W&L Writers Resist

mlk-parade

photograph by Stephanie Wilkinson

The work ahead of us is overwhelming, so how to prioritize? I’m watching my friends make various choices, and I respect all of them. Some have stepped up their political activism and local volunteerism. Others have turned off social media and are writing their hearts out. Still others, feeling their words stolen away, unable even to read the news, are focusing on the small good things they can do for their families and in their jobs and classrooms. What kind of effort counts most? Ask me in twenty years.

But I’m proud of my town, which has not always been the case. Friday was Lee-Jackson Day in Virginia, as in Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, leaders of the Confederacy. (If you’re a puzzled reader from outside the U.S. wondering why my state honors a history of treason and slavery, well, don’t get me started.) Lexington, where both generals are buried, is ground zero for the “flaggers,” so we get swarmed annually by outraged white people in period dress. It is seriously intimidating to walk through a cordon of men in Confederate uniforms, some of them waving battle flags on heavy wooden staffs. Then you reach the corner and your sigh of relief is stifled by the apparition of a group of women in hoop skirts, à la Scarlett O’Hara. I hurried along, feeling sick, resonating with that shock many of us felt at election time: when and where do I live?

Yet Saturday, hundreds of people marched down Main Street waving rainbow flags and images of Martin Luther King, Jr. I was at the Bridgewater Poetry Festival, where I heard several really outstanding–and politically urgent–readings, but my phone was buzzing with heartening pictures like the one above. My kids are in that beautiful crowd.

I’m also proud of my colleagues in English. Many of them marched; Sydney Bufkin labored mightily to help organize the marchers. Like most of our efforts to communicate, a parade is ephemeral, but surely this work matters enormously to many, many people. On to the Women’s March in Washington next weekend, to manifest our resistance in the capital.

The creative writers at Washington and Lee are dazzling me, too, with their efforts to make change real. Ellen Mayock and Chris Gavaler are among the founders of a new activist group, 50 Ways Rockbridge, so in addition to blogging fiercely, Ellen about “gender shrapnel” and Chris about the politics of comics, they’re basically trying to counter-balance the Tea Party with kinder voices and grass-roots power. (At least one national umbrella group for these local energies is emerging, as well: check out Indivisible.) For both of them, this activism has deep connections to their research agendas. I admire this synergy even as I struggle with the problem of where best to spend my writing energies, an issue I blogged about recently for Modernism/ modernity under the title “Scholarship and justice.”

W&L writers are also publishing POEMS of resistance, bless them. Many of my recent efforts have had an incantatory quality, like spells or prayers, so it’s interesting to see other local poets wielding similar strategies. Not that we weren’t writing political poems before–we all were–but I see a strong attempt in recent work to summon all the force words can carry to fight, transform, and heal. See, for example, Deborah Miranda’s “Prayer of Prayers,” dedicated to “The Water Protectors at Standing Rock.” Or, more recently, in Terrain.org’s excellent “Letters to America” series, R.T. Smith raining down curses in “Whirling Disease.”

My own most recently published poetic take on the election appeared last week in the journal Rise Up Review: “Imperfect Ten.” I’d been reading Rattle‘s “Poets Respond” series, especially Barbara Crooker’s “Election Ghazal” and Richard Garcia’s “Canada.” Why ghazals? I wondered, then tried my own. I felt compelled to break a rule of this elegant form–the tradition that each couplet is self-contained–because, as another poet said, something there is that doesn’t love a wall, especially lately. You’ll also see that I was reading about the spike in hate crimes reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center. And, finally, that I was stinking mad. I still am, although starting to try to channel it differently. Rage is important, but you can’t set up house there forever.

P.S.: For a more skeptical picture juxtaposing the MLK marchers against the Lee-Jackson “history and heritage” banner, see my daughter on Instagram. She’s right. I confess to feeling some hope these days, but it’s probably irrational. I have great friends. But this country: still crazy.

