Dream, river, poetic convergences

My dream-life has been off-the-scale intense, populated by strangers demanding I change my life. The tarot spreads of my daily meditations keep saying so, too–that I’m feeling a call and soon to walk away from something but resisting change so far. I must have carried that energy to Harpers Ferry this weekend, when my spouse and I met our kids for a pseudo-Parents Weekend at a rented house. They all seem much more balanced at life cruxes than I am: my husband unbalanced by midlife transitions; my college-aged son, just turned 21, trying to divine what he wants to do with his life; my 24-year-old daughter recovering from a tough summer and pondering grad school. Me, I’m just a postmenopausal writer struggling to straddle different obligations, a bunch of books behind me and more in development, although in general I’m trying to treat myself more kindly. I’m not exactly sure what the big transformation is although my unconscious keeps insisting it’s coming.

It was the perfect landscape for wondering about it, where the Shenandoah and Potomac converge in sparkling streams. Perhaps because we were VRBOing in a Civil War-era house, different histories seemed to be streaming together, too. Union and Confederate troops battled furiously over this bit of land and water; for a while it was something like an international border. Perhaps that was why I kept hearing ghost-men sobbing and moaning during the night, although there’s also a brutal history of enslavement to consider. The river is now lined by ruined mills among which we walked as the morning fog burned off. I read every bit of signage we passed, learning that this area was also home to an important primarily Black college, Storer. Important abolition movement events happened in Harpers Ferry, and the area became a hub of African American tourism later. We had to end our hike before seeing the remains of John Brown’s Fort–Chris twisted his ankle–but after I brought him back to the rental, I enjoyed tramping around Bolivar Heights by myself. It was a cool trip although I have to say I felt uneasy most of the time (well, except while sipping rose on a restaurant patio, when I felt lucky indeed).

I have lots going on this week–classes in full swing and approaching midterms, random medical appointments, a colleague’s teaching to observe, a meeting with the new Dean about a task force I foolishly agreed to run long ago, before the pandemic turned me into a skeptic of university service, which is effectively free work now that merit raises have stopped and there are no more promotions to aspire to. (Maybe that’s the change, me bowing out of the task force? Sigh.) Here’s a plug for Shenandoah‘s open reading period, though: if you’ve lived in Virginia 2+ years now or in the past, you’re eligible to apply for the Graybeal-Gowen Prize for Virginia Poets, which thanks to the donors could earn you $1000. It’s free to enter here and the final judge will be Deborah Miranda, my wonderful and recently retired colleague. Try! The submission pool is way smaller than the general call for poems that will open in January.

All right, off to rustling leaves and walnuts thumping in my backyard like student poem drafts demanding my feedback.

Haunted and weird poetry: a lesson plan

My visiting writer gig at Randolph College started yesterday. As the Pearl S. Buck Writer in Residence (virtually), I’m teaching a 4-session workshop each Thursday night in February, 7-9pm. There are only 4 members, all advanced poetry students, so it’s a pretty nice gig. The topic is “Haunted and Weird,” since the organizer told me these students were also jazzed about speculative fiction–but also because strangeness and surprise make for complicated, interesting, powerful poems.

Designing the syllabus, I gave each session a title/ theme. Yesterday’s was “Pleased to Meet You” and it worked like a charm. In case the topic appeals, here’s how it played out. I asked each poet to post a poem the Tuesday before our session, following this prompt (it’s keyed to a care package sent in advance):

If you dare, light the votive candle in your care package, without burning your house down, please. Prepare to tell a story of an encounter with something potentially supernatural in five sentences. It should be based on an incident you have experienced, OR you can ask a friend or a family member for a story and use your imagination to fill in the details. Instructions for each sentence:

  1. Write a sentence beginning, “The weirdest part was.” (You may revise that phrase out later, but start with the eeriest moment of your tale.)
  2. Describe what the setting or the apparition smelled like.
  3. Ask any question that you don’t know the answer to. It can be unrelated to the scene.
  4. Describe, with at least one sensory detail (involving sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch), how your body felt when the apparition left or you left it.
  5. Describe, with at least one sensory detail, how the apparition felt after the encounter.

