Oh, mother

Writing is a confidence game, and while generally I can play it with the necessary brio, occasionally I drop all the cards.

In many ways, I’m having a great spring. I love this new essay on Radioland by Athena Kildegaard in Bloom. I’m happily tinkering with fall syllabi, but I still have a few months before September hits, hallelujah.

I also have some cool events coming up. One is a long weekend with my spouse on Martha’s Vineyard (attending a wedding then just hanging out). Others are work, but the fun kind. With the usual ambivalence–feeling both that my work deserves attention and I am a total impostor–I applied last fall and winter to various series, and some applications resulted in invitations. See my Events page for details on May-June readings In D.C., Maryland, and CT. It reminds me that when you throw out lots of filaments, like Whitman’s spider, a few catch.

So with all that busy-ness ahead, plus a visit with my mother next week and picking up my daughter from her first year of college, I thought: I need to stay focused on the time-sensitive work, which mostly involves tying up the threads on big projects and getting them under consideration. I tried, with some success. I worked, got sick, recovered, worked some more. Then, last weekend, I froze.

I don’t know why I’m having trouble moving ahead, although I always find it harder to send stuff out than to write it in the first place. I know why I write and always will write–building a little world is joyful, healing work. Marketing a little world: less fun. Maybe I don’t want to finish these projects, at some level. Maybe I’m experiencing biochemical chaos, pollen allergies, unresolved anger. I’m worried about my mother, who face-planted in the radiologist’s office recently and knocked out her top front teeth. I was also disheartened by being laid up on the couch all weekend. I’d been so relieved by improved health in the last couple of weeks–I finally seemed to be on a path toward physical well-being, able to take walks again!–and then I twisted my heel and reactivated my plantar fasciitis. Painful for a couple of days, but trivial in the long run. What’s harder is being reminded that all my plans are basically imaginary and can be swept away in a moment.bookcase

At any rate, after that Saturday morning injury came several very low days. Honestly, I’ve gone into deeper holes, and for much longer. I know how to manage an unhappy brain, just like I know the regime of heat, ice, rest, and gentle stretches that helps my foot. I just slow down and do whatever work seems possible; trying to force progress on a project I’m discouraged about doesn’t get me anywhere, so better to clean out a closet or just read. (Although I’m not yet ready to face reorganizing my books–why did I once think all my contemporary poetry would fit in one bookcase?)

So this week I tinkered with writing that felt outward-focused, not self-aggrandizing. I know some people don’t see reviews as acts of generosity, but I receive them that way, and writing them feels like service to poetry. Having finished a couple of tardy reviews, I already feel better. A little.

One obstacle to feeling a lot better is, paradoxically, my basic sanity. A failure of confidence is actual a rational response to the literary market. Most people don’t want to read what any of us is putting out there. Yet, oh my god, am I grateful other writers persist. I need to immerse myself in their consoling fictions when my own imagination fails and I confront the stark truth of things.

Well, my lunatic desire to seek audiences has always resurged before. I just have to accept this latest highly symbolic health problem, that my feet don’t want me to move. Work on it gently, and wait it out. I hear I may be getting breakfast in bed this Sunday with some homemade blueberry muffins. My feet, honestly, ought to calm down–they have it pretty good.

 

 

 

Watch me listen

Thomas_Wilmer_Dewing_-_The_Hermit_Thrush_-_1890

On Saturday I met my daughter at Union Station in D.C. and we ended up at the National Portrait Gallery, standing in front of paintings until our feet ached. I’ve done the rounds there a few times but don’t remember seeing “The Hermit Thrush” (1890), above, by Thomas Dewing. I love those postures of keen, blissful listening. And the precision of the figures against the passionate blur of a landscape–they’re immersed in that meadow, melting into it as they listen.

Being a poet and poetry critic means focusing on verbal rather than visual representations of listening. The song of the hermit thrush is important near the end of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” but what I thought of first was an earlier poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”–one of Whitman’s elegies for Lincoln. For Whitman, the thrush’s song is a “carol of death,” and yet he hears praise in it, and his own song echoes it.

