Dream, river, poetic convergences

My dream-life has been off-the-scale intense, populated by strangers demanding I change my life. The tarot spreads of my daily meditations keep saying so, too–that I’m feeling a call and soon to walk away from something but resisting change so far. I must have carried that energy to Harpers Ferry this weekend, when my spouse and I met our kids for a pseudo-Parents Weekend at a rented house. They all seem much more balanced at life cruxes than I am: my husband unbalanced by midlife transitions; my college-aged son, just turned 21, trying to divine what he wants to do with his life; my 24-year-old daughter recovering from a tough summer and pondering grad school. Me, I’m just a postmenopausal writer struggling to straddle different obligations, a bunch of books behind me and more in development, although in general I’m trying to treat myself more kindly. I’m not exactly sure what the big transformation is although my unconscious keeps insisting it’s coming.

It was the perfect landscape for wondering about it, where the Shenandoah and Potomac converge in sparkling streams. Perhaps because we were VRBOing in a Civil War-era house, different histories seemed to be streaming together, too. Union and Confederate troops battled furiously over this bit of land and water; for a while it was something like an international border. Perhaps that was why I kept hearing ghost-men sobbing and moaning during the night, although there’s also a brutal history of enslavement to consider. The river is now lined by ruined mills among which we walked as the morning fog burned off. I read every bit of signage we passed, learning that this area was also home to an important primarily Black college, Storer. Important abolition movement events happened in Harpers Ferry, and the area became a hub of African American tourism later. We had to end our hike before seeing the remains of John Brown’s Fort–Chris twisted his ankle–but after I brought him back to the rental, I enjoyed tramping around Bolivar Heights by myself. It was a cool trip although I have to say I felt uneasy most of the time (well, except while sipping rose on a restaurant patio, when I felt lucky indeed).

I have lots going on this week–classes in full swing and approaching midterms, random medical appointments, a colleague’s teaching to observe, a meeting with the new Dean about a task force I foolishly agreed to run long ago, before the pandemic turned me into a skeptic of university service, which is effectively free work now that merit raises have stopped and there are no more promotions to aspire to. (Maybe that’s the change, me bowing out of the task force? Sigh.) Here’s a plug for Shenandoah‘s open reading period, though: if you’ve lived in Virginia 2+ years now or in the past, you’re eligible to apply for the Graybeal-Gowen Prize for Virginia Poets, which thanks to the donors could earn you $1000. It’s free to enter here and the final judge will be Deborah Miranda, my wonderful and recently retired colleague. Try! The submission pool is way smaller than the general call for poems that will open in January.

All right, off to rustling leaves and walnuts thumping in my backyard like student poem drafts demanding my feedback.

It’s red, reflecting all our sunsets

Prompt: next time you’re at a meeting or professional event, write down the weirdest things your colleagues say. Using one of those phrases as a title, without permission, close the door or at least conceal your screen and write a poem when you should be working.

A couple of years ago–maybe it was during a sabbatical, or maybe I missed the awards ceremony for some other reason–Deborah Miranda told me about an especially peculiar public verbal ramble initiated by someone especially prone to such digressions. “I don’t know how or why,” she said, “but somehow he started talking about cabdrivers during the apocalypse.” “Poem title,” I said, and we both bowed our heads to necessity. Deborah published hers on her blog more than a year ago–a radioactive prose poem, or maybe speculative flash fiction, from the perspective of the person behind the wheel. Check it out here, but watch out for the zombie rats.

cabdriver

My cabdriver likes to give advice, has a sort of philosophical take on gender after the end of the world, and is clearly influenced by certain strong female characters on The Walking Dead, a show I still watch compulsively even though it’s much less smart and riveting than once upon a time. It’s also the only show I forgive for casting mostly skinny women, given the post-zombie-plague food situation (though I find their endless supply of tight-fitting jeans implausible). Mostly, though, my poem, like a lot I’ve written lately, is about surviving middle age. Having walked through the door of age fifty, I DO know what the moon really thinks of you. “Says the Cab Driver of the Apocalypse” just came out, appropriately enough, in the new Moon City Review, handed off to me at the AWP last weekend. Thanks to the editors from granting me right-of-way.

Warm thanks, too, to Patsy Asuncion, who has been organizing Women’s History Month events at The Bridge in Charlottesville. I’ll be reading there with Patsy and Sara Robinson a week from today, at 10:30 am on Sunday 3/25 (and there’s lots of other great stuff, too, including a Le Guin marathon reading). There will be mimosas and other refreshments, and I’d be happy to sign a copy of Propagation for you. Until then, back to business, because middle-aged women have serious zombie-fighting to get on with.

