Currents and circuits

I’ve been revving high without going anywhere for a while, having entered the work-around-the-clock part of the term, so I’m going flat-out all day and it’s hard to calm down at night, much less write poems or do other creative work that makes me feel peaceful. Thinking about how to manage my energy better made this poem come to mind. It appeared in a 2018 anthology, Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle edited by Marilyn L. Taylor and James P. Roberts, and I’ll probably include it in my next poetry collection, providing the publishing world wants book number 6 from me.

Return Path


The only way to pray is through my feet,
earthward, jolted in return by the fizz
of a spiking current. I never thought a circuit

would loop through me, believed I was separate, 
alone, done with gods, but here it is:
I’ve found a way to pray. Through my feet,

I reach down. There’s something animate,
chthonic, that touches me back. It’s a species
of love, a thinking-spike, a zinging circuit

of energy and dirt, blood and spirit—
plutonic conversation, mostly wordless.
The way I’ve found to pray is through my feet,

sole bared to wooden boards, or rug, or slate,
or buggy grass, just as you want to press
skin to a beloved’s, sparking a current, a circuit.

Not that earth loves me, exactly. Matter’s what
matters. She wants me to return the mess
of my only body, pray from head through feet
as I sink, unthinking ash, into love’s circuit.

I call myself agnostic mainly, atheist occasionally, but I pray sometimes. I don’t discuss it much: saying you talk to the underworld is likely to concern religious friends on behalf of your soul and skeptical friends on behalf of your brain. But while praying the way I was taught in Sunday school felt terrible–addressing formal words to a pale and distant father in the sky who never answered–connecting imaginatively to soil and rock settles me. I even get good advice sometimes. Yep, what’s returning my calls may be a deeper part of myself rather than an outside force, yet I have an inkling that the inside-outside distinction is wrong-headed anyway, so I don’t worry about it. I’ll take whatever help the universe is offering.

Right now, I’m focusing on connecting gears so the revving gets me somewhere–with small and partial success. I just received edits on the second half of my essay collection, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, so I’m starting to enact those revisions, even though it’s a difficult time of year to carve out any hours. I also discovered an absolutely lovely blurb for the book in my inbox, from someone I had contacted out of the blue. A friend generously helped me research some cover ideas. I’m getting ready to speak at a virtual Writer’s Week held by the University of South Carolina at Wilmington, and then physically attend World Fantasy Con in Montreal, if the gods allow. A panel I’m on was just accepted for the virtual AWP but two others were rejected from the in-person one, though, so I’m second-guessing my intention to apply for university funds to attend. It’s hard to make decisions as the winds pick up.

In the shorter term: please let me know (at wheelerlm@wlu.edu or in the comments) if you’d like the Zoom link for a reading at 6pm Eastern on October 21, hosted by Lucy Bucknell of Johns Hopkins. She doesn’t post the links on social media so it’s usually an intimate group of 6 readers doing 10 minutes each–nice vibe. Next week’s lineup will include:

Elias Baez is a poet from New York.  He’s Poetry Editor at GAYLETTER magazine and has work in The Bitchin’ Kitsch and The Daily Drunk

Helena Chung is a Korean American poet currently living in Brooklyn. She is a recent graduate of the MFA program at UVA.

Linda Campbell Franklin, aka Rowena Sunder & Barkinglips, messes around with words, pictures, dogs, cats, outsider art, and antiques; and writes/illustrates all kinds of books.   

Jalynn Harris is a poet and book designer from Baltimore. Author of Exit Thru the Afro, she earned her MFA from the University of Baltimore. 

Caroline Preziosi is a poet and artist from Baltimore. She is currently pursuing an MFA at School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  

…with me at the end reading a couple of poems from The State She’s In and a couple of new poems, too. I hope our circuits connect and I see you there.

Post-poetry-reading rituals (AWP Prep Pt. 2)

When people talk about writing rituals, they usually mean the behaviors that get them primed for focused composition. For me, that’s a pot of tea and a laptop in a quiet corner, with email notifications turned off. If I still can’t get my head together, reading helps. Or I write informally or in another genre to get my thoughts straight.

Many writers also have pre-performance rituals. I contemplate a playlist in advance, mark poems with sticky notes, practice with a timer, dress in something bright, and pee about five times. I’m always a little nervous or wired, but that’s okay. I like giving readings. I’m no trained performer, but I’ve spent a zillion hours teaching and reading to children. Voiced poetry, and conversation about it, are two of my favorite things.

