Peering across the Atlantic

When, back in the primordial mists of the 90s, I was hired to teach 20th century poetry in English, I well-prepared to construct U.S.-based syllabi. British and Irish poetries, however, were visible to me only as hills and treetops peeking above a general fog. I knew the international modernists and a few later border-crossers, especially Plath and Hughes; I had historical context for debates about Britishness, empire, language, and identity. Otherwise, I had to worked up the field like any grad student of the era, beginning with Norton anthologies and reference essays. A familiar landscape soon took shape: Hardy, the poets of the Great War, Auden, Larkin. Mina Loy sauntered into place among my modernists, and I explored Stevie Smith’s work with delight. Thinking more white women and some, a few, ANY people of color had to be out there, I found Bloodaxe Books and then Moniza Alvi and Jackie Kay, and eventually news of a Black British scene (Jahan Ramazani’s scholarship became increasingly helpful). On the Irish side, my map was similarly faulty. I’d met Muldoon and heard Heaney while at Princeton, so Muldoon’s Faber Anthology of Contemporary Irish Poetry was the obvious place to start, but it included only ONE woman. The Wake Forest Book of Irish Women’s Poetry appeared soon, by way of remedy. The internet happened. Traveling and listening to readings has helped, too (cheers to Carrie Etter and Zayneb Allak, most recently). I still feel, however, that if I were asked to teach a course on post-1900 British women poets, I wouldn’t be confident about how to shape the story–whereas on the U.S. side, I’ve done it, and the only problem is how to give time to all the overlapping narratives, choosing among riches.

historybritwomenWhich is why I’m grateful to have just found the series The History of British Women’s Writing, and in particular, Vol. 10, 1970-Present, edited by Mary Eagleton and Emma Parker. The ten-page opening chronology, interweaving international politics with developments in literary culture, is a tremendous gift in itself. Indeed, the essays collected here are particularly useful on what often seems like the ephemera of literary history: presses, prizes, laureates, and all the other little recognitions that eventually add up to canons and master narratives. Another great strength of the book is its head-on address to disputes over Britishness: Parker and Eagleton invoke a literary world that’s diverse along every axis, while also analyzing the forces that hamper inclusion.

Fiction receives more attention than other genres, with Jeannette King on historical fiction, Sue Zlosnik on the gothic, Ruvani Ranasinha on British Asian fiction, Suzanne Scafe on Black British fiction, and more. Other pieces are multigenre, however, such as Hywel Dix’s essay on Welsh, Northern Irish, and Scottish literature. And the editors devote discrete chapters to poetry, drama, memoir, and media-crossing literary modes.

The introduction and other elements of the editorial apparatus are wonderful, but the chapter that will be most useful to me is Jane Dowson’s “Poetry on Page and Stage.” Her overview of game-changing anthologies and magazine special issues, as well as their often mixed receptions, is pure gold. She tracks laureateships, Oxford poetry chairs, the shifting status of lyric and experiment, and the importance of poetry performance as a mode of innovation that shapes who gets heard. My reading/ listening list is now twice as long.

In other news, I couldn’t be more grateful for the kind notes I’ve been receiving all week for my own essay, “Women Stay Put,” but I am deeply tired. My three classes, now heading into midterms, are terrific–I’ve never had better groups of students–but with all the extra department work and other service that’s been on our plates lately, I am about as ready as I’ve ever been for February Break. I’m planning to escape next weekend and spend a couple of days gazing at a sunnier bit of the Atlantic, and if the waves don’t sound like poetry, for once, that will be just fine.

 

Women on the radio

english books

Broadcast, by Zayneb Allak

It’s about loneliness.
A woman from Birmingham tells us
about the time she was lonely.

When I left Birmingham
the Bull Ring was still ashen.
I remember it in the slush:

a lady in a pink and gold sari
with a grey anorak over the top
dragged blue and white plastic bags.

Nothing sounds more hangdog
than a lonely Brummie, I think,
no vowels could be droopier.

My dad used to mimic them,
I’m from Birmingham I am.
We’d tell him he was way off.

The woman on the radio says
the time she was lonely was bad,
she actually literally wilted.

Her cadences announce
what I least expect: home
how I might miss it.

The Rialto 82, Winter’s End 2015, page 50, reprinted by the author’s permission

I’ve been meaning to post this lovely poem for a while. When in England this past June and July, I picked up a bunch of books and magazines–Carrie Etter, Sarah Jackson, Rory Waterman, and other poets publishing there now are pretty great. I’ve also put myself on a catch-up reading course in 21st century verse from the British Isles, although in the haphazard way of a curious person rather than in the urgent way of a professor preparing a syllabus (I’m on sabbatical–have I gloated enough about that yet? Of course not!). I took out the few recent volumes our little library owns that I’d never read (how is Selima Hill new to me?). I also ordered books based on selections I liked in a couple of anthologies (Niall Campbell’s Moontide is magical–there’s a podcast by him here). And the new Irish-themed issue of Poetry just arrived, so more self-education awaits. Even on an endless sabbatical I couldn’t read all the published contemporary poetry in English, of course, but it’s fun to try.

Zayneb Allak doesn’t have a book yet–she’s finishing a creative dissertation at Nottingham Trent University. One of her critical chapters concerns my book Heterotopiaa Liverpool-themed collection she found by accident but that resonated with her own complicated experiences of place. She grew up partly in Liverpool, partly in Iran, and her family now lives in Birmingham, as “Broadcast” suggests. I love the lines “Nothing sounds more more hangdog/ than a lonely Brummie,” and I also love that her home-longing is triggered by sound, an accent heard over the radio. Given that my next book, Radioland, uses broadcast as a motif, it sounds like our obsessions continue to harmonize.

