Multiple worlds in poetry, fiction, and politics

Traveling to an alternate universe of thinking and writing has been helpful lately given an attempted coup, and racist police response, AND the apocalyptic daily death count and a catastrophically lame vaccine rollout. I don’t manage the leap into literary concentration every day, but that’s actually what my next book is about: what helps us slip into the reading trance, where poetry is concerned, and what that border-crossing does for a reader.

I’m polishing and updating my forthcoming essay collection, to be called Poetry’s Possible Worlds or Taking Poetry Personally depending on what my editor says. It requires reading and rereading widely and wildly to make sure my thinking and research are up-to-date: Carolyn Dinshaw’s exhilarating How Soon Is Now, Nicole Seymour’s Bad Environmentalism, and essays on narrative theory, deep attention, presentism, poetry of witness, and much more. New to me is Brian Attebery’s Stories About Stories, of interest partly because I’m thinking about story in poetry but also because of my investment in speculative fiction. Attebery argues that the cultural importance of literary fantasy as a genre lies in how it “redefine[s] the relationship between contemporary readers and mythic texts.” I’m not wholly satisfied with that as a definition, yet the book is useful and interesting. He describes genre, for instance, as “fuzzy sets”: “the question of what genre a particular text belongs to will never be resolved, nor need it be. The interesting question about any given story is not whether it is fantasy or science fiction or realistic novel, but rather what happens when we read it as one of those things.”

In the larger sense, I write in many genres–poetry, fiction, criticism, reviews, literary nonfiction–but I also think of myself as operating in the borderlands between smaller categories. My poetry has appeared and been reviewed in both “mainstream” and sf venues; it’s been called lyric, political, formalist, fabulist, and more, to which I say, cool. My forthcoming hybrid essay collection (blending criticism, theory, and personal narrative) argues that most poetry is not just fiction but fantasy. It’s fiction because framing it on a page as literary art sets it apart from truth and lies; it’s fantasy because, notwithstanding, it’s obsessed with what’s true. I define fantasy in a way that’s tangential to Attebery’s idea; I think of it as fiction exploring questions of what’s real, what matters.

And then there’s my novel Unbecoming. It’s been described as “an excellent feminist fantasy,” Weird fiction, magic realism, a fairy tale, and academic satire. Since it concerns the transformations involved in menopause I thought it might get dismissed as “women’s fiction,” but that’s not how it’s been received at all. No reviewer has called it “domestic fabulism,” either, which might be just as well, although I like some things about the term. The latter refers to books in which the primary world is realistic but into which weirdness makes persistent incursions–a structure that also describes many or most Stephen King novels, and he’s not called a “domestic fabulist.” As much as I enjoy some stories set in secondary worlds, novels that explore the strangeness of what seems familiar are my sweet spot. They’re more realistic than realism, in my experience, and more interesting. Poetry absolutely occupies similar territory, refreshing the ways we encounter the mundane.

Does Unbecoming redefine anyone’s relationship to myth? It does involve crossings in and out of a place like Faerie (called by an acerbic narrator UnWales), considering those crossings as migration tales as well as metaphors for weird bodily metamorphoses (true story: people fall asleep and wake up middle-aged). UnWales seems like an alternate possible reality, too, for characters who are stuck in a bad script or negotiating discrimination. Yet I wonder if the more important myths in my novel are those about menopause, that it’s an end of all good things instead of a beginning. The main character also has to reconsider lots of stories about herself, among them to what extent she’s actually a good person who helps make the world better. I’d give her a mixed grade on that. If you’ve read the novel, I’d be interested to hear what you think.

Back to the allegedly real world where conspiracy theorists in pelts and Viking horns invade the Capitol, convinced they live in a country where the presidential election was stolen, ready to live by and die for their fantasies.

A Very Good Anti-Best List

It’s exasperating when people refer to a work of art as “great” as if that were an objective pronouncement. Great for what? The idea that there could be stable, neutral criteria by which literature could be judged more or less worthy is at best nonsensical. In practice, it’s often a way for powerful people to consolidate power and invalidate contradictory views so they can keep controlling resources, while calmly holding that their views are apolitical, unlike the allegedly hysterical screeds of propagandistic forces celebrating “minority” voices. In English department canon wars, these power-conserving arguments often mutate into claims about “influence”: a work is great because it has been important to many other writers. There’s validity to that; whether or not they find literary monuments beautiful, it’s useful for students of literary history to encounter them, the better to understand books that set out to repurpose or smash the monuments. If you’re serious about literature, though, you also read horizontally across fields, trying to understand the networks and processes of inclusion and exclusion, knowing that you can’t read it all, taking joy in what you love but also listening to arguments based on values/ tastes other than yours. You recognize that what’s “good” for classroom discussion and paper-writing at your institution might not be “good” in another educational setting, much less for a grief group, an open mic, or reading alone when you’re down. And, of course, even a classroom at an apparently homogenous college (like mine) is a gathering of wildly various experiences and needs. What it boils down to: many syllabi and anthologies are carefully curated, inclusive among many axes, and generally wonderful, but they remain documents of networks, access, and other specific, temporary conditions.

Emerging from English department hothouse-politics into the different canons and procedures of Creative Writing, I have to say, oh, man, here we go again. Plenty of people who publish annual best-of lists know perfectly well that what they really mean is “what I liked most among the books that presses sent me or I heard publicity for or came across randomly.” Their newspaper or magazine editors just won’t allow such an egregious headline. Still, these lists bug me, even though, probably hypocritically, I would be quite happy to see one of my books appear on almost any of them. I’m more than delighted when something I wrote delights anyone, and a media boost is awesome. I just don’t like this annual critical abandonment of knowing better.

