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.

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.

Scary days, undignified cats

I had hoped the scariest thing about this week would be giving a poetry reading to a bunch of highschoolers–angry captives under a bell jar fogged by seething hormones. Instead, the students and I shared ghost stories and the whole thing was reasonably fun, while politics are frightening me to death. The president is egging on the very worst and most unstable people among us, rallying them around bigotry and fear. One local manifestation of his efforts is yet another KKK leafletting, this time on campus in broad daylight.

There’s hope that midterm election results will put the brakes on the most abusive vitriol, the most damaging corruption, but I feel sick rather than optimistic. Given Russian interference, voter suppression, and hackable voting technology, I’m not confident I live in a democracy.

A powerhouse poet and my friend, Jeannine Hall Gailey, has been blogging and posting about her own discouragement and trying to restore herself by focusing on literature she loves. Thinking of her, and also about the Civil-Rights-inspired poetry my students are currently reading, I asked the members of an undergraduate seminar why they were studying English and creative writing, why that seemed worthwhile to them when there’s so much anti-humanities rhetoric swirling around. What can poetry do? Why read, write, and study it?

They gave practical answers about learning to write and wry answers about being too unhappy to thrive without English class in their daily lives. They also talked about how reading certain books had educated them, extended their empathy, and set them intellectually afire. They referenced poems and prose that had reassured them they were not alone and not crazy, although the world has gone mad and it can be hard to find your people. Yes to all of those reasons. I definitely treasure the company, these days, of the poets and bloggers, the English majors and Creative Writing minors, and everyone else who loves literary art enough to get a little obsessive about it. So many Americans seem angry at the wrong people or, what’s even more bewildering to me, too apathetic to take even the smallest of stands against this administration’s destructiveness: to vote.

The poets, though–they’re trying to change the world. I see them writing their way out of insanity in the books, the magazines, and in the submission pile. I’m doing it, too, even as I remain skeptical that poems (or blog posts) are effective places to fight political battles. Certainly they’re not the ONLY place we should be fighting. But they can constitute zones of kindness and good company, alternate worlds of clearer thinking and human connection and occasionally something more magical than that–something like sustenance or transformation. Like Jeannine and like my students, I continue to feel relief and wonder when I visit them.

I am also an appreciator of feline powers of consolation, so here are a few pictures of my black cats being less than Halloweenish. Vote. Read. Write. Stroke somebody’s fur. Be well.

 

Respect in classrooms vs. crap outside them

Guys yelled slurs and catcalls from fraternity porches and dorm windows. At Rutgers in the late 80s, walking to class could be an ordeal, so one of the first things I learned at college was how to disappear behind an armor of apparent indifference. I often arrived at lectures and seminars demoralized, and sometimes what happened in the classroom compounded those feelings. One distinguished politics professor announced to a sea of nodding undergrads that Othello was about how attracted women are to violent men, then mocked me for sticking my hand up to protest (race haunted the dynamic he was evoking, but I didn’t have the words to call him on that). Or there was the French professor who spent the period discussing the bohemian chic of my outfit. Yes, it was a great sweatshirt, thanks, but I would have rather learned about Flaubert. It was painful to feel so looked at all the time, so minutely surveilled.

Yet while my English professors were a mixed bag in their temperaments and talents, not one of them ever reduced me to a stereotype. What mattered, in those Rutgers English classrooms, was the work I did, the quality of what I wrote and said.

I marvel, when I look back, at their dedication. I know now that the politics of teaching in a state system can be hard; the pay’s not great, classes are large, and support is often limited. Yet even when those professors must have felt intensely frustrated, they managed to make me feel respected. For instance, I’m not sure I even knew there was an award for the top English honors thesis until the winner was announced, so I had no expectation of receiving a prize–I just remember thinking, when I heard the winner’s name, that I’d heard his work (on Wordsworth) and found it unimpressive. But then a senior person in the department pulled me aside and said something like, “A number of us argued that you deserved the honor, but there was a faction in the department who wouldn’t let the prize go to a young woman working on Rich and Sexton.” He affirmed that I wasn’t crazy–that the game was rigged, and not in my favor–but also that I was doing good work. People whom I admired valued me, even went out on a limb for me. An instance of nearly-invisible bias was transformed into an affirmation I would carry with me for the rest of my life. Of course, that guy presumably still thinks his win was unrelated to gender, but maybe we’re culturally in a place to discuss that now.

