Sacrifices, gifts, and a year in reading

Fairies and gods haunted my last post, to which I have a couple of addenda: first, an English cousin spotted my story about my mother and her father propitiating the fairies with sweets and, bless him, he brought a matchbox full of sugar to Sefton Park in Liverpool and left it in Fairies Glen, pictured above.

That moved me very much, but a comment poet-musician-blogger Frank Hudson left in response to the post made me sit up straight. I’d asked why sacrifice was so important to fairy stories as well as every religion I can think of. He wrote:

Ah, fairies and fairy stories and sacrifices/gifts. My last abandoned novel was an attempt at a fairy story told without any resort to explicit, understood magic. Too difficult a task for me, who I’m pretty sure is not a novelist, or maybe for any writer. The personal understanding I developed of fairy was that they represent everything we’re not: the other, the choices we don’t make, the things we’ve “conquered,” the suppressed. and so on. We give those things gifts and placating acts, in a complex mix of “tribute” (in the old alliances/bribe against war sense) and guilt. We wish those things to not overcome us, to make war on us and our state — and we also wish we could have those exclusive choices we’ve made and the abandoned choices too.

Sounds reductive as I just wrote it, but I don’t feel it as reductive.

Good insights, even when they’re hard-won, do tend to sound obvious once you say them. This one really clicked. Fairies are so often associated with wild land but also wild feelings: uncontrolled eating and dancing and sex and cruelty. You lose time, and therefore abandon domestic ties, when you enter their circles. The fae character in my novel Unbecoming was, I now understand, incredibly fun to write because in imagining her, I got to inhabit the person I might have been if I were thoroughly, deliciously selfish, unworried about anyone’s future. I rarely consciously knew what she would say or do next; instead, I would take a break from writing and hear her whisper her next lines. The last dictation I received is her last quotation in the book: “I don’t know what I want, but I want it very much.” Word.

Speaking of traces of the past: one last magazine issue with a poem of mine slid under the old year’s wire. “You Know Where the Smithy Stood by the Clinkers” just appeared in the new National Poetry Review. It’s based on a lecture given several years ago by W&L archaeologist Don Gaylord. It immediately helped me see the buildings I work in in a different way, but I had to revise the poem many times, mostly by paring it down, until its architectural bones became clear. The past is always present, even when you suppress difficult memories.

And finally, here’s a list of the books I read, or sacrificed my hours on the altar of, in 2021 (with the *s indicating works published in the last year or so, to keep track of how much contemporary lit I’m reading). I’m currently in the middle of two others: Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence, a ghost story I was very much enjoying, but my daughter wheedled my e-reader away from me for a few days; and Emma Newman’s Between Two Thorns, a fairyland story I’d given to my son for Christmas, and which I started when deprived of Erdrich. I’ve been on a novel-reading binge and want to turn to poetry again in the new year–and I’ll have to, because I start teaching a class on 21st Century Poetry on January 10th. I can’t help the strong planning impulses baked into my character–you should see how busy my 2022 calendar is already!–but one of the goals on my mind is to keep thinking backward and inward, wondering how to negotiate peace with ghosts and my own fae self.

POETRY (29 books and chapbooks, including a few re-reads)

  • 1/7 Daye, Cardinal (reread for review)
  • 1/16 Tran, The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer* (met at a virtual reading)
  • 1/16 Goodkin, Crybaby Bridge* (met at a virtual reading)
  • 2/21 Bonta, Failed State* (fandom)
  • 3/8 Phillips Brown, The Adjacent Possible* (for teaching, and author’s a neighbor!)
  • 3/16 Wade, When I Was Straight (fandom)
  • 4/26 Chiasson, Bicentennial (workshop prep)
  • 5/4 Seuss, Frank: sonnets* (fandom)
  • 5/7 Rekdal, Nightingale (reread for research)
  • 5/18 Wade, Skirted* (fandom)
  • 6/24 Harvey, If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? (friend’s rec)
  • 7/19 Waldman, Not a Male Pseudonym (from a friend)
  • 7/19 Thomas, Red Channel in the Rupture (friend’s rec)
  • 7/28 Youn, Blackacre (my Sewanee teacher)
  • 8/4 Marshall, Finna (my Sewanee teacher)
  • 8/4 Smith, Black Hole Factory (met at Sewanee)
  • 8/10 Meehan, Geomantic (fandom)
  • 8/13 Kindred, Where the Wolf* (fandom)
  • 8/19 Manhire, Wow* (fandom)
  • 8/27 Jones, Reparations Now!* (fandom)
  • 8/28 Choi Wild, Cut to Bloom (met at Sewanee)
  • 8/29 Chiasson, The Math Campers* (met at Bread Loaf)
  • 8/30 Levin, Banana Palace (fandom)
  • 8/31 Phillips, Pale Colors in a Tall Field (fandom)
  • 10/1 Charleston, Songs of Protest, Songs of Freedom (teaching)
  • 10/14 McCully Brown, Nevison, In the Field Between Us* (professional request)
  • 10/25 Jones, Reparations Now! *(reread for teaching)
  • 10/28 Kindred, Where the Wolf* (reread for teaching)
  • 11/7 Tran, The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer* (reread for teaching)