So here are some 2020 poetry books I like that didn’t appear, to my knowledge, on any best-of-year list or major postpublication prize longlist (I also liked a lot of books that are critical faves, but I’m putting them aside for the moment). The beauties in the picture happened to be in my home office this week (I had already toted others to my work office). Among those shelved across town, special praise to Kaveh Bassiri, 99 Names of Exile; Tess Taylor, Last West; Jessica Guzman’s Adelante; and all the books I had the pleasure of featuring in my spring-summer Virtual Salon (which I’d be happy to reboot if you contact me with a newish book–just message me). There are many, many other exciting collections I haven’t read yet, and everything I found rewarding enough to finish in 2020 is listed below the photo. An asterisk doesn’t mean it’s “better,” just that it was published during the year before I read it. I notice I read a ton of poetry this year but much less prose than usual–that has to do with fragmented concentration–although there are many new books in those categories I also loved.

Best wishes to all of us for a good new year full of good-for-something literature, good-enough health, and please-be-better government. On the reading side, nourish yourself with books, buy from indies when you can, give love to small presses without publicity machines, and like what you like no matter what the critics or professors say!

POETRY (82 books and chapbooks)

  • 1/12 Jeanne Heuving, Mood Indigo* (bought at a conference)
  • 1/12 Tyrone Williams, chapbook* (bought at a conference)
  • 1/18 Harjo, She Had Some Horses (teaching)
  • 1/19 Harjo, American Sunrise* (fandom)
  • 1/22 Rukeyser, The Book of the Dead (reread for teaching)
  • 1/26 Forche, The Country Between Us (reread for teaching)
  • 2/12 Cooley, Breach (reread for teaching)
  • 2/15 Spencer, If the House* (fandom)
  • 2/19 Young, Ardency (reread for class)
  • 3/4 Dove, Thomas and Beulah (reread for class)
  • 3/7 Bassiri, 99 Names of Exile* (gift)
  • 3/7 Witte, All Fires Don’t Burn the Same (gift)
  • 3/8 Smith, Wade in the Water (reread for class)
  • 3/20 Nethercott, The Lumberjack’s Dove (reread for class)
  • 3/21 Liz Hazen, Girls Like Us* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 3/22 William Woolfitt, Spring Up Everlasting* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 3/25 Elizabeth Lindsay Rogers, The Tilt Torn Away from the Seasons* (Virtual Salon)
  • 3/29 Phillips Bell, Ornament (reread for class)
  • 4/3 Cabrera, lack begins as a tiny rumble* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/6 Savage, Detail (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/6 Michael, Barefoot Girls* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/11 Taylor, Rift Zone* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/18 Chan, All Heathens* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/19 Green, The More Extravagant Feast* (local friend)
  • 4/27 Dungy, Trophic Cascade (reread for teaching)
  • 4/29 Robinson, Needville (reread for Virtual Salon)
  • 5/9 Kildegaard & Hasse, Rocked by the Waters* (anthology I’m in)
  • 5/10 Dickey, Mud Blooms (for Virtual Salon)
  • 5/15 Silano, Gravity Assist (reread for Virtual Salon)
  • 5/23 Balbo, The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 6/2 Greenfield, Letdown* (for virtual salon)
  • 6/6 Solari, The Last Girl (fandom)
  • 6/12 Walker, Maps of a Hollowed World* (blurb)
  • 6/27 Egan, Hot Flash Sonnets (fandom)
  • 7/6 Petrosino, White Blood* (ad)
  • 7/14 Diaz, Postcolonial Love Poem* (fandom)
  • 8/1 Voigt, Kyrie (friend recommendations)
  • 8/2 Atkins, Still Life with God* (local friend)
  • 8/3 Guzman, Adelante* (Shenandoah author)
  • 8/4 Hong, Fablesque* (fandom)
  • 8/5 Davoudian, Swan Song* (Shenandoah author)
  • 8/6 Matejka, The Big Smoke (reviews/ buzz)
  • 8/7 Hedge Coke, Burn (fandom)
  • 8/8 Sealey, Ordinary Beast (reputation)
  • 8/9 Chang, Obit* (fandom)
  • 8/10 Perez, Habitat Threshold* (fandom)
  • 8/11 Corral, guillotine* (reputation)
  • 8/12 Neale, To the Occupant (fandom)
  • 8/13 Bailey, Visitation* (pressmate)
  • 8/14 Chatti, Deluge* (buzz)
  • 8/15 Muench, Wolf Centos (recommendation)
  • 8/16 Flanagan, Glossary of Unsaid Terms* (gift)
  • 8/17 Nuernberger, Rue* (fandom)
  • 8/18 Kapur, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist (fandom)
  • 8/19 Farley, The Mizzy* (gift from a friend)
  • 8/20 Avia, Fale Aitu | Spirit House (fandom)
  • 8/21 Andrews, A Brief History of Fruit* (was sent to me)
  • 8/22 Taylor, Last West* (fandom)
  • 8/23 Harvey, Hemming the Water (reputation)
  • 8/24 Ben-Oni, 20 Atomic Poems (fandom)
  • 8/25 Ewing, Electric Arches (reputation)
  • 8/26 Mountain, Thin Fire (Shenandoah contributor!)
  • 8/27 Randall, How to Tell if You Are Human (spouse the comics reviewer had it)
  • 8/28 Davis, In the Circus of You (bought at a conference)
  • 8/29 Clark, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (reputation)
  • 8/31 Murillo, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry* (buzz)
  • 9/20 Kuppers, Gut Botany* (fandom)
  • 9/21 Su, Middle Kingdom (research)
  • 9/22 Tolmie, The Art of Dying* (research)
  • 9/24 Phillips Bell, Smaller Songs* (fandom)
  • 9/30 Coleman, Selected Poems* (research)
  • 10/1 Van Duyn, Firefall (research)
  • 10/26 Birdsong, Negotiations* (review assignment)
  • 11/14 Malech, Flourishing* (reputation)
  • 12/1 Erdrich, Little Big Bully* (fandom)
  • 12/12 Gay, Be Holding* (fandom)
  • 12/17 Miranda, Altar for Broken Things* (friend)
  • 12/18 O’Hara, The Ghettobirds (ms for blurbing)
  • 12/19 Igloria, Maps for Migrants and Ghosts* (fandom)
  • 12/25 Beatty, The Body Wars* (fandom)
  • 12/26 Daye, Cardinal* (review assignment)
  • 12/31 Oliver, Devotions* (fandom)

