Winterred

A friend told me to break a leg yesterday and I had to laugh–I’m literally home with a sprained ankle, unable to put weight on my left foot. I apparently did something bad during a beautiful Saturday hike on a bit of the Appalachian Trail, where water rushed by sedimentary rocks flipped almost vertical by some long-ago seismic catastrophe. Weekly walks on unfamiliar paths have been sanity-saving since March, but I guess I’m grounded now, or “winterred,” as Dave Bonta and Luisa Igloria put it in their wonderfully playful new year’s poetry video “NEOLOG” (poetry prompt #1: write a poem using one of their neologisms as a title, crediting their brilliance, of course).

My friend made this too-timely comment because I was on the verge of two literary events. I gave a reading yesterday in the Poetrio series at Malaprops Bookstore, run generously and flawlessly by poet Mildred Barya and Malaprops Director of Author Events, Stephanie Jones-Byrne. I forgot to take a screenshot or watch the clock because my co-readers Kathy Goodkin and Eric Tran were so amazing, but the recording is here, and you have the option of supporting a great indie bookstore by ordering any of the books (or others) here. (Speaking about clocks, I should say we each kept to our time of 12 minutes-ish, which is basically a holy miracle of restraint where poets are concerned.) Mildred introduces writers not by listing their accomplishments but by reflecting on their poems, setting a mood that was both thoughtful and celebratory. In this case, she noted how many ghosts populate all of our new books. Kathy spoke to that in a wonderful way by reading a poem about the period costumes ghosts are described as wearing, speculating that in twenty years we might be haunted by ghosts in tee-shirts and skinny jeans. Eric began by talking about building an altar to ancestors, noting that everyone wants to escape the ghosts of 2020 but maybe, instead, we could consider how to honor them. It’s a moving idea.

I was also impressed by the emotional range of Kathy’s and Eric’s poems–grief, hilarity, anger, love–and how they talked about that in the Q&A. Eric’s advice for infusing a serious poem with humor is to take your first draft and make it gayer. Add glitter. That can be prompt #2. Prompt #3 is something I try sometimes: after you put down a sentence or two of a potential poem, walk (or limp) away for a while. Each time you come back, put down another sentence or two. Try to do it renga-style, so you’re picking up an element but also moving into a different mood or scene. One of the signal qualities of a strong poem is surprise, and writing slowly can be a way of surprising yourself with unplanned associative leaps.

Today I hope to rest some, submit a story I’ve been working on, and maybe get an x-ray, sigh. I’ll also be prepping for my SECOND reading of 2021, hosted by Cafe Muse tonight. The order of events, in case you can drop in: it begins at 7 pm Eastern with live music, classical guitar I think, to finish your dinner by. At 7:30 Don Colburn reads for 18-20 minutes; then I read; then, if there’s time and interest, we’ll do a brief Q&A. You can register here. I’ll read different poems from The State She’s In (mostly) plus a couple of new ones I haven’t yet aired. It should be fun. Being a clumsy person, I’m also really glad I’m not ascending to a podium on crutches.

December cadralor

I found a new poetic form this week through Dave Bonta’s always excellent Poetry Blog Digest: the cadralor. JJS quotes a definition in the post “The good, the bad, and the ugly”: “The cadralor is a poem of 5 unrelated, numbered stanzaic images, each of which can stand alone as a poem, is fewer than 10 lines, and ideally constrains all stanzas to the same number of lines. Imagery is crucial to cadralore: each stanza should be a whole, imagist poem, almost like a scene from a film or a photograph. The fifth stanza acts as the crucible, alchemically pulling the unrelated stanzas together…and answer[ing] the compelling question: ‘For what do you yearn?’” I drafted a cadralor for the last entry in my November poem-a-day-effort. (I’m not sure anyone in my group managed consistent daily pieces, but drafting and revising any poetry at all felt like a success!) It also occurred to me that the cadralor resembles a multi-section blog post, so here’s a stab at it.

