Rereading Sedgwick, or, Oh Yeah, I Like Teaching

The first paragraph from this famous essay by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick just stopped me cold:

“Sometime back in the middle of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, I was picking the brains of a friend of mine, the activist scholar Cindy Patton, about the probable natural history of HIV. This was at a time when speculation was ubiquitous about whether the virus had been deliberately engineered or spread, whether HIV represented a plot or experiment by the U.S. military that had gotten out of control, or perhaps that was behaving exactly as it was meant to. After hearing a lot from her about the geography and economics of the global traffic in blood products, I finally, with some eagerness, asked Patton what she thought of these sinister rumors about the virus’s origin. ‘‘Any of the early steps in its spread could have been either accidental or deliberate,’’ she said. ‘‘But I just have trouble getting interested in that. I mean, even suppose we were sure of every element of a conspiracy: that the lives of Africans and African Americans are worthless in the eyes of the United States; that gay men and drug users are held cheap where they aren’t actively hated; that the military deliberately researches ways to kill noncombatants whom it sees as enemies; that people in power look calmly on the likelihood of catastrophic environmental and population changes. Supposing we were ever so sure of all those things—what would we know then that we don’t already know?’’ -from “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You”

Very different epidemic–AND a remarkably speedier development of treatments and vaccines (an observation I don’t think is paranoid)–but still, what foreshadowing in a piece originally published nearly 20 years ago! The essay goes on to analyze the contagiousness of suspicion as an approach to texts taken by literary critics and theorists, as in, “Let me expose the prejudices lurking behind this poem.” Rather than strive to forestall humiliation by the author-poet who wants to put one over on you, a reader could, she suggests, seek pleasure from a piece of literature, because life is pretty hard and art can make us feel better. That’s a gross oversimplication, and I’m not even touching on some really important aspects of the essay: how she describes each method working in queer theory plus the Freudian stuff (so much Freud…). Yet this essay grants a professor permission to be a fan as well as an analyst of poetry, and many others have taken it that way, too. What a pleasure to revisit it.

My first full week of teaching was exhausting, full of positive feelings about my students but inflected by pandemic fears, too. Cases are rising fast here. We’re in person, masked, but students are having tons of unmasked encounters–let’s call them encounters–in residence and dining halls and, I presume, at parties. Prepping for and teaching 6 90-minute classes is as hard as I remembered, even before the grading starts; things are high-powered here, with smart students chewing through material fast, something that’s both lucky and sometimes a major challenge to keep up with. And there are all the extras like advising, reference letters, department meetings and consultations, university-wide meetings and events, etc etc. I’m beat.

Yet I’m having fun, too. I’m prepping Sedgwick’s essay for a senior seminar called “Taking Literature Personally”; during that session we’ll try some paranoid and reparative reading of Frank O’Hara’s poetry (no spoilers, but my lesson plan involves crayons). For yesterday’s class, we read the poem “Philomela” and the essay “Nightingale” by Paisley Rekdal as well as the Ovid tale for background, which is infinitely darker material though just as powerful. Whatever the literature at hand, the flow experiences of rereading then planning discussions feels really good. I wish I had more time to linger in it, but I’m being strict with myself about stopping work when I’m tired. I’m an introvert who HAS to recharge and a grown-up person who HAS to rest and sleep. I’m doing okay at it for now.

The picture below is from my book signing here in Lexington this week. Office hours, teach two classes, assemble cheese plate, then hold court at an author event for 2 hours–it was ambitious for a Tuesday. Yet pleasurable, too. I’m sure I’ll feel the same about my Randolph College reading next week, where at least I don’t have to cater the refreshments. Meanwhile, here comes Friday night, a drink with a friend, a gentle hike tomorrow morning. As I used to tell myself during college hangovers: pacing, Lesley. Everything’s more fun when you get the pacing right.

Pandemic books, like pandemics, keep coming

September 2021 in the U.S.: vaccines are widely available for those over 12, yet people are still suffering and dying from Covid-19 at a higher rate than last September, newspaper articles keep telling me. This is a comparatively trivial point, but for related reasons, it continues to be a tough time to launch a book. I feel for those authors who postponed and postponed, thinking this fall would be the moment.

Things are better for authors now than when I launched The State She’s In in March 2020 and Unbecoming in May 2020. Businesses have found workarounds and vaccinated people are rightly less afraid to enter them; an occasional literary event is in person, with caveats; organizers are more skilled at running virtual events and authors are better at presenting from a distance. Zoom presentations tend to be less engaging, but it’s no secret that live ones are a pretty mixed bag, too, as when a tweedy writer is staged at a podium, symbolically elevated above the audience and enforcing the sacred Literary Appreciation Hush. Yet even when in-person events are stuffy and formal, there’s a surprising amount of multisensory mutual feedback happening. That dynamism has been widely observed to result in better book sales. I think one lesson of the last year and a half is that authors and audiences benefit from virtual events–I’m now a firm believer that they should be in the mix–but that virtual promotion works best when it supplements rather than replacing presence.

