Errant in the Bewilderness

If I told you I’m just screwing around this week, I’d be exaggerating. This is exam week after our twelve-week winter term, so there’s lots of grading, as well as chores involving grants, event programming, etc. Liberation from the rigors of my former schedule, though–during which I was trying to do much of the same work while also prepping and teaching–is making me feel giddy. It helps that my antibiotics have kicked in, because I came home from a tiring AWP with strep throat. Bonus: it’s really spring!

Each day I’m carving out a little time–maybe just fifteen minutes–to draft something, a poem or the seed of one. This morning I responded to a request from someone who wants poems about Mina Loy. I ended up rereading most of The Lost Lunar Baedeker, which is really teaching-prep, too, because I’ll teach Modern U.S. Poetry in the fall and book orders are just around the corner. I hadn’t spent serious hours with this collection in years and was newly struck by all the beautiful poems about aging. When I was 49, I thought I’d write a suite of poems about my poetic idols when THEY were 49. I ended up writing one sonnet about Edna St. Vincent Millay then quit, because it was so damn depressing. 49 is apparently not the happiest age for women poets. Now, past the hinge of 50, finding Loy’s intelligent take on what she calls the “excessive incognito” of “An Aged Woman” is such a gift. Plus Loy’s coinage “Bewilderness,” which appears in a poem about widowhood called “Letters of the Unliving,” is my new favorite word. I have the most fun when wandering a vague landscape you could call by that name–sort of working, sort of playing around.

One side effect of this work-play is reflection on how I’m spending time. I was just catching up with Dave Bonta’s Poetry Blog Digest and found this great post by Erica Goss about just that–a procedure for carrying the intensities of a major literary conference into a quieter, post-conference writing zone. I think it would mitigate the post-AWP blues I always feel, whether or not I get sick.

Of course, one of the things I’m reflecting about is the very teaching year I’m finishing up (I teach our four-week May term every other year–but not this one!). I honestly don’t know what my creative writing students thought of the first blended-genre workshop I’d taught in years. Many of them did outstanding work, but the vibe in the room was hard to read. My general education course in Protest Poetry, however, was warmly enthusiastic, although plenty of the conversations we had along the way about politics, privilege, and anger itself were very tricky. I posted earlier this term about a benefit reading we organized together. Their final project was to choose their own causes and find a way to advance them through poetry, then write reflective essays about the results. I was so proud and delighted by the variety and quality of their efforts! One student took poetry commissions to benefit Project VOICE; another broadcast a feminist radio show of songs and readings; others waged broadside campaigns about body positivity and the collapse of bee populations. Final products included found poems drawn from community participation; a poetry-infused brochure on the indigenous history of this area; and beautiful little chapbooks on climate change; water crisis; the experiences of queer students at W&L; and addiction and recovery, all distributed to the people who would most appreciate them.

I was so glad I experimented with this assignment, even though, at moments, I was alarmed by my own ambitions. It’s easier for me to play around in my teaching than it is for many others: I’m tenured, my college has great resources, and I teach small classes full of talent. But the Bewilderness, that zone of not knowing what you’re doing and being willing to risk mistakes–it’s where the good stuff happens. I need this breather from the classroom for a while and will make earnest use of it. One of the ways I’ll do so will be dreaming about fall’s wild experiments.

That’s why they call it a practice (NaPoWriMo Day 29)

malaThreads

Meditation pisses me off. All that non-striving
time on the floor, therapist-prescribed, noticing
the rope of my breath swinging up and down,
ringing me like a shivered bell, adds up to another
chore I must perform and I have a lot of them—
twisted muscles to lengthen, children who need
the brushed-hand of a long-distance text or a note
for school, packed with the peanut-butter sandwich.
And after I unwind the trail with my spouse and find
clean trousers and deliver the visiting poet to campus—
why is every poem I write a list?—my students face me
with skeptical looks and I know I must hand over every
spool in my basket, every kindness and needle and tangle
of literary lore. I unwind sentences with them
and we watch them catch light, catch shadow, too.
Later, caught in the net of a computer screen, an email
reminds me to be mindful, to mind the mindfulness
competition beginning now: log-in to record for my employer
the minutes I turned off the phone to follow my breath.
Complete two weeks and earn an emotional wellness token.
Turns out meditation capitalized also pisses me off.
Instead I resolve to scatter any mystical currency my clean
trousers pick up accidentally. Spirit-lint. This is my log-in.
Breathe. What is the thread-count of anger? How soft,
how durable? Can I knot rages into a ladder and escape
myself? A chime sounds. List and day unravel but the bright
skein of breathing keeps slipping along, connecting me
to feeling, to tomorrow, to you, whether or not I mind it.

