Spring’s nonlinearity

You’ve got to keep an eye on April: it’s slippery. I’m seeking discipline I lacked this winter, wanting to make the most of this brief season, although I’m skipping #NaPoWriMo in favor of surveying and refining older drafts. Mid-March, I overhauled a lot of poems and put them under submission; two have been accepted already, and maybe I’ll earn a couple more wins as the months pass. It’s a long process, but it’s wise to submit work in spring if you can, because so many markets close in summer. I’m also writing to bookstores and submitting conference proposals, in hopes there will be an in-person future for the literary world. I get my second Moderna shot on April 9th. I’ll be careful even after the T-cells multiply, but already I feel less anxious about brief forays into the populated world, as well as happier about the down-time I’m taking outdoors.

Shortly after I hit a better work rhythm, though–moving from revising and submitting poems to overhauling some fiction projects–my mother went into the hospital. She lives in eastern Pennsylvania, so for unvarnished information (she downplays every ailment), I depend on my adult brother, with whom she lives, and my sister, who lives 45 minutes away but has seen less of my mother during the pandemic. Turned out my mother had a very bad wound on her leg that had become severely infected. The usual hell-zone of diagnosis was harder than usual because of the limits on visitors, the busy-ness of medical staff, and my mother herself being too sick and drugged to pick up the phone. Eventually they ruled out the scariest things. Her circulation is just terrible, so damage is easy to do and hard to mend. She’s in rehab now, getting on her feet again while her wound slowly heals, so the crisis period is probably over, but it was intense. Intensely concerned and wondering if I would need to drop everything and drive 5+ hours, I alternately read medical websites, texted furiously with my siblings, and distracted myself with more revisions. I rewrote a short story from scratch, for instance, without looking at the original; that’s not a strategy I’ve tried much before, but it worked really well. Yay?

This all reminds me of my last sabbatical, when my mother was diagnosed with lymphoma and I spent many months shuttling back and forth, doing what I could to help my on-the-ground siblings. (That’s also the year I drafted what became my first novel, Unbecoming–go figure.) Here’s another way time is tricky. Spring always reminds you of previous springs, for better and worse. Academe, too, is structured by seasonal recurrences: semesters and breaks, registrations and grading, and the longer cycles of teaching years and sabbatical interludes (if you’re very lucky). The latter are big markers in my memory. 2015-16, when my mother was sick; 2010-11, when a life-changing Fulbright brought us to New Zealand; 2005-6, when I wrote Voicing American Poetry in “Mod Hall,” overflow office space in a decrepit trailer by a stream; and my first leave in 2000-1, when my son was born, my first scholarly book went under contract, and in the long deep breath after achieving tenure, I thought about what I wanted for my liberated writing life. Perhaps I have two sabbaticals left before I retire–again, if I’m lucky.

All of which is to say I’m feeling the cyclicality of time right now just as much as the forward march of my precious writing year and uneasy anticipation about the difficult-to-plan future. I’m more than okay, plenty anxious, glad to be balancing different kinds of writing work, well aware of how spinning plates can unexpectedly crash. Meanwhile, the trees are budding maybe a little earlier than they have before, as the world heats up. It’s freshly amazing how beauty and danger arrive together.

Poets among you maybe be interested in an upcoming virtual conference I’m preparing for, the Poetry and Creative Arts Festival at WCU on April 7-10. $50 for general registration isn’t bad; you also get a free workshop, such as Molly Peacock’s “Snap Sonnets.” I’ll be running a panel on Saturday 4/10 called “Feeling Across Distance” with Lauren Alleyne, Tafisha Edwards, Luisa A. Igloria, and Jane Satterfield, and I’ll post writing prompts from all of them here. Finally, here’s a review I wrote of Tyree Daye’s new collection Cardinal, just published in Harvard Review. I hope to write more reviews for them in future, but not just yet, because I want a slower kind of focus. Perhaps because of a mild March 2020 case of Covid-19 I couldn’t get a test for, I couldn’t smell anything last spring, so I need to make up for lost flower-time.

A mouth of purple crocus

One of the first sonnets I wrote, as an undergraduate, contained the lines: “A mouth of purple crocus opens through/ the snow, wild to speak the store beneath. / It carries coin.” I don’t remember the rest, although the poem is probably in a bin in the attic somewhere. The lines have been running through my head all week as the weather flips from warmish to snowy to springlike again. March is always a crazy month in my academic calendar, but I am ready for the madness, as long as it brings me color!

