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

She’s in a state, all right

THIS is the best thing about this week: a stunning cover for my forthcoming poetry book, featuring a painting called “Censer” by Ida Floreak and designed by Nikkita Colhoon. Nikkita’s work was one of the draws, for me, in working with Tinderbox Editions–all her covers stop you in your tracks. I feel really lucky. I owe thanks, too, to Clover Archer for bringing Ida’s art to Staniar Gallery on campus, and to Kevin Remington for getting a high-quality photograph of the work. I went to Ida’s talk just as I was puzzling over possible covers, so there was something magical about the convergence.

Like Ida’s other work, “Censer” has a meditative quality I love. She’s arranged a shrine out of natural objects, highlighting their grace–and the cracking egg suggests rebirth (when am I being reborn again? I’m ready!). Ida says she’s influenced both by botanical drawings and religious art, and this book is full of plants, creatures, and spirit-questions. I had wondered what colors Nikkita would choose for the words on the cover; the pink is both surprising and right. The poems reference pink constantly, from pussy hats to magnolia blossoms to rose-tinted medicines. And somehow the pink lettering makes the shadows more striking, which feels appropriate to this collection, too. Yes, I know I’m close-reading my own cover at length, but I’m excited, dammit.

Of course, having a cover helps me kick publicity into high gear (well, as high a gear as I can manage in my rural location, with no publicist). I’ve been busy arranging a local launch and seeking readings elsewhere with more success that I’d expected but also some disappointments/ loud silences, as you’d imagine. Here’s a preliminary list, but I’ll fill in more details soon. One thought: I’d somehow imagined that when big-name poets posted their tour dates, bookings had just fallen into their laps, because of their dazzling fame. Maybe that happens sometimes. But now I’m suspecting there’s way more hustle involved (my list represents a ton of cold queries and painstaking applications, but also many kind suggestions from allies). I don’t have chutzpah but I am diligent, so I’m trying to compensate for one with the other. I’m also taking any and all ideas about reading venues and I’d be grateful for yours.

I’ll be traveling this spring and summer from Vermont to the Carolinas, with a detour to Wisconsin, and I’m both thrilled to get out there and a little worried about pacing myself. I’ve always been an anxious person but anxiety has been WAY harder to manage this year than ever before–the old tactics and treatments are almost useless, as they sometimes become during menopause, I hear, and I’m having to reinvent my approach. One of my doctors pointed out recently, “The bell rings, and you jump,” meaning I consistently meet my obligations, even when I feel bad. I even enjoy some of them–teaching and giving readings, for example, are generally fun for me. But the costs are higher; I take longer to return to calmness. So I’m thinking maybe I should pair each professional event with a restorative treat–following a guest workshop with a couple of silent hours in an art museum, for example, or a cozy dinner with Chris in an interesting restaurant. I also think I need to decouple the pleasure of sharing work from anxiety about whether the event sells books or not. Sometimes I feel wonderful, knowing that my poems connected, and then I feel crushed when all the impecunious people rush out without buying. But one should not negate the other. Ideas on how you manage the emotions of promotion would be very welcome, too.

Dear poetry professor: self-doubt

Giant squid considers applying for a poetry opportunity then second-guesses herself

Q: I question the worth of my writing on a near-daily basis. Is there a way to just get over it?

A: Okay, okay, I admit it, that question comes from Dr. Ms. Poetry Professor herself, but it’s a genuine one. If you have better answers, please post in the comments. In the meantime, here’s what I’m telling myself.

I should say, before I start, that I’m speaking from a well-supported life, with access to friends and meds and counseling. My own self-sabotage AND successes are rooted in having grown up with many privileges and some challenges; my well-educated engineer father, for example, constantly undercut and disparaged my bookish mother, who left her British high school at sixteen to apprentice at Royal Liverpool Babies Hospital. As the first woman in my family to go to university, I felt like both of them and neither, struggling to find a different way. Through hard work and good luck, I’ve won some great honors and opportunities, but I’ve also been underestimated for most of my professional life because of my gender, and I’ve endured episodes of assault and harassment. The laws of my time allowed me to marry the person I loved, who loves and supports me still. While I’ve had health problems, I’m more able-bodied than many. The thoughts below arise from a stew of factors, many nourishing and some toxic.

