When revisions are even harder

I’ve been working flat-out on honing the manuscript of an essay collection, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, due from Tinderbox Editions late this year or early next (I suspect the latter at this point). It’s a blend of memoir and criticism with a good dose of cognitive science and narrative theory, plus thirteen 21st century poems reprinted in full to anchor the short chapters. Recounting the close of my con-man father’s life, it’s also the story of reading poetry through personal crisis AND an analysis of how “literary transportation” works when you enter a poem’s pocket universe (that’s immersive reading or getting lost in a text, for the layperson). I’ve been drafting this book since 2012 so it’s really important to me. Closing in on a final version I’ll submit to an editor, though, always makes me nervous. You’re down in the weeds, seeing ways a sentence here and there could be made more elegant, checking the bibliography, and wondering whom you’ve inadvertently omitted from the acknowledgments. But it’s also the last time you can try for the 30,000 feet perspective, imagining how the book will be received by others and trying to catch those moments of obtuseness or under-explanation that inevitably linger. Hard work in multiple ways.

This book, though, works through challenging personal material. On the good side, there are stories of travel, particularly my 2011 Fulbright in New Zealand; reflections on growth and change; and positive representations of sustaining relationships. The dark stuff involves, of course, tales of my dishonest and narcissistic father but also workplace harassment; a long-ago sexual assault; Chris’ mother’s dementia; and my mother’s first round of lymphoma in 2015. It shook me to spend time with that material again. Worse, since my mother died of the lymphoma’s recurrence in April, I had to put my sentences about her into the past tense. No wonder I was resisting finalizing the ms.

I did the same thing to myself in July, at the Sewanee Writers Workshop. I had to finalize my workshop ms in May, and it was full of poems about my mother’s death and other tough material. Somehow, for the last couple of years, I’ve finally been writing about childhood abuse and mental health. My mother always read my poetry books, but I think at some level I knew she wasn’t likely to read this new stuff. I’m freer to be honest than before, and some of what hurt me long ago was my mother choosing not to protect us from my father. Again, no wonder Sewanee was emotionally intense.

I came to a good pause point on Poetry’s Possible Worlds this morning, and I go to Chris’ play The Zombie Life in Richmond tonight, so next week I’ll be turning my attention to different things: a department retreat, course prep, reference letters, poetry submissions, and as many other smaller writing-related tasks as I can squeeze in. That sounds like a lot, but except for the poetry subs, it isn’t nearly as difficult. Writing, as I tell my students, is a complex task with many factors always in play, which is why even a short, imperfect essay or poem is such an achievement. It’s salutary to be reminded, as I approach another academic year, that it can be hard in other ways, too.

Multiple worlds in poetry, fiction, and politics

Traveling to an alternate universe of thinking and writing has been helpful lately given an attempted coup, and racist police response, AND the apocalyptic daily death count and a catastrophically lame vaccine rollout. I don’t manage the leap into literary concentration every day, but that’s actually what my next book is about: what helps us slip into the reading trance, where poetry is concerned, and what that border-crossing does for a reader.

I’m polishing and updating my forthcoming essay collection, to be called Poetry’s Possible Worlds or Taking Poetry Personally depending on what my editor says. It requires reading and rereading widely and wildly to make sure my thinking and research are up-to-date: Carolyn Dinshaw’s exhilarating How Soon Is Now, Nicole Seymour’s Bad Environmentalism, and essays on narrative theory, deep attention, presentism, poetry of witness, and much more. New to me is Brian Attebery’s Stories About Stories, of interest partly because I’m thinking about story in poetry but also because of my investment in speculative fiction. Attebery argues that the cultural importance of literary fantasy as a genre lies in how it “redefine[s] the relationship between contemporary readers and mythic texts.” I’m not wholly satisfied with that as a definition, yet the book is useful and interesting. He describes genre, for instance, as “fuzzy sets”: “the question of what genre a particular text belongs to will never be resolved, nor need it be. The interesting question about any given story is not whether it is fantasy or science fiction or realistic novel, but rather what happens when we read it as one of those things.”

In the larger sense, I write in many genres–poetry, fiction, criticism, reviews, literary nonfiction–but I also think of myself as operating in the borderlands between smaller categories. My poetry has appeared and been reviewed in both “mainstream” and sf venues; it’s been called lyric, political, formalist, fabulist, and more, to which I say, cool. My forthcoming hybrid essay collection (blending criticism, theory, and personal narrative) argues that most poetry is not just fiction but fantasy. It’s fiction because framing it on a page as literary art sets it apart from truth and lies; it’s fantasy because, notwithstanding, it’s obsessed with what’s true. I define fantasy in a way that’s tangential to Attebery’s idea; I think of it as fiction exploring questions of what’s real, what matters.

And then there’s my novel Unbecoming. It’s been described as “an excellent feminist fantasy,” Weird fiction, magic realism, a fairy tale, and academic satire. Since it concerns the transformations involved in menopause I thought it might get dismissed as “women’s fiction,” but that’s not how it’s been received at all. No reviewer has called it “domestic fabulism,” either, which might be just as well, although I like some things about the term. The latter refers to books in which the primary world is realistic but into which weirdness makes persistent incursions–a structure that also describes many or most Stephen King novels, and he’s not called a “domestic fabulist.” As much as I enjoy some stories set in secondary worlds, novels that explore the strangeness of what seems familiar are my sweet spot. They’re more realistic than realism, in my experience, and more interesting. Poetry absolutely occupies similar territory, refreshing the ways we encounter the mundane.

