Revision, re-audition

With both a novel and a poetry collection due to editors this spring, this winter is all about revision. I’ve been combing through my poetry ms, trying to get the opening tracks right (I’ve tried five million variations) and forcing myself to fix or cut iffy but beloved poems. I’m also organizing a last round of submissions, alerting magazine editors to the publication date, and thinking hard about the title. Finalizing the title may entail yet more re-tuning, as well as research into cover images. Eventually I’ll hand it over to Molly Sutton Kiefer at Tinderbox, and I’m sure she’ll will find more for me to do!–but it’s exciting to be circling in.

Then I switched gears to my novel, Unbecoming. (This week is an academic break, which helps.) Timmi Duchamp at Aqueduct asked me to read it aloud before handing it over. I’m finding plenty of klutzy sentences to fix as well as an unbelievable number of adverbs, although I thought I’d weeded them out in the last round–they’re like bunnies or dandelions, proliferating in a fallow ms as soon as you turn your back. Like my poetry book, Unbecoming has survived more than a dozen major revisions, but the last ones focused on character, pacing, and a tendency to summary and over-explanation. I still have traces of the latter to expunge, but what I’m really striving for now is clean, direct sentences.

I like revision, even though it hijacks ALL my creative energies. (With these rewrites to tackle, plus Shenandoah poems to read and grant proposals to draft for my 2020-2021 sabbatical and this pesky full-time job as teacher-adviser-program coordinator, I feel like I’ll never write a new poem again.) It’s rewarding to hone old efforts and feel sentences click into their grooves. But I’ve been thinking about the word “revision.” Its emphasis on “looking anew” doesn’t entirely capture what I’m doing. In both genres, I’m re-sounding lines, trying to hear them freshly, managing echoes within mss. I’m also thinking hard, as I revise, in order to revise, about giving readings. What passages or poems would I choose to read aloud to audiences, and why? Do they sound right in my voice? If I would want to kick off a reading with this poem, or end it with that scene, do those preferences have implications for the arrangement of a printed book? Or do the mediums of print and live reading simply have different requirements?

Can you hear the anxiety? I’m really happy about these books but subject to fizzes of terror, too. I know the poetry book is my best ever and I have decent credentials to make that judgment; what puts me on alert is mainly my drive to do right by the work, shining it up and showing the widest possible audience that my poems are worth their time. I know that sounds arrogant, but I actually believe it. Fiction, though! Giving readings from a novel!! At least Ursula finds revision relaxing.

The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

plath2

How intense it was this week to be alternately following and averting my eyes from the Senate hearings as I taught Sylvia Plath to seventeen stingingly sharp students–trying to open up space to talk about anger, violence, gender, and race in powerful but often disturbing poems. Plath’s handling of metaphors related to the Holocaust, slavery, and Civil Rights always seemed problematic to me–it was a big topic in the early nineties, when I attended grad school–but I am now wondering how defensible it is even to keep the poem “Ariel” in particular on an undergraduate syllabus. While Plath’s use of terrible slurs wears worse and worse over the years, however, her bee poems–explorations of rage and other dark drives, sometimes encoded in racial metaphors–also feel more and more fundamental. Plus last year’s news about her abusive marriage , especially as captured in Emily Van Duyne’s “Why are we so unwilling to take Plath at her word?”, is crucial right now. We need to do a way better job at respecting survivors and understanding the costs they suffer.

I assign Plath in part to discuss the complex layering of selves even in apparently confessional work, and how she constructs identity as a performance. I believe Christine Blasey Ford utterly, but I also found myself thinking hard about what it meant for Dr. Ford to perform trauma, especially on a such a public stage. She was wise to play it so calmly, because many people, as she must well know, detest and fear angry women. In contrast, as others have pointed out, a woman candidate for the Supreme Court could never have ranted the way Brett Kavanaugh did, although among some constituencies, his emotional performance probably went over well. And of course their projected selves are inflected by race and class stereotypes, too, as were those of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas decades ago. My class is about sincerity and authenticity in mid-century poetry, during the Civil Rights movement and women’s lib and increasingly open discussions of sexuality, mental illness, and many other vividly embodied identities and experiences–and what a lesson this week was.

It was a lesson, however, I did not particularly need. I’m overloaded with work, struggling to tick down the lists and not get too anxious about tasks I cannot yet get to, and harsh reminders of assaults I suffered–and guilt about men I did not report–brought a level of stress into the equation that I’m just barely able to manage. I suspect I’d be a terrible beekeeper, unable enough to suppress whatever pheromones anxiety gives off, although I seem to keep myself together well enough that most humans don’t smell my fear.

“They have got rid of the men, // The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors,” Plath writes about the bees in “Wintering.” I keep wondering what the world would be like if every unremorseful assaulter–every person who has abused privilege in such a serious way without admitting and trying for atone for that abuse–were swept out of power, so that better people could rise up into those positions of money and prestige. It would be nice to find out, one day. But I can’t say I’m tasting the spring, just yet.

Dancing to Loy: teaching modernist poetry and performance

This is the moment in the term when some of my craziest teaching experiments come to fruition (or wither pathetically on the vine). I always assign something fun or peculiar in the last week or two of the semester, in part to combat exhaustion as everyone faces down final papers and exams, and in part to make room for other ways of thinking through literary works. Analytical writing is important: by reasoning through ambiguous texts and bolstering claims with well-judged evidence, students exercise intellectual skills that can make them better writers, citizens, moviegoers, you name it. Analysis, though is far from the only way to come to terms with a poem. Some of us like to puzzle over how literature works, but analysis isn’t the foremost pleasure for most readers, I think. Many of us, for example, get most excited about literature when it provokes us to personal introspection or artistic imitation. Why shouldn’t those modes of response get some classroom time? Don’t we learn from them, too?

So this week, students in my upper-level undergraduate course on American poetry from 1900-1950 had to assemble into small groups and figure out some way to perform a poem that wasn’t on the syllabus. Some of them created videopoems inspired by Lorine Niedecker’s “My Life by Water.” Here’s a video response by Eleanor, Sam, and Kellie to Gertrude Stein’s “Sacred Emily,” with each of 370 lines represented by a single image flashing by quickly:

Another group provided a theatrical interpretation of Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago.” Here are Ben, Katie L., and Johnson before they smeared dirt on their faces and climbed on the furniture. Sandburg

Did you know Mina Loy designed lamps? So did Annie, Taylor, and Katie T., in response to her poem “The Widow’s Jazz.” With dramatic flair, they plugged their lamp in mid-reading, transforming an apparent blank spot in the shade into a sort of magic lantern illumination of Loy’s silhouette.

Loy lamp

By secret ballot, the class awarded “best performance” (and extra credit) to Amira, Danielle, and Caroline for their playful and insightful translation of a visual poem into an audiofile. Here’s their rendition of E.E. Cummings’ “rpophessgr.”

Another contender for the prize was a dance choreographed and performed by Alee, Alyssa, and Kiki, in response to Loy’s “Brancusi’s Golden Bird.”

I felt a little awed by the creativity and talent on display for what was, in essence, a minor homework assignment. And I’m fairly sure all these students understand the poems now better than I do, from the inside out. They devised great programs for their performances, too. Rather than including them all here, I’ll conclude with photographic testimony from Johnson, Katie L., and Ben, to the desperate intellectual seriousness of their artistic collaboration. Well, at least Katie looks serious. (P.S.: I really like my job.)collaboration