Conference anxiety times a million

Socializing in Rockbridge County, Virginia

I don’t have major stage fright about teaching, and I’ve come to feel like I can give a decent Zoom reading. My upcoming conversation with the brilliant writers Anjali Sachdeva and Brittany Hailer–Friday 6/4 at 7pm Eastern, hosted by the White Whale, register here by 6:30 that day!–will amp me up for the night, but talking to them about fabulism vs. realism basically sounds fun to me. Yet GOOD LORD am I nervous about participating in a weeklong fancy virtual writers’ workshop starting June 6th.

I have a pretty good idea why. For most virtual presentations, you have to be prepared, come across as warm and engaged, and stay attuned to others. The latter two tasks are harder via screen, but I now have experience managing it. What I have completely forgotten how to do: 1) interact in a substantive, sustained, open way with strangers; and 2) be my most sparkly, enthusiastic, professional self among people with literary power. That second one was never easy for me. I’m an introvert whose battery for socializing has to be recharged by solitude, and my self-confidence ebbs and flows. But the pandemic means I’m REALLY out of practice. Grief doesn’t help, either–I’ve been low and spacey since my mother’s death, and when I work too hard, my brain and body conk out.

I came across an article the other day that reminded me that instead of hopelessly dreading my likely failure to make the most of a good opportunity, I could consider planning ways to manage stress. Self-help is not my preferred genre, and I have successfully avoided lots of pieces about social reentry post-Covid, but I was click-baited this time by a title about “using sobriety strategies,” about which I know little. Plus I’m desperate. The Washington Post article by Erin Shaw Street is here, although I don’t know if the link will work for everyone.

In short, the advice is to “start with acceptance”–this reentry thing will probably take a while, and that’s okay. “Have a plan, but stay flexible”: well, I always have a plan. My idea was to turn the week into a writer’s retreat at home, so my spouse is visiting family. Next week I’ll order out, let the dust pile up, and refuse to answer email. Write write write, I thought, and get back on the submission train, too. Maybe even use the empty house to lay out all my recent poems and see if they’re beginning to form a new collection! My revised plan: sure, try all that stuff, but if it doesn’t work, just do my workshop, make the best of my two 15-minute meetings with fancy editors, forgive myself if some of it falls flat, and otherwise chill. That’s the “pay attention to your feelings” part, which lately have made themselves very clear. “Practice gratitude and mindfulness”: well, all right, I know breathing exercises and I’ve actually worked on mindfulness lately, in my distracted way. What I’m proudest of, by the way of emotional planning, is in the “having a group of trusted friends to call on” category. I have actually scheduled a phone chat with Jeannine Hall Gailey right before the conference, because she is the best literary cheerleader I know. How about that! Me, planning a social interaction for my own sake, because it will make me feel connected and maybe even slightly more confident!! Miracles can happen. I also wrote the principles on a post-it note and stuck it on my office window frame, hoping I’ll stick with the program.

If you have ideas about doing your best in this kind of setting when you’re kind of a mess, I’d be glad to hear them. Most of this blog’s readers are writers, and I don’t think introversion is rare in our tribe. The conference is the Breadloaf Environmental Writers Workshop, by the way, with my individual group of six poets led by Dan Chiasson. I actually won a scholarship to it, so it would be rational to have some faith in myself. At the very least, I plan to learn more about environmental writing as well as gathering ideas for sharpening my poems–and, based on past experience, tricks for my teaching, too. It’s useful to play student occasionally, see how others run things, and be reminded how it feels to watch others examine your work.

Meanwhile, spacey-dopey-nervousness notwithstanding, I did make my most important May deadlines. Saturday I finished a monster participant packet for another fancy workshop, Sewanee, which will be in person at the end of July (another scholarship, ahem). And yesterday I turned in a short essay solicited for a new critical collection, Eliot Now. My piece discusses work by Jeannine Hall Gailey and Paisley Rekdal in relation to “The Waste Land.” In brief, Gailey and Rekdal highlight the prominence of sexual violence in Eliot’s poem while portraying their own experiences with assault. (Gee, I wonder why I felt depressed working on it?)

Sending out good vibes to everyone for a peaceful and/or productive June, whatever you need it to be. I’m not sure how much blogging is in my immediate future, although I bet I’ll have some things to share about the workshop when it’s all over.

