Fever dreams, Pound, & Shenandoah

Last week, I wished for an energy display icon on my forehead. Uh-oh, Lesley’s at 12% and has entered low-battery mode, expect her to be dim. Honestly, I’m not sure how I got through all my classes as well as giving a guest lecture and two weekend readings. I fear I said weird things, and I know I sent a feverish work email I can’t recall writing, because I found it in the printer later.

But Erika Meitner gave a terrific reading that I somehow presided over (here’s a guest blog I wrote about her work for Shenandoah). And the audiences, hosts, and fellow performers in my own readings at Fairmont State and Richmond’s Tea for Two series were particularly warm and kind. On the downside, my forty-ninth birthday was spent trying to get a handle on endless homework while treating an awful sinus infection. I’ll have to do better next year.

It’s funny how work that drains you–such as teaching or hosting a visitor–can simultaneously plug you in and start charging you up again. It was tiring to drive to Richmond after a long semi-sick Friday. Laura-Gray Street and I had devised a plan of alternating reader and topic every few poems. Creating a list of poems for each theme was time-consuming. Yet the scheme raised the energy, I think, giving the event some plot and suspense. Perhaps it even raised the stakes. Laura-Gray had found the following quote from an “unnamed Chinese author, circa 575 B.C.E.”:

“Clothes, food, shelter: Satisfy these first, then teach people to be human.”

So our four topics: clothes, food, shelter, and being human (we chose poems for the latter about meaning and spirit). Turns out I’m a shelter poet and a being-human poet–my food poems are mostly about hunger and my clothes poems about nakedness. It was interesting to learn that. At any rate, I had some seriously lovely conversations with other writers afterwards. Connections sparking all over the place.

One more bright node: I had a late-August essay posted at Modernism/ Modernity last week, where I have a column on the writing process. This post’s called “Teaching/ Writing Correspondence, Part I” . It addresses the study of poets’ letters–a big topic for my current modernism students, who, for a final project, will be annotating some 50s correspondence recently acquired by our library between undergrad Shenandoah editor Tom Carter and Ezra Pound. I’m no Pound scholar and have always been skeptical of defining the period according to his program. He was a brilliant, crazy bigot; I like other poetry better. Yet I can feel myself being drawn into the vortex. I don’t really have time to fiddle around but this project is so interesting.

When I first started at W&L more than twenty years ago, I had a dream about walking into a near-empty classroom. The windows were open to a summer breeze and I could hear students running around on the grass. Sitting quietly at the desk working was a young Ezra Pound, pointy beard and all. He gestured me over and we sat and looked at some of my poems together. He didn’t praise them, but as he pushed them back to me, he nodded, implying he saw potential. He said, “Keep working and you’ll get somewhere.”

Was dream-Pound priming young me for later work on his legacy? Damn and blast.

msa-shenandoah-page
A Tom Carter issue of Shenandoah (and dig that tuxedo ad!)

 

Pound, Eliot, and vintage radios

I’m between stations with a head full of static. I just finished teaching–submitted my last grade, for an honors thesis on Wallace Stevens–but my sabbatical doesn’t officially begin until July 1. I’m also signing off on an interim year as Department Head, and the final hours involve an unbelievable amount of writing. The letters for colleagues feel important, the reports feel trivial, but in any case, none of it is remotely literary. I’ll be glad to remove my needle from this particular groove in a few weeks.

Another reason I’m not fully here, or anywhere, is that modernism’s greatest hits have been playing relentlessly in my head. I recently visited Washington and Lee’s Special Collections to visit a dazzling new acquisition: 100 letters from Ezra Pound to Thomas Henry Carter, once a student editor of Shenandoah. Old issues of the latter literary magazine aren’t online, so you can’t easily look up Andrew J. Kappel’s 1980 article about the correspondence: “Ezra Pound, Thomas Carter, and the Making of An American Literary Magazine” (31.3: 3-22), but librarian Jeff Barry sent it to me and it’s pretty interesting. In 1952, Carter was a W&L sophomore who wrote to Pound at St. Elizabeth’s for publishing guidance. Carter was also hoping for, say, a Canto or two, but Pound didn’t oblige for a few years. When Pound finally did send in part of Canto 88, a different student editor rejected it–and Carter died young, at home in Martinsville, Virginia. The letters had been housed at Patrick Henry Community College for decades, and now a Digital Humanities class at W&L is trying to figure out how to preserve and promote the legacy. There are also boxes full of other materials, including Carter’s great little magazine collection and a Wyndham Lewis portrait of Pound that really should be hanging somewhere (I vote for Payne Hall). I will be thinking about how these collections can inform my teaching of modernism, but in the meantime I’m preparing to give a lesson to the DH class–Pound 101, basically, or Modernism: Quick and Dirty. Whoops, did I say I was done with teaching?

