Despite the frigid temperatures, my winter so far has been poetically electric. My long-awaited chapbook arrived in early December, then several journals containing a poem or two of mine suddenly went live or hit print (here’s one), PLUS Poetry Daily honored me with a New Year’s Day feature, PLUS Amy Lemmon and Sarah Freligh at the CDC Poetry Project accepted and published my pissed-off ghazal almost as fast as a president can tweet self-serving lies.
The writing life is deeply weird this way. What the flurry of publications means is I was on fire and writing lots of poems a year or two ago, and diligent about sending them out 6-12 months ago. I actually produced very little new poetry in the last few months, “Hibernaculum” aside, although the words are coming back now. I was overworked, trying not to feel discouraged, and spending my limited writing time on a couple of prose projects with impending deadlines. I revised lots, however, and strove to give older writing its due by focusing on submissions. I sent 230 poems to magazines in 2017! Those were in batches of 5, often to 3-4 magazines at once, but still, that’s a crazy amount of Submittable action (and that’s not even counting book mss, essays, and other work I’m trying to keep under consideration). Nor are my stats brilliant. Most of those submissions were rejected, a few with encouraging notes from editors; 18 of those were accepted, plus a few more I’d sent out in 2016; other verdicts are still pending.* I’m kind of shocked, but sheer numbers mitigate the chagrin I’ve been feeling as I post social media thanks and humble-brags. If brute effort counts, I earned those publication credits.
I hope my appalling math gives somebody heart, because here we go again, trying to keep our little fires burning in another year’s chilly climate. The numbers are NOT what matters. I’ll write poems my whole life, I’m sure, but it wouldn’t shock me if one day I decide not to work so hard at finding readers, and if you’ve already made that call, I respect your sensibleness. But for the moment, I have the heart and chutzpah to keep trying, mostly failing, and very occasionally succeeding. I’m ready for 2018 to reject the hell out of me.
I’m much more glad, however, that I’m writing poems again. I’d missed it. The great collections I’ve been catching up on are replenishing the well–I’ll post on my 2017 and early 2018 reading soon. In the meantime, thanks to Donna Vorreyer, and her co-conspirator Kelli Russell Agodon, for a poke in the ribs and some publicity, too, for poetry bloggers committing to 2018 liveliness, including me. Check out her terrific list of participants here.
I won’t keep up with them: my three-prep term starts Monday, to be spiced up by tons of committee work and event planning and lord knows what ordinary-life calamities. But I feel game to try.
*As I wheedled my cat into a photo shoot that clearly bored him, Poetry Northwest just emailed asking to publish 2 poems from one of those 2017 batches. If it has this kind of cosmic influence, I may just blog about rejection all year.
Guys yelled slurs and catcalls from fraternity porches and dorm windows. At Rutgers in the late 80s, walking to class could be an ordeal, so one of the first things I learned at college was how to disappear behind an armor of apparent indifference. I often arrived at lectures and seminars demoralized, and sometimes what happened in the classroom compounded those feelings. One distinguished politics professor announced to a sea of nodding undergrads that Othello was about how attracted women are to violent men, then mocked me for sticking my hand up to protest (race haunted the dynamic he was evoking, but I didn’t have the words to call him on that). Or there was the French professor who spent the period discussing the bohemian chic of my outfit. Yes, it was a great sweatshirt, thanks, but I would have rather learned about Flaubert. It was painful to feel so looked at all the time, so minutely surveilled.
Yet while my English professors were a mixed bag in their temperaments and talents, not one of them ever reduced me to a stereotype. What mattered, in those Rutgers English classrooms, was the work I did, the quality of what I wrote and said.
I marvel, when I look back, at their dedication. I know now that the politics of teaching in a state system can be hard; the pay’s not great, classes are large, and support is often limited. Yet even when those professors must have felt intensely frustrated, they managed to make me feel respected. For instance, I’m not sure I even knew there was an award for the top English honors thesis until the winner was announced, so I had no expectation of receiving a prize–I just remember thinking, when I heard the winner’s name, that I’d heard his work (on Wordsworth) and found it unimpressive. But then a senior person in the department pulled me aside and said something like, “A number of us argued that you deserved the honor, but there was a faction in the department who wouldn’t let the prize go to a young woman working on Rich and Sexton.” He affirmed that I wasn’t crazy–that the game was rigged, and not in my favor–but also that I was doing good work. People whom I admired valued me, even went out on a limb for me. An instance of nearly-invisible bias was transformed into an affirmation I would carry with me for the rest of my life. Of course, that guy presumably still thinks his win was unrelated to gender, but maybe we’re culturally in a place to discuss that now.
