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.

As if suspense were a permanent state

Poetry isn’t generally associated with suspense. It seems like an art of uncertainty–and a consolation for that uncertainty. Yet I find myself more and more convinced that poetry’s fragmentariness needs to be anchored by story (earlier post related to this idea here). I’m also wishing I could see the shape of my own story more clearly. As usual, I’m projecting my life into poetry, and vice versa.

On life suspense: my mother is ailing, and so am I, and so are several other people dear to me. Being ill without a clear diagnosis is definitely a bad kind of suspense. My mother has lymphoma and while chemo is triumphing over the tumor, it’s also wearing her down–the doctors are still figuring out why this week has been so bad. I’m a six-hour drive away, so I spend a lot of time waiting for my phone to buzz.

During my 2005-6 sabbatical I researched poetic voice; during this one, I’m making a long-term study of my mother’s intonations by telephone. It’s not just what she’s saying and in what mood, but hoarseness, shortness of breath, and when things are really bad, her difficulty tracking the conversation. Slurring in October first alerted us that something was seriously wrong. I’m judging my sister’s level of worry, too, through tones and texts. All this close listening makes me think of Dickinson only consenting to medical examination through a crack in the door. Not much for a diagnostician to go on.

I’m not so sick as all that. Asthma, swelling, palpitations, lightheadedness–I’ve had the basic tests done to know I’m not in the middle of some cardiac cataclysm, but these medium-annoying symptoms could spring from about five million different problems, and lord knows how long it will take to narrow it down. Another research project.

I’m medicating myself in the interim by reading and writing. I’m revising Taking Poetry Personally and figuring out what presses to query, but that requires high concentration. What I seem to want to do most is read and write poems. Since I have stacks of poetry books around, some sent for review and others I’ve been meaning to get to for ages, I’m picking one up every time I feel low.

Plenty of them are good, but too often I’m disappointed by the first few pages. Every published poet knows, I think, to pick a strong opener, a well-wrought poem that inaugurates the themes and strategies of the collection. It’s surprising, however, how few poets use those early pages to generate suspense–the good kind that keeps a reader on the hook. I don’t mean a murder should be discovered in the first stanza, leaving us to ponder who done it over seventy pages of clever line breaks. Yet there should, I think, be at least one urgent question percolating. And the poems that follow should sustain interest in those questions, so that, by the last few lines of the last verse, we have some provisional, partial, fragmentary sense of an answer.

Narrative isn’t the only tension-generator: poems can also be arguments, spells, and riddles, to be resolved by sound or formal elements as well as, or even instead of, sense. The best poetry book I’ve read recently is actually pretty experimental: Anne Carson’s Nox (what? you demand, and shh, I reply, because my yet-to-be-read list is really embarrassing). I bet many of you have already cracked that box, unfolded the astonishing accordion pages, and pondered her artful use of collage, translated verse, dictionary glosses, etc. The book certainly doesn’t tell a straightforward tale. Yet Carson has such a strong sense of story–she is one of the best living poets, I think, when it comes to writing suspensefully.

“I wanted to fill my elegy with light of all kinds,” she writes early on, addressing the death of her brother. “But death makes us stingy. There is nothing more to be expended on that, we think, he’s dead. Love cannot alter it. Words cannot add to it. No matter how I try to evoke the starry lad he was, it remains a plain, odd history.”

Who was her brother, you wonder, and how did he die? What’s “odd” about his life and death? Isn’t there something odd about this speaker, too–the mix of grief and cool detachment in those lines? Carson doesn’t reveal complete or stable answers to any of these questions. She replies, rather, as poets do, through patterned fragments. Nox is really a long poem and therefore much more unified than most collections, and maybe my own distraction makes me a cranky reader right now, yet I really, really wish more poetry books had some part of its propulsive drive.

In considering all this, I realize the guiding question of my next book of poems is already crystallizing. It’s: Where am I? Really, interest in place runs through all of my poetry collections (think of the titles Heathen, Heterotopia, Radioland), but I’m further out on that question’s ledge than ever.