Elements of recent frenzy: I injured my right knee a week ago (I don’t know how) and my mobility has been limited; now that knee is improving but I’m realizing there’s background noise of inflammation and low-grade pain that I need to figure out and deal with. My son is at the state chess tournament in Charlottesville this weekend, which meant extra driving, although I’m happy for him. This afternoon’s report is that he played really well. Even though his rating is finally high enough that he was required to play in the championship division–meaning basically everyone he matched with was higher-rated, many of them drastically–he won half his games. And my daughter drove down yesterday for spring break, and it’s her birthday tomorrow. AND Aimee Nezhukumatathil was due to arrive yesterday for the second part of her residency, and got grounded overnight in Memphis, so we’ve been scrambling to rearrange things. That’s all on top of the usual busy-ness of the teaching year, plus trying to resolve all Shenandoah poetry submissions from the reading period that recently closed, plus hitting the crux of the AWP search for a permanent executive director (I’m off the AWP board, but on this committee), plus being stern with myself about carving out time for novel revisions (minimum of an hour 3x/ week).

All this means a lot of juggling, but except for the joint/ mobility problems–and the pain of rejecting good poems, because Shenandoah gets SO MANY GOOD POEMS–I’m feeling optimistic. Put that little spark of good feeling against a big gray landscape–the treatment of refugees at our borders looms large for me, as well as the worsening environmental crisis–and a bunch of purple crocus isn’t worth much, I know. But I’ll take it.

Stupid human bodies

Look at the god, good-looking,
how he looks at the ground,
willing it real, willing himself
to love where he hardly lives,

in his stupid human body,
an always ailing thing.

The good editors at SWWIM published my poem “Energize” this week and I’ve been thinking about late fall 2015, when I composed it. A couple of months into my sabbatical, my mother became very ill with what turned out to be non-Hodgkins lymphoma, so I was flying up and down highways, trying to see her and help with her care. I was also grieving other transitions–my son had just started high school and my daughter had left for college–and working on various manuscripts with the desperation of a half-crazed person, plus perimenopause symptoms were tormenting me. This particular poem arrived during a trip to a Modernist Studies Association meeting in November; it occurred in Boston and I missed the first day because I squeezed in a visit with my mother on the way north (she lives near Philadelphia and I’m in Virginia). After things wound down on Sunday, but before I hit the road to Pennsylvania and then Virginia again, I ducked into a church for shelter during some rain and ended up captivated by the Tiffany stained glass, which seemed bright and alive despite the dark weather. So there’s a little Jesus in this poem, a little Star Trek (I was really, really longing for transporter technology), and a bunch of mid-life angst.

I’m still working on many of the mss I was trying to bring into being that season. This summer been largely devoted to revision and submission. But my mother, after that terrible year, entered remission and is doing fine. And while I’m just as much of a seeker as I was then–open to random encounters with gods, fundamentally uncertain about what’s real–my sense of personal crisis is less urgent. (Maybe politics crowded it out?)

However, I received sobering lab results yesterday. I haven’t been feeling great and the numbers make sense of my malaise, but probably not in a take-a-pill-and-fix-it way. I still have to talk to my doctor and figure it out, but I think the diagnosis will be prediabetes and I’ll lose all my comfort foods right as I head into a stressy September. I feel upset about it but also annoyed at myself for that useless emotion, because I’d generally rather skip to acceptance than wade through messiness first.

More transformations ahead; time to grab the steering wheel (transporter controls?) and pay attention. I guess we never stand still.

jesus tiffany

 

As if suspense were a permanent state

Poetry isn’t generally associated with suspense. It seems like an art of uncertainty–and a consolation for that uncertainty. Yet I find myself more and more convinced that poetry’s fragmentariness needs to be anchored by story (earlier post related to this idea here). I’m also wishing I could see the shape of my own story more clearly. As usual, I’m projecting my life into poetry, and vice versa.

On life suspense: my mother is ailing, and so am I, and so are several other people dear to me. Being ill without a clear diagnosis is definitely a bad kind of suspense. My mother has lymphoma and while chemo is triumphing over the tumor, it’s also wearing her down–the doctors are still figuring out why this week has been so bad. I’m a six-hour drive away, so I spend a lot of time waiting for my phone to buzz.

During my 2005-6 sabbatical I researched poetic voice; during this one, I’m making a long-term study of my mother’s intonations by telephone. It’s not just what she’s saying and in what mood, but hoarseness, shortness of breath, and when things are really bad, her difficulty tracking the conversation. Slurring in October first alerted us that something was seriously wrong. I’m judging my sister’s level of worry, too, through tones and texts. All this close listening makes me think of Dickinson only consenting to medical examination through a crack in the door. Not much for a diagnostician to go on.

