Blue/ jazzed

The other day we got up early and drove to western Augusta County because the hikes there are much quieter than along the Blue Ridge Parkway, where foliage is peaking and so are the visitors. On autumn mornings here, especially if the day is going to be sunny, mist hugs the ground, gathering most densely over water and other warm places, wreathing the mountains. As the car wound along the empty highway, past farms and Trump signs and gun shops and churches, we alternately dipped into foggy hollows and rose up into sunshine where dew spangled the trees and the last wisps of steam curled up from roofs and embankments. The drive was an obvious metaphor for this October. I have moments of shiny hope but I keep crashing into feeling bad in the most sweeping ways, fearing the election and many more months of isolation, losing faith in everything I’ve written, unable to concentrate on the work I should be doing now. I’m pretty sure everyone feels the same–unless you’re stuck entirely in the lowlands. Here’s hoping the view gets clearer soon.

I can’t write poems but I need to work on prose anyway, particularly honing Poetry’s Possible Worlds, a book of hybrid essays due sometime in 2021. It blends criticism and memoir in a discussion of literary transportation–meaning immersive reading or getting lost in a book–in relation to short twenty-first century poems. I was going like gangbusters last week, but I’m dragging myself through the work very slowly this week. That’s okay, I keep telling myself. The two weeks before the US presidential election were always going to suck. Even when the world isn’t in dangerous meltdown, writing is full of hills and valleys.

I traded messages with a friend last week about the discouragement we often feel about finding readerships. It’s damn hard work and doesn’t get you very far; luck and connections probably matter more. Yet it’s helpful to have camaraderie in frustration. I always read Dave Bonta’s weekly Blog Digest, and this week that struggle was a major theme, especially in Kristy Bowen’s amazing post about self-publishing. It’s awful but cheerful, as Elizabeth Bishop said, or at least cheering to remember that this is just the way writing goes. You’d better be doing the work for it’s own sake or as a gift to others, not expecting anything in return, not even attention–yet the gifts will come back to you sometimes in surprising ways.

Gifts of late: a wonderful, thoughtful review of Unbecoming in Strange Horizons and a poem called “Dragon Questionnaire” in the same magazine; participating in a warm and intimate reading series organized by Johns Hopkins professor Lucy Bucknell; word of forthcoming reviews of The State She’s In; and a local author talk on Unbecoming scheduled and promoted by W&L’s amazing library staff. The latter is Tuesday October 27th, 7 pm EST, and open to the public–just register here: https://go.wlu.edu/unbecoming. I’ll talk about the book’s origin, read a couple of spooky excerpts, take questions, and give a couple of writing prompts.

Late breaking, too: I just got tapped to read from Unbecoming at the World Fantasy Convention, virtual this year. I’ll be part of the Weird Fiction Cluster on Friday October 30th from 10:30-12:30 pm ET, 8:30 Mountain Time (it should have been in Utah this year). The timing: oy. I’m no night owl, but I’ll manage somehow. The opportunity: hallelujah! The readings will be recorded for registered participants to view for weeks afterwards, which makes potential audience reach pretty good. See? I should be pleased to have attained this little hill.

In local politics, there’s good news, too. No word yet on whether W&L is changing its name, but The Washington Post just called our next-door neighbor, Virginia Military Institute, to the carpet for failing to deal with its deeply racist campus climate, and the governor is launching an investigative probe. In a small town like this one you inevitably have friends who work there, and I’m more optimistic for them and the cadets than I’ve felt for a long while. All the little justice struggles do add up, even if it takes forever, with lots of ups and downs along the way.

