Excerpt from a mess in progress


Once, when she was a toddler-sized blizzard of pure will, I called her “little missy.” Some current of Victorian chastisement must have welled up through me, springing from all the British books I’d read or maybe from some fifties sitcom re-aired in periodic waves. My daughter had created yet another hodgepodge installation of stuffed animals, food wrappers, chairs, stewpots, picture books, Lego, and I don’t even know what else. She refused to clean up. The phrase came out of my mouth. She gazed at me stolidly.

The next day, which brought further eruptions of clutter, she said, before more maternal protest could escape my lips, “Little Messy did it.”


My daughter is twenty and about to spend spring term in Prague. This means all her college paraphernalia—dishes, lamps, bins of sweaters, notebooks, extra bedding, a photograph-plastered bulletin board, matryoshka dolls painted to resemble Russian leaders—came home in mid-December and have been gathering dust in various corners of her room for weeks. On top of them, she and I piled items for the trip: more clothes and shoes, new suitcases, a wallet stuffed with Czech koruna. My periodic reconnaissance missions into the mess turn up many becrumbed plates and cups crusted with dried coffee foam.


She is so smart and funny and demanding and melodramatic. My life will be easier when she flies off. I ache with sadness at the prospect.


The first definition of “mess” in the OED is a portion of food. I chop onions to cook with leftover cranberry beans, chilis in adobo sauce, cilantro. A large quantity of something. Boil rice, mash avocados, grate cheese, open the jar of cactus fruit-purple tomatillo salsa Scott sent. Prep strawberry crumble and breakfast scones, too, because lord knows what the airlines will feed my vegetarian daughter on this long series of flights. An ill-assorted mixture of any kind. Grief, envy, relief, worry, delight on her behalf. A troubled or embarrassed state or condition; a predicament. A person whose life or affairs are disorganized. An entertaining, witty, or puzzling person. A communal meal. Etym. classical Latin missus, meaning sending.


My kids are seventeen and twenty now, needing me only sporadically, and not even really then. No one stops me from working all weekend, typing through the thermal blasts of perimenopause. I’m unable to figure out which tasks I shouldn’t be doing. Everything seems both important and trivial. Hot mess.


So much of my work involves imposing order, or revealing order that is occluded. Divine the bones of a student’s idea and help her build an essay or a poem that will stand steady, bear some weight. Uncover and tell a story latent in the survey results, the aged manuscripts, the tangle of movements and mavericks that make a literary period. Organize aspirations into weeks of future labor, then write the grant application.

But first comes the mess. Notions, images, daisy-chained phrases with their slightly crushed petals unevenly spaced, like teeth in a first-grader’s mouth. Mess precedes order, often succeeds it too, and some of the best writing remains redolent with it. Mess is smelly and exciting. Noisy and damp.


When she says, Mom, you’re so good at packing, I know it’s like my young son announcing, Mom, you’re the world’s best bacon chef: strategic flattery. But I’m glad when my grown-up children ask for help. So I lay the jeans out on the bed, then another pair of jeans perpendicular to them, then a dress perpendicular to that, then leggings, blouses, tee-shirts. The clothes form a cross. Then I fold in the smallest inner item, perhaps a miniskirt, and continue folding in each item, until I’m left with a heavy, airless bundle that takes up surprisingly little space.

Around that we tuck first aid supplies, rain boots, a few snapshots for the wall by the bed in her Prague flat. Almonds and a package of dried mango slices for her backpack. She picks up the dirty clothes on her floor to run one last load of laundry, revealing that her messes had actually been discrete piles, that she’s on top of the mess and understands it. There’s room in her case for one stuffed animal, so she washes Strudel, too. He is a formerly white bear who replaced another white bear, accidentally left among hotel bedding in another city.


Snow sifts down to render the outside world more uniform. My spouse and I take an early walk, trying to describe the squeaky crackles our sneakers make on the snowy sidewalk. A cascade of distant fireworks, I say. He answers, A box of rubber balls tossed down wooden steps.

That morning, I keep reminding her of documents, chargers, and medications, but she has already packed them all neatly. They leave for the airport on messy roads, as snow turns into rain.


Tough Guide to the Field Guide to the End of the World

field-guide-gaileyJust a postcard here from the end of a very tough term–a cheery note from amid the ruins to show off some good work my students just completed. The last book my composition class read was Jeannine Hall Gailey’s excellent new collection, Field Guide to the End of the World. For a final writing assignment after a series of more conventional persuasive essays, my students had the option of writing another essay, OR writing speculative fiction or poetry based on our readings, OR participating in a weirder project. Imagine, I told the intrepid explorers who chose the third path, that Gailey’s End of the World is a real place. Create a web-based travel guide for tourists wishing to visit it, mining the poems for clues about its character.

As we geared up, Gailey Skyped into my class to chat and answer questions, handling some apocalyptic technical glitches, ALL on our end, like a pro. Lonely planet writer and W&L alum Amy Balfour visited in person to talk about going on assignment and constructing punchy, economical descriptions full of revelatory details. We scoured guide books, noting their stylistic tics, and were trained in WordPress by W&L’s Senior Academic Technologist Brandon Bucy.

