Conference report containing not nearly enough gossip

There’s plenty I’m NOT going to tell you about the Sewanee Writers Conference until the next time we can share a cup of tea or glass of wine together, after I check that your phone’s voice recorder is off. I’m also still processing and will be for a long time yet–a lot happens in twelve days! But here’s a sketch.

First off, I felt lucky to be accepted to this conference in winter 2020, and I still feel lucky. I hadn’t applied previously because of stray comments and stories I’d heard. I live in the U.S. South and I’ve encountered the clubbier bits of literary old-boy culture. Who needs it, I thought, until my friend Anna Lena said no, a great new director is coming in, try. She was right. Leah Stewart’s debut as conference director would have been in summer 2020. This deferred version is in person, with our vaccine records downloaded and masks indoors, so it’s still a Covid-complicated enterprise but very well run. The hitches seem small, like someone lighting a candle in the dorm at midnight and setting off fire alarms. I mean, I’m positive worse things are being handled quietly, but this is a staff you trust to handle things. The ethos is inclusive and respectful. Every reading is terrific. Audience members stay off their cellphones (well, mostly) and really listen.

The structure: there are five fiction workshop streams, two nonfiction, three poetry, two playwriting. Each workshop has two teachers and 12-14 students; it meets five times for two to three hours, so basically every other morning. The co-teaching model is unusual, but it seems to work smoothly. My workshop was run by Monica Youn and Nate Marshall. I was in Monica’s cohort in that she’s the one faculty member I had a personal meeting with, but Nate was a deeply thoughtful participant when Monica’s students were workshopped, and vice versa. I was also given three 20-minute meetings with editors and an agent, and spots in four one-hour master classes, which are “master” to varying degrees. My favorite was an exciting hour on using speculation in creative nonfiction, brilliantly taught by Tessa Fontaine, a Fellow.

Which brings us to hierarchy. There are “Visitors,” like the editors who swoop in for three days, taking meetings and giving a presentation or two. People in the “Faculty” role co-teach the workshops and give readings in mixed-genre pairs at 8 pm every night. Some of them also give afternoon craft talks. (The other poetry faculty this year, by the way, were Carl Phillips, Tarfia Faizullah, Mark Jarman, and A. E. Stallings.) Next come the “Fellows,” at least two in each workshop, and they have half-hour meetings with the other students in their classes as well as group reading slots. Some of the Fellows are rightly famous, like Eduardo Corral; others are amazing writers I’d never heard of before, some of them just starting out. I had a half-hour meeting with Arhm Choi Wild, whose poetry is dazzling and whose vibe is warm and generous.

I’m in the next group, the “Scholars.” Being a Tennessee Williams Scholar (!) means that my tuition was paid but room and board ($700) plus travel is on me, although I have help from my employer on those because again, I’m a lucky bastard. Scholars also have group reading slots of five minutes each (the Fellows have 15 minutes each and the Faculty 25, at a listener’s guesstimate). There are staff readings, too, and regular students have the chance to read at alcohol-fueled open mics after 9pm, which I kept missing. I can’t, as it turns out, do hikes, very intense workshops, several other daily events, three group meals, AND an open-mic party. My head gets full, my body tired, and besides, I’m your standard poet-introvert who needs to retreat periodically. Fortunately the dorm rooms are big, air-conditioned, and quiet.

That’s maybe more math than you wanted, but the structure is important to the experience. Conference veterans told me that Sewanee has been democratized in a big way: lunch tables with agents used to be arranged via sign-up, cocktails at the French House used to be limited to faculty and fellows, etc. All of that is gone. Did I still feel the hierarchy? Absolutely. Some of it is what we’re here for, frankly. I want to hear from writers whose achievements I admire and get a window into what high-profile publishers are thinking. Sometimes, though, I felt invisible, and my ego took bumps. A graduate student advised me on how to submit to a magazine I’ve published in multiple times, sigh. One editor told me, during our twenty-minute meeting, that I should sit down with him at a meal sometime, and when I did, he didn’t even acknowledge I was there. (That one was hilarious, actually. Over it.) The jockeying for status could be intense. But other people at every level of career success were remarkably open and kind and funny and encouraging. I suspect these dynamics are bound to occur when humans get together for any common purpose: dentistry conventions, quilting bees, spiritual retreats. Imagine the delicate snark of monks.

My occasional feelings of invisibility are partly on me. I started off anxious, which made me quiet, and then powerful readings and workshops stripped off my doing-okay veneer. I (briefly) fell into a pit of grief about my mother then climbed out again. Feeling fragile, I don’t think I made the most of my opportunities, although I relaxed some in the final few days and gave a good reading. I also remembered, oh, I don’t want to compete with the literary players, although it’s good to join the lunch table once in a while and see how it feels. I REALLY get that people have to protect their time and energy. But watching the eminences here and elsewhere, I aspire to be one of the friendly, non-power-hoarding types, if I ever hit the big league, which isn’t friggin’ likely for me or anybody.

The career introspection triggered here has been useful. I clarified for myself about what I want for future book-publishing experiences, for instance. I met a ton of writers whose work I like and will follow. Shenandoah will get subs from new people this year containing the sentence, “It was such a pleasure to meet you at Sewanee!” I’ll send a few of those subs to other people. It’s all good.

The most important thing, though, is the work itself. I have a lot of feedback to sort through, but I’ve already identified some habits I’ve fallen into as a poet that need interrogation. I have ideas about how to transform some messy poems into their best selves. I also see how to improve work I’ve been doing in other genres–the fiction and nonfiction talks and readings have been great. Even advice that I wouldn’t implement gives me information about how my work is coming through to different kinds of readers.

A few more readings, a booksigning party, and then I pack up and drive to NC tomorrow to meet my family at a rented beach house, where the long decompression begins! Well, not too long. Damn you, August, I am not ready.

