Elephant blessing

On Sunday afternoon I took a bubble bath–I know, tough life–during which I was visited by an apparition. My spouse and kids say I overheated myself, and I did emerge flushed bright-red and a little dizzy, but I swear I spent that half-hour with an elephant made of bubbles. This wasn’t just a heap of foam with a snout, but a nicely shaped creature with ears, an eye-dent, and an impressive proboscis. It rocked back and forth on top of the water cheerfully, refusing to dissolve until I pulled the plug.

I had been laboring hard on several projects, including the ninth chapter of Taking Poetry Personally, the critical book I want to finish during this year’s sabbatical. Each chapter–and they’re short-ish, under 5000 words each–concerns a single twenty-first-century poem, paired with an issue I’m thinking about as I consider what it means to immerse oneself in a poem’s possible world. This one, “Brevity,” is keyed to a sonnet by Rafael Campo. I was finding it amazingly hard to be brief about it. Poetic compression is a big issue.

This book blends criticism with personal narrative, too, and the story I’d chosen, with the alleged virtues of smallness in mind, concerned weight. Like a lot of women, I’m a serial dieter. I began counting calories as a teen feeling the usual pressures to be small and feminine, to deny any appetites. Periodically for the next three decades, I’d decide the padding was getting out of hand and resolve to count calories and/or carbs. It was always excruciating, but it always worked, until a few years ago. Now if I eat healthy foods moderately and exercise daily, I slowly gain weight. If I get stricter, I stop the dial’s uptick, but no matter what I do, I don’t lose. Plenty of perimenopausal women experience the same thing, I gather, and medical opinion seems muddled about it. Some sources the body is desperately trying to maintain an estrogen supply–if the ovaries won’t keep producing, fat cells can be made to serve the purpose–so dieting is no use. (But you can game your metabolism if you take our supplements!) Others say you can reverse the gain through a more rigorous diet and exercise program. (1300 calories a day and intense exercise forever–you can do it! It just means making a career of weight control!) It’s all alternately depressing and infuriating. After all, I have other work to do, and I’m healthy. The prescribed level of hunger makes me angry all the time and unable to think straight–and now that austerity doesn’t even work anymore, it just seems like the stupidest kind of vanity. Better to come to terms with occupying more space. And yet, as I drafted the chapter, I felt increasingly crushed, unable to let go of the desire to be thin once more, to feel in-control and approved-of. I have been hungry, hungry, hungry for about a week, spending more time at the gym, and the scale hasn’t budged one ounce.

So it was particularly funny to share my bathtub with the elephant, biggest land mammal around. What does it mean?, I wondered, and the kids said, It means you should stop boiling yourself alive. (They also oppose austerity measures on principle because it means I stop making pasta.) With a pang of guilt, I remembered Asha from a roadside breeder zoo near here. We took the kids sometimes when they were little, but it was a depressing place, and in fact the zoo has been accused since of mistreating its animals. Asha is a female African elephant there who has been alone for nearly 20 years, although elephants are profoundly social. She touched my sneakered toe long ago with her trunk, jolting me awareness of her as a fellow creature, and likely a lonely, suffering one, but I had never done anything for her. On Monday I wrote a letter, signed a petition, thought of her. Was I called to do or learn anything else?

That night I dreamed of an elephant, male. He and I were going on a journey together, not as beast and rider, but as friends. Our house had a special door, like at a car dealership, large enough to admit him. He was thirsty and kept drinking from suburban hoses as we walked down the street. It was a sweet, companionable interlude.

Today I learned that one of the world’s many elephant deities, Ganesha, is a patron of wisdom and learning. People invoke him at new beginnings because he places and removes obstacles. Is that why I dreamed of him, looking for help with my sabbatical, my book? It’s not for the doomed diet: I’m not expecting any miracles as far as my own middle-aged girth. If I could choose my luck, anyway, I’d rather be a good writer than a skinny one.elephant