Here is the mock-travel-website seven students created. I think it’s hilarious, but more so if you read Gailey’s book, which you totally should (sample poems here, for starters). And according to the reflective essays students submitted yesterday, they had more fun with it than seems quite proper for a composition course. (And here, for comparison, is the travel guide to Gaileyland students from an earlier course created, based on Jeannine’s first collection, Becoming the Villainess. Her books have a combination of light, darkness, and just plain weirdness that makes them a really good fit for this world-building assignment.)

May all your grading be this entertaining. And if it’s not, rethink those syllabi for next term. These students, after all, stretched their writing skills significantly and came to know a book of poetry really deeply. As long as everyone’s working hard, why shouldn’t the end-times be fun?

Writ 100 students conferring, and a blackboard in Early Fielding full of topic ideas

Adventures in poetry teaching, part two: Gaileyland!

In psychology, it’s called “literary transportation,” although you may know the phenomenon by the metaphor “getting lost in a book.” Immersive readers do this all the time. We become so absorbed by a story that we forget we’re tracking lines of print. Physically, you’re sitting in an easy chair by the window, in a cozy room. Imaginatively, you’re shivering in a wintry landscape with a compelling character, half-visualizing the dark verticals of tree trunks glazed with ice. Your actual heart rate climbs when a faint, thin wolf howl rises in the literary distance.

Although I earned a PhD by treating poems in the usual ways—as Billy Collins alleges, you tie them up and begin the cross-examination—I’m fascinated by other ways books become meaningful to us, and hence I keep concocting peculiar assignments for my literature students. A few days ago I posted about some students’ translations of modernist poetry into other media (“Dancing to Loy”). My other class this term was a first-year composition course on the topic of speculative fiction. All fall they’ve been learning about developing arguments, reasoning through evidence, and handling that wild beast, the semicolon. They’ve been perpetrating all this critical prose about science fiction and fantasy: comparing Terry Bisson’s eerie “Bears Discover Fire,” for example, to Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists”; or looking for what Tolkien calls the “eucatastrophe” in tales by Kij Johnson or Octavia Butler; or juxtaposing Grimm and Gaiman.

We wrangled with speculative poetry, too. They just completed final projects inspired by Jeannine Hall Gailey’s first collection, Becoming the Villainess. First we read and discussed the book, with a visit-by-Skype from the generous poet. Then we began to take that “literary transportation” business seriously. We read Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a treatise about genre brilliantly disguised as a satirical travel handbook. Lonely Planet author and W&L alum Amy Balfour visited class to discuss real travel writing: how she pitches projects and receives assignment, the lengths of essays and how she structures them, the words she uses and the stock phrases she avoids. I also brought in piles of old travel manuals and we skimmed them for style and structure, then brainstormed. Reread Gailey’s book, I said, as a set of clues about a real place. What can you glean from the poems about the climate of Gaileyland, or the dining options, or the major attractions?

Everyone had to devise an entry and, with the help of our digital services guru Brandon Bucy, upload it to a joint WordPress site. Then the students chose different follow-up projects: some wrote analytical essays about Gailey’s verse; some wrote fantastic poems and tales accompanied by critical statements; and three volunteered to edit, expand, and redesign our collaborative web venture, Gaileyland: A Travel Guide to Becoming the Villainess. The result is a very strange and funny species of literary criticism. These students had to trace and analyze patterns of language and reference just as they would for an essay, but in a different style and very much in public. If there’s an implicit argument about the text in their project, it might involve Gaileyland’s essential darkness. The poems are rooted in trauma, although becoming a villainess is one way to seize back power from a world that would constrict a woman’s options and mute her dissent. All the weirder, then, to address poems about Persephone and Cinderella and Dark Phoenix in the perpetually sunny prose of tourism-boosting: eat at Philomel’s Athenian Restaurant! “Locals whisper that once the cook served human meat in a stew, but we think that’s just myth.”

I love the results and find it so gratifying to hereby celebrate the intelligence and creativity of my students, especially right now. It’s been a rough week at my home institution: very early last Tuesday morning, a car carrying ten students on their way back from an off-campus party crashed. A young woman in her senior year died and others were badly injured. The rest I don’t know for sure, but credible rumors involve an intoxicated driver who had already made multiple runs, returning partygoers to campus. All that vitality, lost or hurt. The latest wave of sorrow about it hit me as I was decorating the Christmas tree with my own teenagers yesterday, noting who was sentimental about what ornament, thinking that when each kid has a home of his or her own, I’ll pack up the little santas and boats and shells and kindergarten photo-crafts for them to put on their own trees. Then I freaked my family out by bursting into noisy tears, thinking about the idle plans we make all the time, and how for one set of parents, that whole speculative future is just gone.

Really, all assignments and grading are trivial in the end, though sometimes they add up to helping people learn a little. But writing and reading are important ways of seeking illumination and consolation. So are sharing them in good company: if you’re in Rockbridge tonight, and not too upset by today’s memorial service, come hear a bunch of area writers read at the Studio Eleven Gallery at 11. S. Jefferson Street in Lexington at 7 p.m. We’ll be collecting nonperishable goods and monetary donations for the local food bank. And sharing what moves us with others, and being moved—more nontrivial activities that need to keep happening in and beyond the just-slightly-magical space of the classroom.