Poetry and the archives by the sea

pbts sea rose

A lot of poets write from research, and there are myriad ways to explain why. Just a few of the reasons, for me: because the past presses at me as a citizen and as a human being. Because my particular history–of my current region or my ancestors–needs puzzling through. Because I want to look outward and escape my own head already. Because I have a PhD and research is an ingrained habit. Because I’m distancing myself from some difficult subject (responsibility or identity, often) by analyzing material intellectually. Because those documents/ objects/ photographs are just sitting there being fascinating and no one’s telling their story.

All this is on my mind especially because research–including traditional archival work–is a big driver of the poetry book I’m currently refining, with the working title “L.” (I’m infatuated with the weirdness of a single-letter title–of which 50 is just one of the meanings–but I’d be interested to know if you think that’s a bad idea. My second choice so far would be “Chronic Locomotive.”) I’m also planning a senior capstone seminar on Documentary Poetics for winter 2018.

So, as I often do when worrying a problem, I assembled an all-star team to talk to me about it. The panel I ran at the recent Poetry by the Sea conference was called “Poetry and the Archives,” and included Nathalie Anderson, Cynthia Hogue, and Cheryl Savageau. I can’t recap the whole rich experience, but here are a few thoughts, as well as a prompt from one of my brilliant co-panelists.

First: there are many kinds of archives. The term most narrowly refers to public records kept by institutions, but this little four-day conference was full of poets (well beyond my panel) working with parallel but different document collections. Claire Rossini is inspired by calls of extinct birds available through the audio archives of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Cheryl, Nat, Cynthia and I talked about drawing inspiration from inherited objects, old newspapers, interviews, photographs, site exploration, museum exhibits, maps, dreams, and more.

Second: the research itself is challenging in ways one expects (sifting through massive arrays takes time and luck–there can be an enormous amount of chance involved in what one finds and when), and in ways that can take a person off guard.  Nat told us of an assignment she uses with her undergraduates to research the day of their own birth, using two newspapers, and then, further on, to reconstruct family histories using census rolls and other public records. What if you hit a wall, an absence? Or what if you find more than you’re ready for in those papers–say, an ancestor’s bill of sale? Impersonal documents can become terribly personal, and at the same time, no matter how much research you do, the archive is always bigger and stranger and less coherent than one researcher can comprehend, as Deborah Miranda explores in her poem “When My Body Is the Archive.” It’s terrible when other investigators get things wrong and thereby distort our histories, and we have a responsibility to do better–but getting things wrong, or at least understanding difficult truths only partially, is upsettingly inevitable.

Related to this: how does one transform what one learns without betraying complicated, fragmented, multivoiced sources? Answers from last week included collage, notes sections (possible in books but rarely in journals!), and writing oneself into the poem as a flawed, uncertain quester. Clearly the panelists do a lot of thinking about the ethics of what and how one writes. There’s more to say on this subject than I can shoehorn into one blog post, but see this older post for starters. I was teaching the controversy over Raymond McDaniels’ appropriation of Katrina-related materials at the time–a controversy all about ethics, power, and race.

Yet invention–an activity that would appall many scholars–is part of what a poet does with archival materials. I would argue it’s part of what any writer does, whether or not she admits it, but invention is certainly more obvious in historical poetry and fiction than in scholarly writing. When authors invent/transform archival materials well, I’m enormously grateful for their help in reconstructing a vanished past (Natasha Trethewey’s work is a touchstone for many of us here, and I would love to hear Camille Dungy talk someday about Suck on the Marrow). When authors do it badly, however, I get much more angry than I do reading your average personal, meditative lyric. The stakes feel higher.

And on that note: the ability to even access an archive can involve a lot of privilege. I was reminded of this when a friend outside of the academy’s protocols was recently worried about the letters of introduction some archives require. It also takes money to travel to a historical site or park yourself in an excellent library for even just a few days. Freedom from caretaking responsibilities, too. Sometimes I’ve had that money and freedom, sometimes I haven’t, but I do know privilege must be part of this conversation. Hurrah to all the librarians and others who are increasing our digital access to rare materials–it really helps.

Our panel ran out of time to give out prompts we’d designed, just as I’m pushing length limits here. For what it’s worth, my prompt was to write a backwards poem–start with the present and end with the distant past speaking for itself. Keep track of your sources and give them credit.

I’ll leave you with another from Cheryl Savageau. Sleep on it!

  1. Choose a natural object.
  2. Spend a couple of hours researching everything you can find out about it: its physical characteristics, its chemistry, physics, biology, ecology.  What odd stories or facts can you find? Are there any correlations to folklore, mythology? Is there a history? Take it all in. Make notes.
  3. Then dream around it. Let the associations happen.
  4. Write a short poem that synthesizes your research through association. Work in images. Avoid abstract words.
  5. Write a longer poem with a narrative.