I’m be swamped with teaching work soon, but with all this in mind, I just spent some time on Goodreads, giving stars and occasionally brief reviews to books I read this summer. This is an especial kindness to small press authors. None of us can afford to buy every book we might like by every author deserving more attention, but here’s a reminder to do what you can–Goodreads and Amazon reviews, social media praise, library requests, putting new books on your syllabi, whatever sounds doable for you. That circulation of dollars and attention rarely puts much money in a small-press author’s pocket, but it does enable indies to stay afloat, therefore publishing good writers who haven’t hit it big (yet) and keeping the literary world more lively, quirky, and full of risk. It’s much easier for a writer to place the next book when the previous one has done decently. And, of course, love gives a writer heart. This pandemic would have hurt worse without the company of books.

I’m also pondering what I can still do for my 2020 publications, knowing that plenty of people who might like them haven’t got around to checking them out yet. The plan:

  • I arranged a local signing of Unbecoming at a new Lexington, Virginia bookstore, Downtown Books, on Tuesday September 14th from 5:30-7:30. There will be wine, snacks, and goody bags stuffed with little doodads I began gathering pre-pandemic. The goody bag candy, however, will be newly purchased, because the chocolate eggs I bought to match the cover of The State She’s In, and which I had planned to scatter on the Tinderbox table at my AWP signing, are REALLY OLD.
  • I’m reading poetry at Randolph College at 8 pm on September 22, with Fran Wilde. We were the fall and winter Pearl S. Buck Writers in Residence but our readings were postponed to this academic year, with the aforementioned optimism. Despite masks and distancing and that frisson of risk, I’m really looking forward to it.
  • I’ll be presenting in person at some winter gatherings: DisCon III, an SF convention in DC in December; a NEMLA panel on hybrid writing in Baltimore in March; the Virginia Festival of the Book in March; and maybe, verdict out so far, at AWP in Philadelphia (also March, so that month is starting to look pretty nuts). Late fall booster shot, anyone?

I’m thinking I should try to arrange more events like readings or workshops at regional bookstores, places I can drive to. I’m also wondering if, instead, I should cool it, go gentler on myself. Applying for literary opportunities is a ton of work, and then doing events is a ton of work, but we all have to take care of our damn selves. People keep telling me that teaching stressed-out students while you yourself are masked and nervous is even more tiring than teaching was formerly. I guess I’m about to find out how much will be left of me at the end of each workday. My Tarot cards say that my life is in balance now but I’m about to totally lose control. Yee-hah.

Learning, unlearning, and #AWP21

You know the way somebody makes a remark and it clangs in you, your body vibrating with recognition? A friend recently told me that she’s learned a lot over the past year about what she needs to be happy. Yes. I’ve had other lesson years: for instance, I learned during my long-ago stint as department head is that I start falling apart if I don’t have an hour or so of flow experience each day, usually through reading or writing. Even class prep–rereading books, thinking about how to inspire engagement–can satisfy that hunger. Answering emails from the Business Office cannot.

The pandemic has been a tough teacher. I’ve had to be more deliberate this year about pairing periods of work-output with periods of restorative activities, and the range of possible restorative activities is necessarily smaller. I discovered how much travel had scaffolded my emotional life–choosing destinations and planning trips as well as the sheer relief of escaping my small town–and how sad the days felt without even small adventures to anticipate. I dealt with the restlessness through spring, summer, and fall by planning a new hike every Saturday, but tendonitis hobbled me in January, and February was just too icy as well as being crammed with deadlines, meetings, guest classes, and other tiring Zoomy things. I’m introverted enough not to mind some isolation, but projecting energy and enthusiasm via screens really takes it out of me. I entered March both revved up and melting down.

At my worried spouse’s suggestion, we spent 3 nights at a rented house by a deserted lake, which helped me reset. One reason I travel is because it puts distance between me and laptop-oriented work vigilance; I can’t seem to assert that boundary in my own house. I wasn’t looking forward to coming home and retethering myself to professional effort by “attending” this AWP, for which I had registered in a long-ago fit of optimism. Plus I’d learned that most of the sessions were pre-recorded, which I thought would remove that last frail shred of human interactivity. Virtual conferencing at its worst, I thought.

