is especially unconsoling given the current brutal fight over oil rights on Sioux land in North Dakota. Water cannons. Protest met by police violence. Looks a lot like a Civil Rights struggle but national media outlets are barely touching it. Where is my president now? If even President Obama has his head in the sand–or is unwilling to speak out against big oil–well, is there anything we can be proud of our country for anymore?

Told you not to read this. Because I do believe, however, most wholeheartedly, in dessert, I’ll leave you with a scrap of a David Remnick article. Remnick asked the president what he told his own daughters about the election, and this was the reply–sane and yet inspiring, a feat Obama seems to manage improbably often:

“What I say to them is that people are complicated…This is not mathematics; this is biology and chemistry. These are living organisms, and it’s messy. And your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding. And you should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be inside you and you have to vanquish. And it doesn’t stop…You don’t get into a fetal position about it. You don’t start worrying about apocalypse. You say, O.K., where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward.”

He’s a good man. I’ll raise my untrusting, ungrateful glass tonight to the hope that at Standing Rock, he’ll follow his own advice.

 

 

Why Edna St. Vincent Millay ate herbs in Dorset

Most of the female poets I read as a young woman had no children, or one. They steered clear of sexual relationships with men or, not having access to birth control, sought abortions. This fact had a terrible fascination for me in my early twenties, especially since the zero-or-one rule also held among so many female literary scholars. I had always been certain that I wanted to bear or adopt children and certain that I need to write. Exactly how difficult would it be, though, to manage both?

Later I met many women poets who, possessed of more choices than the modernists, elected not to have children or raised multiple kids. I also know too many women poets wimageho grieve infertility. I’m luckier than most in that I conceived one child immediately, the other after six months of trying, and never faced an unwanted pregnancy. If I had miscarriages, they were early ones, during that uncertain era when home tests weren’t so prompt. Bedrest from severe nausea and then bouts of postpartum depression didn’t feel lucky at the time, but people took care of me. I’ve muddled along all right since, herding poems and little people. Sometimes those activities nourished each other and sometimes they competed brutally, but I grabbed my good luck by the short hairs and made choices I still feel basically fine about.

I still think, though, about those modernist abortions. When on a recent July morning my spouse, two teens, and I were bound for Dorset beaches in a hired car, I programmed the GPS for a stop in the village of Shillingstone. Edna St. Vincent Millay headed there in July, 1922 with her mother, Cora, and some friends. Edna was sick and broke and unable to write. She was also pregnant after a Parisian fling. Cora Millay, a nurse, helped her daughter have an abortion there.

I don’t have a lot of information about that summer, just what’s in the Milford biography. Back then Shillingstone consisted of a “winding, unpaved street, a few shops and small houses, many with thatched roofs” (238). The group of women rented a house (I don’t know the address but am including photos anyway for local flavor).image Edna turned a hay shed into a studio. Edna’s friends and even her sister back home didn’t know the ulterior motive for the program of long walks on the downs, horseback riding, and stews of wild greens: Cora was searching for abortives listed in an old herbal guide. She did, in fact, induce Edna to miscarry during the first few weeks of the pregnancy.

I’m no botanist, so while I looked up some pictures of alkanet, the key herb in the equation, and went poking along the footpaths, I never found the right blue flowers. I saw dandelions, thistles, and nettles—all named by Edna in a letter as part of the maternal recipe—and trefoil, mentioned in Cora’s notes. Daisies and yarrow were blooming, and mallow purpled every roadside. imageMy own daughter was alarmed that I was even looking, as if medicinal herbs might jump up and dose us against our will. imageTo be fair, it is a creepy errand to conduct with your children. But this is the history behind my own good luck and it should be in my daughter’s rearview mirror, too.

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Family syllabus

Reading is often a business of following trails for the love of it. In preparing to discuss Paul Laurence Dunbar with my African-American Poetry course last week, I reviewed Meta DuEwa Jones’ wonderful study The Muse is Music—inspired by that book’s introduction, in fact, I extended our conversation about Dunbar’s vernacular verse by playing recordings of “When Malindy Sings” by the Fisk Jubilee Singers (1909) and the jazz singer Abbey Lincoln (1961). Jones quoted an essay called “Dunbar Lives!” by Elizabeth Alexander, so I looked it up and it’s wonderful, too. Alexander describes her father reciting Dunbar’s “The Party.” The 19th century poet was on her 20th century “family syllabus.” The same is true, she discovers, for lots of other African-American poets, although reading Dunbar’s work in school seems to be rarer.