W&L Writers Resist

mlk-parade
photograph by Stephanie Wilkinson

The work ahead of us is overwhelming, so how to prioritize? I’m watching my friends make various choices, and I respect all of them. Some have stepped up their political activism and local volunteerism. Others have turned off social media and are writing their hearts out. Still others, feeling their words stolen away, unable even to read the news, are focusing on the small good things they can do for their families and in their jobs and classrooms. What kind of effort counts most? Ask me in twenty years.

But I’m proud of my town, which has not always been the case. Friday was Lee-Jackson Day in Virginia, as in Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, leaders of the Confederacy. (If you’re a puzzled reader from outside the U.S. wondering why my state honors a history of treason and slavery, well, don’t get me started.) Lexington, where both generals are buried, is ground zero for the “flaggers,” so we get swarmed annually by outraged white people in period dress. It is seriously intimidating to walk through a cordon of men in Confederate uniforms, some of them waving battle flags on heavy wooden staffs. Then you reach the corner and your sigh of relief is stifled by the apparition of a group of women in hoop skirts, à la Scarlett O’Hara. I hurried along, feeling sick, resonating with that shock many of us felt at election time: when and where do I live?

Yet Saturday, hundreds of people marched down Main Street waving rainbow flags and images of Martin Luther King, Jr. I was at the Bridgewater Poetry Festival, where I heard several really outstanding–and politically urgent–readings, but my phone was buzzing with heartening pictures like the one above. My kids are in that beautiful crowd.

I’m also proud of my colleagues in English. Many of them marched; Sydney Bufkin labored mightily to help organize the marchers. Like most of our efforts to communicate, a parade is ephemeral, but surely this work matters enormously to many, many people. On to the Women’s March in Washington next weekend, to manifest our resistance in the capital.

The creative writers at Washington and Lee are dazzling me, too, with their efforts to make change real. Ellen Mayock and Chris Gavaler are among the founders of a new activist group, 50 Ways Rockbridge, so in addition to blogging fiercely, Ellen about “gender shrapnel” and Chris about the politics of comics, they’re basically trying to counter-balance the Tea Party with kinder voices and grass-roots power. (At least one national umbrella group for these local energies is emerging, as well: check out Indivisible.) For both of them, this activism has deep connections to their research agendas. I admire this synergy even as I struggle with the problem of where best to spend my writing energies, an issue I blogged about recently for Modernism/ modernity under the title “Scholarship and justice.”

W&L writers are also publishing POEMS of resistance, bless them. Many of my recent efforts have had an incantatory quality, like spells or prayers, so it’s interesting to see other local poets wielding similar strategies. Not that we weren’t writing political poems before–we all were–but I see a strong attempt in recent work to summon all the force words can carry to fight, transform, and heal. See, for example, Deborah Miranda’s “Prayer of Prayers,” dedicated to “The Water Protectors at Standing Rock.” Or, more recently, in Terrain.org’s excellent “Letters to America” series, R.T. Smith raining down curses in “Whirling Disease.”

My own most recently published poetic take on the election appeared last week in the journal Rise Up Review: “Imperfect Ten.” I’d been reading Rattle‘s “Poets Respond” series, especially Barbara Crooker’s “Election Ghazal” and Richard Garcia’s “Canada.” Why ghazals? I wondered, then tried my own. I felt compelled to break a rule of this elegant form–the tradition that each couplet is self-contained–because, as another poet said, something there is that doesn’t love a wall, especially lately. You’ll also see that I was reading about the spike in hate crimes reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center. And, finally, that I was stinking mad. I still am, although starting to try to channel it differently. Rage is important, but you can’t set up house there forever.

P.S.: For a more skeptical picture juxtaposing the MLK marchers against the Lee-Jackson “history and heritage” banner, see my daughter on Instagram. She’s right. I confess to feeling some hope these days, but it’s probably irrational. I have great friends. But this country: still crazy.

 

 

Rebalancing hours and relineating Clifton

“How are you doing so much emotional work in September?” I demanded of my friend and office-hall-mate Deborah Miranda on Tuesday, after I’d read this. She’s an intermittent blogger, like me, but lately posts have been pouring through–here‘s another powerful story, from just this morning. I think she laughed and said something like “it comes when it comes.”