“O singer bashful and tender, I hear your notes, I hear your call,
I hear, I come presently, I understand you…
As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night,
Sadly sinking and fainting, as warning and warning, and yet again bursting with joy,
Covering the earth and filling the spread of the heaven…”
Why does Whitman’s poem, with its fragrance of lilac and cedars, absorb me more deeply than Dewing’s painting? Vision presupposes distance, while sound enters your body through the ears’ uncloseable portals–but after all, a poem in print only pretends to sound, or at least, I only sound it mentally. A poem is, most days, a visual artifact. Maybe the answer lies in me, not any quality intrinsic to the artworks. After all, I wrote and drew and painted furiously as a kid, but poetry was the art that stuck–I’m just a reader more than a gazer. In any case, I do love Dewing’s luminous rendering of a practice so central to my life. (Not that I’ve ever heard a hermit thrush specifically, except here.)
Lately I’m cocking my ear to piles of criticism and theory, as I brush up the now-complete manuscript of Taking Poetry Personally and try to decide if I’ve missed some source that deserves a respectful endnote. I’ve also been listening to my own heart’s rhythms. “Premature ventricular contractions,” the Holter monitor told me, which rarely means anything serious, but it’s uncomfortable to have an unhappy bird in your rib cage. I’m logging symptoms and activities to see if I can get a handle on triggers (caffeine?) while I wait for the cardiology appointment. Tick, tock, nix my tea and I will balk.
I recommend Ecotone‘s new Sound issue loudly, by the way, especially for anyone who’s obsessions echo mine. And I’m looking forward to doing some listening of my own next week at the Virginia Festival of the Book. Here’s where you can hear me:
Tuesday, 3/15:  Author Talk with Lesley Wheeler and Chris Gavaler,  5 pm, Leyburn Library Book Nook, Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Refreshments served.

Thursday, 3/17: Together and Apart: A Poetry Reading with Gary Dop, Erika Meitner, and Lesley Wheeler, New Dominion Bookshop, 2 pm, for the Virginia Festival of the Book.

 

As if suspense were a permanent state

Poetry isn’t generally associated with suspense. It seems like an art of uncertainty–and a consolation for that uncertainty. Yet I find myself more and more convinced that poetry’s fragmentariness needs to be anchored by story (earlier post related to this idea here). I’m also wishing I could see the shape of my own story more clearly. As usual, I’m projecting my life into poetry, and vice versa.

On life suspense: my mother is ailing, and so am I, and so are several other people dear to me. Being ill without a clear diagnosis is definitely a bad kind of suspense. My mother has lymphoma and while chemo is triumphing over the tumor, it’s also wearing her down–the doctors are still figuring out why this week has been so bad. I’m a six-hour drive away, so I spend a lot of time waiting for my phone to buzz.

During my 2005-6 sabbatical I researched poetic voice; during this one, I’m making a long-term study of my mother’s intonations by telephone. It’s not just what she’s saying and in what mood, but hoarseness, shortness of breath, and when things are really bad, her difficulty tracking the conversation. Slurring in October first alerted us that something was seriously wrong. I’m judging my sister’s level of worry, too, through tones and texts. All this close listening makes me think of Dickinson only consenting to medical examination through a crack in the door. Not much for a diagnostician to go on.

I’m not so sick as all that. Asthma, swelling, palpitations, lightheadedness–I’ve had the basic tests done to know I’m not in the middle of some cardiac cataclysm, but these medium-annoying symptoms could spring from about five million different problems, and lord knows how long it will take to narrow it down. Another research project.

I’m medicating myself in the interim by reading and writing. I’m revising Taking Poetry Personally and figuring out what presses to query, but that requires high concentration. What I seem to want to do most is read and write poems. Since I have stacks of poetry books around, some sent for review and others I’ve been meaning to get to for ages, I’m picking one up every time I feel low.

Plenty of them are good, but too often I’m disappointed by the first few pages. Every published poet knows, I think, to pick a strong opener, a well-wrought poem that inaugurates the themes and strategies of the collection. It’s surprising, however, how few poets use those early pages to generate suspense–the good kind that keeps a reader on the hook. I don’t mean a murder should be discovered in the first stanza, leaving us to ponder who done it over seventy pages of clever line breaks. Yet there should, I think, be at least one urgent question percolating. And the poems that follow should sustain interest in those questions, so that, by the last few lines of the last verse, we have some provisional, partial, fragmentary sense of an answer.

