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

 

Mathy Radioland

I was tickled that JoAnne Growney wanted to put “Concentric Grooves” from Radioland on her blog “Intersections–Poetry with Mathematics,” but her request also jogged a memory of an unpublished poem from the same era that was even MORE mathy. I finally found “Disaster Math,” a poem I sent out a couple of times then gave up on, never entirely confident I had it right. After a several-year gap, however, I saw a few tweaks that might help, so I brushed it up and include it below–another Radioland outtake.

It probably overlaps too much with the sonnet crown “Damages” to have worked in the book. I do that a lot, writing numerous poems about a single crisis, trying to understand it, so some versions get factored out. Mathematical language features in a lot of writing from this part of my life because my father was a civil engineer–I remember his slide rule being replaced, in the 70s, by an obsession with programmable calculators. Oddly, while more mathematical than “Damages,” “Disaster Math” is also more focused on stories. What I often felt, trying to process my parents’ break-up from a great distance, was that I was a creature made of stories, and the universe had suddenly insisted on radical revisions, unbalancing an equilibrium I’d lived with for decades. Thanks so much to JoAnne for featuring one poem and reminding me of the others!

Disaster Math

Before instruments detected
his infidelity, one man began deleting
his wife, three children, bridge partners.
85 leaves 71 for 45.
Everyone a node of intersecting stories.

One snap among the snagged lines
reengineers a whole system:
20,000 on the withdrawal slip, therefore
a wife opens drawers and solves for x.
Reports it to their daughter, 43,

who lives on a strike-slip fault
9000 miles away, just north of a 6.3
shock as Australian and Pacific plates grate.
Death toll 159, but it rises in the falling action.
How can these outcomes coincide?

the daughter wonders, vibrating
alongside the numbers, waiting
for their force to dissipate. Propose
it never does. Propose broken columns,
integer debris. She studies the latest stats:

central business district closed till Christmas at least;
some bodies may never be identified; the cost
may never be tallied. Tangles wires and roads
and words and digits and code:
dividends of underground geometry.

She tells it over and over. Buildings collapsed and I
was too far away to feel it. I am safe. He
is a fissure emitting no signal but people build bridges
all the time, they cross as I am crossing, fibers
of plot chafing my palms. Listening ahead, calling behind.

triangles
Triangles–my father’s ruler and a Mobius strip he carved

Applying for a Fulbright: one reviewer’s POV

I definitely did not have time this September to read and evaluate sixty 25-40 page applications from mid-career and senior scholars and artists to the region of Australia/ New Zealand. I said yes anyway because I was grateful for my 2011 Fulbright to Wellington and felt obligated to pay that generosity forward. I also knew I’d gain insights that might be useful if I ever try for Round Two and certainly could help colleagues and friends trying for similar opportunities.

Insight #1: it’s a miracle I won one of these babies. Fulbright fellowships are amazing, transformative, and few and far between. The agency receives some half-baked applications, but it also sifts through piles of outstanding proposals for highly significant projects from unbelievably gifted and well-credentialed applicants in every field from film-making to chemical engineering, and there are only a few winners for each region. Clearly you have to write a great proposal, but you also have to be lucky, because there are more brilliant projects than can possibly be funded. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, although you should be philosophical about the odds and have a back-up plan.

The Basics on Applying for Grants—You Know This, Right?

You have already applied, successfully, to college and grad school, and probably with mixed success for scholarships and a million other opportunities. You know to seek the advice of acquaintances with related experience and start long before the deadline, because glitches happen (the referee falls ill, tech crashes). You should only apply for grants at the appropriate level (no, exceptions will not be made) and only if you genuinely want to attend that humanities seminar in Siberia—don’t waste time, effort, and referee goodwill if you’re not serious and don’t have an actual shot. Really read the instructions to make sure you know what the grantor is looking for and ask for help if you don’t. For individual fellowships to develop your research or your art, and possibly to fund a sabbatical if you’re an academic, you should also think hard about those referees. Ideally they know you well, admire your work, and hail from different institutions to show the breadth of your connections; they should also be able to testify to the skills you’ll exercise in this particular project (it’s alarming when all the referees for a teaching fellowship say “I’ve never seen her teach but she’s quite charming personally.”) It’s fine if they all know you from different contexts and can testify to different aspects of your career—just make sure the puzzle pieces will fit together into a meaningful whole.