FICTION (32)

  • 1/8 Suma, The Walls Around Us (friend’s recommendation)
  • 1/26 Cho, The True Queen* (fandom)
  • 2/24 El-Mohtar and Gladstone, This Is How You Lose the Time War* (reviews)
  • 3/7 Mantel, Every Day is Mother’s Day (review)
  • 3/29 Erdrich, The Night Watchman* (fandom)
  • 5/9 Mantel, The Mirror and the Light* (fandom)
  • 5/28 Mandel, The Glass Hotel* (fandom)
  • 6/3 King, Let It Bleed* (fandom)
  • 6/10 Ng, Little Fires Everywhere (many reviews and friend recommendations)
  • 6/17 Collins, Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes* (fandom)
  • 6/21 Foley, The Guest List* (review)
  • 6/24 Brooks, Year of Wonders (audiobook, review)
  • 6/28 Hill, On Beulah Height (friend’s recommendation)
  • 7/5 King, Salem’s Lot (review)
  • 7/8 Wehunt, Everything Is Beautiful and Nothing Bad Can Ever Happen Here* (social media)
  • 7/13 Baggott, Seventh Book of Wonders (fandom)
  • 7/18 Jones, The Only Good Indian* (fandom)
  • 7/26 Atakora, Conjure Women* (reviews)
  • 8/8 LaValle, Devil in Silver (fandom)
  • 8/16 Bardugo, The Ninth House* (review)
  • 8/27 Hall, Dread Isle (ARCs, in fandom, and for blurb)
  • 9/18 VanderMeers, ed, Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories (a lot of it, anyway)
  • 9/20 LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom* (fandom)
  • 9/24 Tolmie, The Little Animals* (research)
  • 10/11 Galbraith, Troubled Blood* (fandom)
  • 10/18 Dimaline, Empire of Wild* (review)
  • 11/15 Jones, Night of the Mannequins* (fandom)
  • 11/21 Clark, Ring Shout* (reviews)
  • 12/10 Harrigan, Half* (friend’s recommendation)
  • 12/19 White, As Summer’s Mask Slips* (met at a conference)
  • 12/24 Shawl, New Suns (research for teaching)
  • 12/26 Riley, Such a Fun Age* (many recommendations)

NONFICTION/ HYBRID (8)

  • 1/4 Reynolds, Walt Whitman (teaching prep)
  • 1/12 Macfarlane, Underland* (recommendation from friends)
  • 4/10 Buntin, Sheffield, Dodd, Dear America* (anthology I’m in)
  • 4/12 Finch, ed., Choice Words* (anthology I’m in)
  • 5/17 Selznick, Live Oak With Moss (for class)
  • 7/6 Sheldrake, Entangled Life* (review and fungal curiosity)
  • 8/30 Nezhukumatathil, World of Wonders* (fandom)
  • 9/? Lee and Winslow, eds., Deep Beauty* (anthology I’m in)

*published within the last year or so

Wall, whatcha got?

My son, a college sophomore, is a fiend for math and loves teaching it, too. Since he’s finishing the term at our dining room table, I get to eavesdrop on the tutoring he does by Zoom as well as his study groups’ conversations. Sometimes he and I break for a midday walk in the middle of it, and yesterday he reflected that when he comes to an impasse in his work, he’s more willing than his friends to just sit with the problem and wait for inspiration. He told me something like, “When I hit a wall, I’ll just sit and look at it and say, “Wall, whatcha got for me?'”

This is mostly just temperament–he and I are both stupidly resistant to asking for help, and we both enjoy puzzles. But he also said that he prefers hard math problems to easy ones because the answers to easy problems are just “coincidence,” whereas you know you’ve solved a “proofier” question because the solution comes with a deep click, a sense of rightness. I’m not sure I fully understand that, but I’ve been thinking about it as I bash my head against poem revisions, unable to decide when each ornery little piece is finished.

This hasn’t been a good workweek. My simple goal for Monday was to gather some poems to submit to the annual Poetry Society of America contests. I rarely throw in, but I thought that hey, this year I have time, right? But mostly these awards are for unpublished poems so I thought I’d finish up recent ones, pieces I haven’t sent elsewhere yet, and it’s NOT going well. I know none of us should be beating ourselves up for poor concentration right now; the soaring virus rates are horrifying and the political circus depressing. I had the added suspense this week of a couple of family members waiting for test results (everyone is negative and feeling fine). I never handle suspense well! Still, my fuzzy-headedness feels frustrating.

My son is right, though, that facing hard problems can lead to more interesting math or art–and that the way forward involves just showing up, again and again. None of these poems is easy: my tabs are open right now to pieces about giant tube worms, domestic violence, viral replication, divination…So I try to solve for x, take breaks, and circle back, hoping for flashes of intuition. History suggests that tough writing patches eventually end. I didn’t like it when my phone autocorrected “I was told” to “I am old” recently (!), but aging does bring a kind of equilibrium in knowing that time, careers, etc. aren’t just linear. They’re cyclical, too.

