Commencements



“I, too, am not unhopeful,” Saidiya Hartman said to Wesleyan University’s Class of 2019 during a long, hot ceremony on a bowl-shaped lawn. Soon-to-be-alumni/ae in the audience, including my daughter, wore robes of Handmaid’s Tale scarlet. I was turning scarlet in the sun, wondering what we were all on the threshold of.

I loved Hartman’s oration, which was deliberately weird. She analyzed the genre of the commencement address and explained why she wasn’t going to fulfill its conventions by offering advice towards a shiny future that it’s currently impossible to believe in. Her beautiful lines sounded more like poetry than persuasive rhetoric. I scribbled down some fragments, like “the gift of bare uncertainty that hurls you into adulthood.” The longest chunk I captured: “These remarks are really an elaborate ask. Speculate how the world might be otherwise…we pause in anticipation of the world you might make.” As she then pointed out, the expectations attached to commencement addresses were sucking her in after all: how can a speaker, and just as importantly, a teacher, address such a cusp without a glimmer of curiosity about what comes next?

After the cap-tossing and the toasts, my family of four headed to Cape Cod for a few days, to take a breather and contemplate other borderlands. We stayed on Lieutenant Island, which is only an island for 1 or 2 hours a day, when high tide reaches the salt marshes and makes it impossible to cross the wooden bridge. I drafted a couple of commencement-themed poems there, and we took lots of walks and ate lots of delicious seafood. Also, to be unsocial-media-ish: I had nightmares, and my daughter was sick, and plenty of bad news penetrated our bubble. It’s good to have all the ceremonies behind us, and I’m really proud of what my children have achieved. I feel grateful, as well, for so many lovely moments–long breaths poised on the water’s edge, not looking forward or backward–but I can’t say my heart is peaceful.

We’re home again now, trying to get sorted for a summer of work, about which I am a little anxious, always, but not unhopeful. I have writing and revising to do as my graduation sunburn peels; my son is doing math research for a W&L professor; and my daughter will soon be teaching in a summer camp while she applies for policy-related jobs in D.C. (employment leads welcome!). In the meantime, anyone in the Charlottesville, Virginia area can look for me at 2nd Act Books on the downtown mall on Sunday, June 9th. I’ll be reading there with Sara Robinson from 2-4 pm. I promise a few writing prompts toward the possibility of a peaceful, productive summer. A wild dream, I know.



Toasting successes, fleeing gnats

Even though I’m not teaching this year, I can SMELL that it’s the last week of classes. The campus, lush from an unusually rainy May, is full of giddy, jittery, sneezing students. My colleagues are staggering around exhausted, arms full of ungraded papers. Processing my heavy email load is like trying to get free of a cloud of gnats–they just follow you around, frantically propagating. I’m about to leave town and miss all the noisy graduation parties. When I get back, around Memorial Day, all traces of the academic year will be cleared away, except for a few stray Natty Light cans lurking in the shrubbery.

The chaos inside my house matches the energy of the neighborhood. My anxious 19-year-old, having just aced her first year at Wesleyan, has been interviewing for summer jobs, writing applications, scouring ads (keep your fingers crossed), so there’s been a lot of coaching in the evening hours. My 15-year-old has been taking standardized tests and has his last jazz band concert tonight (though I have to say, there’s no evidence HE is breaking a sweat). Chris is wrapping up this experimental, demanding, but very cool course. I had several blogging, reviewing, and editing gigs due this week, which are nearly complete now, but all this keyboarding with a sprained wrist is no fun.

And Chris and I are packing for our first weekend away as a couple in years and years. Tomorrow we take planes, cars, and boats to Martha’s Vineyard. On Tuesday he’ll fly home for W&L’s graduation, but I go on to Madison, Connecticut for Poetry by the Sea. I am SUPER-excited about this one. Lots of friends in attendance plus poets I’ve never met but want to hear from. So in addition to making lists for the kids of when the recycling goes out, etc., I’ve been preparing notes for a panel discussion on the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Right before I fly home on Saturday, May 28th, I’ll be reading from Radioland IN A GAZEBO. By the SEA.