Narrative isn’t the only tension-generator: poems can also be arguments, spells, and riddles, to be resolved by sound or formal elements as well as, or even instead of, sense. The best poetry book I’ve read recently is actually pretty experimental: Anne Carson’s Nox (what? you demand, and shh, I reply, because my yet-to-be-read list is really embarrassing). I bet many of you have already cracked that box, unfolded the astonishing accordion pages, and pondered her artful use of collage, translated verse, dictionary glosses, etc. The book certainly doesn’t tell a straightforward tale. Yet Carson has such a strong sense of story–she is one of the best living poets, I think, when it comes to writing suspensefully.

“I wanted to fill my elegy with light of all kinds,” she writes early on, addressing the death of her brother. “But death makes us stingy. There is nothing more to be expended on that, we think, he’s dead. Love cannot alter it. Words cannot add to it. No matter how I try to evoke the starry lad he was, it remains a plain, odd history.”

Who was her brother, you wonder, and how did he die? What’s “odd” about his life and death? Isn’t there something odd about this speaker, too–the mix of grief and cool detachment in those lines? Carson doesn’t reveal complete or stable answers to any of these questions. She replies, rather, as poets do, through patterned fragments. Nox is really a long poem and therefore much more unified than most collections, and maybe my own distraction makes me a cranky reader right now, yet I really, really wish more poetry books had some part of its propulsive drive.

In considering all this, I realize the guiding question of my next book of poems is already crystallizing. It’s: Where am I? Really, interest in place runs through all of my poetry collections (think of the titles Heathen, Heterotopia, Radioland), but I’m further out on that question’s ledge than ever.

One answer: nowhere. I’m a middle-aged striver laboring in an obscure small town. As I try to promote Radioland, and feel enormously grateful for the reviews I’ve received and the events coming up soon (W&L next week, and also the VA Festival of the Book, AWP, Kenyon College, and Poetry by the Sea), I’m also struggling. It is HARD to inspire people to order and/or open a poetry book, much less decorate it with laurels, no matter how  engaging its interior might be. One kind of suspense I’m suffering from: of all the threads I’ve recently cast into the void, trying to launch the poems toward a larger audience, will any catch?

Well, I keep telling myself, suspense in this case is better than having hit the canyon floor. I’m proud of the book, plus the new work is worth doing in its own right. I’m finding the somewhere in nowhere and having a hard look around. These badlands have some interesting features.

wile-e-coyote

Marginalia and interleavings

When you read, you think someone else’s thoughts–which is why it’s interesting and good to read books by people whose experiences are different than yours. Sometimes, however, there’s an intermediary spirit in the mix. Pick up a heavily marked used book and you end up glimpsing another reader’s mental processes, too. Students experience this all the time, through used textbooks; in a boring class, you can even get a little obsessed by trying to extrapolate a personality from the highlighter marks and marginal jottings (as a certain Harry Potter episode demonstrates).

I’ve been contemplating this, in part through the lens of a poem I admire from the November 2015 issue of Poetry by Hai-Dang Phan. You should read it, but in short, the speaker traces to understand his father through the notations he made in a Norton anthology, for an English class he pursued after emigrating from Vietnam to the U.S. As I was writing a short discussion of it in my critical book’s introduction, I also happened to serve as anonymous reviewer for an article ms that concerns, in part, interleavings–the clippings etc. readers store in their books, and that booksellers often strip out before resale.

I’ve published a poem called “Bequest” that references the one book I own of my father’s, a Bible from Sunday School. On the reverse of the title page, my father, in a childish hand, penciled a reference to a passage from Job. It strikes me now as having some eerie resonances with the last years of my father’s life. Thinking about marginalia and interleavings, I suddenly remembered: wasn’t there a newspaper clipping, too?

margins4

Yes! My father was born in 1925, the Bible is inscribed to him in 1937, and the newspaper scrap references films from the 40s and 50s. They’re matinees, so this could even be from the 60s or later. How did it get in there, man? I guess I need to see Passage to Marseilles.

Sitting in my office Monday reading H.J. Jackson’s Marginalia, I started thinking about my own inscriptions. I make a lot of what Jackson calls reader’s indexes in the backs of books, especially when I plan to teach or review them. Here’s one from the back of Ann Fisher Wirth’s Carta Marina. This practice of making readers’ indexes goes back centuries.margins3

And that’s not even to mention crumbs, food-stains, and other signs of the reading life! The grass-chain I left in a copy of Whitman makes the book awkward to handle–it’s a fragile remnant of a gradumargins2ate school seminar held out on the lawn by Firestone library–but I feel too sentimental about that spring to discard it.