That was Day 24 of National Poetry Writing Month. I haven’t drafted a poem every single day, but I’ve still done a fair amount of work, some of which might last, all of which did me good anyway. Meditation isn’t going as well–a kind friend sent me the mala pictured above, but I tried so hard to race through the beads and get on with my day that I kept hyperventilating. I notice I like writing poems about failed meditation better than I like meditating about failed poems…

Poetry and presence

brushy4

Tess Taylor just gave a great reading here, and either there or during my class afterwards, she described poetry as “a dance with absence.” I know what she means–all that white space, evocation, closing in on loss and other big subjects through image and fragment–but when I’m finding my way towards a poem I tend to feel, instead, like I’m dancing with presence. There are stories written everywhere. I’m just not very skilled at reading them.

So I ended March, the cruelest month no matter what Tom Eliot claimed, with a walk through nearby woods–Brushy Hills–guided by geologist Chris Connors and archaeologist Don Gaylord. These hillsides, I learned, were likely sites of Monocan winter camps, then, during the colonial era, woodlots for settlers, before Lexington bought them to protect its watershed and preservationists prevented them from being sold for development. Don told us the trail may have once been a native road and then become a way for Scots-Irish settlers to drive hogs upslope for early spring grazing; later, enslaved people were hired out each year to expand paths for logging, before spring made their labor more valuable agriculturally. Chris told us Rockbridge County had once been a shallow, salty sea, then showed us examples of outcropping and floaters from various formations: Conococheague dolostone fluted and scored by the soil’s acids, hunks of more resistant chert. Someone from the Friends of Brushy Hills, meanwhile, identified a weird cry bouncing around the ridges as a raven’s. I recognized a retired biology professor among the group, so I peppered him with questions and he identified trees not yet in leaf: hornbeam, cedar, tulip poplar, ash, plus all of those American beeches shaking parchment-colored leaves still hanging around from fall. The sun shining through them was way lovelier than a cathedral’s stained glass. Presence.

So I begin another National Poetry Month with my head full of names and histories, partial as they are. I wish life were all walks in the woods then, afterwards, shaping fragments into poems. It won’t be! But I will be spending some time on poetry each day: writing new work, revising poems or expanding notes jotted this winter, working on submissions. Early spring, for me, is poetry season.

 

The thing about April

My writing ambitions for National Poetry Month were NOT going well. The end of Winter Term–final classes, visiting writers, grading–doesn’t sound like a good time to reestablish a daily practice, but it has worked for me before. I love spring, when the natural world changes so rapidly from week to week, so when, like this year, I’m not booked to teach our short May term, I tend to feel invigorated and optimistic. Plus, I’d written much less than usual this winter because work was particularly stressful. Partly good stuff, like running a successful search, and partly bad stuff, like being on the receiving end of my university’s familiar old blaming-the-victim culture. But a break is in sight. I thought my chances of making poems happen were decent.

Not so much! Energetically avoiding writing, and especially submissions, for the first half of April did turn me into a dynamo of productive procrastination. I graded with admirable efficiency, got a checkup and a haircut, etc etc. But I avoided the blank page entirely or extruded unsuccessful poems painfully. (That nasty verb “extruded”–I know you don’t like it, but it fits.)

The work is starting to come, finally, and it wasn’t what I thought it would be (meaning, overtly political). Older and more personal material is coming to light. Well, okay.

A frank conversation over lunch with a good friend helped. So did an overnight escape to the Peaks of Otter lodge in the Blue Ridge, where somehow we had never been. The weather’s been gorgeous, sunny days with just an edge left of winter’s coolness, flowers everywhere. We hiked up Harkening Hill, sat on the balcony overlooking Abbott Lake, ate plenty, slept hard. The next morning Chris and Cam climbed the still more strenuous Sharp Top trail while I walked the lake path, a poem coming together in my head. Since then, ideas are popping: oh, I’ve never written about that, or that, or that.

The submissions work is still languishing but there’s hope…and I have some readings coming up, all of which involve new and old friends. All are free and open to the public.

Tues April 18: 7:30 pm, The Colonnades in Charlottesville, VA with Sara Robinson and Seth Michelson

Sun April 23: 5-7 pm, Pale Fire Brewery in Harrisonburg, VA–just one poem here in honor of Leona Sevick‘s book launch for Lion Brothers

Sat April 29th: 3 pm, CityLit Festival in Baltimore, MD (11 West Mt. Royal Ave) with Jane Satterfield, Betsy Boyd, Marilyn Moriarty and Laurie Kruk, in celebration of the anthology Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland

I’ll leave you with just a stanza from a powerful debut collection I read on the balcony overlooking Abbott Lake: The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded by Molly McCully Brown. It begins a poem called “Where You Are (III),” and it sounds pretty much like the painful, hopeful spring I’ve been having.