Big-ears plots her escape

Sometimes the news just silences me: children suffering in camps, the Justice Department refusing to seek justice after the killing of Eric Garner, racist tweets from the white-nationalist-in-chief. I make donations and sometimes participate in political action, but mostly I’m sitting around like Ursula, all ears and touchy whiskers, no words. I will say, having just heard members of the “Squad” on the radio explaining, with some exasperation, that they do not comprise a conspiracy: for years, if I stopped on campus to talk to a distinguished woman professional or two, or went out to lunch with those women, male professors and administrators passing by would, without fail, pause with looks of alarm or mock-alarm and exclaim, “Uh-oh, you’re plotting!” It’s interesting that strong women in conversation inspire such paranoia. Let’s keep being scary.

Here’s a scary poem, with thanks to the editors at Verse Daily and at the original publisher, Cimarron Review. It’s from a blizzard of sonnets that overcame me during the last presidential election, the best of which will be in my next poetry collection. Otherwise I’ve just had my head down lately, revising Poetry’s Possible Words and ticking down my to-do list: minor jobs under deadline (reviews of various kinds), and house and family chores. Self-care is on the list, too: continuing to negotiate health problems but also talking to friends, reading a ton, searching for fox-themed clothes I can wear when I have a fox-themed novel to read from…

I’m pleased at how strong Poetry’s Possible Worlds has become, by the way. That’s my forthcoming essay collection (Tinderbox, 2021), a hybrid of contemporary poetry criticism and personal narrative, perhaps along the lines of “creative criticism” as Lesley Jenike describes it here (also see a cool example of it by Jenike in the most recent Shenandoah). One chapter of PPW appeared a few years ago in Ecotone; I’ve adapted another that’s under submission; and a third is nearly ready to go out. I’ve been trying to crank because I’m leaving Sunday for the MLA International Symposium in Lisbon, Portugal; we’ll spend 5 days there and then take a train up to Porto to vacation for several days. We return at the start of August, also known as the beginning of summer’s end–and final edits of my novel are supposed to arrive then, which I’ll need to throw myself into before the school year gets me in its clutches.

I may post a few pictures from the trip, but in general I’ll be trying NOT to work or fuss with social media. Aside from the conference, I just want to eat and drink deliciously, see lots of sights, and read novels for pleasure. It might frustrate Ursula and Poe to be in the care of an oblivious 18-year-old math whiz for 11 days, but I’m sure he’ll remember to feed them, and himself, occasionally. And I’m really grateful to be getting out of here for a while.

Poetry as speculative fiction; or, being naive

I don’t share in ritual contempt for literary criticism as an enterprise—how could I and still bear to live with myself?—but having spent too much of the summer engaged in a massive review of several critical fields, I feel annoyed about the whole endeavor. English Departments are full of brilliant, passionate people but most of them aren’t using their publishing powers for good: shouldn’t criticism persuade others that reading and thinking about literature are intensely rewarding experiences? Dull writing is The Big Awful. If you can’t be consistently fascinating you should at least be clear and concise, and few of us meet that bar.

My peeve this week, though, is how every critic fondly dismisses the previous critic’s naïveté. Oh, Frye, he’s so naïve about genre. Oh, all those guys, they think literature is mimesis. Silly theorists. Here’s how things actually stand… I find myself wanting to answer with a manifesto claiming naïveté as my personal philosophy just to save everyone the trouble. It’s okay, Future Critic. I already know I’m benighted.

I really am doomed to be so damned. I’m writing a book about twenty-first century poetry, arguing that it’s all (well, often) speculative fiction or perhaps fantasy. Definitions of the latter tend to include the words “possible,” “knowable,” or “reality”—I can promise you this because I’ve read ALL OF THEM—with the frequent co-stars “strange” and “uncertain.” Fantasy is literature preoccupied with the question “what’s real?” or its corollary, “what are the rules?” Its arch-nemesis, according to various explainers, is sometimes realism and sometimes science fiction, both being arts invested in plausibility, whereas fantastic literature proposes that everything is more mysterious than we thought. I prefer “speculative fiction” as a term to “fantasy” because it suggests a useful kind of blurriness, potentially including straight-up genre books as well as all the crossover territory, but for most people it’s so blurry it doesn’t mean anything, so I may have to give it up. The working title of my book is Poetry’s Possible Worlds and since June I’ve drafted four chapters of a projected dozen. I’d like to sketch out the whole monster in the next thirteen months, but I’m burnt out right now and I teach full-time from September through May, so we’ll see.

