Stealing the scholars’ wi-fi

The still eye of November’s hurricane was, improbably, a modernism conference in Boston. I scudded in a day late, only half an hour before my first meeting. I was recovering from illness, and my son and husband were sick, and I’d packed badly, especially considering how chic modernism scholars tend to be, with their Calder-mobile-style earrings and funky eyeglasses and fabulous boots. I often feel out of sorts at academic conferences, too—the poet-scholar failing at both sides of the hyphen. Yet the fancy hotel was full of friends: people who have helped me, people whom I have helped, and people I just like to talk and listen to. It was restorative and made me think hard about mentoring.

My autumn, as reported in the previous post, had the plot arc of a killer storm: the happy family was sailing along, backs to a swelling bulk of thunderheads. The first smashing wave was my mother’s sudden illness, eventually diagnosed as lymphoma with some dangerous complications. I think she nearly died twice, but was rescued by my sister driving in from New Jersey to drag her to the ER (my mother lives in eastern Pennsylvania, about a five-and-half hour drive from me). Double-crisis is the formula for a thriller; the danger seems at first to be averted, and then a bigger threat arises. Her treatment now seems to be proceeding effectively, but the past weeks taught us all vigilance. My concentration is terrible. I did finish my conference paper, write a few references, submit a micro-review. I know I drafted a few desperate poems, too, but haven’t had time to look at them—did I mention my laptop is also dying?

To help a little during the week before Thanksgiving—my sister is carrying most of the burden—I traveled to the Modernist Studies Association meeting by car, visiting Pennsylvania on the way. When I arrived at my mother’s hospital on Wednesday afternoon, they discharged her, and I spent a day and a half getting her settled at home: counting out pills into a dispenser, buying supplies, cleaning, doing laundry, cooking, phoning the insurance and visiting nurses, and helping my brother move a bed downstairs. I still can’t believe how much we did, even while I was absorbing seismic changes in a lifelong intimacy. One of my earliest memories is being carried shivering out of a bathtub by my mother, who rubbed me dry and unrolled lacy white socks over my ankles as I protested the cold. Suddenly I was dressing my mother, fetching layers as she shivered. Age goes this way for most of us eventually, and it’s good when we can help each other along. Still, it’s tiring work emotionally and physically.

It was strange to arrive at the Boston hotel in this condition, put on my professional clothes, and launch a reading I’d organized. Yet it eased my mind to hear those poems and have a series of conversations with other people negotiating their own crazy lives brilliantly. One friend’s major health crisis, she told me, was immediately followed by her husband’s heart attack; she knew exactly what I meant when I described my own juggling of caretaking and professional urgencies. Her glance, that reassuring touch to the arm, helped me exhale. A lot of my friends, of course, are middle-aged people with mortal parents and/or still-needy teenagers plus their own ambitions, but I also sat for a few minutes on the lobby carpet with a former student’s sleepless toddler as she deconstructed a lily. I don’t know who is mentoring whom in some of these interactions, but it’s all reassuring.

When I departed on Monday morning, I listened to Mindy Kaling’s recent audiobook, Why Not Me? Kaling commissioned one mini-chapter from a mentor—perhaps improbably, a middle-aged white guy. In the audiobook, he reads aloud his own words, “On Being a Mentor,” a bit of which I’ve transcribed below. After describing his own role-models, Greg Daniels speculates:

“I know a lot of people are probably thinking, ‘Oh, good for you, but nobody’s ever wanted to be my mentor.’ I don’t think any one of them wanted to be my mentor, either. My advice is: you take your mentoring wherever you can find it, whether it’s being offered to you or not. Have you ever used your neighbor’s wi-fi when it wasn’t on a password? If you have the opportunity to observe someone at their work, you are getting mentoring out of them even if they are unaware or resistant. Make a list of the people you think would make the greatest mentors and try to get close enough to steal their wi-fi.”

I agree with Daniels. Since grad school, a mess to discuss on another day, I’ve hijacked my mentors’ attention against their better judgment, or jostled in close to busy people to learn what I could. Most but not all of them were feminist women, and I don’t know whether that’s because women were more open to helping me, or whether I felt more comfortable sidling up to them. But I’ve attended most MSAs since the organization started in the late nineties, and again and again I see women there modeling an intellectual generosity I aspire to. Linda Kinnahan, Cynthia Hogue, Marsha Bryant, Dee Morris, and Cris Miller not only give dependably rockin’ talks but attend small panels with warm engagement; direct questions to the speaker who’s getting the least attention; redirect blowhards; and do the behind-the-scenes work, too, of tenure reviews, anonymous reader reports, and cleaning up complicated professional messes. I’m singling out a few who have been models for me, but there are many others—plus people at earlier career stages who impress me with similar gifts. Most of them could probably say no more often, and I should, too. If you don’t get good work done, after all, your own ability to help others shrinks. I really want to just hunker down and write this December, ignoring everyone beyond my closest family and friends. Still, strong signal, no password: that is a beautiful way to broadcast.

For the pic below with Cynthia Hogue and her dashing handbag, thanks to Marsha Bryant. You can see more from the MSA reading at Aldon Nielson’s blog.