I’m not so sick as all that. Asthma, swelling, palpitations, lightheadedness–I’ve had the basic tests done to know I’m not in the middle of some cardiac cataclysm, but these medium-annoying symptoms could spring from about five million different problems, and lord knows how long it will take to narrow it down. Another research project.

I’m medicating myself in the interim by reading and writing. I’m revising Taking Poetry Personally and figuring out what presses to query, but that requires high concentration. What I seem to want to do most is read and write poems. Since I have stacks of poetry books around, some sent for review and others I’ve been meaning to get to for ages, I’m picking one up every time I feel low.

Plenty of them are good, but too often I’m disappointed by the first few pages. Every published poet knows, I think, to pick a strong opener, a well-wrought poem that inaugurates the themes and strategies of the collection. It’s surprising, however, how few poets use those early pages to generate suspense–the good kind that keeps a reader on the hook. I don’t mean a murder should be discovered in the first stanza, leaving us to ponder who done it over seventy pages of clever line breaks. Yet there should, I think, be at least one urgent question percolating. And the poems that follow should sustain interest in those questions, so that, by the last few lines of the last verse, we have some provisional, partial, fragmentary sense of an answer.

Narrative isn’t the only tension-generator: poems can also be arguments, spells, and riddles, to be resolved by sound or formal elements as well as, or even instead of, sense. The best poetry book I’ve read recently is actually pretty experimental: Anne Carson’s Nox (what? you demand, and shh, I reply, because my yet-to-be-read list is really embarrassing). I bet many of you have already cracked that box, unfolded the astonishing accordion pages, and pondered her artful use of collage, translated verse, dictionary glosses, etc. The book certainly doesn’t tell a straightforward tale. Yet Carson has such a strong sense of story–she is one of the best living poets, I think, when it comes to writing suspensefully.

“I wanted to fill my elegy with light of all kinds,” she writes early on, addressing the death of her brother. “But death makes us stingy. There is nothing more to be expended on that, we think, he’s dead. Love cannot alter it. Words cannot add to it. No matter how I try to evoke the starry lad he was, it remains a plain, odd history.”

Who was her brother, you wonder, and how did he die? What’s “odd” about his life and death? Isn’t there something odd about this speaker, too–the mix of grief and cool detachment in those lines? Carson doesn’t reveal complete or stable answers to any of these questions. She replies, rather, as poets do, through patterned fragments. Nox is really a long poem and therefore much more unified than most collections, and maybe my own distraction makes me a cranky reader right now, yet I really, really wish more poetry books had some part of its propulsive drive.

In considering all this, I realize the guiding question of my next book of poems is already crystallizing. It’s: Where am I? Really, interest in place runs through all of my poetry collections (think of the titles Heathen, Heterotopia, Radioland), but I’m further out on that question’s ledge than ever.

One answer: nowhere. I’m a middle-aged striver laboring in an obscure small town. As I try to promote Radioland, and feel enormously grateful for the reviews I’ve received and the events coming up soon (W&L next week, and also the VA Festival of the Book, AWP, Kenyon College, and Poetry by the Sea), I’m also struggling. It is HARD to inspire people to order and/or open a poetry book, much less decorate it with laurels, no matter how  engaging its interior might be. One kind of suspense I’m suffering from: of all the threads I’ve recently cast into the void, trying to launch the poems toward a larger audience, will any catch?

Well, I keep telling myself, suspense in this case is better than having hit the canyon floor. I’m proud of the book, plus the new work is worth doing in its own right. I’m finding the somewhere in nowhere and having a hard look around. These badlands have some interesting features.

wile-e-coyote

Stealing the scholars’ wi-fi

The still eye of November’s hurricane was, improbably, a modernism conference in Boston. I scudded in a day late, only half an hour before my first meeting. I was recovering from illness, and my son and husband were sick, and I’d packed badly, especially considering how chic modernism scholars tend to be, with their Calder-mobile-style earrings and funky eyeglasses and fabulous boots. I often feel out of sorts at academic conferences, too—the poet-scholar failing at both sides of the hyphen. Yet the fancy hotel was full of friends: people who have helped me, people whom I have helped, and people I just like to talk and listen to. It was restorative and made me think hard about mentoring.