First: there are different kinds of self-doubt. Some are salutary. Every writer SHOULD say to herself sometimes: hmm, I’m not sure this poem/ essay/ story etc. is very good–because most drafts aren’t. Without self-doubt, weak first starts would never go the distance, yet many eventually do. The most constructive response to this species of doubt, if you can recognize it as reasonable, is to work harder. If your standard repertoire of tweaks (strengthening diction, cutting adverbs, etc.) doesn’t banish that tentacle of uncertainty, can you free write about what makes the material so important and interesting to you, then try to bring that urgency/ clarity back into the piece? Maybe there’s a missing link you need to develop. If neither of those strategies fly, maybe talking to a smart friend about it would help? Or take a break–exercise, adjust your blood sugar, or do some unrelated task–and come back when you can see the piece clearly. Maybe that’s weeks from now, and unless you’re under external deadlines, that’s fine. Poetry keeps.

Even a giant squid-sized portion of self-doubt can be helpful, to a degree. It’s good to think long-term about your aspirations as a writer and whether you’re really taking the necessary steps to accomplish your goals. Your imagination won’t always obey your agenda, but that’s why it’s good to have a couple of projects at different stages. If something stalls, you can then procrastinate productively. I find it grounding to return, too, to the less-elevated kinds of writing that directly help people, like reference letters and reviews. The sentences don’t have to be beautiful and you KNOW you’re being of use.

But misgivings attached to the work rather than your capacities as a person–well, that kind of doubt isn’t really what motivated my question, although I find it useful to remind myself that self-questioning helps smart people work smarter. Nor am I all that worried about the occasional acute episode of writing-related panic. I had a rough time getting started this summer and tried slogging doggedly through the doubt. Then I put myself on a course of related and unrelated reading, and that helped more. Reading is the best tonic I know (which probably explains some things about my career choice). I finished a draft of the short project that was killing me, put it aside, and then moved onto work that feels more congenial. This is a standard cycle in my writing life, and some combination of grit and rest always gets me through it, eventually.

The self-doubt that I find hardest isn’t about my relationship to the work itself. It’s about my relationship to other people. Like the juvenile giant squid in the video above, I’m both curious and wildly reticent. I’d much rather submit work towards publication or a grant from a distance, say, than approach an editor in person, at a conference. I’ve shied away from conversations and connections that might have helped me about a zillion times. And when you’re a middle-aged woman without influential mentors, no one’s rushing to hand you opportunities because you’re doing such good work in your quiet corner of the deep. I mean, it happens–I’ve put the work out there steadily, and sometimes nabbed a win–but it would happen more if I didn’t sabotage myself and hide in the murk. I’ve vowed to do better, especially with new books coming along. I WILL put myself and my work forward, because I DO believe in it fiercely. We’ll see.

Book promotion, reading, butt-sitting

Lately I’ve been reading in a fragmentary way–journalism, parts of books, letters in archives–in the shadow of crises. Too much death and division in the news; too many friends ill. The latest small, stupid pain came from a hornet’s sting Sunday. I guess the hard crying afterwards was cathartic, but my foot is still swollen and my stalled condition seems symbolic.

Yet I am lucky to be sitting on my keister reading, writing, and revising–work I love. Since I’ve got three + book projects in the works, and since we’re now more than halfway through 2016, I started thinking about my readerly habits. I’ve been keeping a list like the one below for a few years now, but the latest variation involves jotting down, in parenthesis, why I picked up that particular volume. I imagined this way of keeping records might help me figure out where to put my own publicity energy in future.