These experiences came back to me at the end of this fall term, when I was asked to take part in a faculty development panel called “Tough Talk in Troubled Times,” convened by my wonderful colleague, the history professor Sarah Horowitz. The topic: what hard conversations are we facing in classrooms right now, and how do we handle them? A primary source of the toughness here in Virginia has been an intense argument about race and memorialization–our university is named partly after Robert E. Lee. But hateful talk from the President about immigrants, and harsh new immigration policies, have major implications for all U.S. educational institutions. Plus Fall 2017 was the #metoo semester, bringing a new honesty about the costs of assault and harassment. It’s a lot to manage in a writing seminar or a poetry course (or in any other context).
The panel was great, focusing on responding to anger and prejudice by asking questions–as another colleague put it, intervening with a calm, “Well, let’s talk about that.” Sometimes you have to name bias and tackle it head on, but you stand more chance of opening minds when everyone has room to do their own clear, hard thinking. As usual, questions are the answer. I felt like an impostor on that panel, giving advice about managing volatile class discussions, because I’ve made a ton of mistakes. I realized in preparing, however, that I do have a governing ethic, and it stems from my undergraduate experience at a busy state campus, so different from the pretty lawns and freshly-painted columns of Washington and Lee.
I never expected my professors to fix everything wrong with my university, because it was the same stuff that was wrong with the culture at large. In any public place, it just wasn’t safe to be a woman. Daylight hostility became, after dark, groping and rape. When I was assaulted, it never even occurred to me that I could or should report it–the lesson I learned was to protect myself with more vigilance.
But I was angry when the classrooms I entered failed to be zones of respect. It was fine to be criticized if I hadn’t done the reading well or my arguments were shoddy, but I shouldn’t be praised for cuteness or shamed for having strong opinions. My serious-minded Rutgers English professors encouraged mutual respect as well as respect for the literature under discussion. I still bring that egalitarian idealism to the classrooms I supervise, although I’ll never fully solve the questions of what fairness means and how to foster it.
Since I started in the 90s, I’ve seen enormous cultural shifts in what students feel entitled to say in W&L classrooms. Twenty years ago, I sometimes had to stop class to explain that homophobic slurs were not acceptable; this fall, when I assigned digital storytelling in first-year composition, one student chose to focus on the first time she kissed a woman. We workshopped the story as we did all the others, and while I was moved nearly to tears by witnessing that grand new normal, I kept my emotions to myself, mostly. Some things really have changed.
Of course, some haven’t. I know of repulsive behaviors that occurred on my pretty campus this fall, although they’re not my stories to tell. And while these days, I don’t hear brutal young men sneering from porches, that’s just because surveillance has gone virtual. I assume that some of my students–maybe even the ones who look like they have it all together–are coming to the room raw from verbal and physical assault, and direly in need of literary discussion as a sanctuary. I don’t mean that our discussions are apolitical; they can’t be when you’re teaching Yeats and Ginsberg, Hughes and Clifton and Carson. But our conversations are respectful of the work, and of human beings within and beyond the room.
I don’t have any particular resolutions for 2018 except to keep giving others careful, serious attention. Maybe if more classrooms could be zones of respect and compassion, disrespect outside of the classroom would become harder to sustain.
Yeah, I know that’s small-scale and slow, but it’s what I’ve got, and at least it honors the gifts I received thirty years ago. Happy New Year, stay warm, and I’ll be back in 2018 with more about reading, writing, and teaching poetry (plus a New Year’s Day piece on Poetry Daily!).
Winter is a cracked path, all the plush of moss
and needles, mulch and soil swept away
by the god of water. I have no choice
but to sit down or follow it, so I follow, day
after heathen day, sometimes watching my feet
lest I trip on an exposed blade of shale,
usually muttering, indiscreet,
since no one is listening. Once in a while
the sheen on the creek will interrupt
my monologue, its coppery greens will spill
into the air and I remember about
the world. Its shadows crowd, its leaves fall
with no display of self-regard, no doubt
that spring will come again with crocus,
clouds, and frilly tender feelings. Devout
branches pray their red beads with breezy hocus-
pocus: they believe in the slanting sun, its power
to bring them to life when it wishes. So, I focus:
I can at least believe in looking. I stare
over the bank’s edge, where the burble has skin
like a cold pudding, and see filigreed feathers,
ice shaped like a dove, like some spirit-sign,
where two bare branches dangle in a cross.
The creek looks back at me, without design.
I recently included this poem from my first collection, Heathen, in a winter-themed reading at the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival. Afterwards an editor said, hey, wemay want to link to it when we publish you later this year, so I went looking for the poem online. It turns out “Unbeliever” was a Poetry Daily selection years ago, but it has now rotated out of the archive, so voila, this blog post hereby resurrects its virtual body.
I must have first drafted it at least seven years ago, but it’s a touchstone poem for me. “I can at least believe in looking” remains a mantra: I can rarely fix what’s wrong with the world, but at the very least I can attend to the lives and scenes around me, the beauty and the suffering. I still take that particular walk by Woods Creek all the time, and I really did see an ice-cross one day while I was thinking about my own irreligiousness. And terza rima remains my favorite inherited form for its propulsive energy, although I almost always skid through it on some pretty dicey slant rhyme.
