Conference anxiety times a million

Socializing in Rockbridge County, Virginia

I don’t have major stage fright about teaching, and I’ve come to feel like I can give a decent Zoom reading. My upcoming conversation with the brilliant writers Anjali Sachdeva and Brittany Hailer–Friday 6/4 at 7pm Eastern, hosted by the White Whale, register here by 6:30 that day!–will amp me up for the night, but talking to them about fabulism vs. realism basically sounds fun to me. Yet GOOD LORD am I nervous about participating in a weeklong fancy virtual writers’ workshop starting June 6th.

I have a pretty good idea why. For most virtual presentations, you have to be prepared, come across as warm and engaged, and stay attuned to others. The latter two tasks are harder via screen, but I now have experience managing it. What I have completely forgotten how to do: 1) interact in a substantive, sustained, open way with strangers; and 2) be my most sparkly, enthusiastic, professional self among people with literary power. That second one was never easy for me. I’m an introvert whose battery for socializing has to be recharged by solitude, and my self-confidence ebbs and flows. But the pandemic means I’m REALLY out of practice. Grief doesn’t help, either–I’ve been low and spacey since my mother’s death, and when I work too hard, my brain and body conk out.

I came across an article the other day that reminded me that instead of hopelessly dreading my likely failure to make the most of a good opportunity, I could consider planning ways to manage stress. Self-help is not my preferred genre, and I have successfully avoided lots of pieces about social reentry post-Covid, but I was click-baited this time by a title about “using sobriety strategies,” about which I know little. Plus I’m desperate. The Washington Post article by Erin Shaw Street is here, although I don’t know if the link will work for everyone.

In short, the advice is to “start with acceptance”–this reentry thing will probably take a while, and that’s okay. “Have a plan, but stay flexible”: well, I always have a plan. My idea was to turn the week into a writer’s retreat at home, so my spouse is visiting family. Next week I’ll order out, let the dust pile up, and refuse to answer email. Write write write, I thought, and get back on the submission train, too. Maybe even use the empty house to lay out all my recent poems and see if they’re beginning to form a new collection! My revised plan: sure, try all that stuff, but if it doesn’t work, just do my workshop, make the best of my two 15-minute meetings with fancy editors, forgive myself if some of it falls flat, and otherwise chill. That’s the “pay attention to your feelings” part, which lately have made themselves very clear. “Practice gratitude and mindfulness”: well, all right, I know breathing exercises and I’ve actually worked on mindfulness lately, in my distracted way. What I’m proudest of, by the way of emotional planning, is in the “having a group of trusted friends to call on” category. I have actually scheduled a phone chat with Jeannine Hall Gailey right before the conference, because she is the best literary cheerleader I know. How about that! Me, planning a social interaction for my own sake, because it will make me feel connected and maybe even slightly more confident!! Miracles can happen. I also wrote the principles on a post-it note and stuck it on my office window frame, hoping I’ll stick with the program.

If you have ideas about doing your best in this kind of setting when you’re kind of a mess, I’d be glad to hear them. Most of this blog’s readers are writers, and I don’t think introversion is rare in our tribe. The conference is the Breadloaf Environmental Writers Workshop, by the way, with my individual group of six poets led by Dan Chiasson. I actually won a scholarship to it, so it would be rational to have some faith in myself. At the very least, I plan to learn more about environmental writing as well as gathering ideas for sharpening my poems–and, based on past experience, tricks for my teaching, too. It’s useful to play student occasionally, see how others run things, and be reminded how it feels to watch others examine your work.

Meanwhile, spacey-dopey-nervousness notwithstanding, I did make my most important May deadlines. Saturday I finished a monster participant packet for another fancy workshop, Sewanee, which will be in person at the end of July (another scholarship, ahem). And yesterday I turned in a short essay solicited for a new critical collection, Eliot Now. My piece discusses work by Jeannine Hall Gailey and Paisley Rekdal in relation to “The Waste Land.” In brief, Gailey and Rekdal highlight the prominence of sexual violence in Eliot’s poem while portraying their own experiences with assault. (Gee, I wonder why I felt depressed working on it?)

Sending out good vibes to everyone for a peaceful and/or productive June, whatever you need it to be. I’m not sure how much blogging is in my immediate future, although I bet I’ll have some things to share about the workshop when it’s all over.