  1. It’s gusty and cold; my son, home from college, is doing virtual math classes in plaid pajamas at the dining room table; and I suspect I’m not going anywhere for a long time now, beyond sepia-toned trails through the woods. Reading time. I just finished the new poetry collection by Heid E. Erdrich, Little Big Bully–she’s “visiting” virtually this winter as a writer in residence and a group of faculty are having a book-club-style discussion of her book, which won last year’s National Poetry Series. It’s a powerful study of colonialism, sexual assault, racism, contemporary U.S. politics, and how to live against and through it with love for people and the land. Heid is an Ojibwe poet enrolled at Turtle Mountain and she lives in Minnesota, so it’s a wintry book. Strongly recommended.
  2. The apparition of poets’ faces on a Zoom/ petals in a wet dark month: in a weird parallel to Heid’s visit, I’m going to be the virtual Pearl S. Buck Poet in Residence at Randolph College this February! (When I proposed our writer in residence series, I actually modeled it partly on what Randolph was already doing. Here’s something on what Fran Wilde did last semester–she sounds wonderful.) This means a reading, class visits, and teaching a 1-credit master class in four sessions to a small group of advanced undergrads. Apparently some of these poets are also into sf, so I’m developing a syllabus called “Haunted and Weird.” I was offered the honor out of the blue last month, a saving spar in the usual late-fall surge of rejections.
  3. I also recorded a reading for the “Hot L” series in Baltimore recently. Paired with one by Anna Maria Hong, it will air soon. I am reading live (virtually) on Monday, January 4th in the Cafe Muse series, too. Details forthcoming. These are lucky acceptances and I feel like I get the medium now–how to be engaging, project warmth, from a little box on a screen–but it remains, to me, a strange way to connect with audiences. I am rooting for vaccination in time for spring’s pastel emergences.
  4. Meanwhile, I want to hibernate like a bear, which for this poet means writing, reading, and occasionally baking and decking the halls–not talking to anyone, not continuing to promote this year’s books, definitely not planning for the next book, consuming news only in nibbles. I had been hoping for a burst of energy after the stresses of November, but no. Slow metabolism. Plodding work.
  5. In one lovely way, though, my December introversion and my dreams of eventual blossom are about to come together. The new issue of Shenandoah will be live in a week and a half, and Beth Staples and her crew have arranged a launch party this Thursday 12/3 at 7 pm eastern. I hope you’ll join us at https://wlu.zoom.us/j/97991372692 for a bunch of brief readings, songs chosen by writers, and more. The poets will be Samyak Shertok, Hannah Dow, Ashley Jones, and Isabel Acevedo, all of whom have beautiful pieces in the forthcoming issue, which I’m excited to share soon. The interns recommend the following recipe for sipping during the party, and I’ll tell you how I do cider after that. Cheers!

Bog Fog Recipe

1 cup apple cider, 1 cup cranberry juice, 1 cinnamon stick, ¼ cup of cloves, bundled in a coffee filter tied with cooking string (or loose, and filtered when poured)

Simmer concoction in pot on stovetop until the whole kitchen smells like cozying up on a cold winter day. Pour into favorite mug. If holiday cheer is desired, stir in a shot of rum or other favorite booze.

Mulling a la poetesse

Who needs measurement, much less cranberry juice? I warm a pot full of good farmer’s market cider slowly, adding the following in a tea ball: a bunch of cloves, a cinnamon stick broken in half (smashing things is satisfying), and a chunk of fresh ginger. I used to stick the cloves in an orange but that, frankly, is a pain in the butt. A tot of dark rum is strongly recommended. It’s going to be a long winter.

Blue/ jazzed

The other day we got up early and drove to western Augusta County because the hikes there are much quieter than along the Blue Ridge Parkway, where foliage is peaking and so are the visitors. On autumn mornings here, especially if the day is going to be sunny, mist hugs the ground, gathering most densely over water and other warm places, wreathing the mountains. As the car wound along the empty highway, past farms and Trump signs and gun shops and churches, we alternately dipped into foggy hollows and rose up into sunshine where dew spangled the trees and the last wisps of steam curled up from roofs and embankments. The drive was an obvious metaphor for this October. I have moments of shiny hope but I keep crashing into feeling bad in the most sweeping ways, fearing the election and many more months of isolation, losing faith in everything I’ve written, unable to concentrate on the work I should be doing now. I’m pretty sure everyone feels the same–unless you’re stuck entirely in the lowlands. Here’s hoping the view gets clearer soon.

I can’t write poems but I need to work on prose anyway, particularly honing Poetry’s Possible Worlds, a book of hybrid essays due sometime in 2021. It blends criticism and memoir in a discussion of literary transportation–meaning immersive reading or getting lost in a book–in relation to short twenty-first century poems. I was going like gangbusters last week, but I’m dragging myself through the work very slowly this week. That’s okay, I keep telling myself. The two weeks before the US presidential election were always going to suck. Even when the world isn’t in dangerous meltdown, writing is full of hills and valleys.