FICTION (32)

  • 1/2  King, The Mist (picked it up used)
  • 1/15 Harrow, Once and Future Witches* (review)
  • 2/14 Atkinson, Case Histories (audiobook for drive)
  • 2/20 Novik, Deadly Education* (review)
  • 3/13 Knox, The Absolute Book* (fandom)
  • 4/3 Mukherjee, The Rising Man (friend’s recommendation)
  • 4/20 Mukherjee, A Necessary Evil (ditto)
  • 5/4 French, The Searcher (audiobook, fandom)
  • 5/? Mukherjee, Smoke and Ashes (see above)
  • 5/27 Sachdeva, All the Names They Used for God
  • 5/31 King, Later* (fandom)
  • 6/10 French, Into the Woods (fandom)
  • 6/13 French, The Likeness (fandom)
  • 6/20 Hummel, Lesson in Red* (fandom)
  • 7/2 French, The Faithful Place (fandom)
  • 7/11 French, Broken Harbor (fandom)
  • 7/ 18 French, The Secret Place (fandom)
  • 7/29 McCorkle, Life After Life (bought at Sewanee)
  • 8/7 Foley, The Hunting Party (audiobook for drive)
  • 8/22 French, The Trespasser (fandom)
  • 8/28 King, Billy Summer*s (fandom)
  • 10/6 Novik, The Last Graduate* (fandom)
  • 10/29 Haig, Midnight Library* (to mentor a student project)
  • 11/7 Perez, Out of Darkness (to counter local bookbanning effort!)
  • 11/11 Ward, The Last House on Needless Street* (review in NYT)
  • 11/26 Hoffman, Practical Magic* (fandom)
  • 11/28 King, The Body (for teaching)
  • 12/1 Tesh, Silver in the Wood (research for conference panel)
  • 12/2 Tesh, The Drowned Country* (research for conference panel)
  • 12/9 Dean, Tam Lin (friend’s recommendation)
  • 12/12 Little Badger, Elatsoe (friend’s recommendation)
  • 12/30 Black, The Cruel Prince (audiobook for car trip)

NONFICTION/ HYBRID (15)

  • 1/5 Attebery, Stories About Stories (research/ teaching)
  • 1/5 Seymour, Bad Environmentalism (research)
  • 1/6 Richter, A Companion to Literary Theory, a good chunk of it (research)
  • 1/13 Russo and Reed, Counter-Desecration (recommended)
  • 1/14 Hakemulder et al, Narrative Absorption (research)
  • 1/15 Connors, Oyster Matters* (friend)
  • 4/3 Pollack, Seventy Eight Degrees of Wisdom (curiosity)
  • 5/12 Frommer’s Iceland (you can guess)
  • 5/18 Hailer, Animal You’ll Surely Become (planning a reading)
  • 5/19 Ball, My San Francisco* (local writer)
  • 7/16 Chavez, The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop* (friends’ recommendations, and for teaching)
  • 8/18 Boruch, The Little Death of Self (research)
  • 9/6 Russo and Reed, eds, Counter-Desecration (reread for teaching)
  • 11/15 Dahl, Boy (teaching)
  • 12/27 Crispin, The Creative Tarot (play)

*published within the last year or so

Sonnet prompts from #SonnetsfromtheAmerican

Octave and sestet: my ridiculously precarious Zoom setup for delivering a paper at the Sonnets from the American Symposium, and then my home symposium-delivery system. Presenting on short-lined sonnets in a piece called “Partial Visibility,” I edited my messy desk out of the virtual window, throwing the focus instead on the bookcases behind me–so much more professorial. I thought about our partial visibility to each other all weekend, especially when Diane Seuss, the second-lo-last reader in the final event, talked about using long lines to expand the parts of life that can be included in the sonnet’s “gilded frame.” (Her new book, frank: sonnets, promises to be amazing.)