 

 

Repress the year, but read the books

Countdowns and confetti: bah humbug. By New Year’s Eve, I’m tired of festivity. Middle age has clearly settled in, because I now regularly find myself closing out the year by binge-reading.

December is always a good month for catching up on The Year’s Big Poetry Books. My university library orders the US National Book Award poetry longlist and the Pulitzer finalists annually, so after grades are in, I rush in to the circulation desk and beg them to finish “processing” my slim volumes. This year I’ve only perused a fraction of them so far. Someone had already checked out Dove’s Collected Poems and while I’m a big fan and have written about her work, I’m letting the anonymous poetry-reader keep it for the moment, with blessings. But I’ve at least glanced at the other finalists and almost everything seems worth attention. While I’ve only read the first few pages of the NBA top selection, Borzutzky’s Performance of Becoming Human, it’s powerful and I will finish it.

The oh-my-god discovery in this stack, however, was Diane Seuss’s Four-Legged Girl. What a fierce, smart, funny book! An old lesson affirmed: read the finalists, Lesley. I always respect the winners but fall madly in love with a runner-up.

4-legged

Four-legged girls

Also worth noting: my favorite chapbook was Elizabeth Savage’s Parallax, but the chaps listed below by Janet McAdams, Carrie Etter, Natalie Diaz, and Rosemary Starace are also terrific(Is there a best-annual chapbook post-publication prize? There should be.) For YA poetry, although it doesn’t need to be characterized that way: Marilyn Nelson’s American Ace. Among the books I read for Kenyon Review micros were several charmers, but Ned Balbo’s Upcycling Paumanok impressed me as especially ambitious, crafty, and big-hearted. Books I read for various reasons and liked so much I put them on syllabi include Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Field Guide to the End of the World, Susan Briante’s The Market Wonders, Erika Meitner’s Copia, and Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds.

Other genres: I’m finishing Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad right now and am totally dazzled. I was also delighted to discover, a little belatedly, Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being and N. K. Jemisin’s sf. But all the novels I read this year were good, with the likely exception of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, of which I cannot remember one scene. My book-length nonfiction reading was more uneven–a few brilliant tomes, a couple of weak choices–but I hope to do better in 2017.

And on that note, I would REALLY like to catch up with NZ poetry this year–I’m appalled to see not one item here from a country I remain so in love with. Please put the word out I’d be happy to get review copies, print or electronic, for my micro-review gig at Kenyon Review Online. I probably won’t lose 10 pounds or exercise more, but sit around with cups of tea and new poetry collections? THAT’s a resolution I can uphold.

Best wishes for everyone to thrive in the new year, except the orange man, upon whom I wish shame, frustration, and disaster.

POETRY

1/10 White, LettERRS (review assignment)

1/18 Rankine, Citizen (reread for work event)

2/15 Stone, Poetry Comics (friend’s recommendation)*

2/19 Francis, Forest Primeval (review by friend in Kenyon Review)*

2/19 Dungy, Suck on the Marrow (scouting historical poetry)

2/20 Barnstone, The Beast in the Apartment (friend’s recommendation)

2/22 Carson, Nox (knew it would be great and was saving it)

2/23 Gray, Photographing Eden (AWP staff)

2/25 O’Reilly, Geis (review assignment)

2/27 Okrent, Boys of My Youth (review assignment)

3/19 Bridgford, Human Interest* (ms to blurb)

3/20 Robinson, Sometimes the Little Town* (friend and local author)

3/21 Meitner, Copia (bought after her reading at VA Festival of Book)

3/23 Dop, Father Child Water (ditto)

3/25 Powell, Useless Landscape (preparing to meet him at AWP)

3/27 Leahy, Constituents of Matter (AWP staff)

4/2 Rocha, Karankawa (AWP prize winner)

4/3 Day, Last Psalm at Sea Level (picked up at AWP)