I traded messages with a friend last week about the discouragement we often feel about finding readerships. It’s damn hard work and doesn’t get you very far; luck and connections probably matter more. Yet it’s helpful to have camaraderie in frustration. I always read Dave Bonta’s weekly Blog Digest, and this week that struggle was a major theme, especially in Kristy Bowen’s amazing post about self-publishing. It’s awful but cheerful, as Elizabeth Bishop said, or at least cheering to remember that this is just the way writing goes. You’d better be doing the work for it’s own sake or as a gift to others, not expecting anything in return, not even attention–yet the gifts will come back to you sometimes in surprising ways.

Gifts of late: a wonderful, thoughtful review of Unbecoming in Strange Horizons and a poem called “Dragon Questionnaire” in the same magazine; participating in a warm and intimate reading series organized by Johns Hopkins professor Lucy Bucknell; word of forthcoming reviews of The State She’s In; and a local author talk on Unbecoming scheduled and promoted by W&L’s amazing library staff. The latter is Tuesday October 27th, 7 pm EST, and open to the public–just register here: https://go.wlu.edu/unbecoming. I’ll talk about the book’s origin, read a couple of spooky excerpts, take questions, and give a couple of writing prompts.

Late breaking, too: I just got tapped to read from Unbecoming at the World Fantasy Convention, virtual this year. I’ll be part of the Weird Fiction Cluster on Friday October 30th from 10:30-12:30 pm ET, 8:30 Mountain Time (it should have been in Utah this year). The timing: oy. I’m no night owl, but I’ll manage somehow. The opportunity: hallelujah! The readings will be recorded for registered participants to view for weeks afterwards, which makes potential audience reach pretty good. See? I should be pleased to have attained this little hill.

In local politics, there’s good news, too. No word yet on whether W&L is changing its name, but The Washington Post just called our next-door neighbor, Virginia Military Institute, to the carpet for failing to deal with its deeply racist campus climate, and the governor is launching an investigative probe. In a small town like this one you inevitably have friends who work there, and I’m more optimistic for them and the cadets than I’ve felt for a long while. All the little justice struggles do add up, even if it takes forever, with lots of ups and downs along the way.

Errant in the Bewilderness

If I told you I’m just screwing around this week, I’d be exaggerating. This is exam week after our twelve-week winter term, so there’s lots of grading, as well as chores involving grants, event programming, etc. Liberation from the rigors of my former schedule, though–during which I was trying to do much of the same work while also prepping and teaching–is making me feel giddy. It helps that my antibiotics have kicked in, because I came home from a tiring AWP with strep throat. Bonus: it’s really spring!

Each day I’m carving out a little time–maybe just fifteen minutes–to draft something, a poem or the seed of one. This morning I responded to a request from someone who wants poems about Mina Loy. I ended up rereading most of The Lost Lunar Baedeker, which is really teaching-prep, too, because I’ll teach Modern U.S. Poetry in the fall and book orders are just around the corner. I hadn’t spent serious hours with this collection in years and was newly struck by all the beautiful poems about aging. When I was 49, I thought I’d write a suite of poems about my poetic idols when THEY were 49. I ended up writing one sonnet about Edna St. Vincent Millay then quit, because it was so damn depressing. 49 is apparently not the happiest age for women poets. Now, past the hinge of 50, finding Loy’s intelligent take on what she calls the “excessive incognito” of “An Aged Woman” is such a gift. Plus Loy’s coinage “Bewilderness,” which appears in a poem about widowhood called “Letters of the Unliving,” is my new favorite word. I have the most fun when wandering a vague landscape you could call by that name–sort of working, sort of playing around.

One side effect of this work-play is reflection on how I’m spending time. I was just catching up with Dave Bonta’s Poetry Blog Digest and found this great post by Erica Goss about just that–a procedure for carrying the intensities of a major literary conference into a quieter, post-conference writing zone. I think it would mitigate the post-AWP blues I always feel, whether or not I get sick.

