Change of (literary) life

upsidedown

It’s fall, 2015. I’m on sabbatical. My mother is direly ill with what turns out to be lymphoma. I’m mourning my daughter’s departure for college and worrying about her experience there; my son, new to high school, faints in a clinic and is diagnosed with pneumonia. My own body is going haywire, perimenopausally. Amid doctor visits, road trips, and existential crises, I can’t concentrate on anything.

I have, however, been batting around an idea. I spent my girlhood writing stories and have always been an avid novel reader–literary fiction but also fantasy, science fiction, mysteries, horror, and a lot of the slippery genre-crossing stuff. Could I write a novel myself? A short one, maybe, drawing on worlds I know well to ease the learning curve? Could I do it–what the hell–right now?

I’d been inventing character backstories and had a couple of narrative threads in mind. Aside from artistic curiosity about the practice of novel-writing, though, the motivating impulse was to rewrite transitions like my own–which seemed at the time wholly about loss–so that they became empowering. In so many tales, magic or superpowers hit at puberty, and the physical changes I was undergoing were basically puberty in reverse. So wouldn’t menopause ALSO be a logical time for a person’s power to change? Why should teenage characters get all the joy?

So I wrote round the clock from November 2015 to January 2016, joyously, shocked at how fun and absorbing the work was, until I had a full draft. It was pretty terrible, but luckily for me, I’m married to an excellent teacher of fiction-writing. I rewrote it a few times and started sharing the ms with other friends. Many gave tough criticism in an encouraging way, bless them forever. Putting the ms under revision after revision, I killed some of my darlings and maimed a few, too. I deleted characters, complicated others, overhauled plot twists, faced a number of things I hadn’t wanted to admit about myself, and cut summary and adverbs and pretty descriptions and clever metaphors (I am a poet…). I queried agents; a bunch asked to see the whole ms but then passed, because I’d been deluded about its readiness. I revised some more.

Somewhere in there I queried Aqueduct Press, whose editors had been good to me during the publication of my speculative poetry collection, The Receptionist and Other Tales (all my poetry books feature ghosts and other flavors of uncanniness, but only The Receptionist is speculative through and through). The verse novella at the heart of it was named to the James Tiptree, Jr. Award Honor List, something I never would have thought I could even be in the running for.

Revise and resubmit was Aqueduct’s verdict, with some challenging, even deflating advice that I quickly recognized the utter justice of. More brainstorming, more character and plot overhauls, and a lot of the smaller screw-tightening fine-tooth-combing stuff. And then, a couple of weeks ago, with yet more notes about revision because that’s the writing life, came the offer of a contract.

So apparently, one of the magical transformations of midlife is that a poet can become a novelist. I have moments of elation about that, and moments of alarm. My turn to novels is a way bigger change than anything that’s happened in my writing life since I won a prize for Heterotopia ten years ago. It’s NOT a turn away from poetry, which is still very much at the center of my daily life, but it will be a turn away from traditional scholarship, I think. My novel, Unbecoming, and my next poetry collection, whose title I’m still fiddling with, will be out in 2020 (there’s a small chance of late 2019 for the novel, but I’m not banking on it). AND I have a book of poetry-based nonfiction, a hybrid of criticism and memoir, scheduled for 2021 (more details on that soon!).

Creative writing across the genres, full speed ahead!–I’ve been drafting a lot of micro-essays and some micro-fiction this winter. Reviewing, too. But I can’t do everything. And I know where my heart lies.

Learning to write a novel has been hard and surprising and wonderful, but now I have to learn about publishing one. PLUS do my best job ever at getting the word out about my new poetry collection, simultaneously, while revising the essay collection. It’s a lot. I anticipate a big pivot next year from the introversion of writing/ revision/ submission work to the extroversion required for traveling, reading, guest-teaching, panel-surfing, and all the other stuff. Some of it at SF conventions! And all this will happen right at my empty nest moment–this is also the winter of helping my son get college applications out and waiting for the verdicts. I mean, really–what’s the appropriate cheerful-but-scared expletive for THAT?

swamp

 

Birthday-head

poe hatsShould I wear the top hat or tiara while teaching Yeats tomorrow? Poe thinks it’s a stupid question.