4/7 McAdams, Seven Boxes for the Country After* (friend and poet I admire)

4/10 Clarvoe, Counter-Amores (reread prior to Kenyon visit)

4/11 Meeks, The Genome Rhapsodies (review)

4/23 Le Guin, Late in the Day* (review)

5/1 Kildegaard, Ventriloquy* (review)

5/4 Hoppenthaler, Domestic Garden (possible campus visit)

5/4 Dubrow, The Arranged Marriage (heard her read from it 2 years ago)

5/13 Duncan, Restless Continent (review assignment, also recommended by friend)

5/? Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds* (multiple good reviews)

5/27 Stallings, Olives (had been meaning to for years)

6/1 Nelson, American Ace* (poet long admired, picked up at conference)

6/2 Preston, Centennial Poem for Washington and Lee University (research)

6/4 Starace, Unseen Avenue* (friend and poet I admire)

6/13 Davis, Traditional Ballads of Virginia (research)

6/14 Frank, The Opposite of People (review assignment)

6/26 Jackson, ed., Selected Poems of ESV Millay* (review)

7/4 Schroeder, Inked* (met author at conference)

7/11 Tribble, Natural State* (review)

7/18 Dietrich and Ferguson, eds., Drawn to Marvel (reread for class planning)

7/21 Thompson, The Myth of Water* (review)

7/30 Carlson, Symphony No. 2 (review)

8/2 Paschen, Infidelities (AWP board member)

8/30 Baca, Selected Poems (class prep—coming to campus)

9/2 Wood, Weaving the Boundary* (regional author I’ve heard at readings)

9/24 Rackin, The Forever Notes (met at reading)

9/24 Campbell, Dixmont (met at reading)

9/30 Eliot, Prufrock and Other Observations (for class)

10/8 Miller, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (friend’s recommendation)

10/8 Briante, The Market Wonders* (future campus visitor)

10/10 H.D. Sea Garden (for class)

10/22 Savage, Parallax* (by a friend)

10/24 Eliot, The Waste Land (for class)

11/? Hughes, Montage of a Dream Deferred (for class)

11/? Gailey, Field Guide to the End of the World* (for class)

11/? Anderson, Stain (to blurb)

12/16 Diaz, The Hand Has Twenty-Seven Bones (follow her work)

12/16 Balakian, Ozone Journal (Pulitzer winner)

12/22 Sharif, Look (NBA finalist)

12/28 Seuss, Four-Legged Girl* (Pulitzer finalist)

12/31 Gizzi, Archaeophonics* (NBA finalist)

 

FICTION

1/16 Lerner, 10:04 (daughter’s recommendation)

1/20 Butler, Kindred (reread for guest-teaching)

1/31 Anders, All the Birds in the Sky* (Jemisin’s NYT review)

2/7 Gavaler, Patron Saint of Superheroes (unpublished, to give the author feedback)

2/15 Penny, Still Life (friend’s recommendation)

2/19 Atwell, Wild Girls (writer recently moved to my town)

3/13 Jemisin, Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (friend’s recommendation)

3/18 Jemisin, Broken Kingdoms (continuation of trilogy)

3/22 Jemisin, Gods’ Kingdom (continuation of trilogy)

3/29 Jemisin, The Awakened Kingdom (novella postscript to trilogy)

3/29 Grimes, Rainbow’s End (audiobook it took me 5 months to finish)

3/29 Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton* (friend’s recommendation)

4/17 Ozeki, Tale for the Time Being (recommended by friend)

5/4 Martin, Dance with Dragons (reread for TV show)

5/12 Myerson, The Stopped Heart (Weber’s NYT review)

5/23 Weber, True Confections (met author at Kenyon)

5/30 Erdrich, LaRose* (longstanding favorite author)

6/18 King, End of Watch* (another favorite author)

6/22 Sittenfeld, Eligible* (curious about her work for a while, NYT review)