Writing and publishing poetry book reviews

I’m gearing up for a virtual weekend at the World Fantasy Convention, where I’ll give a Friday night reading as well as speaking on a panel about “The Weirder Side of the Fantastic,” both organized by the indefatigable, resourceful, generous writer Anya Martin. I’ll post about that next week, barring apocalypse, but in the meantime I’m thinking about what’s weird and fantastic about poetry reviews.

The WHY of reviewing is probably obvious. Most poetry books don’t get much love, so you serve writers, presses, and readers by bringing your favorites to wider attention. Every poet with means and time should give public service to the art they love, and reviewing is one way to do it (panel/ event organizing like Anya’s is another). Generosity occasionally pays off–if people appreciate you, they may help you in some future, unexpected way–and any byline can increase your name recognition. That’s not the core reason for literary service, though. Fandom is at the heart of it, plus desire to strengthen a fragile community. If you write a thoughtful review, you’ve shown the author they have at least one good reader out there. It makes all parties feel glowy.

Love of poetry isn’t all a reviewer needs, though. I’ve written a ton of criticism, so I’m a faster writer than many, but reviewing a poetry book is still an eight-hour commitment, more or less. I read the book once; put it down and think about it; reread it and start drafting; then take a break from the draft for a day, or a few days, and come back, rewrite, and polish. They’re typically 750-1500 words. Writing micro-reviews (250-300 words) is quicker, but I always end up writing long then boiling them down, a process that takes time, too.

Although I don’t always have the hours, I like reviewing a lot. It feels freeing to analyze a book without scholarly protocols. No bibliography, no citing Very Important Theorists! I’m trying to write a few reviews this year because I’m on sabbatical, grateful for good notices my books are receiving, and, at this bad moment, having a hard time concentrating on big stuff. Writing a poetry review is a way of procrastinating while still putting some useful writing out there.

The first thing to do if you want to write reviews is read a bunch of them and decide what you like and don’t like about them, ideally comparing published reviews to collections you’ve read. I personally find real-world models more revealing than instructions, but here’s how I approach the actual writing:

  • My first time through the book, I note striking lines and poems, trying to get a handle on the book’s through-lines. What’s at stake for the author? What are their strategies for exploring central themes and questions? You’re not writing a five-paragraph theme for English class, but you need an angle of interpretation.
  • In addition to an angle, I need a hook, some interesting remark or example to begin with. I’m always happy to read reviews that have an autobiographical entry-point (“I read this at a crisis point and this is what it meant to me”), but there are endless possibilities. Keep in mind that the review should be centered around the book itself, though, more than on you as a reader.
  • Type out favorite quotes as you take notes. It’s usual for a review to include many brief quotes as well as one or two in the 6-12 line range (micros excepted).
  • Increasingly, I make sure there are a couple of punchy sentences of praise in the review that the writer can excerpt. It’s fine to remark on problems or shortcomings, but I wouldn’t want to spend writing time on a book I didn’t like unless possibly, hypothetically, an incredibly popular poetry book was doing actual damage in the world. (But this is poetry. Not likely.)
  • As I revise, I think about the big picture. No review can cover every interesting aspect of a book, but it doesn’t seem right to get so obsessed with one element that you don’t convey an accurate portrait. Someone who reads a review might be thinking, “should I buy/ borrow this one?” They deserve to know whether a book is really what they want or need to read, because there are many good choices out there.
  • Writers should always try to be interesting in clear sentences, logically organized. I try to write reviews well. I don’t put them through the dozens of revisions a creative piece needs, though. Speed matters.
  • A note on multi-book reviews: I haven’t done many of these because the places I’ve written for steer away from them. But similar considerations apply: you need a hook and an angle. You also need interesting hinge-sentences (more substantive than “another interesting new book is”). I read this recent one by Rose Solari closely because she includes my book The State She’s In, but she’s got a strong angle–“Grief, Grace, and Anger” in books by women–and she she does a good job with linking/ contrasting.
  • On a related note: there IS a politics to reviewing. It’s good to review books you admire, but try, sometimes, for books that stretch you or make you uncomfortable; I always learn from those encounters. Pay attention, over time, to whose books you celebrate. I will always feel pulled to writing by people who identify as women, many of whom get less attention than less talented men, but spending time with work by writers whose experiences are different than mine feels REALLY important, too. BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and writers with disabilities deserve extra love in the current hellscape.

It’s helpful to have a target venue or two before you write so you can check on their rules including preferred length, when their review submission period is open, and formatting questions. To find appropriate ones, I check out where the author has published before as well as querying places whose reviews I generally admire. (Some writers mainly review for one publication; I hop around.) Some considerations:

  • If you’re new to reviewing, consider starting with a less-fancy venue, but always try to do a bang-up job. When you have a published example or two, you can use them as sample clips to query prestigious places, because why not? Here is a list of outlets, big and small, from Poets & Writers.
  • That said, it is totally reasonable to hold out for gigs that PAY the reviewer, although you might need a clip or two from a non-paying venue to start with. The $50 Kenyon Review just sent me for reviewing Anna Maria Hong’s Fablesque isn’t a good hourly wage, and money isn’t what I did it for, but it’s nice! (I just donated it to a Philadelphia bailout fund after another police shooting of a Black man there followed by protests and arrests. Hellscape.)
  • Some magazines want you to query first, others ask you to submit finished reviews, and still other editors prefer to assign books to reviewers themselves. Also, some venues will only print a review within six months of book publication, so get ARCs and/or work fast. I’m reviewing for Harvard Review right now after querying them with clips, and the editor had the presses send me books directly. You can also personally request ARCs from the publisher (the marketing department, if they have one) or from the author.
  • Some journals are sticklers about there being NO relationship between reviewer and author. I get the ethics of that, but I find it impractical because the poetry world is small. You get to know people who share your interests, especially if you’ve been going to conferences and festivals for a while. If you’re already very good friends with the writer, though, it’s often better to help them with publicity in other ways, like posting Goodreads reviews or retweeting their announcements.

