A Very Good Anti-Best List

It’s exasperating when people refer to a work of art as “great” as if that were an objective pronouncement. Great for what? The idea that there could be stable, neutral criteria by which literature could be judged more or less worthy is at best nonsensical. In practice, it’s often a way for powerful people to consolidate power and invalidate contradictory views so they can keep controlling resources, while calmly holding that their views are apolitical, unlike the allegedly hysterical screeds of propagandistic forces celebrating “minority” voices. In English department canon wars, these power-conserving arguments often mutate into claims about “influence”: a work is great because it has been important to many other writers. There’s validity to that; whether or not they find literary monuments beautiful, it’s useful for students of literary history to encounter them, the better to understand books that set out to repurpose or smash the monuments. If you’re serious about literature, though, you also read horizontally across fields, trying to understand the networks and processes of inclusion and exclusion, knowing that you can’t read it all, taking joy in what you love but also listening to arguments based on values/ tastes other than yours. You recognize that what’s “good” for classroom discussion and paper-writing at your institution might not be “good” in another educational setting, much less for a grief group, an open mic, or reading alone when you’re down. And, of course, even a classroom at an apparently homogenous college (like mine) is a gathering of wildly various experiences and needs. What it boils down to: many syllabi and anthologies are carefully curated, inclusive among many axes, and generally wonderful, but they remain documents of networks, access, and other specific, temporary conditions.

Emerging from English department hothouse-politics into the different canons and procedures of Creative Writing, I have to say, oh, man, here we go again. Plenty of people who publish annual best-of lists know perfectly well that what they really mean is “what I liked most among the books that presses sent me or I heard publicity for or came across randomly.” Their newspaper or magazine editors just won’t allow such an egregious headline. Still, these lists bug me, even though, probably hypocritically, I would be quite happy to see one of my books appear on almost any of them. I’m more than delighted when something I wrote delights anyone, and a media boost is awesome. I just don’t like this annual critical abandonment of knowing better.

So here are some 2020 poetry books I like that didn’t appear, to my knowledge, on any best-of-year list or major postpublication prize longlist (I also liked a lot of books that are critical faves, but I’m putting them aside for the moment). The beauties in the picture happened to be in my home office this week (I had already toted others to my work office). Among those shelved across town, special praise to Kaveh Bassiri, 99 Names of Exile; Tess Taylor, Last West; Jessica Guzman’s Adelante; and all the books I had the pleasure of featuring in my spring-summer Virtual Salon (which I’d be happy to reboot if you contact me with a newish book–just message me). There are many, many other exciting collections I haven’t read yet, and everything I found rewarding enough to finish in 2020 is listed below the photo. An asterisk doesn’t mean it’s “better,” just that it was published during the year before I read it. I notice I read a ton of poetry this year but much less prose than usual–that has to do with fragmented concentration–although there are many new books in those categories I also loved.

Best wishes to all of us for a good new year full of good-for-something literature, good-enough health, and please-be-better government. On the reading side, nourish yourself with books, buy from indies when you can, give love to small presses without publicity machines, and like what you like no matter what the critics or professors say!

POETRY (82 books and chapbooks)