People keep asking me how I feel about turning fifty tomorrow. One answer is: lucky. I’m back in the swing of teaching after a difficult summer, and I find it as rewarding as ever. My spouse and kids are well. My friends and family are kind to me, writing me poems and giving me silly headgear and treating me to fancy drinks and meals. My home is not flooded; I am not at risk of deportation. I can do useful work in the world and I sometimes even get paid for it.

This birthday also makes me feel frustrated. Writing itself, as I’ve often said here, is hard and slow, but somehow that labor seems satisfying in its own right. Seeking publication, not so much. Getting the queries and submissions out is nitpicky work, time-consuming, and demoralizing. There’s no alternative except giving up, though, and I think I have a few decades more fight in me. Hope it’s true.

The day I turned forty, I stomped around feeling just furious about it. What an indignity! But so far, I’m not experiencing even a mild irritation about fiftyness. An increased urgency about my writing, maybe, but that started kicking in a couple of years ago, when my eldest left for college. I began a major transition then–during the same autumn my mother was diagnosed with lymphoma–and those experiences make a mere birthday feel less significant. I mean, bring on the cake and all, but a number doesn’t change you the way altered relationships do.

When I blew out the candles last year, I’m pretty sure I wished for book contracts. What I have in mind this year is bloody persistence. My will to keep trying faltered for a while in June and July, when I was struggling through one of the more serious slumps I’ve known. My determination has since returned, a steady burn in the brain (or is that a hot flash?). I plan to keep tending and feeding it with all of my art, until a voice tells me, one of these years, “Okay, you can cool it now.”

Thanks for a thin bright stream of oxygen lately from three magazines whose editors gave space to my poems: storySouth, Copper Nickel, and Notre Dame Review. I’m looking forward, in the coming months, for more poems in Ocean State Review, Barrow Street, Sweet, Cherry Tree Review, Cold Mountain Review, Salamander, Blackbird, Raintown Review, and Water~Stone ReviewI also have essays scheduled to be published in Crab Orchard Review, on Claudia Emerson’s early poems and her time teaching at W&L, and in Massachusetts Review, on Edna St. Vincent Millay’s abortions. That’s all pretty good, right? Happy damn birthday to me.

Writing that out was actually pretty helpful. It reminds me that pissed-off forty-year-old me would kick fifty-year-old me in the shins for those feelings of discouragement.

And on the subject of taking heart: maybe I’ll see you in Charlottesville this Saturday the 30th, 4-6 pm, at the 1000 Writers for Change reading at Writer House, organized by Polly Lazaron. Joining that crowd of makers and listeners seems like a hopeful thing to do.

burst
Detail from “Burst” by Paul Villinski at the Taubman Museum in Roanoke–they’re made of vinyl records–what a metaphor!

 

 

 

Repress the year, but read the books

Countdowns and confetti: bah humbug. By New Year’s Eve, I’m tired of festivity. Middle age has clearly settled in, because I now regularly find myself closing out the year by binge-reading.

December is always a good month for catching up on The Year’s Big Poetry Books. My university library orders the US National Book Award poetry longlist and the Pulitzer finalists annually, so after grades are in, I rush in to the circulation desk and beg them to finish “processing” my slim volumes. This year I’ve only perused a fraction of them so far. Someone had already checked out Dove’s Collected Poems and while I’m a big fan and have written about her work, I’m letting the anonymous poetry-reader keep it for the moment, with blessings. But I’ve at least glanced at the other finalists and almost everything seems worth attention. While I’ve only read the first few pages of the NBA top selection, Borzutzky’s Performance of Becoming Human, it’s powerful and I will finish it.

The oh-my-god discovery in this stack, however, was Diane Seuss’s Four-Legged Girl. What a fierce, smart, funny book! An old lesson affirmed: read the finalists, Lesley. I always respect the winners but fall madly in love with a runner-up.

