Future schmuture

No NEH grant again, a magazine acceptance, a solicitation of poems from a magazine I’d never cracked (!), several poem rejections, some drafting and revising, lots of Shenandoah work, a vague but persistent headache, short days and blustery cold–hello from a mixed-blessing November in Sabbatical Land. I hereby mark the sixth-month birthday of my novel Unbecoming, and remind you that you can message me if you want a signed bookplate for that OR The State She’s In. (Here, by the way, is a new and very lovely review of the latter by Luisa Igloria in RHINO.) I can’t say I’m in much of a mood for hustle, though; it feels like crawling-under-a-rock season. I’m not doing a ton of writing, nor am I experiencing that burst of energy I’d hoped for after the election, but maybe that’s because there’s no “after”? It’s more like an intensification of suspense, a “now” that just keeps spreading its tentacles.

As a mood of hibernation comes on, I’m also cleaning closets and readying us for an actual trip, first through a flurry of lists and shopping and now by hunkering down. We have to pick up my son from Haverford College on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and a lot of my family lives around there, so I brainstormed this whole elaborate trip protocol. After testing and a period of isolation, we pack the car within an inch of its life and visit my bored-out-of-her-mind mother; then we meet up with our kids at a rented house in the Poconos for a few days; then we meet my sister and maybe some of her kids for a socially-distanced hike in the woods; finally, we return home and hide for the rest of this third wave, however long it lasts. The theory is that I’ll drive Cameron back to Haverford at the end of January for his spring term, but I have a feeling college openings will be delayed. I believe Biden WILL be inaugurated and will run the pandemic response sanely; vaccines are clearly coming; but winter may well be a long blank chapter. If we’re lucky.

In case you’re trying to do some writing yourself and like prompts, I give two in this five-minute reading:

It’s one of many launched this week by the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival, thanks to Stan Galloway, Nicole Yurcaba, and their students. However, Bridgewater College, like many others, is laying off people, including Nicole, so the conference has an uncertain future (aren’t you tired of that phrase?). If you’re in the mood to write more spell-poems on the off-chance it will make you or the world a bit better, I just dug up this post, “Uncanny paneling,” for a friend. The second half of it consists of writing prompts from six people, including me, and having been reminded of them, I plan to try them myself.

Hocus, pocus, try to focus…

Imagining poetry after the election

Inside Out
September, 2016
 
 
Shouldn’t talk with a mouthful of half-chewed flags,
but he smirks and suggests her Secret Service guys
disarm and see what happens. The crowd turns wild
and you can spot a star wedged in his molar. Scraps
of stripe dangle from a lip. Maybe, he cracks,
the Second Amendment people will get wise.
While, you know, Russians hack her to bytes.
Silk between his teeth. Democracy. Facts.
 
Bleeding on the street’s not too good for her,
thinks forty-plus percent of my broken
country. The liar calls her liar and the smear
sticks. After all, horror’s ordinary. The thirteen-
year-old boy just killed for holding a BB gun.
And an open-mouthed woman—well, blood’s her career.

Lots of 2020 poetry collections bristle with political outrage–appropriately! The slant-rhymed sonnet above, first published in Cimarron Review and now collected in my 2020 collection The State She’s In, dates from a month four years ago when I couldn’t believe the sexist, racist incitements to violence spewing from a candidate’s mouth. Two months later I couldn’t believe he’d been elected, but, silly me, I also couldn’t believe he’d last all four years. I suppose the verdict’s still out on the latter–he has to crash when the steroids wear off, right?–but surreal as it’s seemed, this presidency continues to be brutally real. My spouse’s picture is now up on the FB site of a local self-styled “militia,” the GOP is in voter-suppression overdrive, and people are hunkered in their homes, if they have them, fearing increasing right-wing violence and, oh yeah, contagion. Even if a miracle Biden landslide happens, Trump concedes without a fight, and domestic terrorist groups keep their anger to a low grumble (all of which strike me as big ifs), poets and everyone else in the US are going to continue to have a LOT to protest about, including police violence against Black Americans, deep economic injustice, catastrophic environmental damage, and a Supreme Court banking hard to the right.

