Poetry and heart

Thanks to the folks at Copper Nickel! The new issue contains my essay on Robert Sullivan, “Uncanny Activisms”

I looked up “heart” and found definitions including feeling, courage, enthusiasm, vital part, “the condition of agricultural land as regards fertility,” personality, disposition, compassion, generosity, character, charity, humanity, and of course love. It has associations with memory, too (“by heart”) and deep concern (“to heart”). Obsolete: intellect, which is pretty much the opposite of what most people mean by “heart” now. My curiosity about the word is probably connected to valentine season, but I’ve also been reading a ton of poetry lately and thinking about what draws me to some poems more than others–a set of qualities I sometimes call heart.

My reading includes twelve finalist mss I’m musing over for a poetry prize as well as assignments for a course on documentary poetry: first Rukeyser’s sequence “The Book of the Dead,” then Forché’s The Country Between Us, then a sampling of poetic responses to Hurricane Katrina including some by Cynthia Hogue (interview poems), Raymond McDaniel (ethically problematic collage), and Patricia Smith (often persona poems). Most recently we finished Nicole Cooley’s Breach, a rewarding book to teach not least because it’s so various in forms and approaches. It was a student favorite and when I asked why, they said “authenticity.” When I asked what the signs or markers of authenticity were, the answers seem to boil down to vulnerability. Self-interrogation; courage; generosity; getting to the heart of things, even when exposure makes you look bad. In Cooley’s return to post-hurricane New Orleans, her childhood home, with her daughters, this sometimes means longing to be mothered rather than to mother, a taboo emotion for a woman to admit.

Extracurricularly, I just read Molly Spencer‘s recent If the House too, and it’s an open-hearted missive from the interior of a body, a marriage, and multiple houses. I love the porosity of Spencer’s containers, the flow of information inward and outward. You could call it circulation.

I’m in a receptive mode; I’m not writing much, except for an occasional blog post or tweet (and a bazillion emails). I often write little poetry in winter and then things turn in spring, partly because of the academic calendar and partly the natural one. My sweetheart and I just took a walk in the woods–every Saturday, we try to get out of our neighborhood, walk elsewhere, this time on trails a bit of a drive away–and it was so bright, cold, and still. Wild onions had sent up curling leaves and the moss was green, but otherwise it was just gray boles, brown mud, fallen branches, leaf duff. Inner and outer weather match.

In town, though, crocus and snowdrops are arriving, early omens of a busier season. I’m not sure I’m ready for spring and the associated book-launch madness, but at least I have the generous blurbs below to reassure me the book is worth at least some attention. That matters so much, when writers you admire will spend their time reading your work and saying thoughtful, encouraging words about it. It gives me heart.

Birthday-head

poe hatsShould I wear the top hat or tiara while teaching Yeats tomorrow? Poe thinks it’s a stupid question.

People keep asking me how I feel about turning fifty tomorrow. One answer is: lucky. I’m back in the swing of teaching after a difficult summer, and I find it as rewarding as ever. My spouse and kids are well. My friends and family are kind to me, writing me poems and giving me silly headgear and treating me to fancy drinks and meals. My home is not flooded; I am not at risk of deportation. I can do useful work in the world and I sometimes even get paid for it.

This birthday also makes me feel frustrated. Writing itself, as I’ve often said here, is hard and slow, but somehow that labor seems satisfying in its own right. Seeking publication, not so much. Getting the queries and submissions out is nitpicky work, time-consuming, and demoralizing. There’s no alternative except giving up, though, and I think I have a few decades more fight in me. Hope it’s true.

The day I turned forty, I stomped around feeling just furious about it. What an indignity! But so far, I’m not experiencing even a mild irritation about fiftyness. An increased urgency about my writing, maybe, but that started kicking in a couple of years ago, when my eldest left for college. I began a major transition then–during the same autumn my mother was diagnosed with lymphoma–and those experiences make a mere birthday feel less significant. I mean, bring on the cake and all, but a number doesn’t change you the way altered relationships do.

When I blew out the candles last year, I’m pretty sure I wished for book contracts. What I have in mind this year is bloody persistence. My will to keep trying faltered for a while in June and July, when I was struggling through one of the more serious slumps I’ve known. My determination has since returned, a steady burn in the brain (or is that a hot flash?). I plan to keep tending and feeding it with all of my art, until a voice tells me, one of these years, “Okay, you can cool it now.”

Thanks for a thin bright stream of oxygen lately from three magazines whose editors gave space to my poems: storySouth, Copper Nickel, and Notre Dame Review. I’m looking forward, in the coming months, for more poems in Ocean State Review, Barrow Street, Sweet, Cherry Tree Review, Cold Mountain Review, Salamander, Blackbird, Raintown Review, and Water~Stone ReviewI also have essays scheduled to be published in Crab Orchard Review, on Claudia Emerson’s early poems and her time teaching at W&L, and in Massachusetts Review, on Edna St. Vincent Millay’s abortions. That’s all pretty good, right? Happy damn birthday to me.

Writing that out was actually pretty helpful. It reminds me that pissed-off forty-year-old me would kick fifty-year-old me in the shins for those feelings of discouragement.

And on the subject of taking heart: maybe I’ll see you in Charlottesville this Saturday the 30th, 4-6 pm, at the 1000 Writers for Change reading at Writer House, organized by Polly Lazaron. Joining that crowd of makers and listeners seems like a hopeful thing to do.

burst
Detail from “Burst” by Paul Villinski at the Taubman Museum in Roanoke–they’re made of vinyl records–what a metaphor!