Here are some poems they had to read for class, as well as each other’s drafts. I also asked them to be ready to explain which poem unsettled them most and why.

I started us off with “Monsters,” which triggers all my parent-fear. One student named Mariani’s “Ghost” as the most unsettling–that’s another poem full of guilt, and very crafty in how it sets up situations and then dissolves them. For everyone else it was “The Mango,” in which the speaker hears voices–and yet it’s more political than supernatural. One way all of these poems are shifty: what’s “real” is up for grabs, although there’s plenty of realistic detail within them.

I ran out of time to run a three-staged prompt I’d invented. At the end of class, they had to open a sealed envelope, also in the care package. I had put an antique postcard in each, having ordered a batch from Etsy (some of them are dated as early as 1906). Here’s one I didn’t send; I’m planning to use the extras in a fall workshop on the same theme.

The prompt to go with their postcard:

  • First study the picture side and write for 3 minutes about what messages the picture conveys all by itself
  • Then read the message—think about ink, the handwriting, writing style; also look at the postmark, stamp, and address; write for 3 minutes about what you see
  • Now imagine the sender is a ghost and write back to them.

They can build on that idea for next week’s poem, or research the meanings of the tarot card I also put in each envelope (I figured some students might not like to mess with them, so that’s just an option). Next week’s assignment:

  • Choosing a night when you’ll have 20 minutes to write the next morning, sleep with something unusual beneath your pillow (one of the cards from the care package, or anything else that feels like it has some mystery about it). Have pen and paper by your bed—real writing tools, not your phone. As soon as you wake up, write for a while about anything that’s on your mind. Put the paper away, forget about it, and later on come back and write a poem about possible relationships between the object and your free-write.
  • Write an epistolary poem (a letter poem) to someone or something that can’t answer.
  • Write any other poem based on a religious ritual or uncanny procedure. If tarot interests you, study the card I gave you and research its meanings, or you can do a free online reading here.

The energy in the class felt good, I think? Only teaching two hours a week, P/F so nobody’s worked up about grades–pretty sweet. In September I’ll be back to a full teaching load, a million advisees and meetings and committees, but now I get to just swoop in and be the Spirit of Poetry Fun, here to distract you.

Winterred

A friend told me to break a leg yesterday and I had to laugh–I’m literally home with a sprained ankle, unable to put weight on my left foot. I apparently did something bad during a beautiful Saturday hike on a bit of the Appalachian Trail, where water rushed by sedimentary rocks flipped almost vertical by some long-ago seismic catastrophe. Weekly walks on unfamiliar paths have been sanity-saving since March, but I guess I’m grounded now, or “winterred,” as Dave Bonta and Luisa Igloria put it in their wonderfully playful new year’s poetry video “NEOLOG” (poetry prompt #1: write a poem using one of their neologisms as a title, crediting their brilliance, of course).

My friend made this too-timely comment because I was on the verge of two literary events. I gave a reading yesterday in the Poetrio series at Malaprops Bookstore, run generously and flawlessly by poet Mildred Barya and Malaprops Director of Author Events, Stephanie Jones-Byrne. I forgot to take a screenshot or watch the clock because my co-readers Kathy Goodkin and Eric Tran were so amazing, but the recording is here, and you have the option of supporting a great indie bookstore by ordering any of the books (or others) here. (Speaking about clocks, I should say we each kept to our time of 12 minutes-ish, which is basically a holy miracle of restraint where poets are concerned.) Mildred introduces writers not by listing their accomplishments but by reflecting on their poems, setting a mood that was both thoughtful and celebratory. In this case, she noted how many ghosts populate all of our new books. Kathy spoke to that in a wonderful way by reading a poem about the period costumes ghosts are described as wearing, speculating that in twenty years we might be haunted by ghosts in tee-shirts and skinny jeans. Eric began by talking about building an altar to ancestors, noting that everyone wants to escape the ghosts of 2020 but maybe, instead, we could consider how to honor them. It’s a moving idea.