I’ve felt cheered by the upswell of political poetry these last few years, and wretched as 2020 has been, it seemed right for my book to come out in March (I just wish I’d been able to read from it more). As the next collection brews, though, I’m wondering what kind of poetry I and others will need three to four years from now, which is how long the process takes, if you’re lucky. I’m now sending poems to magazines, trying to catch fall submission windows that are often quite brief, and some of them will surely go in the next ms., although I’m getting more rejections than acceptances at the moment. I tend to draft, forget, revise, forget, revise again, then send, so I didn’t know what I’d find when I reopened my 2019-2020 folders. I had been consciously working on poems with spell-like qualities meant to transform anger, and I discovered some of those, but I unearthed many more poems than I expected about mental health struggles (2019 was rough–better now). I’ve been using poetry to explore some of the hardest episodes from my past and have no idea why now. I’ve also been writing more ecologically than ever, looking for hope in natural processes.

Looking for hope sounds right; many of us need optimism and humor desperately, and I expect that will be true, too, a few years from now. Once again, as a reader, I can’t concentrate on any book that isn’t a page-turner–will that be true even a few months from now, or will I more-or-less get my brain back? I have to record a reading for the Hot L series that will air November 8th: holy cow, how can I even imagine what listeners will need a few weeks from now? All you can do is take a deep breath and remind yourself: what you should offer the world is your best, whatever that is. The best version of your art; the best energy you can summon; and writing centered on material that feels important to you, addressed with as much kindness and clear-eyed intelligence as you can muster. That’s all there is.

After that poetry submission binge, I’m back to writing ABOUT poetry in essays and reviews, at least when I can stop biting my nails over the news. I’ll be reading poetry submissions, too, as Shenandoah opens for Graybeal-Gowan Prize entries (Oct 15-31). Entry is free, the prize is $1000, and you can submit 1-3 poems in one document. You have to have a significant connection to Virginia to enter, as specified by the generous donor, but you don’t have to live here now–you could have been born here or gone to school here, for example (just describe your link to VA in the cover letter). Beth Staples and I will choose 10-12 finalists to forward to Kyle Dargan, who will choose the winner by sometime in January. If you’re not a finalist you’ll hear back by early December, probably sooner, but we get hundreds of subs, so I can’t promise those results by Election Day, either! Hang in there, friends.

Keeping the minutes on violence, with Lucille Clifton

For a workshop on Tuesday, Election Day, one of my undergraduates submitted a poem based on the day he hid in a closet during a middle school shooting. A different student said there had been a shooting in her school, too; another described an active shooter just last week in the high school her sister attended; a fourth said a friend had died in the Parkland massacre. Stunned, I responded with something like, “Are you telling me that four out of the fifteen of you have had a near miss with a school shooting?” Then two more raised their hands. Six.

Gun violence in the US is insanely, horrifyingly prevalent; every new mass shooting refreshes the horror and also increases the number of Americans directly affected. A good friend’s father’s retirement center was recently in lockdown because of an active shooter. And when I described the workshop discussion to a friend who had come over to watch the election returns, she said, “Oh, that happened to me, too,” describing hiding in a basement when a shooter attacked the university where she was earning her PhD. She always has a plan, now, for how to hide if another shooter comes through.

Nor is our remote small town any kind of a protective factor. We have offices in Washington and Lee’s historic colonnade, which is very much the heart of the embattled Confederacy for certain die-hard white nationalists, who are angry about the slightest possible changes to their sacred sites. Some of whom distributed KKK fliers on campus just a couple of weeks ago. Any place in the US is vulnerable to violence from well-armed disturbed people, but we have an extra source of risk without the security resources of larger universities.

