Rusting robot poetics

Lots of stress on this bucket of bolts lately–family, health, and writing-related–but I’m tickled to report that my first poetry comic has been published by the gorgeously-redesigned Split Lip Magazine. My spouse Chris Gavaler and I created it a couple of years ago; he made the images and I wrote the words, although there was some cross-influence in revision, more or less as we’ve cross-influenced each other in life (“Go for it!”/ “Don’t wear that!”). To me, this comic is about a pretty-long-running partnership from a midlife perspective, very much inflected by the self-reassessment that happens when your kids grow up and move on (my daughter graduated in May and just returned home after a summer gig, and my son starts college in about 10 days). We’ve changed so much since we were undergrads together, and I love the way the images capture our disintegrations and haphazard rebuildings from odd materials at hand, bringing forward the idea of resourcefulness under constraint. Chris built these robots rather laboriously in an outmoded program; my constraints were spatial, meaning seven lines per poem, with the line-length controlled by panel-width and the letters of Chris’ homemade font. It’s so gratifying when you make something weird in a weird way, for fun, and other people like it enough to publish it!

Not much other luck in that department lately. Rejections are flying; I haven’t had a poem accepted in months. As I’ve said here before, though, I actually feel more philosophical about that since beginning to work on Shenandoah. You just have to keep trying, revising and targeting your work as intelligently as you can, but knowing there’s a heap of luck involved. Submission rates are very high, and chances of hitting the right reader in the right way at the right moment are low, so it’s a numbers game. I did some poetry revision/ submission work this week, though, and I’ll keep at it until the semester swallows me whole–I’ve also got essays to tweak and keep in circulation plus a difficult grant application to finish. The meetings and new-tech-training-sessions, all that late summer jazz, starts tomorrow.

I’m also sighing, but philosophical, about the timing of book edits. I’d hoped to have feedback in hand on two mss–or at least one of them–by early August so I could do at least some of the work before the term starts, and that no longer seems likely. Editors are heroes, and like me they have chaotic lives–so be it. There’s still a TON to do without waiting on anyone else, not least preparing my courses, finishing those submissions, and organizing all the book promotion work I have ahead of me during this very busy school year.

In the midst of all this, I followed a link yesterday to a powerful article in n+1 called “Sexism in the Academy.” ” Depending on the funding agency, the gender gap in winning grants is about 7 percent,” Troy Vettise writes in this heavily-researched and very persuasive piece, adding, “when women are successful in their grant applications, they usually receive less funding, about eighty cents to a man’s dollar.” Talk about constraints! Discouraging, but I was grateful for all the work Vettise pulls together here, documenting everything from discrimination in resources to the costs of harassment, and more. And the recommendations at the end are provocative in an exhilarating way, including radical structural changes to universities and foundations.

Our robot comic is, I think, also about ambivalence toward gender roles, both in Chris and in me. It’s hard to be your best self and do your best work with all the gender shrapnel flying–as if teaching and writing aren’t hard enough.

Well, “keep your skin on,” as the robots say. There’s change ahead, good and bad. My visor may be foggy, and my sensors all scratched up, but I just have to be a self-reconfiguring modular robot, slipping free of my programming and adapting to my own increasingly buggy hardware as well as the unpredictable terrain. I can do it. Right?

Teaching from online magazines

Fall term is over except for the grading, and THANK GOD: I had terrific students but a lot of them, and I really had to drag myself over the finish line. But winter term starts early here–January 7th!–and it will also be a busy one, so one of my tasks over the next few weeks is to finalize syllabi for two courses. One is “Protest Poetry,” which starts with the Civil Rights era, moves through Standing Rock and ecopoetry, and ends with independent projects: students have to identify their own causes, find some public way poetry can serve them, enact their plans, then write reflective essays. The other is a multigenre introductory creative writing course, moving from flash memoir to poetry. I’ve never taught either before so, yikes.

Even as this term’s portfolios and papers come snowing down and I organize next term’s particulars, however, I’m trying to bask in another grand finale: the re-launch of ShenandoahIt’s stunning how much Editor-in-Chief Beth Staples has accomplished since she started in August: the dated-looking website has been radically redesigned on a new server, but most importantly she recruited exciting new work–a few pieces by distinguished writers who’d appeared in the magazine under R. T. Smith’s editorship, but many, many others from writers who might not have considered sending to us before, so that the issue is more inclusive than ever along every possible axis. I say “us” because Beth, who has a collaborative spirit, included her new colleagues as volunteer readers from the beginning, and by mid-fall had appointed several of us as genre editors, including Seth Michelson for translation, Chris Gavaler for comics, and me for poetry. I didn’t read every entry or make every call on acceptance or rejection in my genre, and that will be true of the next issue as well (towards which a lot of work has already been accepted) but I did read thousands of pieces (and am still processing the last few from our fall reading period).

