Paternity suit

dc-obama

Father’s Day used to be a hard one. When my father was alive, I knew he wanted to be fussed over, but he was an unpredictably mean-spirited person who’d praise my intelligence one minute and mock me the next for my unattractiveness, my career choices, or my politics–and he was doing the same to my siblings and worse to my mother. There were times he and I weren’t speaking, but most years I shopped for funny rather than sentimental cards and kept the peace. Like everyone else he knew, as far as I can tell, I was relieved when he died.

So, like plenty of other ambivalent people, I watch all loving posts from friends about their sweet fathers with some wonder. It’s only the past few years that I can do so without grief at what I missed. I even used to feel jealous of my own kids, who (rightly) adore their dad.

For whatever reason, I’m okay now, and more genuinely able to feel glad for people cherishing that relationship or remembering it fondly. The more love in the world, the better. Plus I enjoy my kids’ enjoyment of time with Chris, which helps, too–one thing I definitely didn’t screw up as a parent was marrying him. This weekend he and I stayed overnight in Washington, D.C. visiting my daughter, who is interning at the Friends’ Committee on National Legislation. It was fun to take her commute from Foggy Bottom to the Hill and see the garden where she eats lunch (when she’s not in the Senate cafeteria), and just to catch up with her about the good work she’s up to. We ate well, too, and saw a decent play (The Remains at the Studio Theater), but I was especially grateful for museum time. For a palate cleanser after hanging around the Senate, we visited the Obamas in the National Portrait Gallery. Chris took the shot above, in which you might be able to spot Madeleine taking her own picture of the Chuck Close portrait of Clinton. The images below are mine of James Weldon Johnson, Marianne Moore with her mother, and Paul Laurence Dunbar brooding behind Gertrude Stein.

Today, lots of people are also posting about the ironies of celebrating Father’s Day even as our government is brutally separating parents and children at the border–a devastating continuation of a long history of destroying families, as the U.S. did through enslavement and the American Indian boarding school system, not to mention the dangers to children now from gun violence, rising addiction rates, unjust public education systems, and many other crises. I want to be able to talk about U.S. human rights abuses in the past tense–admitting them, trying to heal and make a better future, but also firmly locating them behind us–like I can in a personal way with my father. Clearly, that’s not yet. I hope it’s more possible when our own kids finish growing up and help vote some of these jerks out of office. I see a lot to hope for, in the generation beginning to come of age.

In the meantime, here’s a poem about other fathers that I never managed to publish anywhere–from 2011, when my father was in his final downward spiral. Some of the poets I cite were good fathers to me, and a couple not so much, but they all shaped who I am.

Paternity Suit

My father Langston hands his camel jacket to the coat-check lady.
He lifts his menu with a flourish and says now you order anything, anything.
My father Thomas Stearns says use your inside voice.
Embarrassment beads his forehead.
My father Ezra chants a grace to drive the waiter mad.
My father John Keats urges a scalpel between cork and bottle.
A candle-flame repeats in glass, wine, his hectic cheeks.
My father Walt pries open mollusk after mollusk, grooves on his thumbs adoring the grooves of each inky shell.
My father Allen insists I eat my broccoli broccoli broccoli and the outrageous curry of hilarity anoints his beard.
My father James Merrill, tortoiseshell-buttoned, conserves naked chicken bones for broth.
I will bathe them, he says, with bay leaves, peppercorns, and whole onions quartered through paper to root.
When the liquid alchemizes I will strain its gold and measure in cubes of potato, crystals of salt.
This soup will be for you.

My father father sits with another family in a dining room I have never visited.
I used to peer downstairs at two in the morning, when only the streetlight shone into the kitchen;
he hoisted bergs of chocolate ice cream to his mouth with a shaky hand.
My father wore short pajamas, cotton striped with lines so faint I only imagined I could read them.
Maybe I heard the clink, clink of his spoon.