  • 1/12 Jeanne Heuving, Mood Indigo* (bought at a conference)
  • 1/12 Tyrone Williams, chapbook* (bought at a conference)
  • 1/18 Harjo, She Had Some Horses (teaching)
  • 1/19 Harjo, American Sunrise* (fandom)
  • 1/22 Rukeyser, The Book of the Dead (reread for teaching)
  • 1/26 Forche, The Country Between Us (reread for teaching)
  • 2/12 Cooley, Breach (reread for teaching)
  • 2/15 Spencer, If the House* (fandom)
  • 2/19 Young, Ardency (reread for class)
  • 3/4 Dove, Thomas and Beulah (reread for class)
  • 3/7 Bassiri, 99 Names of Exile* (gift)
  • 3/7 Witte, All Fires Don’t Burn the Same (gift)
  • 3/8 Smith, Wade in the Water (reread for class)
  • 3/20 Nethercott, The Lumberjack’s Dove (reread for class)
  • 3/21 Liz Hazen, Girls Like Us* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 3/22 William Woolfitt, Spring Up Everlasting* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 3/25 Elizabeth Lindsay Rogers, The Tilt Torn Away from the Seasons* (Virtual Salon)
  • 3/29 Phillips Bell, Ornament (reread for class)
  • 4/3 Cabrera, lack begins as a tiny rumble* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/6 Savage, Detail (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/6 Michael, Barefoot Girls* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/11 Taylor, Rift Zone* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/18 Chan, All Heathens* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/19 Green, The More Extravagant Feast* (local friend)
  • 4/27 Dungy, Trophic Cascade (reread for teaching)
  • 4/29 Robinson, Needville (reread for Virtual Salon)
  • 5/9 Kildegaard & Hasse, Rocked by the Waters* (anthology I’m in)
  • 5/10 Dickey, Mud Blooms (for Virtual Salon)
  • 5/15 Silano, Gravity Assist (reread for Virtual Salon)
  • 5/23 Balbo, The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 6/2 Greenfield, Letdown* (for virtual salon)
  • 6/6 Solari, The Last Girl (fandom)
  • 6/12 Walker, Maps of a Hollowed World* (blurb)
  • 6/27 Egan, Hot Flash Sonnets (fandom)
  • 7/6 Petrosino, White Blood* (ad)
  • 7/14 Diaz, Postcolonial Love Poem* (fandom)
  • 8/1 Voigt, Kyrie (friend recommendations)
  • 8/2 Atkins, Still Life with God* (local friend)
  • 8/3 Guzman, Adelante* (Shenandoah author)
  • 8/4 Hong, Fablesque* (fandom)
  • 8/5 Davoudian, Swan Song* (Shenandoah author)
  • 8/6 Matejka, The Big Smoke (reviews/ buzz)
  • 8/7 Hedge Coke, Burn (fandom)
  • 8/8 Sealey, Ordinary Beast (reputation)
  • 8/9 Chang, Obit* (fandom)
  • 8/10 Perez, Habitat Threshold* (fandom)
  • 8/11 Corral, guillotine* (reputation)
  • 8/12 Neale, To the Occupant (fandom)
  • 8/13 Bailey, Visitation* (pressmate)
  • 8/14 Chatti, Deluge* (buzz)
  • 8/15 Muench, Wolf Centos (recommendation)
  • 8/16 Flanagan, Glossary of Unsaid Terms* (gift)
  • 8/17 Nuernberger, Rue* (fandom)
  • 8/18 Kapur, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist (fandom)
  • 8/19 Farley, The Mizzy* (gift from a friend)
  • 8/20 Avia, Fale Aitu | Spirit House (fandom)
  • 8/21 Andrews, A Brief History of Fruit* (was sent to me)
  • 8/22 Taylor, Last West* (fandom)
  • 8/23 Harvey, Hemming the Water (reputation)
  • 8/24 Ben-Oni, 20 Atomic Poems (fandom)
  • 8/25 Ewing, Electric Arches (reputation)
  • 8/26 Mountain, Thin Fire (Shenandoah contributor!)
  • 8/27 Randall, How to Tell if You Are Human (spouse the comics reviewer had it)
  • 8/28 Davis, In the Circus of You (bought at a conference)
  • 8/29 Clark, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (reputation)
  • 8/31 Murillo, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry* (buzz)
  • 9/20 Kuppers, Gut Botany* (fandom)
  • 9/21 Su, Middle Kingdom (research)
  • 9/22 Tolmie, The Art of Dying* (research)
  • 9/24 Phillips Bell, Smaller Songs* (fandom)
  • 9/30 Coleman, Selected Poems* (research)
  • 10/1 Van Duyn, Firefall (research)
  • 10/26 Birdsong, Negotiations* (review assignment)
  • 11/14 Malech, Flourishing* (reputation)
  • 12/1 Erdrich, Little Big Bully* (fandom)
  • 12/12 Gay, Be Holding* (fandom)
  • 12/17 Miranda, Altar for Broken Things* (friend)
  • 12/18 O’Hara, The Ghettobirds (ms for blurbing)
  • 12/19 Igloria, Maps for Migrants and Ghosts* (fandom)
  • 12/25 Beatty, The Body Wars* (fandom)
  • 12/26 Daye, Cardinal* (review assignment)
  • 12/31 Oliver, Devotions* (fandom)

FICTION (32)