I reported Dunbar’s influence to my wonderful students then surprised myself by asking, “What was on your family syllabus?” Blank looks.  I don’t entirely believe them; I bet some of their parents and grandparents said, “oh, you have to hear this song/ watch this movie/ read this book,” even if there wasn’t any oral recitation happening in the rec room. I’m sure my spouse and I are more professorial with our kids than many parents, but privilege and education are only part of what might drive family members to share the art they love. My mother and grandmother received half as much formal education as my father or I did—around ten years vs. twenty-plus—but they transmitted much more culture than my father, with the result that, growing up on Long Island and in New Jersey, I felt more connected to my mother’s Liverpool than I did to my father’s childhood home of Brooklyn. My mother handed me books she grew up on, including Austen, the Brontës, Shakespeare, Tennyson, and much odder bits of British children’s fiction (one of these days I have to find and reread Captain Marryat’s Children of the New Forest). My grandmother also brought books from England (I’m pretty sure Enid Blyton collections were packed in those suitcases alongside the chocolates), and she taught me old songs like “A Bird in a Gilded Cage.” Neither of them recited poems unless in half-remembered fragments, but my mother recalls the childhood entertainment of her father’s rendition of “Casabianca.” I memorized poems for fun back then, including nursery rhymes and songs from Tolkien’s books; it didn’t seem so weird.

Well, my mother grew up without electricity or indoor toilets, much less television, so through her I’m a generation closer to a necessary, vibrant oral culture than many Americans my age, and perhaps multiple generations closer than most of my students. My own kids were never interested in learning my grandmother’s songs (my off-key singing helped discourage lessons), but they hear Louis Armstrong recite “The Night Before Christmas” every year, and I whiled away many hours of baby-care by singsonging rhymes I’d learned by heart decades earlier. And, by accident and design, sometimes successfully and sometimes to hoots of derision, we introduce them to books and movies and music that shaped us. Sometimes we track down references together: after watching Boy in New Zealand, for example, we showed them Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” In a more deliberate way, I read aloud authors I’d loved as a child—Lewis, Le Guin. We played Joss Whedon’s television canon (delight!) and my collection of David Bowie on vinyl (not so much!). My husband indoctrinated the kids in arcane superhero lore and makes CDs of Not to Be Missed Songs of the New Wave. An exclamation such as “What? How can you not know Billie Holiday/ The Matrix/ ‘Kubla Khan’?!” still interrupts dinner pretty often, and out comes the laptop or the anthology. I’m not sure to what extent these family texts teach them who they are, except they surely know they’re nerd-spawn.

I’ve introduced poems, though, less often than you might expect. Setting out a family literary syllabus with educational intent rarely works. My children did not want to hear Yeats before our Ireland trip, although they showed more interest afterwards. My recommending a novel can guarantee the kid won’t read it. Bringing up a poem in a spirit of play, as Alexander’s father did, is much better. What I enjoy most of all is helping my kids follow their own leads. They don’t read a ton of poetry at school, but there was one memorable night they realized they’d learned slightly different versions of an Emily Dickinson poem. I explained about her variants then they immediately launched into an argument about which word choices were better. Voila! Instant English class!

This was a rough week for me—I’m enjoying a bout of sciatica and by the time evening comes, I’m exhausted by pain. (Yoga, heat, and rest this weekend have helped a lot.) It’s been a pleasure, though, to talk books through the haze. A few days ago, Madeleine explained over pasta why Toni Morrison is her favorite author (“the way she gets into the heads of even the most terrible people—a lot of my moral education has come from her. Plus, the sentences”). I suggested to my son, who was between books, that he might be old enough now to enjoy Lev Grossman’s novels, and he announced that, nope, he planned to remain loyal to Austin Grossman, “the superior twin” (every conversation also occasions sibling rivalry). And while taking a practice AP test, Madeleine became distracted by the beauty of “Dover Beach” and wanted to talk to someone about it, so I read it aloud and chatted. “You have a good poetry voice,” my son commented, while apparently absorbed by Terraria on his phone.

And Friday morning, after a week skim-reading a book required for her English class, Heart of Darkness, in a rage over its offensive treatment of Africans, my daughter came downstairs and remarked, “I read this amazing essay by Chinua Achebe and I feel much better.” She resolved to reread Conrad more carefully, adding, “I didn’t know famous authors wrote criticism, too.” “So your teacher didn’t assign the Achebe essay?” we asked. “How did you know about it?” Apparently she just went looking.