Over on my side of the hall, it’s stalled. I’m really struggling with being back to a rigid schedule. I worked hard during summer and my sabbatical, too, but most of the deadlines were self-imposed. The core of what I’m doing now is also rewarding: I’m teaching an upper-level seminar on modern American poetry, a poetry workshop, and a composition course. My students seem exceptional even by local standards. My classes are each full to the brim, but the “brim” is fifteen–cushy almost anywhere. Yet all this means my days are chock-full of classes, preparation for classes, office hours, meetings, committee work, grading, reference-writing, and a million flavors of professional correspondence. Deadlines are external and difficult to defer. I’ve been racing flat-out for several weeks now to meet my obligations to other people. I write the committee report Saturday after class prep, with more preparation and grading to do on Sunday.

I’m still exercising some and I halt whatever I’m doing if someone I love needs me. When my brain stops functioning in the evening I watch some TV or read The New Yorker before bed. But carving out any other downtime seems impossible, and I feel desperately sad about writing projects I finished recently that need to be pushed along towards publication. I just don’t have the focus, or the hours.

You know this story, and I do, too. The moral is: make time anyway. So I’m submitting the damn strategic planning white paper today, and I’ll refuse to take further leadership in committees. I’ve almost stopped looking at Facebook. After a hard stare at my schedule, I realized I can take Tuesday and Thursday mornings to work at home, where it’s quiet, so I imposed that regime this week.

Tuesday morning I labored over ms queries–a rational effort, the most urgent item on my to-do list. I got a few out. It felt terrible. Then my sister called with worrisome news about my mother’s recent blood tests and I got a couple of magazine rejections. I ran out of time to get my head together for my three o’clock class–it was fine, but not as energizing as the session could have been. The next day I pulled a muscle in my back at the farmer’s market, loading up the car with vegetables for the week. Back pain always seems so symbolic to me: I’m unbalanced, carrying too much.

So here I am on Thursday morning, when I’d promised myself to prepare queries for the other ms, blogging instead. This is an inefficient way to spend free hours, maybe, but writing just feels better than submissions. What’s the right math here–some aimless drafting, some submissions, some revisions, as the day seems to call for? Or should I focus hard-won time with laser intensity on what would really feel best in the long-run–delivering mss somehow, some way, to the world?

I don’t have the answer, but I can tell you the most fun I’ve had this week was preparing for my poetry workshop, very inefficiently. I was pondering how to get introductory students to see the possibilities of lineation, and I ended up retyping a Lucille Clifton poem: “the beginning of the end of the world.” For an unnecessary hour, I played out variations: what if I wrote out the poem as a single grammatical sentence, in prose (see below)? The poem turns out to be an open-ended proposition. Maybe the roaches are holy emissaries, not “dark” invaders, and our refusal of their presence will destroy us–she doesn’t quite spell that out, but it’s a resonant speculation, in this moment of hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric. Maybe the roaches break faith with us because we’re faithless–where might the commas go in that last bit, anyway? Would parentheses be better? I tried other versions, too–long lines to highlight the buried litany, for example (although WordPress won’t let me paste in hanging indents). Clifton’s poem is way better than my bowdlerizings but I learned the poem more deeply through the exercise, and I think discussing my revisions was illuminating for students, too. No answers. Just questions, and poetry, and play…I may often wish my life weren’t such an experiment, but pondering uncertainty seems to be the best survival strategy I’ve got.

Not Necessarily the Beginning of the End of the World (with apologies to Clifton)

Maybe the morning the roaches walked into the kitchen, bold with their bad selves, marching up out of the drains not like soldiers—like priests—grim and patient in the sink, and when we ran the water, trying to drown them as if they were soldiers, they seemed to bow their sad heads, for us, not at us, and march single file away; maybe then, the morning we rose from our beds as always, listening for the bang at the end of the world; maybe then, when we heard only the tiny tapping and saw them dark and prayerful in the kitchen; maybe then, when we watched them turn from us, faithless, at last, and walk in a long line away…

 

clifton

 

 

Forgiveness, gratitude, and other things I suck at

Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday—historically, emotionally, even logistically. (Reason #647 to be grateful: I don’t have to get on the highway this year.) And yet I love all the rituals leading up to the feast. Last weekend, I made stock and baked pumpkin bread to freeze. This Saturday I scribbled out long lists and laid in ingredients. Now homemade cranberry sauce is chilling in the fridge and cranberry-orange bread is perfuming the kitchen. Wednesday is for pies; Thursday morning I embark on an elaborate plan that will theoretically get all the food hot in time for dinner with Chris’ brother and his family. This orderly sequence—a crazy amount of work for one meal, but carved into small steps doable over time—seems all the more beautiful because I know it will have to change before too long. My daughter goes to college next year, and who knows how our traditions will need to alter as our children’s lives expand?