In which I procrastinate with snacks, parties, and fake-writing

The peony heads slump over in their lushness. I can hear the baccalaureate speaker’s voice faintly behind the air conditioner’s hum, and I wonder again: in what sense does featuring another white Christian minister make this religious event “more inclusive”? Well, I’ll sit it out in my office but don my robes tomorrow for another long hot graduation ceremony on the lawn, then rush to the departmental luncheon to scarf down a little fruit and chicken salad before the students arrive with their dads sweating through cotton jackets and little old grandmas tottering around on the edge of heat exhaustion. I like the luncheon—praising students quite genuinely to their emotional parents, shaking damp hands, asking neutral questions that don’t imply a new BA should have firm post-grad plans yet, celebrating when they offer up good news about a job or grad school acceptance. It’s a happy kind of closure after a long hard year, especially since the mini-saunas of our dress clothes will have purged us of old grade disagreements.

I’m still in that delusional dilatory state in which I think I ought to clear the deck before I really write. This is delusional because there is ALWAYS another bit of paperwork to finish, emails to send, clean-up from the previous term or planning for the new one. Though some colleagues still linger over dwindling piles of student writing, I tend to get my grades in as fast as possible, read and summarize course evaluations, move books from the “on deck for class” spot to regular shelving, and proceed to other marginally OCD term-closure rituals. May always brings magazine rejections and acceptances, too, as faraway editors clear their own desks, and I get a little frisson of record-keeping joy as I document their decisions and list the lucky yeses on my curriculum vitae and Faculty Activities Report.

I do know this is a little crazy, even though as procrastination goes, clerical work is more productive than painting my toe nails a new color or watching funny cats on YouTube (not to cast aspersions on those venerable amusements, but I do feel pleasantly smug when that FAR comes due and I am ready to hit send). I do have to remind myself every year that it is procrastination, not some exercise of virtue. Writers write even when their desks are messy and that faculty development event they attended isn’t properly logged. My spouse is a good reminder of this. He writes even when he’s showering, running, folding laundry. This time of year—once heavy teaching work is on pause for three months—I need to seek a similarly single-minded focus instead of, say, mentally drafting memos or dreaming about my next snack.

I am showing early, hesitant signs of hunkering down. During April I drafted a crazy long poem in a section per day, using Vladimir Propp’s thirty-one functions of the folk tale as prompts; the quester is a middle-aged woman taking a three-hour walk in the April woods, pondering a career change and worrying about whether she may be pregnant. I reread it last weekend, shaped it up a bit, sought the aforementioned spouse’s feedback, revised it again, and gave it the provisional title “Propagation.” It was really fun to draft, requiring lots of, you guessed it, long walks in April woods, and at least for now, I like the results. I just shipped it off to a friend who wants to trade critiques this summer. That’s work, right?—although I always start summer’s meal with dessert.

This project has been good preparation for a presentation I’m giving on “The Receptionist,” a very different long poem, two weeks from now at the West Chester Poetry Conference. The panel is “Narrative and Non-Narrative in the Book-Length Poem” with the very accomplished and hip poets Dolores Hayden and Jehanne Dubrow (Saturday June 7th at 3:15, in case you’re around). We’re going to discuss problems of genre and composition then read from our various works. I find myself thinking particularly about how all narrative is time-management—deciding when to work through a scene in slow detail, and how to handle those sudden, disparate jumps of an hour, a day, a month of story-time. The form I chose for “The Receptionist” was highly symmetrical, involving thirty-three terza rima cantos of thirty lines each, and that made time-jumps harder to regulate and clarify. Grounding the story in an academic year, September to June, helped, as did liberal seasonal and holiday references.

I wouldn’t say I’m ready to give that presentation yet, but at least I’m finally turning my mind into the right groove. I’m hoping to segue right from working up my talk into writing a narrative-themed chapter for my prose-book-in-progress, Taking Poetry Personally. I’ll lay some groundwork, at least, and do a little more research during a work-and-pleasure trip to France in the second half of June. More on that here before takeoff, I hope.

In the meantime, back to “work” on the conference by arranging meals with friends, including poet Rafael Campo, who is sage and inspiring in this recently published interview for Shenandoah. Oh, and there’s a reference letter I have to write, and this really fun collaboration with artist Carolyn Capps that’s been languishing (see a bit of it at the new issue of Levure littéraire), and I’m really behind on my literary-magazine reading after which, whoops, it will be time to race home and get dinner on before my son’s band concert, and of course tomorrow will be all ceremonies and parties, and who could squeeze in writing time then? And maybe Friday I should begin to update my poetry submissions—I haven’t sent work out for ages, and while submission has its own agonies, it’s not as hard as actually writing. But soon, very soon, I’ll definitely, seriously get cracking.