So, OF COURSE I’ll be teaching poems from the new issue next term. My syllabi always include plenty of books on paper; I love print as a medium. But a digital issue can be a great addition to the mix: free, ultra-contemporary, and diversifying a reading list in interesting ways. Below are some thoughts about how to use the poetry section of 68.1, or an online journal generally.

Reading assignment for any group of poems:

Read all the first lines/sentences. Which do you like best and why? Now read all the poems. Does your favorite first line belong to your favorite piece? Why or why not? (This is a good exercise for creative writing students getting a handle on craft.)

Or: identify three strategies at play in these poems that you might want to try yourself and discuss how they work. (In this issue, for instance, there are prose poems, free verse in various arrangements, a persona poem, an ode, and an erasure–check out the erased/ unerased text toggle on “Ethos of I C E”! There are also poems in numbered sections; unconventional uses of punctuation, capitalization, spacing, and abbreviations; elegies, anti-elegies, and riffs on obituaries; and a wide variety of allusions.)

A response paper topic I’ll use for Protest Poetry: Now that we’ve talked about whether or not poems can be “useful,” choose a couple of poems from this issue and write about what potential work they might do for a reader or a community of readers. Which help you think about a problem or an institution in a different way? Did any of them alter your mood or spur you to do additional research into a topic? Which might work best at a rally, in a waiting room pamphlet, on a poster, in a valentine card?

More ways to teach these specific poems:

If you’re teaching elegy: try Patrick Kindig; both poems by Victoria Chang; the poems by John Lee Clark; Janet McAdams’ “Thanatoptic.” On a related note, Hai-Dang Phan’s poem would pair well with Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” and other poems about monuments–it’s also very much an eco-poem that situates the human dead amid “veteran elms” and other representatives of the more-than-human world.

If you’re teaching poetry and place: “Yes Yes Dakar, 2018”; both Brandon Melendez poems; Jessica Guzman Alderman’s “Florida Orange”; “Meeting House at Cill Rialaig”; and maybe most of the others, because place, like sex and death and memory, is one of poetry’s big subjects.

Poetry about family: Dujie Tahat’s “Ode to the Golden Hour on the Day of Finalizing My Divorce”; either “Obit”; “After the Wedding”; Kathleen Winter; plus one for holiday dysfunction by Alicia Mountain.

The John Lee Clark poems would also fit into readings about disability, as would Jeannine Hall Gailey’s “Introduction to Writer’s Block,” which adds contemporary politics to the mix, and the question of how we write when our bodies force reconsideration of our ambitions and oh, that’s right, the world’s in flames.

There are countless ways to teach complicated poems, however, and all these are complicated in beautiful ways. I’d love to hear your ideas. In the meantime, hey, just spending an afternoon READING the work is a lovely thing…And hey, if you’re on Twitter, please follow us at @ShenandoahWLU. Some long-ago intern set up the old account, @ShenandoahLit, and we no longer have full access to it, so we’re rebuilding on social media as well as everywhere else. Lots of work to do!shenandoah

 

Krazy Kat among the nasturtiums

kk 1920

COMICS=POETRY+GRAPHIC DESIGN, says Austin Kleon, who is, in turn, reprising Gregory Gallant, a.k.a. Seth–but wherever the formula comes from, I love the possibilities it raises for both comics and poetry as media. It’s my starting point for a paper I’m giving at the Modernist Studies Association conference very soon. I’ll be discussing the 1920 Krazy Kat strip above by George Herriman in terms of babble and doodle, Northrop Frye’s terms for the axes of poetic making.

I had a slight knowledge of Herriman’s work before, but this summer read the recent biography–which is, among other things, a story of racial passing–and became obsessed. Krazy Kat is very funny and anti-pretentiously brilliant and would be perfectly at home on a modern poetry syllabus. Each strip is as predictable as a sonnet: a linguistically inventive, genderless black ket loves a pompous white mouse with anger management problems, who responds via brick. That’s the form. The variations: endless. 

Being on the krazy side (I’m in denial about any resemblance to Ignatz, the lecture-asm nasturtiumprone control freak), I’m juxtaposing this poetic comic against an Anne Spencer poem presented in visual form. “A Lover Muses” is the second stanza of one of Spencer’s few published poems, “Lines to a Nasturtium” (1926), and was painted onto nasturtium contact paper and fixed to a cupboard by her neighbor and good friend, the African American artist and architect Amaza Lee Meredith. I have some things to say here, too, about babble and doodle but also gender, race, justice, and the meanings of repetition. I’ll be joining Chris Gavaler’s “Modernism and the Comics” panel on Thursday afternoon, August 10th. Wish me luck.