It turns out a good chunk of what I read is, in one way or another, on assignment. Usually I’d be prepping for class as well as conducting research, but this spring, on sabbatical, a lot of my assignment-reading related to monthly micro-poetry-reviews for the Kenyon Review Online, as well as reviewing for other journals (at a rate I will not be able to keep up…). But what about the rest, the reading I do for pleasure, out of general curiosity?

Turns out reviews do matter, but primarily when I admire the reviewer. I’ve never met N.K. Jemisin, for example, but I like her own books and her taste, so her new sf roundup column for the New York Times has been shaping my choices. Friends’ recommendations are highly influential, too, via published reviews  or when the guy who cuts my hair says, “I know My Name Is Lucy Barton sounds like a depressing premise, but it’s really not that sad–I loved it.”  

There are certain authors whose work I watch for and read immediately–King, Erdrich, and Le Guin lately–and others who have been languishing in my must-read pile forever. I also read books by old friends and new acquaintances, often spurred to do so by the prospect of seeing the person soon. My project since joining the AWP board, for instance, is to read one book by each of my very lovely fellow board members–but I paused halfway through, right after the conference.

I rarely read a book because of the press or cover design or fancy blurbs, although those factors can get me to open the book and spend a little time with it, sometimes even to buy it. But as much as sales matter, are they more important than actually getting read? If I don’t warm to the work on its own merits, after all, I just put it down. I’m middle-aged, man. Millions of good books and no time to lose.

Moral: luck, timing, acquaintance, readings, and word of mouth all get a book into my hands. But unless some big obligation is sitting on me, I won’t actually finish it unless it’s somewhere between good and awesome. Below are the mostly good-to-awesome books (not magazines) I’ve read completely (or listened to) during the first half of 2016 (asterisks for those published this year, to help me if I get a year-in-review gig next December). I would be VERY interested to hear how various books make it to the tops of YOUR piles.

POETRY
1/10 White, LettERRS (review assignment)
1/18 Rankine, Citizen (reread for work event)
2/15 Stone, Poetry Comics (friend’s recommendation)*
2/19 Francis, Forest Primeval (review by friend in Kenyon Review)*
2/19 Dungy, Suck on the Marrow (scouting historical poetry)
2/20 Barnstone, The Beast in the Apartment (friend’s recommendation)
2/22 Carson, Nox (knew it would be great and was saving it)
2/23 Gray, Photographing Eden (AWP staff)
2/25 O’Reilly, Geis (review assignment)
2/27 Okrent, Boys of My Youth (review assignment)
3/19 Bridgford, Human Interest* (ms to blurb)
3/20 Robinson, Sometimes the Little Town* (friend and local author)
3/21 Meitner, Copia (bought after her reading at VA Festival of Book)
3/23 Dop, Father Child Water (ditto)
3/25 Powell, Useless Landscape (preparing to meet him at AWP)
3/27 Leahy, Constituents of Matter (AWP staff)
4/2 Rocha, Karankawa (AWP prize winner)
4/3 Day, Last Psalm at Sea Level (picked up at AWP)
4/7 McAdams, Seven Boxes for the Country After* (friend and poet I admire)
4/10 Clarvoe, Counter-Amores (reread prior to Kenyon visit)
4/11 Meeks, The Genome Rhapsodies (review)
4/23 Le Guin, Late in the Day* (review)
5/1 Kildegaard, Ventriloquy* (review)
5/4 Hoppenthaler, Domestic Garden (possible campus visit)
5/4 Dubrow, The Arranged Marriage (heard her read from it 2 years ago)
5/13 Duncan, Restless Continent (review assignment, also recommended by friend)
5/27 Stallings, Olives (had been meaning to for years)
6/1 Nelson, American Ace* (poet long admired, picked up at conference)
6/2 Preston, Centennial Poem for Washington and Lee University (research)
6/4 Starace, Unseen Avenue* (friend and poet I admire)
6/13 Davis, Traditional Ballads of Virginia (research)
6/14 Frank, The Opposite of People (review assignment)
6/26 Jackson, ed., Selected Poems of ESV Millay* (review)
7/4 Schroeder, Inked* (met author at conference)
7/11 Tribble, Natural State* (review)

