Battles lost

awp-sunset

I’ve always had the sense that people looked at me skeptically when I characterize my life as damaged by sexism. I’m a US-born person of European descent who never had to go hungry. I obtained a good education, was legally able to marry the person I love, and now earn a respectable living. How bad can it be?

Yet I’ve also been discriminated against, groped, and raped. I’ve done work I’m proud of despite the constant battery–I’ve fought hard, that is, to prove myself, even as others hurt or just underestimated me–but those achievements are often disparaged or overlooked. The message: as a woman, I am less than a full person; I don’t have rights over my body; I can’t be trusted to lead. And now roughly half the voting adults in my country have confirmed that message by electing a woman-despising groper to the presidency.

Yes, I’m taking this election personally. It is personal. As I write, at dawn, my phone is buzzing with misery. Downstairs, my son and husband are choked up and slamming around. I feel terrible for my brilliant feminist children, and for my students, even though some of the latter surely voted for our criminal president-elect. They’ll have to live with the repercussions longer than I will, and who knows what the world is in for?

At the top of this post is a sunset picture I took a few days ago in Tampa from the River Walk. I was in town for an AWP board meeting, trying to serve an underfunded organization that serves writers mightily, but I was also just aching from a brutal week at work, so I thought, well, I should take care of myself, by spending a couple of hours walking, looking, breathing. It felt good. Tampa is going to be a great site for the AWP conference in 2018–how awesome will it be to duck out of the convention center between terrific readings and walk along the water in balmy weather? I was, in short, tired and worried but also optimistic. I thought, well, there’s a lot of poison at my college and everywhere else, but I know an awful lot of good people who are working to clear it out. That’s auspicious, right?

I guess it still is. The same good people–like the AWP staffers who left the Gwendolyn Brooks quote below at my place setting–will keep battling to make the world better, one word at a time. And this morning’s news certainly clarifies my work as a writer and teacher.

I don’t feel safe, but now it seems even more vital to voice that persistent truth. I don’t know how I’ll be handling all this in my classes today, but I will convey that I like and respect all of my students and hope to help them thrive. That is, I’ll make safety, or try to, while, somehow, we live in the along.

awp-card

In favor of impurity, or, I’m sick at heart and I want to lie down

My daughter told me about the mass killing in Orlando in the car Sunday, as we drove up Route 81 on an errand. We bought summer shorts and solar lights for the back walkway, ate pho and spring rolls, stopped at a bookstore, drove home, and she kept updating me all evening. Mostly Latino and LGBT, she said. The orange guy says ban Muslim immigrants. Countries are issuing travel advisories against the U.S.: it’s not safe here.

Monday, I found myself flipping back and forth between online news and the strange old book I bought in Staunton, Traditional Ballads of Virginia, Collected Under the Auspices of the Virginia Folklore Society, edited by Arthur Kyle Davis and published in 1929. I’m no ballad-scholar but they tell sad stories in verse, usually beginning at the end. “There is never an authoritative text,” wrote Robert Graves about the folk ballad, continuing, “it is incomplete without music…it does not moralize or preach or express any partisan bias.” In my “Introduction to Poetry” course, we spend a day looking first at folk ballads and then at literary uses of the form–not-anonymous ballad-like poems circulated in print. We discuss Dudley Randall’s “Ballad of Birmingham” about a 1963 church bombing, and Gwendolyn Brooks’ Emmett Till poems. Randall’s ballad, metered and rhymed, has that communal quality of a song one might pass down through generations. Brooks’ “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon,” instead, blasts that cultural inheritance apart, along with all the racist, gendered baggage it carries about lily-white maids and dark villains. Both poems draw force in different ways from the old tropes and channel that power against contemporary violence.

It’s hard to write a literary ballad. Strict quatrains can sound too predictable now, too light; veer from familiarity, though, and you’ve lost continuity with the old songs. The latter is sometimes better, yet form’s history can help you carry a hard burden. I’m trying to draft a ballad about the hate crime at the Pulse nightclub, but the results so far are somehow both raw and over-intellectual.