Fulbright Specific Things.

In the region and at the levels I read for, you can apply for research or research/ teaching fellowships, but not just teaching. The deadline is August 1. Proposals are swiftly sent to disciplinary experts who write up short evaluations. If they’re good they help people in other disciplines sift through to the key elements: this journal is top-rate, the research is cutting-edge because x, the sample syllabi are outdated because y, referee no. 3 is a field leader. They’re mostly good. Occasionally, however, some mathematician will offer (probably feeling positively verbose because he’s using words instead of symbols): “A good proposal from a hard-working fellow with respectable qualifications. Should be funded.” Defend against such cryptic obliquity, if you can, by providing your own context for your accomplishments. Sometimes an essay prize or a citation index makes all clear, but remember you will have poet-readers who don’t know biopolymers from colloids, much less how prestigious that visiting lecture series is. Tell us clearly but non-arrogantly what it all means.

The next stage, by the way, involves 4 jurors from different fields who get the applications in mid-September and have to read and comment on them all before a meeting in D.C. in early October. We write up bullet-point comments in three areas: applicant credentials; the quality of the proposal; the significance/ likely outcomes of the proposal. Sixty long and diverse applications, three weeks, hellaciously busy point in the school year: absorb that math. We’re conscientious people, but skimmable applications that are unjargonishly clear about method, deliverables, and significance please us.

Your audience is professional.

Avoid overly general pitches beginning with platitudes such as “science is beautiful” that you might direct at sixth graders or politicians. We’re on board with the premise that research and artistic production are worthwhile for their own sake. Get right to the specifics.

Your audience, however, includes people from radically different disciplines.

What would you say if you were explaining this project to a smart acquaintance from an opposite field, who didn’t know thing one about standard ideas and practices in your subspecialty but who catches on to the basics pretty fast? Make sure that person, reading your proposal, knows why the research matters. The best proposals play out the work’s significance not only within a specialty but to other fields, and sometimes even to government policy, public health, cross-cultural understanding, and other aspects of, you know, life. In the world.

Sound like a Fulbrighter.

You should be eager to contribute generously to your host institution through advising students, giving workshops, and participating in seminar series, and perhaps to the larger community through general interest lectures. You have a lot to give. Know, however, that you will also be helped, possibly even radically changed, by this experience.

I don’t think it’s smart to wax lyrical in your application about the wonders of international immersion. If a past international experience has changed how you think, say so in a specific way that relates your research, and then get back to those project details. It’s worse, though, to sound like a jerk who knows that the poor folks in this remote backwater would be lucky to have you around for a few months.

Plan a project that really requires you to be on site for archival work, equipment use, collaboration, interviews, whatever. Conceive of it from the beginning as a two-way flow of open-minded goodwill and energetic mutual usefulness. Then, even though you’re talking about a hypothetical and faraway time and place, be as specific as you can about what you have to give and hope to learn.

And good luck. Winning altered the course of my professional life—my scholarship, poetry, reading, teaching, even my social connections are richer for the experience. My children now understand that they live not just in the US but in a huge, weird, fascinating world; they dwell in it with greater self-confidence. Trying for this long-shot lucky break was one of the most important and rewarding risks I’ve ever taken.

Zombie spring term

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Remembering, foreseeing, and missing the Pacific

Three years ago, the flurry of Christmas was eclipsed by a blizzard of planning for a Fulbright fellowship. In January 2011, Chris, Madeleine, Cameron, and I departed for Wellington, New Zealand for nearly six bracing, gusty, exhilarating months. We arrived at our Cuba Street hotel on an overcast summer day. My photo album also documents the rain that came sheeting down shortly after, and, when we relocated to Nelson for a few beach days, a rainbow manifesting over the sea (only one visible here, but there were two—that year we became almost blase about rainbows). Nelson rainbow