4-legged
Four-legged girls

Also worth noting: my favorite chapbook was Elizabeth Savage’s Parallax, but the chaps listed below by Janet McAdams, Carrie Etter, Natalie Diaz, and Rosemary Starace are also terrific(Is there a best-annual chapbook post-publication prize? There should be.) For YA poetry, although it doesn’t need to be characterized that way: Marilyn Nelson’s American Ace. Among the books I read for Kenyon Review micros were several charmers, but Ned Balbo’s Upcycling Paumanok impressed me as especially ambitious, crafty, and big-hearted. Books I read for various reasons and liked so much I put them on syllabi include Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Field Guide to the End of the World, Susan Briante’s The Market Wonders, Erika Meitner’s Copia, and Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds.

Other genres: I’m finishing Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad right now and am totally dazzled. I was also delighted to discover, a little belatedly, Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being and N. K. Jemisin’s sf. But all the novels I read this year were good, with the likely exception of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, of which I cannot remember one scene. My book-length nonfiction reading was more uneven–a few brilliant tomes, a couple of weak choices–but I hope to do better in 2017.

And on that note, I would REALLY like to catch up with NZ poetry this year–I’m appalled to see not one item here from a country I remain so in love with. Please put the word out I’d be happy to get review copies, print or electronic, for my micro-review gig at Kenyon Review Online. I probably won’t lose 10 pounds or exercise more, but sit around with cups of tea and new poetry collections? THAT’s a resolution I can uphold.

Best wishes for everyone to thrive in the new year, except the orange man, upon whom I wish shame, frustration, and disaster.

POETRY

1/10 White, LettERRS (review assignment)

1/18 Rankine, Citizen (reread for work event)

2/15 Stone, Poetry Comics (friend’s recommendation)*

2/19 Francis, Forest Primeval (review by friend in Kenyon Review)*

2/19 Dungy, Suck on the Marrow (scouting historical poetry)

2/20 Barnstone, The Beast in the Apartment (friend’s recommendation)

2/22 Carson, Nox (knew it would be great and was saving it)

2/23 Gray, Photographing Eden (AWP staff)

2/25 O’Reilly, Geis (review assignment)

2/27 Okrent, Boys of My Youth (review assignment)

3/19 Bridgford, Human Interest* (ms to blurb)

3/20 Robinson, Sometimes the Little Town* (friend and local author)

3/21 Meitner, Copia (bought after her reading at VA Festival of Book)

3/23 Dop, Father Child Water (ditto)

3/25 Powell, Useless Landscape (preparing to meet him at AWP)

3/27 Leahy, Constituents of Matter (AWP staff)

4/2 Rocha, Karankawa (AWP prize winner)

4/3 Day, Last Psalm at Sea Level (picked up at AWP)

4/7 McAdams, Seven Boxes for the Country After* (friend and poet I admire)

4/10 Clarvoe, Counter-Amores (reread prior to Kenyon visit)

4/11 Meeks, The Genome Rhapsodies (review)

4/23 Le Guin, Late in the Day* (review)

5/1 Kildegaard, Ventriloquy* (review)

5/4 Hoppenthaler, Domestic Garden (possible campus visit)

5/4 Dubrow, The Arranged Marriage (heard her read from it 2 years ago)

5/13 Duncan, Restless Continent (review assignment, also recommended by friend)

5/? Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds* (multiple good reviews)

5/27 Stallings, Olives (had been meaning to for years)

6/1 Nelson, American Ace* (poet long admired, picked up at conference)

6/2 Preston, Centennial Poem for Washington and Lee University (research)

6/4 Starace, Unseen Avenue* (friend and poet I admire)

6/13 Davis, Traditional Ballads of Virginia (research)

6/14 Frank, The Opposite of People (review assignment)

6/26 Jackson, ed., Selected Poems of ESV Millay* (review)

7/4 Schroeder, Inked* (met author at conference)