To do better, I keep going back to the smoother cadences preserved in this book. There was a vogue, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for collecting traces of a vanishing folk culture, and I’m glad, even if I personally, as a woman, wouldn’t have been safe tramping around the mountains and asking strangers what old airs they knew. But this particular collection was also an attempt by white people to conserve (create?) a particularly Scots-Irish heritage. These folklorists collected British, Scottish, and Irish songs only, further stipulating that they must be orally transmitted, unpolluted by print. Interesting, to discover what songs made that crossing and how they changed. Yet there’s no such thing as media purity, then or now–print and oral cultures intersect all the time. Nor are other kinds of inheritance pure. Listen as the editor, in his introduction, gives away his bias:

“The nearest approach to an American body of folk-lore is the folk-lore of European origin transplanted and adapted in America–unless, forsooth, we should prefer to regard as representatively American the tribal and ceremonial songs of the Red Indian, which are American in no sense except the geographical, or the folk-songs of the Negro, which, beautiful as they often are, are obviously the heritage of the ‘Homo Africanus’ transplanted in America, not the possession of our white majority.”

Forsooth! This book was being assembled as Virginia was implementing its eugenics laws, sterilizing citizens for being indigenous, black, or otherwise American in no sense except, gee, the geographical, legal, logical, and moral. Terms like “Red Indian” and “Homo Africanus” construct and exaggerate difference for rhetorical effect, as if the so-called races belong to different species.

Now flash forward to one 21st century version of the eugenics program: a current candidate’s proposed wall. Barrier contraception writ large. None of it works–no poem or country has ever been pure, and none ever will be, thank heaven–but people do harm striving for purity anyway.

I’ll keep working on my ballad, getting my own hands dirty, as I look for other ways to protest the fear and hatred ruining us. Last weekend’s horror is not particularly my story to tell, but that’s the point of ballads–they’re all our stories, the young man whose mind goes wrong, hopes ruined, lovers separated by violence, children forever lost to mothers wild with grief. To paraphrase Brooks, the Pulse tragedy has the beat inevitable; the old form is latent in the event, in its very needlessness. How many times do assault rifles have to fire in our public spaces before U.S. politicians repudiate the NRA? As in the ballad “Lord Randal”–sometimes converted by Virginians into “Johnnie Randolph”–I’m sick at heart and I want to lie down.

Two ballads for the road. First, as I said, contemporary literary ballads are hard to write, but I did just publish a poem influenced by the form. It’s in a Mezzo Cammin portfolio of poems responding to Edna St. Vincent Millay; the story it tells is Millay’s (successful) attempt to end an unwanted pregnancy by consuming abortive herbs in Dorset.

sir hughSecond, from my new-old book: it turns out that one of the few ballad variants sourced to Lexington is “Sir Hugh”, sometimes called “The Jew’s Daughter,” or, in a sanitized version, “The Fatal Flower Garden.” I can’t bring myself to type it out so I’ve linked to a similar version to the one contributed by “Mr. and Mrs. George McLaughlin” in 1916 (I live very near McLaughlin St.). It tells of a Christian boy whose ball goes over a wall into “the old Jew’s garden.” Tempted by his neighbor’s daughter, the boy ventures after it and is brutally murdered. “Sir Hugh” preserves and promotes the anti-Semitism of medieval Europe; its tale was used to justify pogroms. It’s also, in its toxic way, haunting. Ballads can poison as well as console us–promote violence as well as deplore it. Impure.

 

 

 

West Chester, Walt Litz, Gwendolyn Brooks, and taking the purple veil

“The last thing I thought I’d be doing today is talking about Walt Litz,” Molly Peacock marveled to me. I’d admired her work from a distance but never met her until last week, when we ended up sharing a few lovely breakfasts at the Faunbrook B&B, before panels at the West Chester Poetry Conference. Over berry parfaits, I learned that her partner, Joyce scholar Michael Groden, had studied with A. Walton Litz decades ago. Walt was first reader for my own 1994 dissertation on Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, H.D., and Gwendolyn Brooks. Molly and I didn’t realize, as we spoke, that Walt had just died nearby, in a Princeton hospital.

I don’t know how many dissertations Walt directed, but I meet his former advisees all the time. At the 2012 T. S. Eliot society meeting in St. Louis, braver scholars were stripping down for a chilly dip at the Phlebas the Phoenician Pool Party. I was swapping Walt stories with other resolutely-clothed modernists and acquiring the name of his nursing home. Nervous about calling, I mailed Walt a note afterwards, but I never heard back.