thxA sense of loss, prospective and retrospective, permeates the rituals. I scored some challah bread at the market because two decades ago, my friend Gayle taught me that it makes the best stuffing—but I haven’t seen Gayle for ages. Some of the recipes, like a maple-glazed sweet potato and apple dish, are from sticky old copies of Bon Appetit, to which I subscribed in the early nineties when I was a grad student learning how to cook. Those first attempts at domesticity are hazy in my memory now. The pumpkin bread recipe was transcribed in a neat hand around the turn of the century by my departmental partner in crime, Suzanne, whom I see much less of since she moved to the dean’s office, although she emails me generous notes of praise after I submit departmental reports. The cranberry bread instructions are scrawled less precisely on a soft green index card given to me by another now-distant friend. She broke off contact with me in long-nursed anger over something I’d said years before. I apologized but couldn’t remember making the harsh remark, or even secretly holding that opinion; I suspected misunderstanding. Not surprisingly, my apology didn’t help either of us—another friendship faded out.

And people near to me are managing much harder losses. I’m giving a poetry reading the week after Thanksgiving at VMI and only belatedly realized the date coincides with a terrible car accident at W&L last year. Over the mountain, the University of Virginia is in the news after the murder of a young woman earlier this fall and more a recent Rolling Stone article about gang rape in its fraternities. In class we’ve been discussing anger in poems and essays by Amiri Baraka, Adrienne Rich, and others—how rage can liberate, how it can harm. This is in the context of our own campus troubles with assault. You want a university to be a place where everyone can discuss their differences passionately yet respectfully, where good arguments can change minds, where everyone is safe to pursue their intellectual curiosities. But it is very, very difficult to cultivate and maintain even a temporary bubble of safety around one seminar or workshop, much less a college that has a million points of intersection with a dangerous world.

What I am truly most grateful for is that my spouse and children are safe and well, that my son can whine about his World History project and Chris can get so obsessed with his works cited list that, after shopping, he leaves the groceries in the car overnight (at least it’s cold). But my relief is so small it feels almost mean-spirited. I always want to hedge my thanks, too. I do feel very lucky, for instance, to teach great students in this lovely college town, but I want to add “where the campus culture can be toxic and good morale is fragile despite splendid resources.” Not very gracious, am I?

And forgiveness! I was so moved by my colleague Deborah Miranda’s reading from Bad Indians last week. She excerpted a passage about her dad coming home from San Quentin—a honeymoon of cooking and woodwork and gardening—but then segued into their alienation and his death. Deborah’s childhood was vastly different from mine, but my father was also an alcoholic and unpredictably mean, so as I listened I resonated like a bell. She finished on a passage about holding in her mind an image of her father as a child, still innocent, and feeling a wave of cool forgiveness wash over her. I’ve been meaning to ask her since: did the wave ebb, or does it stay with you? I have forgiven my father many times. The feeling seeps away, floods in, seeps away again. That night I sat down opposite a baby picture of my father I’d put up shortly after his death. The frame suddenly smashed face-down, though the room was still and the shelf unjostled. That’s how I feel: peaceful most of the time, but subject to sudden crashes of refusal.

Since I’m an unforgiving obscenely lucky ingrate, you’ll know it must be genuine when I say that I’m recently able to feel a little less angry about something that has chewed me up for years. About a month ago I responded to a small-potatoes bit of bullying in my department—by a guy whose previous behavior added up to gangantuan, ugly, poisonous potatoes that still lurk around campus unacknowledged—by publically saying cut it out. (You’ll forgive that potatoes metaphor, I hope, for getting so mashed up.) A tiny act of self-expression has made a big difference in my sense of well-being. I’ll try to make a habit of it.

I’m also feeling unhedged gratitude to have Deborah and other friends around, giving me recipes for sustenance. Thanks to a long-distance poet-friend, too, Jeannine Hall Gailey, for a shout-out last week on her blog. Thanks to Gordon Ball, soon retiring from VMI, for asking me to read there (Weds. 12/3, 7:45 pm in Preston Library). A generous writer from Ghana contacted me out of the blue a few weeks ago to interview me for his blog, Geosi Reads–I talk about anger and forgiveness there, too. And thanks to magazine editors who recently turned on their personal amplifiers on my behalf: the people at Crazyhorse, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Gettysburg Review, as well as guest editor Anny Ballardini at Truck. Tahoma Literary Review just nominated a forthcoming poem of mine for a Pushcart, too. Does that sound like trivial po-biz stuff? It’s not. All my poems are love-letters, solitary broadcasts, petitions for human connection. I am so grateful to feel heard.

