Germinant

My daughter spent the weekend in Budapest, an eight-hour bus ride from Prague, where she’s studying abroad. My son spent the weekend at the state chess tournament, at which he played well and scored a couple of upset wins against higher-ranked competitors. I spent the weekend honing a PowerPoint concerning faculty survey results for the program directors’ plenary at the AWP, which is not my cup of tea, although many cups of tea were consumed in the process. My workload has definitely been tilted too far towards service lately. On the bright side, even as I struggle to meet all those commitments, poems are spraying out of me wildly like water from a damaged spigot. It’s a spring thing–the light comes back and so does the poetry.

I enjoyed editing the “Process” column for Modernism/ modernity, but I’m grateful to be handing that patch of earth to another gardener now. For my last post, I interviewed one of the contemporary poetry scholars I most admire, Jahan Ramazani. “Isn’t that one of the glories of rich, complex, multidimensional poems,” he writes, speaking my language, “that they keep emitting light long after much else in their time has gone dark?” I hereby raise my teacup to scholars and critics everywhere doing good work in service of rich, complex, multidimensional poems. May it keep mulching new poems and reinvigorated conversations.

The other publications poking out of wintry soil this week were two poems in the new issue of Barrow StreetThe shorter one, “Recumbent Lee,” is pictured above, photographed in Payne Hall at W&L. Lee Chapel rises in the background, a building that’s basically a shrine to Lee; Valentine’s statue is housed centrally within it, and the general himself is buried in the crypt. My poem was written and accepted well before the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville last summer, but in a way, it’s overdue. I have a lot of problems with Valentine’s well-rendered work of art. The graceful way it whites out cruelty–that’s not what I wish to teach and honor.

A waxing gibbous moon rising over the rear of Payne Hall, however, after a wonderful lecture by Robert Macfarlane about language and the more-than-human world–that’s a brightness I’d amplify. It’s funny how I can feel so stressed about everything happening outside my classrooms but pretty good about what’s happening within them. But as I prep pantoums, ghazals, blues, and documentary poetry for tomorrow, I do feel nourished by the work of helping their writing and thinking grow. It’s decent ground to stand on when the wind is high.

Killing your 18th c specialist darlings

My imaginary English Department was overstaffed, according to fictional administrators. Unfortunately, the first readers of my novel ms said the same thing. One of those professors, everyone said, has got to go. And it was pretty clear who had the least seniority.

I hated firing the poor guy. Jay’s specialty is not, in real life, my favorite literary period. But my character taught what’s called the long eighteenth century, and was the only tenure-track person between the Renaissance and the Romantics. Milton shoring up one end! Austen and Blake straddling the other!

Fictionally bound to a traditional coverage model, I dug in at first and made his presence bigger and more distinct. Turned out he was a burly blond dude from the midwest, young, a little ADHD, the kind of person who sits at your desk and snaps your stapler open and shut when you’re talking. He was shocked, shocked, to realize some colleagues did not regard his specialty as instrumental in the earth’s rotation. He also had a boyfriend in D.C. and a mermaid-shaped lamp in his office. Aside from an occasional panic attack about tenure, he was kind of oblivious, and happy.

I’m clearly egotistically invested in my own world-making, because disappearing him seemed SO MEAN. But I finally sharpened my weapons this week. It felt less like eviction than murder, the science fictional alternate universe kind where no one admits the lost person ever existed. His frozen appetizer pastries vanish from the potluck. Someone else has to spew crackers at the secret meeting and keep time at the public one. A bunch of lines never get spoken, or come out of someone else’s mouth, with fewer exclamation points. And when a crucial piece of information comes in via text alert, it now vibrates the phone of his former partner in crime, the other tenure-track member of the department, Camille. She’s lonelier these days.

