Errant in the Bewilderness

If I told you I’m just screwing around this week, I’d be exaggerating. This is exam week after our twelve-week winter term, so there’s lots of grading, as well as chores involving grants, event programming, etc. Liberation from the rigors of my former schedule, though–during which I was trying to do much of the same work while also prepping and teaching–is making me feel giddy. It helps that my antibiotics have kicked in, because I came home from a tiring AWP with strep throat. Bonus: it’s really spring!

Each day I’m carving out a little time–maybe just fifteen minutes–to draft something, a poem or the seed of one. This morning I responded to a request from someone who wants poems about Mina Loy. I ended up rereading most of The Lost Lunar Baedeker, which is really teaching-prep, too, because I’ll teach Modern U.S. Poetry in the fall and book orders are just around the corner. I hadn’t spent serious hours with this collection in years and was newly struck by all the beautiful poems about aging. When I was 49, I thought I’d write a suite of poems about my poetic idols when THEY were 49. I ended up writing one sonnet about Edna St. Vincent Millay then quit, because it was so damn depressing. 49 is apparently not the happiest age for women poets. Now, past the hinge of 50, finding Loy’s intelligent take on what she calls the “excessive incognito” of “An Aged Woman” is such a gift. Plus Loy’s coinage “Bewilderness,” which appears in a poem about widowhood called “Letters of the Unliving,” is my new favorite word. I have the most fun when wandering a vague landscape you could call by that name–sort of working, sort of playing around.

One side effect of this work-play is reflection on how I’m spending time. I was just catching up with Dave Bonta’s Poetry Blog Digest and found this great post by Erica Goss about just that–a procedure for carrying the intensities of a major literary conference into a quieter, post-conference writing zone. I think it would mitigate the post-AWP blues I always feel, whether or not I get sick.

Of course, one of the things I’m reflecting about is the very teaching year I’m finishing up (I teach our four-week May term every other year–but not this one!). I honestly don’t know what my creative writing students thought of the first blended-genre workshop I’d taught in years. Many of them did outstanding work, but the vibe in the room was hard to read. My general education course in Protest Poetry, however, was warmly enthusiastic, although plenty of the conversations we had along the way about politics, privilege, and anger itself were very tricky. I posted earlier this term about a benefit reading we organized together. Their final project was to choose their own causes and find a way to advance them through poetry, then write reflective essays about the results. I was so proud and delighted by the variety and quality of their efforts! One student took poetry commissions to benefit Project VOICE; another broadcast a feminist radio show of songs and readings; others waged broadside campaigns about body positivity and the collapse of bee populations. Final products included found poems drawn from community participation; a poetry-infused brochure on the indigenous history of this area; and beautiful little chapbooks on climate change; water crisis; the experiences of queer students at W&L; and addiction and recovery, all distributed to the people who would most appreciate them.

I was so glad I experimented with this assignment, even though, at moments, I was alarmed by my own ambitions. It’s easier for me to play around in my teaching than it is for many others: I’m tenured, my college has great resources, and I teach small classes full of talent. But the Bewilderness, that zone of not knowing what you’re doing and being willing to risk mistakes–it’s where the good stuff happens. I need this breather from the classroom for a while and will make earnest use of it. One of the ways I’ll do so will be dreaming about fall’s wild experiments.

Teaching poetry activism

Coffee at the RARA Benefit reading

Almost everything I do that might make the world slightly more kind and just, I do with literature’s help. Teaching feels like my main avenue for helping others; in writing and editing, too, I try to increase the general light. I’ve failed in those activities many times, but I’m also sure I’ve done good, perhaps in a more lasting way than by attending rallies, signing petitions, and writing letters to congresspeople or newspaper editors. The latter work is vital–my daughter wants to make a career of improving how the government works, and I am so grateful for her intelligence and commitment! But I’m personally better, I think, at kinds of activism that tap the deepest wells of my knowledge and skill.