I was also impressed by the emotional range of Kathy’s and Eric’s poems–grief, hilarity, anger, love–and how they talked about that in the Q&A. Eric’s advice for infusing a serious poem with humor is to take your first draft and make it gayer. Add glitter. That can be prompt #2. Prompt #3 is something I try sometimes: after you put down a sentence or two of a potential poem, walk (or limp) away for a while. Each time you come back, put down another sentence or two. Try to do it renga-style, so you’re picking up an element but also moving into a different mood or scene. One of the signal qualities of a strong poem is surprise, and writing slowly can be a way of surprising yourself with unplanned associative leaps.

Today I hope to rest some, submit a story I’ve been working on, and maybe get an x-ray, sigh. I’ll also be prepping for my SECOND reading of 2021, hosted by Cafe Muse tonight. The order of events, in case you can drop in: it begins at 7 pm Eastern with live music, classical guitar I think, to finish your dinner by. At 7:30 Don Colburn reads for 18-20 minutes; then I read; then, if there’s time and interest, we’ll do a brief Q&A. You can register here. I’ll read different poems from The State She’s In (mostly) plus a couple of new ones I haven’t yet aired. It should be fun. Being a clumsy person, I’m also really glad I’m not ascending to a podium on crutches.

In a Samhain state of mind

Not to get too pagan on you, but this week I can feel wheels turning, for good and ill. On the good side: above is the cover of my first novel, to be released in June 2020. I’ve been so grateful for the excitement people have expressed about it. As I keep saying, this venture feels more like a leap into the dark than poetry publishing. I’m getting publicity gears grinding for my March 2020 poetry collection, too, but I know perfectly well that except for rare cases, “Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon,” as Don Marquis poetically said, “and waiting for the echo.” I worked insanely hard on that novel, I’m proud of it, and I WILL get out there to give readings, etc.–but will it be like dropping a moderately-sized rose bush into the Grand Canyon, meaning, not much more echo-producing? I really have no clue. I feel pretty philosophical about it these days; I just want to know, a year from now, that I gave all my pretty rose petals the most energetic pitch possible.

Pitching, however, is a LOT of work. The “bad” of this liminal season is feeling stressed and anxious as I step from the overwork of October (teaching, grading, applications, event programming) to the overwork of November (teaching, conferencing, applications, and exceptionally heavy committee work). I just keep plotting out tasks on my calendar, trying to prove to myself that it CAN be done, and hoping I reach Thanksgiving in one piece. I’m also trying, to whatever extent possible, to pare off obligations that rev up my worries and spend time instead on what makes me feel better.

Ridiculously, that sometimes means work, but the kind of labor that produces an experience of flow rather than jitteriness. I gave Monday morning over to intensive lesson-planning, doing some background reading on William Carlos Williams and getting ready for tomorrow’s campus visit by the fabulous Lauren K. Alleyne, and you know what? I felt noticeably better after those hours of concentration. Answering email: not so soothing.

Today’s treat was reading a splendid new anthology I am lucky enough to have a poem in: the brand-new Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia, edited by Rose McLarney and Laura-Gray Street. They commissioned pieces on various plants and creatures from poets with connections to the region, and so many of the poems are gorgeous and moving. Each species, too, is described by naturalist L.L. Gaddy and illustrated in black-and-white by seven Southern Appalachian artists. The resulting book is both local and diverse, and truly a stunner.

The next task: prepping for the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference starting on 11/8, because I’ll be away this weekend, visiting the kids (it’s Haverford’s Family Weekend). That’s downtime I sorely need, as I keep telling myself as I watch work pile up on either side of it… but I’ll be striving to be in the moment there, and at the conference, too. Check out the program; it looks kind of brilliant.

What I want to do most of all is work on a short story I’m feeling excited about; the poetry hasn’t been coming lately. And that leads to one last Samhainish thought: one of the funny things about publication is that by the time the work gets out there, you’re often mentally and emotionally moving on to new ideas. When you give a reading or do other kinds of promotion, you can feel like you’re trying to call up the dead and hoping the doors to the otherworld open, as they’re supposed to do this time of year. Come, ghosts, and help me out. I have, in fact, been thinking about my father and dreaming about my maternal grandmother, as if spirits are visiting–and I’ve also been remembering that tarot card reading I got around New Year’s, when the psychic told me two ghosts were following me around. If they are, and they want to be of use, maybe they could help with the committee work?