The present and future of pandemic poetry

Like a sad dragon, I’m currently sitting on a diminishing hoard of potential poems for future issues of ShenandoahFall ’21 and Spring ’22, presuming we get there–knowing I can’t keep ALL the gold. I’m already rejecting good poems, trying to get down to 20-ish from more than 700 batches. The last couple of weeks have been largely a sifting process: holding each poem against the light, seeing how pieces might fit together.

One issue I’ve been pondering, in part triggered by a tweet from Kelli Russell Agodon: how are the poems I’m reading manifesting the extraordinary pressures of a global pandemic? The answer I gave Kelli is that the poetic worlds seem a notch smaller: I’m getting more poems about the flora and fauna close to hand, fewer about conversation and art and the randomness of being a human walking around in the built world. That’s not a bad thing, but it can make the submission pile less various. I’m certainly coming across references to Covid-19, too, as well as elegies and poems about anxiety, depression, and isolation, but not as many as I expected. This may be because poetry has such a slow burn that we won’t really see the literary results of any crisis for a few years. It may also be because a lot of people just can’t write lately–their lives are busier and their brains can’t rev down enough for reflection. I’m interested to see how things shake out in the literary world and otherwise.

“Haunted and Weird Futures” was actually the title of the final session of the poetry master class I just finished teaching at Randolph College. The assignment:

To read for class: Juliana Spahr, excerpts from “Will There Be Singing”; Jeannine Hall Gailey, “The Last Love Poem,” “Calamity,” “The End of the Future,” “Introduction to Writer’s Block”; Natasha Trethewey, “Theories of Time and Space”; January Gill O’Neil, “Hoodie”

Prompt: Write a poem that looks toward the future. Some part of it should use the future tense.

It went well, although I was glad I’d lightened the reading for the last session, because the students are tired and stressed. One poem we discussed intensively was Gailey’s “Introduction to Writer’s Block”, because another group of students at Randolph, in a BFA program discussion group, asked me how I keep writing in a difficult time. I talked about switching things up–trying a different genre when one isn’t working–but also just forgiving yourself and spending time on activities that nourish what is depleted in you (whatever it is–a craft, exercise, reading, watching TV, games and puzzles, talking to friends, taking a bath). I love Jeannine’s persistence in the face of pre-pandemic calamity, her declaration that “If you wait long enough, something inside you will ignite.” She writes plenty of poems considering the possible failure of poetry, but they tend to nurture some wit and spark and hope, whatever the trampling Godzilla of the moment is. And I think she’s right: if you keep showing up to the page, cultivating whatever openness you can however you can, the words eventually come.

Because discouragement is also epidemic this year, I am joining in on an event organized by Celia Lisset Alvarez and including Jen Karetnick, both of them poets and editors extraordinaire. We’re going to talk about rejection in the context of our own recent books, and how we work to overcome it. It’s called She Persists and it’s happening at 7pm on Monday March 8th. Sign up here and I promise I’ll try to cheer you on and cheer you up!

Like water wants to shine

I slid off the rocks pictured above at Willoughby Spit, Virginia, last weekend, cutting my toes and raising a mother of a bruise on the opposite shin. A couple of days before that, I fell off a bike, although that time I managed to throw myself clear onto some relatively cushy grass. The day before that, I got bashed down by Virginia Beach waves a couple of times; the wind was high and getting from the billows to the shore was a challenge.

I’ve always been a klutz, but my muscle tension is higher now, which makes my balance lousy. Paradoxically, I don’t think my fear of falling helps. I watch my 19-year-old leap up and down steep trails, the kind spined with sharp rocks and tree roots; his footing is relaxed and sure because he trusts his body to do what he wants it to. Was I ever that agile?

I still want to move with speed and attain the great view, but if I push even a bit too hard, I end up benching myself. I’ve been thinking about ambition in writing, too–not, this week, ambition for quality of the writing, but craving a little bit more recognition, pushing myself to apply for more opportunities, even knowing that middle aged women hardly ever pull the brass ring. Leaving town for a few days, even though we didn’t go far, allowed me to stop thinking about Unbecoming and The State She’s Inhallelujah! When I got back from the beach last Sunday, though I dropped into a homebound funk, made worse by a sore throat. I immediately thought I was dying from COVID-19, felt sorry for the kids and husband I would leave behind, and did some soul-searching about what work I had left to do in the world (yes, I go apocalyptic quickly and vividly). Then I realized I had stopped taking an allergy medication at the beach, started it again, and felt fine within two days.

