Mother of stories

My mother died early Friday morning of lymphoma in my sister’s house in New Jersey. There’s a lot to process–the good way the family gathered around and helped her through rapidly worsening illness; all that she said to us as we nursed her; great kindness and serious failures in the medical treatment she received–and the logistics have been and continue to be challenging. My brother as executor now has a million kinds of paperwork to do in Pennsylvania, where he and my mother lived together. My sister has a roomful of equipment and supplies to clear, having expected my mother to stay there for months (it turned out to be just 36 hours), and she’s taking the lead with the funeral home. I arrived back in Virginia last night after spending April as a tri-state nomad, helping negotiate facilities and doctor appointments as well as caring for my mostly bedridden mother for five or six days in my brother’s house. I’m also in charge of obituaries, and I’m sure I’ll work through the experiences and feelings of the past few weeks in five bazillion new poems. In this blog, though, where writing intersects with with the complicated business of being a person muddling through, I’m honoring the ways my mother shaped my literary life.

My mother, Patricia Cain Wheeler, wasn’t a writer, but she was an avid reader. Born in Liverpool during World War Two, in a crowded tenement that she longed to escape, books helped her imagine other, better worlds. She was the storyteller-in-chief during my own childhood, conjuring Liverpool in the nineteen-forties in all its sharp contrasts with my suburban New Jersey comforts. I learned about the coal-heated houses she grew up in, with privies and bomb shelters in their back gardens, and in at least one of them, a swing she loved to ride as she daydreamed. My sister and I mapped our respective territories by upholstery seams in the backseat of an Oldsmobile; my mother’s sister drew chalk lines to construct a sort of privacy in their tiny shared bedroom. Rationing meant food was scarce for my mother and her three siblings; I grew up on Cheese Whiz, bacon-draped meatloaf, Wonder Bread, and the British chocolates my grandmother stuffed in her suitcases when she flew over for long visits. My mother’s educational opportunities were very limited, but she won a scholarship to Calderstones High School, where she played Caesar and Macbeth in school plays because, at 5’5”, she was the tallest girl in the class. At sixteen she left to study nursing at Royal Liverpool Babies Hospital, but it was difficult work. She left it to clerk at a store then, in 1962, to emigrate to the US and give in-home care to the children and elderly relatives of rich Long Islanders before she married. I wrote about these and other stories in my 2010 book Heterotopia. They’ve always exerted a powerful hold on my imagination.

My mother taught me to understand my life as a series of tales in which I was the adventurous heroine. She also gave me books. Each Christmas, the best present was a heavy shirt box filled with paperbacks, with the implication that at nine or ten, I was plenty old enough to enjoy them. They included most of the Alcott and Brontë novels plus works by Shakespeare, Jules Verne, Sir Walter Scott, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, George Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Homer, Chaucer, and much more. I remember walking down stairs carpeted in cream shag to ask her the difference between “impudent” and “imprudent.” When I was having trouble making sense of Wuthering Heights, she reread it and explained the story to me. Her taste wasn’t all high-flown, though. I also devoured her Reader’s Digests and Harlequin romances. It’s largely due to her that I always had my nose in a novel or play or epic poem, depending on them for escape and education. I told her how much I owed her for this a week ago, when she lay semi-conscious in a hospital bed, and it won me a rare smile.

She was also the parent who read all my poems and stories and, eventually, my published books, cheering me on. I owe certain teachers, too, for encouraging me to write poetry particularly, but I wrote Unbecoming because my mother taught me to love character-driven genre fiction (though she would never have used those words!). There’s a maybe-supernatural character in my novel because she loaded me up with tales about fairies and brownies and ghosts. I can’t believe that’s all in the past now, but my mother will survive as the stories we tell about her. Below are a couple of poems inspired by her life, the first from Heterotopia, the second from The State She’s In, in which she’s also a presiding spirit.

The Third Child Counts Her Options, 1949

We did own roller skates. I sometimes strapped
one over my shoe, gliding down Vronhill
Street like a sad flamingo. My sister

buzzed by on the other, pretending to
be a Luftwaffe raider. My brothers
rowed over the bicycle. There were four

of us, three fighters, and never enough
biscuits. One of us had to read the old
books instead. One of us had to sit still.  
Ambitions: Liverpool


I. In ‘62, my young mother flew from known melodies, from clouds rolling up and down the Mersey with the tides.
II. Where would I be otherwise? Each curved person a lattice of contingency. Weak sunlight filters through.
III. She was born in a curved iron and glass shed, Lime Street Station platform eight for London Midlands, with a hissing exhale and a rocking momentum.
IV. Corridors of red sandstone, arched brick, concrete bearded with soot and moss. Four pairs of rails rusted pink. The city’s muscles contract.
V. Towers topped with empty nests. Where are the birds? 
VI. My return ticket bought by her departure. My diplomas. My pay stub. My upwardly-mobile American refusal to pick up after men.
VII. Brakes whine softly until the country opens and I pick up speed.
VIII. Far away, joint-sore, she is throwing off a duvet, opening blinds, creaking downstairs to her son’s kitchen, listening to news of brutal collusions.
IX. Daisies, buttercups, yarrow—flowers that cannot be suppressed—and sheep-cropped hills beyond.
X. Clouds are heavy, sorrowful. They resist breakage but wind has its own ideas. Look at the azure vents it opens, with a tearing cry. 

