Report from hagdom

I’ve been sending missives from menopause and perimenopause over the last few years, and sometimes they feel like dead letters. Well, almost all poems land softly–but the so-called change of life feels so BIG to me that it feels like there ought to be a much larger body of literature about it. So I was really happy when “Oxidation Story” was accepted by Kenyon Review Online this fall, and even happier to receive lots of positive responses when they published it yesterday. I’d worked on this one for years. Maybe I got the words right, or the subject matter called to people, or the prestige of the venue attracted attention? In any case, it made me feel seen for a shining moment, for the writer in me.

That’s one of the weird side effects of crossing over to this side of 50: you’re catcalled, harassed, and menaced for most of your life, then you become invisible. I prefer invisibility on the whole, but it would be even better to become, say, “distinguished.” Most TV shows and movies provide illustrations of how impossible that seems to be. As my spouse and I burn through all the shows streaming services have to offer, we just tried “The Undoing,” which pairs Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman as high-powered professionals in unholy matrimony. Kidman is ultra-fit and facelifted and bewigged into a simulacrum of Pre-Raphaelite maidenhood; Grant is carrying more pounds than in his lean thirties, hair grayed and face a little jowly, but he remains very much the leading man. It’s not that I’d put Grant on a diet; I’d rather see Kidman, or any older woman, allowed to wrinkle and accumulate a spare tire and still play a complicated, vital main character. The disparity gets old. (As does the effort to discern facial expressions in an actor post-botox.)

Even in the underresourced world of literary publishing, most successful women-identified authors are glamorously slim and able-bodied. I sometimes wonder if the best thing I could do for my career would be to go paleo and get my eyebrows done, but I’d rather jump my game-token right to witchy croneland.

A big thank you to the new editorial team at KR for giving a hag some bandwidth. I’m also wildly grateful to Julie Marie Wade for this review of The State She’s In in The Rumpus–what a gift! I love that she analyzes poems about gender and middle-aged bodies (such as a gory rondeau, “Perimenopause”), as well as the politics and the violent histories the book puts front and center. I continue to think all those subjects are deeply connected, often in ways that most people just don’t want to look at.

Some of my new-ish work is, like “Oxidation Story,” about the processes of anger and gendered physical transformation–material that I certainly have a strong personal claim to! I’m also writing much more explicitly about depression, anxiety, diagnosis, and medication, also aspects of embodiment that make people uneasy. It’s been interesting to watch more and more writers claim neurodivergence as an identity and think about whether I should. I feel a strong connection to conversations about neurodivergence, disability, and queerness, and while I’m emerging out of the old fears of making that plain, I’m also hesitant to claim difference that has been way more costly to others than it has been to me. I just received a request from the editors of an anthology of queer ecopoetry to include one of my poems, “Absentation,” and I said yes gratefully but also uncertainly (I didn’t answer a call for work–they just found me somehow). As I reread the poem, it does seem nonbinary, holding multiple identity possibilities in its mind. Is that good enough? Is what the work does the most important thing?

In any case, most of my poetry that directly addresses psychiatric diagnosis hasn’t been picked up by magazines, for whatever reason. Maybe I haven’t got the words right. Yet.

Why You Should Be Reading About Menopause

You know how obsessions grow on you and into you, like fungal hyphae bursting through carpenter ants’ heads and disseminating spore? I’m currently fixated on fungi, but a few years ago I developed a more explicable obsession with perimenopause and its sequel. Like puberty, this process has major effects on mind and body. I know post-menopausal people who say it wasn’t a big event, but it was huge for me, and I had a hard time finding information about it, much less encouragement. My novel, Unbecoming, imagines the so-called change of life as a positive time: the main character develops weird powers. I wrote the book I needed to read, and meanwhile developed the magic power of novel-writing. It was mainly as I neared a final draft that I started finding other literature about menopause, beyond crappy self-help books. I list some below and would love to hear of others.

I wish I’d known earlier what Darcey Steinke reports, that many women experience something like auras before hot flashes, occasionally accompanied by a sense of doom. I used to wake with a jolt in the middle of the night, have no idea why, then feel the heat rumble up. Instead of soaking through my clothes, I got to throw off the covers preemptively. During the day, this early-warning system gives me time to yell at anyone trying to cuddle, “GET AWAY FROM ME RIGHT NOW!”