7/10 Hairston, Will Do Magic for Small Change* (Jemisin’s NYT review)

7/16 Hoffman, The River King (friend’s recommendation)

7/28 Brodie, Adulterer’s Club (unpublished, to comment on ms)

7/31 Kohrner-Stace, Archivist Wasp (interest in Small Beer Press)

7/31 Thorne & Tiffany, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child* (couldn’t help it)

8/8 Walton, Necessity* (favorite author)

8/20 Nguyen, The Sympathizer (dual Pulitzer/ Edgar wins intrigued me)

8/27 Millet, Sweet Lamb of Heaven (recommended by friend)

9/10 Morganstern, The Night Circus (recommended by friend)

9/28 Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate* (sequel I was waiting for)

11/? Willis, Crosstalk (author I follow)

12/14 Jones, Mongrels* (recommended by a friend)    

 

NONFICTION

1/30 Kolbert, Sixth Extinction (daughter’s recommendation)

2/8 Jackson, Marginalia (for research)

2/8 Scholes, The Crafty Reader (for research)

2/8 Coates, Between the World and Me (recommended by a zillion friends)

2/9 Freedman, Frey, Zauhar, Intimate Critique (for research)

2/11 Tompkins, Reader Response Criticism (for research)

3/4 Christman, Darkroom (AWP board)

3/8 Eakin, How Our Lives Become Stories (research)

5/12 MacDonald, H is for Hawk (audiobook; widely recommended)

7/25 Mayock, Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace (by friend and colleague)

7/27 Culler, Very Short Introduction to Literary Theory (course prep)

8/10 Biss, On Immunity (widely recommended)

9/1 Gay, Bad Feminist (audiobook, widely recommended)

9/30 Shumer, Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo* (audiobook, whiling away a car trip)

10/29 Meehan, Imaginary Bonnets with Real Bees in them* (poet I research)

12/24 Connors, Milkweed Matters * (writer is a friend)

12/31 Greene, Time’s Unfading Garden (research)

*2016 publication or pretty damn close

 

Tough Guide to the Field Guide to the End of the World

field-guide-gaileyJust a postcard here from the end of a very tough term–a cheery note from amid the ruins to show off some good work my students just completed. The last book my composition class read was Jeannine Hall Gailey’s excellent new collection, Field Guide to the End of the World. For a final writing assignment after a series of more conventional persuasive essays, my students had the option of writing another essay, OR writing speculative fiction or poetry based on our readings, OR participating in a weirder project. Imagine, I told the intrepid explorers who chose the third path, that Gailey’s End of the World is a real place. Create a web-based travel guide for tourists wishing to visit it, mining the poems for clues about its character.

As we geared up, Gailey Skyped into my class to chat and answer questions, handling some apocalyptic technical glitches, ALL on our end, like a pro. Lonely planet writer and W&L alum Amy Balfour visited in person to talk about going on assignment and constructing punchy, economical descriptions full of revelatory details. We scoured guide books, noting their stylistic tics, and were trained in WordPress by W&L’s Senior Academic Technologist Brandon Bucy.

Here is the mock-travel-website seven students created. I think it’s hilarious, but more so if you read Gailey’s book, which you totally should (sample poems here, for starters). And according to the reflective essays students submitted yesterday, they had more fun with it than seems quite proper for a composition course. (And here, for comparison, is the travel guide to Gaileyland students from an earlier course created, based on Jeannine’s first collection, Becoming the Villainess. Her books have a combination of light, darkness, and just plain weirdness that makes them a really good fit for this world-building assignment.)

May all your grading be this entertaining. And if it’s not, rethink those syllabi for next term. These students, after all, stretched their writing skills significantly and came to know a book of poetry really deeply. As long as everyone’s working hard, why shouldn’t the end-times be fun?

writ-100

Writ 100 students conferring, and a blackboard in Early Fielding full of topic ideas

Woman escapes monster

insatiableOh, the existential horror of a North American professor in August…Teaching at a liberal arts college full of talented students is an excellent gig, but during teaching terms, the job eats me alive. This is going to be an especially intense fall for coursework, plus I’m running a search. In a few weeks, in short, I will be all tied up and dangling upside down in the den of the monster Work.