Wonders, discoveries, & #thesealeychallenge2020

This crazy August, when no one could concentrate on anything, turned out to be the very first time I completed The Sealey Challenge, instituted by Nicole Sealey in 2017. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to be so diligent again. I’m on sabbatical right now, and in other years August can feel frantic. My annual poetry binge is typically In December and January, when I slow down and look around for the books that have been gathering buzz.

But I’ve learned some from trying. The most important result was just getting acquainted with some fabulous work. Like a lot of people, I put Sealey’s own Ordinary Beast on my August reading list, and it’s amazing–it’s a crime against poetry that I hadn’t read it before. There are several other terrific poets on the list below whose work I hadn’t read in book form yet, including Tiana Clark, Rosebud Ben-Oni, and first-book author Leila Chatti whose urgent Deluge I still can’t get out of my head. (I chose it, by the way, because it kept popping up in other Challenge posts–another benefit of the project–and the same thing happened with today’s pick from John Murillo, also a knockout.) Mostly I had no fixed idea about which book I’d pick up next, although I began with Kyrie because it’s about the 1918 pandemic. Other reasons for reading: I looked for recent collections by Shenandoah authors like Jessica Guzman and Armen Davoudian, although I’ve by no means snagged them all, and I caught up with authors whose books I always look for, out of fandom and friendship. I did purchase some books some at the beginning of the month, in part because I would have anyway but also to make sure my list would be inclusive in various ways. I wasn’t enough of a planner to be fully stocked in advance for 31 entries, but there was something felicitous about that. I dug into some pretty dusty to-be-read piles; grabbed poetry comics and image-texts from my spouse’s collection (those books by Eve Ewing and Jessy Randall are amazing!); and downloaded a few free digital chapbooks. I liked how this resulted in in unexpected diversities in style and medium. I found books I’ll teach in future and others I’ll give as gifts. Others I’m just really glad to know about and to help celebrate.

It WAS hard to keep up the pace, though. I devoured books at the start of the month, often reading over breakfast or lunch (I take actual lunch breaks on the porch now–it’s the bomb). I wisely began reading at the end of July to give myself a head-start and likewise worked ahead before the middle weekend of August, when I had an intense 48-hour virtual conference. Sometimes, though, when my own writing was going gangbusters, I’d delay the book of the day until late afternoon or evening, and then I just didn’t feel excited to read something challenging–although I never regretted it once I got going. At this point, I’m a little fried, so there’s no way I’ll manage many entries under the #septwomenpoets hashtag. I’ve got some other deadlines to catch up on, anyway, plus two brief trips: tomorrow I drive my son up to Haverford for his shortened fall term (my first interstate travel since February–yikes), and later in the month, on my birthday weekend, Chris and I are renting a very small house in Virginia Beach. We’re both worried about crashing when it’s just the two of us again, so we’re thinking about what low-risk adventures we can plan.

A last word on my cheat book of the month (lyric essays by a poet, so it’s Sealey Challenge adjacent!). I strongly recommend the brand-new World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. The subtitle is “In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments,” and it’s definitely eco-writing with a deep investment in and fascination with the more-than-human world. I’m most in love, though, with how the essays interweave research with compelling personal stories about moving around as a child and young adult, often feeling out of place as the only brown person in her mostly-white classes, until she found a sense of belonging in Mississippi. This book is often joyous and funny, but predation is a recurrent theme, and that spoke to me. I think it would teach beautifully–I admire its craft–but I also just really appreciated how it urges readers to care. In an unexpected way, it resonated with the Tiana Clark collection I’d read the day before, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood: both of those authors eloquently argue that environmental justice should be inseparable from social justice, both in literature and in the world.

I was surprised to appear in the acknowledgements of Aimee’s book, maybe because I tried to be a good host during her campus visit and encouraged her to submit to Shenandoah? I don’t feel like I deserve the honor, but it’s in keeping, somehow, with the generosity writers have been showing each other this month. Here’s to small kindnesses in the hellscape that is 2020!