In the meantime, here’s my latest little mag publication, two poems occupied and preoccupied by catbirds, with thanks to Carol Dorf at Talking Writing. And if you missed my unusually cheerful post-election reading with the brilliant Anna Maria Hong–part of the Hot L series, it launched Sunday–you can catch it on YouTube (and below). Stephen Reichert is a great online-event organizer and promoter. After another stupid workday, I’m about to raise a glass to Stephen and to everyone else who is helping poetry shine in these dark nights.

Gossip, news, & poems

Gossip is a derogatory and strongly gendered word for how nonpowerful people share information. I have only been called “a gossip” to my face once–by a colleague–but it felt like a mild slur with a smelly pile of patriarchy behind it. I mean, we all know mean-spirited people of various genders who are delighted to share bad news about others’ personal lives, and I’m not endorsing that. I don’t know where I’d be, though, without friends, mostly women, who share intel over the equivalent of a backyard fence. Inside knowledge–any knowledge–often helps me navigate tricky situations, and it helps me help others, too. Unless a secret is really necessary to protect a vulnerable person, I share the useful things I know like candy on a non-2020 Halloween.

You probably know this quote from a Williams Carlos Williams poem: “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” The word “news” suggests politics as well as missives from the mind and spirit. That’s great, but I also want it to include the wall-busting personal stuff sometimes derided as blabbing, tattling, chinwagging, and nosyparkering, all of which sometimes constitutes whistleblowing and the glue of sustaining friendships. My love of whispers comes from the poet in me, and also from my history in a messed-up family, where secrets festered. Secrets can poison your life. Luckily, they can also metamorphose into fierce literature.

Writing prompt: write a gossipy poem. Optionally, include a whisper, a fence, and a whistle.

This distinction is probably on my mind because I’m trying to dial down my obsessive consumption of political news. Election week sucked, as I’m guessing you noticed. Clicking vote counts every five minutes, I didn’t sleep, picked up a cold, endured a nosyparker nasopharyngeal swabbing, waited anxiously for a different kind of information, and ended Monday singing the “I don’t have Covid” song. At the same time, I started exchanging daily poems with a group founded by a long-distance friend. We don’t comment except for occasional appreciation and encouragement; we just write and share. It feels good to be drafting poems again–most of them pondering secrets–as well as to eavesdrop on others through the frank privacy of their poem drafts.

It’s also four years now since another group of friends, upset over the election, formed a text group of six “Nasty Women” who eventually became the Nasty Tea Sippers (don’t ask me how, it’s been a long four years). The chain is still very lively, full of political and personal updates, workplace drama, ranting, cheering, and astonishing information. Some of the Nasties are hero-activists in my region, and one earned national notoriety with an act I thought was brave and righteous, but right-wingers apparently thought merited mailings of gorilla feces and threats to her children. I am unrepentant that we are gossips all. The State She’s In is dedicated to them.

Otherwise, it’s not a big news week in WheelerLand, compared to good and bad tidings from the larger world. The nicest small news was a Pushcart nomination from Thrush for “Tone Problem,” a poem I drafted last April with the same email poem-a-day group. I have a brief online reading coming up on the 17th in the digital fall version of the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival (flier below and I’ll post a link when it’s up). Magazine rejections are flying, aren’t they? And I’m trying to focus on writing again after weeks of poor concentration. It’s hard to tune into whispers when my news sources are shouting.

Imagining poetry after the election

Inside Out
September, 2016
 
 
Shouldn’t talk with a mouthful of half-chewed flags,
but he smirks and suggests her Secret Service guys
disarm and see what happens. The crowd turns wild
and you can spot a star wedged in his molar. Scraps
of stripe dangle from a lip. Maybe, he cracks,
the Second Amendment people will get wise.
While, you know, Russians hack her to bytes.
Silk between his teeth. Democracy. Facts.
 
Bleeding on the street’s not too good for her,
thinks forty-plus percent of my broken
country. The liar calls her liar and the smear
sticks. After all, horror’s ordinary. The thirteen-
year-old boy just killed for holding a BB gun.
And an open-mouthed woman—well, blood’s her career.

Lots of 2020 poetry collections bristle with political outrage–appropriately! The slant-rhymed sonnet above, first published in Cimarron Review and now collected in my 2020 collection The State She’s In, dates from a month four years ago when I couldn’t believe the sexist, racist incitements to violence spewing from a candidate’s mouth. Two months later I couldn’t believe he’d been elected, but, silly me, I also couldn’t believe he’d last all four years. I suppose the verdict’s still out on the latter–he has to crash when the steroids wear off, right?–but surreal as it’s seemed, this presidency continues to be brutally real. My spouse’s picture is now up on the FB site of a local self-styled “militia,” the GOP is in voter-suppression overdrive, and people are hunkered in their homes, if they have them, fearing increasing right-wing violence and, oh yeah, contagion. Even if a miracle Biden landslide happens, Trump concedes without a fight, and domestic terrorist groups keep their anger to a low grumble (all of which strike me as big ifs), poets and everyone else in the US are going to continue to have a LOT to protest about, including police violence against Black Americans, deep economic injustice, catastrophic environmental damage, and a Supreme Court banking hard to the right.