  • 1/8 Suma, The Walls Around Us (friend’s recommendation)
  • 1/26 Cho, The True Queen* (fandom)
  • 2/24 El-Mohtar and Gladstone, This Is How You Lose the Time War* (reviews)
  • 3/7 Mantel, Every Day is Mother’s Day (review)
  • 3/29 Erdrich, The Night Watchman* (fandom)
  • 5/9 Mantel, The Mirror and the Light* (fandom)
  • 5/28 Mandel, The Glass Hotel* (fandom)
  • 6/3 King, Let It Bleed* (fandom)
  • 6/10 Ng, Little Fires Everywhere (many reviews and friend recommendations)
  • 6/17 Collins, Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes* (fandom)
  • 6/21 Foley, The Guest List* (review)
  • 6/24 Brooks, Year of Wonders (audiobook, review)
  • 6/28 Hill, On Beulah Height (friend’s recommendation)
  • 7/5 King, Salem’s Lot (review)
  • 7/8 Wehunt, Everything Is Beautiful and Nothing Bad Can Ever Happen Here* (social media)
  • 7/13 Baggott, Seventh Book of Wonders (fandom)
  • 7/18 Jones, The Only Good Indian* (fandom)
  • 7/26 Atakora, Conjure Women* (reviews)
  • 8/8 LaValle, Devil in Silver (fandom)
  • 8/16 Bardugo, The Ninth House* (review)
  • 8/27 Hall, Dread Isle (ARCs, in fandom, and for blurb)
  • 9/18 VanderMeers, ed, Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories (a lot of it, anyway)
  • 9/20 LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom* (fandom)
  • 9/24 Tolmie, The Little Animals* (research)
  • 10/11 Galbraith, Troubled Blood* (fandom)
  • 10/18 Dimaline, Empire of Wild* (review)
  • 11/15 Jones, Night of the Mannequins* (fandom)
  • 11/21 Clark, Ring Shout* (reviews)
  • 12/10 Harrigan, Half* (friend’s recommendation)
  • 12/19 White, As Summer’s Mask Slips* (met at a conference)
  • 12/24 Shawl, New Suns (research for teaching)
  • 12/26 Riley, Such a Fun Age* (many recommendations)

NONFICTION/ HYBRID (8)

  • 1/4 Reynolds, Walt Whitman (teaching prep)
  • 1/12 Macfarlane, Underland* (recommendation from friends)
  • 4/10 Buntin, Sheffield, Dodd, Dear America* (anthology I’m in)
  • 4/12 Finch, ed., Choice Words* (anthology I’m in)
  • 5/17 Selznick, Live Oak With Moss (for class)
  • 7/6 Sheldrake, Entangled Life* (review and fungal curiosity)
  • 8/30 Nezhukumatathil, World of Wonders* (fandom)
  • 9/? Lee and Winslow, eds., Deep Beauty* (anthology I’m in)

*published within the last year or so

Not resolutions but invocations

Last year, I substituted a mantra for a resolution: “breathe.” It helped a little. This New Year’s Eve I wrote up more resolutions, got upset about them, and then decided: to hell with self-improvement. I need fewer bullet points on my endlessly guilty, mildly self-loathing to-do lists. And better ones. In fact, let’s not even call them bullet points. They look like open pupils, too. Pencil points. Poppy seeds.

In considering what words I and others DO need to hear, I’ve been crafting a call for Shenandoah‘s next poetry submission period that will read something like this: “During our March 2020 reading period, please send us prayers, spells, charms, curses, blessings, invocations—poems that try to make change happen. All forms, styles, and procedures are welcome. A selection will appear in a special Shenandoah portfolio in the Spring 2021 issue.”

I know I’m not good about practicing self-care, but I want to keep asking for help this year, sending something like prayers or petitions outward and earthward. (I don’t believe there’s a god up in the sky, although it’s fine with me if you do; I do believe in a living earth that I can listen to and do better by.) I plan to mutter, be kind, pay attention, especially to myself. (And I will remind us to vote for kindness, too, whenever a crooked system gives you the chance. Fires blasting Australia, the U.S. president stirring up war to deflect attention from impeachment–I’m not sure we or the more-than-human-world can take much more of this.)

It may seem paradoxical, given these meditations on care, that I’m beginning 2020 by trying to be in two places at once. As the term starts here in Virginia, I’m handing a pile of syllabi and first-day lessons to my professor-spouse (I swear he’s fine with it, and well-rested!), then hopping on a plane to Seattle to attend the MLA convention. After thinking deeply about whether saying yes was another instance of crazed dutifulness, I decided that, actually, I want to go, as long as I can conference kindly.

The first thing I’m going to do when I arrive is hang out, for the pleasure of it, with a long-distance friend I hardly ever see, Jeannine Hall Gailey. Over the next few days, I’ll attend a few panels, and I’m speaking on a fun one, too (and trying not to stress about it). I joined Janine Utell’s MLA roundtable, “The Space Between Creative Nonfiction and Literary Criticism,” because I thought it would enrich my thinking as well as making my own work more visible, especially the creative criticism in my 2021 book Poetry’s Possible Worlds; this is the kind of conversation I want to have more of, genuinely. On Friday night, I’m part of an all-star lineup at the MLA Offsite Reading (2 minutes each and I’m quite sure most stars will peel off by the time we get to my part of the alphabet, which is fine with me–see the poster below). And on Saturday night, I join Jeannine Hall Gailey to read speculative poetry at Open Books. In between I’m planning to sleep, avoid my email, take a walk or two, and do minimal homework, as well as being super-nice to the anxious job-seekers in the MLA elevators.