Whether reviewing can be part of your life right now or not, I hope you’re hanging in there. I’m struggling to stay sane, but it was nice to see the Fablesque review come to fruition, as well as a short interview about editing/ submitting with Frontier Poetry and the announcement of a prize I judged for Talking Writing–the winner is B. Tyler Lee, whose work is new to me but whose essay was riveting and moving (it was a well-run contest, by the way–thoroughly anonymous). I gave a fun reading via my college library yesterday that was widely attended by students, colleagues, far-flung friends, and alumni–that was a treat. Finally, I just received my copy of an essay collection called Deep Beauty and I’m really enjoying the many wonderful, surprising, and often uplifting essays bumping shoulders with my own. May your days be full of small good things, and may we soon be smiling over a landslide election.

Looking off cliffs

I’m not processing very well, here at the quiet edge of apocalypse. Sometimes I’m fine, scared, down, or stir-crazy; often I’m busy teaching remotely, being fortunate enough to still have a job; generally I can’t concentrate. New York City has always been the center of the world for me; how will it fare? When will everyone have access to testing, so we know the scope of things? A few steps from now, what will happen?

I wonder, too, what art is in the pipelines now, and to what extent those pipelines are or will be blocked. My novel, Unbecoming, was available for pre-order for a hot second and scheduled for publication on May 1, but now that’s been postponed. My publishers are in Washington State and can’t safely mail out copies, and one of their key distribution warehouses is not accepting shipments anymore. I hope the book is for sale in time for my reading dates this summer, but who knows how much we’ll be traveling and congregating then anyway? One nice augury, anyway: it just earned a star and a lovely review from Publishers Weekly. At least one stranger likes it! That’s more of a relief to me than you might expect. A debut work in any field–who can really judge her own writing, at first venture?

Many have told me that the novel will do better at a later date, anyway; apparently the brilliant Margot Livesey launched a book on 9/11/01, a day of crisis for all kinds of art, and I heard from many people that nobody bought books right after Trump’s election. I am also relieved to focus for longer on the virtual launch of The State She’s In, my fifth poetry collection (also languishing in a locked down warehouse, although copies are available directly from my saintly publisher, at least for now–this has me suspecting that a ton of books from independent presses must be similarly stranded). People have been generous about helping me publicize it over social media and otherwise, although general sadness has put me behind on sending in the recordings people have asked for. Here’s an interview Will Woolfitt posted on his terrific Speaking of Marvels blog. And I’m going to keep paying poetry back by putting up virtual poetry salons, although with the term in gear again, I might be slower.

The picture above is from last Saturday’s drive to the nearby Blue Ridge mountains, where we’re trying to take walks most weekends to watch spring’s advance. It’s beautiful out there in a way that seems bizarre and reassuring in turns. The photo below is of three new anthologies I’m fortunate enough to have a poem in–all of them terrific and all of them coming out, as my own books are, at a pretty difficult moment. Here’s a shout out, then, to Choice Words: Writers on Abortion, edited by Annie Finch; Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habit, Defiance, and Democracy, edited by Simmons Buntin, Elizabeth Dodd, and Derek Sheffield; and Rocked by the Waters: Poems of Motherhood, edited by Margaret Hasse and Athena Kildegaard. The Tables of Contents of all three brim with the names of the writers I admire most, and all bring together immensely powerful and moving work. Having work in them is good company. I’m also proud to have an essay on Millay’s abortions, “The Smell of Tansy through the Dark,” in the latest Massachussetts Review. I’ve talked to several editors of print magazines who were rushing to send off spring issues before their university mail services ground to a halt, and I’m so glad this one made it. I wonder how the publishing landscape may change for them and others. One good thing: Ecotone’s most recent issues, a couple of which I have poems in, are temporarily free online. What a gift to the housebound!

I am writing a bit for National Poetry Month, without confidence that I’m producing anything lasting, although I’m not able to get myself together to mail recent work out. And for Shenandoah, I’m reading the 650 batches of poems that came in during our 2-week March reading period (holy cow). My first read is usually a quick-ish screen to winnow the submissions down to likely top contenders, and I’m only halfway through that; it’s going to take a while. Looking off the edge of this April, though, I feel confident that Shenandoah WILL keep bringing you great art. So many collaborative artistic productions are stalled now, but writing is cheap and lonely, any season. We’re all going to go through weeks of blockage and flow, I guess, but you can’t stop poetry.

Sharing space in poetry (“that essay”)

Away from my normal routines for ten days in Portugal, I looked at Twitter occasionally and kept seeing references to “that essay” by poet Bob Hicok. I’ll scout it out later, I thought, first busy with the MLA International Symposium in Lisbon; then laid up in my hotel room with a stomach bug; and finally traipsing around Porto, making up for lost time and calories. I arrived home late this Thursday, and catching up with other people and tasks seemed more important. Scrolling through social media Saturday morning, though, I saw a smart set of questions Paisley Rekdal had posted in response to the piece, along with a link to the essay itself (which had been a little hard to find–people clearly don’t want to promote it). Okay, okay, FINE, I grumbled, brewed another pot of chai, and read it.

The essay isn’t good, no matter what you think of the argument. It belabors its point, which is basically that Hicok is “dying as a poet” (meaning, apparently, not attracting as many readers as he used to), and while it’s good, he concedes, that writers who are not “straight white men” like him are now getting attention, and he’s grateful to have had a good run, he’s sad to lose the limelight. If a writer-friend had told me this privately, over drinks, I would have felt embarrassed for him–listen to yourself, dude! Literature is not a zero-sum game, and nobody has taken your micro-celebrity away from you! I suppose it’s useful, though, that someone has voiced all this in print. I know other people think similarly: I’ve heard the asides, and seen the facial expressions, by white writers of various ages and genders, although whenever I’ve sensed a lament like this emerging in my company, I’ve either cut it short or walked away.