Elegy for a community reading series

Local honey

It is 5:31 in Lexington a Monday
after magnolia and before honeysuckle
the second week of Spring Term’s sugar drip
and I am driving the hospital road to Kroger
in my dogwood-dirty Hyundai with green dents
to pick up strawberries, lemonade, pre-sliced
cheese and wine with screw-tops because I
have finally learned to make hard things easier

By 6:03 I refrigerate the chardonnay, cheap
but not so sweet I won’t drink the last splash later
murmuring waste not, and I am chewing salad
with the kids, checking in about shin splints
and the Latin quiz while trying not to worry
did I remind the students and hell I forgot the signup
sheet because this will be the last open mic ever
at Studio Eleven and I could just savor
it for once in my hypoglycemic life
soon
I am at the gallery but sending Chris back
for Mattie’s jar of bee-stuff left on the sideboard
and surprise, Agnes Carbrey’s all over the walls
her dark-haired woman swimmers submerged
in and fragmented by rippled blue and feeling
as I will again the joy of summer weightlessness

When everyone sits I say something ridiculous
because I am underwater and cannot hear myself
Patrick eyes me through a long lens and Deborah
is plotting something, while behind the front-row
cadets dressed in spotless whites there’s Ted
cradling daisy-new pages and an old ration book

Finally I emerge dizzy into the first story
Sharon teaching in the prison where Mr. Vasquez
fell and the people meant to save him didn’t—
Sharon can’t revive him but gathers us anyway
in her cinderblock classroom, tables cleared
for a gurney and we witness its absence with her

in the rain outside redbuds carry candles
in the rain inside each swimmer listens for
the thump of the world, her own blood buzzing

4/29/14

cardLong day of teaching and conferencing here, but I just wanted to post a thank-you to everyone who made this three-year reading series such a success. Arthur C. Glasgow funded a reading series at Washington and Lee in 1962 and it still helps us pay honoraria and put out cookies. Dabney S. Lancaster Community College and the writing group SubTerra have also given the series significant support. Certain individuals have given us welcome help too, especially writer, photographer, filmmaker, and soon-to-be-retiring VMI professor Gordon Ball. Vicki Goodheart’s Studio Eleven Gallery has been an auspiciously beautiful space. Readers from Luisa Igloria to Kevin McFadden to my dear colleague Deborah Miranda, organizer of cards and gifts, have brought so much electricity to the space. Most of all, though, I’m grateful to collaborator Mattie Quesenberry Smith, because running this series was a downright crazy thing for both of us to do, and her particular kind of craziness is rare, lovely, and hard to come by. Oh, and apologies to my man Frank O’Hara, whose “The Day Lady Died” I keep abusing in poetic imitations–but whenever I want to write a goodbye that’s heartfelt yet not too sentimental, the voice in my ear is his.

 

“Douchebag” and other rude, not-seasonally-festive epithets

The one time I tried to smoke a cigarette, my friends mocked me: “Cut that out. You look totally ridiculous.” By common consensus, I couldn’t pull off foul language either. I thought the problem might have been some crisp Englishness lingering in my elocution—my mother’s British and allegedly I started kindergarten with an accent. I pondered further: despite U.S. stereotypes about English prissiness, I knew, they carry off expletives quite well in the British Isles, so that shouldn’t be it. Perhaps my tendency to ponder obscenities in polysyllabic latinate diction was somehow symptomatic of the same issue?

In any case, nobody mocks how I swear anymore, and I live with 12- and 15-year old children, so you’ll know that I am mocked about various shortcomings hourly. I’m told, for instance, that my sense of humor is totally immature, which may be why I still get a thrill when a poet suddenly veers towards crudeness. In slam, of course, the climactic curse is practically inscribed into the requirements of the form. See Taylor Mali’s “I Could Be a Poet” for that bit of critical analysis put into hilarious action. At least, I think the “fucking” in that poem is hilarious, but according to my daughter I’ll laugh at anything—it’s just embarrassing.

Usually profanity concerns sex or excrement, both of which are, of course, intrinsically funny. So-called bad language desecrates, too. While powerful poetry often (always?) engages notions of sacredness, if a poem’s good it’s never simply pious—instead, it knocks some god off a pedestal to set up another. Think about Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” or T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” or Deborah Miranda’s “Things My Mother Taught Me”: all of them get to sacredness via irreverence, anger, and resistance to romantic visions. For the Magi it’s liquor and refractory camels plaguing their journey to God. Miranda’s villanelle offers a mantra for holy ordinariness culminating in an unglamorous brand-name ingredient: “Four paths to payday: beans and rice, flour, Crisco.” Swearing isn’t required but it’s one way to shake up the over-serious regard that can kill a poem.

