Talking to mountains

claudia corThere’s a mountain I talk to on a fairly regular basis–really, two mountains, Big House Mountain and Little House Mountain. From the window of my study, one shoulders the other nearly out of view. On a clear day, sometimes I can see the difference. Today both are occluded by dull white mists.

Instead of trying to engage a sulky landscape in conversation, then, I’m browsing the last in-print issue–really, two issues–of Crab Orchard Reviewthe first magazine ever to pay me for a poem. I have an essay in the general half, 21.1. The company is brilliant: Kaveh Akbar, Kim Bridgford, Chelsea Dingman, Annie Finch, Afaa M. Weaver, and many others. The prize-winning essay, “Slight” by Kristine Langley Mahler, is a stunner. A spooky poem by Emily Rosko, “A Phase,” seems to be about a lost friend, as is my piece, “Women Stay Put.” I have no objectivity at all about this essay, but I can testify that whatever the end results are worth, it was really hard to write. I’m weaving together meditations on place, friendship, and what it meant to labor, in the mid-nineties, alongside an extremely talented poet who occupied a lower rung in the local academic hierarchy than I did. “Women Stay Put” is a hybrid of personal and critical essay–a memoir of Claudia Emerson that also analyzes her first collection, Pharaoh, Pharaoh.

From that essay, first drafted in January, 2015: “My life is patterned by love and meaningful work, but winter’s dark days make me low and antisocial. Lavender clouds pile onto House Mountain.” I talked to the mountain a lot back then, too.

Thanks to Allison Joseph and Jon Tribble for including me. And I love that the issue I’m in is followed by a themed issue called “Weather Reports,” full of pieces that look backward, like mine, but also others testing literature’s predictive powers. When the issue goes live, look, for instance, for “Spell to Bring the Fall” by Ann V. DeVilbiss as well as poem by Michael Hurley, in which the title slides into the first line: “A Persimmon,” begins “when ripe, can be used to predict the weather.” The poem instructs you to split a seed and examine the shape inside for foreknowledge of winter snow and wind.claudia texts

I predict we’ll have more grieving weather soon, eventually followed by hope weather, although they’ll keep cycling. I predict I’ll photograph these trivial texts from Claudia then finally delete them from my phone, and that no one will ever ask to read them, although people will keep loving her poems. I predict I’ll see the mountain again one of these days, and it will reflect the sunrise, like a mirror.

 

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!

 

 

 

Intertidal zone

Robinson_NewYork2140_HCI’m currently reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s flood of a novel, New York 2140, at the edges of the work day. Sea levels have risen fifty feet but stubborn New Yorkers are trying to redefine their big moldy apple as SuperVenice, navigating the street-canals via vaporettos and hydrofoils. When you read a long book slowly, it seeps into your consciousness, so my metaphors have become watery. Not that I’m composing lots of new stuff–it’s mostly revisions, submissions, and correspondence this month, as well as a few blogs and reviews, squeezed in between meetings and other end-of-year chores–but every hour I’ve stolen for poetry has oozed with damp.

I’m especially preoccupied by the book’s dominant setting and metaphor, the intertidal zone. This whole month has been liminal. I’m in between the intensities of the teaching year and the writing summer, not quite free of one nor immersed in the other. I’m also waiting on the outcomes of queries, but trying to use suspenseful hours usefully–to not act like I’m waiting. Sometimes I’m optimistic and grateful, but often I’m down and worried. Rough seas this year, on a national and personal scale.

So, first, let me stress gratitude, which lately I’ve beaming out at the editors, agents, and other literary people who remind me that even when I feel stranded on a deserted isle, some of my bottled messages reach people.