Attending is also a way of being kinder to myself as a writer, rather than being maniacally diligent as a teacher (what do you mean, miss a class?!–we will NEVER GET THAT HOUR BACK!). I’d like to do better at fulfilling my responsibilities to what I’ve written, as Jeannine says in PR for Poets, which I’ve been rereading. In addition to the aforementioned 2021 essay collection, I have a fifth poetry collection, The State She’s In, and a first novel, Unbecoming, to launch this spring (look, I made pages!). I believe in them and I want them to find readers. No more prioritizing a tidy email inbox over inquiring about a reading series or submitting to a post-publication prize! I need to do less busy-work, somehow, in 2020, but also keep priorities straight. I will achieve this imperfectly, if at all. But it’s not about checking off a list, right? It’s about keeping those pupils wide. Wish all of us luck. And write some powerful spell-poems, please, no matter where you plan to release their magic.

Credit to a local poet-friend, Julie Phillips Brown, for making a shareable poster!

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

 

More on Diversity in Creative Writing Programs (updated 11/3/16)

Last March, I published this list of resources addressing how to make Creative Writing programs more inclusive at the programming and curricular level. Since then, good things have happened. David Haynes has formed an AWP Committee on Inclusion for which I’m serving as librarian, until a list of resources can be posted on the AWP web site itself. Here’s a revision including updates from David. Please comment or contact me if you have further suggestions–I’d love to see it grow. As I wrote at the close of my March blog, this list emphasizes race and ethnicity–subjects on which hard work remains to be done–but we also have to keep talking about sexuality and gender, disability, and the economics of higher education. Students face many invisible impediments while seeking degrees, and too many talented people never get a chance to learn and thrive.

  • Online essays about race, culture, diversity, and the creative writing MFA:

“Why I’m Done Talking About Diversity” by Marlon James, Literary Hub, October 2016

In Our Way: Racism in Creative Writing” by Claudia Rankine, Writer’s Chronicle, October 2016

Ferguson, Whiteness as Default, & the Teaching of Creative Writing” by David Mura, Writer’s Chronicle, October 2016

“Addressing Structural Racism in Creative Writing Programs” by Kazim Ali, Writer’s Chronicle online, October 2016

“Towards a New Creative Writing Pedagogy” by Fred D’Aguiar, Writer’s Chronicle, October 2016

“Challenging the Whiteness of MFA Programs: A Year of Confrontations at UW” by Kristine Sloan, The MFA Years, April 2016

“Degrees of Diversity: Talking Race and Diversity” by Sonya Larson, Poets & Writers, September/ October 2015

“Dr. Craig’s 11-Step Program to Curing ‘Mainly White MFA’ Sickness” by Craig Santos Perez, October 2015

“They Pretend to Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist” by Jenny Zhang, Buzzfeed Books, September 2015

“Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK” by Sandeep Parmar, Los Angeles Review of Books, December 2015, https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/not-a-british-subject-race-and-poetry-in-the-uk/

“If We Want Diverse Books, We Need Diverse MFA Programs” by Hope Wabuke, The Root, September 2014

“MFA vs POC” by Junot Díaz, New Yorker, April 2014

“It felt like a door had opened: An Interview with Cornelius Eady” by Joshua Barnes,Sampsonia Way, June 2011

“Growing Diversity in Graduate School” by Rochelle Spencer, Poets & Writers Nov/Dec 2007, p.77-82.

Also see an excellent list of additional pieces collected by Erika Meitner and Sarah Gambito: https://muut.com/raceandmfa/. David Fenza’s PowerPoint on race in education will also be of interest: educational-attainment-2015.

  • On craft and inclusion

“‘PURE CRAFT” IS A LIE’ by Matt Salesses: http://www.pleiadesmag.com/pure-craft-is-a-lie-part-1/  and http://www.pleiadesmag.com/pure-craft-is-a-lie-part-3/

Can Black Art Ever Escape the Politics of Race? http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/20/magazine/can-black-art-ever-escape-the-politics-of-race.html

“Why write a novel about a race that’s not your own? The case of ‘Ginny Gall’” https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/why-write-a-novel-about-a-race-thats-not-your-own-the-case-of-ginny-gall/2016/02/02/ce329aa8-c51e-11e5-8965-0607e0e265ce_story.html

  • Reading race

“White bro reading: Yes, I’m reading men and women equally — but they’re still mostly white”: http://www.salon.com/2016/01/10/white_bro_reading_yes_im_reading_men_and_women_equally_but_theyre_still_mostly_white/

Fighting “Erasure” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/07/magazine/the-painful-consequences-of-erasure.html

GrubStreet’s “What An Author Looks Like: On Race & Writing” Series, featuring Brando Skyhorse, Aminatta Forna, Mia Alvar, Celeste Ng, and many others: https://grubstreet.org/blog/column/what-an-author-looks-like

Toni Morrison. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.