What I’ve never figured out is what to do with myself AFTER a reading. I know poets are supposed to knock down some pills with booze and call it a day, and while I’m perfectly happy to wind down with a beer and friends, especially people who tell me how great I was, I could use some alternatives. That wired feeling invariably lasts for hours, meaning I’m basically awake all night with or without self-medication. Occasional insomnia is no big deal, but I’m doing more readings than usual over the next couple of months, and I’d rather not deal with the brain fog and immune-system crashes that tend to follow sleep deprivation.

A doctor who recently reviewed my genetic tests–apparently I have a mutation that makes me particularly bad at metabolizing adrenaline, so it hangs around in my body–suggested headstands would be good for my adrenals. To the contrary, I think headstands would result in adrenaline-fueled ER trips. Despite years of yoga I’m not really a balanced person in any way, but especially not in the stand-on-your-head sense. And while I’m trying short post-reading walks to burn off energy, I’m not really excited about hitting the hotel gym in the middle of the night. I could just give up on sleep and read something absorbing until tiredness blinds me, I guess. Or a hot bath? A friend tells me her old therapist had a shake-it-off ritual after each session, but google that and you get advice about post-workout protein shakes. If you have an alternative suggestion for me–ceremonial dance? soporific incantation?–please let me know.

In the meantime, I had a wonderful time last week at the VA Festival of the Book, post-event sleeplessness notwithstanding. And I’m attending AWP this week, which is a crazily intense few days in any case, but this is my first conference as a member of the Board of Trustees and Mid-Atlantic Council Chair. That means I’m doing a few normal poet-things I committed to long ago PLUS board work, all of which I’m excited about, but my schedule for each day is LONG. Most will begin with breakfast meetings, are packed with events I want and/or need to attend, and end with 10 pm receptions. Sleep and scraps of down-time are going to be crucial.

It will also be sustaining to see friends. I’d be grateful for kind words in the hallways, so please say hello if you’re there, even if you don’t have sachets of Magick Dactylic Recovery Tea to smuggle into my tote bag. Here’s where I’ll be:

THURSDAY: Leading the AWP Program Directors’ Mid-Atlantic Council meeting (R158), Room 506, LA Convention Center, Meeting Room Level, 10:30 am to 11:45. I’ll also be holding Board office hours 4-5pm at AWP Booth 1011

FRIDAY:  AWP Bookfair signing for Radioland, 11 am, Barrow Street Press (608), LA Convention Center.

Also AWP Panel F222: Women in Spec: Women Writers in Speculative Poetry and Fiction. 1:30-2:45. (,  ,  ,  ,  ), Room 505 LA Convention Center, Meeting Room level. It’s going to be great.

And I’ll RUN from there to, at 3 pm, F237. A Reading & Conversation with Rigoberto González, Marilyn Nelson, & D.A. Powell, Sponsored by the Poetry Society of America. (,  ,  ,  ), Petree Hall, LA Convention Center, Exhibit Hall Level One. I’ll introduce Alice Quinn who does the REAL introductions.

SATURDAY: Here’s when I hope for more of a breather–to see some alumni and other friends and spend more time in the always-amazing bookfair. But my last AWP event before the 3:30 am Sunday morning shuttle to LAX is:

A Night of Hijinx: Interim and Barrow Street with Gemstone Readings. AWP Offsite Event. 7:30-10:30 pm, Pieter Performance Space, 420 W Avenue 33, Unit 10, Los Angeles, California 90031. Reading with Holiday Black, Emily Carr, Colby Gillette, Laura Marie Marciano, Miguel Murphy, Andrew S. Nicholson, Rob Schlegel, Heather H. Thomas, Lesley Wheeler.

Note that this last event is Free entry and free bar (BYOB/donations/tips encouraged). If you like to chase down your huge literary conference with some poetry and libations, I’m thinking this is the place to be. I’m hoping to read early in the list and then clink classes with you afterwards, because, what the heck, I won’t be sleeping much anyway.

spring
at the edge of the Maury River this weekend

 

Literary Lexington in the 1920s

“First came Vachel Lindsay and gave a ‘reading’ (if you could call it that) of his poem in the Washington and Lee Library. One of them sounded to me like a hog calling. Then came Carl Sandburg whom I liked much better.”