Of course, one of the things I’m reflecting about is the very teaching year I’m finishing up (I teach our four-week May term every other year–but not this one!). I honestly don’t know what my creative writing students thought of the first blended-genre workshop I’d taught in years. Many of them did outstanding work, but the vibe in the room was hard to read. My general education course in Protest Poetry, however, was warmly enthusiastic, although plenty of the conversations we had along the way about politics, privilege, and anger itself were very tricky. I posted earlier this term about a benefit reading we organized together. Their final project was to choose their own causes and find a way to advance them through poetry, then write reflective essays about the results. I was so proud and delighted by the variety and quality of their efforts! One student took poetry commissions to benefit Project VOICE; another broadcast a feminist radio show of songs and readings; others waged broadside campaigns about body positivity and the collapse of bee populations. Final products included found poems drawn from community participation; a poetry-infused brochure on the indigenous history of this area; and beautiful little chapbooks on climate change; water crisis; the experiences of queer students at W&L; and addiction and recovery, all distributed to the people who would most appreciate them.

I was so glad I experimented with this assignment, even though, at moments, I was alarmed by my own ambitions. It’s easier for me to play around in my teaching than it is for many others: I’m tenured, my college has great resources, and I teach small classes full of talent. But the Bewilderness, that zone of not knowing what you’re doing and being willing to risk mistakes–it’s where the good stuff happens. I need this breather from the classroom for a while and will make earnest use of it. One of the ways I’ll do so will be dreaming about fall’s wild experiments.

Breathe (a brief post on posting)

The painting above is “Breath” by Lee Krasner, which I found in the New Orleans Museum of Art last week, on a breather from work (the new term starts tomorrow). I don’t know much about Krasner, but the exhibit caption says this painting’s “rhythmic marks…call forth the rise and fall of breathing, as well as the more meditative act of taking a deep breath. Krasner’s paintings were often more subtle and introspective than her husband Jackson Pollock’s frenzied ‘action painting’…one reviewer condescendingly claimed, ‘There is a tendency among some of these wives to ‘tidy up’ their husband’s styles.” I was drawn to the canvas for its beauty, but that caption transformed me into an ally. 

Looking at art, I’d been wondering about my lack of interest, this year, in making new year’s resolutions. Do I really need another list? I’d also just read this article about resolutions and was considering a couple of points the reporter made. For instance: “Imagine it’s the next New Year’s Eve. What change are you going to be most grateful you made?” Hmm–living a more peaceful life, I guess. Concentrating effort more thoughtfully and taking care of myself so that I can be more open to unpredictable emotions, and to other people. I love January O’Neil’s “Poetry Action Plan”, but I tend to tick so doggedly down checklists, virtue becomes bad habit, in that I get so busy fulfilling promises to myself and others that I don’t take enough meditative, restorative time. Also, one of the experts the journalist interviewed (oh, so many experts out there on self-improvement!–shouldn’t we all be perfect by now?) recommended “reflecting on what changes would make you happiest, then picking a ‘theme’ for your year. That way, even if a particular habit doesn’t stick, your overarching intention will.” As someone who has tried and failed to create a meditation practice about five million times, that resonated.

So, standing in front of “Breath,” I chose my theme for 2019. Breathe.

I don’t know how, yet, that translates into particulars. I know visiting museums fills me with oxygen, but I need to find more air locally, too. For the moment, in addition to cleansing breaths, I’m trying to get ready for the semester without getting anxious about the to-do regimen. Work will be demanding, and both my kids are in their senior years (high school for one, university for the other), so lots of transitions ahead, but one step at a time, right?

BLOG BADGE 2019 Poetry Blogging Network

Here’s the meta-meditation on how poetry blogging fits in. I posted pretty much weekly in 2018, energized by Kelli Russell Agodon’s Poetry Bloggers Revival and sustained by Dave Bonta‘s brilliant weekly digests. That mega-project has been formalized now into the Poetry Bloggers’ Network (fancy badge below). I hope you’ll sign up here and join the party! But I’m also giving myself permission to be more irregular about posting in 2019–I’m nourished by the project of maintaining this space, which focuses on the intersections among poetry and other parts of my life. But I also have other work that feels urgent, and a blog can be a hungry beast that needs constant feeding. (Breathe.)

In the meantime, in the spirit of movement without frenzy, here’s a first stab at blog redesign. I’d put up an image of an ivy-covered wall when you-know-who was elected and felt a strong need to open that up; I’ve also been craving warm colors. So the new header image is some pinked-up Blue Ridge Mountains photographed by my daughter, although I might keep tinkering with how it all looks. I’ve got a poetry book to name, after all, and choose cover art for–a blog design based on those elements, as they come into focus, would make sense. I’m on the lookout for women artists whose work would resonate with my poems, which have a lot to do with the landscape and history of this part of Virginia. Send me a line if something comes to mind, please!