  • On teaching and inclusion

GrubStreet podcast: What Makes a Good Workshop Citizen: https://grubstreet.org/blog/column/sound-skeins

Report from the Field: Gone from My Heart: Violence and Anger in the Poetry Workshop: http://www.vidaweb.org/report-from-the-field-gone-from-my-heart-violence-and-anger-in-the-poetry-workshop/

We Need A Decolonized, Not A “Diverse”, Education: http://harlot.media/articles/1058/we-need-a-decolonized-not-a-diverse-education

Matt Salesses, “WHO’S AT THE CENTER OF WORKSHOP AND WHO SHOULD BE?” http://www.pleiadesmag.com/whos-at-the-center-of-workshop-and-who-should-be-part-4/

Writing Culture Has An Ableism Problem: http://www.ravishly.com/2016/06/14/writing-culture-has-ableism-problem

  • On literary climate

Marlon James: Why I’m Done Talking About Diversity: http://lithub.com/marlon-james-why-im-done-talking-about-diversity/

Claudia Rankine: Why I’m spending $625,000 to study whiteness: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/19/claudia-rankine-macarthur-genius-grant-exploring-whiteness?CMP=share_btn_fb

GrubStreet’s “Writing & Publishing As a Person of Color” Series, featuring prominent authors, agents, and editors of color: https://grubstreet.org/blog/column/writing-publishing-as-a-person-of-color

GrubStreet’s “Writers React” Series: https://grubstreet.org/blog/column/writers-react

Video: GrubStreet’s Writers of Color Roundtable 2016: https://vimeo.com/174363941

Write-up of GrubStreet’s Writers of Color Roundtable 2016 in LitHub: http://lithub.com/at-the-grub-street-writers-of-color-roundtable/

  • On publishing

“You Will Be Tokenized”: Speaking Out about the State of Diversity in Publishing | Brooklyn Magazine: http://www.bkmag.com/2016/02/24/you-will-be-tokenized-speaking-out-about-the-state-of-diversity-in-publishing/

How Chris Jackson Is Building a Black Literary Movement http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/07/magazine/how-chris-jackson-is-building-a-black-literary-movement.html?_r=0

“We’ve Been Out Here Working”: Diversity in Publishing, a Partial Reading List | Brooklyn Magazine: http://www.bkmag.com/2016/02/24/weve-been-out-here-working-diversity-in-publishing-a-partial-reading-list/

“Bare Lit Festival, for Minority Writers, to Make Debut in London”: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/02/24/bare-lit-festival-for-minority-writers-to-make-debut-in-london/?smid=fb-share

The PW Publishing Industry Salary Survey, 2016 http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/71506-the-pw-publishing-industry-salary-survey-2016.html

Why Publishing Is So White http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/69653-why-publishing-is-so-white.html?utm_source=Publishers+Weekly&utm_campaign=1473a2bb65-UA-15906914-1&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0bb2959cbb-1473a2bb65-304652261

Where Is the Diversity in Publishing? The 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey Results http://blog.leeandlow.com/2016/01/26/where-is-the-diversity-in-publishing-the-2015-diversity-baseline-survey-results/

  • On Lionel Shriver’s speech

Lionel Shriver’s full speech: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/lionel-shrivers-full-speech-i-hope-the-concept-of-cultural-appropriation-is-a-passing-fad

Festival keynote attendee Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s response here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/10/as-lionel-shriver-made-light-of-identity-i-had-no-choice-but-to-walk-out-on-her

Festival organizer Rod Nordland’s New York Times coverage  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/books/lionel-shriver-cultural-appropriation-brisbane-writers-festival.html?module=WatchingPortal®ion=c-column-middle-span-region&pgType=Homepage&action=click&mediaId=thumb_square&state=standard&contentPlacement=3&version=internal&contentCollection=www.nytimes.com&contentId=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2F2016%2F09%2F13%2Fbooks%2Flionel-shriver-cultural-appropriation-brisbane-writers-festival.html&eventName=Watching-article-click&_r=1

Lionel Shriver’s response to the backlash: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/23/opinion/will-the-left-survive-the-millennials.html?comments#permid=19896530