Anybody who reads deeply, widely, and intelligently is going to disagree with the prize committees sometimes. Good books fly under the radar all the time, and mediocre ones (including plenty of books by privileged people) win the love–although when the latter seems to happen, a reader ought to ask herself whether her judgment could have been wrong. Sometimes, I know, I miss what’s exciting others because I’m not ready for a book, or even just in a bad mood. But Hicok’s examples, for heaven’s sake–including Claudia Rankine, Ross Gay, Ada Limón–they’re brilliant writers who take great risks and produce great books, partly rooted in their identities and experiences and wholly illuminated by talent and hard work. All have had luck, I’m sure, but all have overcome obstacles, too, and continue to do so, because there’s always someone trying to chip away at their achievements, treating them like interlopers, and sometimes even threatening their safety. In the U.S., “straight white men” are just more free than everyone else, and dealing with unfreedom wears you down. It can make achieving art at all seem like a miracle.

A little example: I have plenty of friends who couldn’t afford a trip to Portugal, or whose disabilities would make it extremely difficult, so I thought about how lucky I was constantly (except while vomiting in the hotel toilet). Being at a liberal arts college insulates me from the high-level territory battles at R1 institutions, as I remembered while listening to a roundtable on the state of literary criticism, with lots of anxious references to postcritique and presentism. People are sweating about how to do relevant work when academic protocols can be so conservative and advancement is so tricky, but my main worry is finding publishers for my more boundary-busting work; at a teaching-focused institution, most people don’t publish as much as I do, so even my small wins look good. Beyond the conference, too, being a middle-aged cisgender American of European descent means I can generally get a taxi or a seat at a restaurant, even when I’m grungy from climbing all those cobbled streets, because no one objects to my skin color and everyone knows I have euros in my pocket.

Yet for all that luck, the trip home sucked, because I’m a woman. The otherwise polite white guy next to me, average-sized and not more pressed for space than anyone else, seemed delighted when his nearest rowmate turned out to be me. He promptly claimed his god-given right to the armrest and then, by degrees and apparently obliviously, he leaned his arm against my ribcage. No matter how I contorted myself away from him, his body intruded into my space, and not in an impersonal, occasional, shoulder-bumping kind of contact, either. Like about a quarter of the women you know, I’m an assault survivor. Being unable to avoid close physical contact with strange men–well, it’s upsetting. Once the aisles were clear I asked my husband to switch seats with me, and then Mr. Man-Spreader kept to himself, because of course it would be inappropriate to lean against another man’s ribcage or even his arm, right? Men deserve a little breathing room.

This happens to me all the time, and sometimes the men are far more aggressive. I’ve spoken up and had men respond by pretending to stay asleep, pressing against me while staying on the safe side of “page the attendant” obvious harassment territory. I get panicky, and eventually angry, while doubting that anyone would believe me; I rehearse all the times my space has been violated before; I wonder whether it’s worth flying to conferences on my own, in overstuffed understaffed airborne tin cans; and all of this upset is completely invisible to anyone around me. I’m not in any danger, to be clear; these violations are minor, in the long run. I just get triggered in an exhausting, demoralizing way, and I fear inappropriate touching on airplanes even when it doesn’t happen, so that travel costs me extra stress.

Bob Hicok thinks this gender-specific #MeToo-ish history gives me some publishing cred. I don’t think so, yet even if it did, I would trade that publishing edge in a heartbeat for not having to worry about moving through public territory as a woman. For people who get denied space for multiple intersecting reasons, things are much harder. While plenty of us feel, as Hicok does, that our work merits more attention than it gets, he’s underestimating freedoms he has enjoyed and continues to enjoy because of his own identity, as well as the cost of identity-related struggles that occasionally lead, by twisting paths, to powerful writing.

It is certainly true that while there are more presses and contests than ever before, there’s now a larger pool of people competing for them, as well as a real hunger from readers for stories and poems from less-familiar perspectives. I’m one of those readers, and I’m very glad publishing is more inclusive than it used to be–I hope the trend continues, and as poetry editor of Shenandoah, I try to help it along. Such richness benefits everyone who cares about literature. It’s also true that I’m striving, meanwhile, for my own foothold in the scene, and I get sad about the difficulty of that sometimes. What I keep coming back to: the only way to stay sane is to make sure your writing is urgent, well-crafted stuff, and to use whatever space and advantages you have to help others do good work, too, and feel some love for it. Then, whether or not you earn a lucky spot on the stage yourself one day, you’ll feel okay about how you’ve spent your hours.

Also, as Jeannine Hall Gailey puts it in a post she was clearly writing as I composed this one: once you’ve won two NEAs and a Guggenheim and published ten books with a dream press, as Hicok has, this racist, sexist, ableist complaining is not going to win you any sympathy. The guy has already claimed nearly all the armrests.

From the Serralves museum in Porto, with a reflected poet in it

Dear poetry professor on submissions (plus dropped balls, tombstones, & “Hap”)

The New York Times ran a “Working Woman’s Handbook” section in the print edition this Sunday, and I read it from cover to cover, even though it defeated the REASON I get the print edition on Sunday mornings, the whole indulgence-with-a-pot-of-tea-on-the-sofa vibe. The handbook made my adrenaline surge and muscles tighten: “Negotiating While Female,” “Ditch the Mommy Guilt,” “Document Everything”–all too close to home! The feature was very business-oriented, and some of it underplays the self-questioning that SHOULD be part of an artist or an intellectual’s working life no matter the gender, but I’m still keeping it open to the article by Jessica Bennett on impostor syndrome. Self-talk and visualization feel goofy, but I am SO guilty of some of the self-undermining behaviors Bennett describes, and I need to stop.