Writing this novel was a whirlwind of serious fun. Revising it has required way more hard thinking and finicky patience. This is not an especially long or ambitious ms (80,000 words, one narrator, chronological, and obviously using a kind of workplace I know well–I wasn’t sure I could do it at all, so my plan was straightforward). Yet there are inevitably gears inside gears, so every small alteration requires days of labor, and there have been a lot of small alterations. The bigger ones–changing pacing, replotting–well, they’re that much tougher to implement. You writers of long forms, man: hats off. My experiment was worthwhile even if it goes nowhere, because I’ve learned so much. This poet is now vastly more appreciative of the novelist’s labors.

And how in the hell did anyone do this before the advent of word processing? I guess Jay would know.

Rest in peace, fictional character, now residing only in this blog post. I know the novel’s better off without you, but still, buddy, I’m sorry.

wpid-paradise_lost_12

 

How and why

70000I’m not the only writer who’s fascinated by the processes of inspiration, composition, and revision, but horrified by the processes of self-promotion. And  I do mean full-on gothic trauma complete with repressed guilt rising monstrously from a shallow grave and chasing me through the Cemetery of Dead Projects. Brave heroine that I try to be, I conquer fear enough to submit work, ask for blurbs and reviews, and nominate myself for various kinds of attention, especially if I can do so in writing, without face-to-face contact with my potential rejecter. I always feel haunted, however, by the ghosts of opportunities lost.

So I was surprised, browsing the Jan/Feb Poets & Writers, to feel inspired by the “Practical Writer” column–a piece by Frank Bures called “Brand You: Questioning Self-Promotion.” It’s print-only, but the gist, as I explained it during a chilly walk with my writer-spouse, is Bures’ recommendation to think like “politicians and cult leaders”–in a good way. The existential nausea of self-promotion recedes when you proselytize for the book itself: why you wrote it, why you imagine some group of readers needs or wants it. “Which means the ‘why’ should be deep in a book’s DNA,” Chris said. Yes.

Hows and whys are on my mind because I have a recent book out, but also because my writing life just took a weird turn. A year ago, I had an idea for a novel and started mentally toying around with it. I put a few paragraphs down last summer but didn’t go further.

Then, while balking at other kinds of work in late fall–my mother’s illness colored life with urgency–an opening scene arrived. I wrote it then, to my shock, kept on going. Every day I could, I’d write for six hours in my pajamas, then shower, run errands, exercise, whatever, and go back to work in late afternoon or evening. I generally work hard on sabbatical–seven or eight hours a day, five days a week, which is a lot of writing–but this was full-bore. I wrote in passenger seats and Christmas outfits, at the crack of dawn and in the middle of the night. During respites my brain would fill with sentences like a bucket under a roof leak. I’d put a bunch of tops in motion and just had to keep touching them, maintaining the spin. I ended up drafting 70,000 words in five weeks, adding a few thousand more during the first revision. It’s not ready for prime time, but it’s not terrible, either.

The whole process was a revelation–that I knew how to tell the story, that I loved the work. I will, at some future point, see if readers like it, too. The aforementioned spouse just finished it–thumbs up–but he gave smart suggestions, too, and there’s lots of work ahead.

I thought this experiment worth undertaking even if I never published a word–that I’d learn from the adventure–and already that seems true. Last week I looked at a languishing memoir-critical hybrid piece and, bam, knew how to fix the thing. Distance helps, but I also understand more now about rhythm and pacing in prose. Trained in poetic compression, I had just been eliding too much. I have infinitely more to learn about time in prose narrative, but practice has sped up my education. I’m curious what lessons I’ll bring back to poetry.

I just finished reading a book that holds up a mirror to this experience: Ben Lerner’s 10:04. His semi-fictional narrator Ben figures out how to write a prose book during a five-week residency that he devotes, contrarily, to writing a long poem, even though he just signed a six-figure contract and desperately needs to get some bill-paying prose underway.  A disobedient excursion through one genre teaches him how to approach–maybe even reinvent–the other.

