In a Samhain state of mind

Not to get too pagan on you, but this week I can feel wheels turning, for good and ill. On the good side: above is the cover of my first novel, to be released in June 2020. I’ve been so grateful for the excitement people have expressed about it. As I keep saying, this venture feels more like a leap into the dark than poetry publishing. I’m getting publicity gears grinding for my March 2020 poetry collection, too, but I know perfectly well that except for rare cases, “Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon,” as Don Marquis poetically said, “and waiting for the echo.” I worked insanely hard on that novel, I’m proud of it, and I WILL get out there to give readings, etc.–but will it be like dropping a moderately-sized rose bush into the Grand Canyon, meaning, not much more echo-producing? I really have no clue. I feel pretty philosophical about it these days; I just want to know, a year from now, that I gave all my pretty rose petals the most energetic pitch possible.

Pitching, however, is a LOT of work. The “bad” of this liminal season is feeling stressed and anxious as I step from the overwork of October (teaching, grading, applications, event programming) to the overwork of November (teaching, conferencing, applications, and exceptionally heavy committee work). I just keep plotting out tasks on my calendar, trying to prove to myself that it CAN be done, and hoping I reach Thanksgiving in one piece. I’m also trying, to whatever extent possible, to pare off obligations that rev up my worries and spend time instead on what makes me feel better.

Ridiculously, that sometimes means work, but the kind of labor that produces an experience of flow rather than jitteriness. I gave Monday morning over to intensive lesson-planning, doing some background reading on William Carlos Williams and getting ready for tomorrow’s campus visit by the fabulous Lauren K. Alleyne, and you know what? I felt noticeably better after those hours of concentration. Answering email: not so soothing.

Today’s treat was reading a splendid new anthology I am lucky enough to have a poem in: the brand-new Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia, edited by Rose McLarney and Laura-Gray Street. They commissioned pieces on various plants and creatures from poets with connections to the region, and so many of the poems are gorgeous and moving. Each species, too, is described by naturalist L.L. Gaddy and illustrated in black-and-white by seven Southern Appalachian artists. The resulting book is both local and diverse, and truly a stunner.

The next task: prepping for the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference starting on 11/8, because I’ll be away this weekend, visiting the kids (it’s Haverford’s Family Weekend). That’s downtime I sorely need, as I keep telling myself as I watch work pile up on either side of it… but I’ll be striving to be in the moment there, and at the conference, too. Check out the program; it looks kind of brilliant.

What I want to do most of all is work on a short story I’m feeling excited about; the poetry hasn’t been coming lately. And that leads to one last Samhainish thought: one of the funny things about publication is that by the time the work gets out there, you’re often mentally and emotionally moving on to new ideas. When you give a reading or do other kinds of promotion, you can feel like you’re trying to call up the dead and hoping the doors to the otherworld open, as they’re supposed to do this time of year. Come, ghosts, and help me out. I have, in fact, been thinking about my father and dreaming about my maternal grandmother, as if spirits are visiting–and I’ve also been remembering that tarot card reading I got around New Year’s, when the psychic told me two ghosts were following me around. If they are, and they want to be of use, maybe they could help with the committee work?

Oceanicartography

No, that’s not a real word. But last week, certain currents in my thinking converged, all having to do with maps and oceans. On Saturday, we dropped our daughter off at the Charlottesville train station then headed over to Chroma Projects to see a show by an old friend and collaborator, Carolyn Capps, called “Deep Sea Calculations”:

These pieces owe a lot to old-fashioned illustrated maps, but in a way they chart the mind, too–they’re process drawings, in which one image inspires the next in visual/verbal association. I was at the same time preparing to teach Ocean Vuong’s 2016 debut collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, a collection I find attractive but sometimes opaque. The book, reflecting on Vuong’s immigration from Vietnam to the U.S. and a family history of domestic assault, is full of thresholds crossed in violence. In sex, too. He registers a New York School influence through all those curly ampersands and via talky, sexy meditations like “Notebook Fragments,” but Vuong also deploys persona poems, footnoted blank spaces, punctuation experiments, perhaps the shortest “About the Author” page ever–in short, a host of strategies that occlude the poet’s presence.

During our first class session, we focused on the almost-title-track, “Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds,” a poem I found intensely mysterious until I happened upon his published note about it (press “more” at the poets.org link). It helps to know that this poem’s perspective follows the trajectory of a bullet, even though the missile’s path transgresses the law of physics, crossing decades as well as geography. It’s a beautiful and disturbing piece, but my class couldn’t make much sense of the ending. How can the “I” lower himself “between the sights” of the gun? Vuong is identifying with both shooter and target for reasons the rest of the book makes clear, yet none of us could see the final image of the “self-portrait.” I confess I was hoping the hunters in the room could explain something about rifles I was missing, but they shook their heads. Usually when I bring a problem to a roomful of smart English majors, we figure it out together, but none of our readings were satisfying to me–except the general one suggested by the phrase “exit wounds,” that this book is a chronicle of absence and damage.