In his glory days, Walt was a powerhouse of a department head, as well as one of the biggest names in the field. By the time I met him in 1990, he was growing frailer, but he was still fostering networks, dispensing favors, and teaching popular courses. He would take me to lunch at the Annex, a little basement restaurant near Firestone Library, before his three-hour afternoon seminar on the Modernist Long Poem. When I arrived at 11:30, the waitress would be whisking away two martini glasses and serving him a civilized glass of white wine and a boiled egg, though he couldn’t really eat much anymore. I’d order a grilled cheese and we’d chat. The Spenserian Tom Roche, lunching alone at a nearby table, would listen without embarrassment and sometimes chime in. Omar Pound might stop by and massage my shoulders in a totally inappropriate and disturbing way, trying to engage me in conversation about Lorine Niedecker. I was Persephone—treated royally but still trapped in a weird and slightly sordid academic underworld.

Even boozed up, Walt taught memorably; I still quote him in my own courses. I also served as T.A. for a couple of rounds of his undergraduate lecture course on modernism. He basically blew the dust off yellowed old notes before reading them aloud—a way I would never teach—but they were interesting notes. And then, in 1993 I think, he collapsed at the podium; an assistant professor named Doug Mao, who has since become a leading modernism scholar himself, took over the lectures; and Walt was ushered into retirement. I was one of the last students he helped with one of his legendary hire-this-person phone calls. In the winter of 1994 I had a campus visit at Washington and Lee. W&L still employs old guys who don’t want to work with women, but back then it employed many old guys who would openly say, “I don’t want to work with women.” English was fending off an EEOC lawsuit and needed to diversify pronto. I was told later that Walt, a genteel southern man who knew how to sound all the right notes, reassured them I was competent but not especially volatile, a safe compound to introduce to the department’s chemistry experiment. “She’s pleasant to work with,” he reported, “but she is not a doormat.”

I’m grateful to Walt for giving me good advice—about conducting archival work, negotiating my job offer, and a million other matters—while granting me space to follow my own stubborn muse. When I told him I didn’t like Four Quartets as much as the early Eliot, he smiled and said, “It’s a poem for middle age. Wait a couple of decades.” When I wanted to write about Gwendolyn Brooks, he was not pleased, but he nodded. His one response to that chapter, framed as compliment/ comeuppance, was also the most shocking thing he ever said to me: “You almost make it sound as if she were worth writing about.” I was too young and green to understand his prejudices, his generosity, or the potentially terrifying extent of his power. I just knew how to get along with alcoholic old guys, being my father’s daughter. Further, while my father was terribly pained by my independence of opinion, Walt seemed indulgent of it; I was grateful for some academic fathering that was mostly angst-free.

Molly Peacock & Marilyn Nelson, taken by Allison Joseph, who also rocked the house
Molly Peacock & Marilyn Nelson, taken by Allison Joseph, who also rocked the house

And how strange that Walt died while I was unpacking at Faunbrook! As I wrote last week, the last time I attended West Chester, my alienated alcoholic Republican father had just died at the Philadelphia V.A. Hospital and I was waiting for details about his funeral. So this will forever seem like the Dead Patriarch Conference to me. The event itself is full of men who operate in a sexist and racist way, as well as better folks trying to take deep breaths and maintain a positive attitude. I had stimulating conversations with old friends and new, but I also observed one distinguished poetic statesman onstage who kept egregiously passing over the raised hand of a younger African-American woman to call on older white people. I attended a number of moving readings and generative panels (Marilyn Nelson was particularly stunning), but I also saw members of a closed club congratulating each other ad nauseam.

You learn from the bad as well as the good, though. One of those breakfast conversations with Molly Peacock will haunt me. Echoing what female actors say about Hollywood, she told me that her metaphor for turning fifty as a woman poet is taking the purple veil. She observes others of her generation ceasing to be sexually desirable to the fifty- and sixty-something men in power, and therefore becoming invisible when it comes to the honors that waft towards some men in the same age-range. Some women pass through it by seventy or so, though, she said—good roles exist for grande dames and grandmothers. In the anniversary panel for A Formal Feeling Comes, the fix she prescribed to women was criticism-writing: don’t be afraid, she said, to frame the standards you’ll be judged by.