  • 8/1 Voigt, Kyrie
  • 8/2 Atkins, Still Life with God
  • 8/3 Guzman, Adelante
  • 8/4 Hong, Fablesque
  • 8/5 Davoudian, Swan Song
  • 8/6 Matejka, The Big Smoke
  • 8/7 Hedge Coke, Burn
  • 8/8 Sealey, Ordinary Beast
  • 8/9 Chang, Obit
  • 8/10 Perez, Habitat Threshold
  • 8/11 Corral, guillotine
  • 8/12 Neale, To the Occupant
  • 8/13 Bailey, Visitation
  • 8/14 Chatti, Deluge
  • 8/15 Muench, Wolf Centos
  • 8/16 Flanagan, Glossary of Unsaid Terms
  • 8/17 Nuernberger, Rue
  • 8/18 Kapur, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist
  • 8/19 Farley, The Mizzy
  • 8/20 Avia, Fale Aitu | Spirit House
  • 8/21 Andrews, A Brief History of Fruit
  • 8/22 Taylor, Last West
  • 8/23 Harvey, Hemming the Water
  • 8/24 Ben-Oni, 20 Atomic Poems
  • 8/25 Ewing, Electric Arches
  • 8/26 Mountain, Thin Fire
  • 8/27 Randall, How to Tell if You Are Human
  • 8/28 Davis, In the Circus of You
  • 8/29 Clark, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood
  • 8/30 Nezhukumatathil, World of Wonders
  • 8/31 Murillo, Kontemporary American Poetry

Reading by the glow of a year on fire

2019 was a good year for books but a weird year for reading. For pleasure, work, and mood-medicine, I read constantly, but it’s been different lately: my poetry rate is typical, but fiction and I have had some problems. I couldn’t finish things, or I read multiple books in alternating fragments, concentration flickering. I received less solace from it.

What worked best for me were predictable genres: mysteries, fantasy, historical fiction. I’ve heard others say that they’re overworked and sad about politics, so the more escapist a book turned out to be, the better. That’s true for me, too, but personal stresses have diluted my attention even further. On the happy side, reading Shenandoah subs takes time and energy I used to devote to reviewing. I’m also launching my fifth poetry collection and my debut novel next year, and an essay collection in 2021. Good LORD did I reread and revise those mss, over and over, and when you’re reading your own pages you have less time for others’.

I still read and admired lots of poetry collections–many of those listed in “best of 2019” articles, and also small-press volumes by Erin Hoover, January O’Neil, Kyle Dargan, Martha Silano, Amy Lemmon, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Ned Balbo, Jeanne Larsen, Niall Campbell, Hai-Dang Phan, Paisley Rekdal, and Oliver de la Paz. I reviewed Franny Choi’s Soft Science for Strange Horizons. My brief year-in-review piece, forthcoming soon in that magazine, gives a shout-out to poetry collections that touch on sf as well as fun novels by Atwood, King, and a few others. Some sf-ish books I was excited to read, though, disappointed me, especially Ta-Nehisi Coates’ novel, which I found tedious (am I the only reader who thinks “Slavery is” might be an inauspicious way to begin a sentence?).

A few more books that touched, haunted, and even changed me: Joy Harjo’s Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, especially a prayer-poem near the beginning. A Holly Black fairy-tale my son recommended. Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek, because of its disturbing exploration of “bad” parenting. Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, I don’t even know why–dark side of Downtown Abbey, maybe? Patchett’s The Dutch House, perhaps because I took it in more slowly than usual, as a brilliantly-delivered audiobook by Tom Hanks. And as I’ve posted before, I didn’t think The Slow Professor was a great book, but it gave me a lot to chew on as I considered how next year ought to be different.

2019 saw a lot more beautiful poetry books by beautiful people, and I WILL get to them in 2020, as well as voting for whatever candidate the Democratic party puts up against the current flaming-ass-in-chief. Oh, and I’m going to keep rereading this little treasure as I try to launch my own little fire-starters as brightly as possible. Happy new year, fellow readers!

POETRY (78)

1/8 Hoover, Barnburning* (review)

1/13 Hayes, American Sonnets* (reread for class)

1/14 O’Neil, Rewilding* (fandom)

1/15 Komunyaaka, Dien Cai Dau (reread for class)

1/20 Barnhart and Mahan, Women of Resistance* (for class)

1/25 Coleman, Words of Protest, Words of Freedom (reread for class)

1/29 Macfarlane, The Lost Words* (for class)

2/6 Bashir, Field Theories (reread for class)

2/7 Harjo, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings* (reread for class)

2/23 Dargan, Anagnorisis* (fandom)

2/24 Abraham, al youm (for class)

3/4 Mathieu, Orogeny (for class)

3/5 Nezhukumatathil, Oceanic (reread for class)

3/13 Silano, Reckless Lovely (reread for class)

3/16 Michelson, Dreaming America (reread for class)

3/25 Kaminsky, Deaf Republic (buzz—Twitter mostly)

4/6 Brown, The Tradition* (loved the title poem on poetry.org)

4/6 Jernigan, Years, Months, and Days (review)

4/11 Camp, One Hundred Hungers (reread for campus visit)

4/15 Lemmon, The Miracles* (fandom)

4/18 Fisher-Wirth, The Bones of Winter Birds* (fandom)

