About #Breadloaf21

Okay, so my cats weren’t impressed with the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers Workshop, but I was–although since I would have been able to attend in person, the virtual format was a bit of a bummer. (I know virtualness makes a weeklong workshop so much more accessible for others, though, and cheaper. Tradeoffs.) The scoop:

I was assigned to a poetry workshop with 5 other poets led by Dan Chiasson, whose writing I follow but about whom I knew nothing as a person. First blessing: he’s smart and generous with praise and help. We met for three two-hour workshops based on 10-page mss we had each submitted, and we also had individual half-hour conferences with Dan. I’m sure the various workshop teachers varied in style, but I felt lucky–this class was the best part of the conference for me. I learned a lot about my own work and spend the week revising like a demon. Another big benefit: the other people in the class were ALSO talented, kind, and wise, although our styles and concerns varied quite a bit. I felt grateful for their attention and really hunkered down over their work, too, trying to give what I received.

My classmates’ comments were sometimes contradictory, in the way of all workshops, but that can be useful. You gain a sense of what’s working for some readers and what’s not, but it’s up to you to pick through the suggestions and figure out how to address the issues they raise. What’s typical for me: I get praise for the sound textures of my poems, told they’re beautiful, but sometimes that I’m shying away from unfolding their deeper stakes. And of course some things are a challenge for any poet, such as closing with punch yet unpredictability. My job this week was to crack many of the poems open and figure out how to keep the language good while also going for broke on the material. I think I made progress, which is all anyone ever does, right? Part of the pleasure of poetry is that it’s an art no one ever masters.

There were also three lectures from the Environmental teachers and a bunch more from the Translation conference, which runs simultaneously. These were very good, but none was the state-of-the-field lecture I was craving. There’s so much brilliant environmental writing out there now and I know I miss a lot, so I had hoped for at least partial maps of current practice–a cross-genre mini-course, basically. This conference wasn’t that, although to be fair they had never promised it, either. If I were empress, I would have set up a panel discussion among a few experts in related fields to compare notes. The other thing I missed was time and space for unscripted, spontaneous interaction among participants (there was a Slack channel but no one really used it). I ended up setting up a final Zoom happy hour for my small cohort, just to chat a little more, but I did that too late to figure out how to make the party wider. We introverts need to connect with each other, but we also need a nudge to do it.

The other stuff: the tech was well-run and the staff responsive and friendly. There were also chances to meet with agents and editors in 15-minute segments, and I signed up for two of them. That’s not like me, I’m deficient in hustle, but I had promised myself to make the most of the conference, even the elements that unnerved me. I prepped like hell for each meeting and I think they went well? It is way too early to know how big a difference the whole experience will make in my writing or my ability to find audiences, but I didn’t let myself down, despite all the anxiety I described in my last post. I brought my best energy to meet what felt like a rare opportunity. It was a LOT of energy, though. I seriously need to wind down and sleep like a cat.

Two other parts of my conference plan worked out in a mixed way, in case it’s of interest. My husband went off to visit family so I could simulate a writing retreat at home. I was able to work hard, but it took a major effort of will to stop spending my nervous animation on cooking and cleaning. I think, if I had the means, I’d try to find another space if I did this again. I did, as I hoped, manage to rough out a draft of a possible next collection; that’s what Poe’s rolling around on above. It’s a mess but a start. Submissions felt impossible, but I’m going to try again tomorrow. Today I’m resting my brain, catching up on chores, and having a back-porch drink with local friends during which I’m very unlikely to think about the po-biz at all.

Virtual Salon #2 with William Woolfitt

The season of cracking open, bloodroot,
egg strings. My grandmother chops the cloddy
ground. Many years without him. Onion sets,
new moon peas. 
          from “Chorus Frog” by William Woolfitt

It’s alarming to watch Netflix now: all those strangers in unconcerned proximity, sharing bread, shaking hands! Poor hygiene is not, I suspect, what those directors wanted me to focus on. So when I say that William Woolfitt’s lovely third collection is crowded with isolates, full of hungry survivors, am I distorting the book through a lens of present anxieties? When I notice that many of the landscapes he evokes are like the places I walk through daily–degraded, haunted, but beautiful–am I biased? I think a person always reads from where she is, and that’s okay, although that’s one of the reasons I like in-person, open-ended discussions about books, too. It’s helpful when someone else’s reactions knock your own perspective ajar.

Still, I feel sure that Woolfitt’s book is exceptionally musical, both in its references and in the sonic density of his own alliterative lines (you’ll find listening suggestions in the mini-interview below, to boot). Spring Up Everlasting gives witness to human hardship, vulnerable creatures, and environmental damage with love and compassion: the author sees fully and justly, and the poems he builds from those observances are beautifully weighted, crafty in rhythm and structure. And one last point: Woolfitt really does describe people washing their hands a lot, from Rulina who plunges an arm into “icy creek-water” that “chills her blood, needles her with stars of pain,” to the laborer in “Red Notes” who dreams of release and reunion:

Before they meet, he’ll wash with a bucket,
scrub the pulp off his hands, sing the notes
he’s strung for her, tomato lonesome, tomato blue.