Sometimes you reread a book of poems and it all comes clear; other times it turns to mist in your hands. So for the second session, I deployed a teaching strategy chronicled here: asking students to produce a one-page visual representation of the volume. What else, I wondered, were my students seeing and not seeing, as they charted paths through all the lovely words?

One student, Bailey Brilley, reinvented the cover. The images brilleyhe photoshopped together include an aerial photo of a Vietnam bomb field, a propaganda poster by a Cuban artist, a Pulitzer-prize winning photo of a Vietnamese man’s execution (the arm and gun), and WWII-era beach towel ads depicting troops in the South Pacific.

Dana Gary made a Magritte-influenced wordless broadside for a single surreal pov danaoem, “Queen Under the Hill.” Thomas Ferguson tracked references to hands and aligned them to illuminate their associations with intimacy and violence.

ov thomas

Charlotte Doran found images and articles about the war and the fall of Saigon, streaming “White Christmas” across them as Vuong does, verbally, in “Aubade with Burning City.” Rosy-fingered dawn, and all. These visual and emotional engagements with the poems seem an especially apt way to handle poems that resist rational schema.
ov charlotte

And tomorrow, we all talk to Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street before their public reading–mappers of the ecopoetry’s territory, plus Ann is the author of one of my favorite long poems, Carta Marina, inspired by a phantasmagoric old woodcut-printed map that puts me in mind of Carolyn’s drawings again. And so we sail to the edge of winter term, to tell stories about where we’ve been.

Fever dreams, Pound, & Shenandoah

Last week, I wished for an energy display icon on my forehead. Uh-oh, Lesley’s at 12% and has entered low-battery mode, expect her to be dim. Honestly, I’m not sure how I got through all my classes as well as giving a guest lecture and two weekend readings. I fear I said weird things, and I know I sent a feverish work email I can’t recall writing, because I found it in the printer later.

But Erika Meitner gave a terrific reading that I somehow presided over (here’s a guest blog I wrote about her work for Shenandoah). And the audiences, hosts, and fellow performers in my own readings at Fairmont State and Richmond’s Tea for Two series were particularly warm and kind. On the downside, my forty-ninth birthday was spent trying to get a handle on endless homework while treating an awful sinus infection. I’ll have to do better next year.

It’s funny how work that drains you–such as teaching or hosting a visitor–can simultaneously plug you in and start charging you up again. It was tiring to drive to Richmond after a long semi-sick Friday. Laura-Gray Street and I had devised a plan of alternating reader and topic every few poems. Creating a list of poems for each theme was time-consuming. Yet the scheme raised the energy, I think, giving the event some plot and suspense. Perhaps it even raised the stakes. Laura-Gray had found the following quote from an “unnamed Chinese author, circa 575 B.C.E.”:

“Clothes, food, shelter: Satisfy these first, then teach people to be human.”

So our four topics: clothes, food, shelter, and being human (we chose poems for the latter about meaning and spirit). Turns out I’m a shelter poet and a being-human poet–my food poems are mostly about hunger and my clothes poems about nakedness. It was interesting to learn that. At any rate, I had some seriously lovely conversations with other writers afterwards. Connections sparking all over the place.

One more bright node: I had a late-August essay posted at Modernism/ Modernity last week, where I have a column on the writing process. This post’s called “Teaching/ Writing Correspondence, Part I” . It addresses the study of poets’ letters–a big topic for my current modernism students, who, for a final project, will be annotating some 50s correspondence recently acquired by our library between undergrad Shenandoah editor Tom Carter and Ezra Pound. I’m no Pound scholar and have always been skeptical of defining the period according to his program. He was a brilliant, crazy bigot; I like other poetry better. Yet I can feel myself being drawn into the vortex. I don’t really have time to fiddle around but this project is so interesting.

When I first started at W&L more than twenty years ago, I had a dream about walking into a near-empty classroom. The windows were open to a summer breeze and I could hear students running around on the grass. Sitting quietly at the desk working was a young Ezra Pound, pointy beard and all. He gestured me over and we sat and looked at some of my poems together. He didn’t praise them, but as he pushed them back to me, he nodded, implying he saw potential. He said, “Keep working and you’ll get somewhere.”

Was dream-Pound priming young me for later work on his legacy? Damn and blast.

msa-shenandoah-page
A Tom Carter issue of Shenandoah (and dig that tuxedo ad!)