PS: what my essay on “The Waste Land” repressed

eliot1bTo frame an argument in words always entails filtering signal from noise: you can’t include all the evidence, so you try to assemble the best evidence in the best order. Making arguments about contemporary poetry, though, may be a particularly messy enterprise. Just look at the Reading List posted by the September Poetry contributors. We’re all reading different books—I think the only poet who comes up twice is Mary Ruefle. Even voracious readers of poetry haunt different neighborhoods, and we’re often ignorant of what’s happening elsewhere, because the scene is so big and fragmented. So how can anyone make believable qualitative generalizations about the whole field?

My “Undead Eliot” essay in the same issue sticks out a microphone and records echoes of “The Waste Land” in contemporary verse. I had been collecting examples from books, magazines, and web sites for a couple of years—whenever I spotted an Eliot allusion I stuck a copy of the poem in a little pile on a high shelf. I shore such fragments against my ruin all the time, though sometimes I lose track of them before a writing project materializes. In this case, I ended up seeing a pattern in the debris: lots of the poems emphasize sound, voice, cadence. And I found time to pound out part of an essay in the summer of 2012, before I dropped the project, pressed for time. Then Don Share was named Poetry’s editor and I thought, hey, he might like this. (I’d heard a memorable presentation from him years ago about curating audio archives at the Harvard Vocarium.) So I finished a draft, submitted it in June 2013, and a few revisions and 15 months later, I’m singing about unreal cities to all you folks out there in radioland.

I encompass some aesthetic and regional diversity in the essay, but not much—there just isn’t room for more than a handful of examples. What I found myself considering, during the final weeks of back-and-forth about galleys, was what got left out and why. Several of the poems I cut from consideration, because they just weren’t as obsessed with sound as the others, happened to be authored by women. Most of the poets to whom I ended up giving extended attention happened to be authored by men.

So, is contemporary response to “The Waste Land” gendered? That’s hard to answer in the brief thinking-space I can give to blogging, as I perch on the precipice of fall term (classes start today). That question would be hard to answer, frankly, in a book-length argument pondered for years. “Women poets” is an unruly, diverse category, and hallelujah for that. But it may be that women are a little more prone, even when they respond affirmatively to Eliot’s poetic power, to take note, too, of Eliot’s misogyny and/or the poem’s focus on sexuality. There’s the disturbing section about Fresca, a woman poet whose literary productions are compared to passing “stool,” for example—that’s in the manuscript edition. The final version features a few scenes of men and women failing to communicate; the typist’s debased sex with the young man carbuncular; many references to how the rape of Philomel enables song-voice-poetry; and catty pub-talk about abortion. Tiresias stands conspicuously between genders and there are coded references to homosexuality in the Smyrna merchant passage and elsewhere. I hear Eliot’s love for Jean Verdenal resonating through the poem, and wonder if the secret he alludes to in the final section (“the awful daring of a moment’s surrender”) has to do with erotic attachment to the young man he knew in Paris and who died later in the Great War. The role of gender in the poem, and the history of its composition, has been key to its reception by many poets, including me.

By way of postscript, then, here are a couple of poems that didn’t fit my essay’s paradigm but that nevertheless testify about how Eliot sounds now. From “Her Nerves,” by Jeannine Hall Gailey, quoted by permission of the author:

You are afraid—not just of me,
but what I see and hear that you don’t—
the crusts of blood, slippery dirt-gorged voices.
You like it when I curse creatively,
hate it when the paper piles like excrement around me.

Fresca’s revenant presence in the above lines fits the logic of Gailey’s book Becoming the Villainess: to gain mature power, a heroine must become monstrous, and certainly powerful middle-aged women are not represented generously by modernist poets, male or female (think of those portraits of ladies, for starters). Like Eliot, too, Gailey is rewriting myth, with particular interest in Philomel. Gender scripts create a stifling catastrophe for several characters in Gailey’s collection as well as in “The Waste Land” itself.

After my essay was published, Daisy Fried sent me a link to one of her own Eliot-influenced poems, “Elegy.” Fried associates Eliot with a scene of schooling, but also with sexual adventure, and, ultimately, with loss. She even recasts Tiresias as “Transgendered Professor Y.” “Elegy” isn’t about what Eliot means to writers today; instead “The Waste Land” is sort of playing in the background, setting off weird harmonies between past and present. Of course we’re all still wasted by sex, grief, and all the great art we’ve inherited and can’t live up to. Inspired, too.

PPS: I talk about some of this stuff with the editors in a Poetry podcast, although how I ended up on a recording with John Ashbery remains a cosmic mystery to me. Also, thanks to Poetry Daily for featuring the essay this week and amplifying its range.