Career Suicide

I’m risk-averse, at least financially. My mother felt trapped in a bad marriage by her lack of education and her sense that she couldn’t earn a decent living. I remember thinking as a child: come hell or high water, I WILL have my own salary, health insurance, retirement fund. I will never have to sit and swallow it while a man puts me down, mocks what I don’t know and can’t do.

There’s no such thing as perfect safety in money or anything else, but tenure’s about as close as I’m going to get: I have a job I love, a fair amount of freedom in what I say and write, and even a little fund for annual conference attendance. This year I spent a big chunk of the latter at the AWP in Boston, an 11,000-person conclave of writers blowing all kinds of crazy smoke. I had several gigs to perform. One of them was to describe modernist poetry performance for Iris Jamahl Dunkle’s very rich panel, “Shaking the Burning Birch Tree: A Celebration of Amy Lowell.” Another was to interview Rafael Campo for a magazine. A third was to emcee a panel I’d devised with the distinctly risky title of “Career Suicide.” As I said to the well-populated room, I had worried for months that audience members would rise up and berate me for being too flip about one word and too serious about the other—that is, using suicide as a metaphor for risks that are typically less apocalyptic, and for implying that writers should think in terms of “career” at all. After all, publishing and professorships are in some ways pretty tangential to the difficult and important business of getting the words right. Isn’t conceiving of writing as a career the beginning of a whole mess of problems?

I did register a number of people grimacing painfully when I told them the name of the panel, but no one stormed out. Instead, we had a pretty good conversation; I’m still pondering what we said and what we left unsaid. How much is any one of us willing to reveal, really, when the room is full of current and future readers, editors, and grantors? Talk about career suicide.

What we did say: a big topic was the risk inherent in switching or bridging genres. Lawrence Schimel has some particularly compelling stories about how writing gay poetry and erotica has been an obstacle to publishing children’s fiction under his own name in the US, but a useful credential-builder in Spain for the same enterprise. Place was a major theme, too. Luisa Igloria described leaving a thriving career in the Philippines for a position in the US where her previous accomplishments seemed to weigh little. She and Lawrence spoke movingly, too, about how marriage laws and cultural understandings of gender make a big difference in a writer’s life. Ann Fisher-Wirth told us about leaving a prestigious job where she was unhappy and eventually creating a career that fit her needs and talents just right. There were similar stories from the audience: sometimes, if you’re stubborn enough about what you want and/or what you feel compelled to write, you survive the hostility and resistance to make a decent place for yourself. We talked a little about physical risk, some about financial risk, probably most about reach and reputation. We broached the topic of the astounding generosity I see in many writers, but probably didn’t address it sufficiently: for example, editorial work, university service, or outreach to underserved populations make it difficult to get your own writing done but can make the world better. There’s so much to say about risk, really. It encompasses everything from how you word the first line of a poem to how you live on earth.

I like to bloviate about myself as much as any author, but I genuinely did call this panel together to hear what others had to say rather than dispense pearls of dubious wisdom. My own genre experiments were certainly on my mind, though. I’m thrilled by the good reception so far of The Receptionist and Other Tales, starting with those blurbs from sf writers I’ve never met but have adored for years, and peaking recently in a great review by Sally Rosen Kindred in Strange Horizons and a place on the Tiptree Award Honor List. I’m unequivocally proud of the book. But I do see now how a genre change can jeopardize the audience you’ve been building instead of, or in addition to, expanding that audience to include new readers. When I tell poets and editors about the venture, some of them just get this look, and I know they won’t even read the first page. I wonder about the implications for future reviews, grants, and opportunities.

But you know, while I’m scared, I’m not the least bit sorry. The creative dangers of this project have started conversations I’m enjoying wickedly. They’ve also somehow authorized more risk-taking in my new writing: I’m a little more likely to leap before I look.