Twitter as commonplace book

I’ve done just enough archival work to be fascinated by poets’ commonplace books. It’s been more than a decade since I worked among Marianne Moore’s papers at the Rosenbach, but I was impressed by her fantastically crabbed hand in a series of tiny notebooks, recording quotations she liked. At the Library of Congress, you can leaf through Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sparser notes, mixing drafts, travel plans, and lists of poems that might go together in her next collection. And how I wish Anne Spencer had kept notebooks! Instead, I learned last summer how hard it is to date any of her drafts, many of which must be lost in any case, because she penciled ideas on any scrap of paper or cardboard within reach.

I’m more organized that Spencer, but not by much (you can see one physical notebook

asm-boxtop.jpg
Some notes by Spencer on a pantyhose box

I kept here, and read a reflection about it here). If the internet ever disappears, much of my “archive” will go with it, not that I really expect anyone to care. This blog is the closest I come to an intellectual/ artistic journal, supplemented by Facebook posts. They’re all personal, although I’m performing and curating a version of myself: in these media, I’m honest, but not always intimate. My poetry and creative nonfiction feel much closer to the bone–riskier.

The space that feels most like a commonplace book for me is, of all places, Twitter. Like many other writers, some of whom the future will actually care about, I occasionally jot lines there from whatever I’m reading, or tweet links or photographs of pages. I like following what other poets are reading, too. I suspect if you peruse a year’s worth of some authors’ tweets, you’d only get a partial sense of the media they’re consuming, but that’s true of my 2017 list of books below, too (kept in Word). I can’t keep similar track, after all, of the vast number of posts and essays and magazines and portions of anthologies I read, much less the Netflix series and SNL clips I watch or the paintings I gaze at. It’s just too much. I’m a hungry art-consumer!

terracotta soldier
Art survives empires–terracotta soldiers at VMFA

So, belatedly, here is my very partial new year’s account of myself as a book-reader. I gave the sf highlights in a Strange Horizons’ summary review. In addition to those, I liked Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s first book, Ornament, enough to teach it in a poetry and music class this winter. I was excited by and admiring of all the poetry collections that made the most prestigious year-end lists, but I’d add that David Wojahn’s 2017 collection, For the Scribe, was just as strong as the ones receiving fizzier receptions. Among slightly older collections, Majmudar’s Dothead and Miller’s The Cartographer Maps a Way to Zion were new to me last year, and I loved them. Among nonfiction books, Tisserand’s Krazy probably had the biggest influence on me, and aside the more sf-y novels by Saunders, Hamid, Jones, and others I mention in Strange Horizons, I greatly enjoyed the latest mystery from Livesey, Mercury. Between submitting the review and New Year’s Day, I also finally read Alderman’s The Power, which both riveted and irritated me. It’s definitely a book to talk about. “Chewy,” as reviewers keep writing.

For future record, or for naught (if I remain obscure, or if 45 presses his really big nuclear button and civilization collapses, taking the internet down with it):

POETRY

1/3 Kaufman, Krawiec, Levin, Parker, eds, Intimacy* (teaching possibility)

1/15 Briante, The Market Wonders* (reread for class)

1/22 Blanco, Looking for the Gulf Motel (reread for class)

1/24 Sexton, Transformations (reread for class)

2/5 Camille Rankine, Incorrect Merciful Impulses* (micro-review)

2/7 Kei Miller, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (reread for class)

2/12 Etter, Scar (reread for class)

2/19 Hankla, Great Bear (by local author I admire)

2/21 Evans, Superheroes and Villanelles* (traded books at AWP)

2/25 Shire, Our Men Do Not Belong to Us (reread for class)

2/26 Smith, Life on Mars (reread for class)

3/3 Carson, Autobiography of Red (reread for class)

3/3 Givhan, Landscape with Headless Mama (scouting for teaching)*

3/20 Diaz, When My Brother Was an Aztec (reread for class)

3/24 Vuong, Night Sky as Exit Wound (reread for class)*

4/3 Michelson, Swimming Through Fire (by friend; reread 12/4 for teaching)*

4/8 Hogue, In June the Labyrinth (by friend)*

4/? Satterfield, Apocalypse Mix (by friend)*

4/? Brown, The Virginia State Colony for the Feebleminded (recommended by friends)*