That cheered me up, but what cheered me more was a long phone call with Jeannine Hall Gailey ranging over all these subjects–health, career aspirations, politics, literary culture. It helped SO MUCH, and not just because she’s a gifted pep-talker, which she is, or because she gave me good concrete advice, which she did. As she wrote on her own blog earlier today, conversations like that can remind you that we’re not alone in aspiring and feeling frustrated. There’s a difficult balance to walk: for sanity’s sake, you can’t get carried away by po-biz longing, but I also don’t want any of us to underrate ourselves. Others are perfectly ready to ignore or underestimate us–we don’t need to get a jump on them!

Shout-out to Jeannine, too, for blogging about my recent books here. She’s a great literary citizen who reviews indie authors she admires on places like Amazon and Goodreads, something I’m trying to do more of, too. This week I’ll be striving to keep up my restored energy and improve my footing: a little publicity work, more drafting of projects I’ll be excited about next year or the year after, even if it seems like struggling through rough surf now and falling down a lot. I’m closing with a couple of poems about “flimsy plastic dreams” or being “focal/ marginal,” depending on whether you like estuary metaphors or punctuation play (actually, they both come from travel adventures, too!). “Danger Beyond This Point” just appeared in the new Chautauqua “Boundaries” issue and “Venus/ Dodo” in Michigan Quarterly Review (along with a golden shovel poem–a frigging hard form to get purchase on). All were first drafted 2-3 years ago then much reworked, submitted a bunch of times. I still like them. I guess it’s a reminder that even though the climb is hard, occasionally you get the shot.

Not resolutions but invocations

Last year, I substituted a mantra for a resolution: “breathe.” It helped a little. This New Year’s Eve I wrote up more resolutions, got upset about them, and then decided: to hell with self-improvement. I need fewer bullet points on my endlessly guilty, mildly self-loathing to-do lists. And better ones. In fact, let’s not even call them bullet points. They look like open pupils, too. Pencil points. Poppy seeds.

In considering what words I and others DO need to hear, I’ve been crafting a call for Shenandoah‘s next poetry submission period that will read something like this: “During our March 2020 reading period, please send us prayers, spells, charms, curses, blessings, invocations—poems that try to make change happen. All forms, styles, and procedures are welcome. A selection will appear in a special Shenandoah portfolio in the Spring 2021 issue.”

I know I’m not good about practicing self-care, but I want to keep asking for help this year, sending something like prayers or petitions outward and earthward. (I don’t believe there’s a god up in the sky, although it’s fine with me if you do; I do believe in a living earth that I can listen to and do better by.) I plan to mutter, be kind, pay attention, especially to myself. (And I will remind us to vote for kindness, too, whenever a crooked system gives you the chance. Fires blasting Australia, the U.S. president stirring up war to deflect attention from impeachment–I’m not sure we or the more-than-human-world can take much more of this.)

It may seem paradoxical, given these meditations on care, that I’m beginning 2020 by trying to be in two places at once. As the term starts here in Virginia, I’m handing a pile of syllabi and first-day lessons to my professor-spouse (I swear he’s fine with it, and well-rested!), then hopping on a plane to Seattle to attend the MLA convention. After thinking deeply about whether saying yes was another instance of crazed dutifulness, I decided that, actually, I want to go, as long as I can conference kindly.

The first thing I’m going to do when I arrive is hang out, for the pleasure of it, with a long-distance friend I hardly ever see, Jeannine Hall Gailey. Over the next few days, I’ll attend a few panels, and I’m speaking on a fun one, too (and trying not to stress about it). I joined Janine Utell’s MLA roundtable, “The Space Between Creative Nonfiction and Literary Criticism,” because I thought it would enrich my thinking as well as making my own work more visible, especially the creative criticism in my 2021 book Poetry’s Possible Worlds; this is the kind of conversation I want to have more of, genuinely. On Friday night, I’m part of an all-star lineup at the MLA Offsite Reading (2 minutes each and I’m quite sure most stars will peel off by the time we get to my part of the alphabet, which is fine with me–see the poster below). And on Saturday night, I join Jeannine Hall Gailey to read speculative poetry at Open Books. In between I’m planning to sleep, avoid my email, take a walk or two, and do minimal homework, as well as being super-nice to the anxious job-seekers in the MLA elevators.