Somehow, though, I’ve done okay. I tried to watch multiple sessions on the first day then managed to listen to myself: I have it in me to pay high-quality attention to one session per day and reduced attention to a second, but that’s it. Why beat myself up about an incapacity to do more? The live chats enabled by the platform are more interactive and interesting than I expected, but I’m still not fulfilling that old, anxious “see and be seen” AWP imperative anyway, so, I told myself, just chill.

Oddly, I find myself choosing and enjoying the sessions on essays and fiction-writing more than the poetry events (although I particularly enjoyed a few generous-spirited poets talking about small press publicity last night). I wonder if that’s chance, or whether it’s about the pleasure of brain-expansion. I know a lot about poetry. I know something about writing creative nonfiction and novels, but I’m way lower on those learning curves, and I’m deeply interested in getting the lay of the land. In all the panels, I’m appreciating using camera-off listening time to stretch, when I’m not taking notes. And I finally did one of those AWP morning yoga sessions, and it was amazing!–not led by a super-fit woman approaching the practice athletically, but by a calm person emphasizing breathing and loosening joints, who kept reminding her invisible audience that yoga is all about feeling good and increasing happiness. Back to happiness, as if that might be an important subject.

Is that a lesson I can take to the next AWP–do less, concentrate on what’s pleasurable about the conference, what I can learn? Or should I skip the next AWP, even though it will be in Philadelphia where my kids are, and concentrate on smaller events where there’s a greater chance of really talking to people? No decision yet, especially given how unknowable the future is now, but I’m pondering.

In the meantime, a reminder that I’m participating in what I hope will be an inspiriting event this Monday 3/8 at 7pm ET (by Zoom, sorry), with poet-editors Celia Lisset Alvarez and Jen Karetnick, about rebounding from rejection. I plan to talk a little about what I’ve learned about it from both sides of Submittable, and why I persist. Sign up here (FB) or here (Eventbrite–but free tickets close a half hour before the event). Plus, I have to tell you, at the lake, there was an outdoor hot tub, and I saw a shooting star when I was lounging in the water (overchlorinated, but never mind). More happy astronomical phenomena, please, and may they be omens of good journeys ahead!

Hope, in spite of and because of

I felt really blue about dropping my youngest off for his second year of college, so I self-medicated by putting my head down and writing for long hours each day. The west coast on fire, more anti-Black violence, high infection rates–it’s not easy to pay attention and help in little ways without becoming self-destructively obsessed. Receiving the new issue of Kestrel, though–which contains an unexpected review of The State She’s In–is a big boost today. The review is a three-pager in a print journal so I can’t give you the whole thing, but Brittany Winland writes: “There is a particular resonance reading Wheeler’s collection in our present moment–with Confederate statues being toppled and Black Lives Matter protests energizing the country…The State She’s In throbs with danger: in everyday encounters like the Kroger check-out line, a racist ad in the newspaper, even deep inside the body susceptible to illness and pain…Wheeler’s willingness to examine and question herself with the same searing vision she aims at her uneasily-adopted state infuses the collection with an integrity that makes every damning observation that much more potent.” I especially loved that Winland heard my struggle to keep an eye on a better future: “Wheeler’s wonderfully prickly, unfailingly honest collection [is] also, ultimately, a hopeful one…These poems suggest that a state of hope–in spite of and because of all our grief, anger, and shame–is a deliberate and necessary place to live.” (Winland writes graceful, punchy sentences herself, doesn’t she?) I feel really lucky to have received such a generous reading.

In other good news, I’m getting ready for a virtual bookstore reading from my novel Unbecoming “at” A Novel Idea in Philadelphia this Weds, September 16th, at 6:30 pm. You can register for free here. I’ll read for no more than 15 minutes, answer questions, and of course you can order the book from this great indie bookstore to be mailed, or, if you’re local, picked up. (There’s a totally optional button for small donations, too, if you have the mood and the means–it’s not easy to be running a small business right now and word is that the sales bookstores enjoy from these events are much lower than from the live versions.) I’d love to have a few friends in virtual attendance. I had timed it so I could give my kids a visit around Cameron’s birthday, but I’m glad it can still happen in a different way.

Thanks as well to Thrush for including a poem of mine in their September issue: “Tone Problem.” I wrote it in April and submitted it in June, which is faster than I usually work, but it’s small and charm-like, with references to spring moons that I suspect were triggered by a post from Jeannine Hall Gailey, who is always attentive to those cycles. It felt especially hard then NOT to write about this world-changing pandemic, but I didn’t feel sure that my own experiences would be all that interesting to anybody, especially a couple of years from now, so I kept trying to approach it from an angle. In this case, I focused on how deeply surreal it felt to watch the natural world coming to life, gorgeously indifferent to human crisis.