New Jersey and New York accents, hated as they are by many, sound homey enough to make my heart skip a beat. So do Liverpudlian voices. My mom doesn’t have a strong Liverpool accent; she grew up in that city but was mostly schooled out of scouse intonations, which carry strong negative connotations over there (but not in the U.S., where everyone thinks “Beatles!”). I had assumed this prejudice was past-tense until I sat with an English couple while traveling a couple of years ago; they were very friendly until they found out where my mother was from, after which they shut up firmly and kept their eyes downcast. I know the bias concerns class and probably politics. I’m too much of an outsider to understand the nuances, but I think of Liverpool when I hear people express prejudice against the varieties of drawl associated with the southeast U.S. The unfair cliche is that a southern accent sounds stupid, uneducated. I know many southerners who code-switch, dialing up the twang for local friends and muting it in, say, academic circles. I personally mourn the loss to the soundscape, but I’m sure I would code-switch too–and probably did alter my own accent unconsciously at some early age. My sister, for example, sounds more New Jersey than I do. And my mother says I had a British accent before I started school.

Zayneb, a generous, capable sort of person, arranged some events for me in Nottingham and Liverpool. It was wonderful to meet her and I’m rooting for lots more poems with complicated accents under her byline in future. For the moment, here’s a picture of her near Nottingham Castle–I wish I could post a recording!english zayneb

And hey, speaking of little magazines doing good work in amplifying poetry’s signal: thanks to One for featuring my eccentrically-titled “Postlapsarian Salsa Verde” in their new issue. They’re looking for submissions for the next one…

 

Poetic navigation

The kids, you’ll be shocked to hear, haven’t been especially receptive to the Yeats I’ve been reading aloud over dinner. Madeleine thinks the Maud Gonne poems consign Yeats to creepy stalker territory and isn’t nearly as impressed as I am by the beauty of it all—and I was moving chronologically, so I didn’t even get to the infuriating “A Prayer for My Daughter.” I think when you know a place through art, really visiting is an experience full of layers and facets that make the grass much more brilliantly green. They’re skeptics, although maybe I can console myself that they’ll be better Yeatsians one day after having seen Thoor Ballylee. Since our Pacific adventures, after all, they love recognizing New Zealand and Hawai’ian landscapes in films and they’re much more fervent about Flight of the Conchords.

I’m obsessed with the difference it makes to visit literature’s sacred sites. I’m not sure if I’m a better critic or teacher of Emily Dickinson since touring her house in Amherst, Massachusetts, but I have a different feel for her poetry, what those garden references and domestic metaphors mean. An early pilgrimage to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania—H.D.’s home turf—bore fruit for Chris, leading to an article on her handling of missionary and Lenape history in The Gift. Visiting Aotearoa New Zealand was my biggest conversion experience. That trip had a massive payoff in my understanding of and commitment to poetry from that part of the world. I’m no expert but at least I know what I don’t know, and nearly all of it had been invisible to me for most of my career, poetry full of birds and foods and expressions and geological formations I wouldn’t have been able to recognize, much less pronounce. Now teaching poems from places I have no first-hand experience makes me wonder: what incredibly basic, important scraps of context am I missing?

Hence, in a few days, our first trip to Ireland. I have a long-term commitment to the place. My maternal grandfather’s people, the Cains, were Irish exiles in Liverpool, so my mother grew up listening to fairy stories and her father’s Irish tenor (he died when she was a teenager). She never visited the country, though, and associates it, I think, with shame and anger as well as music and storytelling; to be Irish in Liverpool was to be brutally, unromantically poor. I grew up in New Jersey, attending Catholic schools where Irish connections are fetishized, so I was delighted to find out, one St. Patrick’s Day, that I had a proper claim on those green bagels. Although there was little Irish poetry beyond Yeats in my own education, working through it with students is now part of my job description.

The British & Irish Poetry course is scheduled for this winter and I know I’ll teach it better once I’ve listened to the Irish birds. I have a more particular mission, though: to track down some of the places Paula Meehan writes about in Painting Rain. I suspect that locating any poem is basically impossible but wonder what I’ll learn by trying.

Meehan has a suite of poems about St. Stephen’s Green, which even a confused American should be able to find. What about all the lost and damaged sites, though, like the meadow beneath the housing development she laments in “Death of a Field”? In what sense can you even get there from here? Placing poems fully would involve time-travel and other spectacular feats, since poets may layer into a single poem impressions gathered over years, or things they’ve simply imagined. What about, too, where a poet does the writing, revising, first public reading?

This year I wrested possession of our study from Chris (actually, he gave it to me, and my verb reflects a guilty sense of triumph). The tall maple outside the window and House Mountain in the distance kept entering my poems—while I wrote a poem a day during April, the tree went from stark branches through first-green-is-gold to full leaf, and the mountain’s face fluctuated from sharp purple to utterly veiled by cloud and smoke. Both became poetry triggers even when I was writing about very different situations. Then a massive June storm tore the tree in half. Its former canopy, though, persists in the poems’ virtual space; I recreate some version of that maple’s shade whenever I reenter, revise them. That’s part of why I wrote them, right, to preserve what I didn’t know I was about to lose?