What Beth Kanter says in her McSweeney’s bingo card about hoarding super-plus tampons: again, I wish I’d known. I attended an AWP Conference without a sufficient supply and ended up bleeding through everything, everywhere, way more gruesomely than the archetypal middle-schooler surprised in white pants. (Fortunately, muscle atrophy and metabolic slowdown, by which I mean weight gain, result in an all-black wardrobe). I bled for 7 weeks, went to the doctor, discovered I was seriously anemic, and was rushed in for an emergency ablation–basically having my uterine lining fire-blasted. Afterwards, my enthusiastic gynecologist gave me before-and-after pictures of my uterus and encouraged me to put them on Facebook.

Most scary for me was the mental health upheaval. Midlife crisis is a cliche, as is empty-nest syndrome; hormones aside, a lot of 50ish people have trouble adjusting their ambitions and mustering optimism about the next phase. For a few, according to the medical literature I eventually found, these recalibrations coincide with brain-chemistry apocalypse. I’ve always been prone to depression and anxiety, but in spring 2019–when I was 51–therapies that had kept me sane for years stopped working. I was as messed-up as I’ve ever been, not suicidal but not wanting to live, increasingly sure this shift was permanent. I tend to maintain an appearance of control, so most people I confided in didn’t seem to believe me (or maybe didn’t know how to talk about it, which is common with illness and grief). I finally hit a new equilibrium in winter 2020–very lucky, considering what was ahead. I’m okay now, except for the standard 2020 stew of sadness and frustration.

Of course, mental health crisis doesn’t happen to most menopausal people, but women should know in advance that changes are coming, and as Mary Ruefle says, hot flashes are the least of it. In the essay I link to below, Ruefle also writes, “This was not depression, this was menopause,” somehow making it droll that she wanted to kill herself with a steam-iron. While I admire Ruefle’s writing enormously, I don’t find that joke helpful. When Sarah Manguso writes about rage, likewise, I’m skeptical of it as a symptom, except of women’s rational midlife appraisals of the world.

Here’s my pitch: menopause is relevant to everyone, whether or not it’s on your list of past or future rings of fire. More poets, journalists, novelists, and scientists need to write about it, storming past the editors who think it’s icky. We read about lots of crises we may not personally experience, right? Learning about others helps us be kind and wise. Further, like adolescent coming of age stories, menopause is full of dark passages but it’s also wild, weird, and often really funny (as Moira Egan makes clear). Menopause has been social kryptonite, but it should be literary gold.

Poems and a bingo card (thesis: ALL poems are hot flashes):

Prose nonfiction (literary, scholarly, journalistic):

Fiction (not just about midlife generally, but about menopause–there must be others)

  • Catherine Lundoff, Silver Moon
  • Doris Lessing, The Summer Before the Dark 
  • Samantha Bryant, Menopausal Superheroes (3 book series!)

Bonus: my rondeau from The State She’s In, written more or less synchronously with Unbecoming and originally published in Cherry Tree. Extra bonus: I can’t find those pictures of my uterus to include in this post, so count yourself lucky.



Perimenopause
  
Unstoppered. Uncorked. The spilt mess
of the body’s plan puddles in the john,
useless now. Recurrence gone wrong.
Broken verses and a bloody chorus.
 
Who could have predicted red excess,
unspeakable clots of denouement?
My mouths are unjammed, endless mess
of me congealing at the bottom of the john.
 
Ready now to lose the losing: night sweats,
palpitations, insomnia, floods of gore, done.
Dried up, a long fluent speech in crimson.
Dissolved and flushed. Yet the song carries
on, uncorkable pour of me, shameless.

 

Becoming Unbecoming

My debut novel launches this Friday, May 15th, 2020. Here’s the story of how the book came to be.

I was in my late forties in 2015, sending my oldest child off to college and feeling glum about the next phase of my life. Hormonal shifts were not helping. On a walk with my spouse, I said something like, It’s not fair that mutant superpowers always come at puberty. Menopause is basically puberty in reverse–I want my superpowers now. He said, That would be a good premise for a novel.