7/11 Tribble, Natural State* (review)

7/18 Dietrich and Ferguson, eds., Drawn to Marvel (reread for class planning)

7/21 Thompson, The Myth of Water* (review)

7/30 Carlson, Symphony No. 2 (review)

8/2 Paschen, Infidelities (AWP board member)

8/30 Baca, Selected Poems (class prep—coming to campus)

9/2 Wood, Weaving the Boundary* (regional author I’ve heard at readings)

9/24 Rackin, The Forever Notes (met at reading)

9/24 Campbell, Dixmont (met at reading)

9/30 Eliot, Prufrock and Other Observations (for class)

10/8 Miller, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (friend’s recommendation)

10/8 Briante, The Market Wonders* (future campus visitor)

10/10 H.D. Sea Garden (for class)

10/22 Savage, Parallax* (by a friend)

10/24 Eliot, The Waste Land (for class)

11/? Hughes, Montage of a Dream Deferred (for class)

11/? Gailey, Field Guide to the End of the World* (for class)

11/? Anderson, Stain (to blurb)

12/16 Diaz, The Hand Has Twenty-Seven Bones (follow her work)

12/16 Balakian, Ozone Journal (Pulitzer winner)

12/22 Sharif, Look (NBA finalist)

12/28 Seuss, Four-Legged Girl* (Pulitzer finalist)

12/31 Gizzi, Archaeophonics* (NBA finalist)

 

FICTION

1/16 Lerner, 10:04 (daughter’s recommendation)

1/20 Butler, Kindred (reread for guest-teaching)

1/31 Anders, All the Birds in the Sky* (Jemisin’s NYT review)

2/7 Gavaler, Patron Saint of Superheroes (unpublished, to give the author feedback)

2/15 Penny, Still Life (friend’s recommendation)

2/19 Atwell, Wild Girls (writer recently moved to my town)

3/13 Jemisin, Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (friend’s recommendation)

3/18 Jemisin, Broken Kingdoms (continuation of trilogy)

3/22 Jemisin, Gods’ Kingdom (continuation of trilogy)

3/29 Jemisin, The Awakened Kingdom (novella postscript to trilogy)

3/29 Grimes, Rainbow’s End (audiobook it took me 5 months to finish)

3/29 Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton* (friend’s recommendation)

4/17 Ozeki, Tale for the Time Being (recommended by friend)

5/4 Martin, Dance with Dragons (reread for TV show)

5/12 Myerson, The Stopped Heart (Weber’s NYT review)

5/23 Weber, True Confections (met author at Kenyon)

5/30 Erdrich, LaRose* (longstanding favorite author)

6/18 King, End of Watch* (another favorite author)

6/22 Sittenfeld, Eligible* (curious about her work for a while, NYT review)

7/10 Hairston, Will Do Magic for Small Change* (Jemisin’s NYT review)

7/16 Hoffman, The River King (friend’s recommendation)

7/28 Brodie, Adulterer’s Club (unpublished, to comment on ms)

7/31 Kohrner-Stace, Archivist Wasp (interest in Small Beer Press)

7/31 Thorne & Tiffany, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child* (couldn’t help it)

8/8 Walton, Necessity* (favorite author)

8/20 Nguyen, The Sympathizer (dual Pulitzer/ Edgar wins intrigued me)

8/27 Millet, Sweet Lamb of Heaven (recommended by friend)

9/10 Morganstern, The Night Circus (recommended by friend)

9/28 Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate* (sequel I was waiting for)

11/? Willis, Crosstalk (author I follow)

12/14 Jones, Mongrels* (recommended by a friend)    

 

NONFICTION

1/30 Kolbert, Sixth Extinction (daughter’s recommendation)

2/8 Jackson, Marginalia (for research)

2/8 Scholes, The Crafty Reader (for research)

2/8 Coates, Between the World and Me (recommended by a zillion friends)

2/9 Freedman, Frey, Zauhar, Intimate Critique (for research)

2/11 Tompkins, Reader Response Criticism (for research)