FICTION
1/16 Lerner, 10:04 (daughter’s recommendation)
1/20 Butler, Kindred (reread for guest-teaching)
1/31 Anders, All the Birds in the Sky* (Jemisin’s NYT review)
2/7 Gavaler, Patron Saint of Superheroes (unpublished, to give the author feedback)
2/15 Penny, Still Life (friend’s recommendation)
2/19 Atwell, Wild Girls (writer recently moved to my town)
3/13 Jemisin, Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (friend’s recommendation)
3/18 Jemisin, Broken Kingdoms (continuation of trilogy)
3/22 Jemisin, Gods’ Kingdom (continuation of trilogy)
3/29 Jemisin, The Awakened Kingdom (novella postscript to trilogy)
3/29 Grimes, Rainbow’s End (audiobook it took me 5 months to finish)
3/29 Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton* (friend’s recommendation)
4/17 Ozeki, Tale for the Time Being (recommended by friend)
5/4 Martin, Dance with Dragons (reread for TV show)
5/12 Myerson, The Stopped Heart (Weber’s NYT review)
5/23 Weber, True Confections (met author at Kenyon)
5/30 Erdrich, LaRose* (longstanding favorite author)
6/18 King, End of Watch* (another favorite author)
6/22 Sittenfeld, Eligible* (curious about her work for a while, NYT review)
7/10 Hairston, Will Do Magic for Small Change* (Jemisin’s NYT review)

NONFICTION
1/30 Kolbert, Sixth Extinction (daughter’s recommendation)
2/8 Jackson, Marginalia (for research)
2/8 Scholes, The Crafty Reader (for research)
2/8 Coates, Between the World and Me (recommended by a zillion friends)
2/9 Freedman, Frey, Zauhar, Intimate Critique (for research)
2/11 Tompkins, Reader Response Criticism (for research)
3/4 Christman, Darkroom (AWP board)
3/8 Eakin, How Our Lives Become Stories (research)
5/12 MacDonald, H is for Hawk (audiobook; widely recommended)

2bread
One of several intimidating to-be-read piles in my life

 

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.

 

Hey you out there in radioland!

radioland thumbnailMy new book of poems, Radioland, is now available for purchase! My own box is supposed to arrive today, although I live in such a small town we don’t receive daily UPS delivery, so it could be tomorrow. I’m jittery with suspense.

In the meantime, I thought you might find a couple of my answers to a Barrow Street publicity questionnaire interesting. It’s always a little tricky to say what a poetry book is “about,” and what I thought I was doing may be different than what I actually accomplished, but below I give it my best shot.

1) Explain the significance of your title.

“Radioland” is an imaginary place: broadcasters used the word to gesture towards their far-flung listeners. Since researching Voicing American Poetry–and especially since my 2011 Fulbright in New Zealand–I’ve been thinking about how and why we transmit our voices over huge gaps in time, space, and understanding. These poems concern many of the ways people send and receive their most urgent messages, including radio but also letters, cellphones, websites, newspapers, literary works, and even dreams and hauntings. Some of the trickiest communications in this book occur between my father and me. He was born in Brooklyn in 1925, so the dated sound of the word “radioland” also conjures the generation gap between us, as well as the difficulties I have decoding my own teenagers.

2) Briefly describe your work, as you would to someone who doesn’t read a lot of poetry. Talk specifically about repeating ideas, themes, and images, and why they are important to the work. What is the overall tone of your work? What do you think you are doing that might be new?