A poet, scholar, and teacher, I thought I’d passed the forking path to novel-writing a long ways back. Chris is a cheerleader, though, and–this is crucial–author of a couple of published novels and many short stories, so he’s a great person to talk to about small, vague story ideas. I’d been fantasizing about another tale I never expected to write: a changeling professor, Dr. Perfect Poet, visits on a faculty exchange program and makes literary triumph look like a breeze. I’d drafted a bad poem about her, in a fit of frustration about my own messy life. (The closest thing I had to a superpower was yelling, Flame on! during a hot flash). As we walked and talked, I realized these two plots could interlock. Chris and I started spinning it out–who this main character might be, with her irritating and uncanny new colleague, and how she might react when weird things started happening.

Even when possible structures appeared in the air, I wasn’t sure I had the will or the stamina to put them on paper. I wrote fiction as a teenager but it always stalled. I’ve never taken a fiction writing class, either, although I’ve been an obsessive novel-reader since childhood. But I was on sabbatical 2015-2016, so I thought maybe I would try to write a short, mediocre novel, told chronologically in a single voice–no pressure, no big ambitions, although I wanted it to be fun to spend time with. Complexity with humor, possibly even hope, plus a world that draws you in quickly and won’t let you go: that’s my sweet spot as a reader. That’s one reason poetry is important to me, by the way. The world can be unrelentingly awful, and I’m ready to stare down that badness in short forms, especially when they deliver the consolations of patterned sound, but you have to live in a novel for days. I need novels to be better than life, or at least absorbingly different.

That fall, my mother came down with a mysterious but devastating illness, eventually diagnosed as lymphoma. My concentration and schedule were broken into fragments. When, stabilized, she moved back into her home (in Pennsylvania, a six-hour car ride from here) and entered a steady chemo regime, I had time again, but still couldn’t seem to finish the book of essays I was supposed to wrap up. A scene came to me in the shower. I dried off and wrote it down. I finished a chapter. I kept going. For weeks, sentences arrived in my head and I typed them in. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had writing, and by late January, I had that short, mediocre draft.

The rest of this origin story is less fun, and not just because it coincides with Trump’s election and presidency (some of my characters saw that coming, by the way, but at least in my conscious mind, I did not). I learned that my draft was considerably more mediocre than I realized and had to put the ms through numerous painful overhauls, fixing everything from clumsy prose and plotting to tricky problems of character I’d been refusing to confront. I queried agents prematurely, earning some requests to see the full ms but never an offer. I revised more, with help from many readers, and eventually received a “revise and resubmit” letter from Aqueduct Press, which specializes in feminist sf. Further excruciating revisions ensued, plenty of them at a rapid pace last fall, as I was teaching full-time and delivering my youngest to college. And here it is. Good early reviews make me hope it’s a decent book now, not god’s gift to literature but engaging and sometimes funny (in Locus, Gary K. Wolfe, whose sf criticism I admire, even said parts were hilarious and evoked the campus novels of David Lodge–whoa). I presume I have plenty of ego blows ahead, but I’m glad I took the risk and followed the spark of impulse.

I’m on sabbatical next year and I have another novel idea, a project that again emerges from a twilight zone between realism and fantasy. I’m not at all sure the drafting process will feel magical again, with characters whispering lines to me. It won’t be a campus novel this time, either, which means much more research. I’ll also work with multiple perspectives–getting more ambitious, basically. It still feels like playing hooky from poetry, knowing I’ll come back to my home genre freshly, having learned a few things.

Dear poetry professor on submissions (plus dropped balls, tombstones, & “Hap”)

The New York Times ran a “Working Woman’s Handbook” section in the print edition this Sunday, and I read it from cover to cover, even though it defeated the REASON I get the print edition on Sunday mornings, the whole indulgence-with-a-pot-of-tea-on-the-sofa vibe. The handbook made my adrenaline surge and muscles tighten: “Negotiating While Female,” “Ditch the Mommy Guilt,” “Document Everything”–all too close to home! The feature was very business-oriented, and some of it underplays the self-questioning that SHOULD be part of an artist or an intellectual’s working life no matter the gender, but I’m still keeping it open to the article by Jessica Bennett on impostor syndrome. Self-talk and visualization feel goofy, but I am SO guilty of some of the self-undermining behaviors Bennett describes, and I need to stop.

This post is occasioned by another piece from that suite: “Work Life Balance Is a Myth” by Tiffany Dufu (this one doesn’t seem to be online although Dufu has published these ideas in other venues). On the way towards the subheadings “Drop Balls” and “Say No” (Drop the Ball is the name of Dufu’s book), Dufu offers a “visualization exercise adapted from the book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’: Imagine three people eulogizing you at your funeral. What would they say about you? What do you hope they say about you?…Now ask yourself: Are you on the path to becoming the person they describe?” 