And in the meantime, I hope the new year brings you light and air, whether or not you get to visit the bromeliads.

spanish moss

Pretty books, messy drafts

photo (1)“No,” she said (I’m paraphrasing), “you have to post your daily poem. That’s how you learn to stop worrying about what other people think. It frees you.” Luisa Igloria, who gave a great reading here a few days ago, has published a poem a day at Dave Bonta’s Via Negativa since November 20th, 2010, so she should know. I’m still resisting, although like many other crazy versifiers, I’m drafting a poem a day this April for NaPoWriMo. Part of my resistance to posting them all is just plain ego and ambition: what if I write something brilliant, self-publish it in my blog, and then it’s not eligible for a starring role in some luminous magazine venue? (I do realize I could profitably let that reservation go.) Another part is skepticism that people really want to read my first drafts: I read students’ unpolished lines for a living and while helping people become better writers is an awesome job, I am not hungry to read more drafts in my spare time. I believe in and regularly practice radical revision, brooding over pieces for months or years. Many of my favorite poems convey hard thinking about knotty problems. I know their authors banged their heads against walls for a long time to figure out what’s really at stake in each of those babies. The flipside to that Bishopian sense of caution is that some great poems do pop, Athena-like, out of writers’ heads fully-grown, and you’re much more likely to receive those gifts if you hold yourself accountable to a daily practice.

My last reason for not posting my daily poems is the most artistically urgent, I think. I tried this regimen for the first time last April and the constant drafting did free me, in a way. I was writing so much it removed the pressure on each poem to be serious or even good. I started tackling subjects I’d never dared address before. I wouldn’t have been willing to take those risks on a public stage (if you can call a poetry blog “public”).

But, because Luisa has earned the right to recommend it, I’m going to post a few of my April poems here this year. The one below was occasioned by a gift she brought, and also by my recent reading of Trilogy with the talented students in my seminar on British and Irish poetry.

For another pretty book, this one full of less pretty drafts, see my exhibit in the wonderful Tapa Notebooks archive at the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre coordinated by Michele Leggott and Brian Flaherty. The first of the pages in the digital archive is a brainstorming exercise on terza rima I did with a group of poets in Wellington in June, 2011 (they called it “torture rima”). In the subsequent pages you can see lists of possible rhymes, a recipe for farro risotto, a blog draft, and notes from a wonderful conference on African-American poetry held at UT Austin. While I kept the first half of the journal as a commonplace book, I eventually called on other poets to fill up the back: I asked the writers I met to put down a few lines of poetry by another writer that had been haunting them lately. You can see some of those pages, too: Leslie Marmon Silko from Deborah Miranda, Terrance Hayes from Roger Reeves, Myung Mi Kim from Dawn Lundy Martin, Wallace Stevens from Dean Young, and more. Having excerpts of my writing journal online makes me feel a little naked, but it’s a terrific project and being involved is an honor. Another American whose Tapa Notebook just got archived: Joy Harjo.

She Must Have Been Pleased With Us

the pages, I imagine, are the blank pages
of the unwritten volume of the new
H.D., “Tribute to the Angels”

She gave me a journal as small as a camel
cricket. I don’t have visions like other
poets, just an occasional auditory or
olfactory hallucination, but Maria Luisa’s
gift reminded me of Lowndes Square
in wartime. Bryher thought to raise chickens
there—Belgravia!—but they ate their own eggs.
The Lady with the Book came to Hilda in May
1944. Those interminable blackouts, long
confinements in the flat, began to shorten;
one might keep the window open late,
imagining the scent of apple blossom
from a charred tree. Perdita’s darning needle
limned by the dim glow from a clock-face.
Waiting for the zrr-hiss. I can’t see it.

My book whirs along a fine bronze chain
around my neck. A lady gave it to me
in an egg-shell. I would need a camel-
hair brush, a single fiber, to paint a poem
there. Each syllable a sensillum.
H.D. thought, she was satisfied
with our purpose, and heard campanili
call the names of angels. I hear
the sky creak with cold: no cricket music
yet. I smell candlelight, a long-ago
poet toasting bread over a little blue jet.

April 3, 2013