Multiple worlds in poetry, fiction, and politics

Traveling to an alternate universe of thinking and writing has been helpful lately given an attempted coup, and racist police response, AND the apocalyptic daily death count and a catastrophically lame vaccine rollout. I don’t manage the leap into literary concentration every day, but that’s actually what my next book is about: what helps us slip into the reading trance, where poetry is concerned, and what that border-crossing does for a reader.

I’m polishing and updating my forthcoming essay collection, to be called Poetry’s Possible Worlds or Taking Poetry Personally depending on what my editor says. It requires reading and rereading widely and wildly to make sure my thinking and research are up-to-date: Carolyn Dinshaw’s exhilarating How Soon Is Now, Nicole Seymour’s Bad Environmentalism, and essays on narrative theory, deep attention, presentism, poetry of witness, and much more. New to me is Brian Attebery’s Stories About Stories, of interest partly because I’m thinking about story in poetry but also because of my investment in speculative fiction. Attebery argues that the cultural importance of literary fantasy as a genre lies in how it “redefine[s] the relationship between contemporary readers and mythic texts.” I’m not wholly satisfied with that as a definition, yet the book is useful and interesting. He describes genre, for instance, as “fuzzy sets”: “the question of what genre a particular text belongs to will never be resolved, nor need it be. The interesting question about any given story is not whether it is fantasy or science fiction or realistic novel, but rather what happens when we read it as one of those things.”

In the larger sense, I write in many genres–poetry, fiction, criticism, reviews, literary nonfiction–but I also think of myself as operating in the borderlands between smaller categories. My poetry has appeared and been reviewed in both “mainstream” and sf venues; it’s been called lyric, political, formalist, fabulist, and more, to which I say, cool. My forthcoming hybrid essay collection (blending criticism, theory, and personal narrative) argues that most poetry is not just fiction but fantasy. It’s fiction because framing it on a page as literary art sets it apart from truth and lies; it’s fantasy because, notwithstanding, it’s obsessed with what’s true. I define fantasy in a way that’s tangential to Attebery’s idea; I think of it as fiction exploring questions of what’s real, what matters.

And then there’s my novel Unbecoming. It’s been described as “an excellent feminist fantasy,” Weird fiction, magic realism, a fairy tale, and academic satire. Since it concerns the transformations involved in menopause I thought it might get dismissed as “women’s fiction,” but that’s not how it’s been received at all. No reviewer has called it “domestic fabulism,” either, which might be just as well, although I like some things about the term. The latter refers to books in which the primary world is realistic but into which weirdness makes persistent incursions–a structure that also describes many or most Stephen King novels, and he’s not called a “domestic fabulist.” As much as I enjoy some stories set in secondary worlds, novels that explore the strangeness of what seems familiar are my sweet spot. They’re more realistic than realism, in my experience, and more interesting. Poetry absolutely occupies similar territory, refreshing the ways we encounter the mundane.

Does Unbecoming redefine anyone’s relationship to myth? It does involve crossings in and out of a place like Faerie (called by an acerbic narrator UnWales), considering those crossings as migration tales as well as metaphors for weird bodily metamorphoses (true story: people fall asleep and wake up middle-aged). UnWales seems like an alternate possible reality, too, for characters who are stuck in a bad script or negotiating discrimination. Yet I wonder if the more important myths in my novel are those about menopause, that it’s an end of all good things instead of a beginning. The main character also has to reconsider lots of stories about herself, among them to what extent she’s actually a good person who helps make the world better. I’d give her a mixed grade on that. If you’ve read the novel, I’d be interested to hear what you think.

Back to the allegedly real world where conspiracy theorists in pelts and Viking horns invade the Capitol, convinced they live in a country where the presidential election was stolen, ready to live by and die for their fantasies.

Fantasy, The Weird, & the Big Picture

I attended my first World Fantasy Con this weekend, which didn’t stop me from tracking election news and Covid-19 spikes, but gave me some wonderful hours of forgetting to doomscroll as I listened to writers talk about storytelling and publishing. I don’t mean that this was an escapist event or that I forgot the burning world. When you become absorbed in a good poem or story in any genre, you’re still thinking about identity, justice, the past, the future; you’re just pulling back from the minutiae of your surroundings to imagine different perspectives and, sometimes, different scales of meaning. To quote Karen Joy Fowler quoting Samuel Delaney (I’ve probably mangled this): “sf writers come in with a big picture of the world,” their attention potentially encompassing everything from interplanetary politics to small, character-based dramas.