You will be relieved to know I don’t write, or store organic debris, in library books, but the remnants of other peoples’ readings don’t bother me. They clearly annoy others, because I was just wiping eraser dust yesterday out of a book of literary criticism–someone had underlined passages, and the same person, a librarian, or later reader effaced the markings. I find it more depressing, as Jackson says, when there’s no sign a book has been read before at all. Sadly, the library copy of his own book is pristine.

One thing I treasure about the older books in our university collection: some of them still have cards and signatures in the back. I often see traces there of professors long gone. For example, Barbara Hernnstein Smith’s Poetic Closure is on my shelf. The first library user, from 1970, was Sid Coulling, an eminent and much loved English professor who retired before I even arrived. I love seeing his elegant old hand. It increases my sense of participating in a community of readers. Sorry about the clementine, Sid, but as you know, scholarship is a hungry business.

margins6

 

Thanks David Bowie

…for giving me permission to become a scary monster.

Sigh Like Twig the Wonder Kid

A party tonight with real boys / who needs trouble
Better the problems of representing shadow
Electric snap of static when fingers touch vinyl then
the amplified hush as needle meets its groove
Better to ponder freakishness / whether
the green eye wants what the brown foresees / His tenor
founders on the bridge and she can’t breathe,
as if she’s in love / or gazing in the mirror

Meanwhile she fixes Bowie’s sheen in oils
learning his rouged mouth’s quirks / Not the glam
rock waif who streaked a lightning bolt across
his face / not the corn-pale padded suit of cynical
1983 / but Changes Two
the wet look / Nothing set / nothing dry
Ruffled bedspread / sting of turpentine.
Plaid uniform skirt / her paint-swirled smock
She mixes a bruised hue to smudge around
his eye as cadmium washes from the sky

She applies so little pigment the fibers
of the canvas show / A famished child
a reckless thing / she knows how costumes sink
into the skin / That voice is forever / Yet she claws
up fishnets / finds her cobalt ankle-boots
An ink-and-mustard mini / some Dippity-Doo
Ground Control could learn a thing or two

From RadiolandBarrow Street Press, 2015. The poem was first published in Turbine. The slash marks came later, when I was thinking about punctuation in the book–they seemed a good way to encapsulate the either/ or cruxes of adolescence. Did I have a crush on Bowie, or did I want to be him? I still don’t know, but when I started writing poems I was following his lead, tracking down his every literary reference, studying how he put lines together. I’m sad about today’s news but also just really grateful. He opened strange doors that we’d never close again.

I did paint countless album covers in oils when I was a teenager; here are two, from my Virginia attic. Wish I still had the cobalt ankle boots. Bowie

 

 

 

Close-reading the 2015 National Book Awards

Forecast: capricious poetry weather ahead.

Last year I tackled the National Book Award’s poetry long list in time for a new year’s post and learned a lot from the exercise. This year I was completing the same task, reading with admirable industry and dedication, when I picked up Sunday’s New York Times Book Review and found it dedicated to the year in verse. Out of seventeen volumes receiving substantial mention there, it turned out I had only read two–and those had been granted relatively brief notice. Further, one of those, by Rankine, was a 2014 collection that continues to sell briskly. Granted, a few of the reviewed collections were newish–I follow Kay Ryan and Major Jackson faithfully and I’ll get to their new work eventually. Still, what a crummy percentage!

Let me repeat, then, that I despair of ever being very well-read in US poetry, much less in the verse of the English-speaking world, and I am not well-versed at all in contemporary poetry’s full polyglot splendor. Seriously, anyone who claims her best-of list is authoritative is kidding you, or herself. Some books, like Citizen, really are big events, aesthetically complex achievements speaking to the historical moment. And a collection must be skilfully written, thoughtfully edited, and attractively published to get media attention; as I observed last year, a suspiciously large percentage of books on these lists were published by fancy NYC operations. I’m sending out Radioland to post-publication prizes and can testify that thorough engagement in the awards game takes serious resources. Most presses don’t have the staff or the dough, and most poets can’t personally pick up the slack.

According to my partial survey, not from a mountain-top but an overgrown hill surrounded by cellphone towers and other scenery-blockers, I can testify that many of the year’s most exciting collections do appear on the NBA list.  Robin Coste Lewis’ winning collection is stunning poetry of witness–the central collage is impressive but the framing lyrics really blew me away. I liked Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things so much I spent an afternoon just before Christmas reading bits aloud to my relatives. (I can’t find the title poem online, but look for it–it wowed my teenage daughter.) I’d characterize a good poetry collection as either deliciously crafty, or presenting a powerful take on urgent material, or both, but here’s another criterion: you want to share what you’re reading with loved ones. Limón’s book wasn’t perfect–a few weaker poems diluted the grand ones–but it hit me that way, as a collection I wanted to tell people about.