3/4 Christman, Darkroom (AWP board)

3/8 Eakin, How Our Lives Become Stories (research)

5/12 MacDonald, H is for Hawk (audiobook; widely recommended)

7/25 Mayock, Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace (by friend and colleague)

7/27 Culler, Very Short Introduction to Literary Theory (course prep)

8/10 Biss, On Immunity (widely recommended)

9/1 Gay, Bad Feminist (audiobook, widely recommended)

9/30 Shumer, Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo* (audiobook, whiling away a car trip)

10/29 Meehan, Imaginary Bonnets with Real Bees in them* (poet I research)

12/24 Connors, Milkweed Matters * (writer is a friend)

12/31 Greene, Time’s Unfading Garden (research)

*2016 publication or pretty damn close

 

Poetry by the Sea, Pt. 2: Seams showing

pbs3

“I’ve quit hoarding,” Kimiko Hahn said at her reading, “and now collect myself.” I, on the other hand, was hoarding good lines–hers was one of many I collected last week in a little notebook bound with blue thread. My tattered Moleskin is beginning to fill with quotes and drafts and lists and spiral doodles–and I gathered a variety of each at the second annual Poetry by the Sea conference, as I began to describe in my last post.

Some highlights: Jon Tribble, in a panel on publishing, reminding us that a good poetry book drives you to keep turning pages. Listening to him (an editor who personally reads a massive number of mss annually), I scribbled almost illegibly, with my sprained right wrist: “How does every poem reward you for being there?” That’s a good thing to think about, the flip side to the need for suspense in poetry, a subject I wrote about here a few months ago.

Alicia Stallings charged me up similarly by reading poems about the migrant crisis in Greece–work that could not have felt more urgent. Ange Mlinko commented during her lecture, “At Sea,” “how frequently the classroom is a site of humiliation”–a sobering thought for someone who wants to foster inclusive spaces for pondering art and speaking adventurously. I was pleasurably startled by a reading pairing Mahogany L. Brown, one afternoon, with Gregory Pardlo–an unlikely duo. Poems in Pardlo’s physical voice were funnier than I’d realized–especially some new work about raising children–and when Brown’s teenage daughter accompanied her mother’s verse by singing a cappella, I wasn’t the only listener who broke out in goosebumps. In another event, Marilyn Taylor made me laugh out loud and Joshua Mehigan’s intense long poem, “The Orange Bottle,” riveted my attention almost painfully. There are many, many ways to make people want to keep listening.

I also kept recording scraps of conversations, mostly with other women, about the life hinges we’re occupying–worrying over ailing mothers and struggling daughters. “Valerian tea for anxiety,” reads one page. I think I jotted that prescription in the meditation garden, looking out at the seam between the blue sky and the blue water. I have notes from Jane Satterfield’s memoir panel and also about the brands of cute-yet-comfortable shoes she was wearing. I drafted a couple of poems and a couple of flash fiction pieces, too, although I wasn’t enrolled in any workshops. The combination of gorgeous ambient language with a borderworld landscape–that’s just irresistible.

One intermittent list consisted of advice I quilted together more deliberately. Tell me something good, I kept asking, about approaching the age of fifty. I’ll leave you with some answers, as well as an invitation. If you’re in the D.C. area, please consider coming to the launch of of the annual Joaquin Miller series, this coming Sunday, June 5th, in Rock Creek Park (5200 Glover Rd NW, Washington, DC 20015). I’ll be reading along with some young contest winners, and I believe there’s an open mic, too.

Till then, the pluses of middle age:

  • It’s better than old age.
  • I care less about what other people think.
  • Fruitfulness. So many things you work for over decades finally come ripe.
  • Now I HAVE to cultivate a balance between body and mind; my body breaks down otherwise.
  • I have a deep knowledge of my own work rhythms now.
  • Clarity–the unimportant stuff drops away.
  • Time seems more limited and precious.