This is from an obscure memoir called Mrs. Ecker’s Lexington, 1918-1929, edited by Dr. Charles W. Turner, billed on the title page as “Retired Professor of History Department of Washington and Lee University,” and printed in Roanoke by the Virginia Lithography & Graphics Company in 1990. Grace Glasgow Dunlop was born in 1878 in Georgetown; in 1906 she married John Ecker and they had four children. Ecker died of tuberculosis around 1914, and as Grace Dunlop Ecker, a smart and energetic young widow, reflected some years later, “When war finally came to my own country it was a veritable mental boost for me, for it changed my train of thought and having no man of my own to send I threw myself, my soul and body, into the work of the Red Cross.” Eventually, however, with Washington “swarming” with war workers, and everyone suffering from food and coal shortages, she decided to move her family to Lexington for a while.

Her memoir of the town I live in is lively and interesting, full of funny detail about the Virginia Military Institute and W&L, where I work. Comical tensions between Presbyterians and Episcopalians; the lassitude of local summers after students clear out; Robert E. Lee idolatry–they ring true to the place I first came to know decades later, in 1994. While she lived first in a rented house on Letcher Avenue, between the two campuses, she later built a home around the block from me, on what became Barclay Lane. I’m pretty certain the painter Cy Twombly lived there later.

I’m not precisely sure why I’m doing so much side-reading in local history, except that poems keep coming out of that exploration. But it’s fun to stroll around the neighborhood with Chris in the evening, book in hand, and figure out which houses various eccentric Lexingtonians lived in by Ecker’s idiosyncratic descriptions. There are several references to literary culture here, too. I love the sound of the Wednesday morning Reading Club. Mrs. Derbyshire read dramatically from Sandburg, Lindsay, Amy Lowell, Robert Frost, and others, while her listeners darned stockings.

Ecker had taste and a fierce appetite for culture, as well as a longing to lead, to be useful, in a way her life rarely allowed. She isn’t an entirely sympathetic character. She thinks wrongly, for example, that she’s a good employer to a servant she keeps referring to as “fat, freckled, yellow Lucy,” who is homesick for D.C. and eventually walks out without notice. Ecker failed to understand her own prejudices, but she was a thwarted person too, a woman whose talents and desires had little enough scope beyond volunteer work and dancing at Hops with lonely cadets. She suffered too many losses, as well–not only her husband’s death and her mother’s but her young son’s too, suddenly, as she read to him on the sofa.Ecker

I’m glad she ventured out to hear Lindsay and Sandburg and wish she’d said more about them. The little passage I quote above, though, is followed by a fuller description of another literary event:

“Then on a strange October day came John Drinkwater who had become famous for his ‘Abraham Lincoln.’ I say a strange October day for we had a heavy snow, and I shall never forget the effect of the red and yellow leaves and the evergreen trees among the white snow. The event was to take place in the Doremus Gymnasium at Washington and Lee, the largest place in town. All the electricity was off and when the audience arrived the place was lit with candles and lanterns. When Mr. Drinkwater took his place at the reading stand, which was trimmed with greens and red candles, his first remark was he felt like a Christmas tree. He had to leave before eight the next morning, which he did not relish at all, to keep his engagement at Sweet Briar, nor, I heard did his English taste relish the salted butter served at the Dutch Inn, but I understand that he considered the campus of the University very beautiful and impressive.”

It sounds magical, doesn’t it?–despite the horror of salted butter. Ecker moved back to Georgetown not long after, grieving her child and ready for another change of scene. She died in her nineties, in 1973. You can find her better-known Portrait of Old George Town on Project Gutenberg (John Drinkwater’s Lincoln play is there too). I’m glad to have visited with her. All these familiar places are becoming even more haunted than they used to be.

High school, the best poetry audience ever

One way to tell the story of how I came to read poetry desperately and constantly would be: early. I still know by heart a book of nursery rhymes I used to own, with Richard Scarry illustrations. A lot of us, though, had our first serious poetry crushes in, or at least during, high school. At fifteen, while I was struck dumb by Keats in the classroom, I was also buying David Bowie albums, reading the liner notes, and hunting down the books he mentioned there. Hence William Burroughs—who was NOT on the curriculum at the Academy of the Holy Angels—and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, which was a life-changer. Then Sister Ignatius commanded that I enter a poetry contest at Bergen County Community College, so I copied over my verses and, to my shock because I never won anything, took first prize. The professor-judge told me I’d clearly read a lot of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom I’d never heard of (maybe he’s the love-child of Keats and Ginsberg?), so I went home and read him, too. University was where this all gathered speed—taking modernism courses, meeting intense young writers who were also cute boys—but I’m not sure I ever needed poems as urgently I did in high school. Those were such isolated, unhappy years. Give me bad office politics, babies who wake at 5 a.m., even tax forms. It’s all better than being fifteen.