I also thought, however, that some books didn’t belong on the long list at all. They were, as I said, skilful, but there were a couple I wouldn’t have bothered to finish if I hadn’t committed myself to the task. And on the finalist list, I’m happy to see strong books by Terrance Hayes and Ross Gay, but the collection by Patrick Phillips just wasn’t especially engaging, even for a poet who’s been mining similar material (dead fathers). I found Marilyn Hacker’s entry more impressive–that title sonnet crown is amazing!–and the books by Jane Hirshfield and Lawrence Raab trumped Phillips–well, both Phillipses–in emotional power, at least for me.

Also, while I’d have to reread my year’s favorites to be sure which collection I’d personally choose for the laurels, it’s a shame Claudia Emerson’s Impossible Bottle wasn’t in the running. No 2015 book moved me more than that one. Other achievements that won’t get enough attention: the interdisciplinary ecofeminist gorgeousness of Bindle, an art and poetry collection by Elisabeth Frost and Dianne Kornberg; or the gender adventure of Stephen Burt’s All-Season Stephanie. Both have lingered in my mind, the way risky books do. Neither looks like an NBA book for various reasons–Burt’s, for instance, is a chapbook–but they and many other collections shouldn’t get blown away like so many autumn leaves.

Radioland wasn’t eligible for the 2015 NBA list, by the way, and won’t be for 2016, either. 2016 books have to be published on or after Dec. 1 2015; my book came out Oct. 1, but galleys weren’t ready in time for the NBA’s summer deadline. I don’t think these grapes are sour, therefore, but as I said, I don’t believe in the fiction of impartiality, either. I know I missed or misread good 2015 collections, and I would like to hear other people’s favorites, too. Seems to me the party could use some new refreshments.

In the meantime, I was floored to receive mention on Bill Manhire’s reading list–scroll down to see. Thanks to Emma Neale for pointing it out. And any NZ readers who are having trouble getting Radioland, please let me know. That’s another problem with small presses, of course; I have trouble reading widely in the poetries of other countries unless I can browse their bookstores in person, and I know many other poetry-readers, wherever they are, feel the same frustration.

Today I’m also looking back at 2015’s literary weather in general, my own capricious reading as compared to what I’m supposed to admire. Here’s my count: 48 books of poetry read or reread; 54 novels; and 16 books of nonfiction, not including a jillion articles as well as books in various genres I didn’t feel like finishing. I don’t see how a person with a needy family and a full-time job could read much more, yet I still feel behind–it’s crazy out there. 77 of those books on my personal list were authored by women, and my 2015 reading was diverse in many other ways, too, but I didn’t read very internationally in 2015, except for a pile of British, Scottish, and Irish poems in the summer, and a host of classic British mysteries that kept me sane through the year’s roughest patches.

I’d like to do better as a global poetry citizen in 2016, but given a daughter in college and sabbatical austerities and a looming dental implant, I don’t expect to be springing for plane tickets. Nor am I in a mood for resolutions, except to keep reading and writing. Mostly I follow literary whims (my novel draft is at 45,000 words and counting!)–I read what genuinely calls to me as much as possible–but I will perform the NBA short-list-reading exercise at least one more time. It’s good to study the company I aspire to keep, one of these days.2015 NBA

 

 

Distraction and vegetables

I have been misbehaving again. Instead of finishing  a draft of my critical book this month–it’s close to done–I seem to have shelved it temporarily in favor of writing fiction, a genre I haven’t done much with since college. Ten thousand words last week alone, so the project is thundering along, and I’m having SO much fun. I guess that’s good?–it fits my rule of productive procrastination, anyway. If I can’t work on what I’m supposed to, I just work on something, and things seem to get done on the end. Plus, experiments are generally worth making; even if the project withers, you learn by the attempt.