I’ve felt cheered by the upswell of political poetry these last few years, and wretched as 2020 has been, it seemed right for my book to come out in March (I just wish I’d been able to read from it more). As the next collection brews, though, I’m wondering what kind of poetry I and others will need three to four years from now, which is how long the process takes, if you’re lucky. I’m now sending poems to magazines, trying to catch fall submission windows that are often quite brief, and some of them will surely go in the next ms., although I’m getting more rejections than acceptances at the moment. I tend to draft, forget, revise, forget, revise again, then send, so I didn’t know what I’d find when I reopened my 2019-2020 folders. I had been consciously working on poems with spell-like qualities meant to transform anger, and I discovered some of those, but I unearthed many more poems than I expected about mental health struggles (2019 was rough–better now). I’ve been using poetry to explore some of the hardest episodes from my past and have no idea why now. I’ve also been writing more ecologically than ever, looking for hope in natural processes.

Looking for hope sounds right; many of us need optimism and humor desperately, and I expect that will be true, too, a few years from now. Once again, as a reader, I can’t concentrate on any book that isn’t a page-turner–will that be true even a few months from now, or will I more-or-less get my brain back? I have to record a reading for the Hot L series that will air November 8th: holy cow, how can I even imagine what listeners will need a few weeks from now? All you can do is take a deep breath and remind yourself: what you should offer the world is your best, whatever that is. The best version of your art; the best energy you can summon; and writing centered on material that feels important to you, addressed with as much kindness and clear-eyed intelligence as you can muster. That’s all there is.

After that poetry submission binge, I’m back to writing ABOUT poetry in essays and reviews, at least when I can stop biting my nails over the news. I’ll be reading poetry submissions, too, as Shenandoah opens for Graybeal-Gowan Prize entries (Oct 15-31). Entry is free, the prize is $1000, and you can submit 1-3 poems in one document. You have to have a significant connection to Virginia to enter, as specified by the generous donor, but you don’t have to live here now–you could have been born here or gone to school here, for example (just describe your link to VA in the cover letter). Beth Staples and I will choose 10-12 finalists to forward to Kyle Dargan, who will choose the winner by sometime in January. If you’re not a finalist you’ll hear back by early December, probably sooner, but we get hundreds of subs, so I can’t promise those results by Election Day, either! Hang in there, friends.

Virtual Salon #10 with Ruth Dickey

I mark up most of my poetry books–prepare to be shocked–IN PEN. I probably started in grad school, before sticky notes came in all those colors and sizes, and inked notes are more legible when you return to a text to teach or write about it. I recently went back to an old edition of Dickinson’s poems, for example, as I prepare to lead discussions from a newer and better book, Cristanne Miller’s Emily Dickinson’s Poems as She Preserved Them, and I’m so relieved to see all the glosses and discussion questions I’d inscribed there.

One of the first phrases I underlined in Ruth Dickey’s debut collection, Mud Blooms, occurs on page 5 in “Four-twenty-one,” a poem about a beloved calf Dickey’s parents wouldn’t let her name. It’s the last line: “my brother and me leaning on the fence, stretching our hands through.” The first poem, “Somoto, Nicaragua, #3,” tells you Mud Blooms will be about hunger, but by page 5 you see the book also concerns a longing for connection with the human and more-than-human world, past all the barriers thrown up by difference. Dickey expresses humility about these efforts, especially in her deeply moving poems about working at Miriam’s Kitchen in DC. She orders apples people can’t eat before she knows that “almost everyone who is homeless has dental problems”; “my stupidity galls me,” she adds in an intermittent, abecedarian prose poem sequence called “Alphabet Soup Kitchen.” Sometimes, too, Dickey doubts the worth of her own efforts, because homelessness and hunger are such huge, seemingly intractable problems. There’s so much loss and suffering here, but what impresses you most about the book is its big-heartedness and radical openness. I love this collection and the spirit that shines through it.

I’ve only met Ruth in person once or twice, as I exited and she entered intense work on the AWP Board, but I can also tell from her answers below that she’s a skilled party host, perhaps through her current service as Executive Director of Seattle Arts & Lectures. I’m so glad to introduce you to Ruth and her work, in the 10th gathering of this pandemic-inspired virtual salon!

  1. If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

The beloved foods that appear in the book – fresh apple cake, strong coffee, and sandwiches (both peanut butter and pimento cheese) – feel not totally sufficient for a celebration. So there would definitely be rosé, and I’d also order us foods I love from places in the poems – gallo pinto with plantains and fresh tortillas, toast with honey and sea salt from Sea Level Bakery in Cannon Beach, and dosas with extra spicy mango pickle from the woman who used to have a shop on R Street NW just off Connecticut Avenue in DC. And as a finale, thick slices of southern layer cakes from Maxie B’s in Greensboro, NC.

  1. If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

These days I’m stunned and scared and outraged and grateful in equal measures. I’ve been journaling and writing poems that are largely terrible, but it feels helpful to have that space where I’m trying to metabolize and make sense of the world, even if I’m doing it incredibly poorly.  

  1. How can your virtual audience find out more?

More about my book and some poems are on my website – www.ruthdickey.com– and I am frequently posting about books I love and my dog on Instagram at @ruthdickey206. If you are interested in Mud Blooms, you can order a copy at https://bookshop.org/books/mud-blooms/9780988275577– thanks so much for reading!

Virtual Salon #6 with Elizabeth Savage & Ann E. Michael

Featured at today’s virtual salon are two lovely new chapbooks, a brand new one from blogger-extraordinaire Ann E. Michael and one from late 2019 by Kestrel Poetry Editor Elizabeth Savage. Both are poets whom I’ve admired for ages. If this were a live reading, you’d also immediately perceive that they are exceptionally kind and generous people, too. I’ll begin with Ann’s book but be sure to keep reading for a mini-interview with Elizabeth, below.