So I am all the more impressed by Beth Konkoski at Broad Run High School in Ashburn, Virginia. She’s the kind of teacher I needed but most of us never get. Yesterday, at her invitation, I drove nearly three hours, ran a workshop for 30 students, read to about 300 in a large auditorium, had lunch with members of her department, and drove three hours home again. She doesn’t run an event of this magnitude every year, but Beth is a poet who meets other writers, like me, at conferences, so she knows her way around po-biz. She is also dedicated and organized: Beth asked some weeks in advance for a few poems I planned to read, especially poems revising myths and fairy tales, and gave them to her students in advance with journal prompts. She is also experienced enough in managing teenagers to make it look like a magical power: who ever heard of 300 highschoolers sitting quietly and with the appearance of respectful attention for a 40 minute poetry reading by some middle-aged person? It also seems to me, from a quick visit, that her large, diverse public school must be unusually supportive of inspired teachers, because the logistics alone were staggering. So many permission slips…

My workshop involved litanies and list-poems, a similar scheme to the one I wrote up for The Exercise Book (which I revisited for ideas earlier this week and man, that really is a good collection). I wanted to frame the reading itself with poems by other writers, so I elicited a bunch of suggestions on Facebook. I then didn’t follow any of them except for Margo Solod’s general directive: “hit ‘em hard.” Which meant, I deduced, not corporal punishment but choosing the most powerful poems I could. I began with a terrific Tim Seibles piece and closed with Mary Oliver, because one of my first Washington and Lee students, Jeanne, said “Wild Geese” had empowered her to depart from the script and be who she needed to be. Of my own, I chose a poem about being a zombie, another about campus sexual assault, some about my mother’s childhood in Liverpool, and elegies. The dead pet poems triggered noisy tears from a young woman in the back start—I hope you’ll forgive me, Cellist Girl. A newish poem, “Vasovagal Syncope,” made another young woman run up afterwards: “I have that! I never thought I’d hear a poem about it!”

The questions amazed me most. You know how during the question period after a reading, all the college students will freeze and all the community members shift around uncomfortably? I had thought of pulling a Craig Santos Perez—he tosses cans of Spam to the first audience members who speak up—but I don’t have the throwing arm to reach the back rows, so I just braced myself for nervous silence. Instead, I couldn’t keep up with their raised hands. Okay, there was the sloucher in the first row performing disaffected sarcasm, but almost all of them were writer questions. What do you think about rhyme in contemporary poetry? How do you know when a poem’s done? What’s the most important idea you try to get across to your poetry students? What do you do when you’re staring at a blank page and nothing’s happening? How do you manage self-doubt? The one-on-one conversation afterward was just as urgent. One guy who called himself a “music nerd” asked, “So are there poet’s poets, the way there are obscure, unknown musicians that all the other musicians admire for their skills?” And there was the fiction writer who asked about writing a story in which people are telling a story. “Well, that’s called frame narration,” I began, and he said, “Yeah, but how do you DO it? Is it like, dot dot dot? Is there a way to start in third-person omniscient and then move to first-person?” Man, that kid is in the trenches.

Are there any questions more high-stakes than those, more serious? I liked those students so much for sticking their hands right up in that potentially intimidating space and asking what they needed to know. And I like their teachers so much for making room for this conversation in an era of frantic standardized testing and STEM-field obsession. The music nerds and future scientists need poems, too, and Beth is making sure they have access to them. It’s beautiful.

“Douchebag” and other rude, not-seasonally-festive epithets

The one time I tried to smoke a cigarette, my friends mocked me: “Cut that out. You look totally ridiculous.” By common consensus, I couldn’t pull off foul language either. I thought the problem might have been some crisp Englishness lingering in my elocution—my mother’s British and allegedly I started kindergarten with an accent. I pondered further: despite U.S. stereotypes about English prissiness, I knew, they carry off expletives quite well in the British Isles, so that shouldn’t be it. Perhaps my tendency to ponder obscenities in polysyllabic latinate diction was somehow symptomatic of the same issue?