Every year, the prospect frightens my saner summer self. I have a history of asking for books about meditation for my September birthday–until Chris laughed at the request, commenting he’d already bought me a shelf-full and I’ve never cracked any of them. Whoops. I actually have done marginally better this year with meditation, yoga, etc., but mainly because conditions were dire and I really had to work at not going under. Being on sabbatical is awesome, but anxious person that I am, I felt internal pressure to come to closure on long-standing projects–and then I was floored by the emotional stress of sending my first child off to college, my mother’s lymphoma, and a host of health problems. Lots of pain this year. Having a middle-aged body seems to require striving harder and harder to maintain a deteriorating status quo.

Relative to others, I remain very lucky. My mom is recovering well, my daughter had a brilliant first year, and I have the resources to handle most of the hitches the universe throws at me. A rusting roof that needs to be fixed and sealed? Cracked car windshield requiring replacement? Dental work? Do less pleasurable ways to spend pots of money even exist? But it’s okay. It’s getting done. And I’m likely to survive the fall, too, with only minor breakdowns.

Some strategies, since asking for self-help books should clearly be off the table.

  1. Do the work that stresses me out most, no excuses. I’ve spent the summer so far writing and revising (work I like) but, most importantly, making sure that all the best writing I did this year is under consideration somewhere. I dislike submissions intensely–it’s hard to figure out where work should go, but also emotionally hard to ask respected editors, “hey, do you like this thing that’s, you know, the very best I’m capable of, and intensely personal in ways that may not be obvious, as well as my cosmic reason for existing, kind of?” Ugh.
  2. When I’ve done at least one hard thing per day, use the rest of the time available to get a jump on work that’s easier, but would stress me out at a busier moment. I’ve been writing micro-reviews for the Kenyon Review Online so I have a backlog. Fall syllabi are well-developed and winter ones are roughed out. I’ve drafted the summer/ sabbatical reports due in the fall, made to-do lists, done advance planning for events I’m in charge of, etc. I cleaned out my office, even, and did a lot of chores at home.
  3. Pay attention. When I have pain, for example, instead of trying to live around it and maintain writing’s dream, I’m attempting to notice it, think about causes/ patterns, see if it can be remediated. Podiatrist tomorrow, sigh. The same goes for anger and worry. I’m noticing that FB has been making me unhappy lately, so I need to spend less time there. Many people in my life need attention, too. Lots of friends are having rough years. And while teenage kids don’t require a parent’s bodily presence as much, they need intelligent awareness more than ever.crow
  4. Bask in the good stuff. I had a couple of poetry acceptances this summer I’m really pleased about (Blackbird and Thrush). I’m including pictures here from two magazines that just arrived. The triolet is one of two just published by Kestrel and “Crow on the House,” inspired by Plath’s “Black Rook in Rainy Weather,” is from the latest Fjords. Clearly it’s the summer of birds, so remind me, please, of other avian-themed journals. I’ll fly to submit. 

And next week I’ll bask big-time. The four of us are heading down to a beach rental in North Carolina. I plan to do zero work and as much pleasure-reading in the hammock, or on the sand, as possible, and play board games, and explore an unfamiliar island with the ever-hungry and curious Gaveeler crew. The monster Work, as far as I am concerned, will just have to snuffle in frustration at my glib auto-reply.