This post is occasioned by another piece from that suite: “Work Life Balance Is a Myth” by Tiffany Dufu (this one doesn’t seem to be online although Dufu has published these ideas in other venues). On the way towards the subheadings “Drop Balls” and “Say No” (Drop the Ball is the name of Dufu’s book), Dufu offers a “visualization exercise adapted from the book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’: Imagine three people eulogizing you at your funeral. What would they say about you? What do you hope they say about you?…Now ask yourself: Are you on the path to becoming the person they describe?” 

In grad school, I had a running joke with some friends that I wanted my tombstone to read “Brilliant and Lovable.” I’m not invested in those particular adjectives anymore–I think I was beginning to worry, back then, about the implicit conflict between them, the idea that for a woman to be brilliant (work first) requires violating the social requirement to be nurturing (people first), and that therefore a brilliant woman is unwomanly. Anyway, I’d rather sidestep THAT mess these days, but the content of my aspirations is similar: while I don’t care if Joe Schmoe finds me “nurturing” and I resist spending my whole life on care-taking activities, I do hope my friends and loved ones feel loved by me. I hope my writing is valued and enjoyed by others. And I hope my students find me to be a good and generous teacher. 

It strikes me that these hopes are not entirely consonant with Dufu’s admonitions to “Drop Balls” and “Say No.” My list does reveal that I don’t care about appearances, not in a deep way, so I should ditch those vestigial anxieties. But being a good and generous teacher means saying “yes” a lot, even when you’re tired and overextended–giving students your full and open attention, when you can. And I’ve been in this job for 25 years, and many former students are still looking for help, so it can be a lot! For instance, I received another out-of-the blue query last weekend from someone who graduated maybe 10 years ago. I thought, first, this is the sort of ball I should drop; and then, second, but I want to be helpful; then, third, maybe I can repurpose the help I give by editing these occasional, mostly off-screen scraps of mentoring. Maybe if I collect and, occasionally, post them, they’ll help others. One exchange is below, a little edited and developed, name redacted. I hope to do it again sometime, so let me know if you have a question, whether or not you’ve ever been enrolled in one of my classes!

And finally, a request. I am collecting the names of essays, books, and poems for a future blog on literary menopause occasioned by a recent New Yorker review of Steinke’s new book. I have several to start with from the latter piece, but I really wish I could think of more poems (besides Moira Egan’s terrific Hot Flash Sonnets!). It’s personal, too, of course: I’ve been in an exhausting amount of joint pain lately, and still have other doctors to consult, but my not-very-helpful GP suggested yesterday these may be untreatable menopause systems (some people react to a drop in estrogen with painful inflammation). I need medical enlightenment, but I’d also appreciate some literary company.   

Q: Hi Professor, 

I have been published a bunch of times but never poems I expect – my best stuff hasn’t been picked up yet and I am curious – how do you go about editing or curating your poems so that you can get them published? 

A: The short version: time/distance plus persistence, with a garnish of recognizing how random publishing can be.

In more detail: I wait for months until the poem is strange to me, so I can be objective about its strengths and weaknesses. I’ve just been rereading poems I drafted during the past year or two, preparing to submit or re-submit them, and I found a few gems; a lot of poems with strong potential but clunky or underdeveloped passages; and some I was once excited about but now realize might not go anywhere. Some poems I thought were shiny and near-complete disappoint me now, and that’s common–with critical distance, I’m better able to admit that a certain element doesn’t work, even though I’m fond of it. Sometimes I have to excise an opening stanza or two, but for me, problems more often occur at or near the end of the poem. (I’ve observed that some poets are great at punchy beginnings and weaker on closure, and others reverse those traits.) You have to be a ruthless trimmer/ re-developer, both for the good of the art and for publishing success, and it just takes a lot of time. There are SO many good poems out there competing for an editor’s attention: the winners are great, or lucky.

Having a few fellow writers to bounce work off of helps, too, whether it’s an informal/ online writing group or an official class. And sending in batches that hang together well, the poems illuminating one other, can help deepen an editor’s sense what you’re up to.

All that said, I’ve heard multiple book editors and contest judges note that the best poems in a book, when you check the acknowledgments, aren’t ones that have been taken by magazines. I’m polishing my next book ms now, including 50-something poems, most of which have been published independently. I still shake my head over the ones that haven’t been, because I feel they’re among my best. Sometimes that’s because they’re risky in some way that’s supported by the book as a whole, but might seem off to a magazine editor with less context. Other times it just seems random. Or am I just wrong about “my best”?…In any case, in addition to bringing your own work to the highest possible shine, keep reading magazines, thinking about fit, and getting the work out there. Hard work and persistence are under your control but the rest is “Crass Casualty,” as Thomas Hardy might say if he were blogging about the po-biz.

The ambit of ambition

A former student, visiting campus for her 20th reunion, was telling me about deciding to remarry, as we shared glasses of wine by the window in a local bar. She recounted how the man she was dating said apologetically, as they started to get serious, “But I’m just not ambitious.” Her face brightened as she described her delighted reply: “That’s fine! I’m ambitious enough for the both of us!”

I love hearing about my students’ ambitions–may they change the world, because it needs changing!–especially when I once knew them as brilliant but underconfident young women. This former student is happily working long hours, while her husband has happily shortened his to care for their two young children. If I helped model that for anyone now building the life she wants, veering from the inherited scripts to do work that lights her up, that would be AWESOME. I felt so guilty about my own choices for so long, but I’ve reached a moment, with my kids aged 18 and 22, when most of that guilt feels quaint. Yes, I failed as a parent sometimes, but never because I had an intense job or wrote poems in my scant spare time. The things I was stupid about, I would have been stupid about regardless of occupational and vocational status, because then, and now, I’m still learning how to be a decent human being. In fact, teaching and writing help me be a better person. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self some things.