In short, teachers now have dangerous jobs, students are always vulnerable to random violence, and nowhere is safe. So all together, now: let’s write pantoums! Seriously, teaching poetry during any of the crises we’ve been negotiating lately could seem frivolous, but I’ve been feeling the opposite. My poetry classes keep turning into spaces for analyzing and reflecting on disaster in ways that feel more emotionally useful than, say, reading the news.

words ofSome of that is chance resonance between syllabi and world events. Well, sort of chance. For a different course, my mid-20th-century US poetry seminar, we’re studying the usual characters–O’Hara, Brooks, Rich, and others–but I replaced a session I used to devote to Vietnam war protest poetry with several readings from an anthology I’ve really come to admire: Words of Protest, Words of Freedom, edited by Jeffrey Lamar Coleman. It’s been clear especially since Trump’s rise that we remain in the middle of Civil Rights battles that defined the country fifty years ago, or perhaps in a never-ending backlash against them, so I knew it was time to represent Civil Rights poetry more robustly on my syllabus. Coleman clearly did his research, because while the book contains many famous poems by our best US poets, it also features more obscure work culled from little magazines of the era, and the friction is riveting. I’ve been so impressed by how eagerly and intelligently my students are working through material that is even more relevant than I intended. The KKK leaflets were distributed here on a Friday, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting occurred the next morning, and for Monday, the assignment was to discuss poems about the KKK bombing of a Baptist church that killed four young girls in Birmingham in 1963. That synchronicity has definitely brought urgency to our discussions.

But is it synchronicity, now, or just the permanent daily texture of the world? Since I started drafting this post, there’s been another mass shooting. The election cheered me, but the administration immediately punched back with more ways of undermining the law. Poetry gives me access to other minds confronting related crises thoughtfully–it’s personally useful to read Giovanni, Hayden, Brooks, and many others as they work through anger and hope and grief–but it’s also providing small collections of us with a nonpartisan angle of discussion on the human toll of violence, the way it ripples out in space and time, and I’m grateful for that, too. It makes me feel warmly connected to other anxious human beings working through serious questions, and I hope it does the same for them.

Here’s a Lucille Clifton poem from the anthology, from a group of responses to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. My students led a brilliant discussion about it: who is included in the “we” who held the “meeting” for which this poem offers a riff on the usually less-than-gripping literary genre of minutes? How are the “we” and the “you” related? What does it mean to be saved? Is the tone of the last few lines wry, disparaging, or sympathetic?clifton poem

We all had slightly different answers, and listening to Clifton reading the poem here (minute 7:14) can change your mind yet again. It’s centering to think about it when your heart needs rest after other kinds of activism. Who are we, anyway? Where are we headed?

Don’t read this if you’re focusing on gratitude

As I slice sweet potatoes and cube challah bread for stuffing, I’m feeling not grateful or festive but sick at heart about two things: the injustice at Standing Rock, and what this election is going to mean for my children’s generation. I am fortunate to have my daughter home from college and a visiting cousin to cook for and a warm house full of food, and I think people absolutely need and deserve those consolations between the political storms, but this year, a sense of peace is just not something I can conjure with cups of tea and wedges of apple pie.

“And as the numbers came in on election night I watched him head to his room, his head down, his shoulders curving into his chest…he was slowly beginning to understand new truths: that the people who love you cannot always protect you, that unkindness can be a platform for the presidency.”

That’s Jacqueline Woodson writing about her 8 year old son for the New York Times. Over the last two weeks, as I’ve struggled with my own feelings, I’ve also been watching understanding sweep over the children and young people I know. The Wednesday morning after the election, my phone lit up with texts from friends, telling me their daughters were sobbing uncontrollably. Lots of kids are now worried that they, or their friends, or their parents will get deported or suffer violence. Sometimes they just feel humiliated–here is proof that half the whole country thinks less of them because of their gender or the color of their skin. I don’t know how to name what my own 16-year-old white son seems to be feeling–fury at systemic injustices, certainly, but mixed with a kind of crushed shame. And of course, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has been reporting, hate crimes are up, a high proportion of them in schools. Fear and shame are appropriate reactions, much as I hate to see them in children and teenagers. Most of the young people I know want to believe in justice and want to be good, although those impulses seem to burn out for many by full adulthood.