 

Gender shrapnel, from one foxhole

“The first time you’re hit by it, you have no idea what it is, what it came from, or why…If you ever try to confront the events, you feel half crazy and afraid…People start to tell you to calm down, to pick your battles more carefully, and to be grateful for what you’ve got…As you obey and shut yourself up, you start to notice more of what is happening to other women around you. The shrapnel itself and the silence surrounding it start to seem more and more absurd. You start coming up with nine-block cartoons and lyrics for a sexual harassment musical. You wonder who’s crazier now…” (4)

I just finished a new book, Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplaceby colleague and friend Ellen Mayock. It’s useful and even funny, as in the passage above, but painful to read, too. It’s hard to face being valued less in a demanding workplace because of your gender. I’m more comfortable acknowledging good luck than discrimination. My identity has brought me many advantages, but what what I’m thinking about today is how I’ve hated being a girl for as long as I can remember.

I hate the cultural implications–that my appearance matters so much to strangers and to me. But the ways that culture and biology intersect are no fun, either. I’ve spent so much time feeling physically afraid. Weak. And menstruation, pregnancy, lactation–oh my god. Having two healthy children prospering in the world is part of my luck, and it’s healthy for an intellectual to be reminded she is, in fact, a mammal, connected to natural cycles in the very tissues of her body. Yet I would gladly have shared the costs of gestation with my husband and I can’t wait for menopause. If you identify as a woman and love it, that’s great, truly. But womanhood as I’ve known it is, at best, a royal pain.

Is this a bad attitude to admit? Does it make me a lousy role model, or render hypocritical the solidarity I feel with women writers? I don’t know. Certainly it’s a kind of frustration no one should have to feel. But it’s the truth, for this one person.

I’m not the only professor who throws herself into work to get away from the limits of embodiment just to find work directing her back to that very body. Gender Shrapnel offers smart analysis of harmful ways an academic workplace can keep reminding a striver, “nope, you’re a woman, before all.” The chapters on “silence” and “tempered radicalism” are particularly powerful, as well as the idea that women who speak up become “radioactive,” tainting anyone they try to help. And Mayock is great on insidious factors that can reinforce gender power structures: when and where a meeting is set, for instance. A few other passages I dogeared:

131: “Administrators who appreciate strength, even divergent, possibly competing types of strength, in their employees also exhibit real strength, for they are modeling the type of intellectual debate that their organizational mission statements are promoting.”

171: On making place for critique of an organization, within the organization: “Ponder the possibility that all workers have the good of the organization in mind.” (I do, even in my angriest moments.)

175: “Leaders who can express ‘humility and modesty’ are de factomen. Why is this? Because it is a given that they are excellent and, therefore, they are provided the luxury of presenting themselves as humble or modest. Women leaders and/or aspiring women leaders do not have this luxury, and I believe that the same is true for people of Color.”

197: “The leading study on maternal wall stereotypes found that, compared to women with identical resumes but with no children, mothers were: 79% less likely to be hired, 100% less likely to be promoted, offered $11,000 less in salary for the same position, held to higher performance and punctuality standards.”

I dread taking this female body back to full-time teaching as my sabbatical ends. I love teaching, and other parts of my job can be great, too–helping students and colleagues thrive, advancing the arts on campus. But a boss who bullied and undermined me for years is still parked in my building, proof to me, forever, that my employers don’t consider my professional well-being important. I don’t feel safe, even cushioned as I am by so many privileges–tenure for starters. Whiteness. None of us is ever safe, I know, but I wish we could show more respect for each others’ fears and impose consequences on aggressors.

On shrapnel and poetry: I know of two recent cases in which talented women poets were pushed out of academic leadership positions for reasons that had a lot to do with gender. And women writers suffer flak from more distant battles, too–VIDA has done a lot to highlight how much gender shrapnel is flying around in the publishing world. Small data points have big consequences.

But harassment, mobbing, and other destructive behaviors rooted in gender bias affect literature more deeply than that. Sometimes people are so demoralized they can’t or don’t write in the first place. Sometimes, more positively, suffering redirects writing into new channels.