A few fragments from the Con:

  • The “Queering Fantasy” panel was one of the first I attended, and it was generous and empowering. The speakers encouraged writers to learn and take risks toward the goal of building better worlds. It made me look forward to getting my brain back so I can plunge into my own novel again (one day soon, I hope?).
  • I spoke on a panel called “The Weird Side of the Fantastic,” organized and moderated by Anya Martin and also including Brian Everson, Michael Kelly, Craig Laurance Gidney, and Zin E. Rocklyn (teri.zin). I was by FAR the newest to this conversation, so I felt abashed to talk at all, but they were nice to me. The Weird, or so the consensus in this group went, isn’t really a genre or clique of writers so much as a slippery, unpredictable incursion of irresolveable, disturbing, and sometimes empowering strangeness into any kind of tale. I’ve garbled that, but I feel at home in the Weird’s way of challenging what passes for realism, as I think many poets do (poetry is so often trying to close in on some weirdness that can’t be expressed). The panel was also a good corrective to an old association between the Weird and Lovecraft’s powerful but toxic version of horror. As teri.zin said (again, I’m approximating, being too absorbed to take perfect notes), Black life in the U.S. has always involved existential threat that is invisible to many white Americans. Weird fiction can be a good fit for those experiences.
  • A moderated conversation with one of my current favorite authors, Stephen Graham Jones, may have been the peak of the Con for me. It was deeply moving, very funny, and unpretentiously framed by the experience of someone who wasn’t expected to go to college but ended up, by a circuitous path, arriving at acclaim and best-seller lists. Again, it was also generous, making room for everyone in big conversations about craft and ambition.
  • Do you know the experience of feeling more nervous reading for a tiny group than for a big one? I had given a W&L-based Zoom reading to 75 enrolled participants a few days before, and while I was mighty wound up, I felt good about that event. Yet I gave a reading in the “Weird Cluster” event this weekend and felt like I bungled it. It’s okay. Win some, lose some. (It didn’t help that the event started 10:30 pm Eastern; I suspect the last time I stayed up past midnight was around 2005.) As it happened, a significantly larger audience wandered in later and my cohort carried the night brilliantly. All hail Christi Nogle, Anya Martin, Zin E. Rocklyn, and Eugen Bacon! The picture below is one of Eugen’s screenshots.
  • Listening to Karen Joy Fowler talk about Ursula K. Le Guin was lovely. Fowler also talked about how when she’s in literary circles, people react with dismay to learn of her genre connections, but at Cons, people say, “Sf AND The Jane Austen Book Club? YEAH!” Those biases smacked me in the face when I published The Receptionist and Other Tales, an sf poetry collection; it was short-listed for a great sf award, but when I told some poets about the book, they backed away slowly as if fearing genre-cooties. I’ll say it again: snobs of the lit-verse need to cool it. There’s great and awful work in every marketing category; stereotyping a whole slice of the literary world is just ignorant.
  • Also from Fowler, reporting what Le Guin said about getting some writing done as a woman: “One person cannot do two jobs but two people can do three jobs.”
  • One random crazy moment: I watched an audience member fall asleep during a Zoom reading, the whole head-nod-and-neck-snap slow catastrophe. Zoom has facilitated much worse behavior, but jeez.

It wasn’t all amazing. During many panels, including “Queering Fantasy” and “Black Speculative Futures,” panelists called out deep problems with World Fantasy Con, both historical and recent. Apparently the first version of the 2020 program wasn’t diverse and featured panel descriptions full of stereotypes. I haven’t even seen it–it occurred to me very late that I could try this Con, because it was virtual and I no longer had to scrape up funds for Utah–but vestiges of a much narrower vision of fantasy were perceptible in the version I attended, as well as what you’d have to call obtuseness, at best. Some very accomplished white speakers whose writing I adore dismayed me when they said things like, “humanity is terrible but everyone where I live is so nice,” apparently unaware of how whiteness shelters people from even noticing discrimination and violence; also, it’s not cool to mispronounce names and laugh about it, even though we all make mistakes. Generally, though, I steered my viewing away from events that didn’t feature speakers from marginalized groups. That’s best practice at every conference I’ve ever attended, simply to find the interesting conversations.