I was moved to revisit a landscape in Barefoot Girls that reminds me of my own girlhood in North Jersey. Ann’s slim book powerfully evokes a landscape just south of there, flat and stretching east to Atlantic beaches. Awkward teenagers, “more than one kind of hungry,” are marked by its barrenness; soothe the ache at roller-rinks and rock concerts; cope with assaults and unwanted pregnancies; and, at pool halls, hustle “drunks who think a girl can’t win.” In this stirring chapbook, however, girls persist dauntlessly, just as “the darning needles swoop/ and dart, hungry, busy, rising up/ against whatever holds them down.”

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

1. Alas, warm Schlitz beer (in a can) or Coke, and hoagies, would be thematically perfect–but I can’t bear the thought. And popsicles, choose your fake flavor. My teen years were not gustatory pleasures. We can update it with gelato and thin-crust pizza.

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

2. Harried, nibbled to death by work-related technology details, not writing much; reading a lot…and spending as much time in the garden as possible. Pulling weeds can be cathartic!

How can your virtual audience find out more?

3. Check out my webpage’s “My Books” tab at www.annemichael.wordpress.com, or go directly to prolificpress.com (“new books”). For context, listen to Bruce Springsteen’s first three albums, read about the gas crisis of the early 70s, or maybe check out http://www.josephszabophotos.com/ and view Szabo’s photographs of teens in the early 70s.

~

Detail by Elizabeth Savage is just as vivid in conjuring place, although its style is way more elliptical, oscillating between scoured-down lyrics and even smaller shards (perhaps Ann has me thinking about the shells and shell-fragments you pick up on the New Jersey shore). Elizabeth’s locations, however, are the Richmond, Virginia of her girlhood, the West Virginia she inhabits now, and, in glimpses, Pacific beaches. Sensory detail transports: one poem “reeks of peaches” while another manifests “a gridded garter snake” who “basks/ trusting the asphalt when a motorized warmth/ pulses suggestively.” The most salient aspect of this collection, though, is its exploration of edges: seasonal hinges, crusts of earth pushed up by crocuses, a beautician’s shears, and more. I confess I reread these poems while gnawing the ears of a dark chocolate bunny, but Details’ refreshments are better.

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

1. Detail is made up of dense, enjambment-driven poems followed by a distillation. Applying this concept to refreshments, the Detail buffet might include some of my cannibal cookies next to tiny Dixie cups of dark chocolate chips and coconut flakes; paella alongside saffron strands; martinis next to glass dishes of green olives; hummus with sea salt and lemon juice sidecars—and all accompanied by cold, bone-dry white wine that comes in a box. Several poems concern Richmond, Virginia, where I grew up, so perhaps ham biscuits accompanied by lard and a tiny statue of J.E.B Stuart should also be made available.   

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

2. I feel fine. There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.

How can your virtual audience find out more?

3. I love Will Woolfitt’s response to this question, and I think his interpretation of it  fits both my “how” and my “more.” I began the poems in Detail as a way to read Barbara Guest’s Selected Poems, so more is to be found in her poetry. Noah’s Ark is my poetry neighborhood, and I was listening to and thinking through Ingrid Stolzel’s compositions from poetry throughout the years I wrote Detail. Dancing Girl Press published another chap for me that is roughly the inverse experiment, so the poems in Parallax might be of interest. 

Virtual launches and figuring out how to help

The first books and mags from #virtualawp come in, including some freebies

When my students asked me last week–during our final in-person classes, as it turns out–how I thought the virus would develop or whether W&L would switch to online instruction soon, I offered guesses with the caveat, “But I’m not an authority on this. My thoughts about poetry are worth something; otherwise I’m just an average person who reads the news.”

These days I don’t feel like an authority on poetry, either–at least not about how to generate enthusiasm for poems when most-in person gatherings are canceled. My fifth full-length collection, The State She’s In, officially launches this week. I’m proud of this book and have been laboring hard to set up readings this spring, basically performing the job of a part-time publicist as well as full-time professor. They’re dropping away fast. Pre-launch copies have been available from the publisher, Tinderbox Editions, since AWP (I think the discount code AWP2020 still works), but I wasn’t able to sign it there, and I just postponed my local book party, too. These cancellations absolutely need to happen, never mind all that shopping I did for goody bags, stickers, chocolate eggs, and pink ribbon. Chris says don’t worry, it’s just a delay, I can still do those events latter. I hope he’s right, but in the meantime I’m trying to figure out what I CAN do.

I’d love your ideas, but what’s currently on my docket: I have a few guest-blog-type-things in the works as well as possible reviewers, and of course I’ll use social media (although I’m limiting my own time on FB and Twitter lately). I got some new author photos done, below. My copies of The State She’s In arrived a few days ago and this week I’ll be sending them where they need to go.

My latest brainstorm is to use my blog to promote other poetry collections launching into this virus-blasted landscape. Effort on behalf of others tends to boomerang, right? I’ll definitely focus on books from little presses, not the ones already attaining media spotlight. I’m currently thinking I’ll begin each post with my own micro-review, maybe just a few sentences describing what attracts me to the work, then ask three questions of the author. I’m pondering what might be good questions to ask, not too run-of-the-mill. If you have notions about how to do this, or you want to draw my attention to your OWN new book, I’d like to hear from you, so just reply below or on FB or by email (wheelerlm at wlu dot edu). Digital ARCs and review copies would be welcome, and I’ve already ordered and pre-ordered some books I’m interested in. My plan is to start off with The State She’s In then feature as many new books as I can, maybe one a week.