Attending is also a way of being kinder to myself as a writer, rather than being maniacally diligent as a teacher (what do you mean, miss a class?!–we will NEVER GET THAT HOUR BACK!). I’d like to do better at fulfilling my responsibilities to what I’ve written, as Jeannine says in PR for Poets, which I’ve been rereading. In addition to the aforementioned 2021 essay collection, I have a fifth poetry collection, The State She’s In, and a first novel, Unbecoming, to launch this spring (look, I made pages!). I believe in them and I want them to find readers. No more prioritizing a tidy email inbox over inquiring about a reading series or submitting to a post-publication prize! I need to do less busy-work, somehow, in 2020, but also keep priorities straight. I will achieve this imperfectly, if at all. But it’s not about checking off a list, right? It’s about keeping those pupils wide. Wish all of us luck. And write some powerful spell-poems, please, no matter where you plan to release their magic.

Credit to a local poet-friend, Julie Phillips Brown, for making a shareable poster!

Sharing space in poetry (“that essay”)

Away from my normal routines for ten days in Portugal, I looked at Twitter occasionally and kept seeing references to “that essay” by poet Bob Hicok. I’ll scout it out later, I thought, first busy with the MLA International Symposium in Lisbon; then laid up in my hotel room with a stomach bug; and finally traipsing around Porto, making up for lost time and calories. I arrived home late this Thursday, and catching up with other people and tasks seemed more important. Scrolling through social media Saturday morning, though, I saw a smart set of questions Paisley Rekdal had posted in response to the piece, along with a link to the essay itself (which had been a little hard to find–people clearly don’t want to promote it). Okay, okay, FINE, I grumbled, brewed another pot of chai, and read it.

The essay isn’t good, no matter what you think of the argument. It belabors its point, which is basically that Hicok is “dying as a poet” (meaning, apparently, not attracting as many readers as he used to), and while it’s good, he concedes, that writers who are not “straight white men” like him are now getting attention, and he’s grateful to have had a good run, he’s sad to lose the limelight. If a writer-friend had told me this privately, over drinks, I would have felt embarrassed for him–listen to yourself, dude! Literature is not a zero-sum game, and nobody has taken your micro-celebrity away from you! I suppose it’s useful, though, that someone has voiced all this in print. I know other people think similarly: I’ve heard the asides, and seen the facial expressions, by white writers of various ages and genders, although whenever I’ve sensed a lament like this emerging in my company, I’ve either cut it short or walked away.

Anybody who reads deeply, widely, and intelligently is going to disagree with the prize committees sometimes. Good books fly under the radar all the time, and mediocre ones (including plenty of books by privileged people) win the love–although when the latter seems to happen, a reader ought to ask herself whether her judgment could have been wrong. Sometimes, I know, I miss what’s exciting others because I’m not ready for a book, or even just in a bad mood. But Hicok’s examples, for heaven’s sake–including Claudia Rankine, Ross Gay, Ada Limón–they’re brilliant writers who take great risks and produce great books, partly rooted in their identities and experiences and wholly illuminated by talent and hard work. All have had luck, I’m sure, but all have overcome obstacles, too, and continue to do so, because there’s always someone trying to chip away at their achievements, treating them like interlopers, and sometimes even threatening their safety. In the U.S., “straight white men” are just more free than everyone else, and dealing with unfreedom wears you down. It can make achieving art at all seem like a miracle.

A little example: I have plenty of friends who couldn’t afford a trip to Portugal, or whose disabilities would make it extremely difficult, so I thought about how lucky I was constantly (except while vomiting in the hotel toilet). Being at a liberal arts college insulates me from the high-level territory battles at R1 institutions, as I remembered while listening to a roundtable on the state of literary criticism, with lots of anxious references to postcritique and presentism. People are sweating about how to do relevant work when academic protocols can be so conservative and advancement is so tricky, but my main worry is finding publishers for my more boundary-busting work; at a teaching-focused institution, most people don’t publish as much as I do, so even my small wins look good. Beyond the conference, too, being a middle-aged cisgender American of European descent means I can generally get a taxi or a seat at a restaurant, even when I’m grungy from climbing all those cobbled streets, because no one objects to my skin color and everyone knows I have euros in my pocket.