English teachers are supposed to say that swearing demonstrates a lamentably poor vocabulary. Sure, sometimes. It can also convey linguistic range and daring; turn up emotional intensity at a key moment; and it can hurt and demean people, too. I think the beginning of Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” is brutally perfect: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do.” While his “High Windows” also haunts me—scraps of it come back to me in all kinds of dismal situations—the obscenity in the beginning of that poem just drives home everything hateful about the author. I lose that crucial thread of connection to the mind behind the poem. I feel sworn at, violently, because I’m part of a major demographic (women) that filled Larkin with longing and distaste. More generally, I think people should be able to work and study without being sworn or leered at—although they’re just going to have to tolerate some profanity-laced poems on my syllabi, because they’re among the most resonant in recent literary history.

While swearing might win you points in a poetry slam, it can still be a liability in print venues (and in some live readings, too). The famous obscenity trial over “Howl” happened a long time ago but certain kinds of explicitness still generate wild discomfort. I once received a nice-note rejection from a very generous editor saying that the word “crotch” in one of my poems (“Lucky Thirteen”) was a deal-breaker. I meant it to be tricky and distasteful: it’s a poem about depression, for fuck’s sake. (Ha!) Still, experimentally, I revised it out. The poem was promptly accepted by another magazine in the next round of submissions. Some version of this happens to me a lot. Apparently I still can’t pull off the colorful verbiage.

Are they right, the editors and readers who resist the cringe? Risks are worth trying, but sometimes you can’t pull them off, or a phrase that was important for generating a poem doesn’t fit in the final version. I keep looking at a poem I first drafted a couple of years ago, working title “Douchebags,” trying to figure out if it’s the title/ blunt treatment of sexual material earning rejections or whether the poem just isn’t quite successful on other grounds. (Anyone who wants to read it and tell me, backchannel!) I can’t revise out the crudeness this time, though. The poem concerns my first sexual experience; this involved a guy who did me some lasting harm but who was also damaged and sad, and whom I did not treat honorably either. When I broke up with him, his lament was: “You douched me over, you douchebag!” At eighteen, I knew this was very funny, and also that I was being a condescending jerk by finding this very funny. He was hurting badly and that was all the language he had to express his emotion. Although he treated me awfully, at some level I had always possessed the power of just being smarter and knowing, deep in my douchebag heart, that I could and would do better.

And this probably gets back to why I’m attracted to foul-mouthed poems, especially when the profanity is mixed up with lyricism, wit, and erudition. I want to believe these worlds can coexist, if not harmonize—that their native speakers can talk to each other, across hurt and difference. Those languages coexist in me.

Happy Thanksgiving, and may your stuffing and sweet potatoes touch illicitly on the plate while brown rivulets of gravy dribble into the cranberry sauce.

The Head-Space of Revision

One more day in NaPoWriMo. I’m wondering: could May be NaPoRe(vision)Mo, and June NaPoSub(mission)Mo? Not sure I’m capable of it—the next few weeks are about as busy with teaching, domestic stuff, committee work, and miscellaneous deadlines as they could possibly be—but I’ll try. One potential snag: drafting is about openness and dreaming, restorative activities when your life is too busy. Revision, though, while it can be about receptive listening, also requires intellectual focus and decisive ruthlessness. The needle might be hovering around empty on those tanks, given this month’s grading, administrative, and report-writing obligations.

Whatever happens next, I’m shocked by the sheer amount and intensity of what I’ve written. Not one poem from the inventory below is ready for prime-time yet, but most of them contain interesting ideas, juxtapositions, and bits of language. It’s as if I squeezed in a writing retreat through random 30-60 minute blocks. The numbers refer to dates; I started storing drafts in an “april12poems” folder about three days in, when I realized I really was committed and would lose track of process otherwise.

1 He Likes Road Runner Best (sonnet treating Merrie Melodies, my son, Afghanistan)

2 The Opposite of Elegy (drafted outside Lee Chapel thinking about recent memorial services)

3 Acoustic Niche (terza rima about birdsong and creative writing workshops)

4 In Praise of Slogging (haiku expressing frustration about slacker students through an apple blossom metaphor)

5 OLD, Petersburg Virginia, by Gordon Stettinius (ekphrastic and syllabic, from a photograph in Staniar Gallery that made me think of my daughter’s recent birthday)

6 Past Meridian (fourteen word sonnet about middle age)

7 How Study Abroad Transforms You (couplet-sonnet depicting the Notorious New Zealand Paintball Outing)

8 Distractible (cruel and sexy April)

9 Semi-colons (extended sentence about teenage romantic drama)

10 Art Film (talked about that one in the last blog)

11 The Size of It (ditto; also 1989 cross-country trip)

12 Photoautotrophic (getting a little ecstatic, one of this month’s many long-lined free verse poems)

13 Working Assumptions (how I thought life operated when I was nineteen)

14 Powder Burn (remembering the guy who told me, “if you had long hair and a southern accent you’d be the perfect woman”)