Does Unbecoming redefine anyone’s relationship to myth? It does involve crossings in and out of a place like Faerie (called by an acerbic narrator UnWales), considering those crossings as migration tales as well as metaphors for weird bodily metamorphoses (true story: people fall asleep and wake up middle-aged). UnWales seems like an alternate possible reality, too, for characters who are stuck in a bad script or negotiating discrimination. Yet I wonder if the more important myths in my novel are those about menopause, that it’s an end of all good things instead of a beginning. The main character also has to reconsider lots of stories about herself, among them to what extent she’s actually a good person who helps make the world better. I’d give her a mixed grade on that. If you’ve read the novel, I’d be interested to hear what you think.

Back to the allegedly real world where conspiracy theorists in pelts and Viking horns invade the Capitol, convinced they live in a country where the presidential election was stolen, ready to live by and die for their fantasies.

Adventures in poetry teaching, part two: Gaileyland!

In psychology, it’s called “literary transportation,” although you may know the phenomenon by the metaphor “getting lost in a book.” Immersive readers do this all the time. We become so absorbed by a story that we forget we’re tracking lines of print. Physically, you’re sitting in an easy chair by the window, in a cozy room. Imaginatively, you’re shivering in a wintry landscape with a compelling character, half-visualizing the dark verticals of tree trunks glazed with ice. Your actual heart rate climbs when a faint, thin wolf howl rises in the literary distance.

Although I earned a PhD by treating poems in the usual ways—as Billy Collins alleges, you tie them up and begin the cross-examination—I’m fascinated by other ways books become meaningful to us, and hence I keep concocting peculiar assignments for my literature students. A few days ago I posted about some students’ translations of modernist poetry into other media (“Dancing to Loy”). My other class this term was a first-year composition course on the topic of speculative fiction. All fall they’ve been learning about developing arguments, reasoning through evidence, and handling that wild beast, the semicolon. They’ve been perpetrating all this critical prose about science fiction and fantasy: comparing Terry Bisson’s eerie “Bears Discover Fire,” for example, to Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists”; or looking for what Tolkien calls the “eucatastrophe” in tales by Kij Johnson or Octavia Butler; or juxtaposing Grimm and Gaiman.

We wrangled with speculative poetry, too. They just completed final projects inspired by Jeannine Hall Gailey’s first collection, Becoming the Villainess. First we read and discussed the book, with a visit-by-Skype from the generous poet. Then we began to take that “literary transportation” business seriously. We read Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a treatise about genre brilliantly disguised as a satirical travel handbook. Lonely Planet author and W&L alum Amy Balfour visited class to discuss real travel writing: how she pitches projects and receives assignment, the lengths of essays and how she structures them, the words she uses and the stock phrases she avoids. I also brought in piles of old travel manuals and we skimmed them for style and structure, then brainstormed. Reread Gailey’s book, I said, as a set of clues about a real place. What can you glean from the poems about the climate of Gaileyland, or the dining options, or the major attractions?

Everyone had to devise an entry and, with the help of our digital services guru Brandon Bucy, upload it to a joint WordPress site. Then the students chose different follow-up projects: some wrote analytical essays about Gailey’s verse; some wrote fantastic poems and tales accompanied by critical statements; and three volunteered to edit, expand, and redesign our collaborative web venture, Gaileyland: A Travel Guide to Becoming the Villainess. The result is a very strange and funny species of literary criticism. These students had to trace and analyze patterns of language and reference just as they would for an essay, but in a different style and very much in public. If there’s an implicit argument about the text in their project, it might involve Gaileyland’s essential darkness. The poems are rooted in trauma, although becoming a villainess is one way to seize back power from a world that would constrict a woman’s options and mute her dissent. All the weirder, then, to address poems about Persephone and Cinderella and Dark Phoenix in the perpetually sunny prose of tourism-boosting: eat at Philomel’s Athenian Restaurant! “Locals whisper that once the cook served human meat in a stew, but we think that’s just myth.”

I love the results and find it so gratifying to hereby celebrate the intelligence and creativity of my students, especially right now. It’s been a rough week at my home institution: very early last Tuesday morning, a car carrying ten students on their way back from an off-campus party crashed. A young woman in her senior year died and others were badly injured. The rest I don’t know for sure, but credible rumors involve an intoxicated driver who had already made multiple runs, returning partygoers to campus. All that vitality, lost or hurt. The latest wave of sorrow about it hit me as I was decorating the Christmas tree with my own teenagers yesterday, noting who was sentimental about what ornament, thinking that when each kid has a home of his or her own, I’ll pack up the little santas and boats and shells and kindergarten photo-crafts for them to put on their own trees. Then I freaked my family out by bursting into noisy tears, thinking about the idle plans we make all the time, and how for one set of parents, that whole speculative future is just gone.

Really, all assignments and grading are trivial in the end, though sometimes they add up to helping people learn a little. But writing and reading are important ways of seeking illumination and consolation. So are sharing them in good company: if you’re in Rockbridge tonight, and not too upset by today’s memorial service, come hear a bunch of area writers read at the Studio Eleven Gallery at 11. S. Jefferson Street in Lexington at 7 p.m. We’ll be collecting nonperishable goods and monetary donations for the local food bank. And sharing what moves us with others, and being moved—more nontrivial activities that need to keep happening in and beyond the just-slightly-magical space of the classroom.