After that glass of wine, I walked home through a small town under construction and swarming with alumnae/i, pondering ambition. It was very much on my mind in my mid-forties, when I started writing the poems in my forthcoming collection. My current working title for the latter is The State She’s In, but whether or not my editor ultimately agrees about that, I’m polishing the ms now and the book will be out in March or April 2020. The collection, in fact, contains a sequence of five list-poems called “Ambitions,” and I considered whether I could or should incorporate the word in my book title. I guess I was asking common midlife questions: what is all this striving for? Am I on a path towards something good, goals I genuinely care about? Am I fulfilling my responsibilities to other people, to my work, and as a citizen–not the trivial stuff, but the deep obligations? Then an ambitious woman ran for office, and a man who despises women trumped her, and some of my struggle over that episode is in the book, too.

As I veered off Main St. onto the smaller road that leads home, I realized I may have turned a corner where ambition is concerned. I’m not sure how much of the change comes from turning fifty, or other revolutions in my life, or even just the fact that three books I worked on for years all have contracts now, so I can afford to be less anxious! Maybe my state of relative equilibrium is temporary. But while I still think many kinds of ambition are good and important, and anyone who’s nervous about ambition in women is a sexist jerk, I find I’m not fretting about productivity this summer, for once. I can’t even drum up worry about the reception my poetry book will eventually meet (the novel’s a bit different–still feel like an imposter there). I have a number of writing projects percolating, and I’ll be helping my kids launch into college and the working world, but I’m mainly grateful that a summer slow-down is allowing me to strengthen these mss and plan for how I can help them find audiences. My chief ambition, I’m realizing, is to make the books as moving and crafty and complicated and inspiring as possible.

After this trio (poetry and a novel in 2020, an essay collection in 2021), I may have a few more books in me, but my writing years no longer feel limitless. The lightning of major post-publication attention doesn’t strike most people and probably won’t strike me; I can live with that. I can’t control the luck, but I can make each book deserve readers and find at least some of the people who would enjoy them, and that’s what I’m really striving for. Well, deep down. I’m sure I’ll keep getting distracted by the other stuff, but the kind of ambition that ties a person up in unproductive knots seems to have less of a stranglehold on me than once upon a time.

Is this a Mother’s Day post? Maybe; work and motherhood have been tangled up with each other for my whole adult life, both logistically and emotionally. Plus, on Mother’s Day itself I’ll be reading at the Ox-Eye Vineyards Tasting Room in Staunton with Lauren Camp and Susan Facknitz, thanks to Cliff Garstang’s organizational genius, and then bringing Lauren back down to W&L for a reading on Monday, all of which is right after launching the new issue of Shenandoah this Friday–in other words, there won’t be much blogging time. I will be leafing through poems, though, trying to find the best pieces I’ve written on being a mother and a daughter, and maybe pondering whether I have any other important things to say on the subject. Because, you know, if it matters, I could find a couple of hours.

Pleased as punch (with recipe)

pudding

Maybe I need to blog about poetic self-doubt more often. As soon as I did, my luck seemed to shift under my feet. I had been doing math some of you have surely done, too: I’ve been showing the ms around for a while now. What if this poetry collection I thought was so great doesn’t strike any editors the same way? The poems have done well in magazines, but what would I do with the larger structure, with its support beams and fancy finials, if no press wanted I genuinely wanted to work with returned my affections? Keep trying while I write another one, I realized.

I don’t feel that way about literary criticism; blogging about poetry is fun and I care very much about boosting the poetry that inspires me, but there’s no way I’d keep writing footnoted articles if no one wanted to publish them. I’ll write the best poetry I can for as long as I can, however. It’s work I love desperately. Returning to it after occasional absences, with renewed interest, joy, and creative ambition–that’s been one of the deepest rhythms of my adult life.

Then a piece of fan mail popped up from Molly Sutton Kiefer at Tinderbox Editions, to whom I sent the ms a year ago. Submittable still said “In Progress” but I figured she’d given it a pass. Au contraire. She loved the book. Was it still available?

If you don’t know it, Tinderbox Editions is a small press based in Minnesota; their titles are beautiful inside and out, appealingly designed and carefully edited. I’d reviewed a couple of them and talked to one of the authors, Athena Kildegaard, about her publishing experience, so I’d long felt the press would be a good home for my work. When Molly contacted me, we talked about timing, too, which has gotten messed up for me in the past; if you don’t have a cover and galleys/ advance copies months before the official launch, publicity becomes much harder to do well. She had really good answers about a 2020 launch and working backwards from that due date through a nine-month process to make sure we get it right.

So I am all in, and wildly grateful. My poetry book has a home!

And there’s more! I’ve blogged about my role as poetry editor for the redesigned Shenandoahpublicizing the new issue and celebrating its contributors has felt really great. Plus I’m going to publish my first venture into poetry comics: Split Lip Magazine has just accepted a longish piece Chris and I co-authored called “Made for Each Other.” (Don’t go “awww”–it’s about decrepit robots, as I just told the generous blogger Bekah Steimel in an interview which will be posted sometime today.) The editors at Flockbless them, have nominated one of my poems for a Pushcart–that issue will be live soon, too. And even though I’m receiving my share of literary journal rejections, as everyone seems to this time of year, I do have another bit of loveliness I can’t reveal yet, and that’s dizzying. This middle-aged cyborg isn’t too old yet to pivot, but still, the good news feels overwhelming. Now, if we can just get Trump in prison and solve a few geopolitical crises, I’ll be outright cheerful.

Delicious Holiday Punch I Invented Last Night

*1 cup each pear juice, pear vodka, and ginger liqueur (Domaine de Canton)

*1/2 cup simple syrup (1:1 sugar dissolved in boiling water; I add lemon peel)

*juice of a lemon or two

*ice and Asian pear slices for the punch bowl

Proportions can be doubled or tripled for a crowd. Add lemon seltzer or prosecco to each glass for celebratory fizz.