4/30 Sevick, Lion Brothers (local author)*

5/? Campbell, First Nights* (for review; reread 12/3 for teaching)

5/18 Borzutsky, Performance of Becoming Human (Prize winner)*

5/29 Friman, The View From Saturn (bought at conference)

7/6 Dwarf Stars Anthology 2017 (to vote on winners)

7/18 Rauk, Buried Choirs* (comp copy from press I ended up reviewing)

7/19 Willoughby, Beautiful Zero (gift)

7/20 Anderson, Rough (unpublished, to give feedback)

7/29 Wojahn, For the Scribe* (poet I admire)

7/29 Phillips Bell, Ornament* (by a friend)

7/30 Majmudar, Dothead* (heard NPR piece & bought book ages before)

7/31 Campana, The Book of Faces (research)

8/1 Campana, Natural Selections (research)

8/20 Stewart, Cinder* (research)

9/4 Bashir, Field Theories* (research)

9/29 Taesali, Sourcing Siapo* (review)

10/13 H.D., Trilogy (reread for class)

10/24 Pollard, Outsiders* (by a friend)

11/5 Forche, The Country Between Us (for class)

11/7 Michelson, ed, Dreaming America* (by friend and colleague)

11/21 Cooley, Girl after Girl after Girl* (review)

11/25 Smith, Don’t’ Call Us Dead* (in response to reviews)

12/19 Akbar, Calling a Wolf a Wolf* (good reviews)

12/21 Long Soldier, Whereas* (daughter gave it to me)

12/24 Der Vang, Afterland* (NBA list)

12/31 McCrae, The Language of my Captors* (NBA list)  

 

FICTION

1/2 Whitehead, Underground Railroad* (good critical attention/ year-end lists)

1/14 Muth, Zen Shorts (gift from a colleague)

2/4 Gonzalez, The Regional Office Is Under Attack* (Christmas present)

3/5 Goldstein, The Oven (scouting for teaching)

3/6 Gaiman, Norse Gods (for fun)

3/7 French, The Ticking (scouting for teaching)

3/11 Hamid, Exit West* (scouting for teaching)

3/26 Butler, Duffy, Jennings, graphic adaptation of Kindred (scouting for class)*

3/30 Zoboi, American Street (scouting for class)*

4/8 Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo* (fan of his work)

4/18 Livesey, Mercury* (heard at the AWP)

4/23 Kidd, Himself* (reviewed well by author I admire)

5/20 Strout, Anything Is Possible (audiobook on car trips)

5/26 Robinson, New York 2140 (always read his books)*

6/10 Gavaler, Kill the Messenger (unpublished, to give feedback)

6/16 Rash, The Cove (people had been recommending his work for a while)

7/13 Herriman, The Kat Who Walked in Beauty (research)

7/14 Yuknavich, Book of Joan* (good reviews)

7/16 Croy Barker, How To Talk to a Goddess (unpublished, to give feedback)

7/23 Perry, The Essex Serpent* (NYT Times review, I think)

7/27 Gowdy, Little Sister* (NYT review)

8/6 Atkinson, Life After Life (recent classic I’d never gotten to)

8/13 Mandel, Last Night in Montreal (for research)

8/14 Dickinson, Poison Oracle (fan of his work and Small Beer Press)

10/1 Jemisin, The Stone Sky* (for fun)

10/8 Mandel, The Singer’s Gun (for research)

10/15 Mandel, The Lola Quartet (for research)

10/21 Mandel, Station Eleven (reread for teaching/ research)

11/8 Egan, Visit from the Goon Squad (reputation)

12/1 Erdrich, Future Home of the Living God* (for fun)

12/22 Hoffman, Rules of Magic* (for fun)

12/31 Alderman, The Power* (reviews)

 

NONFICTION

1/24 Culler, Literary Theory (reread for class)

2/18 Smith, Ordinary Light* (I love her poetry)

3/10 Rekdal, Intimate (I heard her give a great AWP reading)

6/24 Tisserand, Krazy* (research project)