  • I just brushed up an essay called “Women Stay Put” for Crab Orchard Reviewa piece about Claudia Emerson’s first book and her years adjuncting at W&L. It also concerns friendship, ambition, the toxic mess of university teaching hierarchies, and other topics I find REALLY hard. Thank you, Jon Tribble, for liking it enough to grant it space in the final print issue!
  • In this week’s intertidal zone, I also recorded a poem called “American Incognitum” accepted by Cold Mountain ReviewI’ve received a zillion rejections this spring but also had poems taken by the CMRBarrow Street, Water~Stone Review, Ocean State Review, Notre Dame Reviewand SalamanderSome of those acceptances brimmed with praise. How nice is that?
  • I’m looking forward to picking up my daughter from Wesleyan this weekend. It’s a long, hard drive, but we get quick visits with family on the way, and Madeleine is brilliant and hilarious company. We get home Sunday and I head right back to CT Tuesday morning, by plane, for Poetry by the Sea, where I’ll listen to poems and participate in panels alongside the shoreline, sharing lunch and dinner and conversation with literary friends. Bound to be lovely.

I’m going to skip the part where I tell you what I’m not grateful for, unless you take me out for a beverage and an earful, but I can redefine even that mildewy mess á la SuperVenice by observing: maybe the self-enriching tyrant will actually get impeached. And summer’s nearly here. I’ll get to work, at least part of the time, on what I personally find good and important. What’s tough about my workplace will recede to the background. And then in September I get to teach again, and my small classes are full of gifted students to whom I can offer real help, for a respectable salary. I appreciate this luck even at the lowest tide.

There’s a minor character in Robinson’s novel, a government finance guy, who describes his meditation practice: he lies down on the roof of his building and lists all the crap he cannot fix or change, and somehow feels relieved by the exercise. I’ve been trying an inland Virginia version: I cannot make the president obey the law. I cannot make colleagues treat me, or each other, with kindness and respect. I cannot make the world perfectly safe for my children, or other people’s children. I cannot force myself to go back to sleep at 2 a.m. or be productive or cheerful all the time. My metabolism will never obey me, nor will my cats.

I can practice compassion and diligence, but it’s really practice–trying, with no guaranteed results, ever. Thrum, swish, say the tides of my body. Even when you feel stuck, life is never static.034.jpg

Reasons to be cheerful, part 4

We’re supposed to be cheery in late December, right? Ho ho ho.

I’ve been having a rough time, for reasons I can’t write about at the moment. But like H.D., when times are bad, I eat my way through it. This can be literally true: hello, Christmas pudding! But I also mean that I chew through piles of work. Writing and reading are never more important to me than when I’m feeling down and powerless. I can’t always work on the stuff I’m supposed to–my focus is more fragile–and I can hardly talk to other people, sometimes, even the kind people who don’t run in the opposite direction after a glimpse of me glowering. (Most people run, the cowards.) But I do hunker down, and this slow desperate doggedness adds up, and eventually some work bears fruit. A reference letter helps someone win a fellowship. An essay builds, paragraph by paragraph.

There are worse ways to cope than hypergraphia, I guess, even when it means isolated days of typing in pajamas.

Out of heaps of fermenting crap, small good things grow. And here I sit in that stinky paradox, feeling lucky and, alternately, choked by fumes. Ho ho cough cough.

The most surprising small good thing this December: my poetry chapbook Propagation, a fable in which a middle-aged woman in crisis enters the woods and weirdness ensues, was just accepted by Dancing Girl Press for publication in October 2017. I first drafted it in April 2014, writing a poem per day for thirty days, using Vladimir Propp’s 31 functions of the folk tale as prompts (I dropped one function and I’m not sorry). It took me a while to revise, obviously–long poems are complicated creatures. But now my protagonist gets a genuinely happy ending.

Other mss I completed last year are still gestating, but I’m receiving supportive notes and friendly feedback. This is rare, and lucky.

Additional amazements: for all the rejections I’ve received this year, and there have been a boatload, an oil tanker load, a number of generous editors have helped deliver my work to the world. Since summer, poems have appeared in Fjords, National Poetry Review, Thrush (that’s the first poem from Propagation), Tahoma Literary Review, and Queen of Cups. I’m also delighted to have a poem in the outstanding anthology edited by Jane Satterfield and Laurie Kruk, Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland. Next year will bring an essay in Crab Orchard Review and more poems in journals. Again, I labored hard to make those pieces and keep them in circulation–I’m not saying I didn’t earn a few laurel leaves. But I am also lucky.