The last one I’m feeling. Carefree fruitful balanced clarity, hmm–here’s hoping I figure that stuff out before September’s wave drags me out deep again.

joaquin miller flier

 

 

Elephant blessing

On Sunday afternoon I took a bubble bath–I know, tough life–during which I was visited by an apparition. My spouse and kids say I overheated myself, and I did emerge flushed bright-red and a little dizzy, but I swear I spent that half-hour with an elephant made of bubbles. This wasn’t just a heap of foam with a snout, but a nicely shaped creature with ears, an eye-dent, and an impressive proboscis. It rocked back and forth on top of the water cheerfully, refusing to dissolve until I pulled the plug.

I had been laboring hard on several projects, including the ninth chapter of Taking Poetry Personally, the critical book I want to finish during this year’s sabbatical. Each chapter–and they’re short-ish, under 5000 words each–concerns a single twenty-first-century poem, paired with an issue I’m thinking about as I consider what it means to immerse oneself in a poem’s possible world. This one, “Brevity,” is keyed to a sonnet by Rafael Campo. I was finding it amazingly hard to be brief about it. Poetic compression is a big issue.

This book blends criticism with personal narrative, too, and the story I’d chosen, with the alleged virtues of smallness in mind, concerned weight. Like a lot of women, I’m a serial dieter. I began counting calories as a teen feeling the usual pressures to be small and feminine, to deny any appetites. Periodically for the next three decades, I’d decide the padding was getting out of hand and resolve to count calories and/or carbs. It was always excruciating, but it always worked, until a few years ago. Now if I eat healthy foods moderately and exercise daily, I slowly gain weight. If I get stricter, I stop the dial’s uptick, but no matter what I do, I don’t lose. Plenty of perimenopausal women experience the same thing, I gather, and medical opinion seems muddled about it. Some sources the body is desperately trying to maintain an estrogen supply–if the ovaries won’t keep producing, fat cells can be made to serve the purpose–so dieting is no use. (But you can game your metabolism if you take our supplements!) Others say you can reverse the gain through a more rigorous diet and exercise program. (1300 calories a day and intense exercise forever–you can do it! It just means making a career of weight control!) It’s all alternately depressing and infuriating. After all, I have other work to do, and I’m healthy. The prescribed level of hunger makes me angry all the time and unable to think straight–and now that austerity doesn’t even work anymore, it just seems like the stupidest kind of vanity. Better to come to terms with occupying more space. And yet, as I drafted the chapter, I felt increasingly crushed, unable to let go of the desire to be thin once more, to feel in-control and approved-of. I have been hungry, hungry, hungry for about a week, spending more time at the gym, and the scale hasn’t budged one ounce.

So it was particularly funny to share my bathtub with the elephant, biggest land mammal around. What does it mean?, I wondered, and the kids said, It means you should stop boiling yourself alive. (They also oppose austerity measures on principle because it means I stop making pasta.) With a pang of guilt, I remembered Asha from a roadside breeder zoo near here. We took the kids sometimes when they were little, but it was a depressing place, and in fact the zoo has been accused since of mistreating its animals. Asha is a female African elephant there who has been alone for nearly 20 years, although elephants are profoundly social. She touched my sneakered toe long ago with her trunk, jolting me awareness of her as a fellow creature, and likely a lonely, suffering one, but I had never done anything for her. On Monday I wrote a letter, signed a petition, thought of her. Was I called to do or learn anything else?

That night I dreamed of an elephant, male. He and I were going on a journey together, not as beast and rider, but as friends. Our house had a special door, like at a car dealership, large enough to admit him. He was thirsty and kept drinking from suburban hoses as we walked down the street. It was a sweet, companionable interlude.

Today I learned that one of the world’s many elephant deities, Ganesha, is a patron of wisdom and learning. People invoke him at new beginnings because he places and removes obstacles. Is that why I dreamed of him, looking for help with my sabbatical, my book? It’s not for the doomed diet: I’m not expecting any miracles as far as my own middle-aged girth. If I could choose my luck, anyway, I’d rather be a good writer than a skinny one.elephant