In any case, nobody mocks how I swear anymore, and I live with 12- and 15-year old children, so you’ll know that I am mocked about various shortcomings hourly. I’m told, for instance, that my sense of humor is totally immature, which may be why I still get a thrill when a poet suddenly veers towards crudeness. In slam, of course, the climactic curse is practically inscribed into the requirements of the form. See Taylor Mali’s “I Could Be a Poet” for that bit of critical analysis put into hilarious action. At least, I think the “fucking” in that poem is hilarious, but according to my daughter I’ll laugh at anything—it’s just embarrassing.

Usually profanity concerns sex or excrement, both of which are, of course, intrinsically funny. So-called bad language desecrates, too. While powerful poetry often (always?) engages notions of sacredness, if a poem’s good it’s never simply pious—instead, it knocks some god off a pedestal to set up another. Think about Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” or T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” or Deborah Miranda’s “Things My Mother Taught Me”: all of them get to sacredness via irreverence, anger, and resistance to romantic visions. For the Magi it’s liquor and refractory camels plaguing their journey to God. Miranda’s villanelle offers a mantra for holy ordinariness culminating in an unglamorous brand-name ingredient: “Four paths to payday: beans and rice, flour, Crisco.” Swearing isn’t required but it’s one way to shake up the over-serious regard that can kill a poem.

English teachers are supposed to say that swearing demonstrates a lamentably poor vocabulary. Sure, sometimes. It can also convey linguistic range and daring; turn up emotional intensity at a key moment; and it can hurt and demean people, too. I think the beginning of Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” is brutally perfect: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do.” While his “High Windows” also haunts me—scraps of it come back to me in all kinds of dismal situations—the obscenity in the beginning of that poem just drives home everything hateful about the author. I lose that crucial thread of connection to the mind behind the poem. I feel sworn at, violently, because I’m part of a major demographic (women) that filled Larkin with longing and distaste. More generally, I think people should be able to work and study without being sworn or leered at—although they’re just going to have to tolerate some profanity-laced poems on my syllabi, because they’re among the most resonant in recent literary history.

While swearing might win you points in a poetry slam, it can still be a liability in print venues (and in some live readings, too). The famous obscenity trial over “Howl” happened a long time ago but certain kinds of explicitness still generate wild discomfort. I once received a nice-note rejection from a very generous editor saying that the word “crotch” in one of my poems (“Lucky Thirteen”) was a deal-breaker. I meant it to be tricky and distasteful: it’s a poem about depression, for fuck’s sake. (Ha!) Still, experimentally, I revised it out. The poem was promptly accepted by another magazine in the next round of submissions. Some version of this happens to me a lot. Apparently I still can’t pull off the colorful verbiage.

Are they right, the editors and readers who resist the cringe? Risks are worth trying, but sometimes you can’t pull them off, or a phrase that was important for generating a poem doesn’t fit in the final version. I keep looking at a poem I first drafted a couple of years ago, working title “Douchebags,” trying to figure out if it’s the title/ blunt treatment of sexual material earning rejections or whether the poem just isn’t quite successful on other grounds. (Anyone who wants to read it and tell me, backchannel!) I can’t revise out the crudeness this time, though. The poem concerns my first sexual experience; this involved a guy who did me some lasting harm but who was also damaged and sad, and whom I did not treat honorably either. When I broke up with him, his lament was: “You douched me over, you douchebag!” At eighteen, I knew this was very funny, and also that I was being a condescending jerk by finding this very funny. He was hurting badly and that was all the language he had to express his emotion. Although he treated me awfully, at some level I had always possessed the power of just being smarter and knowing, deep in my douchebag heart, that I could and would do better.

And this probably gets back to why I’m attracted to foul-mouthed poems, especially when the profanity is mixed up with lyricism, wit, and erudition. I want to believe these worlds can coexist, if not harmonize—that their native speakers can talk to each other, across hurt and difference. Those languages coexist in me.

Happy Thanksgiving, and may your stuffing and sweet potatoes touch illicitly on the plate while brown rivulets of gravy dribble into the cranberry sauce.

Poems and chapels

When Alice Te Punga Somerville walked out of Lee Chapel a week ago Sunday, she looked around for water and ended up rinsing her fingers in a puddle, flicking the water back over her head. “Don’t want to take anybody with me,” she remarked. I had forgotten that traditional gesture upon leaving a burial place. Robert E. Lee is below the chapel in his family crypt, his horse interred just outside; their graves are just a few steps from my office, and my office is above the room where the former confederate general was inaugurated president of Washington and Lee. It didn’t seem worth rinsing my own hands. I live with these ghosts. Each night Alice was here, in fact, I dreamed of the afterlife—in one case an eternal poetry conference on the beach near Nelson, New Zealand, run by Bill Manhire.