I had forgotten, though, until I dug through my old computer files, that right up until I finalized the book manuscript, the poem had a different last line:
Chills. All this nature a prank to take me in.
The earlier version is more cynical, isn’t it? I have a hard time with endings so last-minute fussing around is typical, but in this case I’m particularly glad I reimagined it. For one thing, the revised ending is just truer: the natural world has its own agency, but not of a malicious kind. To think that the ice-cross was all a big set-up, a mind-game: that’s pretty hubristic.
A larger point, though, is that to increase the openness of a poem is often to make it a better poem. I know this is true when writing about human relationships: when I can manage to acknowledge the humanity (and maybe the sacredness?) even of hurtful people, that generosity complicates and enriches the work. Why shouldn’t that principle be the same in representing human relations with the nonhuman? I’m still not sure I arrived at the best possible endpoint in “Unbeliever”–the Frost reference seems heavy to me now–but “the creek looks back at me,” yes, that acknowledgement feels right. We’re both burbling along, minding our own business, and then we notice each other. Maybe we can’t really know each other’s “minds,” but there’s a flow or a moment of connection, no more or less imaginary than any other relationship in my life. That’s close enough to god for me.
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).
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.
I’m sure I’m doing a horrible disservice to an important theological concept by throwing around the phase above. I understand karma itself only in a pop-cultural way—the idea that you reap what you sow, even if not right away, not obviously. Here’s what I mean by hitching it to the adjective “poetic.”
I fervently hope poets get what they deserve. In the long run, the work itself should be all that matters—not whom you know or where you live but what you have to say and how powerfully you say it. I do not actually believe this is true, but I want it to be, and in the meantime every right-thinking Sisyphean poet-critic should be trying to make it true. I want most of our energy to go into writing really interesting, urgent, capacious, intelligent, brilliantly crafty verse, and then when the Roving Eye of Literary Fashion happens to pass over it, it has to pause: wow! look! has anybody noticed this is REALLY amazing? That is, when luck strikes, we’re ready with the goods. Or, you know, we’re not—the work is just decent, not amazing, and the Eye passes on, but at least then we’ve done our best and the results are fair. Some of us have to be the mulch from which a few splendid lilies rise. I hope I’m not compost, I’m trying not to be, though odds are that I am, and that you are too.
But I’m a modernism scholar, so I can look back and see that well, hell, most of the modernist-era poets we still read knew and helped each other, both with the poetry itself and with the process of delivering it to the world. Some of them dated each other. Granted, there were multiple overlapping circles of influence. There were also outliers who eventually hit the bigtime despite Ezra Pound’s indifference or their geographical distance from New York or London. But clearly extraliterary factors matter, especially personal networks and proximity to literary power.
So what’s a poet to do? I do think about relocation but I can’t move to a big city unless some crazy stroke of luck changes my marketability (or my spouse’s: he’s a fiction writer wildly trying to wave down the Roving Eye, too). My employer gives a world-portable college tuition benefit to my kids, who are now twelve and sixteen (if you haven’t looked at U.S. tuitions lately, know that the pricetag’s obscene). If I moved jobs now their options would diminish. Yeah, Robert Frost would have made his kids take the lump, but for better and worse, I’m nicer than Robert Frost. And this, by the way, is just the barrier to looking.
Here’s what I’m left with: write my heart out, make friends where I am, keep sending the work out, and do what I can to minimize distance through publication and travel (blogging and Twitter open up interesting interactions too, though, again, I suspect they don’t matter nearly as much as all the accidental conversations you have if you physically live in a literary nexus). And, with a mixture of idealism and skepticism, practice the following principles to create good poetic karma:
1. Read books and journals. Also, buy books and subscribe to journals.
2. Publish reviews.
3. Whenever possible, be generous. Say yes.
I’d like to think they’ll get me further than being a ruthless jerk would, but I don’t know for sure. I can say that while I’ve received a ton of rejections this summer, a few editors have sent along some very cheering acceptances. Also, in one of those random benedictions you can’t apply for, Poetry Daily featured one of my poems, “Powder Burn.” A review I published in Rattle prompted a letter from a writer named Nina Romano who then put up two of my poems in the “Poet’s Corner” of her press web site (they’ll only be there for a few more days, but still, what a random, nice thing!–and if you click on the link belatedly I think you’ll find someone else’s wonderful poem there). I’m particularly proud of a poem in the new Crab Orchard Review, too, in case you can get your hands on it.
I’ve regretted saying yes sometimes and planted plenty of seeds in apparently dead ground. But actions flower unexpectedly, too. Besides, behaving as if poets don’t get what they deserve—meaning selfish striving, I guess, or despair—might be rational but it also seems poisonous. I have a feeling my poems wouldn’t like it.