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!

Breathe (a brief post on posting)

The painting above is “Breath” by Lee Krasner, which I found in the New Orleans Museum of Art last week, on a breather from work (the new term starts tomorrow). I don’t know much about Krasner, but the exhibit caption says this painting’s “rhythmic marks…call forth the rise and fall of breathing, as well as the more meditative act of taking a deep breath. Krasner’s paintings were often more subtle and introspective than her husband Jackson Pollock’s frenzied ‘action painting’…one reviewer condescendingly claimed, ‘There is a tendency among some of these wives to ‘tidy up’ their husband’s styles.” I was drawn to the canvas for its beauty, but that caption transformed me into an ally. 

Looking at art, I’d been wondering about my lack of interest, this year, in making new year’s resolutions. Do I really need another list? I’d also just read this article about resolutions and was considering a couple of points the reporter made. For instance: “Imagine it’s the next New Year’s Eve. What change are you going to be most grateful you made?” Hmm–living a more peaceful life, I guess. Concentrating effort more thoughtfully and taking care of myself so that I can be more open to unpredictable emotions, and to other people. I love January O’Neil’s “Poetry Action Plan”, but I tend to tick so doggedly down checklists, virtue becomes bad habit, in that I get so busy fulfilling promises to myself and others that I don’t take enough meditative, restorative time. Also, one of the experts the journalist interviewed (oh, so many experts out there on self-improvement!–shouldn’t we all be perfect by now?) recommended “reflecting on what changes would make you happiest, then picking a ‘theme’ for your year. That way, even if a particular habit doesn’t stick, your overarching intention will.” As someone who has tried and failed to create a meditation practice about five million times, that resonated.

So, standing in front of “Breath,” I chose my theme for 2019. Breathe.

I don’t know how, yet, that translates into particulars. I know visiting museums fills me with oxygen, but I need to find more air locally, too. For the moment, in addition to cleansing breaths, I’m trying to get ready for the semester without getting anxious about the to-do regimen. Work will be demanding, and both my kids are in their senior years (high school for one, university for the other), so lots of transitions ahead, but one step at a time, right?

BLOG BADGE 2019 Poetry Blogging Network

Here’s the meta-meditation on how poetry blogging fits in. I posted pretty much weekly in 2018, energized by Kelli Russell Agodon’s Poetry Bloggers Revival and sustained by Dave Bonta‘s brilliant weekly digests. That mega-project has been formalized now into the Poetry Bloggers’ Network (fancy badge below). I hope you’ll sign up here and join the party! But I’m also giving myself permission to be more irregular about posting in 2019–I’m nourished by the project of maintaining this space, which focuses on the intersections among poetry and other parts of my life. But I also have other work that feels urgent, and a blog can be a hungry beast that needs constant feeding. (Breathe.)

In the meantime, in the spirit of movement without frenzy, here’s a first stab at blog redesign. I’d put up an image of an ivy-covered wall when you-know-who was elected and felt a strong need to open that up; I’ve also been craving warm colors. So the new header image is some pinked-up Blue Ridge Mountains photographed by my daughter, although I might keep tinkering with how it all looks. I’ve got a poetry book to name, after all, and choose cover art for–a blog design based on those elements, as they come into focus, would make sense. I’m on the lookout for women artists whose work would resonate with my poems, which have a lot to do with the landscape and history of this part of Virginia. Send me a line if something comes to mind, please!

And in the meantime, I hope the new year brings you light and air, whether or not you get to visit the bromeliads.

spanish moss

Big Poetry Giveaway 2014

big poetry giveaway 2014So it’s national poetry writing month again, and shouldering aside all the forces that prevent one from concentrating on any project in a dogged way, I am writing. The plan: draft a long poem, one section per day, for thirty days. The rules: I just have to write a little bit daily, at any time, under any conditions, doesn’t matter if I’m cranky or it seems bad, and I’m not requiring myself to share any of it while it’s in progress, though I may. Yesterday, being April’s fool, I performed my duty on our backyard trampoline. I perched up there with my laptop, typing as the sun set, shivering because I’d stepped into snowmelt in stocking feet. This morning I drafted for half an hour at a desk like a proper poet. Updates soon.

Meanwhile, I realized I’m just in time to fling some books at the universe in the Big Poetry Giveaway 2014 (thanks to Kelli Russell Agodon for organizing this!). If you want to be in the running to receive the following two books, just reply to this blog post by May 1st. I’ll then use a random number generator to select a winner, contact you for your address, and mail them to your planet of residence. Last year, I gave away my third and most recent collection, The Receptionist and Other Tales. Working backwards, I’ll give away two second poetry books this time:

heterotopiafrontHeterotopia, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize in 2010, selected by David Wojahn. These poems center on my mother’s childhood in Liverpool, England during the Blitz and the years of privation that followed. Here’s a lovely review by Julie L. Moore in Verse Wisconsin.

]Open Interval[ by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, a National Book Award finalist published by Pittsburgh in 2009. Not only is it an inventive, intellectual, beautiful book, but back in another millennium, when I was a new professor at Washington & Lee, Lyrae, nearing graduation, was my advisee. I’d like to take a tiny bit of credit for helping her get started as a poet, but nope: I just signed her registration forms. I’m going to hear her read at Hollins this Saturday, so if they have copies for her book on sale there, I’ll get her to sign it for you.

See Kelli’s master list for links to the pages of LOTS of other participating poets. Put your name into a lot of drawings and you may have a big pile of inspiring poems to read by the time those cicadas start buzzing (or, southern hemisphere readers, before snow falls).