4/20 Silano, Gravity Assist* (fandom)

4/20 McCarthy, Surge (new pressmate)

4/21 Balbo, 3 Nights of the Perseids* (fandom)

4/27 Shakespeare, Sonnets (just got caught up in them)

4/30 Nethercott, The Lumberjack’s Dove (friend’s recommendation)

5/1 Kaneko, The Dead Wrestler Elegies (planning for his visit)

5/4 Youn, Ignatz (Krazy Kat fandom)

5/5 Xie, Eye Level (strong reviews)

5/14 Miller, Emily Dickinson’s Poems As She Preserved Them (teaching prep)

5/18 Larsen, What Penelope Chooses* (fandom)

5/18 Hayden, Exuberance* (fandom)

5/18 Selznick and Whitman, Live Oak, With Moss* (comics version, teaching prep)

5/18 Seay, The See the Queen (teaching/ visit prep)

5/18 Alleyne, Honeyfish* (teaching/ visit prep)

5/23 Camp, The Turquoise Door* (campus visit)

5/23 Nguyen, Ghost Of* (good reviews)

6/4 Nelson, The Freedom Business (forget where I bought it!)

6/10 Frank, Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country (bought at a reading)

6/12 Bashir, Where the Apple Falls (research)

6/17 Campbell, Noctuary* (fandom)                                                                             41

6/18 Rekdal, Nightingale* (fandom)

6/20 Bashir, Gospel (research)

6/21 Gray, Radiation King* (received review copy)

6/22 Schwartz, Miraculum (found it on my shelf)

6/23 Phillips, Reasons for Smoking (found it on my shelf)

6/23 Honum, The Tulip-Flame (found it on my shelf)

6/23 Baker, waha / mouth (fandom)

6/24 Phan, Reenactments* (fandom and research)

7/1 Choi, Soft Science* (for review)

7/4 Matejka, The Big Smoke (found it on my shelf)

7/8 Satterfield, Her Familiars (reread for research)

7/11 Bray, Small Mothers of Fright (research)

7/12 Ginsburg, Dear Weather Ghost (research)

7/12 Ginsburg, Double Blind (research)

7/13 Dawson, Big-Eyed Afraid (fandom)

7/14 Legros George, The Dear Remote Nearness of You (found it on my shelf)

7/15 Calvocoressi, Rocket Fantastic (found it on my shelf)

7/16 Ali, Sky Ward (research)

7/17 Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard (bought at a conference)

7/20 Winslow, Defying Gravity (by a friend)

8/25 Hancock, Cairns* (by a friend)

9/19 Gailey, She Returns to the Floating World* (reread for teaching)

9/23 H.D., Sea Garden* (reread for teaching)

9/26 Seay, To See the Queen (reread for her visit)

9/28 Lusby, Catechesis* (buzz)

9/30 de la Paz, The Boy in the Labyrinth* (fandom)

10/4 Eliot, Prufrock and Other Observations (reread for class)

10/8 Eliot, The Waste Land (reread for class)

10/10 Giménez Smith, Be Recorder (awards nominations)

10/? McLarney and Street, A Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia (I’m in it!)

11/10 Hong, Age of Glass (met her at conference)

11/19 Hughes, Montage of a Dream Deferred (reread for class)

11/29 Jones, dark//thing* (met her at a conference)

12/8 Sze, Sight Lines* (prize win)

12/24 Heid Erdrich, Curator of Ephemera (prep for a possible campus visit)

12/27 Parker, ed., Changing is Not Vanishing (friends’ rec, for teaching)

12/31 Graber, The River Twice* (fandom)

FICTION (36)

1/5 Miller, Song of Achilles (daughter’s recommendation)

1/19 Miller, Circe (daughter’s recommendation)1/27 Burns, Milkman* (book group)

2/9 Walker, The Dreamers* (reviews and Emily Mandel’s blurb)

2/23 Anders, The City in the Middle of the Night* (fandom)

3/17 Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird (friends’ recommendations)

3/31 Oyeyemi, Gingerbread* (fandom)

4/6 Martin, Passage to the Dreamtime (play) (bought at a conference)

4/19 Black, The Dark Part of the Forest (son’s recommendation)

4/25 Chambers, Calls for Submission (met at a conference)

5/3 Herriman, Krazy & Ignatz (teaching prep)

5/8 LaValle, Destroyer (teaching prep)

5/19 Garstang, The Shaman of Turtle Valley* (local writer)

5/28 McLaughlin, Bearskin* (local connections plus Edgar win)

5/31 Atkinson, Transcription* audiobook (friends’ recommendation)

6/17 Walton, Lent* (fandom)

6/22 Crouch, Recursion* (NYT review)

6/23 Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (reread for teaching)

7/1 Hubbard, The Talented Ribkins (gift)

7/7 Kim, Miracle Creek* (reviews)

7/12 Ginsburg, Sunset City (research)