 

Birthday-head

poe hatsShould I wear the top hat or tiara while teaching Yeats tomorrow? Poe thinks it’s a stupid question.

People keep asking me how I feel about turning fifty tomorrow. One answer is: lucky. I’m back in the swing of teaching after a difficult summer, and I find it as rewarding as ever. My spouse and kids are well. My friends and family are kind to me, writing me poems and giving me silly headgear and treating me to fancy drinks and meals. My home is not flooded; I am not at risk of deportation. I can do useful work in the world and I sometimes even get paid for it.

This birthday also makes me feel frustrated. Writing itself, as I’ve often said here, is hard and slow, but somehow that labor seems satisfying in its own right. Seeking publication, not so much. Getting the queries and submissions out is nitpicky work, time-consuming, and demoralizing. There’s no alternative except giving up, though, and I think I have a few decades more fight in me. Hope it’s true.

The day I turned forty, I stomped around feeling just furious about it. What an indignity! But so far, I’m not experiencing even a mild irritation about fiftyness. An increased urgency about my writing, maybe, but that started kicking in a couple of years ago, when my eldest left for college. I began a major transition then–during the same autumn my mother was diagnosed with lymphoma–and those experiences make a mere birthday feel less significant. I mean, bring on the cake and all, but a number doesn’t change you the way altered relationships do.

When I blew out the candles last year, I’m pretty sure I wished for book contracts. What I have in mind this year is bloody persistence. My will to keep trying faltered for a while in June and July, when I was struggling through one of the more serious slumps I’ve known. My determination has since returned, a steady burn in the brain (or is that a hot flash?). I plan to keep tending and feeding it with all of my art, until a voice tells me, one of these years, “Okay, you can cool it now.”

Thanks for a thin bright stream of oxygen lately from three magazines whose editors gave space to my poems: storySouth, Copper Nickel, and Notre Dame Review. I’m looking forward, in the coming months, for more poems in Ocean State Review, Barrow Street, Sweet, Cherry Tree Review, Cold Mountain Review, Salamander, Blackbird, Raintown Review, and Water~Stone ReviewI also have essays scheduled to be published in Crab Orchard Review, on Claudia Emerson’s early poems and her time teaching at W&L, and in Massachusetts Review, on Edna St. Vincent Millay’s abortions. That’s all pretty good, right? Happy damn birthday to me.

Writing that out was actually pretty helpful. It reminds me that pissed-off forty-year-old me would kick fifty-year-old me in the shins for those feelings of discouragement.

And on the subject of taking heart: maybe I’ll see you in Charlottesville this Saturday the 30th, 4-6 pm, at the 1000 Writers for Change reading at Writer House, organized by Polly Lazaron. Joining that crowd of makers and listeners seems like a hopeful thing to do.

burst
Detail from “Burst” by Paul Villinski at the Taubman Museum in Roanoke–they’re made of vinyl records–what a metaphor!

 

 

 

Hybrid H.D.

 

by avon
By the Maury River–closest I’ve got

 

I’ve been swimming around in H.D.’s work since my undergraduate years, on the recommendation of the writer I eventually married. I started with her memoirs of Freud and Pound, trekking up to the sunny top floor of the University of Southampton library to find them, then worked backwards to the poetry, which became central to my 1994 dissertation and then my first book, The Poetics of Enclosure. I’m a poetry professor, primarily, with a deep love for lyric and lyric sequences, so most of the H.D. I teach is from the Collected Poems. But it’s been a 21st century thrill to watch a few of her other books come back into print, midwifed by generous H.D. scholars. The latest is the paperback version of By Avon Riverscrupulously edited by Lara Vetter (published in 2014 in hardcover, but now an eminently teachable $16.95 paperback, folks!).

The reason I use the word “hybrid”: H.D.’s book, like some proto-crypto-creative-writing-PhD-thesis, consists of three longish Shakespeare-related poems plus an extended prose meditation, full of quotes, about Elizabethan verse. Vetter’s introduction explains the project’s origin in three trips H.D. made from Blitz-ravaged London, at the close of World War II, to Stratford-upon-Avon. The first, on Shakespeare Day 1945, was almost a pilgrimage. As Vetter puts it, “Shakespeare is an icon, standing in for England in times of strife” (26). H.D. loved England and was thrilled to celebrate its survival, along with many other pilgrims, by immersing herself in English art and history. I agree with Vetter, however, that H.D. was far from Bardolatrous. By Avon River represents Shakespeare as a genius but also a poacher, implicated in British imperialist violence. Interestingly, too, Shakespeare is not so central to H.D.’s project as her title might imply. The literary-critical part of the book really concerns not so much Shakespeare as his milieu–less-celebrated poets, some very obscure now. And her poems revolve around a character referenced in The Tempest, Claribel, who never even appears onstage. Shakespeare mentioned her, more or less, and then forgot her.

By Avon River is resonating with me in part because of its hybridity. First published in 1949, the book did well–never a given for H.D.–receiving many laudatory reviews. This makes it an important precursor for later literary experiments. As Vetter argues, and as Cynthia Hogue reiterates in her back-cover endorsement, women writers late in the modernist period deserve more credit for their “hybrid works located at the juncture of personal, national, and nationalist concerns.” Hear, hear. But let me add: trying to publish hybrid work, many decades later, is still awful. I haven’t yet placed my creative- critical ms, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, even editors have praised it to me, and every time I reread it, too, having come to doubt myself, I get convinced all over again that it’s strong work. It’s just in the margins between everyone’s carefully articulated marketing plans.