These experiences came back to me at the end of this fall term, when I was asked to take part in a faculty development panel called “Tough Talk in Troubled Times,” convened by my wonderful colleague, the history professor Sarah Horowitz. The topic: what hard conversations are we facing in classrooms right now, and how do we handle them? A primary source of the toughness here in Virginia has been an intense argument about race and memorialization–our university is named partly after Robert E. Lee. But hateful talk from the President about immigrants, and harsh new immigration policies, have major implications for all U.S. educational institutions. Plus Fall 2017 was the #metoo semester, bringing a new honesty about the costs of assault and harassment. It’s a lot to manage in a writing seminar or a poetry course (or in any other context).

The panel was great, focusing on responding to anger and prejudice by asking questions–as another colleague put it, intervening with a calm, “Well, let’s talk about that.” Sometimes you have to name bias and tackle it head on, but you stand more chance of opening minds when everyone has room to do their own clear, hard thinking. As usual, questions are the answer. I felt like an impostor on that panel, giving advice about managing volatile class discussions, because I’ve made a ton of mistakes. I realized in preparing, however, that I do have a governing ethic, and it stems from my undergraduate experience at a busy state campus, so different from the pretty lawns and freshly-painted columns of Washington and Lee.

I never expected my professors to fix everything wrong with my university, because it was the same stuff that was wrong with the culture at large. In any public place, it just wasn’t safe to be a woman. Daylight hostility became, after dark, groping and rape. When I was assaulted, it never even occurred to me that I could or should report it–the lesson I learned was to protect myself with more vigilance.

But I was angry when the classrooms I entered failed to be zones of respect. It was fine to be criticized if I hadn’t done the reading well or my arguments were shoddy, but I shouldn’t be praised for cuteness or shamed for having strong opinions. My serious-minded Rutgers English professors encouraged mutual respect as well as respect for the literature under discussion. I still bring that egalitarian idealism to the classrooms I supervise, although I’ll never fully solve the questions of what fairness means and how to foster it.

Since I started in the 90s, I’ve seen enormous cultural shifts in what students feel entitled to say in W&L classrooms. Twenty years ago, I sometimes had to stop class to explain that homophobic slurs were not acceptable; this fall, when I assigned digital storytelling in first-year composition, one student chose to focus on the first time she kissed a woman. We workshopped the story as we did all the others, and while I was moved nearly to tears by witnessing that grand new normal, I kept my emotions to myself, mostly. Some things really have changed.

Of course, some haven’t. I know of repulsive behaviors that occurred on my pretty campus this fall, although they’re not my stories to tell. And while these days, I don’t hear brutal young men sneering from porches, that’s just because surveillance has gone virtual. I assume that some of my students–maybe even the ones who look like they have it all together–are coming to the room raw from verbal and physical assault, and direly in need of literary discussion as a sanctuary. I don’t mean that our discussions are apolitical; they can’t be when you’re teaching Yeats and Ginsberg, Hughes and Clifton and Carson. But our conversations are respectful of the work, and of human beings within and beyond the room.

I don’t have any particular resolutions for 2018 except to keep giving others careful, serious attention. Maybe if more classrooms could be zones of respect and compassion, disrespect outside of the classroom would become harder to sustain.

Yeah, I know that’s small-scale and slow, but it’s what I’ve got, and at least it honors the gifts I received thirty years ago. Happy New Year, stay warm, and I’ll be back in 2018 with more about reading, writing, and teaching poetry (plus a New Year’s Day piece on Poetry Daily!).

xmas 1988
Christmas sweaters, 1988

 

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.