One answer: nowhere. I’m a middle-aged striver laboring in an obscure small town. As I try to promote Radioland, and feel enormously grateful for the reviews I’ve received and the events coming up soon (W&L next week, and also the VA Festival of the Book, AWP, Kenyon College, and Poetry by the Sea), I’m also struggling. It is HARD to inspire people to order and/or open a poetry book, much less decorate it with laurels, no matter how  engaging its interior might be. One kind of suspense I’m suffering from: of all the threads I’ve recently cast into the void, trying to launch the poems toward a larger audience, will any catch?

Well, I keep telling myself, suspense in this case is better than having hit the canyon floor. I’m proud of the book, plus the new work is worth doing in its own right. I’m finding the somewhere in nowhere and having a hard look around. These badlands have some interesting features.

wile-e-coyote

No middlebrow for poetry

There really isn’t a place for the middlebrow in poetry publishing.

I don’t like ranking people’s tastes by their supposed expanse of forehead. First, it’s mainly marketing, defining us by how we spend. Second, we’re all more mixed than that. I’m more adventurous about food than music, for instance: I like edgy vegetables and songs with round corners. I am attracted to weird art but have zero interest in experimental novels. I don’t even know how to describe my taste in poetry. Yet an artist-friend has been sending me links to articles on middlebrow art, including the recent New York Times piece. And at the same time I’ve been helping an acquaintance with a poetry manuscript and thinking, “in fiction, there would be a place for this.” Her book retells a politically complicated historical episode in a straightforward style, shifting from speaker to speaker with nary a qualm about appropriation. No lacunae, ellipses, apologetic verbal hedges about the fundamental inaccessibility of the past. Yet the writer, while not versed in the politics of contemporary verse, is ultra-competent, with a long multigenre publishing resume. It’s not that she’s writing badly. She’s just not writing for me.

Fiction does this all the time: storytelling depends on imagining points of view one person can’t truly access. Fiction I’d call literary does this very persuasively, with psychological and intellectual sophistication, in prose full of surprises. Fiction I’d call popular is more predictable, from its similes to its characters and plot, but I read my share of it and I’m glad it’s out there.

There is some range in recently published poetry collections. Some are much, much more abstruse than others, yet even the most approachable are still literary in their values. And unless you’re a former US Poet Laureate, you’re probably finding it increasingly hard to publish narrative verse in a straightforward, grammatical style.

My poetry predilections are probably highbrow, because I’m nerdily delighted when I cut my fingers on the edges of a stanza. But among the poets I meet through publishing and conferences and festivals, I feel kinda lowbrow. I’m attracted to story, and if a poem doesn’t show the author’s attention to potential readers–eagerness to be interesting, willingness to come clean about what’s at stake–I put it down and go back to poetry that seems to want my company. My own feeling of resisting certain avant-garde pieties, however, is relative to a tiny, poetry-obsessed readership, because there isn’t much of a general audience for contemporary takes on this particular art form.

It’s different for Dickinson, Frost, Eliot, Hughes, etc–non-poetry-specialists do read older verse. I’m talking about print, too, and books in particular. Poetry readings can have big, open-minded audiences–I hear accessible, middlebrow poetry more often than I read it. In slam, there’s plenty of popular stuff a professor might deem bad, and that’s good. When an art’s healthy, there’s a big enough range in contemporary practice that there’s no way one person would appreciate all of it. For instance, I can go to an art house film if I want, or sink into a high-box-office 3D noisefest, because the movies are still for everyone.

I wish there were more room for poetry books that might be called middlebrow or lowbrow or accessible or populist, stuff you don’t have to be an insider to get. My own favorite field, as in the novel, is crossover stuff: literary fiction that flirts with mystery or thriller; fantasy that’s smart and well-written. I want more poetry that works at both levels, too–highly readable but sharp and worth lingering over. But how likely is that, when the poetic equivalent of popular fiction can’t find a friendly curator or a book-buying audience? Everything is aimed at the cognoscenti.

Well, that’s enough big-foreheadism. The advance of August always lowers the hairline, but it’s worse for the woman resigning herself to a stint as department head: I have advising sheets to revise, after all, and capstone sections to sort. Time for the mid-career middle-aged medium-height poet to muddle back in the midden of middle management.