In the meantime, Radioland was just accepted to the Virginia Festival of the Book–it looks like I’ll read there on Thursday March 17th, but I’ll add the details (and some other upcoming things) to my events page when they’re confirmed. And I am THRILLED to see the first two reviews available online:

Both reviews are insightful and generous, but it’s interesting to reflect on their differences. Writing for a NZ magazine, Cresswell stresses the book’s Aotearoan content, but also the theme of dislocation. I see that place has become a big subject for me, but often in a perverse way, as I write about imaginary, damaged, or vanished locations, so I’m gratified to read her thoughts on the subject. Michaels, on the other hand, cocks her very good ear to themes of distance and intimacy, especially as they arise in parent-child relationships. Since I started writing about voice and medium in my scholarship a decade ago, I’ve been obsessed with them. Communication was the original organizing theme of the collection–although poems do take on a will of their own after a while. A poetry book is a broadcast that too often goes just one way, out into an unresponding world amid a blizzard of other signals. It’s wonderful when listeners out there in radioland actually beam their responses back!

I’ll be doing the same soon. Sometime around the turn of the year I’ll put up some thoughts about 2015 reading. I’ve taken on way too many commitments lately in wild sabbaticalesque enthusiasm–I’ll have various columns and reviews to cross-post in coming months–but I do think there’s a kind of writerly karma involved in buying, reading, and talking about books that move or help or entertain you, just as you hope others will do for you.

However, I also need to dial down the static enough to enjoy my family and the holidays. I haven’t been exactly centered, oscillating between light and dark moods as I am between writing projects. I’m tuning in to political outrage, too, and then overcompensating by shutting out most media for days, horrified by the headlines, afraid if I open my own mouth I’ll just start yelling. This can be a weird, hard time of year and I send good vibes out to the many, many folks having a rougher time than I am.

So, lest I give publicity to the forces that just enrage me, I’ll just say: merry cauliflower to you, beets on earth, and I hope you get some time with a good book soon.

cauli

Anthroposcenery

Washington and Lee students often refer to their version of Lexington, Virginia as “the bubble,” as if were a protected from the world by those soft, old mountains. It’s not, nor would that be a good thing, and they know that. But seeming out-of-time is part of the attractive weirdness of some universities in the U.S. I know the damages people sometimes suffer even this privileged place, sometimes because of the privilege, and yet I appreciate the fantasy too sometimes as I walk through my gorgeous campus with arms full of library books, thinking poetic thoughts. It’s gothic, as my well-read firebrand of a daughter recently commented. Beneath the floorboards of wonderful intellectual conversations, a heart is beating out an accusation, and everyone tries to ignore the sound. (She really does talk like that and it’s part of why I miss her.)

The uncanny pulse gets louder this time of year, when the town hosts a different crowd every few days–family weekends for the two colleges, or trustee meetings, during which stray piles of cash drift over our academic mission like fallen leaves. Good work depends on that fundraising, so I’m happy it succeeds, but it makes me uneasy, too, because the emphasis so often falls on the wrong things. This past weekend was homecoming at W&L so the streets were rowdy with young alums. The graduates I’m closest to are often skeptical-minded literary types, too clear-eyed for unreserved cheering about a very good college with some very real culture problems. I ask if they’re coming back and many say, um, not my scene, unless they’re a retirement bash for a favorite professor in the offing, or some other content to the weekend than rah-rah-school-spirit. 

So it was unusual but very cool to walk downtown Saturday for a beer with a former student (and football-playing-poet) who became a college counselor and a fierce advocate for literary study at small liberal arts colleges. On the way I bumped into other former English majors, now passionately committed to teaching middle and high-schoolers. All are vocally grateful for those hours talking critically about books, writing and revising essays, figuring out what kind of people they wanted to be. My own elder child, a first-year at Wesleyan University, loves English but worries about focusing on it—will she be able to afford organic vegetables when she grows up? (She is really fixated on the cost of produce.) This question does not make me anxious at all. She’s smart and engaged and will graduate with skills employers want, no matter what undergraduate specialty she chooses. Finding the right path, the kind of job that satisfies employee as well as employer, can take time but I have no doubt others will value her intelligence and fire. My own graduates—lawyers, ministers, physical therapists, doctors, HR professionals, writers, editors, artists, arts administrators, diplomats, FBI agents, teachers at every kind of institution—give me high confidence that studying poetry can lead to a good life, however one measures that. (They could level some pretty smart arguments, in fact, for better ways of measuring of the good life.)