Best of all, the conference is in AMSTERDAM, where we’ve never been, so Chris, the kids, and I are going a week early. Madeleine is home from her Siberian adventures, tired and hungry but eager to keep learning about Russian language and culture. She’s also more than happy to pack up again and see some canals and world-class museums. The scary thing is that, when we come back, our school years will start up again fast. Was my work this summer a howling success?–NO. Never mind. Pancakes and jenever, here we come.

W&L Writers Resist

mlk-parade
photograph by Stephanie Wilkinson

The work ahead of us is overwhelming, so how to prioritize? I’m watching my friends make various choices, and I respect all of them. Some have stepped up their political activism and local volunteerism. Others have turned off social media and are writing their hearts out. Still others, feeling their words stolen away, unable even to read the news, are focusing on the small good things they can do for their families and in their jobs and classrooms. What kind of effort counts most? Ask me in twenty years.

But I’m proud of my town, which has not always been the case. Friday was Lee-Jackson Day in Virginia, as in Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, leaders of the Confederacy. (If you’re a puzzled reader from outside the U.S. wondering why my state honors a history of treason and slavery, well, don’t get me started.) Lexington, where both generals are buried, is ground zero for the “flaggers,” so we get swarmed annually by outraged white people in period dress. It is seriously intimidating to walk through a cordon of men in Confederate uniforms, some of them waving battle flags on heavy wooden staffs. Then you reach the corner and your sigh of relief is stifled by the apparition of a group of women in hoop skirts, à la Scarlett O’Hara. I hurried along, feeling sick, resonating with that shock many of us felt at election time: when and where do I live?

Yet Saturday, hundreds of people marched down Main Street waving rainbow flags and images of Martin Luther King, Jr. I was at the Bridgewater Poetry Festival, where I heard several really outstanding–and politically urgent–readings, but my phone was buzzing with heartening pictures like the one above. My kids are in that beautiful crowd.

I’m also proud of my colleagues in English. Many of them marched; Sydney Bufkin labored mightily to help organize the marchers. Like most of our efforts to communicate, a parade is ephemeral, but surely this work matters enormously to many, many people. On to the Women’s March in Washington next weekend, to manifest our resistance in the capital.

The creative writers at Washington and Lee are dazzling me, too, with their efforts to make change real. Ellen Mayock and Chris Gavaler are among the founders of a new activist group, 50 Ways Rockbridge, so in addition to blogging fiercely, Ellen about “gender shrapnel” and Chris about the politics of comics, they’re basically trying to counter-balance the Tea Party with kinder voices and grass-roots power. (At least one national umbrella group for these local energies is emerging, as well: check out Indivisible.) For both of them, this activism has deep connections to their research agendas. I admire this synergy even as I struggle with the problem of where best to spend my writing energies, an issue I blogged about recently for Modernism/ modernity under the title “Scholarship and justice.”

W&L writers are also publishing POEMS of resistance, bless them. Many of my recent efforts have had an incantatory quality, like spells or prayers, so it’s interesting to see other local poets wielding similar strategies. Not that we weren’t writing political poems before–we all were–but I see a strong attempt in recent work to summon all the force words can carry to fight, transform, and heal. See, for example, Deborah Miranda’s “Prayer of Prayers,” dedicated to “The Water Protectors at Standing Rock.” Or, more recently, in Terrain.org’s excellent “Letters to America” series, R.T. Smith raining down curses in “Whirling Disease.”

My own most recently published poetic take on the election appeared last week in the journal Rise Up Review: “Imperfect Ten.” I’d been reading Rattle‘s “Poets Respond” series, especially Barbara Crooker’s “Election Ghazal” and Richard Garcia’s “Canada.” Why ghazals? I wondered, then tried my own. I felt compelled to break a rule of this elegant form–the tradition that each couplet is self-contained–because, as another poet said, something there is that doesn’t love a wall, especially lately. You’ll also see that I was reading about the spike in hate crimes reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center. And, finally, that I was stinking mad. I still am, although starting to try to channel it differently. Rage is important, but you can’t set up house there forever.

P.S.: For a more skeptical picture juxtaposing the MLK marchers against the Lee-Jackson “history and heritage” banner, see my daughter on Instagram. She’s right. I confess to feeling some hope these days, but it’s probably irrational. I have great friends. But this country: still crazy.