6/30 McDowell, O’Connell, de Havenon, Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman (research)

7/5 Gailey, PR for Poets (in ms, to give feedback)

7/17 Vetter, A Curious Peril: H.D.’s Late Modernist Prose (research)

7/28 Greene, Time’s Unfading Garden (reread for research)

8/09 Frank, Diary of a Young Girl (rereading because I was in Amsterdam)

8/18 Stewart, A Poet’s Freedom (research)

8/19 Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (reread for research)

9/2 Allen, Our Declaration (first-year reading program)

10/19 Bialosky, Poetry Will Save Your Life* (research)

11/2 Leahy, Tumor* (gift, also by a colleague)

12/2 Sulak and Kolosov, Family Resemblance anthology (research and teaching)

12/23 Johnston, My Life As a Border Collie (by friend)

 

 

Zombie spring term

Summoning enthusiasm for our super-intense four-week spring term after a long year and a too-short break always feels just about impossible. I watch my spouse bounce along with superheroic energy and think, Good lord, can I do this? The same skepticism is showing on some student faces, too, especially among seniors with honors thesis hangovers.

So for the first meeting of English 205: Poetic Forms yesterday I mostly just followed the script I’d left after a previous round. The prompt I’d used for introductions two years ago: Tell us your name, year, where you’re from. Then describe a really good class you’ve taken in the past, at any level, and tell us what made it great—some element or policy that made it all click.

The answers were astonishingly similar. Every single person cited a class in which the professor strategically ceded control, students took charge of learning, and the stakes of that learning were clear. A couple of them praised free-wheeling discussions led by Eduardo Velasquez, a colleague hired with me twenty years ago who suddenly resigned early this month (well, it was sudden to me, but I’m probably just oblivious). One student cited the small capstone seminar run by the aforementioned energetic spouse, Chris Gavaler, for which senior majors build a syllabus based on their own obsessions. Others mentioned the open conversations of their first-year writing courses, peer workshops, and computer labs in which students tested and implemented programs. Not one class sounded easy. What the students valued was real work that was really up to them.

Auspicious for a workshop, isn’t it? Inspired by their reflections, I asked them to think about poetic forms I didn’t put on the syllabus and offered to rearrange my plans based on their interests. What the heck. I’m looking forward to hearing their ideas this afternoon and seeing the poems they bring in (yes, the first writing assignment is due on the second day!). We’re ramping up quickly this week from litanies to counted and syllabic verse to haiku and renku to iambics—phew. Today we’re discussing Marianne Moore’s “The Fish,” so for fun, I’m attaching a poem that appeared in Subtropics last spring that duplicates Moore’s syllable and rhyme scheme: “Inside the bright.” I’ve been teaching “the Fish” forever so it’s not surprising it came to me when watching my kids ride waves in Kauai. I think my poem’s a lot simpler, though; I still don’t truly understand “The Fish,” even after twenty-something years of feeling attracted to its puzzles.

And since we’re counting backwards, here are a couple more student projects I’ve learned from. Remember the internship I ran with Max and Drew that resulted in a special Shenandoah portfolio of poems from New Zealand? Three of the poems we selected were just reprinted in Best New Zealand Poems 2013: Hinemoana Baker’s “Rope,” Cliff Fell’s “Chagall in Vitebsk,” and Anna Jackson’s “Sabina, and the Chain of Friendship.”

The latter publication occurred at the tail end of a set of New Zealand-based readings for my winter seminar on twenty-first century poetry and place. That class did a baby digital humanities project for which students had to pin place references from NZ poems on a world map: see the results here. The students reported pleasure and surprise just navigating the geography—most of them of course, have no idea what’s where in the Pacific, plus the sheer vastness of that ocean is generally a shocker to east-coast Americans. The project also confirmed my sense of the worldliness of NZ writers. While I asked them to focus on Aotearoa, plenty of pins speckle the Pacific islands, the Americas, Europe, even Antarctica. Lots of poetic teleportation going on…

Back now to staggering through the cruelest month, when dead Washington and Lee professors must somehow reanimate.