Sonya Larson’s NYT chosen response to Shriver’s op-ed: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/23/opinion/will-the-left-survive-the-millennials.html?comments#permid=19896530

Kaitlyn Greenidge’s breaks down “Who Gets to Write What”: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/25/opinion/sunday/who-gets-to-write-what.html

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s LA Times piece, “Cultural appropriation: It’s about more than pho and sombreros,” here: http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-appropriation-culture-20160926-snap-story.html

What Are White Writers For? https://newrepublic.com/article/137338/white-writers-for

  •  Other resources on building and nurturing creative writing programs (advocating for multiculturalism but not exploring the issues at length):

AWP Guidelines and Hallmarks: https://www.awpwriter.org/guide/hallmarks_quality

“Policies and Practicalities: Examining the Creative Writing Doctorate” by Kroll, Jeri and Webb, Jen. New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing9.2(2012 July): 166-178.

  • On diversity in higher education (with some relevance to academic creative writing):

Tiffany Martínez, “Academia, Love Me Back”

Lisa M. Stulberg and Sharon Lawner Weinberg, eds. Diversity in American higher education: toward a more comprehensive approach. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Darrell Cleveland, ed. When “minorities are strongly encouraged to apply”: diversity and affirmative action in higher education. New York: Peter Lang, 2009.

TuSmith, Bonnie and Reddy, Maureen T., eds. Race in the College Classroom: Pedagogy and Politics. New Brunswick, NJ,  Rutgers UP,  2002.

  • History/ background of creative writing as a discipline:

Paul Dawson, Creative Writing and the New Humanities, New York: Routledge, 2005.

Tim Mayers, (Re)Writing craft : composition, creative writing, and the future of English studies. U of Pittsburgh P, 2005.

D. G. Myers. The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996.

 

Diversity in Creative Writing Programs (AWP Prep, Pt. 1, Updated)

A Creative Writing Program Head in the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S.–of which I am now Council Chair–recently asked me if the AWP could provide a list of published resources on supporting diversity at the programming/ curricular level. It seems to me we need both a set of sources (research, testimonies, provocations) and a list of best practices. Here’s what an afternoon’s search turned up, as an interim measure, although I will keep working towards richer resources posted in more official places. And I’ll keep revising this post until those exist, so let me know what I’ve missed. (Updates on the original post are marked with an asterisk.*)

  • Online essays about race, culture, diversity, and the creative writing MFA:

“Degrees of Diversity: Talking Race and Diversity” by Sonya Larson, Poets & Writers, September/ October 2015 http://www.pw.org/content/degrees_of_diversity?cmnt_all=1

“Dr. Craig’s 11-Step Program to Curing ‘Mainly White MFA’ Sickness” by Craig Santos Perez, October 2015 https://craigsantosperez.wordpress.com/2015/10/02/dr-craigs-11-step-program-to-curing-mainly-white-mfa-sickness/

*”They Pretend to Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist” by Jenny Zhang, Buzzfeed Books, September 2015 http://www.buzzfeed.com/jennybagel/they-pretend-to-be-us-while-pretending-we-dont-exist#.ubvY8pXW9M

“Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK” by Sandeep Parmar, Los Angeles Review of Books, December 2015, https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/not-a-british-subject-race-and-poetry-in-the-uk/

“If We Want Diverse Books, We Need Diverse MFA Programs” by Hope Wabuke, The Root, September 2014 http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2014/09/why_we_need_diverse_mfa_programs.html

“MFA vs POC” by Junot Díaz, New Yorker, April 2014 http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/mfa-vs-poc

“It felt like a door had opened: An Interview with Cornelius Eady” by Joshua Barnes, Sampsonia Way, June 2011 http://www.sampsoniaway.org/literary-voices/2011/06/22/it-felt-like-a-door-had-opened-an-interview-with-cornelius-eady-2/

“Growing Diversity in Graduate School” by Rochelle Spencer, Poets & Writers Nov/Dec 2007, p.77-82. http://0-literature.proquest.com.fama.us.es/searchFulltext.do?id=R04237370&divLevel=0&area=abell&forward=critref_ft

*A terrific list of additional pieces collected by Erika Meitner and Sarah Gambito is herehttps://muut.com/raceandmfa/.

  •  Other resources on building and nurturing creative writing programs (advocating for multiculturalism but not exploring the issues at length):

AWP Guidelines and Hallmarks: https://www.awpwriter.org/guide/hallmarks_quality

“Policies and Practicalities: Examining the Creative Writing Doctorate” by Kroll, Jeri and Webb, Jen. New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing9.2(2012 July): 166-178.