A couple of hours later, I returned to the chapel on my own for a memorial service for Severn Parker Costin Duvall III, a W&L professor of modern poetry who retired in the mid-nineties, when I was hired. Learned, eloquent, and sharp-witted, not to mention tall and good-looking, Severn could be intimidating in the classroom. To me, he was utterly charming, always greeting me with a cry of enthusiasm, inquiring about my well-being in a wonderful Tidewater accent, and reflecting on what a brilliant hire I had been.  When I was researching the history of literary readings in the U.S. for Voicing American Poetry, I interviewed Severn, who had been hired to start the Glasgow series, bringing Muriel Rukeyser, Ishmael Reed, Allen Ginsberg, Czeslaw Milosz, and many others. Severn spoke of standing-room-only crowds in that same chapel for James Dickey, and how the all-male student body was riveted in 1973 by a symposium of women writers: Mary McCarthy, Denise Levertov, Carolyn Kips, Barbara Deming, and Penelope Gilliat. He sipped coffee in Elrod Commons while I scribbled furiously, feeling star-struck, for a couple of hours. I would have loved to listen longer.

And a few days later, news of Adrienne Rich. The space in which I’ve been mourning her couldn’t be more different than Lee Chapel. I’m hearing testimonies through Wom-po, a virtual space full of women from different generations, backgrounds, life paths. It’s impressive how many of these poets felt authorized and inspired by Rich’s work. Many of them are already writing essays. I’ll leave them to it. My own experience of Rich isn’t unique or interesting. As a university student in the late eighties, I found her work, fell in love with it, and wrote an honors thesis partly based on “Twenty-One Love Poems.” I heard her read once at a Whitman centennial in Paterson, New Jersey. I teach her work in a range of classes and it always fully engages me—heart, brain, conscience.

What compelled me as an undergraduate reading “Twenty-One Love Poems” were her thoughts on the ethics of telling, of making one’s interior life exterior through words. There’s one scene of two women touching one another as they vomit over the rail of a ferry; diction linking love to pregnancy; and of course that sexy female volcano (which I finally climbed myself this past summer, thinking of Rich). Lots of pain and destruction in those metaphors, but in the end telling is better than keeping secrets.

I’m sorry Severn is gone. It was good, though, to hear one of Severn’s grown-up students talk to us about what he learned from his tough, generous teacher; he vividly conjured up one particular seminar in a room where I’ll teach this spring term. I’m one of Rich’s students, although I never met her, and I can still inhabit the space of thinking she made through poetry. Sometimes the virtual rooms are as vivid, as important, as the real ones.

Travel dictionaries

     That’s how it goes some days,

     don’t you reckon.

     You wander the streets of a city

     that’s no longer your own.

     You look at a map

     and all the words are in German.

     You ask a stranger

     where the hills have gone

     and he bursts out laughing.

          from “Lost” by Bernadette Hall in The Lustre Jug (Victoria U P, 2009)

Every poetry collection I pick up seems to be about miscommunication and displacement—what happens to language as you barrel through time zones. I don’t know if it’s accident, a New Zealand thing, or a widespread twenty-first century poetic obsession. Probably it’s the way I’m reading, what I’m looking for. The Fulbright Scholar sits down to write reports about how the grant changed her work and disorientation ensues.

The books I’ve been reading keep getting recalled to the library (sad consequence of blogging about them?), and I ought to start bringing them back anyway because I only have three more weeks here, but some of them are hard to part with. Bernadette Hall’s The Lustre Jug is in the latter category. I picked it up early on, when I learned that Hall was convening the poetry-focused MA workshop this year, while Chris Price is on leave. Many of its poems arose from six months Hall spent in Ireland, although there are shards of Australia and New Zealand in there as well. Hall is away from home even while in Wellington. I asked her once if she identified with the label “New Zealand poet” and she answered with hardly any hesitation: “I’m a South Island poet” (the book jacket says she “lives in North Canterbury”). I noticed her omnipresence at Wellington literary events all through this southern fall, but it only recently sank in: she may seem local to a visiting American, but she’s a literary tourist too, soaking it all up while she has a chance.  

When I first read The Lustre Jug I was taken with its southern-hemispheric second half. I had been going to open mics and was intrigued by “The Strenuous Life,” a piece that skewers macho poetry readers:

     See how this one stretches up on his tippy toes,

     cranes forward over the high page,

     crooks one leg behind him as if he’s in the starting blocks,

     rocking himself into the finals of the national hurdles.