On Sunday, however, I fell into a bleaker mood, worrying about my mother in hospital, so I picked up a little book by Roy Scranton, whose first-year-seminar my daughter can’t stop talking about. I ordered it a few weeks ago, but hesitated to jump in, given the title: Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (City Lights, 2015). And it is, in fact, a dark book, full of facts and figures about climate change—a rational person can’t deny a catastrophe is unfolding, but most of us prefer fictional televised zombie apocalypse to consideration of how our grandchildren, if they make it at all, might be subsisting on farmed algae in the new temperate zone of the Arctic Circle. That is the future to worry about.

Scranton was deployed to Iraq in 2003 as a private in the US Army. He managed his terror by following advice from an 18th century manual for samurai: Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. He ritually contemplated his own demise in graphic detail, then, “before we rolled out through the wire, I’d tell myself that I didn’t need to worry anymore because I was already dead. The only thing that mattered was that I did my best to make sure everyone else came back alive” (22). He applies the same logic to human civilization: the Holocene is already over; we have to come to terms with living in a different era, with a very uncertain future.

There’s a lot to disagree with in Scranton’s book, but I was moved to watch it turn, eventually, into a fervent argument for the humanities. “Through the ice ages of the past and into the long summer of the Holocene,” he writes, “we carried tools, furs, fire, and our greatest treasure and most potent adaptive technology, the only thing that might save us in the Anthropocene, because it is the only thing that can save those who are already dead: memory” (95). And: “The study of the humanities is nothing less than the patient nurturing of the roots and heirloom varietals of human symbolic life. This nurturing is a practice not strictly of curation, as many seem to think today, but of active attention, cultivation, making and remaking. It is not enough for the archive to be stored, mapped, or digitized. It must be worked” (99).

When we make literature central to our thoughtful lives, generate new art out of ancient myths, or read poetry to remember the dead, we are working the humanities. I’m glad people fund and value the labor, although I wish we could talk more openly and seriously outside the classroom, as well as in it, about the costs and benefits of the apparent bubble, who’s excluded from it, and how. In any case, it’s good to be part of the heirloom-seeds-relay, so that my students can go on to share their favorite poems in Baltimore schools or embassy outreach classes in the Czech Republic. I’m also grateful my daughter has such a humane, eloquent teacher to plant Gilgamesh and Blake in her brain. We need optimists—hopeful people focused on the practicalities of getting each other out alive—but we direly need our bleak rememberers, too. We lose so much, so constantly.

Poetic housekeeping

The main piece of housekeeping wisdom my mother passed down to me was just make it LOOK clean. If the counter is wiped down, people will admire your kitchen. They’ll never know about the dust under the fridge or even see the crumbs on the floor. Was the family home immaculate? Rarely. Did the below-eye-level debris matter? Not at all.

That advice from a stay-at-home mom adapted pretty well to the life of a mother with a sixty-hour-a-week job, although when the appliance repair guy pulls out the fridge and uncovers some unholy dustscape, I do wince in anticipation of that look: what kind of woman are you, sitting around in sweatpants with piles of books, when THIS is growing HERE? Not that I feel guilty; it just annoys me to suffer raised eyebrows when I don’t have time to make speeches about gendered divisions of labor. I take Chris as a role model, since, in his focus on writing, he is completely impervious to looks the neighbors probably give him about our raggedy yard and the dire lichen blossoming on our siding.

The same principle converts fine to most kinds of work. At home, if the kids are thriving, it doesn’t matter if the weeds are, too. Likewise, at the office, if you’re giving students and colleagues the help they really need, you can leave certain emails to rot; you just have to be clear in your priorities and thoughtful about whether a small task completed now will matter enormously to someone later, or whether it’s really, genuinely small after all.

But what about writing? Scholarship is supposed to be meticulous. A small error now can be quoted and requoted twenty times, distorting arguments made decades later. Yet pore-over-every-source perfectionists may get scooped or never see publication at all, because research is endless, like housekeeping. Once you’ve scoured the whole field, dust is already gathering in the room where you started–there’s always a new angle, or an overlooked one, to worry about. At some point, you just have to say good enough and cross your fingers that the inevitable crumb on the floor stays invisible.

I have made mistakes in print. Blogging and social media make error even more likely–no editors, little time for patient scrubbing. I remind myself I’m not a surgeon–my slips usually cost someone proper credit for his or her hard work, not life and limb–but it still feels bad, as it should, I guess.