  • On diversity in higher education (with some relevance to academic creative writing):

TuSmith, Bonnie and Reddy, Maureen T., eds. Race in the College Classroom: Pedagogy and Politics. New Brunswick, NJ,  Rutgers UP,  2002.

Lisa M. Stulberg and Sharon Lawner Weinberg, eds. Diversity in American higher education: toward a more comprehensive approach. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Darrell Cleveland, ed. When “minorities are strongly encouraged to apply”: diversity and affirmative action in higher education. New York: Peter Lang, 2009.

  • History/ background of creative writing as a discipline:

D. G. Myers. The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996.

Paul Dawson, Creative Writing and the New Humanities, New York: Routledge, 2005.

Tim Mayers, (Re)Writing craft : composition, creative writing, and the future of English studies. U of Pittsburgh P, 2005.

This inadequate list emphasizes race and ethnicity, but there’s hard thinking to be done, too, about sexuality and gender, disability, and the economics of higher education–what sometimes-invisible impediments people face in the quest for degrees, and who never gets a chance in the first place.

 

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.

Professor Aragorn swears a vow

Manifestos are for angry young men, right? I’m more like “cranky” and “middle-aged,” and as far gender stereotyping goes, I actually had a student write on a course evaluation once, “Just as kind as you’d expect from a mother.” Whippersnapper, if you’re out there, be glad that was anonymous. I am weary of hearing that niceness is my salient attribute. Especially when I just spent three months expertly guiding your complaining tenderfoot fellowship through the Nazgul-haunted waste land of modernist poetry.

The title of my piece in the summer 2013 issue of The Gettysburg Review, “Coffee with Poets in New Zealand,” suggests not a fiery declaration of creed but a series of low-stakes, highly civilized quenchings. I lived in Wellington from late January 2011 to the beginning of July as a Fulbright senior scholar researching poetry networks, in particular the rhizome-fibers fanning out from the International Institute of  Modern Letters at Victoria University. I spent the first few months talking to people, going to readings, trying to see the lines of force. By late April I hunkered down to write an article that I thought would become a book chapter.  I aimed for an audience of academics who are thoughtful about creative writing as a discipline. Turns out that’s a mythical tribe. At least, there are very few venues for such work, and do they want to hear my skepticism about the idea of “community” in the MFA enterprise, balanced by a case study of an antipodean program that’s actually pretty successful, better in some ways than many of its US antecedents? No, Lesley, as perhaps you ought to have predicted, they do not.

By late May I had finished a draft of that scholarly article, which, sigh, is still wandering the wilderness. One cold rainy day I played hooky to visit Katherine Mansfield’s dismal childhood home. Afterwards, over lunch in a Thornfield café, my spouse and I talked about the weirdness of the trip so far. Setting up house in a foreign country, sending your small-town kids to school in an unfamiliar city, is bound to be difficult; you know your life is being reshaped and it’s hard to play scholar in the middle of it. Further, a few weeks after we’d arrived, a Christchurch earthquake had resulted in terrible destruction and loss of life. My husband’s beloved aunt Mary had suddenly died. And my parents, whose marriage, when I left, seemed solid as rock and just as affectionate, were divorcing. Radio silence from my eight-five year old father, now living with a forty-five year old woman.  When random Aotearoans asked me what I was up to, I would joke “having coffee with poets”: how else could I possibly sum it up?

“That’s what you should write,” my husband said, when I commented on how hard it was to assume an authoritative, scholarly voice as if none of this other material was boiling around me—how dissatisfied I felt by academic writing, under the circumstances. “An essay about having coffee with poets.” I took off Strider’s costume that afternoon and tried to assume my birthright, composing prose in which I was a whole person. I had lots of paring and reshaping to do later, but I put down the bones in a week or two. By the end of the finished essay, I declare my intention to transmit argument without filtering out all the personal noise that makes me want to make arguments. That is, to brew up criticism that also delivers the pleasures of story—more meaningful to write, possibly even of interest beyond academia.

Declaring that ambition feels arrogant to me, outrageous, not entirely nice. Further, the two years since have been crazy. The kids hit adolescence; our jobs changed in big ways; the house flooded; my father remarried, got sicker, and died. Basically I’ve been trying to survive my life and think about new goals while not laying down the old ones. I’ve written tons of poetry and prose and managed to get some of it revised and into the world but I’ve also been trying to do too much. My spouse’s latest pronouncement: I need to fire the tiny little booking agent who inhabits the cave of my head. She knows exactly how much I can do and she schedules me right up to the limits of my energy and sanity. “I hate her,” he said. Okay, I answered, overruling the homunculus. No modernism conference.