I don’t know if I have an accurate impression of this Con when I say I perceived tension about who gets to define these interlocking genres and traditions, plus some reluctance, in some people, to address those conflicts forthrightly. I can say, though, that this WFC did make space for some large and exciting discussions. Many Weird and sffh authors (science fiction-fantasy-horror) are deeply thoughtful about whose realities come into play in fiction, and how; they keep expanding these interlocking fields in incredibly exciting ways. It felt like a gift to spend time with them on this of all weekends.

Don’t freak out, but those beautiful earrings were a gift from Hyejung Kook and they have scavenged fox bones in them

Instructions for creating England

My speculative poetry students have been asking brilliant questions during the past two weeks: what’s Tracy K. Smith’s attitude towards a posthuman future in Life on Mars? How does assigning a higher priority to the natural world change Marvin Bell’s sense of what death means? How do Jeannine Hall Gailey’s villainesses differ from their counterparts in Ovid and Hans Christian Andersen, and why? What does James Merrill admire in that other weird spiritualist, Yeats, and what does he reject? This is also a course in research writing, so each student is pursuing a topic and teaching some part of it to the rest of the class. Their presentations have been wildly interesting, though, of course, pulling coherent papers out of a mess of tough questions is a hard thing to do—we’ll see next week how well the actual writing is going.

I’m “working” on my own essays pretty minimally right now: using my classes, for sure, to read and think about research, but not putting fingers to keyboard much. My students’ efforts, though, made me want to try. So, briefly: I’ve been dunking my toes in Lubomir Doležel’s Heterocosmica on and off for a couple of years now, interested in his descriptions of how novelists construct and readers enter fiction’s incomplete possible worlds, and trying to figure out how and why poets summon up possible worlds, too. They certainly do in epic and other long narrative modes, but my gut says that lyric poems can also constitute virtual universes, although they’re even more incomplete. I suspect, for instance, that one reason I prefer reading single-author collections to anthologies, and why knowing a poet’s biography deepens my pleasure in the verses, is that increased data helps me fill in more details of whatever place a poem evokes.

That’s a reader’s approach to poetry’s possible worlds; the writer’s involves a series of technical problems. How, in the space of a few lines, do you absorb a stranger into some alternate spacetime? During those class presentations last week, I realized that one of the poets I’ve been teaching addresses that problem quite overtly. As Chase talked about Todorov in relation to Sally Rosen Kindred’s Peter Pan poems—is Kindred hesitating between realities, as Todorov says fantastic stories do, or do her poems inhabit some straight-up version of the marvelous?—it clicked for me how much her chapbook Darling Hands, Darling Tongue concerns literary world-building. Look at this passage from “What Wendy Darling Tells Her Brother” (full version here):

Don’t you remember
the smell of her—lemon and ash—
her skin’s speckle like wrens’ eggs
and the warm wind of her moving in
off the edge of the bed, to hover
by cool sheets and bring her hands
down on your face
like rain?

Kindred’s Wendy, as the stand-in for the poet in this collection, is struggling to create successfully absorbing fictional universes. In this case, she wants desperately to remind her brother about England and the parents he’s half-forgotten. One of her strategies is to call up sensory detail as vividly as possible–sight, smell, touch. Simile and metaphor are portals, too. Michael in Neverland knows what warm wind and rain feel like, so they might help him remember or imagine. From Wendy’s current vantage, England isn’t exactly real (tangible? available? important?), but the storyteller misses it all the same:

And though it wasn’t real
it was home. And though it was in time
it was ours, the mother and father
who draped the air, their bodies strange
and soft with yearning.
It felt right to have a mother, to live
in the lap of a world I hadn’t made.
Don’t you remember?
It felt just like this story
that I am telling you.

Stories transport us, and certain ones transport us to “the lap of a world” safer and better than the mundane existences we often seem to inhabit. For Kindred, reality is relative and fragile. Wherever you are, you might try hard to believe in an elsewhere–maybe that effort to believe defines you–but your longing can never be fully satisfied. Not only do Neverland and England shimmer a bit, mirage-like, but Kindred’s also invoking the universe of oral storytelling from the pages of a handbound chapbook. This gap between print and voice is one engine, in fact, of lyric poetry’s power: nostalgia for sound, or attempts to represent its complexity in little black characters, drive verse’s turns and repetitions. In Darling Hands, Darling Tongue, the loss of a voiced world also entails all the losses of growing up.