I loved the symposium, which was thoughtfully and effectively curated, and I learned a lot. Among the highlights: we viewed a video tribute to Wanda Coleman and her American sonnets put together by Terrance Hayes. There were mesmerizing live readings by Rosebud Ben-Oni, Kazim Ali, Tacey Atsitty, Kiki Petrosino, Shane McRae, Patricia Smith, and many others. Carl Phillips gave a particularly good keynote about “disruption built into” the sonnet and its “tendency to sonic dispersion,” making the form especially hospitable to marginalized writers. Fruitful panel discussions swirled around work by Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jericho Brown, Brandi McDougall, Henri Cole, and many more. I heard from friends, put some names and faces together among scholars and poets I knew only by reputation, and even saw fellow bloggers whom I’d never before met (hello, Frank Hudson! I really appreciated your comments and want to hear more about singing sonnets sometime). What I liked best were the recurrent readings of the American sonnet as a dissident form, incorporating multiple voices through its characteristic turns and pivots, treated rebelliously and inventively by North American practitioners. When Phillips called the sonnet “wired for rebellion,” he echoed the symposium’s exhilarating theme–exhilarating for me, anyway, because my education emphasized the sonnet as an exercise in obedience.

This symposium also gave me a million ideas for writing. I gave you a prompt for short-lined sonnets last week as I was prepping my paper. Here are some more, with credit to the presenters who jogged these ideas.

Interpreting the parameters of the form however you like, write a sonnet that:

  • Is a mode of transport or place of collision (Marlo Starr, “Dissident Sonnets”; Yuki Tanaka, “Cross-Cultural Sonnets”)
  • Depends on a single repeated line, like “Nothing in That Drawer” by Ron Padgett, possibly breaking the pattern at the end (Rebecca Morgan Frank, “Standing In One Place to Move”)
  • Involves collaboration, maybe tossing couplets back and forth with a partner or using octave/sestet for the switch between voices (Simone Muench and Jackie K. White, “The Sonnet as Conversation”). (I’ve been involved, too, in a couple of collaborative crowns, handing off the baton poem by poem. Here’s one.)
  • Uses a meter other than iambic, as Courtney Lamar Charleston does in “Doppelgangbanger” (Anna Lena Phillips Bell, “This resonant, strange, vaulting roof'”)
  • Is a duplex, following Jericho Brown’s torque of the form (Michael Dumanis, “Subverting the Tradition in The Tradition”)
  • Is improvisatory, derived from jazz, a mode Brian Teare discussed in relation to Wanda Coleman (I think this was in post-panel chat–but if you want to read more Coleman than the “American Sonnet” I just linked to, I highly recommend the new Selected Poems edited by Hayes)
  • Is based on David Wojahn’s “rock n roll sonnets,” Molly Peacock’s “exploded sonnets,” Tyehimba Jess’ “syncopated sonnets,” Philip Metres’ “shrapnel sonnets,” Amit Majmudar’s “sonzal,” Lyn Hejinian’s “anti-sonnets”–research these variants and have at ’em! (Kevin McFadden, “The Resistant Strain,” plus additions from the chat after)
  • Dances through the volta in an unusual way. Many panels raised these questions: where can voltas go? Can they be outside poems, or between poems in a sequence?
  • Breaks other “rules.” A prompt for any form: what patterns can you warp to put your work in lively conversation with the myriad traditions snaking behind us? Or, how can you hybridize sonnets with other forms or texts, as poets do with blues sonnets and sonnet-ballads?

I hope one of those prompts clicks for you and you start drafting. We can’t doomscroll ALL the time (hey, what would a doomscrolling sonnet look like?). For still more alternatives to watching the political weather, check out this cool cluster of short essays, “#MeToo and Modernism,” just published by Modernism/ modernity; I have a piece in there about teaching Eliot recruited after the editor saw my blog post on that subject–an interesting development that has now happened to me a couple of times. And if you’d be up to listen in on an intimate multipoet reading from 6-7pm ET on Thursday 10/15, please contact me and I’ll send you the link. It’s part of a sweetly inclusive series run by Lucy Bucknell at Hopkins, not fully public, but I’m allowed to invite friends.