 

 

Collaboration

Lone wolf humanist here to tell you that while reading and writing in solitude are some of my favorite things, experiences with intellectual and artistic collaboration have astonished me, shaking loose all kinds of work and thinking I might never have otherwise produced. As poets

440px-JamesMerrillDavidJackson1973window
Merrill and Jackson: collaborators on a seance-based epic?

Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton say in this great piece–which ends with the “10 Commandments of Collaboration”–working with another person can produce a “third voice” likely to surprise its parents. Yes, teamwork can slow down or intensify the labor, a big problem if you’re on a tenure clock or your collaborator’s literary metabolism differs radically from yours. I’ve also seen it speed and improve work in various genres. Writing can beget more writing.

That’s why, for the early-summer edition of my Modernism/ Modernity blog on the writing process, I’m seeking short reflections from scholars, editors, teachers, students, and artists about collaboration, in hopes that a collection of perspectives will shake good work loose from other writers, too. I sent out an email to some modernist scholars who collaborate, but I’d like to hear from people outside my network, so if you have something to say, please contact me! You can post replies here or email them to wheelerlm (at) wlu.edu, but I need responses by May 15th. The assignment:

  1. Choose one of the following prompts, or ask your own collaboration-related question, and send me an answer of under 200 words, along with a bio of 1-2 sentences.
  • How has collaboration changed your writing, your thinking, and/or the direction of your professional life?
  • What advice do you have for people considering a collaborative venture?

You can write this with a collaborator, if you want, or try a two-way interview. Just please keep it short and sweet. Alternately:

  1. Forward this to a friend or collaborator and ask him or her to write a reflection on one of these questions, or on another question you’d rather ask. It can be submitted directly to me, with a bio.

I’m looking for collaborators on modernism-related projects, but you can define that however you like. Collaborations in teaching as well as research, editing, and writing are absolutely fair game, as are student responses. Cautionary tales as well as positive stories are welcome—collaboration can be a complicated endeavor. (One of my first co-authors was my spouse, Chris Gavaler, on an article about H.D. for Sagetrieb, and we did a lot of anxious joking at the time about how commas were posing a marital problem.) My goal is to put together a June blog for the Modernism/ Modernity Print-Plus platform in many voices, with diverging perspectives. You can see the inaugural “process” blog post here, if curious.

lettersI could describe lots of other projects here, because I’ve been experimenting for a while now. Editing Letters to the World with a team of women I’d never met was a huge, at times stressful project with a beautiful result. I also love revisiting these poems I composed with Scott Nicolay in an email-based game of oneuppoetship. Last but not least, every class discussion is a collaboration, as we argue our way towards a joint reading of whatever text is to hand.

But I’d rather hear from you.

Union of future literary titans

 

Twenty-four years ago this June, Chris and I set up our first shared apartment. Possessions: a double bed my mother purchased (“don’t tell your father”); one brown vinyl couch with no rear legs picked up off the street, so if you sat down on a humid August night in shorts you wouldn’t be able to peel free until October; and a tipsy round table with white plastic bucket chairs from a university surplus sale. We took a further step and made things legal twenty years ago this week; the wedding was a wonderful celebration. Our most momentous decisions, though, occurred in the summer of ’89, when Chris was managing the database of a regional theater in Montclair and I was buying an improbable number of texts for my first graduate courses. We moved in the wee hours, because the new tenants of my previous house claimed possession at midnight. Our friend Scott Nicolay had a truck or a station wagon, I can’t remember, but he was always game for adventure, so he shuttled our belongings over to the first floor of that old stucco house in Highland Park, New Jersey. We were babies, but we were also somehow right about each other.

 

The stickiest problem, besides the couch, was merging our book and record collections, although after a little wrangling we devised a system that compromised my alphabetical ordering with his topical clusters. Chris and I got to know each other through Anthologist staff meetings—that’s the Rutgers College poetry magazine—so books were at the center of our friendship from the beginning. I studied his copies of Watchmen, Cerebus, and Dark Knight, and then handed him my Charlotte Brontë. We read Dante to each other at night and Adrienne Rich. We argued about chores and Derrida.

 

We were also reading each other’s pages, learning how to deliver tactful critique to the person you sleep with but more importantly cheering each other on. I was and remain mostly a lyric poet; Chris began that way, but his poems started mutating into thirty-page collages. He spent a lot of time in rare book rooms reading missionary diaries back then, learning about the Lenape. Probably Scott got him started—Scott grew up nearby, found arrowheads in his suburban backyard, and made the history of the area vivid for both of us—but in any case, Chris was thinking through problems that required large, complex architectures. Within a few years, he would shift his primary effort to novels and stories.