Where are we? How does it feel to be not there? I type these questions into a blog-box, writing and not-writing, reading and not-reading, having just tipped from a long winter into a spring with snow in the forecast. I think Todorov is wrong about genre: fantasy is bigger than he allows, and often entails not just hesitating between explanations but understanding that our wildest speculations can be more real than, say, our social security numbers. There’s no knowing what matters, after all, until you lose it or find a way to step away from it. The oscillations of my professorial life show me that, too. Fantasies about writing’s Neverland, viewed through the portal of teaching English, clarify what’s at stake in both universes.

Poetry as speculative fiction; or, being naive

I don’t share in ritual contempt for literary criticism as an enterprise—how could I and still bear to live with myself?—but having spent too much of the summer engaged in a massive review of several critical fields, I feel annoyed about the whole endeavor. English Departments are full of brilliant, passionate people but most of them aren’t using their publishing powers for good: shouldn’t criticism persuade others that reading and thinking about literature are intensely rewarding experiences? Dull writing is The Big Awful. If you can’t be consistently fascinating you should at least be clear and concise, and few of us meet that bar.

My peeve this week, though, is how every critic fondly dismisses the previous critic’s naïveté. Oh, Frye, he’s so naïve about genre. Oh, all those guys, they think literature is mimesis. Silly theorists. Here’s how things actually stand… I find myself wanting to answer with a manifesto claiming naïveté as my personal philosophy just to save everyone the trouble. It’s okay, Future Critic. I already know I’m benighted.

I really am doomed to be so damned. I’m writing a book about twenty-first century poetry, arguing that it’s all (well, often) speculative fiction or perhaps fantasy. Definitions of the latter tend to include the words “possible,” “knowable,” or “reality”—I can promise you this because I’ve read ALL OF THEM—with the frequent co-stars “strange” and “uncertain.” Fantasy is literature preoccupied with the question “what’s real?” or its corollary, “what are the rules?” Its arch-nemesis, according to various explainers, is sometimes realism and sometimes science fiction, both being arts invested in plausibility, whereas fantastic literature proposes that everything is more mysterious than we thought. I prefer “speculative fiction” as a term to “fantasy” because it suggests a useful kind of blurriness, potentially including straight-up genre books as well as all the crossover territory, but for most people it’s so blurry it doesn’t mean anything, so I may have to give it up. The working title of my book is Poetry’s Possible Worlds and since June I’ve drafted four chapters of a projected dozen. I’d like to sketch out the whole monster in the next thirteen months, but I’m burnt out right now and I teach full-time from September through May, so we’ll see.

I realized in early July: oh, I’m writing literary theory. Which is stupid, because I have a limited tolerance for reading literary theory; the gist is often interesting but the nuances make me sleepy. And sleeping through chunks of Jameson or Todorov is bound to make me extremely naïve.

Worse: I can’t even use the butt-covering jargon du jour. Poetry’s Possible Worlds is also a book about reading. It’s aimed at anyone with some interest in, though not necessarily deep knowledge about, contemporary poetry. Each chapter begins with a poem quoted in full. Permissions will be tricky, but it’s really important to me that readers have their own encounter with each poem before I start messing around with it. My premises are that it’s pleasurable to get lost in a poem’s pocket universe, that we should take poetry personally, and that we have a right to our own responses. The chapters add layers to those responses by telling stories about the personal contexts of my own readings—yep, that means memoir—as well as fiddling around with exegesis and what-it-all-means argument (a.k.a. theory). I think twenty-first century poetry is absolutely worth reading. I’m selecting focal poems with variety in mind (national and aesthetic diversity as well as diversity in race and gender), but my most important criterion: I have to find each poem powerful, and imagine it could detonate powerfully inside readers who don’t recognize allusions or linguistic fashion statements.

Anyway, you can see why I really need next week’s mindless beach vacation. The chapters are not very long (4000-4500 words each) and the writing has been really fun, but it taxes every resource at my command. The style is essayistic—driven not only by arguments but motifs and lyric association—and I’m including a scaffolding of endnotes, at least for now, to keep track of the sources influencing me most. I’m getting feedback as I go from my spouse, a fiction writer who’s really good at macro/ structural considerations, but mostly I’ve just been charging ahead like a maniac. I’ll probably send a couple of chapters out to lit mags that publish creative nonfiction with a critical bent, but I’m not ready yet. I need to be quite sure of where I’m going first. Plus, creative writing just needs more fermentation time as text than the writing that appears in scholarly journals, which is really just a delivery system for ideas—the sentences need to be balanced and elegant, with no clumsy transitions, and that takes multiple rounds of scrutiny.