The poem goes on to quote a sexist remark by a “famous writer,” to which Hall belatedly responds with a very satisfying four-letter-word. I love how precisely observed, funny, and unsparing this poem is.

Books change, though, as if it’s impossible to step into the same poem twice. I recognize myself more now in those Ireland poems—although Ireland is only an imagined landscape for me, where my grandfather’s parents were born, where some favorite poets live or have lived, but where I’ve never been. What seems familiarly strange is thickness of detail in a new place, accumulating in your brain/notebook like receipts in your pocket; the superimposition of two landscapes, absent home and present alienness; the stickiness of place names and other local words. Ireland and New Zealand in this collection; New Zealand and Virginia for me, with echoes of New York, New Jersey, and England (especially from a January-to-July stint studying abroad twenty-three years ago).

“Lost” is the book’s penultimate poem, and like many others here, it’s epistolary, a poetic note to a friend to whom she gave lousy directions (someday soon I’ll write here about poetic dedications). A turn-left-after-the-zebra crossing poem seems to require a place-based orientation, but the setting is cleverly muddled, involving multiple times and cities. Hall describes herself Yeats-fashion as “all flustered, crazy Jane,/ can’t tell my arse from my elbow.” Her directions refer to streets in Prague, Paris, and a couple of places Google Maps isn’t helping me with. She also remembers a winter night in Fidel’s on Cuba—that’s Wellington, for anybody who hasn’t tasted the coffee. Confused yet? “Lost” translates that predicament into a feeling worth extending, parsing, and remembering. It also zeroes in at the end on hieroglyphs for home:

     n gr8 2 gt yr txt:

     ‘loved LOVED Christchurch’

Writers’ notebooks

I returned to Wellington yesterday from Auckland where, during the wonderful “Poetry Off the Page” course she co-teaches with Helen Sword, Michele Leggott presented me with a Tapa Notebook. This practice is a part of an ongoing nzepc project: visiting writers are presented with an empty, unlined spiral notebook and asked to fill up the pages and send it back at their convenience. It then becomes part of the library archive and scanned excerpts are posted on nzepc. Tapa is a cloth made in the Pacific from pounded bark; the tapa rectangle on my book’s cover is painted with black-lined, persimmon-red petals.

The instructions suggest inscribing it with “poetry or other notations of value.” Drawings and pasted-in items are fine, although I was told anecdotally that Helen’s inclusion of a French muffin-wrapper, buttery crumbs and all, was a bit traumatic for the librarians. I just toted mine to a staff seminar on Keats’ letters. Heidi Thomson argued that Keats is never unconscious of his interlocutors, in letters or poems, but what kind of audience do notebook-keepers imagine? I have been scrawling bits and pieces in little pads all through this trip, sometimes going back to pull out and type up some information I’ve been given or a poem I began to draft in an airport, but I can’t imagine some student poring over them in an archive one day. If that ever happens: Reader, I apologize abjectly.

From my notes on Auckland:

13 May, Laureate reading in the Aotea Centre: During Manhire’s “Hotel Emergencies,” Michele’s guide dog Olive, also up on stage, puts her head down on her paws & begins to look bored.

14 May, festival panel on publishing: one of the editors says that, historically, the invention of a cheaper format (steam-powered rotary printing press, the e-book) always catalyzes an explosion in reading & publishing. Another says that traditional books will continue to be published as “beautiful objects.” There will be fewer of them & they will increase in price. All agree mass market paperbacks are out: Kindle goes to the beach instead.

Best of the Best NZ Poems reading: Emma Neale gives an electric performance of “Spark,” about a child learning how to say “light.” Throughout, a little patch of brightness bobs across her cheek, a reflection from an earring. You can’t see it on the monitors.

My father John Keats eases a scalpel between the cork and the bottle.

My father Langston Hughes gives his camel jacket to the coat-check girl.

My father Allen Ginsberg insists I must eat my broccoli broccoli broccoli

15 May, Mauri Ola reading: Tusiata Avia: “It’s a big poem & this is a small stage so I’m going to read it in a contained way so I don’t fall off or burst into flames.” A tattoo keeps flashing out from the cuff of her blazer.

Kiwi expression from Richard: “to pack a sad.”

Love-dirty and almost bald, / the animals peer down from their high shelf.