Poetic report forthcoming, but for the moment, a photo of a bright spot this week–celebrating the birthday of one of my brilliant friends. (I think that’s Oliver Queen in the left background, but what I like best in this photo is how the dude behind me is really into his ice cream.) And hey, the finalist list for the Eric Hoffer Award is substantial, but Radioland is on it–that’s a small good thing. And The Robot Scientist’s Daughter by my friend Jeannine Hall Gailey–with whom I’m just finalizing picks for the SFPA’s annual Dwarf Star anthology–is there, too! Salut!

birthday drinks

In which I procrastinate with snacks, parties, and fake-writing

The peony heads slump over in their lushness. I can hear the baccalaureate speaker’s voice faintly behind the air conditioner’s hum, and I wonder again: in what sense does featuring another white Christian minister make this religious event “more inclusive”? Well, I’ll sit it out in my office but don my robes tomorrow for another long hot graduation ceremony on the lawn, then rush to the departmental luncheon to scarf down a little fruit and chicken salad before the students arrive with their dads sweating through cotton jackets and little old grandmas tottering around on the edge of heat exhaustion. I like the luncheon—praising students quite genuinely to their emotional parents, shaking damp hands, asking neutral questions that don’t imply a new BA should have firm post-grad plans yet, celebrating when they offer up good news about a job or grad school acceptance. It’s a happy kind of closure after a long hard year, especially since the mini-saunas of our dress clothes will have purged us of old grade disagreements.

I’m still in that delusional dilatory state in which I think I ought to clear the deck before I really write. This is delusional because there is ALWAYS another bit of paperwork to finish, emails to send, clean-up from the previous term or planning for the new one. Though some colleagues still linger over dwindling piles of student writing, I tend to get my grades in as fast as possible, read and summarize course evaluations, move books from the “on deck for class” spot to regular shelving, and proceed to other marginally OCD term-closure rituals. May always brings magazine rejections and acceptances, too, as faraway editors clear their own desks, and I get a little frisson of record-keeping joy as I document their decisions and list the lucky yeses on my curriculum vitae and Faculty Activities Report.

I do know this is a little crazy, even though as procrastination goes, clerical work is more productive than painting my toe nails a new color or watching funny cats on YouTube (not to cast aspersions on those venerable amusements, but I do feel pleasantly smug when that FAR comes due and I am ready to hit send). I do have to remind myself every year that it is procrastination, not some exercise of virtue. Writers write even when their desks are messy and that faculty development event they attended isn’t properly logged. My spouse is a good reminder of this. He writes even when he’s showering, running, folding laundry. This time of year—once heavy teaching work is on pause for three months—I need to seek a similarly single-minded focus instead of, say, mentally drafting memos or dreaming about my next snack.

I am showing early, hesitant signs of hunkering down. During April I drafted a crazy long poem in a section per day, using Vladimir Propp’s thirty-one functions of the folk tale as prompts; the quester is a middle-aged woman taking a three-hour walk in the April woods, pondering a career change and worrying about whether she may be pregnant. I reread it last weekend, shaped it up a bit, sought the aforementioned spouse’s feedback, revised it again, and gave it the provisional title “Propagation.” It was really fun to draft, requiring lots of, you guessed it, long walks in April woods, and at least for now, I like the results. I just shipped it off to a friend who wants to trade critiques this summer. That’s work, right?—although I always start summer’s meal with dessert.

This project has been good preparation for a presentation I’m giving on “The Receptionist,” a very different long poem, two weeks from now at the West Chester Poetry Conference. The panel is “Narrative and Non-Narrative in the Book-Length Poem” with the very accomplished and hip poets Dolores Hayden and Jehanne Dubrow (Saturday June 7th at 3:15, in case you’re around). We’re going to discuss problems of genre and composition then read from our various works. I find myself thinking particularly about how all narrative is time-management—deciding when to work through a scene in slow detail, and how to handle those sudden, disparate jumps of an hour, a day, a month of story-time. The form I chose for “The Receptionist” was highly symmetrical, involving thirty-three terza rima cantos of thirty lines each, and that made time-jumps harder to regulate and clarify. Grounding the story in an academic year, September to June, helped, as did liberal seasonal and holiday references.

I wouldn’t say I’m ready to give that presentation yet, but at least I’m finally turning my mind into the right groove. I’m hoping to segue right from working up my talk into writing a narrative-themed chapter for my prose-book-in-progress, Taking Poetry Personally. I’ll lay some groundwork, at least, and do a little more research during a work-and-pleasure trip to France in the second half of June. More on that here before takeoff, I hope.

In the meantime, back to “work” on the conference by arranging meals with friends, including poet Rafael Campo, who is sage and inspiring in this recently published interview for Shenandoah. Oh, and there’s a reference letter I have to write, and this really fun collaboration with artist Carolyn Capps that’s been languishing (see a bit of it at the new issue of Levure littéraire), and I’m really behind on my literary-magazine reading after which, whoops, it will be time to race home and get dinner on before my son’s band concert, and of course tomorrow will be all ceremonies and parties, and who could squeeze in writing time then? And maybe Friday I should begin to update my poetry submissions—I haven’t sent work out for ages, and while submission has its own agonies, it’s not as hard as actually writing. But soon, very soon, I’ll definitely, seriously get cracking.