7/19 Ray, Whiskey Tales* (translator is a friend)

7/20 Rosenberg, Confessions of the Fox* (daughter’s recommendation)

8/1 Adieche, Americanah (teaching)

8/3 Waters, The Little Stranger (fandom)

9/9 Horrocks, The Vexations* (preparing for her visit to campus)

9/16 Atwood, The Testaments* (fandom)

9/25 King, The Institute* (fandom)

10/16 Joukhadar, Map of Salt and Stars (preparing for visit)

10/? Pullman, Book of Dust* (fandom)

11/? Patchett, The Dutch House* (audiobook for travel, word of mouth)

11/28 Coates, The Water Dancer* (ads; sounded good but wasn’t very)

12/15 Stout, Fer-de-Lance (friend’s recommendation)

12/20 Christie, Murder on the Orient Express (had never read it!)

12/25 Hoffman, The World We Knew* (friend’s recommendation)

12/30 Harrow, The Ten Thousand Doors of January (friend’s recommendation)

NONFICTION/ HYBRID (21)

1/26 Fennelly, Heating & Cooling (reread for class)

2/6 Harjo, Crazy Brave (preparing for her visit)

3/16 Traister, Good and Mad* (college colloquium)

4/29 Sacks, Sacks, Way Up North in Dixie (research)

5/? Gay, The Book of Delights (fandom)

5/21 Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (reputation)

5/22 Davis, Why Art?* (gift)

6/4 Hayles, Chaos Bound (research)

6/10 Atkins, The Laws of Thermodynamics (research)

6/10 Polkinghorne, Quantum Theory (research)

6/22 Darling, Je Suis L’Autre: Essays and Interrogations (research)

6/22 Kiefer, Nestuary (fandom)

6/24 Anker and Felski, Critique and Postcritique (research)

7/10 Vargas, Dear America* (teaching)

7/14 Moore, 16 Pills* (pressmate)

7/17 McSweeney, The Necropastoral (research)

8/7 Anzaldúa, Borderlands/ La Frontera (reread for teaching)

8/25 Rich, Permeable Membrane (gift)

11/27 Berg, Seeber, The Slow Professor (to co-lead faculty book club)

12/2 Hughes, ed., Sylvia Plath Drawings (fandom)

12/29 Slate, Little Weirds* (gift from daughter)

*published within the last year or so

A slightly terrifying amount of reading

“Admit that Mexico is your double, that she exists in the shadow of this country, that we are irrevocably tied to her. Gringo, accept the doppelganger in your psyche. By taking back your collective shadow the intracultural split will heal.” (page 108)

“This land was Mexican once/ was Indian always/ and is./ And will be again.” (page 113)

“So this is what happened to someone living at the border like me: My ancestors have always lived with the land here in Texas. My indigenous ancestors go back twenty to twenty-five thousand years and that is how old I am in this country. My Spanish ancestors have been in this land since the European takeover which pulled migration from Spain to Mexico. Texas was part of a Mexican state called Tamaulipas. And Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and part of California and Colorado, were part of the northern section of Mexico. It was almost half of Mexico that the U.S. cheated Mexico out of when they bought it by the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. By doing so they created the borderlands.” (Interview, page 274)

The above quotes are from Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Fourth Edition. The book was first published in 1987; I encountered it a couple of years later, in graduate school, although I can no longer find my first copy. I’ve been meaning to reread it, because I’m advising a senior who wants to make it part of her thesis next year.

This was definitely the week. I’m sickened by U.S. gun violence and epidemic hatred without having a new or insightful word to say about them, but it felt just slightly sanity-restoring to spend time with Anzaldúa. After all, how can there be a “Hispanic invasion,” as the Texas shooter alleged, in a place to which the U.S. government has only the most recent and most dubious of many claims? Aside from the book’s reminders about history, it’s also big-hearted and wise and full of insights about language, culture, queerness, trauma, depression, artistic process, sacredness, and dreams. Plus, I loved remembering my twenty-something astonishment at its hybrid of prose and poetry: holy shit, you can do that?!

I’ve done a slightly terrifying amount of reading and rereading this summer. Some of it was planned: I wanted to know queer theory better for a course I’m devising; I had to process some of the literature of “postcritique” and more ecocriticism to revise Poetry’s Possible Worlds; and I always use academic breaks to catch up on recent poetry collections and throw myself into various novels, serious and escapist and everything in between. Health issues made me need books more–and made writing harder. My son goes to college in a few weeks, and friends are undergoing similar transitions, so I’m extra-emotional; reading is work I can do when my concentration is poor.