I realized in early July: oh, I’m writing literary theory. Which is stupid, because I have a limited tolerance for reading literary theory; the gist is often interesting but the nuances make me sleepy. And sleeping through chunks of Jameson or Todorov is bound to make me extremely naïve.

Worse: I can’t even use the butt-covering jargon du jour. Poetry’s Possible Worlds is also a book about reading. It’s aimed at anyone with some interest in, though not necessarily deep knowledge about, contemporary poetry. Each chapter begins with a poem quoted in full. Permissions will be tricky, but it’s really important to me that readers have their own encounter with each poem before I start messing around with it. My premises are that it’s pleasurable to get lost in a poem’s pocket universe, that we should take poetry personally, and that we have a right to our own responses. The chapters add layers to those responses by telling stories about the personal contexts of my own readings—yep, that means memoir—as well as fiddling around with exegesis and what-it-all-means argument (a.k.a. theory). I think twenty-first century poetry is absolutely worth reading. I’m selecting focal poems with variety in mind (national and aesthetic diversity as well as diversity in race and gender), but my most important criterion: I have to find each poem powerful, and imagine it could detonate powerfully inside readers who don’t recognize allusions or linguistic fashion statements.

Anyway, you can see why I really need next week’s mindless beach vacation. The chapters are not very long (4000-4500 words each) and the writing has been really fun, but it taxes every resource at my command. The style is essayistic—driven not only by arguments but motifs and lyric association—and I’m including a scaffolding of endnotes, at least for now, to keep track of the sources influencing me most. I’m getting feedback as I go from my spouse, a fiction writer who’s really good at macro/ structural considerations, but mostly I’ve just been charging ahead like a maniac. I’ll probably send a couple of chapters out to lit mags that publish creative nonfiction with a critical bent, but I’m not ready yet. I need to be quite sure of where I’m going first. Plus, creative writing just needs more fermentation time as text than the writing that appears in scholarly journals, which is really just a delivery system for ideas—the sentences need to be balanced and elegant, with no clumsy transitions, and that takes multiple rounds of scrutiny.

This is the most urgent book I can think of to write at this moment. Caring so much about it makes the work harder. I know my argument is idiosyncratic. Some people will think I’m diminishing poetry, or fantasy, or both. Others will find huge blind spots in the poems I include or neglect. There will be too much criticism for some readers, too much personal crap for others. The experience of writing it reminds me more of poetry composition than criticism-writing, in large part because of the driving terror. After all, if something about the jostle of the words in a poem doesn’t delight, confuse, or outright alarm you, why are you writing it? Who knows if you’ll ever have readers, so you have to imagine them and forget them. You have to please yourself.

Reading underwater

When you’re deep in a book, do you become irritable about pesky interruptions like sleep, mealtimes, and the basic human needs of your dependents? I do. Unfortunately, I’m like that about long writing projects too. I spend summers and sabbaticals, when I’m lucky, bobbing in the surf: under the wave of the book I’m reading or the chapter I’m writing, then breathing for a span in the trough between them. I’m lousy company, my not-very-social twelve-year-old tells me, and he sets a low bar, mainly wanting someone to chat with about computer game triumphs.

My mood these days is totally tied to the daily fortunes of writing—I’m apocalyptic when the prose-building isn’t going well, elated when it is, frustrated when I can’t make time. The latter is pretty frequent, even though I’m luckier than many. On summer weekdays I can almost always carve out a couple of hours of actual writing time, but I crave fuller spans I can only attain irregularly. My writer-spouse and I are juggling incomplete camp coverage and various other family needs.