This season, as I’m delivering a new poetry book to the world, I realize I’m more fastidious about verse than any other kind of writing. A poem’s room is so little–nowhere for the trash to hide. I also know I can take my time with a poem. Unlike an article, whose reference list quickly spoils, a good poem has a long shelf-life.

Appropriately enough given today’s metaphor, my reflections on editing Radioland appear as a “House Guest” feature this week on Ecotone‘s blog. I’m still not sure if I got everything right in my new collection–my other books have flaws, although I refuse to name them here–but I worked on it word by word, comma by comma, at least as scrupulously as on any project I’ve ever undertaken. Go ahead, run your white gloves all over it and tell me what you find.

And, of course, I had tons of help; my acknowledgements page doesn’t cover the half of it. In addition to everyone named in the book itself, Mary Giaimo does meticulous copy-editing for Barrow Street Press. Sarah Kruse is laboring hard to fulfill orders and help publicity. IMG_1688 (1)Still further behind the scenes, many, many magazine editors made the poems better. (And on that note, hurrah for editors everywhere! I am delighted to have new poems lately in Eleven Eleven and the sci-fi issue of New Orleans Review.)

This week I hit pause on my critical project to complete some more invisible housekeeping. Some of it is unpaid work for others–reviewing articles and promotion files, writing references, and learning how to be a trustee for the AWP (did I mention I’m now Mid-Atlantic Council Chair?–yikes). For my own poetry’s sake, I’m working on a radio essay, with help from W&L people, and who knows if it will ever hit the airwaves? I’m sending out review copies, applying to festivals, and nominating myself for prizes. Most of that work won’t make any difference at all, it’s costly in time and money, and–let me show you behind the oven here–all the self-promotion gets kind of embarrassing.

But, well, hell, let the lichen grow all over the house and the dust bunnies fatten. Boosting the signal for Radioland–that’s high priority. And I am beyond grateful to everyone who has helped, or is helping now, by buying the book, ordering a copy for their library, reviewing it, teaching it, secretly plotting to invite me to read from it, or whatever else you’re doing for poetry rather than wipe out the kitchen cupboards. Seriously, nobody looks in there.

Crazed poet-parent launches daughter and book

Mad Wesleyan

Now my daughter is off in radioland–away at college but constantly present in my imagination, and intermittently present through texts and posts. A message with cheerful emoji has such an instant calming effect on my blood pressure–it’s amazing that when I went to Rutgers, I could only communicate with my family once a week or so via a payphone shared by the whole hall. My mother says that after dropping me off, she went to bed for eighteen hours with her first and only migraine. Performing the same ritual thirty years later, I headed towards the tear-blurred George Washington Bridge, driving like a maniac as I fought a very strong urge to turn the car around again. It’s a relief to be off the highway and tuning into my daughter’s increasingly upbeat broadcasts.

The shock of the separation is, of course, a mark of love–it’s better, in some ways, than NOT finding the transition difficult. When my mother went off to nursing school at 16, no one even walked her to the bus. Imagine that, dragging your lonely suitcase down some Liverpool street towards mysterious adulthood, without even the illusion that the Twitterverse is listening.

If I ever regain some mental focus–all these strong feelings crowd my receivers with a LOT of noise–I’ll be hunkering down to the sabbatical version of brisk September labor. In addition to my main writing project, I have conferences to prepare for and I’m behind on the regular work of poetry submissions. I’m also making to-do lists for the publication of Radioland in a few weeks. You can see the cover, blurbs, and a sample poem here, although it’s not quite available to order yet. Poetry presses do the best they can with limited resources, but publicity is mostly up to the poet, so I’m researching post-publication prizes, festivals, and other reading opportunities, and I’ll send out many notices and review copies myself. (Contact me if you want to teach or review it! Barrow Street Press is good about fulfilling orders, too.) This investment of time and money is intense but worth it; I put a lot of heart and hard thinking into the book so I want it to find readers, even if its chance for serious glory is, as always, small.

In the meantime, if you’re sending out a prose or poetry ms, check out C&R Press’s call for submissions. They published my first poetry collection, Heathen, but the press has new owners now. I’m impressed with the energy and smarts John Goslee and Andrew Sullivan are bringing to the enterprise. Thanks also to the editors of Time Present: The Newsletter of the T. S. Eliot Societywhere my review of Robert Crawford’s Young Eliot appears.radioland thumbnail

And beam me good vibes if you can spare any, because while I’m trying to be philosophical and appreciate my own luckiness, I am kind of a mess.