In the meantime, I’m preparing to review a new biography: Young Eliot by Robert Crawford. At some point you’ll find my remarks in the T.S. Eliot newsletter, but the short version, although I’m only up to Tom’s undergrad years, is that so far the book is rich, detailed, fresh, and useful. I guess it’s trivia if you’re not a fan, but it’s satisfying to learn that the poor air quality of the early poems–all that soot and yellow fog–is not just informed by Boston or European cities, but by St. Louis, where industry was fueled by burning soft coal. Eliot seems more American all the time (even as biographied by a Brit who really should write “tornado” instead of “cyclone”).

AND my teenage daughter just wrote an essay about “The Hollow Men” so she’s reading further and demanding on-the-spot “Waste Land” lectures over grilled chicken. AND, as I finally relax a bit, seeing enough time enough next year to finish my current critical project about 21st century verse, Taking Poetry Personally, I start wondering what comes after. Is it some version of Taking Modernism Personally? From contemporary poetry, back to golden oldies?

Well, before that comes a quick trip to Swarthmore, and graduation here, and finishing the damn assessment report. Plus, I have to finish pulling together my fall poetry collection, Radioland. Photographer and vintage radio collector Mark Meijster of Amsterdam has just given me permission to use his gorgeous photograph on the cover. I am jazzed. Hey you out there in radioland: stay tuned.

Radioland cover image

Those awful middle-aged women

Somehow I keep finding myself perched on a table in front of a bunch of perky twenty-year-olds, stirring up a conversation about some dreadful woman in a poem or story who is too sexual, or even just too friendly, for being so damned old.

For a while, my avoidance of those conversations was quite skillful. I neatly sidestepped, for instance, the artist-collecting salonnière in Ezra Pound’s “Portrait d’une Femme”: I mentioned the modernist practice of staking one’s literary claims by tearing down some less than perfectly brilliant not-young female person, quoted the bit in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly” about the “old bitch gone in the teeth,” and moved on. After all, that was our first session on international modernism, so there was “A Retrospect” to discuss, and “In a Station of the Metro,” and “A Pact,” and those translations based on Fenollosa… Having managed this clever escape from my poetry students, I landed in a composition class for which we’d read the Grimm version of “Snow-White” and various contemporary revisions. Uh-oh. I had some ideas about whiteness to throw around, especially given Neil Gaiman’s wonderfully disturbing retake in “Snow, Glass, Apples,” but we couldn’t evade that persistent stepmother (or mother in the earliest versions), driven by an unholy desire to remain beautiful when she should be ceding her place in the spotlight. How does the original differ from the Disney version? I asked, so we proceeded to the gruesome ending in which the stepmother is shoehorned into red-hot iron footwear and forced to dance herself to death. Yes, we agreed, she wanted to be a spectacle of gorgeousness, and according to fairy-tale logic she’s punished by this grotesque-mirror version of being the belle at the ball. Feeling myself the center of all eyes in the room, I shifted uncomfortably. The subtext became even more glaring when we moved to Anne Sheldon’s poem, “Snow White Turns 39.” One of the students proposed, reasonably enough, that the final line could suggest a death-wish. Aw, I lamented, having to admit he could be right—I wanted her to become empowered by smashing that mirror! They all laughed surprisingly hard, as if my plaint were extremely funny. I scowled at them suspiciously.

Yesterday, back to the poetry class. Assignment: Prufrock and Other Observations, which crackles with failed broadcasts between men and women. Sometimes a youngish speaker can’t quite manage cocktail chatter, as in the title poem, or romantic silence seems to authorize artistic creation, as in “La Figlia Che Piange.” Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady,” though, brings that problem of the talky, lonely, desiring older woman to the forefront again. There I am, a middle-aged woman who just wants to talk about art, teaching a poem to college students that’s ABOUT a tiresome superannuated Juliet trapping a bored college student with her embarrassing speeches about how much she values his conversation about art. The speaker’s “self-possession gutters”—he feels moments of sympathy, guilt, self-doubt—but he ends up more or less fantasizing about her dying already. Kind of a Mrs. Robinson situation, one student remarks.  I’m thinking: kind of like me.

Poems change on you from decade to decade—it matters who you are when you read them. Who you are also matters in the classroom. Long ago, a friend told me about teaching English in Japan. She asked her supervisor why her students were nearly all male. It had been arranged that way because sexual chemistry helps students learn, she was told. That assumption is wrong in so many ways—it assumes universal heterosexuality, for one thing—but it’s not entirely crazy to assume that the ages and sexes and characters of students and teachers affect their relationship. There is an emotional intensity to teaching. It’s appalling when teachers abuse their power and become sexually involved with students, but of course parties on both sides of any lectern have feelings about their interactions, ideally enjoying each other’s intellectual company very much. Literary people find literary conversation exciting. I’ve had many enduring friendships spring from the intimacies of teaching: who gets my English-nerd jokes better than the student who’s taken my classes, read all the same books, learned everything I think about the works that matter most to me, and mused with me about writing as twilight deepens past the office window?