Writing remains a primary way for me to probe inequity and imagine a better order. Here, in disembodied language, I feel as strong, as pretty as any of you. So among Mayock’s many lists in this book, I particularly relished “Stages of Confronting Sexual Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation in the Academic Workplace” (50-2). The whole thing is priceless, beginning with #1, “What the hell was that?” But I note how much time I spend at #15, “Anger, frustration at the injustice,” in which the harassed person, coming to voice in ways others may find inappropriate, “consider[s] writing cartoons or musicals.” For me, speculative feminist novellas in terza rima, and I ain’t done yet.

Bless activists who make change in the courts, the streets, the boardrooms. For me, it’s mostly the classroom, the student conference, the printed page, the blog. Also, the voting booth. Small spaces. The consequences remain to be seen.

Lastly, because performing gender is a drag, here’s some joy:

Book promotion, reading, butt-sitting

Lately I’ve been reading in a fragmentary way–journalism, parts of books, letters in archives–in the shadow of crises. Too much death and division in the news; too many friends ill. The latest small, stupid pain came from a hornet’s sting Sunday. I guess the hard crying afterwards was cathartic, but my foot is still swollen and my stalled condition seems symbolic.

Yet I am lucky to be sitting on my keister reading, writing, and revising–work I love. Since I’ve got three + book projects in the works, and since we’re now more than halfway through 2016, I started thinking about my readerly habits. I’ve been keeping a list like the one below for a few years now, but the latest variation involves jotting down, in parenthesis, why I picked up that particular volume. I imagined this way of keeping records might help me figure out where to put my own publicity energy in future.

It turns out a good chunk of what I read is, in one way or another, on assignment. Usually I’d be prepping for class as well as conducting research, but this spring, on sabbatical, a lot of my assignment-reading related to monthly micro-poetry-reviews for the Kenyon Review Online, as well as reviewing for other journals (at a rate I will not be able to keep up…). But what about the rest, the reading I do for pleasure, out of general curiosity?

Turns out reviews do matter, but primarily when I admire the reviewer. I’ve never met N.K. Jemisin, for example, but I like her own books and her taste, so her new sf roundup column for the New York Times has been shaping my choices. Friends’ recommendations are highly influential, too, via published reviews  or when the guy who cuts my hair says, “I know My Name Is Lucy Barton sounds like a depressing premise, but it’s really not that sad–I loved it.”  

There are certain authors whose work I watch for and read immediately–King, Erdrich, and Le Guin lately–and others who have been languishing in my must-read pile forever. I also read books by old friends and new acquaintances, often spurred to do so by the prospect of seeing the person soon. My project since joining the AWP board, for instance, is to read one book by each of my very lovely fellow board members–but I paused halfway through, right after the conference.

I rarely read a book because of the press or cover design or fancy blurbs, although those factors can get me to open the book and spend a little time with it, sometimes even to buy it. But as much as sales matter, are they more important than actually getting read? If I don’t warm to the work on its own merits, after all, I just put it down. I’m middle-aged, man. Millions of good books and no time to lose.

Moral: luck, timing, acquaintance, readings, and word of mouth all get a book into my hands. But unless some big obligation is sitting on me, I won’t actually finish it unless it’s somewhere between good and awesome. Below are the mostly good-to-awesome books (not magazines) I’ve read completely (or listened to) during the first half of 2016 (asterisks for those published this year, to help me if I get a year-in-review gig next December). I would be VERY interested to hear how various books make it to the tops of YOUR piles.