In grad school, I had a running joke with some friends that I wanted my tombstone to read “Brilliant and Lovable.” I’m not invested in those particular adjectives anymore–I think I was beginning to worry, back then, about the implicit conflict between them, the idea that for a woman to be brilliant (work first) requires violating the social requirement to be nurturing (people first), and that therefore a brilliant woman is unwomanly. Anyway, I’d rather sidestep THAT mess these days, but the content of my aspirations is similar: while I don’t care if Joe Schmoe finds me “nurturing” and I resist spending my whole life on care-taking activities, I do hope my friends and loved ones feel loved by me. I hope my writing is valued and enjoyed by others. And I hope my students find me to be a good and generous teacher. 

It strikes me that these hopes are not entirely consonant with Dufu’s admonitions to “Drop Balls” and “Say No.” My list does reveal that I don’t care about appearances, not in a deep way, so I should ditch those vestigial anxieties. But being a good and generous teacher means saying “yes” a lot, even when you’re tired and overextended–giving students your full and open attention, when you can. And I’ve been in this job for 25 years, and many former students are still looking for help, so it can be a lot! For instance, I received another out-of-the blue query last weekend from someone who graduated maybe 10 years ago. I thought, first, this is the sort of ball I should drop; and then, second, but I want to be helpful; then, third, maybe I can repurpose the help I give by editing these occasional, mostly off-screen scraps of mentoring. Maybe if I collect and, occasionally, post them, they’ll help others. One exchange is below, a little edited and developed, name redacted. I hope to do it again sometime, so let me know if you have a question, whether or not you’ve ever been enrolled in one of my classes!

And finally, a request. I am collecting the names of essays, books, and poems for a future blog on literary menopause occasioned by a recent New Yorker review of Steinke’s new book. I have several to start with from the latter piece, but I really wish I could think of more poems (besides Moira Egan’s terrific Hot Flash Sonnets!). It’s personal, too, of course: I’ve been in an exhausting amount of joint pain lately, and still have other doctors to consult, but my not-very-helpful GP suggested yesterday these may be untreatable menopause systems (some people react to a drop in estrogen with painful inflammation). I need medical enlightenment, but I’d also appreciate some literary company.   

Q: Hi Professor, 

I have been published a bunch of times but never poems I expect – my best stuff hasn’t been picked up yet and I am curious – how do you go about editing or curating your poems so that you can get them published? 

A: The short version: time/distance plus persistence, with a garnish of recognizing how random publishing can be.

In more detail: I wait for months until the poem is strange to me, so I can be objective about its strengths and weaknesses. I’ve just been rereading poems I drafted during the past year or two, preparing to submit or re-submit them, and I found a few gems; a lot of poems with strong potential but clunky or underdeveloped passages; and some I was once excited about but now realize might not go anywhere. Some poems I thought were shiny and near-complete disappoint me now, and that’s common–with critical distance, I’m better able to admit that a certain element doesn’t work, even though I’m fond of it. Sometimes I have to excise an opening stanza or two, but for me, problems more often occur at or near the end of the poem. (I’ve observed that some poets are great at punchy beginnings and weaker on closure, and others reverse those traits.) You have to be a ruthless trimmer/ re-developer, both for the good of the art and for publishing success, and it just takes a lot of time. There are SO many good poems out there competing for an editor’s attention: the winners are great, or lucky.

Having a few fellow writers to bounce work off of helps, too, whether it’s an informal/ online writing group or an official class. And sending in batches that hang together well, the poems illuminating one other, can help deepen an editor’s sense what you’re up to.

All that said, I’ve heard multiple book editors and contest judges note that the best poems in a book, when you check the acknowledgments, aren’t ones that have been taken by magazines. I’m polishing my next book ms now, including 50-something poems, most of which have been published independently. I still shake my head over the ones that haven’t been, because I feel they’re among my best. Sometimes that’s because they’re risky in some way that’s supported by the book as a whole, but might seem off to a magazine editor with less context. Other times it just seems random. Or am I just wrong about “my best”?…In any case, in addition to bringing your own work to the highest possible shine, keep reading magazines, thinking about fit, and getting the work out there. Hard work and persistence are under your control but the rest is “Crass Casualty,” as Thomas Hardy might say if he were blogging about the po-biz.