When I look at those images now, I can’t believe how young the kids seem: my son was only shoulder-height and now he’s nearly as tall as I am, big and noisy enough to play the tenor sax. In poetry-time, though, the seasons are longer. The poems I drafted in the southern hemisphere, revised in the months after my return, and started sending out late in 2011 are just beginning to see publication. The sonnet crown that recently appeared in Valparaiso Poetry Review, “Damages,” took ages to get right (and maybe still needs tweaks, time will tell). Although the basic shape of it crystallized quickly and I read a section on Radio New Zealand during my stay in Wellington, there were blurry patches for a long time I couldn’t quite bring into focus: a single vague or clunky phrase can scuttle an entire poetry sequence, especially if it occurs early on so the reader loses confidence in your control. “Damages” is also the sort of outcome you can’t predict when you’re writing a grant proposal: “While watching a major national crisis unfold in the background, I will obsessively ponder the sudden, painful dissolution of my parents’ 45-year marriage.” This crown is a slant-rhymed companion to the prose piece that appeared in The Gettysburg Review and Poetry Daily, “Coffee with Poets in New Zealand,” itself an alternate-universe answer to the research I was undertaking (and don’t even get me started on the incubation period for scholarly publication).

The pace isn’t always glacial. A couple of other poems inspired by that trip appeared more quickly in print magazines. “In Other News” was taken by Poet Lore. “Inside the Bright,” formally modeled on Marianne Moore’s “The Fish” and responding to a visit to Kauai on the way home, was published by Subtropics. These pieces may or may not hold their ground in a book-length poetry manuscript, Radioland, I’m beginning to shop around to presses—an alarming amount of what I write never makes the magazine cut, and a lot of my journal publications get shut out of my books. The latter have to be really lean and limber to survive the current market. At any rate, the current version of Radioland begins with the New Zealand material and ends with poems from winter 2012-3, a season of more travel and slowly processing my father’s death, even as we rebuilt a large part of our house after catastrophic flooding. Expect my output for the next few years to be extremely damp, metaphorically.

Meanwhile, here are a couple more Aotearoan poems in the new Unsplendid. “Things That Move Forward” is based on an incident on a walking trail near our Virginia home, but I first drafted it during a workshop I ran for the New Zealand Poetry Society that culminated in terza-rima-writing (the goodhumored participants promptly rechristened the form “torture rima,” which sounds funnier in a kiwi accent). “It Is Difficult to Get the News from Poems” quotes the extremely American William Carlos Williams in the title, but otherwise responds to a powerful event I attended right after the Christchurch quake (the next day, I think). The poet who counts tuatara at the beginning is Harry Ricketts, whose comments on local species of sonnet in 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry inspired my couplets. The poet whose understated reading moved me so much is Bill Manhire.

The other two selections in Unsplendid came later. “Past Meridian” was my first try at a fourteen-word sonnet in spring 2012—I remember because I drafted a poem a day that April and kept them together in a single folder. “Belief,” a random eruption from no occasion I can recall, is the poem Unsplendid’s editors have kindly nominated for a Pushcart. I’m so grateful to the editors of all these magazines for working so hard to bring poems to a world that doesn’t know it needs them. And grateful, too, to the Fulbright Foundation for granting me those wild, windy months. Everyone in my family was transformed by the undertaking.

Still, I hope the dramas of 2014 are more comic than the rather-too-epic adventures of the last few years. I can foresee some of them: we’re planning a couple of weeks in France in June, and touring universities in April and August. Madeleine will be a high school senior in September, biting her fingernails over SAT scores and applications. I’ve agreed to serve as interim department head in 2014-5 while the current chair takes a sabbatical, and I’ll be applying for a leave of my own in 2015-6 (here in Virginia, I think, given that I’ll likely be the cash-strapped parent of a first-year college student). While we all miss the climatically unpredictable Pacific, here’s to mild weather for all of us in the new year.