So it gets to me now, when I see some version of myself in a text I’m teaching and she’s ridiculous. I’ve always had some privileges in the classroom. My mostly-white students don’t get angry or fall silent when I bring up race, for instance, because I’m white—some of my colleagues get much, much more resistance to that necessary topic. I also appreciate how aging has conferred authority, some of it earned, some of it just a side effect of looking more like my students’ mothers now than their sisters. I did have a senior undergraduate ask me on a date once, when I was his TA in grad school, and it was terrible—I should have explained seriously why I couldn’t say yes, but instead, assuming he must be mocking me, I laughed, and then his feelings were hurt and my chances of teaching him effectively for the rest of the term were pretty much blown. It’s a good thing to have achieved immunity from propositions!

I really don’t need to be the fairest in the land. In fact, it’s very clear from this vantage that I did my future self a big favor when in my cute-as-a-button twenties I staked my self-worth on intellect and art. But I would like to continue to be interesting to all kinds of people despite? because of? my literal and metaphorical gray hair and avoirdupois. I’m still the heroine of my own tale, ambitious as ever. More so.

If I ever write another fantasy story (I just found Joseph Harker’s review of the last one here, by the way), the protagonist will be female, on the better side of forty, and well-rounded in every sense—no adorable Narnian moppets, disenfranchised warrior sons, or thin fierce adolescents like Katniss. In the meantime, maybe I have a poem to write. Don’t worry, all you woman-leery hobbits out there: “Portrait of a Lady My Ass” is just a working title.

Poetic karma

I’m sure I’m doing a horrible disservice to an important theological concept by throwing around the phase above. I understand karma itself only in a pop-cultural way—the idea that you reap what you sow, even if not right away, not obviously. Here’s what I mean by hitching it to the adjective “poetic.”

I fervently hope poets get what they deserve. In the long run, the work itself should be all that matters—not whom you know or where you live but what you have to say and how powerfully you say it. I do not actually believe this is true, but I want it to be, and in the meantime every right-thinking Sisyphean poet-critic should be trying to make it true. I want most of our energy to go into writing really interesting, urgent, capacious, intelligent, brilliantly crafty verse, and then when the Roving Eye of Literary Fashion happens to pass over it, it has to pause: wow! look! has anybody noticed this is REALLY amazing? That is, when luck strikes, we’re ready with the goods. Or, you know, we’re not—the work is just decent, not amazing, and the Eye passes on, but at least then we’ve done our best and the results are fair. Some of us have to be the mulch from which a few splendid lilies rise. I hope I’m not compost, I’m trying not to be, though odds are that I am, and that you are too. 

But I’m a modernism scholar, so I can look back and see that well, hell, most of the modernist-era poets we still read knew and helped each other, both with the poetry itself and with the process of delivering it to the world. Some of them dated each other. Granted, there were multiple overlapping circles of influence. There were also outliers who eventually hit the bigtime despite Ezra Pound’s indifference or their geographical distance from New York or London. But clearly extraliterary factors matter, especially personal networks and proximity to literary power.

So what’s a poet to do? I do think about relocation but I can’t move to a big city unless some crazy stroke of luck changes my marketability (or my spouse’s: he’s a fiction writer wildly trying to wave down the Roving Eye, too). My employer gives a world-portable college tuition benefit to my kids, who are now twelve and sixteen (if you haven’t looked at U.S. tuitions lately, know that the pricetag’s obscene). If I moved jobs now their options would diminish. Yeah, Robert Frost would have made his kids take the lump, but for better and worse, I’m nicer than Robert Frost. And this, by the way, is just the barrier to looking.

Here’s what I’m left with: write my heart out, make friends where I am, keep sending the work out, and do what I can to minimize distance through publication and travel (blogging and Twitter open up interesting interactions too, though, again, I suspect they don’t matter nearly as much as all the accidental conversations you have if you physically live in a literary nexus). And, with a mixture of idealism and skepticism, practice the following principles to create good poetic karma:

1. Read books and journals. Also, buy books and subscribe to journals.

2. Publish reviews.

3. Whenever possible, be generous. Say yes.

I’d like to think they’ll get me further than being a ruthless jerk would, but I don’t know for sure. I can say that while I’ve received a ton of rejections this summer, a few editors have sent along some very cheering acceptances. Also, in one of those random benedictions you can’t apply for, Poetry Daily featured one of my poems, “Powder Burn.”  A review I published in Rattle prompted a letter from a writer named Nina Romano who then put up two of my poems in the “Poet’s Corner” of her press web site (they’ll only be there for a few more days, but still, what a random, nice thing!–and if you click on the link belatedly I think you’ll find someone else’s wonderful poem there). I’m particularly proud of a poem in the new Crab Orchard Review, too, in case you can get your hands on it.

I’ve regretted saying yes sometimes and planted plenty of seeds in apparently dead ground. But actions flower unexpectedly, too. Besides, behaving as if poets don’t get what they deserve—meaning selfish striving, I guess, or despair—might be rational but it also seems poisonous. I have a feeling my poems wouldn’t like it.