Otherwise, a lot of what I’ve been doing boils down to paperwork: moving galleys along (because I used to write things!), proposing courses, and sorting out plans for the larger-than-usual number of conferences I’ll be a part of this year. I organized a panel called “Uncanny Activisms” for the C.D. Wright Conference–check it out. Now that I’m fully off the AWP Board, I was part of three proposals for that highly competitive conference, too, and two were accepted. The one I organized but will sit on the sidelines of is called “Big Shoes: New Directions at Old Magazines,” featuring Melissa Crowe of Beloit Poetry Journal, Gerald Maa of Georgia Review, Wayne Miller of Copper Nickel, Emily Rosko of Crazyhorse, and Beth Staples of Shenandoah–having played a small role in changes at the latter, I’m excited to hear what everyone has to say. The panel I’ll speak at is “Teaching in the Confederacy,” organized and moderated by Chris Gavaler, also featuring Lauren K. Alleyne, Tyree Daye, and Gary Dop, in which we’ll talk about the challenges and responsibilities that come with regional links to white supremacy. Plus I’ll have a Shenandoah table to sit at, and at least one new book to sign…more on that soon, I hope!

In the meantime, thank god for Anzaldúa and all the other writers who have been challenging my thinking and just keeping me company. I’ll sign off with a few pictures of artists’ books from the Serralves Museum in Porto–we had no idea they had such a great collection until we stumbled on the exhibition.

Books read since May (first poetry, then fiction, then nonfiction, not including chapters, essays, and other short stuff):

5/1 Kaneko, The Dead Wrestler Elegies (planning for his visit)

5/4 Youn, Ignatz (Krazy Kat fandom)

5/5 Xie, Eye Level (strong reviews)

5/14 Miller, Emily Dickinson’s Poems As She Preserved Them (teaching prep)

5/18 Larsen, What Penelope Chooses* (fandom)

5/18 Hayden, Exuberance* (fandom)

5/18 Selznick and Whitman, Live Oak, With Moss* (comics version, teaching prep)

5/18 Seay, The See the Queen (teaching/ visit prep)

5/18 Alleyne, Honeyfish* (teaching/ visit prep)

5/23 Camp, The Turquoise Door* (campus visit)

5/23 Nguyen, Ghost Of* (good reviews)

6/4 Nelson, The Freedom Business (forget where I bought it!)

6/10 Frank, Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country (bought at a reading)

6/12 Bashir, Where the Apple Falls (research)

6/17 Campbell, Noctuary* (fandom)

6/18 Rekdal, Nightingale* (fandom)

6/20 Bashir, Gospel (research)

6/21 Gray, Radiation King* (received review copy)

6/22 Schwartz, Miraculum (found it on my shelf)

6/23 Phillips, Reasons for Smoking (found it on my shelf)

6/23 Honum, The Tulip-Flame (found it on my shelf)

6/23 Baker, waha / mouth (fandom)

6/24 Phan, Reenactments* (fandom and research)

7/1 Choi, Soft Science* (for review)

7/4 Matejka, The Big Smoke (found it on my shelf)

7/8 Satterfield, Her Familiars (reread for research)

7/11 Bray, Small Mothers of Fright (research)

7/12 Ginsburg, Dear Weather Ghost (research)

7/12 Ginsburg, Double Blind (research)

7/13 Dawson, Big-Eyed Afraid (fandom)

7/14 Legros George, The Dear Remote Nearness of You (found it on my shelf)

7/15 Calvocoressi, Rocket Fantastic (found it on my shelf)

7/16 Ali, Sky Ward (research)

7/17 Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard (bought at a conference)

7/20 Winslow, Defying Gravity (by a friend)

5/3 Herriman, Krazy & Ignatz (teaching prep)

5/8 LaValle, Destroyer (teaching prep)

5/19 Garstang, The Shaman of Turtle Valley* (local writer)

5/28 McLaughlin, Bearskin* (local connections plus Edgar win)

5/31 Atkinson, Transcription* audiobook (friends’ recommendation)

6/17 Walton, Lent* (fandom)

6/22 Crouch, Recursion* (NYT review)

6/23 Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (reread for teaching)

7/1 Hubbard, The Talented Ribkins (gift)

7/7 Kim, Miracle Creek* (reviews)

7/12 Ginsburg, Sunset City (research)

7/19 Ray, Whiskey Tales* (translator is a friend)

7/20 Rosenberg, Confessions of the Fox* (daughter’s recommendation)

8/1 Adieche, Americanah (teaching)

8/3 Waters, The Little Stranger (fandom)

5/? Gay, The Book of Delights (fandom)

5/21 Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (reputation)

5/22 Davis, Why Art?* (gift)

6/4 Hayles, Chaos Bound (research)

6/10 Atkins, The Laws of Thermodynamics (research)

6/10 Polkinghorne, Quantum Theory (research)

6/22 Darling, Je Suis L’Autre: Essays and Interrogations (research)

6/22 Kiefer, Nestuary (fandom)

6/24 Anker and Felski, Critique and Postcritique (research)

7/10 Vargas, Dear America* (teaching)

7/14 Moore, 16 Pills* (pressmate)

7/17 McSweeney, The Necropastoral (research)

8/7 Anzaldúa, Borderlands/ La Frontera (reread for teaching)

Revision, re-audition

With both a novel and a poetry collection due to editors this spring, this winter is all about revision. I’ve been combing through my poetry ms, trying to get the opening tracks right (I’ve tried five million variations) and forcing myself to fix or cut iffy but beloved poems. I’m also organizing a last round of submissions, alerting magazine editors to the publication date, and thinking hard about the title. Finalizing the title may entail yet more re-tuning, as well as research into cover images. Eventually I’ll hand it over to Molly Sutton Kiefer at Tinderbox, and I’m sure she’ll will find more for me to do!–but it’s exciting to be circling in.