Poetry, suspense, and reading Maria Hummel

She stared at the screen until her eyes ached, willing an email to flicker into existence: would the prospective poetry publisher like her new manuscript? See, that’s an example of raising suspense in prose, but good poems do that too. As Stephen Dobyns writes in an excellent essay, “Writing the Reader’s Life,” only discovered by this belated reader last week:

“The energy in a work–meaning whatever keeps us reading–comes in part from (1) the balance between what we know and what we don’t know and (2) how well the writer has made us want to know. A failure in much writing, especially poetry, is that the writer has not created sufficient tension, has not done enough to make us want to know. A failure in much writing, especially poetry, is that the writer has not created sufficient tension, has not done enough to make us want to know. If the writer takes the reader’s interest for granted, then he or she will fail.” (in Poets Teaching Poets, ed. Orr and Voigt)

In case you were in suspense after my last blog post about procrastination, I did in fact have a great writing week last week. I drafted a new chapter about “Suspense” in lyric poetry, focusing on House and Fire, a first collection by Maria Hummel. I started tracking her work in May 2012, when I spotted the amazing ghazal “One Life” in Poetry. Ghazals aren’t really supposed to be narrative–or at least linear–but this one raises several kinds of suspense: why does she stop believing in heaven? what happened in the accident? what’s the matter with her son and will he be all right? There’s also the beautiful formal suspension of rhyme and refrain, and the drama of how she handles the ghazal’s other requirements (if you know the form, for instance, you’re always curious to see how a poet includes a signature in the final couplet). Maybe perversely, after reading “One Life” I became anxious about Hummel’s real son’s well-being, and followed hints about it through individual poems in various magazines and, finally, this May, through her book. Maybe this isn’t what Hummel wanted me to want to know, but I did. Somehow she generated quickly in me that weird, not-quite-justified level of identification that turns a mild-mannered professor into an embarrassed but desperate poem-stalker. As a mother whose son has had a scary hospitalization or two, maybe I was especially primed for it, but I also think Hummel is just really good. (All the sons involved, by the way, seem to be okay, and mine is nearly ecstatic that it’s finally June.)

As I hoped, drafting this chapter helped me plan for this Saturday at the West Chester Poetry Conference. I’ll be speaking about genre, plot, and time and reading a little from “The Receptionist” in the panel “Narrative and Non-Narrative in the Book-Length Poem” (June 7th at 3:15). I’m looking forward to poetic conversation but I also feel a little strange about going. Last time I attended–in June 2012–my father had just died and I was in suspense about his military funeral, because his young widow, officially next of kin, wouldn’t tell us when and where it would be (shortly after the conference and nearby, as it turned out). I was also waiting on copies of The Receptionist and Other Tales: the long narrative poem at the heart of it was inspired in part by the bad behavior of certain administrators at my home institution, one of whom was still my dean, and while the book is truly fictional, I was quite worried about fallout. While at West Chester, I got the call that this toxic dean had been demoted–this is quite the punchline, so wait for it–TO MY DEPARTMENT. Where he still lingers. So even though the 2012 conference was full of wonderful events and meetings, including Natalie Gerber’s excellent seminar on free verse prosody, it still makes me sick to my stomach to remember it.

As for my opening tease about my current poetry ms, Radioland, this one largely about my father: don’t know yet. The publisher asked to see it exclusively in January and still has it, promising me a verdict by mid-June at the very latest. I felt relaxed about the process all spring. While I’d be honored to publish with this press, I feel strongly hopeful that someone will eventually want this book. It would just be nice to deliver it to the world sooner rather than later, I told myself. Now, though–probably because I finally have time to think–I’m getting seriously antsy. But, dear reader, both of us are just going to have to dangle a little longer.

 

In which I procrastinate with snacks, parties, and fake-writing

The peony heads slump over in their lushness. I can hear the baccalaureate speaker’s voice faintly behind the air conditioner’s hum, and I wonder again: in what sense does featuring another white Christian minister make this religious event “more inclusive”? Well, I’ll sit it out in my office but don my robes tomorrow for another long hot graduation ceremony on the lawn, then rush to the departmental luncheon to scarf down a little fruit and chicken salad before the students arrive with their dads sweating through cotton jackets and little old grandmas tottering around on the edge of heat exhaustion. I like the luncheon—praising students quite genuinely to their emotional parents, shaking damp hands, asking neutral questions that don’t imply a new BA should have firm post-grad plans yet, celebrating when they offer up good news about a job or grad school acceptance. It’s a happy kind of closure after a long hard year, especially since the mini-saunas of our dress clothes will have purged us of old grade disagreements.