The thing about the Shenandoah
is everything is always bending
its knees toward ruin or preparing
to rise from the ash.

Lilacs, long poems, life transformations

april dutchman's breechesI’m at one of my academic year’s four hinges, less evenly-spaced than the solstices and equinoxes: the long winter term has ended, grades are in, and I’m gearing up for our May term, four intense weeks that conclude with graduation ceremonies. It’s a crazy time of year to attempt a poetry experiment: writing every day for a month through winter term’s crescendo, exams, spring break, and the beginning of a new workshop. Somehow, though, two weeks in, I am still keeping the faith. Perhaps the longer hours of daylight help make time. I know I’m inspired by the zombie season, everything dead struggling and wheezing back to life. From my home office window, I watch the mountain change colors, lawns green up, and flowers bloom in preordained succession. Today a pair of cardinals is dancing around the branches of our broken maple, still bare but tipped with pale small leaves like folded umbrellas. There’s a magnolia across the street whose white blossoms always remind me of crumpled paper; scraps are falling already, so the yard resembles an old-time writer’s den with sheets ripped from the typewriter, balled up, and discarded all over the floor. Some tulips are up, and dark clenched knobs suggest the lilac is fit to burst.

The long poem I’m working on in half-hour stints doesn’t have a name yet, but it began with a middleaged woman standing at the edge of the woods in early April and she’s now nearly halfway through her walk. For inspiration, an orange-bound copy of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale sits beside my laptop. He breaks such tales into thirty-one stages such as “MISFORTUNE OR LACK IS MADE KNOWN” and “THE HERO ACQUIRES THE USE OF A MAGICAL OBJECT.” Since one of the stages, “THE SEEKER AGREES TO OR DECIDES UPON COUNTERACTION,” is something Propp himself suggests is typically skipped, the whole thing makes an interesting set of prompts for a month with thirty days. The project requires me to take frequent walks in the woods, particularly on the back campus where wildflowers are in bloom (I believe that’s Dutchman’s Breeches in the picture). I’m trying to learn their names. “I think that one’s spring beauty, a.k.a. miner’s lettuce,” I told Chris this week. He dared me to taste it and I did nibble a leaf; he then refused to try it himself, pointing out, “Someone’s got to carry you home.” It didn’t come to that, but I did discover later that I had in fact eaten a bit of Virginia bluebell. It didn’t kill me, but none of my sources describe it as edible.

On the whole, though the past seven days were exceptionally busy and tiring, last week was the best I’ve had in a while. A reading at a high school reminded me that poetry does matter. Many people have written to me—thank you!—about the videopoem of “My Dead Father Remembers My Birthday,” a piece that appeared recently in the New Ohio Review and which has just been reprinted as Shenandoah’s poem of the week. I’m writing. And I’m basking like those young garter snakes I saw by the river in our change of fate: Chris was recently hired tenure-track as W&L’s fiction professor (he’s been adjuncting here for ages), so now I can stop feeling guilty about transplanting him to Virginia twenty years ago, and our department can enjoy full-time, committed talent in a direly important field (our major is thriving generally, but fiction workshops are more in demand than any other course). I still haven’t processed this news deeply. Maybe I’ll fully relax when the cones of lilac blossoms do.

On my to-do list for “break,” in addition to writing, course prep, administrative catch-up, poetry submissions, summer travel planning, and taking my daughter down to Davidson for a college tour: sign up for various book lotteries from Kellie Russell Agodon’s Big Poetry Giveaway list. For a chance at my Heterotopia plus a signed copy of Lyrae Van Clief Stefanon’s ]Open Interval[, post a comment here.

Writing process blog tour plus AWP detox

Maybe, like me, you’re recovering from the AWP and thinking about focusing on writing again, rather than publishing, networking, and collecting bookfair swag. An annual post-AWP occasion for hard work is April, National Poetry Month in the U.S., when some disciplined souls adopt a poem-a-day regimen. I tried it first in 2012 and shocked myself by producing spring floods of poems, many of them keepers; I tried it again in 2013 and found my brain much more resistant, even though I spent part of the time at an artist’s colony—I was just in a headspace for revision, I think, not generation. This time I may use April to work on a long poem, one segment per day. If a big project is on your mind, you might like to follow some of the links below and consider various writers’ perspectives on process.