What I’m trying to do now, as the writing summer opens up, is prioritize. I’ve got a lot of projects steeping. The ones I’ve already committed heavily to: it’s time to dust them with cinnamon and serve them to some kind of public or just dump them if they’re too stale, but no more fooling around behind the espresso machine. And the new book, Poetry’s Possible Worlds will NOT be the straight-ahead scholarship I was trained in, but the mixed-up stuff I feel driven to write, the stuff that feels interesting to me and I hope will be interesting to others, too. Goals:

  1. Write what I want to write—poetry and prose that anyone who likes to read would enjoy—but commit to it. Stop trying to walk every path at once.
  2. Work long and hard. Get better.
  3. Unite the kingdom.

My daughter the spy and other angles on poetry classes

I’m usually more giddy than blue at the end of a term. I like my students, even the slackers and con artists, and I love talking about poetry for a living, but I also like addressing a new set of problems with a new group every time the season turns. And you just need a break occasionally from the practice of intense alertness that discussion-based teaching requires, even if “rest” constitutes a stack of papers and facing some looming research deadline. But as this winter term closes, students keep moving me through office-hours confessions, poetry conversion testimonies, and spasms of insight and art. Over my shoulder, a three-course term that had seemed only moderately successful suddenly looks blossomy.

Introduction to Poetry can be difficult to teach—the students have wildly different academic backgrounds, aptitudes, attitudes, goals. While my section is full of amazing people, I make some strategic mistakes in assignments and the magic chemistry thing never quite happens. Yet when some students choose to write a portfolio of poems in traditional forms instead of a third essay, the results floor me.

  • A shy first-year interviews her brother with Asperger’s syndrome and turns his answers into a gorgeous pantoum.
  • Another first-year writes a series of pieces about a nude self-portrait she’d been required to do for studio art. During the required class reading, she projects the portrait on the document camera. How brave is that?
  • Another first-year, an enthusiastic, self-assured spoken word poet when he walked in the door, kills the group with an incantatory piece about what drives him to write.
  • A woman who never says hello, please, thank you, or goodbye—basically, I’ve never had a clue what she thought about anything—submits a strong piece about how much safer she feels in the language of numbers. She tells me she was inspired to write it by the aforementioned spoken word guy. I hear versions of this story a couple of times, about one student excited by another student’s poetry and trying to channel its power.
  • One late afternoon, a sweet and very smart young man comes in with a suite of love poems about his relationship with another guy. At another college, maybe business as usual for a creative writing teacher? Not here. Seniors do come in annually to tell me they’re gay, trying to come out, struggling with it. I have mixed feelings, honored to be in his or her confidence but sad it’s always so hard. Having that conversation, though, with a sophomore who’s calmly out, wildly in love, and mostly just worried about the poems—that’s pretty beautiful.

Introductory Poetry Workshop: I have to find a totally new way to prep this course to differentiate it from the Poetic Forms course I’ll be doing in our four-week May term, and again, I make some syllabus miscalculations and things don’t go as brilliantly as I’d hoped. And then they keep coming in, saying thank you, telling me how sorry they are the course is over. They show me the drafts they’re working on and suddenly the work looks a lot better.

My upper-level seminar on poetry and place is one of those rare classes you love unreservedly from beginning to end. I’m actually glad to see them three times a week instead of two (not my preferred schedule, ever). The students are wacky in a variety of ways, offering me their weird nicknames, Springsteen fetishes, and sundry odd takes on various assignments, like an electronica composition instead of a response paper. Some of their presentations and class comments are uproariously funny, and always smart and interesting; I’m working through ideas along with them and learning a great deal from their essays, questions, and frequent skepticism. Occasionally they snow me—pulling the conversation along strange tangents to distract me from discovering they haven’t done the reading—but I don’t even mind.

The last session’s on Good Friday and one of them takes charge, arranges for the seminar to meet in the basement room of Blue Sky Bakery. My 9th grader is off school so she sits in the corner with a pastry and a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. I see her scowl a couple of times and ask her later what that was about. “That dark-haired girl was texting the whole time and I wanted to slap her. Don’t you know what’s going on when someone has a sweater on her lap or her purse set down in front of her?” Uh, now I do. “And they all kept staring at me.” “No one was staring at you!” “Yes, they were. That one guy came over for a napkin and he just, liked, glared right at me. The hot guy, not the short hot guy, the one who’s tall-nerdy-hot.” So many ways not to answer that remark.

Maybe I’ll finish grading, read the course evaluations, find they’re snarky after all, and march into May term unsentimentally, a ruthless gleam in my eye. This soft-focus lens is nice for the moment, though. And I’m really excited about some of the experiments I’m planning to inflict on these spring term students.