My autumn, as reported in the previous post, had the plot arc of a killer storm: the happy family was sailing along, backs to a swelling bulk of thunderheads. The first smashing wave was my mother’s sudden illness, eventually diagnosed as lymphoma with some dangerous complications. I think she nearly died twice, but was rescued by my sister driving in from New Jersey to drag her to the ER (my mother lives in eastern Pennsylvania, about a five-and-half hour drive from me). Double-crisis is the formula for a thriller; the danger seems at first to be averted, and then a bigger threat arises. Her treatment now seems to be proceeding effectively, but the past weeks taught us all vigilance. My concentration is terrible. I did finish my conference paper, write a few references, submit a micro-review. I know I drafted a few desperate poems, too, but haven’t had time to look at them—did I mention my laptop is also dying?

To help a little during the week before Thanksgiving—my sister is carrying most of the burden—I traveled to the Modernist Studies Association meeting by car, visiting Pennsylvania on the way. When I arrived at my mother’s hospital on Wednesday afternoon, they discharged her, and I spent a day and a half getting her settled at home: counting out pills into a dispenser, buying supplies, cleaning, doing laundry, cooking, phoning the insurance and visiting nurses, and helping my brother move a bed downstairs. I still can’t believe how much we did, even while I was absorbing seismic changes in a lifelong intimacy. One of my earliest memories is being carried shivering out of a bathtub by my mother, who rubbed me dry and unrolled lacy white socks over my ankles as I protested the cold. Suddenly I was dressing my mother, fetching layers as she shivered. Age goes this way for most of us eventually, and it’s good when we can help each other along. Still, it’s tiring work emotionally and physically.

It was strange to arrive at the Boston hotel in this condition, put on my professional clothes, and launch a reading I’d organized. Yet it eased my mind to hear those poems and have a series of conversations with other people negotiating their own crazy lives brilliantly. One friend’s major health crisis, she told me, was immediately followed by her husband’s heart attack; she knew exactly what I meant when I described my own juggling of caretaking and professional urgencies. Her glance, that reassuring touch to the arm, helped me exhale. A lot of my friends, of course, are middle-aged people with mortal parents and/or still-needy teenagers plus their own ambitions, but I also sat for a few minutes on the lobby carpet with a former student’s sleepless toddler as she deconstructed a lily. I don’t know who is mentoring whom in some of these interactions, but it’s all reassuring.

When I departed on Monday morning, I listened to Mindy Kaling’s recent audiobook, Why Not Me? Kaling commissioned one mini-chapter from a mentor—perhaps improbably, a middle-aged white guy. In the audiobook, he reads aloud his own words, “On Being a Mentor,” a bit of which I’ve transcribed below. After describing his own role-models, Greg Daniels speculates:

“I know a lot of people are probably thinking, ‘Oh, good for you, but nobody’s ever wanted to be my mentor.’ I don’t think any one of them wanted to be my mentor, either. My advice is: you take your mentoring wherever you can find it, whether it’s being offered to you or not. Have you ever used your neighbor’s wi-fi when it wasn’t on a password? If you have the opportunity to observe someone at their work, you are getting mentoring out of them even if they are unaware or resistant. Make a list of the people you think would make the greatest mentors and try to get close enough to steal their wi-fi.”

I agree with Daniels. Since grad school, a mess to discuss on another day, I’ve hijacked my mentors’ attention against their better judgment, or jostled in close to busy people to learn what I could. Most but not all of them were feminist women, and I don’t know whether that’s because women were more open to helping me, or whether I felt more comfortable sidling up to them. But I’ve attended most MSAs since the organization started in the late nineties, and again and again I see women there modeling an intellectual generosity I aspire to. Linda Kinnahan, Cynthia Hogue, Marsha Bryant, Dee Morris, and Cris Miller not only give dependably rockin’ talks but attend small panels with warm engagement; direct questions to the speaker who’s getting the least attention; redirect blowhards; and do the behind-the-scenes work, too, of tenure reviews, anonymous reader reports, and cleaning up complicated professional messes. I’m singling out a few who have been models for me, but there are many others—plus people at earlier career stages who impress me with similar gifts. Most of them could probably say no more often, and I should, too. If you don’t get good work done, after all, your own ability to help others shrinks. I really want to just hunker down and write this December, ignoring everyone beyond my closest family and friends. Still, strong signal, no password: that is a beautiful way to broadcast.

For the pic below with Cynthia Hogue and her dashing handbag, thanks to Marsha Bryant. You can see more from the MSA reading at Aldon Nielson’s blog.

cynthia msa