  1. If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

The food menu would include Rulina’s elk tenderloin, half-moon pies, sawhorse tables laden with bowls of potato salad, deviled eggs, and chow-chow. And also hulled corn soup, hardtack, porridge and fried plantains with daybreak sauce, tacos, and figs. The poems of Spring Up Everlasting wander from Appalachia to Mali, then back to Appalachia, then to Newfoundland, to California, and so on, visiting sacred grounds, desecrated wastes, reclaimed lands. The drink menu would include spring water, rain-barrel water, living water: it’s a book that looks again and again to creeks, ponds, oceans, and underground streams.

  1. If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

Teaching and parenting are keeping me busy these days, and I’m okay with that. Maggie Anderson says that a poem comes from “persistence, devotion, and a sustaining hope that it was important to write and that it would, eventually, come around to its best shape.” I’d like to believe that I can practice the poet’s verbs—persist, devote, and sustain hope—in whatever task I’m doing. Richard Foster says that “our work becomes prayer,” and I’d like to believe that our work can become poetry too.

  1. How can your virtual audience find out more?

Visit www.williamwoolfitt.com or www.mupress.org/Spring-Up-Everlasting-Poems-P1039.aspx. But I would also like for my audience to look through me to the sources that I’ve drawn from while writing Spring Up Everlasting: Jessie van Eerden’s The Long Weeping; Ida Stewart’s Gloss; Melissa Range’s Horse and Rider; Lucille Clifton’s The Book of Light; Maxine Kumin’s The Retrieval System; photographs by Eudora Welty and Roger May; Ella Jenkins’ “The Wilderness;” Jean Ritchie’s “Black Waters.”

In a Samhain state of mind

Not to get too pagan on you, but this week I can feel wheels turning, for good and ill. On the good side: above is the cover of my first novel, to be released in June 2020. I’ve been so grateful for the excitement people have expressed about it. As I keep saying, this venture feels more like a leap into the dark than poetry publishing. I’m getting publicity gears grinding for my March 2020 poetry collection, too, but I know perfectly well that except for rare cases, “Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon,” as Don Marquis poetically said, “and waiting for the echo.” I worked insanely hard on that novel, I’m proud of it, and I WILL get out there to give readings, etc.–but will it be like dropping a moderately-sized rose bush into the Grand Canyon, meaning, not much more echo-producing? I really have no clue. I feel pretty philosophical about it these days; I just want to know, a year from now, that I gave all my pretty rose petals the most energetic pitch possible.

Pitching, however, is a LOT of work. The “bad” of this liminal season is feeling stressed and anxious as I step from the overwork of October (teaching, grading, applications, event programming) to the overwork of November (teaching, conferencing, applications, and exceptionally heavy committee work). I just keep plotting out tasks on my calendar, trying to prove to myself that it CAN be done, and hoping I reach Thanksgiving in one piece. I’m also trying, to whatever extent possible, to pare off obligations that rev up my worries and spend time instead on what makes me feel better.

Ridiculously, that sometimes means work, but the kind of labor that produces an experience of flow rather than jitteriness. I gave Monday morning over to intensive lesson-planning, doing some background reading on William Carlos Williams and getting ready for tomorrow’s campus visit by the fabulous Lauren K. Alleyne, and you know what? I felt noticeably better after those hours of concentration. Answering email: not so soothing.

Today’s treat was reading a splendid new anthology I am lucky enough to have a poem in: the brand-new Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia, edited by Rose McLarney and Laura-Gray Street. They commissioned pieces on various plants and creatures from poets with connections to the region, and so many of the poems are gorgeous and moving. Each species, too, is described by naturalist L.L. Gaddy and illustrated in black-and-white by seven Southern Appalachian artists. The resulting book is both local and diverse, and truly a stunner.

The next task: prepping for the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference starting on 11/8, because I’ll be away this weekend, visiting the kids (it’s Haverford’s Family Weekend). That’s downtime I sorely need, as I keep telling myself as I watch work pile up on either side of it… but I’ll be striving to be in the moment there, and at the conference, too. Check out the program; it looks kind of brilliant.

What I want to do most of all is work on a short story I’m feeling excited about; the poetry hasn’t been coming lately. And that leads to one last Samhainish thought: one of the funny things about publication is that by the time the work gets out there, you’re often mentally and emotionally moving on to new ideas. When you give a reading or do other kinds of promotion, you can feel like you’re trying to call up the dead and hoping the doors to the otherworld open, as they’re supposed to do this time of year. Come, ghosts, and help me out. I have, in fact, been thinking about my father and dreaming about my maternal grandmother, as if spirits are visiting–and I’ve also been remembering that tarot card reading I got around New Year’s, when the psychic told me two ghosts were following me around. If they are, and they want to be of use, maybe they could help with the committee work?