Virtual Poetry Salon #5 with Caroline Cabrera

And even in blindness our chemistries communicate. Our instinct, a lace mycelium. When my cheeks go hot and I distrust a man I may be sensing the hair as it rises from another woman's neck. I may smell her experience. We know more than we trust ourselves to know.  -Caroline Cabrera, from "The body gives itself away" 

(lack begins as a tiny rumble), a brand new collection by my pressmate Caroline Cabrera, belies its title: these hybrid poems, almost lyric essays, brim with language that nourishes me. Pain and grief are starting points, but line by line, with amazing persistence, Cabrera digs herself out of those very dark places. Sisterhood helps, but so does a renegotiation of her relationship with her own body. “The womb is a world,” she writes in one poem, clarifying that image with the eye-opening closure, “Our first act is one of emigration.” In many poems, too, Cabrera unfolds what it means to be a blonde-haired Cuban American: “My skin keeps me safe. My blood, it boils in me.” My own concentration is poor these days, but this book riveted me. Bonus: the collection includes great poems about toxic bosses. I really appreciate poems about toxic bosses.

This book, by the way, feels very much in sisterhood with Girls Like Us by Elizabeth Hazen, star of my last salon, but really I’m just contacting people with new books and posting these interviews in the order I receive them. I’m really enjoying this project, as well as the new books it’s leading me through. Virginia’s governor just gave a stay-at-home order. I totally agree with it, but it makes connecting through writing more important than ever.

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

We would eat popcorn and parmesan cheese. We would eat kale with bechamel and fried rice. We would eat spaghetti and meatballs, shrimp and grits, and beet risotto. We would eat fried chicken. We would eat guava pastries and croquettas and yucca frita with creamy cilantro sauce. We would eat blood oranges and pomegranates. We would eat and eat and eat and eat and never be filled.

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

Right now I am reading and thinking and processing, which all feels like the precursor to writing. To a Floridian, this period of hunkering feels a lot like preparing for a hurricane that never comes. I’m living from that headspace and trying to be present with where it takes me. 

How can your virtual audience find out more?

I co-host the advice podcast Now That We’re Friends with two other poets, Anne Cecelia Holmes and Gale Marie Thompson. We’re hosting a virtual live episode on Saturday April 11. Check out @NTWFpodcast on Instagram or Twitter for details.

The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

plath2

How intense it was this week to be alternately following and averting my eyes from the Senate hearings as I taught Sylvia Plath to seventeen stingingly sharp students–trying to open up space to talk about anger, violence, gender, and race in powerful but often disturbing poems. Plath’s handling of metaphors related to the Holocaust, slavery, and Civil Rights always seemed problematic to me–it was a big topic in the early nineties, when I attended grad school–but I am now wondering how defensible it is even to keep the poem “Ariel” in particular on an undergraduate syllabus. While Plath’s use of terrible slurs wears worse and worse over the years, however, her bee poems–explorations of rage and other dark drives, sometimes encoded in racial metaphors–also feel more and more fundamental. Plus last year’s news about her abusive marriage , especially as captured in Emily Van Duyne’s “Why are we so unwilling to take Plath at her word?”, is crucial right now. We need to do a way better job at respecting survivors and understanding the costs they suffer.

I assign Plath in part to discuss the complex layering of selves even in apparently confessional work, and how she constructs identity as a performance. I believe Christine Blasey Ford utterly, but I also found myself thinking hard about what it meant for Dr. Ford to perform trauma, especially on a such a public stage. She was wise to play it so calmly, because many people, as she must well know, detest and fear angry women. In contrast, as others have pointed out, a woman candidate for the Supreme Court could never have ranted the way Brett Kavanaugh did, although among some constituencies, his emotional performance probably went over well. And of course their projected selves are inflected by race and class stereotypes, too, as were those of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas decades ago. My class is about sincerity and authenticity in mid-century poetry, during the Civil Rights movement and women’s lib and increasingly open discussions of sexuality, mental illness, and many other vividly embodied identities and experiences–and what a lesson this week was.

It was a lesson, however, I did not particularly need. I’m overloaded with work, struggling to tick down the lists and not get too anxious about tasks I cannot yet get to, and harsh reminders of assaults I suffered–and guilt about men I did not report–brought a level of stress into the equation that I’m just barely able to manage. I suspect I’d be a terrible beekeeper, unable enough to suppress whatever pheromones anxiety gives off, although I seem to keep myself together well enough that most humans don’t smell my fear.