I’m a lot more cheerful, though, than I described feeling in the Vomit Post. I’m hip-deep in the new critical book now, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, and beginning to see the shape of it. It springs from several goals. I’m thinking about how lyric poems map possible worlds that readers enter immersively, a practice of absorption or entrancement usually associated with long narratives, especially novels. Victor Nell calls it “ludic reading” because it’s a kind of play; if you read addictively, you probably know the experience of the language becoming invisible as if you’ve entered an alternate universe. Lost in a book, deep in a book, transported. I’m going against the grain of narrative and poetry studies, but I know lyric poetry can do this too. That’s the part of the book, the how and why of poetry immersion, I hope will interest creative writers and literary scholars. I’m aiming at a general reader, though, by interspersing argument with narrative and writing as engagingly as I can, with a scandalous paucity of endnotes. Each chapter, based on a single twenty-first-century poem placed right up front, involves close-reading, autobiographical writing, and theorizing. I’m choosing poems that I hope will appeal instantly. I know a lot of novel-addicts who are put off by contemporary verse, don’t even try to read it. This is probably the Sisyphus in me, but I want to convince them that as in novel-reading, they have a right to like whatever they like, and they will like some of it. I’m choosing the poems and reading lots of background stuff as I go, so I’m never more than a couple of steps ahead of myself.

I decided last week, as I was reading about reading, that I needed to consider my own novel-entrancements more consciously. I chose The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, a fantasy novel of the type set at a school of magic; a friend recommended it as to me as the only book she knew in which a student magician received financial aid. I have mixed feelings about The Name of the Wind. The main character hates poetry and is really stupid about gender, and while these are character traits, they implicate the authorial world-builder. One more scene in which men muse about feminine mysteries might kill me. On the other hand, the book treats poverty intelligently and it’s every bit as absorptive as I’d hoped. Many writing strategies are supposed to encourage engrossment: sensory detail, suspense, free indirect discourse, the historical present tense, round characters, first-person or figural narration, a logically consistent fictional universe, some adherence to genre formulas. Most of those are tricky to test; there isn’t actually a science of immersive writing, and reader reactions are heavily dependent, anyway, on culture and context. Still, these are smart guesses, and it’s not surprising to find most of these in Rothfuss’ book. I’d even say, two-thirds through the sequel, these books are about narrative immersion—I just finished a section in which a song pulls the hero into another world.

Some reflections: I do visualize scenes as I read. The main character has no distinct facial features but I see his red hair and his green cloak with all the pockets (why does it have a crazy-quilt lining?—that can’t be appropriate). Turns out I have a generic Fantasy Tavern where I’ve been placing scenes from Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and various other novels for years—if it ever had a real-life inspiration, I can’t remember it. The landscape is western Virginia with some Welsh mountains and Irish stone walls pasted in. I also feel with this character, whom I do not much like, in startling ways. When Kvothe can’t breathe, my chest constricts. When he’s hungry and cold, I get a chill despite the hot weather. Those specific realizations surprised me, but other feelings are perfectly familiar: the slow concentration of the first few pages, when I’m still distractible and getting acclimated, followed by increasing absorption and finally, when something interrupts me, disorientation. I never fully leave the book, experiencing a double-citizenry in “real” life and book-world. And now the next Neil Gaiman just came in, so I’ll never get to that drift of lit-mags…

I’m also testing the immersiveness of verse novels, so a round-up of those will come one of these days. For some other stuff I’ve been up to, see my goodbye to Fringe Magazine, a review of Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Unexplained Fevers in Strange Horizons; and new poems in Avatar Review. But if I wind this up now, I can squeeze in a chapter before my son gets up and whines about those basic human needs. 

Professor Aragorn swears a vow

Manifestos are for angry young men, right? I’m more like “cranky” and “middle-aged,” and as far gender stereotyping goes, I actually had a student write on a course evaluation once, “Just as kind as you’d expect from a mother.” Whippersnapper, if you’re out there, be glad that was anonymous. I am weary of hearing that niceness is my salient attribute. Especially when I just spent three months expertly guiding your complaining tenderfoot fellowship through the Nazgul-haunted waste land of modernist poetry.