I’ll post sometime around the new year about some terrific books I’ve been reading. The good company of dead or distant writers sustains me always. But it also feels urgently necessary to express gratitude for the friends and family near and far who keep checking in on me and cheering me on. Their persistence is the primary reason to be cheerful. Bless them, and bless leftover Christmas pudding, and bless Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and bless the antisocial hours I can spend revising mss over pots of tea.

And, finally, thanks to anyone whose reads this far. I hope, most sincerely, that whatever kind of holiday you’re laboring to create for yourself and loved ones, it bears surprising fruit, and it doesn’t stink.

 

 

Poetic karma

I’m sure I’m doing a horrible disservice to an important theological concept by throwing around the phase above. I understand karma itself only in a pop-cultural way—the idea that you reap what you sow, even if not right away, not obviously. Here’s what I mean by hitching it to the adjective “poetic.”

I fervently hope poets get what they deserve. In the long run, the work itself should be all that matters—not whom you know or where you live but what you have to say and how powerfully you say it. I do not actually believe this is true, but I want it to be, and in the meantime every right-thinking Sisyphean poet-critic should be trying to make it true. I want most of our energy to go into writing really interesting, urgent, capacious, intelligent, brilliantly crafty verse, and then when the Roving Eye of Literary Fashion happens to pass over it, it has to pause: wow! look! has anybody noticed this is REALLY amazing? That is, when luck strikes, we’re ready with the goods. Or, you know, we’re not—the work is just decent, not amazing, and the Eye passes on, but at least then we’ve done our best and the results are fair. Some of us have to be the mulch from which a few splendid lilies rise. I hope I’m not compost, I’m trying not to be, though odds are that I am, and that you are too. 

But I’m a modernism scholar, so I can look back and see that well, hell, most of the modernist-era poets we still read knew and helped each other, both with the poetry itself and with the process of delivering it to the world. Some of them dated each other. Granted, there were multiple overlapping circles of influence. There were also outliers who eventually hit the bigtime despite Ezra Pound’s indifference or their geographical distance from New York or London. But clearly extraliterary factors matter, especially personal networks and proximity to literary power.

So what’s a poet to do? I do think about relocation but I can’t move to a big city unless some crazy stroke of luck changes my marketability (or my spouse’s: he’s a fiction writer wildly trying to wave down the Roving Eye, too). My employer gives a world-portable college tuition benefit to my kids, who are now twelve and sixteen (if you haven’t looked at U.S. tuitions lately, know that the pricetag’s obscene). If I moved jobs now their options would diminish. Yeah, Robert Frost would have made his kids take the lump, but for better and worse, I’m nicer than Robert Frost. And this, by the way, is just the barrier to looking.

Here’s what I’m left with: write my heart out, make friends where I am, keep sending the work out, and do what I can to minimize distance through publication and travel (blogging and Twitter open up interesting interactions too, though, again, I suspect they don’t matter nearly as much as all the accidental conversations you have if you physically live in a literary nexus). And, with a mixture of idealism and skepticism, practice the following principles to create good poetic karma:

1. Read books and journals. Also, buy books and subscribe to journals.

2. Publish reviews.

3. Whenever possible, be generous. Say yes.

I’d like to think they’ll get me further than being a ruthless jerk would, but I don’t know for sure. I can say that while I’ve received a ton of rejections this summer, a few editors have sent along some very cheering acceptances. Also, in one of those random benedictions you can’t apply for, Poetry Daily featured one of my poems, “Powder Burn.”  A review I published in Rattle prompted a letter from a writer named Nina Romano who then put up two of my poems in the “Poet’s Corner” of her press web site (they’ll only be there for a few more days, but still, what a random, nice thing!–and if you click on the link belatedly I think you’ll find someone else’s wonderful poem there). I’m particularly proud of a poem in the new Crab Orchard Review, too, in case you can get your hands on it.

I’ve regretted saying yes sometimes and planted plenty of seeds in apparently dead ground. But actions flower unexpectedly, too. Besides, behaving as if poets don’t get what they deserve—meaning selfish striving, I guess, or despair—might be rational but it also seems poisonous. I have a feeling my poems wouldn’t like it.