“They have got rid of the men, // The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors,” Plath writes about the bees in “Wintering.” I keep wondering what the world would be like if every unremorseful assaulter–every person who has abused privilege in such a serious way without admitting and trying for atone for that abuse–were swept out of power, so that better people could rise up into those positions of money and prestige. It would be nice to find out, one day. But I can’t say I’m tasting the spring, just yet.

Not inspiration but stupid grit

Lately, the idea of writing makes me want to throw up. I’ve coped with severe morning sickness, the kind that keeps you bedridden for months, so a few paragraphs aren’t going to get the better of me: I face down the nausea almost every day.  I’m watching myself with a certain amount of curiosity, though. How long will the queasiness last? And why do I keep writing anyway?

Physically, I lack grit, or at least I rationalize myself out of difficult efforts very quickly. My mother used to call me “lazy Lesley,” with some justification. I still don’t like to clean my room, much less shovel snow. I exercise just enough to keep total decrepitude at bay. My spouse and daughter are runners and my daughter, newer to the sport, describes the satisfaction of pushing through the pain. Not me. I hate the metabolic collapse of middle age, but to face the pain of serious exercise I’m going to require a more urgent motive than a little mild self-loathing.

When the efforts are social, intellectual, and creative, though—in teaching and especially in writing—I seem capable of pushing myself beyond all reason. I honestly don’t understand why, though I have an inkling it may have to do with identity investments. I have let go of a lot of old truths that once felt permanent: “I am young,” “I am a skinny person,” “I know a lot of crap about contemporary music,” and, very recently, “I am the mother of young children” (the younger will be a teenager in September).  Those changes make me cling even more strongly to “I am a good teacher” and “I write like crazy, or like a crazy person, but anyway, watch me go.”

So, having lost a lot of time last summer to my father’s death and its aftermath, this summer the need to make progress on a long-contemplated prose book feels especially non-negotiable. I decided that May, when I wasn’t teaching but had various end-of-year school obligations, I could clear up a backlog. In June, I would hit the new book hard. May was, in fact, one of the most productive months I’ve ever had as a prose writer. I revised three essays, finished another that had been languishing in a state of near-completion, edited an interview with a poet, wrote two reviews of poetry books, and submitted the lot to various journals. That doesn’t mean they’re done, or I’m done revising and resubmitting. Still: triumph over pain!

Despite confidence, though, about what I have done, I feel totally appalled by what I need to do next. I have no faith that anything I’m writing is worthwhile. In the new manuscript, a book about twenty-first-century poetry but aimed at a general readership, I’m trying to keep out on the edge of what feels safe because at least life is interesting, out on a cliff. At least I’m not bored by the problem of putting sentences together, as I had been feeling when writing conventional scholarship. The new work, though, is challenging me at almost every level. At every juncture I ask: is this transition interesting, at least to me? Would somebody reading this sentence really want to step into the next one? Why does this paragraph matter? Those questions hurt.

And then school ended for my kids and my spouse came home from a difficult trip emptying out his mother’s condo: she has dementia now, he just moved her into assisted living, and a buyer wants the place in late June. I did feel full of the appropriate spousal compassion, but holding down the fort domestically for six days had meant drastically compressed work time. I had become panicky about not practicing my nausea and self-doubt. And then we had our annual argument about how the summer days should get split—who gets to write when—which meant making a case for time to do the sickening work I’m not convinced anyone will ever want to read.  My time comes at the cost of his time, and he’s a writer afflicted by existential nausea, too. So now there’s an extra pressure on my time at the desk, an extra reason to feel like puking.

Another question I ask myself when facing down that screen: is there something else I’d rather do for these few hours a day during the short span of an academic summer? Because, you know, I have tenure. I could just stop. I could do volunteer work or spend enough hours walking to compensate for my hatred of that efficient, high-intensity running stuff.  Perhaps I could surrender to my stealthily-growing Twitter addiction. After all, there are a lot of highly-disciplined writers out there. I’d have to be delusional to think my own effort was genuinely important.

But I have a strong, illogical compulsion to push through the pain. It’s primary programming: keep writing until the circuits die. It would be handy if I could believe a Master Programmer created this drive in me as part of an elaborate plan. Instead, I suspect it’s just some biochemical feedback loop, a serotonin delivery system or something. Yet here I am.

Two related posts you might be interested in, if you’re thinking about the same things: Jeannine Hall Gailey on whether you can get it done and still be a nice girl; Marly Youmans on creating good vibrations. That’s a nice idea, isn’t it, that all our good lines and sentences might be a way of improving the tuning of the universe? That’s not really why I write, though. I don’t know why I write