Oh, and poets: Shenandoah just opened to poetry submissions. As the website says: “Our spring 2020 reading period for POETRY will be from March 15–March 31, 2020. Please send us prayers, spells, charms, curses, blessings, invocations—poems that try to make change happen. All forms, styles, and procedures are welcome. A selection will appear in a special Shenandoah portfolio in the Spring 2021 issue.” Reading subs is another way for me to serve poetry in a pandemic–send spells for worldwide healing, please, or curses upon the political leaders who are failing to stem pandemic! 

Of course I’ll be trying to manage all this in a state of intense distraction. My tree-pollen allergies are kicking in, totally unlike coronavirus symptoms, but every time I have a hot flash I whip out the thermometer. I have to gear up for 4 more weeks of my 3 current courses, THEN for my 4-week May term, which we’ve just been informed will be virtual, too. My husband and son are making a quick run up to Haverford to pick up his things prior to the beginning of my son’s own online courses; it’s necessary, although I’m not thrilled they’re traveling. I wake up in the middle of the night concerned about my eighty-year-old mother and vulnerable friends who are self-quarantining. It’s a pretty big burden of worry for all of us.

I’m sending out all the love, friends, and will be posting again soon in solidarity with poets and publishers. Take care.

First box of my beauties–yay?

Uncanny paneling

When you write a poem that resembles a spell, prayer, charm, curse, or blessing, are you trying to make something happen, and if so, what or how?

That’s what we talked about on the Uncanny Activisms panel I organized for the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference last weekend (the conference as a whole was wonderful, especially the keynote by Camille Dungy). “We” from left includes Hyejung Kook, Jane Satterfield, Anna Lena Phillips Bell, Anna Maria Hong, Ashley M. Jones, and yours truly, talking with her hands again. Some brilliant tidbits I scribbled down from this brilliant cohort: Ashley remarking that all poems are spells; Anna Lena responding that spell-poems are the poemiest kind of poem, and speaking about how poems help us focus attention; Jane musing about shape-shifting through reading and writing, and how poetry can be a means to power, sometimes as an alternative when legal recourse isn’t working; Hyejung talking about poetry as an act of transformation (and about Icelandic fart curses, which I have yet to look up). I LOVED this conversation and it seems as if others did, too, which made me happy, as if we might be a small band of spellcasters setting out to fix the world through verse. If you want to join the effort, check out the amazing prompts I gathered from these writers for a pretty handout (less prettily listed below). We will be soliciting uncanny activist work for a future issue of Shenandoah, but for the moment, note that poetry subs open today (11/15-12/15), and there’s a special prize for Virginia poets: $1000 for the Graybeal-Gowan award, no entry fee, judged by Beth and me. Everything submitted will be considered for general publication as well as the prize. I’m excited to start reading but also a little worried about managing the deluge. My novel galleys just came in, and my students need lots of conferences this time of year, and I’m trying to squeeze in time to apply for book promotion opportunities…oy.

In other news, my review of Franny Choi’s amazing collection Soft Science is up on Strange Horizons, and my poem “Spring Rage” has been posted by storySouth. Thanks to the kind and careful editors at both magazines.

I’ve been down despite all the good things happening, at least partly because I’m not finding enough time to rest and read and think and play. I didn’t bring my laptop to the conference and that gave me respite, but Monday morning I was neck-deep again as soon as I walked into the office. I’m trying to take better care of myself, and I’m wondering if I shouldn’t start with one of these prompts. Writing poetry tend to channel the simple magic, at least, of temporary self-transformation: I feel calmer when I’m immersed in the work, possibly BECAUSE there’s so little money or prestige involved. Hope you get some drafting time, too.

Counting-Out Rhyme, from Anna Lena Phillips Bell
a. Choose a category of being- or thing-in-the-world—plants local to or new to your region; particularities of the way your family or community speaks; geologic formations or soil types near you; songs from a specific tradition; birds or small mammals or insects. List as many beings or things in this category as you can think of.
 
b. Optionally, write a paragraph describing what you’ve chosen, as well as any threats to it that exist. Save this text as a plain-text file, and feed it into the n-gram generator available at http://bit-player.org/extras/drivel/drivel.html, created by Brian Hayes. Copy the resulting text into another file, print out the pages, and mine the text for new words that speak to what you’re writing about. You may wish to search for rhyme-words within the text; or you may simply highlight words you like.
 
c. Write a counting-out rhyme using the words and phrases from your list. If you’ve used the n-gram generator to create new words, incorporate some of these as well. Write in lines of trochaic tetrameter (or choose another meter and stick to it); optionally, end each stanza with a line of trochaic dimeter. Where pronunciation of a neologism is unclear, use the meter to help guide readers toward how you hear it. Employ a rhyme scheme (aaa, bbb, ccc; abab cc, dede ff, ghgh ii; or similar), however slant your rhymes may be.
 
d. Your poem will evoke one layer of the landscape or community its elements are part of. For each being or thing you include, imagine how it helps make a portrait of that layer in the time during which you’ve experienced it. Read your completed poem to the beings or things it includes. Read it to other people. Revise based on these readings and imaginings.
 
e. Memorize your revised poem: make it part of your body and mind.
 
Ambitious poem, from Lesley Wheeler: Think about something you desperately want to achieve, an aspiration you may be embarrassed to admit. Imagine how you would achieve this goal and imagine taking those steps; consider who might have the power to help and imagine them giving that help. Write a fourteen-line poem in the future tense describing this process. The first word should be “let” and you should repeat the first line exactly, or almost exactly, at the poem’s close. Weave in references to: a so-called weed or wild plant you noticed recently; a scent that makes you feel good; and something other-than-human that produces a humming sound. (adapted from a prompt by Oliver de la Paz)

Self-invocation Poem, from Hyejung Kook: In this poem, we are going to name, invoke, and invent our most expansive self. Start by doing some research into your given name–how it was chosen, etymology, other people who share it, etc. If you prefer, do this work with a different name that calls to you. From your research, choose the three words that resonate most powerfully and incorporate these words, a color, an animal, and a scientific/historical fact that fascinates you. Use “In my wildest dreams, I” at least three times and allow yourself all the possibility the phrase grants you. Once your draft is complete, remove the phrase “In my wildest dreams,” from the poem.  