POETRY
1/10 White, LettERRS (review assignment)
1/18 Rankine, Citizen (reread for work event)
2/15 Stone, Poetry Comics (friend’s recommendation)*
2/19 Francis, Forest Primeval (review by friend in Kenyon Review)*
2/19 Dungy, Suck on the Marrow (scouting historical poetry)
2/20 Barnstone, The Beast in the Apartment (friend’s recommendation)
2/22 Carson, Nox (knew it would be great and was saving it)
2/23 Gray, Photographing Eden (AWP staff)
2/25 O’Reilly, Geis (review assignment)
2/27 Okrent, Boys of My Youth (review assignment)
3/19 Bridgford, Human Interest* (ms to blurb)
3/20 Robinson, Sometimes the Little Town* (friend and local author)
3/21 Meitner, Copia (bought after her reading at VA Festival of Book)
3/23 Dop, Father Child Water (ditto)
3/25 Powell, Useless Landscape (preparing to meet him at AWP)
3/27 Leahy, Constituents of Matter (AWP staff)
4/2 Rocha, Karankawa (AWP prize winner)
4/3 Day, Last Psalm at Sea Level (picked up at AWP)
4/7 McAdams, Seven Boxes for the Country After* (friend and poet I admire)
4/10 Clarvoe, Counter-Amores (reread prior to Kenyon visit)
4/11 Meeks, The Genome Rhapsodies (review)
4/23 Le Guin, Late in the Day* (review)
5/1 Kildegaard, Ventriloquy* (review)
5/4 Hoppenthaler, Domestic Garden (possible campus visit)
5/4 Dubrow, The Arranged Marriage (heard her read from it 2 years ago)
5/13 Duncan, Restless Continent (review assignment, also recommended by friend)
5/27 Stallings, Olives (had been meaning to for years)
6/1 Nelson, American Ace* (poet long admired, picked up at conference)
6/2 Preston, Centennial Poem for Washington and Lee University (research)
6/4 Starace, Unseen Avenue* (friend and poet I admire)
6/13 Davis, Traditional Ballads of Virginia (research)
6/14 Frank, The Opposite of People (review assignment)
6/26 Jackson, ed., Selected Poems of ESV Millay* (review)
7/4 Schroeder, Inked* (met author at conference)
7/11 Tribble, Natural State* (review)

FICTION
1/16 Lerner, 10:04 (daughter’s recommendation)
1/20 Butler, Kindred (reread for guest-teaching)
1/31 Anders, All the Birds in the Sky* (Jemisin’s NYT review)
2/7 Gavaler, Patron Saint of Superheroes (unpublished, to give the author feedback)
2/15 Penny, Still Life (friend’s recommendation)
2/19 Atwell, Wild Girls (writer recently moved to my town)
3/13 Jemisin, Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (friend’s recommendation)
3/18 Jemisin, Broken Kingdoms (continuation of trilogy)
3/22 Jemisin, Gods’ Kingdom (continuation of trilogy)
3/29 Jemisin, The Awakened Kingdom (novella postscript to trilogy)
3/29 Grimes, Rainbow’s End (audiobook it took me 5 months to finish)
3/29 Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton* (friend’s recommendation)
4/17 Ozeki, Tale for the Time Being (recommended by friend)
5/4 Martin, Dance with Dragons (reread for TV show)
5/12 Myerson, The Stopped Heart (Weber’s NYT review)
5/23 Weber, True Confections (met author at Kenyon)
5/30 Erdrich, LaRose* (longstanding favorite author)
6/18 King, End of Watch* (another favorite author)
6/22 Sittenfeld, Eligible* (curious about her work for a while, NYT review)
7/10 Hairston, Will Do Magic for Small Change* (Jemisin’s NYT review)

NONFICTION
1/30 Kolbert, Sixth Extinction (daughter’s recommendation)
2/8 Jackson, Marginalia (for research)
2/8 Scholes, The Crafty Reader (for research)
2/8 Coates, Between the World and Me (recommended by a zillion friends)
2/9 Freedman, Frey, Zauhar, Intimate Critique (for research)
2/11 Tompkins, Reader Response Criticism (for research)
3/4 Christman, Darkroom (AWP board)
3/8 Eakin, How Our Lives Become Stories (research)
5/12 MacDonald, H is for Hawk (audiobook; widely recommended)

2bread

One of several intimidating to-be-read piles in my life

 

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