This is the most urgent book I can think of to write at this moment. Caring so much about it makes the work harder. I know my argument is idiosyncratic. Some people will think I’m diminishing poetry, or fantasy, or both. Others will find huge blind spots in the poems I include or neglect. There will be too much criticism for some readers, too much personal crap for others. The experience of writing it reminds me more of poetry composition than criticism-writing, in large part because of the driving terror. After all, if something about the jostle of the words in a poem doesn’t delight, confuse, or outright alarm you, why are you writing it? Who knows if you’ll ever have readers, so you have to imagine them and forget them. You have to please yourself.

Heterocosmic

My mother divested herself of all kinds of things last year—furniture, dishes, adulterous husband. On one of my visits she loaded me up with a bin of old papers and photos. I quickly divided them into four piles: one each for me, my sister, and my brother, and one for disposal. Then I left my pile in a corner of my bedroom for two months, not knowing what to do with it.

I looked through it recently before putting the stack in the ultimate Place of Repression—our chaotic attic—but plucked out one item for my office. It’s an old black-and-white postcard of Calder High School in Liverpool. My mother attended it as a scholarship girl in the fifties. A few years ago, I wrote a book of poems about Liverpool in that era, published as Heterotopia (“other place”) in 2010. Because I grew up on family stories of Vronhill Street and the Calderstones, that place and time still feels vivid to me: not vanished, just not easily accessible, an otherworld you can sometimes enter through the back of the wardrobe. See? I brought home a postcard.

Stories, poems, photographs can be time-travel devices when they absorb you sufficiently, though like doors to Narnia, the mechanisms aren’t entirely dependable. I’m always hoping to enable that step-into-the-fairy-ring effect, but other contemporary poets can be ambivalent about soliciting reader immersion. I’m currently teaching a seminar on poetry and place and we began with books about the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. All of them conjure up the pre-storm world, the terrible nightmare universe of flooded New Orleans, and the damage remaining. At the moment we’re reading Nicole Cooley’s Breach, in which narrative (a strategy of absorption) oscillates with fragmentation (anti-absorptive, insisting on our awareness of the poems as self-conscious assemblages). There’s a lot to say about Cooley’s compelling collection but for now, a glimpse:

Old Gulf Coast Postcards

Between the already-over and the now-gone, on a corner of the wrecked
downtown, in the Gulfport Pharmacy, my daughter and I spin the black rack—

Broadwater Beach. Biloxi Harbor. Pass Christian where two girls
splash in a Technicolor ocean so blue it burns your eyes.

Last year turned historical: Welcome to Dauphin Island! Greetings
from Waveland! Climb aboard the red and white ship

SS Hurricane Camille, docked at a wooden pier no longer outside.
At The Real Southern Ante-Bellum House, the azaleas

gleam play-doh pink, bunched and bursting off the columned porch.
We spin the rack, and I remember driving to Gulfport with my mother,

beaches my daughter will never see. Harbor, coast, skyline all relic.
Between the gone and the not-recovered, no one

steps out of their house to wave. No porch lights gleam.
Cadaver dogs sniff the dirt. At the edge of downtown, an ancient, twisted oak

lies uprooted, on its side, a sign labeling it Alive.

(online at the Poets for Living Waters site)

“Old Gulf Coast Postcards” works hard to situate us, from title through subtitle to the pharmacy’s location to captioned postcards depicting sites that no longer exist. It also works hard to disorient us through paradox: “between the already-over and the now-gone…between the gone and the not-recovered.” Nobody inhabits this unlocatable heterocosmica (“other world”), she tells us (although heterocosmica is my favorite new word, not one that Cooley uses!). The postcards offer a “Technicolor” vision where flowers bloom in unnatural Play-doh hues. Though these details suggest a childish or idealized perspective, Cooley emphasizes the continuing validity of memory when she ends the poem with an uprooted old tree labeled “Alive.”

I have no idea whether uprooted old oaks—live oaks?—can survive and be replanted, but in any case, I don’t think the poem’s final gesture is quixotic. Cooley doesn’t finish this poem’s final couplet because all fictional or poetic worlds, no matter how vivid, are incomplete. Actual people can’t live there anymore. Its poetic invocation is not mere fantasy, though, because fantasy is never mere. Somebody has to imagine persistence or that tree will certainly die. There’s a reason Cooley alludes to so many fairy tales and fantasy universes in this book. They retain crucial resources when so much else seems to be lost.