Yet for all that luck, the trip home sucked, because I’m a woman. The otherwise polite white guy next to me, average-sized and not more pressed for space than anyone else, seemed delighted when his nearest rowmate turned out to be me. He promptly claimed his god-given right to the armrest and then, by degrees and apparently obliviously, he leaned his arm against my ribcage. No matter how I contorted myself away from him, his body intruded into my space, and not in an impersonal, occasional, shoulder-bumping kind of contact, either. Like about a quarter of the women you know, I’m an assault survivor. Being unable to avoid close physical contact with strange men–well, it’s upsetting. Once the aisles were clear I asked my husband to switch seats with me, and then Mr. Man-Spreader kept to himself, because of course it would be inappropriate to lean against another man’s ribcage or even his arm, right? Men deserve a little breathing room.

This happens to me all the time, and sometimes the men are far more aggressive. I’ve spoken up and had men respond by pretending to stay asleep, pressing against me while staying on the safe side of “page the attendant” obvious harassment territory. I get panicky, and eventually angry, while doubting that anyone would believe me; I rehearse all the times my space has been violated before; I wonder whether it’s worth flying to conferences on my own, in overstuffed understaffed airborne tin cans; and all of this upset is completely invisible to anyone around me. I’m not in any danger, to be clear; these violations are minor, in the long run. I just get triggered in an exhausting, demoralizing way, and I fear inappropriate touching on airplanes even when it doesn’t happen, so that travel costs me extra stress.

Bob Hicok thinks this gender-specific #MeToo-ish history gives me some publishing cred. I don’t think so, yet even if it did, I would trade that publishing edge in a heartbeat for not having to worry about moving through public territory as a woman. For people who get denied space for multiple intersecting reasons, things are much harder. While plenty of us feel, as Hicok does, that our work merits more attention than it gets, he’s underestimating freedoms he has enjoyed and continues to enjoy because of his own identity, as well as the cost of identity-related struggles that occasionally lead, by twisting paths, to powerful writing.

It is certainly true that while there are more presses and contests than ever before, there’s now a larger pool of people competing for them, as well as a real hunger from readers for stories and poems from less-familiar perspectives. I’m one of those readers, and I’m very glad publishing is more inclusive than it used to be–I hope the trend continues, and as poetry editor of Shenandoah, I try to help it along. Such richness benefits everyone who cares about literature. It’s also true that I’m striving, meanwhile, for my own foothold in the scene, and I get sad about the difficulty of that sometimes. What I keep coming back to: the only way to stay sane is to make sure your writing is urgent, well-crafted stuff, and to use whatever space and advantages you have to help others do good work, too, and feel some love for it. Then, whether or not you earn a lucky spot on the stage yourself one day, you’ll feel okay about how you’ve spent your hours.

Also, as Jeannine Hall Gailey puts it in a post she was clearly writing as I composed this one: once you’ve won two NEAs and a Guggenheim and published ten books with a dream press, as Hicok has, this racist, sexist, ableist complaining is not going to win you any sympathy. The guy has already claimed nearly all the armrests.

From the Serralves museum in Porto, with a reflected poet in it

Some sparklers on a dark, hot night

I was advising a writer-friend lately to celebrate small wins. Then I thought, hey, I should do that, too. Since my last couple of posts explored self-doubt, and a lot of people in my orbit are having rough summers (for example, catch up with Jeannine Hall Gailey’s inspiring posts), I thought I’d share some shine.

I’m getting ready for more visibility in 2020-2021 by applying for conferences, festivals, etc., and making lists of opportunities to apply for later. For instance, I’ll be attending the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference this November for the first time. I organized a panel, recently accepted, called Uncanny Activisms, about poems that resemble spells, prayers, and curses. My co-panelists include writers I know as well as writers I’ve never met but have been admiring from a distance: Cynthia Hogue, Anna Maria Hong, Hyejung Kook, Ashley M. Jones, and Anna Lena Phillips Bell. I’m very excited to hear what these smart women have to say about a poetic mode I’ve found indispensable these last few years.

On that note: two of my poems just appeared in the new issue of Ecotone. “State Song,” pictured above, is the shorter piece, and I’m SO delighted it’s placed near an essay called “Erasing the Border” by artist Ana Teresa Fernández (the image above is hers). “State Song,” from my forthcoming collection, is in that spiritual-political zone my panel will be addressing, and I hope it speaks against borders and fences, too. (The other poem of mine is “Turning Fifty in the Confederacy”–yikes.) Do read the whole issue if you can, for it’s full of challenging, beautiful writing. I love Ecotone‘s new department, “Various Instructions,” plus I found a new menopause-themed poem there for my growing collection: “Elegy for Estrogen,” by V. Penelope Pelizzon.