 

We were writers. We had plans. Art and marriage were intertwined endeavors. One day we wanted children and better furniture and a house of our own, but we also wanted magazine publications and author photos and artistic triumph. We were fascinated by Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, devouring their books as they hit publication, gleaning what information we could about their glamorous writerly marriage. Okay, it didn’t turn out so well, but we were striving for some ideal version of that. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath without the carnage.

 

You know the bit about “wives of geniuses I have sat with” in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, really written by Gertrude Stein? Chris and I, over the years, have taken turns playing genius and wife. We’ve both struggled not to feel invisible and dull while the other was fêted. Mostly, though, we root for each other strenuously and help each other materially. Magazine publication started to click for both of us when our kids were little. Our first books were accepted the same year. Perseverance is key to getting anywhere and I wonder if I would have struggled so insanely hard without Chris’ model. Rejection is constant but if you’re always telling someone else to suck it up and keep going, maybe you talk yourself into the necessary persistence, too.

 

Right now Chris is revising a novel for an excited literary agent. Could be the big one. Another thing we’ve learned together, though, is about the randomness of it all: you get a major acceptance and then the press crashes, but then another day some prize or honor hails on you out of the clear blue. Even more peculiarly, you attain the goal you’ve been striving toward for years and then it starts to feel ordinary. Every success is shadowed by some could-have-been, dwarfed by some higher peak in the distance. The only cure for the constant sense of inadequacy is writing itself, although it’s nice to have company for the ups and downs. 

 

Twenty years ago, twenty-four years ago, though, if we could have seen our 2013 resumes, we would have been damn impressed. All we had then was our unreasonable faith in ourselves and each other, vague plans for world domination, a crazy work ethic, and a promise to stand by each other through it all. We have those bylines and decent couches now, although we’re still waiting on the paparazzi.

1989

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.

Living with a writer

“Page two is a verb tense tour de force,” he says, and I puff right up. I’m pretty new at creative nonfiction as a genre, but prose storytelling is his mastery zone. Who knew the personal essay was all about verb tenses? Transitions, yeah, understood they were trouble. And bending accuracy for elegance (we sometimes ate upstairs from trays, but he wants me to say we ate upstairs from trays): those choices shape poems too but the pressure seems higher when the “I” is more plainly me (“speaker,” hah). Where do I write “Richard Attenborough” and where “John Hammond”? Does “curator of cloned dinosaurs” cover it, in an essay littered with Jurassic Park references? You’d think I’d be worried about the family business I’m rolling out in these sentences, but we agree on ethics quickly, having been discussing them since 1986. That was the Cretaceous Period, when we worked on the Rutgers literary magazine and flirted across the editorial table.

Then he says, “But I think this is the kind of piece that you need to sit on for a couple of months,” and I deflate miserably. I always let poems cool off at least that long but I just wanted to finish something, send off something, and I thought this was it. He spends the next twenty minutes trying to take it back while I make tragic eyes at him.

This is the core of living with another writer. It’s no joke finding time and energy to read each other’s stuff with jobs and kids and domestic crises to tend. When you do, you might like it or you might not, but be careful how you comment because you’ll be in bed with that person all night. And none of it is separate from all the other conflicts that percolate between two people in the same house. One always seems to be finding more writing time, or winning more accolades, or earning more money, and that absolutely affects the force with which the frying pan is lowered onto the stove. What can look from the outside like a steady climb is full of morasses, like when a press closes right after printing your novel and you’re completely on your own for promotion (buy Chris Gavaler’s School for Tricksters now!)  

Competition was much alleviated when we parted generic ways in our early twenties (his poems got longer and prosier while I cheered from the sidelines). I was genuinely happy about his successes, but my congratulatory exclamations still felt cleaner once I started having some success of my own. I didn’t like it at all when he started writing short stories about a stay-at-home dad whose English professor wife got pregnant by another man; by the time he posted an offprint of “The Best and Worst Sex Scenes of All Time” on the department bulletin board and colleagues started waggling their eyebrows at me, I’d had it. I regret asking him to get his female characters the hell out of my job description, though, and now I second-guess myself when I want to say: don’t write that, this one’s too personal. The kids deserve veto power but after all, reader, I married him.

Despite the appearance of kiss-and-tell (that character really WAS NOT ME), he’s a better writer-spouse than I am. He reads a higher proportion of what I produce, with less show of angst, and comments more generously. He often fails to notice that a poem is in iambic pentameter (oh yeah, it does rhyme) but he’s invariably smart about structure, where I need to cut or expand, whether I’ve gotten to the urgent you-must-read-this material or whether I need to keep digging. I rarely publish something before incorporating a few of his suggestions.

Except blog posts.