Finally, that panel I moderated for the Outer Dark Symposium last month has just been released as a podcast. Called “Weird Metamorphosis or Life Change: Where the Body Becomes the Setting,” it ranged over genres–Weird, sf, body horror–and how gender, sexuality, disability, race, and many other factors affect what transformation means. Change isn’t all tentacles and violation. Sometimes it’s what we need.

The Yellow Wall-paper by Charlotte Lesley Perkins Wheeler Gilman

It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer. I would say a haunted house–there is something infected about it. Else, why should it be let so cheaply, and why have stood so long untenanted, during a global pandemic? John laughs at me, but one expects that in marriage.

You see he does not believe anyone is sick! If a Republican of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression–a slight hysterical tendency–what is one to do? So I take hydroxychloroqine and Airborne, vodka tonics and exercise, until I am required to work again in the hospitality industry. My brother is also a Republican, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.

Personally, I disagree with their ideas. But John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about Covid-19, and I confess it always makes me feel bad.

So I will let it alone and talk about the house. It is the most beautiful place with a delicious garden! But I don’t like my room a bit, where I use my laptop to design reopening plans to submit to the governor. It is big and airy, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways. It was an insane asylum first and then a gymnasium, I should judge, for the windows are barred and there are rings and things in the walls. The paper is stripped off in great patches all around my desk, as if a person wanted to refresh the decor then fell into melancholy because there is no future and no one will ever again have houseguests anyway.

I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those untraceable patterns committing every statistic sin. It is devious enough to confuse any epidemiologist, pronounced enough to terrify and demand study, and when you follow the uncertain rising curves for long enough they suddenly leap out of sight–plunge up at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in contradictions. It is a lurid sunset orange in some places, an unclean sulfur in others.

There comes John and I must put this away–he hates to have me blog.

*****

We have been here two weeks. John is away all day giving dishonest testimony to Congress. I am glad my paranoia is not justified!

John calls me a blessed little snowflake and teases me as if I have a crush on Dr. Fauci. John knows there is no reason to worry, and that satisfies him. He even scoffs at me about this wall-paper! There is a recurrent spot where microbes rise in plumes. I fancy I can detect a sub-pattern in certain lights, and behind it a strange, provoking, faceless sort of figure that seems to keep washing its hands.

But otherwise really I’m getting fond of the room. It is so remote from bad air and fundraising dinners! I can doomscroll for long hours without being perceived.

There’s a member of the extensive and unquarantined house staff on the stairs.

*****

It dwells in my mind so! The pattern starts at the bottom, rises acutely, dips in some places and plateaus in others. Then it climbs again, over and over. It is a constant irritant to the normal mind and I exhaust myself attempting to make sense of it. I will take a nap I guess.

*****

I don’t know why I should blog this. I don’t feel able. John would think it absurd. He says I mustn’t lose my faith in the president, and has me take Breitbart, to say nothing of vitamin C and rare meat.

I lie in bed and look at the paper. Behind the outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day. It is always the same shape, only very numerous. And it is like people posting and tweeting alarming news at a social distance. I don’t like it a bit. I wonder–I begin to think–I wish the pharmaceutical industry would hurry up and release a vaccine!

*****

There are always new infection vectors in the wall-paper and the virus gets into my hair. In this hot weather it is awful, I cannot even walk in the garden. The CDC recommendations go round and round and round and round–they make me dizzy!

But I really have discovered something. The front pattern does move–and no wonder! The people behind the bars shake them! Nobody could climb through the pattern–it strangles so; but I see a woman wearing a mask and brandishing an absentee ballot.

*****

John has contracted the novel coronavirus and is complaining downstairs. He says the Democrats gave it to him and also that it was engineered by Chinese scientists. How he betrays himself!

I don’t want to go outside. I won’t, even if my employer asks me to. It is so pleasant to be in this great room with the masked social media people and read angry opinion pieces as I please. I have locked the door and secreted the key in the hydroxychloroqine bottle. How John does call and pound! It is no use, Republican, you can’t open it!

“For God’s sake,” he cries between coughing fits, “why won’t you let me in? It is only the common cold.”

“I have got scientific rationality at last,” say I, “in spite of the government’s denials! And I’ve made a mask of the wall-paper and you can’t take it off!”

Now I see John in the garden, opening the hatch to the survivalist bunker stocked with guns and canned goods. But I can outlast him because there is sourdough starter under my bed, and toilet paper, and dark chocolate, and useless calendars with all my appointments crossed out. I can creep the internet, cackling and screaming, until the spring thaw, now that I am perfectly sane.