More fireworks: Amy Lemmon just published an essay in Diane Lockward’s July Poetry Newsletter about how to mine another poet’s book for writing prompts–and then revise out traces of the other writer’s words to create poems fully your own. The nicest part: the book that inspired her was my last one, Radioland! Lemmon’s piece is inspiring and accessible–check it out.

Cider Press Review has just announced the judge for their 2019 book prize–and it’s me! See the rules here but in short, poets at any career stage can enter mss between Sept. 1 and Nov. 15. The press winnows down the entrants to a manageable dozen or so, which I’ll read during the winter and report on in spring. When the Cider Press editors came knocking, I had just admiringly read the book by their previous winner, Jeanne Larsen’s What Penelope Chooses (judged by Lauren K. Alleyne, who is visiting W&L this fall), so it was a nice convergence. Note that this press has a strong track record of supporting women writers.

In between revising/ developing other mss, I’ve also just handled some anthology proofs, one for an essay in Deep Beauty, coedited by Catherine Lee and Rosemary Winslow, and the other for a poem in Choice Words, edited by Annie Finch. In short, there’s a lot of goodness happening in which I play some role even though I, like a lot of people, am too prone to underplay gifts and exaggerate losses.

A patriotic holiday in the middle of the humanitarian crisis at U.S. borders–well, I’m not waving flags and eating cotton candy this week. But all the artists and writers mentioned above are producing powerful work, American an an open-minded, open-bordered way, and I’m in their party. That’s worth singing about.

Scary days, undignified cats

I had hoped the scariest thing about this week would be giving a poetry reading to a bunch of highschoolers–angry captives under a bell jar fogged by seething hormones. Instead, the students and I shared ghost stories and the whole thing was reasonably fun, while politics are frightening me to death. The president is egging on the very worst and most unstable people among us, rallying them around bigotry and fear. One local manifestation of his efforts is yet another KKK leafletting, this time on campus in broad daylight.

There’s hope that midterm election results will put the brakes on the most abusive vitriol, the most damaging corruption, but I feel sick rather than optimistic. Given Russian interference, voter suppression, and hackable voting technology, I’m not confident I live in a democracy.

A powerhouse poet and my friend, Jeannine Hall Gailey, has been blogging and posting about her own discouragement and trying to restore herself by focusing on literature she loves. Thinking of her, and also about the Civil-Rights-inspired poetry my students are currently reading, I asked the members of an undergraduate seminar why they were studying English and creative writing, why that seemed worthwhile to them when there’s so much anti-humanities rhetoric swirling around. What can poetry do? Why read, write, and study it?

They gave practical answers about learning to write and wry answers about being too unhappy to thrive without English class in their daily lives. They also talked about how reading certain books had educated them, extended their empathy, and set them intellectually afire. They referenced poems and prose that had reassured them they were not alone and not crazy, although the world has gone mad and it can be hard to find your people. Yes to all of those reasons. I definitely treasure the company, these days, of the poets and bloggers, the English majors and Creative Writing minors, and everyone else who loves literary art enough to get a little obsessive about it. So many Americans seem angry at the wrong people or, what’s even more bewildering to me, too apathetic to take even the smallest of stands against this administration’s destructiveness: to vote.

The poets, though–they’re trying to change the world. I see them writing their way out of insanity in the books, the magazines, and in the submission pile. I’m doing it, too, even as I remain skeptical that poems (or blog posts) are effective places to fight political battles. Certainly they’re not the ONLY place we should be fighting. But they can constitute zones of kindness and good company, alternate worlds of clearer thinking and human connection and occasionally something more magical than that–something like sustenance or transformation. Like Jeannine and like my students, I continue to feel relief and wonder when I visit them.

I am also an appreciator of feline powers of consolation, so here are a few pictures of my black cats being less than Halloweenish. Vote. Read. Write. Stroke somebody’s fur. Be well.