Poetry’s usefulness can be exaggerated. Writing verses is NOT a particularly effective way of influencing politicians, getting a law changed, or (god knows) attracting money. So even though I created a new course for this term, Protest Poetry, in the deep conviction that poetry helps people, I brought some skepticism to the topic, too. The course is designed for exploration and experiment, and while I’ve done research into its central questions, I’m a genuine student here, with lots to learn. When literature does influence people, how does that work? What poetic strategies are most likely to affect someone’s biases or even, possibly, alter their behaviors? We read a suite of Civil Rights poems and are now working through The Ecopoetry Anthology, discussing (without agreement) the costs and benefits of writing angry poems, grieving poems, and poems of praise; drawing on personal feeling or using the imperative voice; creating works of sonic beauty, grammatical difficulty, or narrative force; and much more.

“Protest Poetry” also carries my college’s “experiential learning” designation, which means the students are creating a couple of public-facing projects. The first, a collaborative venture, happened this Wednesday. We began planning it a few weeks ago, after a tour of the Rockbridge Area Relief Association as well as reading poems about hunger on the Split this Rock database. The assignment was (for very low stakes, grade-wise) to raise money for RARA through poetry. I told them a benefit reading would work–I’ve organized them before–but it was up to them. We toyed with the idea of a Haiku Booth or poetry-related crafts, but decided on an hourlong event that would be organized, promoted, and emceed by students in the class. They chose and booked a campus space, issued invitations to the readers, created fliers, set up sound equipment, decided the flow of the event, and brought refreshments (I acquired a small budget for the latter).

My undergraduates also did some extra work I did NOT expect or require, because, I think, they became genuinely invested in the cause. Some of them made another trip to the food pantry with questions for the clientele, cleared in advance by RARA staff, such as “What’s your favorite meal?” and “If you had to describe RARA in one word, what would it be?” They constructed poems out of the answers, performing them at the event as well as interspersing information between the poems about RARA’s work. They also set up a fundraising table for three days in the Commons, where they offered soft drinks and home-baked treats. Talking to unsuspecting muffin-eaters about how much food RARA can buy for a dollar, they then sweetly solicited donations in any amount. All told, they raised $470!

When we talked about the event during Friday’s class, they were awed by the amount of money raised but also reflected that the event in itself felt good. RARA staff attended and my students watched them tear up during poems. I’m pretty sure a couple of my students choked up, too. They’ll be devising individual activist projects using poetry next, serving whatever cause they feel most invested in, and I’m excited to see what they come up with. I’ll give you an update at the end of term!

Raising money: a clear win. Did the poetry itself change anyone’s thinking? My gut feeling is that it’s way too early to tell. Nobody in my class spoke about having personally experienced food insecurity (not that they necessarily would have), so I’m pretty sure our readings conveyed new information about that flavor of suffering to many, as well as making space for deep thinking about our obligations to each other. Maybe the example of those RARA staff and volunteers mattered most of all.

Back now to more ordinary good works: responding to student writing, preparing for class, reading for Shenandoah, working on the search for AWP’s new director, and maybe, maybe, squeezing in an hour or two for my own writing projects. Whatever you’re up to this week, I hope it involves good art and good food. I’ll leave you with a shot of me reading a poem by Lauren Alleyne from her book Difficult Fruit, plus the poem itself: “Grace Before Meals.” It’s a nourishing one.

Me reading at the RARA Benefit

Teaching from online magazines

Fall term is over except for the grading, and THANK GOD: I had terrific students but a lot of them, and I really had to drag myself over the finish line. But winter term starts early here–January 7th!–and it will also be a busy one, so one of my tasks over the next few weeks is to finalize syllabi for two courses. One is “Protest Poetry,” which starts with the Civil Rights era, moves through Standing Rock and ecopoetry, and ends with independent projects: students have to identify their own causes, find some public way poetry can serve them, enact their plans, then write reflective essays. The other is a multigenre introductory creative writing course, moving from flash memoir to poetry. I’ve never taught either before so, yikes.