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So many mountains

I am very glad I attended “Writing the Rockies” to discuss poetry and place with Anna Lena Phillips Bell, Tom Cable, Corinna McClanahan Schroeder, and many others. Getting there and back involved three flights each way, as well as some mild altitude sickness and a chagrined recognition that I’m too bad at sleeping in the first place to manage dorm accommodations (though my suite-mates were stellar company). But the conversations that started in panels and spilled into meal-times were exciting. It’s also wonderful to have cool sunny weather and grand scenery for the always direly necessary solitary walk on Day Two. A Friday night restaurant expedition was particularly memorable: the conversation ranged from poetry to negotiating childcare with spouses, and ended with a few die-hard poet-scholars finally walking one distinguished writer back to her hotel in the dark then stopping at McD’s for iced tea and soft-serve. Scandalous carousing, I know, so I won’t name names.

The poetry part of the conference, and of Western Colorado State University’s creative writing program generally, has a formalist bent. For example, during one paper for Anna Lena’s “Enplaced Poetics” panel, Tom Cable, medievalist prosodist extraordinaire, demonstrated how he can jog while reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets (and regularly does), but not while reciting “Sir Gawain.” Good thing we had a roomy venue. Ned Balbo took some blurry photos of the gallant galloping Texan–I’ll add them to this post when Ned gets home and sends them on. Corinna and I both discussed how and why poems immerse us in place, she by comparing her own “Instructions for Return” to Amy Clampitt’s work, and I in relation to the New Zealand poet Robert Sullivan. The always smart and generous Anna Lena closed things out by reading one of my poems–thank you!–and by talking us through an amazing handout. Check out, for example, Eric Magrane’s “Various Instructions for the Practice of Poetic Field Research.” I will definitely be returning to his prompts.

During these past few days, I’ve also been contemplating other 2015-6 conference plans. I’m likely taking on too much, but with Radioland coming out Oct.1, I’d like my work to be as visible as possible. Kim Bridgford and I hashed out panel ideas for the second annual “Poetry by the Sea”–I heard great things about #1–and my inbox was full of messages about events I’m helping to organize, including a participant reading at the Boston Modernist Studies Association meeting in November and long-term planning for a future regional AWP conference (I’m vice chair of the Mid-Atlantic region now and still figuring out what responsibilities that includes). Like half the US literary world, I’m waiting, too, to see how my 2016 AWP panel proposals fare (vice chairs can present, although chairs can’t).

Academic meetings and creative writing gatherings strain the wallet, the family, and the body, so making these choices is HARD. I therefore understand the frustrations expressed in last spring’s provocative NY Times piece by Princeton prof Christy Wampole, “The Conference Manifesto.” I have never, ever attended a meeting just to give my own paper then hang out at the pool bar, but I think her 10-point contract is good. It mystifies me that our conventional presentation mode in English is to flatly read out double-spaced pages. That would be a disaster in any classroom, and it’s a pretty lame use of time and funds, too, even when the audience is filled with patient, eager specialists. Yet Wampole’s conference skepticism also reflects greater access to informed conversation about her specialties than most of us enjoy. One published reply, “A Conference Manifesto for the Rest of Us” by Cora Fox, Andrea Kaston Tange, and Rebecca Walsh, was a relief to this professor at a rural liberal arts college. “…Academics often find themselves a party of one in their departments, working as the sole representative of a particular field, without immediate access to colleagues in their fields of expertise. Done well, an academic conference offers a chance for collegial dialogue of the sort that can lead to tangible progress.”–Yes.

These manifestos concern scholarly meetings but the creative writing ones work similarly: great presenters share the podium with unprepared, marginally coherent ones. You find soulmates in the art but also feel the disdain, sometimes, of cliques. Further, gender dynamics at most meetings of any kind range from slightly tricky to awful. Often, though not always, women are more generous in supporting each others’ work. An all-male panel draws a mixed-gender audience; an all-female one draws mostly women. I’ve never attended a wholly terrible, worthless conference, but there are some to which I would never return because of a poor sense of community.

The distance means I’m unlikely to become a regular, but there was friendly community for sure among the attendees of “Writing the Rockies.” I also appreciated how the critical and creative portions of the conference were similarly good and useful. That’s rare, and it’s what I want most–to bring both of my major writing commitments to a single, welcoming space. I’d like to put off choosing between the two sides of the hyphen in “poet-scholar,” yet so often my conference-going entails not balance as much as doubling the time, money, and effort. Even if my conference budget weren’t limited, my tolerance for sleep deprivation is.

On that note: while I’m taking a couple of days to normalize my circadian rhythms and organize receipts, it’s now that part of the summer when I need to sit down, consolidate what I’ve read and written during my travels, and establish a work rhythm. I’m finalizing Radioland, preparing to jump once again into the deep end of my critical book ms, plus I’d love to turn my attention to a few other projects now simmering on back burners. That’s a lot to do. Given the intimidating vista ahead, jet lag is joining forces with the usual pre-writing jolt of anxiety. Quiet hysteria, even. So many mountains.

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Rockies hand talker