17 May, Auckland University: Chris (student-blogger) is at the front of the room discussing Chinese dissident poetry with Helen & Michele. Michele is saying something like, “Well, we don’t want this assignment to instigate a crackdown on an artist by an authoritarian government.” Beautiful Olive is sprawled across the blue-beige carpet. I imagine she wants to go outside and smell things, but maybe that’s me.

Myself the only kangaroo among the beauty

Researching poetic networks is making me feel anomalous. Partly this is just the familiar unfamiliarity of living in a different country, where every friendship is new and you’re never quite sure whether you understand people or they understand you. Some of my disorientation is minor and funny, like realizing in the middle of reciting “Spring-Sick” in Dunedin that oh, I have a northern hemisphere bias: April does not equal spring here. That was during an event at Circadian Rhythm organized by Emma Neale. She smiled down the long room, gave a brilliant mock flight-attendant introduction, and passed out candy in case our ears popped. When Diane Brown read some engaging sonnets about being an Aucklander dating a southerner and the possible local meanings of “southerner” began to explode in my brain, the psychic jet lag caught up with me. I had spent the morning wandering around a cloud-ridden city that reminded me of Liverpool, England; eaten terrific Korean food for lunch; watched the day turn brilliant from the tip of the Otago Peninsula, among yellow-eyed penguins and baby fur seals who gazed back at me curiously; and ended the day in an imaginary airplane, avoiding poems of mine containing swear-words, because New Zealanders are much more polite than people from New Jersey.

Being the featured reader at a poetry event in a city you’re visiting for the first time feels incredibly presumptuous. Here everybody is in the middle of their own long-running conversations, among friendships and rivalries and hierarchies you cannot detect. Even if you research the scene in advance, which I rarely find time to do well, you don’t figure out the important things until you’re driving away, or much later. How can you choose poems that will make those audience members glad they came?

After gawking at the stupendously scenic south island of New Zealand for much of the second half of April, I spent three days in Melbourne, Australia, giving scholarly talks and finishing with a reading among the mirrors and leopard-spotted throw rugs at Animal Orchestra. My visit was initiated by Jess Wilkinson, whom I met in San Diego, California at the Contemporary Women Writers conference in July 2010 (note how I don’t say “last summer”). I attended as many poetry sessions as I could, and so did she. We sipped wine by the hotel fireplace while Linda Kinnahan and Cynthia Hogue told us about the funniest crises they’d had to field as university administrators. We exchanged email addresses; although Jess was just finishing her doctorate at the time, she was hopeful that she could tap university funds to get me across the Tasman while I was down under. She seemed sparkly with delight during the whole conference, although she told me later what a rough year she’d had personally. When I met her again last week she wined and dined me with poets whose terrific work I should have known beforehand and didn’t, but they were nice to me anyway. After the reading I spent an hour talking about birth order, how to get work done, and what one should do with one’s life with Jess’ student, Daniel, and his friend, Hans, who is in medical school and aspires to practice anaesthesiology in disaster zones. Hans said this was his first poetry reading since his mother made him recite verses as a child to visitors, but he connected with Heterotopia after living in England, the Netherlands, Kuala Lumpur, and now Australia. As I anxiously prepared to read to poets whose work is quite different than mine, I could not have imagined Hans as a member of the audience.

Ann Vickery, who has published some of the most important scholarship on poetry networks, arranged a symposium while I was in Melbourne. Her very sharp paper on friendship both overlaps with and challenges my research into that slippery term community; I’m now thinking about whether friendship influences poetry itself more profoundly while community participation shapes the poetry’s dispersal and reception. And what are the boundaries of friendship anyway—is it fundamentally about feeling, the way community comes down to a subjective sense of belonging?  Reading poetry by a person you know has an intimate charge but it’s all refracted through literary imperatives, mixed up with fiction, and anyway, that leaves out most of the basic stuff that entangles you in another human being’s life. Most friendships revolve around shared attitudes towards work and family and politics and religion, what you like to eat and drink, what media you’ll admit to consuming, what you like to do on Saturday. Maybe those relationships are figments too, but they feel less illusory.

Among kangaroos, one’s American weirdness is brightly illuminated. I went back to the hotel after the reading and watched the royal wedding on television while typing in passport numbers for online check-in. I flew to Cairns and came back from snorkelling to pictures of other U.S. citizens cheering the death of an infamous terrorist. I still think that fish are real but the mask is so estranging and all you can hear is your own respiration, a Darth Vader-ish heavy breathing. The animals are watching me watch them and I probably don’t want to know what they’ll tell their real friends about me later.