Kids who can’t remember much about pre-Obama politics are now seeing the backlash, or, as Larry Wilmore put it, the “Blacklash.” They’re only now realizing how impenetrable that glass ceiling for women still remains. They need to know these truths, but it’s still beyond awful to watch them learn it.

And while I’ve always loved Thanksgiving–at least the version of it without my father, who was usually filled with right-wing rage at this time of year–the holiday itself is basically Fake Racial Unity Day, a whitewashing of genocidal histories. The traditional narrative of cooperation is especially unconsoling given the current brutal fight over oil rights on Sioux land in North Dakota. Water cannons. Protest met by police violence. Looks a lot like a Civil Rights struggle but national media outlets are barely touching it. Where is my president now? If even President Obama has his head in the sand–or is unwilling to speak out against big oil–well, is there anything we can be proud of our country for anymore?

Told you not to read this. Because I do believe, however, most wholeheartedly, in dessert, I’ll leave you with a scrap of a David Remnick article. Remnick asked the president what he told his own daughters about the election, and this was the reply–sane and yet inspiring, a feat Obama seems to manage improbably often:

“What I say to them is that people are complicated…This is not mathematics; this is biology and chemistry. These are living organisms, and it’s messy. And your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding. And you should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be inside you and you have to vanquish. And it doesn’t stop…You don’t get into a fetal position about it. You don’t start worrying about apocalypse. You say, O.K., where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward.”

He’s a good man. I’ll raise my untrusting, ungrateful glass tonight to the hope that at Standing Rock, he’ll follow his own advice.

 

 

Battles lost

awp-sunset

I’ve always had the sense that people looked at me skeptically when I characterize my life as damaged by sexism. I’m a US-born person of European descent who never had to go hungry. I obtained a good education, was legally able to marry the person I love, and now earn a respectable living. How bad can it be?

Yet I’ve also been discriminated against, groped, and raped. I’ve done work I’m proud of despite the constant battery–I’ve fought hard, that is, to prove myself, even as others hurt or just underestimated me–but those achievements are often disparaged or overlooked. The message: as a woman, I am less than a full person; I don’t have rights over my body; I can’t be trusted to lead. And now roughly half the voting adults in my country have confirmed that message by electing a woman-despising groper to the presidency.

Yes, I’m taking this election personally. It is personal. As I write, at dawn, my phone is buzzing with misery. Downstairs, my son and husband are choked up and slamming around. I feel terrible for my brilliant feminist children, and for my students, even though some of the latter surely voted for our criminal president-elect. They’ll have to live with the repercussions longer than I will, and who knows what the world is in for?

At the top of this post is a sunset picture I took a few days ago in Tampa from the River Walk. I was in town for an AWP board meeting, trying to serve an underfunded organization that serves writers mightily, but I was also just aching from a brutal week at work, so I thought, well, I should take care of myself, by spending a couple of hours walking, looking, breathing. It felt good. Tampa is going to be a great site for the AWP conference in 2018–how awesome will it be to duck out of the convention center between terrific readings and walk along the water in balmy weather? I was, in short, tired and worried but also optimistic. I thought, well, there’s a lot of poison at my college and everywhere else, but I know an awful lot of good people who are working to clear it out. That’s auspicious, right?

I guess it still is. The same good people–like the AWP staffers who left the Gwendolyn Brooks quote below at my place setting–will keep battling to make the world better, one word at a time. And this morning’s news certainly clarifies my work as a writer and teacher.

I don’t feel safe, but now it seems even more vital to voice that persistent truth. I don’t know how I’ll be handling all this in my classes today, but I will convey that I like and respect all of my students and hope to help them thrive. That is, I’ll make safety, or try to, while, somehow, we live in the along.

awp-card