I wonder, as I march through my own forties, if I’m spending too much time blog-writing when I should be bombarding high-circulation magazines with my prose. Lots to ponder. In the meantime, thanks to all the West Chester attendees who were open, wise, and thoughtful. And thank you, Walt, wherever you are. I really am tremendously grateful for all you taught me. Even though I learned just as much from my paper mentor, Gwendolyn Brooks. Who is definitely, permanently, transcendently worth reading.

*

I’m not sure how soon I’ll post again because I’m off to France shortly: if you’re lucky enough to be in Paris next week, check out http://poets-live.com/. Also, I forgot to mention last week that The Receptionist and Other Tales made Ms. Mentor’s summer reading list for campus novels—woo-hoo!

Poetic neighborhoods

When you introduce multiple characters and tag dialogue in a short poem, you make all kinds of trouble for yourself. Part of it is just fitting it in: most contemporary poetry in print is going for economy, resonance, surprise, evocation in fragments. You can toss out some of the names and the “he said”s by strategic use of titles, typefaces, and margins, but the imperatives of interwoven stories can still add layers of difficulty to a genre most people find difficult enough.

There is a kind of poetry book, though—not narrative epic, not verse drama, not the modernist long poem with its collage aesthetic—that, by arrangement of short poems into sequences, plausibly fuses multiple voices into a noisy, sociable whole. The scope of the collection is defined by place and time more than by perspective, recurring ideas, or a frame of mind. Two of my favorites are Gwendolyn Brooks’ A Street in Bronzeville and Langston Hughes’ Montage of a Dream Deferred. They concern Chicago’s South Side and Harlem respectively, presenting portraits of neighborhoods by giving voice to various residents. Many of the poems stand well alone and are often anthologized, but they work even better in context, returned to their home communities.

If there’s a twentieth-century tradition of this kind of book, it’s pretty obscure. Hughes and Brooks are certainly responding to each other; Claudia Emerson, whose books demonstrate a strong sense of place and character, often expresses admiration for Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie; and the three blurbers of Lumina, Heather Ross Miller’s new book (Emerson is one), all compare it to the most famous example, Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (I say famous, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about teaching it). I suspect that most poets dreaming of a multiple-voiced lyric sequence invent their way forwards with relatively few models to hand. For a contemporary writer, further, lyric sequences can be pretty impractical. It’s hard to build an audience for such work by publishing bits in U.S. magazines, where the one-to-two page stand-alone poem is king, narrative is suspect, and readerships are small and splintered. (Can you tell I’m worrying over some long poems and sequences of my own?)

Miller’s Lumina, named for a fictional aluminum-smelting settlement in North Carolina, is subtitled “a town of voices.” It’s a beautiful and elegiac book, reanimating lost family members and a drowned landscape: the dammed river powering everything is “a dazzled brain-damaged giant just/ gone to sleep a while.” The main character, often the speaker, is Nell Leopard, but voices and perspectives from different generations in the same place jangle together. Miller finds a sonic analogue for those shifting resemblances that is much more like Brooks than Masters: irregular rhyme, often internal, sometimes just a slantwise echo of vowels and consonants. I could pick out almost any passage as an example but here are two:

Engineers came to furnace

our bright falling water

and they meant business.

They meant deep water

deep enough to spark

the whole hot place.

They meant hard work

hard enough to keep men

all night tasting salt straight

down their bare faces… (“Nell sees them pen the Falls, dam the Yadkin” 2)

The passage begins with a command: “Listen.” What I hear is imperfect rhyme: furnace/ business, spark/ work, place/ straight/ tasting/ faces. Or:

She had asthma sometimes

so bad, she beat through a screen door

to get her breath, beating the screen

to death. People drown beating

their way through a door to the

last breath. It’s true, and more. (“Mark Drowns,” 18)

The most salient rhymes are breath/ death and door/more, but those pairs also chime with “get,” “bad,” and “their,” and the assonance of beat/ screen/ the flows through the lines. Further, these sound-families intermarry in the desperately-linked sight rhyme of beat and breath. And I get hypoxic just writing about the line break on “the”: the dying girl’s last breath is just out of reach. The story of Lumina is moving, the characters compelling, and that’s why Miller’s book is worth reading, really. But it makes a lot of sense for a book about memory and inheritance to play around with echo, and rhyme harmonizes its ingredients in a way that delights me.

I must be forgetting this book’s other kin; if my description of Miller’s achievement reminds you of similarly populated collections, I’d love to be informed/ reminded.