Another possibility is to turn the naming-invocation outward, using the phrase “In my wildest dreams, you” while writing.

Po Go, from Anna Maria Hong: This exercise can be harnessed to jumpstart a new project, clear the deck, meditate on a question, or find a new question to guide your writing now.
 
1.   Designate 15 minutes of your day to this exercise for 40 days. Ideally, do this exercise before you speak to or interact with another human being each day (dogs and cats, OK), but if this is not possible, allocate another time free of distractions.
2.   Ideally, also designate a place for this exercise.
3.   Begin each session with an invocation to the “gods” of poetry—whichever spirits might be enlisted to help you—household objects, ancient deities, your ancestors, etc.
4.   Begin writing this invocation as a list: “I call on the bedside lamp, Jupiter’s moons, and the turnips in the fridge to assist me in my writing today.”
5.   Then, free-write for the rest of the session and/or pick up threads from previous sessions (without looking at the previous entries).
6.   Stop writing after 15 minutes.
7.   Repeat for 40 days, and then and only then, review your writings.
 
from Ashley M. Jones: Think of an experience you’ve had that you wish others could experience to empathize with you—maybe it’s a struggle or a pain, or, maybe, even, more surprisingly, a joy that’s unique to your life. Try to think of something that, if experienced, would change the reader/spell recipient’s view or prejudice or oppressive mindset against you. Write a poem commanding them to feel that thing, focusing primarily on specific image. Take photographs with your words. Find the feeling, down to the hair. Your poem might be 10 lines, and it might include each sense (that is, The Five…or Six if you’d like). 
 
from Jane Satterfield: Select a natural organism that you’ve admired or overlooked. Learn more about its species and life cycle; appearance, texture, smell. What are its beneficial or dangerous properties? Associations and attributes? What role has it played in legend, lore, and in myth?  
 
Use tercets to weave your new knowledge of this organism into a poem that purges anger against someone or something that has hurt you, or that serves as a means of countering some injustice in your life or in the larger culture. Consider the way a curse can voice an appeal for restitution: a poem that begin as a curse can banish the harm you’ve experienced. Alternately, consider the way a curse can release the harm of the experience and turn the poem toward forgiveness and healing.              

In a Samhain state of mind

Not to get too pagan on you, but this week I can feel wheels turning, for good and ill. On the good side: above is the cover of my first novel, to be released in June 2020. I’ve been so grateful for the excitement people have expressed about it. As I keep saying, this venture feels more like a leap into the dark than poetry publishing. I’m getting publicity gears grinding for my March 2020 poetry collection, too, but I know perfectly well that except for rare cases, “Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon,” as Don Marquis poetically said, “and waiting for the echo.” I worked insanely hard on that novel, I’m proud of it, and I WILL get out there to give readings, etc.–but will it be like dropping a moderately-sized rose bush into the Grand Canyon, meaning, not much more echo-producing? I really have no clue. I feel pretty philosophical about it these days; I just want to know, a year from now, that I gave all my pretty rose petals the most energetic pitch possible.

Pitching, however, is a LOT of work. The “bad” of this liminal season is feeling stressed and anxious as I step from the overwork of October (teaching, grading, applications, event programming) to the overwork of November (teaching, conferencing, applications, and exceptionally heavy committee work). I just keep plotting out tasks on my calendar, trying to prove to myself that it CAN be done, and hoping I reach Thanksgiving in one piece. I’m also trying, to whatever extent possible, to pare off obligations that rev up my worries and spend time instead on what makes me feel better.

Ridiculously, that sometimes means work, but the kind of labor that produces an experience of flow rather than jitteriness. I gave Monday morning over to intensive lesson-planning, doing some background reading on William Carlos Williams and getting ready for tomorrow’s campus visit by the fabulous Lauren K. Alleyne, and you know what? I felt noticeably better after those hours of concentration. Answering email: not so soothing.

Today’s treat was reading a splendid new anthology I am lucky enough to have a poem in: the brand-new Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia, edited by Rose McLarney and Laura-Gray Street. They commissioned pieces on various plants and creatures from poets with connections to the region, and so many of the poems are gorgeous and moving. Each species, too, is described by naturalist L.L. Gaddy and illustrated in black-and-white by seven Southern Appalachian artists. The resulting book is both local and diverse, and truly a stunner.

The next task: prepping for the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference starting on 11/8, because I’ll be away this weekend, visiting the kids (it’s Haverford’s Family Weekend). That’s downtime I sorely need, as I keep telling myself as I watch work pile up on either side of it… but I’ll be striving to be in the moment there, and at the conference, too. Check out the program; it looks kind of brilliant.

What I want to do most of all is work on a short story I’m feeling excited about; the poetry hasn’t been coming lately. And that leads to one last Samhainish thought: one of the funny things about publication is that by the time the work gets out there, you’re often mentally and emotionally moving on to new ideas. When you give a reading or do other kinds of promotion, you can feel like you’re trying to call up the dead and hoping the doors to the otherworld open, as they’re supposed to do this time of year. Come, ghosts, and help me out. I have, in fact, been thinking about my father and dreaming about my maternal grandmother, as if spirits are visiting–and I’ve also been remembering that tarot card reading I got around New Year’s, when the psychic told me two ghosts were following me around. If they are, and they want to be of use, maybe they could help with the committee work?