Even as this term’s portfolios and papers come snowing down and I organize next term’s particulars, however, I’m trying to bask in another grand finale: the re-launch of ShenandoahIt’s stunning how much Editor-in-Chief Beth Staples has accomplished since she started in August: the dated-looking website has been radically redesigned on a new server, but most importantly she recruited exciting new work–a few pieces by distinguished writers who’d appeared in the magazine under R. T. Smith’s editorship, but many, many others from writers who might not have considered sending to us before, so that the issue is more inclusive than ever along every possible axis. I say “us” because Beth, who has a collaborative spirit, included her new colleagues as volunteer readers from the beginning, and by mid-fall had appointed several of us as genre editors, including Seth Michelson for translation, Chris Gavaler for comics, and me for poetry. I didn’t read every entry or make every call on acceptance or rejection in my genre, and that will be true of the next issue as well (towards which a lot of work has already been accepted) but I did read thousands of pieces (and am still processing the last few from our fall reading period).

So, OF COURSE I’ll be teaching poems from the new issue next term. My syllabi always include plenty of books on paper; I love print as a medium. But a digital issue can be a great addition to the mix: free, ultra-contemporary, and diversifying a reading list in interesting ways. Below are some thoughts about how to use the poetry section of 68.1, or an online journal generally.

Reading assignment for any group of poems:

Read all the first lines/sentences. Which do you like best and why? Now read all the poems. Does your favorite first line belong to your favorite piece? Why or why not? (This is a good exercise for creative writing students getting a handle on craft.)

Or: identify three strategies at play in these poems that you might want to try yourself and discuss how they work. (In this issue, for instance, there are prose poems, free verse in various arrangements, a persona poem, an ode, and an erasure–check out the erased/ unerased text toggle on “Ethos of I C E”! There are also poems in numbered sections; unconventional uses of punctuation, capitalization, spacing, and abbreviations; elegies, anti-elegies, and riffs on obituaries; and a wide variety of allusions.)

A response paper topic I’ll use for Protest Poetry: Now that we’ve talked about whether or not poems can be “useful,” choose a couple of poems from this issue and write about what potential work they might do for a reader or a community of readers. Which help you think about a problem or an institution in a different way? Did any of them alter your mood or spur you to do additional research into a topic? Which might work best at a rally, in a waiting room pamphlet, on a poster, in a valentine card?

More ways to teach these specific poems:

If you’re teaching elegy: try Patrick Kindig; both poems by Victoria Chang; the poems by John Lee Clark; Janet McAdams’ “Thanatoptic.” On a related note, Hai-Dang Phan’s poem would pair well with Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” and other poems about monuments–it’s also very much an eco-poem that situates the human dead amid “veteran elms” and other representatives of the more-than-human world.

If you’re teaching poetry and place: “Yes Yes Dakar, 2018”; both Brandon Melendez poems; Jessica Guzman Alderman’s “Florida Orange”; “Meeting House at Cill Rialaig”; and maybe most of the others, because place, like sex and death and memory, is one of poetry’s big subjects.

Poetry about family: Dujie Tahat’s “Ode to the Golden Hour on the Day of Finalizing My Divorce”; either “Obit”; “After the Wedding”; Kathleen Winter; plus one for holiday dysfunction by Alicia Mountain.

The John Lee Clark poems would also fit into readings about disability, as would Jeannine Hall Gailey’s “Introduction to Writer’s Block,” which adds contemporary politics to the mix, and the question of how we write when our bodies force reconsideration of our ambitions and oh, that’s right, the world’s in flames.

There are countless ways to teach complicated poems, however, and all these are complicated in beautiful ways. I’d love to hear your ideas. In the meantime, hey, just spending an afternoon READING the work is a lovely thing…And hey, if you’re on Twitter, please follow us at @ShenandoahWLU. Some long-ago intern set up the old account, @ShenandoahLit, and we no longer have full access to it, so we’re rebuilding on social media as well as everywhere else. Lots of work to do!shenandoah