 

Chapbooks, fairy tales, and spreading the word

I didn’t know, when writing the fairy-tale-inspired long poem that became my forthcoming chapbook, Propagation, that folktales and chapbooks have a long association. Here’s what Dáithí Ó hÓgáin writes for The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales:

Printed little volumes for popular reading, chapbooks were common in several western European languages. These books contained a wide variety of reading material, ranging from stories about the heroes of ancient Greek and Roman literature to accounts of philosophers, saints, and noted historical personages, and to picaresque tales of rogues and entertaining rascals. The term “chapbook” first came into vogue for such publications in the early nineteenth century. It was derived from “chapman,” the usual word for the type of trader or peddler who sold them at fairs or markets and in other public places.
The publishing of small inexpensive tracts began in France near the end of the fifteenth century and soon after became common in Germany, the Netherlands, and England. The German chapbooks—Volksbücher—contained prose versions of medieval romances and other miscellaneous tales; and in Germany, the Netherlands, and France, the adventures of the entertaining trickster Till Eulenspiegel were especially popular. From the seventeenth century onward, a wide variety of chapbooks were available in England, and they spread to Ireland, America, and other places where material in English was read.”

chaps
oh, you pretty things

I’d like to think some magic was at work when I decided to mine Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale for an April’s worth of writing prompts. I knew that chapbooks had been a vehicle for popular literature in various genres for centuries, but not, consciously, that the genre I was working in was especially intertwined with the history of the medium. At any rate, there was enough magic involved that I placed Propagation with one of my dream publishers, Dancing Girl Press. It’s due in the fall and the ms is just about finalized now.

In the meantime–partly inspired by reading a draft of Jeannine Hall Gailey’s excellent forthcoming book PR for PoetsI thought, well, what else do I need to be doing now by way of promotion? (That link, by the way, is to an especially wonderful post that gives heart to anyone who, like me, gets squeamish about the marketing thing.) I thought it might be useful to assemble a list of resources for other chapbook-writers who want to get the word out. Sure, a chapbook–called a “pamphlet” in the U.K.–is smaller and cheaper than a full-length collection, so one way to think of the marketing tasks is, well, they should be smaller and cheaper. One can post about the new arrival on social media, send out notices, give readings, seek reviews, hope it gets a few classroom adoptions–all the basic work (which is never actually small or cheap). But are there ways a chapbook is not just less than but different than?  What opportunities does the form create?

As a reader, I’m attracted to the distilled brevity of chapbooks, and how they feel in the hand. The best are tightly-focused gems you can read at a sitting, which makes them beautifully approachable. I was corresponding with a friend lately–Janet McAdams, author of the mysterious and lovely chap Seven Boxes for the Country After–who thinks that an increasing number of them seem less like baby steps towards full-length books and more like separate creatures, that is, sequences conceived especially for the compression and accessibility of the chapbook format. That’s true in my case. I don’t have any plans for Propagation to be part of a longer volume.

Yet how likely are chapbooks to have the afterlife other books can generate? Certainly there are fewer readings, reviews, class adoptions, and post-publication prizes to keep a light shining on your well-made chapbook after its debut season.

Here’s a list of resources I found–not enough, I’d say. I’d love to know about what I’m missing. Please send me notes and I’ll edit this post to include them.

  • Chapbook ReviewThis cool site includes lists of recently published chapbooks, publishers, and contests.
  • Some literary magazines do chapbook reviews in a micro- or “roundup” model. In addition to the list on the above site, including Rain Taxi and other venues, check out other venues that occasionally feature chapbook reviews: Blackbird, Kenyon Review Online (among the micro-reviews, once in a while), Pleiades, The Mom Egg, The Rumpus, So to Speak, New Pages.
  • The Eric Hoffer Awards have a post-publication prize for chapbooks.
  • Blogs: “Speaking of Marvels” is devoted to chapbooks, novellas, and other odd lengths.

Also, plenty of magazines that don’t feature chapbook reviews in any regular way would probably be open to an omnibus review, if one made a pitch. Any writer who wants attention for his or her own work should be giving back somehow, and reviewing is a great and generous way to do that.

As for Propagation, reply here, or on FB, or drop me an email if you want to be on the publicity list I really should be working on, ahem (with your email address). I’d also be happy to send galleys, eventually, and signed copies to people planning reviews or classroom adoptions–but I don’t even have a cover yet!