15 Zut, Zut, et Zut (more melodramatic teenagers)

16 Earth, Air, Fire, But Mostly Water (looking at Deborah Miranda’s mountain, then pretty much on fire)

17 Chorophobia (look it up)

18 Reverberation Room (double sonnet that begins with the friendship between Liz and Jack on 30 Rock and ends up rhyming “obscene” with “feeling”)

19 Anti-Dinosaur Haiku (commissioned)

20 Enter the Wormhole (based on Janet McAdams’ rock-paper-scissors prompt from BookBalloon, though I broke the rules)

21 Science Fiction (I am definitely not done with this as a poetry topic)

22 The Sun Went Down Then I Felt Sad (response to a dare)

23 The End of Talk (using “talk” in epistrophe—does one say “in” epistrophe?)

24 Werewolf Arm (a sonnet referring to Chris’ birthmark)

25 That Small Item You Forgot Was In There (litany based on phrase “my first home,” the beginning of Robert Sullivan’s “Boyle”)

26 Lessons/ Reflecting Water (swimming pool haiku series, watching Cam splash after Sullivan glossed “waiata” in class)

27Aubade (playing with a three-step line)

28 Uncanny Valley (you know that theory about how too-lifelike robots inspire revulsion?)

29 Falling (lame title, but the poem uses trochees and dactyls to talk about marijuana)

30 ? (but what I’d like to pull off is a response to Craig Pleasants’ gallery exhibition)

Suggestions for tomorrow are very welcome, but you have about 11 hours until I’m at risk of starting to write without you.

Universal Reboot

I’ve been packing and unpacking houses and offices for weeks. And poem drafts, book ideas, changed relationships, grocery bags—I even dream about trying to stuff vacation clothes into duffels in time to make the plane. The other night, instead of half-empty tubes of sunscreen, my nightmare double had to gather up every toy our kids had ever owned, all of which were somehow crammed into a hotel room. Fisher-Price farmers, time to collect your human-sized chickens and close up the barn! (My daughter starts high school next month.)

I figured that since my life is in total disarray, I might as well redesign the blog too. I’ve added that third term, “conversation,” to the subtitle, as previously threatened. Given the hemispheric shift, too—it feels like passing through a mirror to me, Aotearoa to Virginia, winter to summer, sabbatical to real life—I flipped the color scheme from dark to light. I was worried that the old format was a bit hard to read. If you have trouble with this one, please let me know.

I’m also scouting for poems and essays that somehow address the notions of poetry as conversation, poems in conversation, and conversation in poems—suggestions and alternative prepositions welcome. I’ve been circling around these ideas like the buzzards over Washington and Lee’s law school and it’s time to swoop, although I don’t like where this simile is going.

For starters, although poets are thinner on the ground here, these are some of the poetic conversations I’m in, starting with the local: I just finished poet Margo Solod’s vivid memoir, Cuttyhunk: Life on the Rock, so I’m hearing her voice in my head; I hope it’s not mutual. I met Mattie Quesenberry Smith in Lexington Coffee on Friday to sip iced tea, perspire profusely, and strategize about how to generate a stronger sense of community among town and university writers—what reading venues and authors might attract both audiences, how to schedule and advertise. Rod Smith and I are emailing across the few hot blocks separating our new work spaces and I’m browsing the next issue of Shenandoah, on the verge of its launch. Walking into work today I chatted with Suzanne Keen about writing amid boxes and with Christopher Matthews about negotiating change in the poetry weather. He feels inspired to finish, arrange, and send. Right now all I want to do is draft, hopping from stanza to stanza without looking back. And I’m reading Deborah Miranda’s Facebook posts, since she’s in Cuttyhunk with Margo, and envying her evident immersion.

Ireland and Texas were waiting on my desk when I returned, in the form of an interview with Paula Meehan in the final print Shenandoah and Meta DuEwa Jones’s brand new poetry study, The Muse is Music: Jazz Poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to Spoken Word. My attention, however, is also floating above the Pacific: I’m listening to Hinemoana Baker’s gorgeous CDs and deciding what to send her by way of recompense, finishing an email interview with Bill Manhire, preparing to revise and polish the essays I wrote in New Zealand. First, though, I’m thinking these broad new windowsills need a paua shell brought back from Makara Beach and some succulent desert plant, a kind that’s never heard of the ocean.