And that connects to something else I appreciate about By Avon River. I read it as the meditation of an artistically ambitious woman nearing 60 who feels connected to Shakespeare (through bisexuality, among other ways) but knows she is not the Bard, not the poet who most indelibly articulates her time and place, if the 20th century even has one. I’m nearing 50 and while remaining as ambitious for my art as any poet you’ll ever meet, I find myself thinking a lot lately about my own unimportance. That’s not entirely a bad thing. It’s a condition I share, after all, with pretty much every other member of the human race. Sane people, I suspect, keep this demoralizing truth in the back of their minds and just keep trying to do their best work anyway.

H.D. writes of the more than 100 Elizabethan poets and dramatists whose names survive: “Not one is negligible” (76). She quotes their verses admiringly anrosemaryd speculates about their lives, respecting what it means to pen even just one poem that lasts for centuries. Their achievements, she insists, “must not be forgotten” (97). She also writes appreciatively of Shakespeare saying farewell to the court, and his own stature, through The Tempest: “there is no hint of bitterness or rivalry. If he is to be elbowed out, he will at least, give at the last, a demonstration of good manners” (101).

H.D. didn’t know if any of her own work would delight readers in 2017, and none of us knows if it will three centuries from now. In By Avon River, I hear her pondering this unpredictability and deciding she can live with it. All poetic effort matters, in the end, because the many strivers make a few shining successes possible. Besides, she’s on the side of the little guys, having vowed to be one of the historians, one of the rememberers. Bless them all.

I read her focus on Claribel in her lovely verses the same way. Maybe Claribel is not the hero of the drama, but “It is enough,/ I live forever” (61). H.D. knew, likewise, by the mid-forties, that she did have at least a small place in literary history. I personally rate H.D.’s work infinitely beyond footnote-status, but it’s bracing to dip into her thoughts about ambition and history and remember that she was just navigating currents, too, at water-level-perspective. Who knows where any of us will wash up?

Five Year Plan

I once went for a period of several years, unable to work my ATM card because I’d forgotten the password, and unable to find the energy to contact the company and get a replacement. I just kept stealing cash from my husband’s wallet then saying, “Uh, honey, looks like you need to go to the bank.” So when people accuse me of being organized or having my act together, I laugh and laugh.

poe2
What Poe thinks of paperwork

But I do get some things done. I spend time with my kids and my friends every once in a while. Decent meals occur in my kitchen. I write a lot. I publish some of it.

I notice my last couple of posts have reflected the Annual Academic’s Augustpocalypse Angst. One recurrent task is writing reports–for me, this year, a report on my summer work, another on my leave year generally, and then something called a “Five Year Plan.”

It’s a highly speculative exercise, to map out the next five years, especially given how hard it can be to just pick a pair of trousers in the morning. But mine isn’t the only university that asks its faculty members, periodically, to look backwards, then forwards. We’re all supposed to hate it, this chore of generating memos and other documents that are, in turn, a chore for their recipients to read. If they read them at all. Some administrators are conscientious and responsive, and others are basically yawning faceless whirlpools with sheafs of papers rattling around in the abysses of their hearts.

poe1Don’t tell anyone, but I kind of like these reports. You know the satisfaction of writing a list and then crossing off items one by one? It’s like that. Out of the chaos of my life, I generate a roster of items I actually accomplished, and then I get to feel smug for a few minutes, until I remember all the forthcoming deadlines I cannot possibly ever meet.

The Five Year Plan, moreover, strikes me as genuinely useful, although perhaps it would be more so if you didn’t have to frame it with a degree of braggadocio (how lucky you are to employ me!–don’t forget at raise time), and if the personal stuff could be woven in with the professional, as it is in real life.

I just submitted mine and it begins: “This is my fourth Five Year Plan. I accomplished all the goals I outlined in 2011 except winning an NEA grant (which remains on my bucket list).” The books I was working on then, and most of the essays, and some of the poems are now in the world; more books are fully drafted and looking for homes. I developed some courses that were only inkling ideas, too. I didn’t achieve everything I wanted to, either artistically or in world renown, but it’s still cool to note that hey, former Lesley, you did a good job following through.

Of course, my father also died, my house flooded and had to be substantially renovated, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and my mother became seriously ill. One child finished high school and was ripped from my grieving breast to attend university; the other grew some ten inches and started high school. Our cat Flashlight died; our lives are now ruled by Poe. Chris and I have had lots of ups and downs in health and in mood, but Chris landed a tenure-track job and is hugely happier than five years ago. All of these events affected my “productivity.” Surprisingly, some of them made me write more, because I direly needed to create some good shape out of sadness or mayhem.

Five years from now, if all goes well, Chris and I will be empty nesters, with one child in college and the other out doing something interesting with her BA. That’s got to be a HUGE change. I expect more health crises for us and for our parents, because we’re just at that age, even if catastrophic climate change and other factors don’t promote the spread of Zika and who knows what else. I look at the personal area of the map and think, “there be monsters.” Every project I plot could be taken from me without notice.

Still, it doesn’t feel silly to me to lay out my aims as a writer or as a teacher, because I’ve done it before and the process probably helped me prioritize goals and accomplish things. Five years from now I hope I’ve published the three book-length mss I’ve worked on this year: a poetry collection, a hybrid of memoir and criticism, and a novel. I’ll probably try to publish them prestigiously and end up with small-but-respectable presses, although strokes of luck can happen. I also hope to write good new work I can’t imagine now. I’d like to keep becoming a better, more expert, more versatile teacher. I hope it’s fun.

This is how I closed this Five Year Plan, encapsulating all those ambitions:poe3.jpg

“My aspiration, in short, is to look for overlap between the work I love to do—which is always changing—and the work the world seems to want and need from me. Finding audiences in a crowded literary marketplace is tough and I can’t control whether I score any particular opportunity. In the meantime, however, I’ll do the very best work I can, both on the page and in the classroom. I’m also keeping an eye on people who do land the golden rings, and mimicking their strategies as best I can, short of moving to Brooklyn.”