The title of my piece in the summer 2013 issue of The Gettysburg Review, “Coffee with Poets in New Zealand,” suggests not a fiery declaration of creed but a series of low-stakes, highly civilized quenchings. I lived in Wellington from late January 2011 to the beginning of July as a Fulbright senior scholar researching poetry networks, in particular the rhizome-fibers fanning out from the International Institute of  Modern Letters at Victoria University. I spent the first few months talking to people, going to readings, trying to see the lines of force. By late April I hunkered down to write an article that I thought would become a book chapter.  I aimed for an audience of academics who are thoughtful about creative writing as a discipline. Turns out that’s a mythical tribe. At least, there are very few venues for such work, and do they want to hear my skepticism about the idea of “community” in the MFA enterprise, balanced by a case study of an antipodean program that’s actually pretty successful, better in some ways than many of its US antecedents? No, Lesley, as perhaps you ought to have predicted, they do not.

By late May I had finished a draft of that scholarly article, which, sigh, is still wandering the wilderness. One cold rainy day I played hooky to visit Katherine Mansfield’s dismal childhood home. Afterwards, over lunch in a Thornfield café, my spouse and I talked about the weirdness of the trip so far. Setting up house in a foreign country, sending your small-town kids to school in an unfamiliar city, is bound to be difficult; you know your life is being reshaped and it’s hard to play scholar in the middle of it. Further, a few weeks after we’d arrived, a Christchurch earthquake had resulted in terrible destruction and loss of life. My husband’s beloved aunt Mary had suddenly died. And my parents, whose marriage, when I left, seemed solid as rock and just as affectionate, were divorcing. Radio silence from my eight-five year old father, now living with a forty-five year old woman.  When random Aotearoans asked me what I was up to, I would joke “having coffee with poets”: how else could I possibly sum it up?

“That’s what you should write,” my husband said, when I commented on how hard it was to assume an authoritative, scholarly voice as if none of this other material was boiling around me—how dissatisfied I felt by academic writing, under the circumstances. “An essay about having coffee with poets.” I took off Strider’s costume that afternoon and tried to assume my birthright, composing prose in which I was a whole person. I had lots of paring and reshaping to do later, but I put down the bones in a week or two. By the end of the finished essay, I declare my intention to transmit argument without filtering out all the personal noise that makes me want to make arguments. That is, to brew up criticism that also delivers the pleasures of story—more meaningful to write, possibly even of interest beyond academia.

Declaring that ambition feels arrogant to me, outrageous, not entirely nice. Further, the two years since have been crazy. The kids hit adolescence; our jobs changed in big ways; the house flooded; my father remarried, got sicker, and died. Basically I’ve been trying to survive my life and think about new goals while not laying down the old ones. I’ve written tons of poetry and prose and managed to get some of it revised and into the world but I’ve also been trying to do too much. My spouse’s latest pronouncement: I need to fire the tiny little booking agent who inhabits the cave of my head. She knows exactly how much I can do and she schedules me right up to the limits of my energy and sanity. “I hate her,” he said. Okay, I answered, overruling the homunculus. No modernism conference.

What I’m trying to do now, as the writing summer opens up, is prioritize. I’ve got a lot of projects steeping. The ones I’ve already committed heavily to: it’s time to dust them with cinnamon and serve them to some kind of public or just dump them if they’re too stale, but no more fooling around behind the espresso machine. And the new book, Poetry’s Possible Worlds will NOT be the straight-ahead scholarship I was trained in, but the mixed-up stuff I feel driven to write, the stuff that feels interesting to me and I hope will be interesting to others, too. Goals:

  1. Write what I want to write—poetry and prose that anyone who likes to read would enjoy—but commit to it. Stop trying to walk every path at once.
  2. Work long and hard. Get better.
  3. Unite the kingdom.