Unfortunately, the milieu of 10:04 brings me back to the publicity dilemma. If I never again read a novel in which bright young literati in Brooklyn earn fabulous amounts of money, it won’t be too soon. It’s a testament to Lerner’s gift that I couldn’t dislike the book. It wasn’t long ago that an author visiting W&L (not Lerner) said, “I don’t know why anyone living outside Brooklyn even bothers to write.” The remark, leveled at Virginia writers over artisanal cocktails, was brutal, but I do get it: I live far from the publicity machines that might amplify my promotional effort a thousandfold.

Disheartening, sometimes, but as a Philadelphia friend reminds me, I do get a lot done in my tiny boring nowhere-town. On the subject of smallness: check out my microreview in a new Kenyon Review series. And thanks to Hampton-Sydney Poetry Review for publishing my poems and reflections about undergraduate teaching, and also to Valerie Duff-Strautmann for reviewing Radioland so intelligently in the new Salamander. Hurrah for all these great people striving to amplify poetry’s signal!

As I gladly receive their broadcasts, I think about the “why” of Radioland, which is a good book but Sisyphean. It’s about how incredibly difficult it is for human beings to get through to one another, and how vital it isSalamander to try anyway–basically a skeptic’s big pitch for listening and love. Which means it’s a qualified pitch, a little wry. Un-Trumpery from the poet as charismatic loser, as Eileen Myles brilliantly puts it.

I hope you’ll accept the connection and read it, whether you buy, borrow, or cadge a free teacher/ reviewer’s copy. (My link’s to the press but it’s also available from your favorite monstrously convenient online retailer). Or come see me at the VA Festival Book or at the AWP–I’m working on keeping my Events page updated, when I’m not, that is, hiding with my exiled friends behind the tombstone of Literary Recognition Undemanded, R.I.P.

 

Buried bulb juts up a spear

More sleet and snow in the forecast, ugh, even as here in western Virginia, snowdrops and crocus and even a few daffodils show the shivering woods in bright spring clothes. I feel winter-locked too. Things have been germinating underground that I can’t talk about much: some hopes that have busted, some that may be hardier. Maybe I’ll be able to leap up from the leaf-mulch of half-graded papers and show some colors soon, but not quite yet.

In the meantime, at the risk of seeming really pretty goofy, here’s news of an inner turn, something that happened a month or so ago and has made me feel calmer. I’d been thinking a lot about ambition. Writers, probably all strivers for beautiful outcomes, have to construct this funny balance. On the one hand, you have to be humble and open about the work, because that’s all that matters and the work won’t tolerate some poet thinking she’s the one in charge. On the other, you have to cultivate arrogance: confidence enough to follow the words in the first place, and then the more public chutzpah involved in getting your work out there. Inspired by VIDA and other projects drawing attention to the weaker networks of women writers, our collective tendency to sidestep struggle and self-aggrandizement, I’ve been plagued by ridiculously heroic meta-ambition. I HAVE to strive, I told myself. Any woman who has the means HAS to, otherwise too few of us will ever see sunlight.

I wondered if that was self-deceptive (“It’s not for my own sake, really, I’m staking out those prestigious journals for my sisters!”). I also noticed that these double pressures to succeed were making me feel inadequate and jealous–more hurt by the inevitable losses, less thrilled by the wins. And then I had not just the thought but the sudden conviction I tried to describe in the verse below, drafted on a February day when you could feel a bit of warmth, a hint that spring would eventually, in fact, arrive. I have the feeling it’s a fragment of process, not a poem yet or maybe ever, but putting those lines together helped me. And I went to the AWP and that sense of smallness we all have at that conference worried me less. I just kept writing down the names of women who said smart, moving things at the various panels and readings I attended, and now I’m going to order their books.

Weed Experiences Trite Yet Nourishing Epiphany

A breath riffles my trichomes:
we are all connected. Sudden sense
of the buried mycelium from which
all creatures sprout: shoots reach
through the air while we root
together invisibly. Why this
consoles a godless poet, I don’t know;
I could say what’s good for one
herb greens the whole field, though
hunger is never so rational; still
I feel relief in every chloroplast,
a hot June slackening of fear.