I’m still in that delusional dilatory state in which I think I ought to clear the deck before I really write. This is delusional because there is ALWAYS another bit of paperwork to finish, emails to send, clean-up from the previous term or planning for the new one. Though some colleagues still linger over dwindling piles of student writing, I tend to get my grades in as fast as possible, read and summarize course evaluations, move books from the “on deck for class” spot to regular shelving, and proceed to other marginally OCD term-closure rituals. May always brings magazine rejections and acceptances, too, as faraway editors clear their own desks, and I get a little frisson of record-keeping joy as I document their decisions and list the lucky yeses on my curriculum vitae and Faculty Activities Report.

I do know this is a little crazy, even though as procrastination goes, clerical work is more productive than painting my toe nails a new color or watching funny cats on YouTube (not to cast aspersions on those venerable amusements, but I do feel pleasantly smug when that FAR comes due and I am ready to hit send). I do have to remind myself every year that it is procrastination, not some exercise of virtue. Writers write even when their desks are messy and that faculty development event they attended isn’t properly logged. My spouse is a good reminder of this. He writes even when he’s showering, running, folding laundry. This time of year—once heavy teaching work is on pause for three months—I need to seek a similarly single-minded focus instead of, say, mentally drafting memos or dreaming about my next snack.

I am showing early, hesitant signs of hunkering down. During April I drafted a crazy long poem in a section per day, using Vladimir Propp’s thirty-one functions of the folk tale as prompts; the quester is a middle-aged woman taking a three-hour walk in the April woods, pondering a career change and worrying about whether she may be pregnant. I reread it last weekend, shaped it up a bit, sought the aforementioned spouse’s feedback, revised it again, and gave it the provisional title “Propagation.” It was really fun to draft, requiring lots of, you guessed it, long walks in April woods, and at least for now, I like the results. I just shipped it off to a friend who wants to trade critiques this summer. That’s work, right?—although I always start summer’s meal with dessert.

This project has been good preparation for a presentation I’m giving on “The Receptionist,” a very different long poem, two weeks from now at the West Chester Poetry Conference. The panel is “Narrative and Non-Narrative in the Book-Length Poem” with the very accomplished and hip poets Dolores Hayden and Jehanne Dubrow (Saturday June 7th at 3:15, in case you’re around). We’re going to discuss problems of genre and composition then read from our various works. I find myself thinking particularly about how all narrative is time-management—deciding when to work through a scene in slow detail, and how to handle those sudden, disparate jumps of an hour, a day, a month of story-time. The form I chose for “The Receptionist” was highly symmetrical, involving thirty-three terza rima cantos of thirty lines each, and that made time-jumps harder to regulate and clarify. Grounding the story in an academic year, September to June, helped, as did liberal seasonal and holiday references.

I wouldn’t say I’m ready to give that presentation yet, but at least I’m finally turning my mind into the right groove. I’m hoping to segue right from working up my talk into writing a narrative-themed chapter for my prose-book-in-progress, Taking Poetry Personally. I’ll lay some groundwork, at least, and do a little more research during a work-and-pleasure trip to France in the second half of June. More on that here before takeoff, I hope.

In the meantime, back to “work” on the conference by arranging meals with friends, including poet Rafael Campo, who is sage and inspiring in this recently published interview for Shenandoah. Oh, and there’s a reference letter I have to write, and this really fun collaboration with artist Carolyn Capps that’s been languishing (see a bit of it at the new issue of Levure littéraire), and I’m really behind on my literary-magazine reading after which, whoops, it will be time to race home and get dinner on before my son’s band concert, and of course tomorrow will be all ceremonies and parties, and who could squeeze in writing time then? And maybe Friday I should begin to update my poetry submissions—I haven’t sent work out for ages, and while submission has its own agonies, it’s not as hard as actually writing. But soon, very soon, I’ll definitely, seriously get cracking.