Professor Aragorn swears a vow

Manifestos are for angry young men, right? I’m more like “cranky” and “middle-aged,” and as far gender stereotyping goes, I actually had a student write on a course evaluation once, “Just as kind as you’d expect from a mother.” Whippersnapper, if you’re out there, be glad that was anonymous. I am weary of hearing that niceness is my salient attribute. Especially when I just spent three months expertly guiding your complaining tenderfoot fellowship through the Nazgul-haunted waste land of modernist poetry.

The title of my piece in the summer 2013 issue of The Gettysburg Review, “Coffee with Poets in New Zealand,” suggests not a fiery declaration of creed but a series of low-stakes, highly civilized quenchings. I lived in Wellington from late January 2011 to the beginning of July as a Fulbright senior scholar researching poetry networks, in particular the rhizome-fibers fanning out from the International Institute of  Modern Letters at Victoria University. I spent the first few months talking to people, going to readings, trying to see the lines of force. By late April I hunkered down to write an article that I thought would become a book chapter.  I aimed for an audience of academics who are thoughtful about creative writing as a discipline. Turns out that’s a mythical tribe. At least, there are very few venues for such work, and do they want to hear my skepticism about the idea of “community” in the MFA enterprise, balanced by a case study of an antipodean program that’s actually pretty successful, better in some ways than many of its US antecedents? No, Lesley, as perhaps you ought to have predicted, they do not.

By late May I had finished a draft of that scholarly article, which, sigh, is still wandering the wilderness. One cold rainy day I played hooky to visit Katherine Mansfield’s dismal childhood home. Afterwards, over lunch in a Thornfield café, my spouse and I talked about the weirdness of the trip so far. Setting up house in a foreign country, sending your small-town kids to school in an unfamiliar city, is bound to be difficult; you know your life is being reshaped and it’s hard to play scholar in the middle of it. Further, a few weeks after we’d arrived, a Christchurch earthquake had resulted in terrible destruction and loss of life. My husband’s beloved aunt Mary had suddenly died. And my parents, whose marriage, when I left, seemed solid as rock and just as affectionate, were divorcing. Radio silence from my eight-five year old father, now living with a forty-five year old woman.  When random Aotearoans asked me what I was up to, I would joke “having coffee with poets”: how else could I possibly sum it up?

“That’s what you should write,” my husband said, when I commented on how hard it was to assume an authoritative, scholarly voice as if none of this other material was boiling around me—how dissatisfied I felt by academic writing, under the circumstances. “An essay about having coffee with poets.” I took off Strider’s costume that afternoon and tried to assume my birthright, composing prose in which I was a whole person. I had lots of paring and reshaping to do later, but I put down the bones in a week or two. By the end of the finished essay, I declare my intention to transmit argument without filtering out all the personal noise that makes me want to make arguments. That is, to brew up criticism that also delivers the pleasures of story—more meaningful to write, possibly even of interest beyond academia.

Declaring that ambition feels arrogant to me, outrageous, not entirely nice. Further, the two years since have been crazy. The kids hit adolescence; our jobs changed in big ways; the house flooded; my father remarried, got sicker, and died. Basically I’ve been trying to survive my life and think about new goals while not laying down the old ones. I’ve written tons of poetry and prose and managed to get some of it revised and into the world but I’ve also been trying to do too much. My spouse’s latest pronouncement: I need to fire the tiny little booking agent who inhabits the cave of my head. She knows exactly how much I can do and she schedules me right up to the limits of my energy and sanity. “I hate her,” he said. Okay, I answered, overruling the homunculus. No modernism conference.

What I’m trying to do now, as the writing summer opens up, is prioritize. I’ve got a lot of projects steeping. The ones I’ve already committed heavily to: it’s time to dust them with cinnamon and serve them to some kind of public or just dump them if they’re too stale, but no more fooling around behind the espresso machine. And the new book, Poetry’s Possible Worlds will NOT be the straight-ahead scholarship I was trained in, but the mixed-up stuff I feel driven to write, the stuff that feels interesting to me and I hope will be interesting to others, too. Goals:

  1. Write what I want to write—poetry and prose that anyone who likes to read would enjoy—but commit to it. Stop trying to walk every path at once.
  2. Work long and hard. Get better.
  3. Unite the kingdom.