Tough Guide to the Field Guide to the End of the World

field-guide-gaileyJust a postcard here from the end of a very tough term–a cheery note from amid the ruins to show off some good work my students just completed. The last book my composition class read was Jeannine Hall Gailey’s excellent new collection, Field Guide to the End of the World. For a final writing assignment after a series of more conventional persuasive essays, my students had the option of writing another essay, OR writing speculative fiction or poetry based on our readings, OR participating in a weirder project. Imagine, I told the intrepid explorers who chose the third path, that Gailey’s End of the World is a real place. Create a web-based travel guide for tourists wishing to visit it, mining the poems for clues about its character.

As we geared up, Gailey Skyped into my class to chat and answer questions, handling some apocalyptic technical glitches, ALL on our end, like a pro. Lonely planet writer and W&L alum Amy Balfour visited in person to talk about going on assignment and constructing punchy, economical descriptions full of revelatory details. We scoured guide books, noting their stylistic tics, and were trained in WordPress by W&L’s Senior Academic Technologist Brandon Bucy.

Here is the mock-travel-website seven students created. I think it’s hilarious, but more so if you read Gailey’s book, which you totally should (sample poems here, for starters). And according to the reflective essays students submitted yesterday, they had more fun with it than seems quite proper for a composition course. (And here, for comparison, is the travel guide to Gaileyland students from an earlier course created, based on Jeannine’s first collection, Becoming the Villainess. Her books have a combination of light, darkness, and just plain weirdness that makes them a really good fit for this world-building assignment.)

May all your grading be this entertaining. And if it’s not, rethink those syllabi for next term. These students, after all, stretched their writing skills significantly and came to know a book of poetry really deeply. As long as everyone’s working hard, why shouldn’t the end-times be fun?

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Writ 100 students conferring, and a blackboard in Early Fielding full of topic ideas

Waving and also drowning

When, while bobbing in the ocean, you spot a larger-than-usual wave steaming your way, what do you do?

A. Jump into it with joy, trying to hit the breaker where it crashes, for the wildest ride possible. (This is my husband and son.)

B. Shout “no!” in a stern voice, demanding the ocean behave itself. It does not. Before long, you decamp to the sand, electing to pursue a challenge of your own choosing, namely to read as many Russian novels as possible while summer lasts. (This is my daughter.)

C. Express alarm in a comical way that entertains your son, concealing some actual nervousness about getting out of your depth because you’re a pretty lousy swimmer, and then enjoy the tumult until things get fierce, when you actually do panic and nobody takes you seriously because you seemed perfectly fine until a second ago, like a character in a Stevie Smith poem. (Guess who.)

This was one of several potential metaphors I contemplated at the beach ten days ago. It could refer to all kinds of challenges, but what’s on my mind right now is work. I’m doing that late-August surfing, when you madly try to finish summer projects as you simultaneously madly try to get ready for classes starting. Big wave coming.

While I still had decent footing a week ago, moreover, my ability to get things done was sharply diminished last week. Four of my adult molars have been missing from birth–it’s a genetic thing–so baby teeth hung around in their places. One of the latter, bravely standing ground for forty-plus years, finally gave up in December. I went in for a bone graft and dental implant last week and the surgery was more complicated than usual, so my pain levels have been high and I’m sporting a mother of a bruise. I have several friends with serious illnesses, and this is comparatively NOT a big deal, but it’s a reminder of how hard chronic pain can be to live with and work around. It also reminds me I am NOT in control of my “productivity.” This time I can’t just scramble up to the beach and rest on a towel; I have to face the force of water until it’s done with me.

Weights I’m carrying, besides worry about work ahead and physical stress from the various ways a middle-aged body can thwart a person: there were a couple of post-publication prizes I thought Radioland might be a finalist for, and I just heard from the last of them. No luck.

Sources of buoyancy: a wonderful and eminent poet wrote me a fan letter out of the blue. Two friends who are ALSO wonderful poets have given me the gift of critical-but-usefully-specific feedback on unpublished mss, liberally salted with praise. I’m genuinely excited about my fall courses (although maybe not the grading). And I’ve been doing some sustaining reading, too. I just finished Viet Than Nguyen’s The Sympathizer as well as an advanced review copy of Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Field Guide to the End of the World (I’m preparing to teach it this fall in my composition course, which has a speculative fiction theme). Both are powerful and I’m feeling blown away, with more great books and mss piled up waiting. That’s a burden that helps me float, if you’ll tolerate the hyperextension of my marine metaphor.

Okay, the secret is, I’m not as seaworthy as people seem to think, but I do have help, thank the gods. And what threatens to overwhelm me also sparkles.

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