My obsession with sound shows up in recurrent signal-and-static metaphors as well as in rhyme and rhythm. Several natural disasters are important to the book, including the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, NZ; the 2012 derecho in the mid-Atlantic US; and Hurricane Sandy, as well as personal upheavals. Because I’m trying to redefine some kinds of destruction as change, experimental punctuation became important as I revised—a visual way of marking or resisting closure. There are a number of sonnets here, too, including the sonnet crown “Damages, 2011.” As the notes say, I am particularly interested in NZ’s tradition of arranging sonnets in couplets, but I am also thinking about the sonnet’s conventional turn or volta in connection to the idea of self-redefinition. The formal variety of the book, as well as its investments in damaged, irrecoverable, or imaginary places, are probably its most unusual aspects. There is more science here than in most poetry books, as well, including radio wave propagation, geology, meteorology, and neurotransmission.

Radioland’s autobiographical arc includes a 2011 sabbatical in New Zealand with my husband and two kids, during which my parents’ marriage (in the US) unexpectedly imploded; my father’s remarriage, illness, and death within a year of my return; a catastrophic house flood; and other episodes of personal and historical violence. The sequence moves towards consolation through natural cycles and human love. Raising teenagers and watching their rapid transformations emphasize the necessity of listening to other people’s signals. The many dream and ghost poems describe an inner attention, because sometimes we become strange even to ourselves.

*If you’re considering teaching or reviewing the book, contact me or Barrow Street Press for a complimentary copy (info at barrowstreet dot com). And I’m always happy to give a reading or visit a class, virtually (through Skype etc.) or in the flesh, if I can get there without taking out a second mortgage. And local people: my spouse and I will be signing our new books on Weds. Nov 4th from 5-7 pm at the Bookery. I’ll ask the W&L Bookstore to stock Radioland, too. Lots of work in the next few weeks to air this news!

 

Crazed poet-parent launches daughter and book

Mad Wesleyan

Now my daughter is off in radioland–away at college but constantly present in my imagination, and intermittently present through texts and posts. A message with cheerful emoji has such an instant calming effect on my blood pressure–it’s amazing that when I went to Rutgers, I could only communicate with my family once a week or so via a payphone shared by the whole hall. My mother says that after dropping me off, she went to bed for eighteen hours with her first and only migraine. Performing the same ritual thirty years later, I headed towards the tear-blurred George Washington Bridge, driving like a maniac as I fought a very strong urge to turn the car around again. It’s a relief to be off the highway and tuning into my daughter’s increasingly upbeat broadcasts.

The shock of the separation is, of course, a mark of love–it’s better, in some ways, than NOT finding the transition difficult. When my mother went off to nursing school at 16, no one even walked her to the bus. Imagine that, dragging your lonely suitcase down some Liverpool street towards mysterious adulthood, without even the illusion that the Twitterverse is listening.

If I ever regain some mental focus–all these strong feelings crowd my receivers with a LOT of noise–I’ll be hunkering down to the sabbatical version of brisk September labor. In addition to my main writing project, I have conferences to prepare for and I’m behind on the regular work of poetry submissions. I’m also making to-do lists for the publication of Radioland in a few weeks. You can see the cover, blurbs, and a sample poem here, although it’s not quite available to order yet. Poetry presses do the best they can with limited resources, but publicity is mostly up to the poet, so I’m researching post-publication prizes, festivals, and other reading opportunities, and I’ll send out many notices and review copies myself. (Contact me if you want to teach or review it! Barrow Street Press is good about fulfilling orders, too.) This investment of time and money is intense but worth it; I put a lot of heart and hard thinking into the book so I want it to find readers, even if its chance for serious glory is, as always, small.

In the meantime, if you’re sending out a prose or poetry ms, check out C&R Press’s call for submissions. They published my first poetry collection, Heathen, but the press has new owners now. I’m impressed with the energy and smarts John Goslee and Andrew Sullivan are bringing to the enterprise. Thanks also to the editors of Time Present: The Newsletter of the T. S. Eliot Societywhere my review of Robert Crawford’s Young Eliot appears.radioland thumbnail

And beam me good vibes if you can spare any, because while I’m trying to be philosophical and appreciate my own luckiness, I am kind of a mess.