Then I switched gears to my novel, Unbecoming. (This week is an academic break, which helps.) Timmi Duchamp at Aqueduct asked me to read it aloud before handing it over. I’m finding plenty of klutzy sentences to fix as well as an unbelievable number of adverbs, although I thought I’d weeded them out in the last round–they’re like bunnies or dandelions, proliferating in a fallow ms as soon as you turn your back. Like my poetry book, Unbecoming has survived more than a dozen major revisions, but the last ones focused on character, pacing, and a tendency to summary and over-explanation. I still have traces of the latter to expunge, but what I’m really striving for now is clean, direct sentences.

I like revision, even though it hijacks ALL my creative energies. (With these rewrites to tackle, plus Shenandoah poems to read and grant proposals to draft for my 2020-2021 sabbatical and this pesky full-time job as teacher-adviser-program coordinator, I feel like I’ll never write a new poem again.) It’s rewarding to hone old efforts and feel sentences click into their grooves. But I’ve been thinking about the word “revision.” Its emphasis on “looking anew” doesn’t entirely capture what I’m doing. In both genres, I’m re-sounding lines, trying to hear them freshly, managing echoes within mss. I’m also thinking hard, as I revise, in order to revise, about giving readings. What passages or poems would I choose to read aloud to audiences, and why? Do they sound right in my voice? If I would want to kick off a reading with this poem, or end it with that scene, do those preferences have implications for the arrangement of a printed book? Or do the mediums of print and live reading simply have different requirements?

Can you hear the anxiety? I’m really happy about these books but subject to fizzes of terror, too. I know the poetry book is my best ever and I have decent credentials to make that judgment; what puts me on alert is mainly my drive to do right by the work, shining it up and showing the widest possible audience that my poems are worth their time. I know that sounds arrogant, but I actually believe it. Fiction, though! Giving readings from a novel!! At least Ursula finds revision relaxing.

Still life with two relaxed superheroes and a sparkle pen

seuss

Sometimes, if I wake up extra-early, I’ll make a pot of tea and read one of the many bound-to-be-good poetry books stacked on the cyborg (what we call the sideboard, for obscure reasons). This morning I read Diane Seuss’ Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and GirlIt’s full of elegy and ekphrasis, a very rich book I can’t do justice to here. As far as analytic sharpness, I’m tapped out at the moment by teaching and student conferences; I’m just reading receptively, to fill the well. But I’m moved by her poems mourning a father lost in childhood, friends lost to AIDS, and her own lost girl-self. I’m also processing a brilliant reading and visit from Rebecca Makkai, whose much-acclaimed novel The Great Believers concerns the arrival of HIV to Chicago’s Boystown in the eighties. Rebecca was my student here in the nineties; I remember her fierce intelligence well, how she blew in like a wind ready to strip away stupid traditions, as the best of my students do now. But that version of myself feels long gone. All these texts and memories mirror each other fractionally, so my head feels busy with bright shards.

I’m also especially taken by Seuss’s self-portrait series, perhaps because one of my classes is deep in discussion about confessionalism. Here’s one: “Self-Portrait with Sylvia Plath’s Braid.” But I like “Self-Portrait with Levitation” even better: “Embodiment has never been my strong suit.” Here’s to learning to float again, one of these days.

award

News flash: in April, poet feels moody

Spring’s been happening in fits and starts–blossoms one minute, wind-strewn petals the next. I walk a nearby trail most mornings, and on Tuesday, Woods Creek churned and roared from heavy rains; parts of the path were massive puddles, and the lowest bridge was half-underwater. The next day was frigid; others have been balmy and still. National Poetry Month basically occurs during the year’s moody adolescence.

I’ve been just as inconsistent. Every April since 2013 I’ve tried to have some kind of daily poetry-related practice. In 2013, I was pent-up and just exploded in daily drafts. In 2014, I wrote a section of a long poem every day according to Vladimir Propp’s numbered phases of folk tales, and that became last year’s chapbook, Propagation. In 2015 I worked on poems in response to images by Carolyn Capps, and that collaboration became an exhibit. In the Aprils since then, I haven’t been as focused, but tried at least to work on poetry every day, often by drafting something new, sometimes by revising or submitting work. This year, it’s been really, really hard, and I’m not sure why.