Thanks to Jeannine Hall Gailey for tapping me for this blog tour. Jeannine, a superheroic poet if there ever was one, recently served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington and is the author of three books of poetry: Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, and Unexplained Fevers. She has been featured in The Year’s Best Horror and Verse Daily, and her work has appeared in journals like The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review and Prairie Schooner. I met her non-virtual self for the first time at the AWP and the evening was a delight—she’s as warm, funny, and open as her poems, and I would have loved to spend more time with her talking about the writing life. One day…

Here are her answers to the prescribed questions. Below are my own.

1)     What am I working on?

I have a new poetry ms, Radioland, under submission. Who knows if the title will survive the process, but like the one-word titles of my first two full-length collections, Heathen and Heterotopia, “radioland” gestures at an imaginary place. In this case it’s not the wild heath where the unchurched live, or the other-place of my mother’s childhood Liverpool, but the sustaining idea of a communal audience, their heads bent towards receivers in dimly lit rooms across a wide broadcast range. Some of the poems were written during a Fulbright in New Zealand, where I felt decidedly distanced from U.S. feedback circuits—and impressed with the reasonable size of the NZ poetry world, its possible comprehensibility. U.S. publishing feels so vast by comparison—so big that outside of little coteries, no one can possess a sense of common enterprise (the AWP convention certainly dramatizes this). Radioland connects to those preoccupations, but the word’s antiqueness also suggests my father’s life, a recurrent subject in the collection. He was born in Brooklyn in 1925 and died in Philadelphia in 2012, and communication channels were never clear between us. Radioland is where he lives now, in the afterlife of memory and uncanny dreams.

My prose project, one-third drafted, is Taking Poetry Personally, described here.

2)     How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Like many writers, I’m trying to produce the kind of stuff, in poetry and prose, that I’d like to read but can’t find enough of. In poetry, I crave transport to vivid alternate worlds—sometimes speculative, sometimes just faintly strange. I want the stakes to be high, each poem conveying the author’s urgency. I admire formal intelligence, whether that means deploying received forms or not, and a sense that deep reading is hovering unobtrusively behind the words. I also like kindness and humor in poems, as I do in people. Are my poems all that? I don’t know, honestly. I just know what I’m trying for and probably attaining only sometimes, in fragments.

Taking Poetry Personally is definitely a beast with an unusual number of heads: criticism, memoir, storytelling, theory, anthology. Here I’m trying to restore or reveal the stakes behind the strange behaviors of scholars: why is reading and teaching poetry so important to me?

3)     Why do I write what I do?

Poetry: can’t help it. Criticism: missionary zeal. All of it: to learn about poetry, other people, and myself by following wherever language leads.

4)     How does your writing process work?

When I’m writing critical prose I’m a prima donna: I carve out big blocks of time, write for hours a day, and guard my attention jealously. I find it difficult to carry all those threads around in my head. Putting together a poetry collection is like that, too: I need to think hard in a sustained way.

I write and revise shorter pieces—poems and blog posts—with desperation, whenever the impulse and a half-hour coincide. Any time of day is fine, but I’m generally not a coffee-shop writer; I prefer to close the door on any possibility of interaction. Sometimes, though, I’ll take what I can get. I’ve drafted a lot of lines during quiet patches in my office hours, some in cafes and on planes, and a few on scraps of paper while leaning on my son’s toybox. The associative thinking of poems and blogs, rather than the linear arguments of essays, is just more congenial, easier. I also need to write poems, which changes the game. If I needed to do scholarly writing, I suspect nothing would stop me squeezing time in at every opportunity.

Next week, look for further entries in the Writing Process Blog Tour by the two bloggers I’ve tagged. I don’t know either personally but I like the literary intelligence, a sort of questing quality, I see in their posts.

Ann E. Michael’s most recent collection, Water-Rites, was published by Brick Road Poetry Press in 2012. A poet, essayist, educator, librettist, and occasional radio commentator, she lives in eastern Pennsylvania where she is writing coordinator at DeSales University. Her blog at www.annemichael.wordpress.com  reflects her multidisciplinary approach to literature, art, science, and philosophy.

Joseph Harker is a twentysomething linguist-poet lately of New York City, where you can find him riding the subways to and fro devouring the works of Kay Ryan (this week). He is a textbook Libra in just about every way. His work has appeared in web/print journals such as Assaracus, Chantarelle’s Notebook, Hobble Creek Review, and qarrtsiluni, but are equally likely to find him at his blog, http://namingconstellations.wordpress.com. Please wipe your feet.