I do know my monkey mind has been up to serious mischief, in part because I had a very intense winter term, working round the clock just to stay afloat (around here, the twelve-week “winter” term ends the last week of April, and the four-week intensive spring term begins tomorrow–oy). I don’t know if this is a symptom or a driver of my stress, but I have noticed my reading patterns changing dramatically. I’m normally a hungry novel-reader, averaging one a week on top of classwork, and that’s supplemented by fairly heavy poetry reading and a lot of journalism and magazines. I keep a list of the books I finish, in part so I don’t draw a total blank if asked to write a year-end column somewhere. There’s usually a balance among genres in my novel consumption, depending on time of year and state of mind, including challenging literary stuff, pulpy mysteries, and a good share of speculative fiction.

2018-02-22-igloria-final-250pxThis year, since January 1, I’ve finished just three novels. That seems demented to me. I’ve been sustained by partial residence in fictional universes since early childhood, because this world kind of sucks, even for a person like me whose life has been pretty lucky. I can and do read lots of short-form stuff, including many poetry books, some by our first Glasgow Writer in Residence, Luisa Igloria, who’s settling in now to teach an advanced seminar on hybrid genres. Right now I’m in the middle of Beth Ann Fennelly’s micro-memoir collection Heating and Cooling. I also watch various novelistic TV series. But my lifelong drive towards narrative immersion in long fiction just seems broken. I’m not sure whether to nudge myself back into the old reading patterns, which I’ve always found calming, or just let the monkey mind swing how it wants to.

So far, I’ve been doing the latter, both in my reading and my NaPoWriMo practice. I sent a bunch of work out, and received a quick acceptance and a quick rejection; the other poems wait for editors to have opinions about them. I think I’ve drafted a couple of poems that will be keepers. I’ve also written poems about being too discouraged to write poems. I’ve been collaborating with my spouse on some visual poems here and there, and I also spent much of this week, our spring break, revising my own novel, because I received some helpful feedback and that’s what I wanted to do. Perverse, but so be it. The very best thing I did for myself, poetry-wise, was join a group of women poets just sending their daily drafts to each other for the month of April, with no apologies and no judgments. It’s felt like everything I love about poetry, with none of the striving–what a blessing.

On a probably related note: last weekend was the first time I  completely broke my commitment to blog something poetry-related weekly in 2018. This vow was in response to a challenge Kelli Russell Agodon and Donna Vorreyer leveled in December–see Donna’s awesome list of participants here–and has been facilitated by the great gift of Dave Bonta’s weekly roundups (most recent one here). I realized Monday morning I hadn’t posted anything and thought, well, damn. Then I decided I’d rather spend a few more hours on poetry subs, then work on the novel. It was good to prove to myself that I could focus immersively on something.

And now it’s back to running at top speed, with a seminar on African American poetry starting tomorrow. On the creative community front, I’m also also looking forward to a reading at 7 pm this Friday, April 27th, in Staunton, at the Black Swan. And I’m SO grateful to Gettysburg Review for including my poem “L” in its pages–that’s my poem about turning 50, in 50 50-character lines, which I drafted at 47 because I like to plan my crises in advance. An ambitious poem about the problems with ambition, it felt like a turning point for me and I’m so glad it found a good home–confirmation that springs of moody weather can, in the long run, bear fruit.

poetry reading poster

Repress the year, but read the books

Countdowns and confetti: bah humbug. By New Year’s Eve, I’m tired of festivity. Middle age has clearly settled in, because I now regularly find myself closing out the year by binge-reading.

December is always a good month for catching up on The Year’s Big Poetry Books. My university library orders the US National Book Award poetry longlist and the Pulitzer finalists annually, so after grades are in, I rush in to the circulation desk and beg them to finish “processing” my slim volumes. This year I’ve only perused a fraction of them so far. Someone had already checked out Dove’s Collected Poems and while I’m a big fan and have written about her work, I’m letting the anonymous poetry-reader keep it for the moment, with blessings. But I’ve at least glanced at the other finalists and almost everything seems worth attention. While I’ve only read the first few pages of the NBA top selection, Borzutzky’s Performance of Becoming Human, it’s powerful and I will finish it.

The oh-my-god discovery in this stack, however, was Diane Seuss’s Four-Legged Girl. What a fierce, smart, funny book! An old lesson affirmed: read the finalists, Lesley. I always respect the winners but fall madly in love with a runner-up.

4-legged
Four-legged girls

Also worth noting: my favorite chapbook was Elizabeth Savage’s Parallax, but the chaps listed below by Janet McAdams, Carrie Etter, Natalie Diaz, and Rosemary Starace are also terrific(Is there a best-annual chapbook post-publication prize? There should be.) For YA poetry, although it doesn’t need to be characterized that way: Marilyn Nelson’s American Ace. Among the books I read for Kenyon Review micros were several charmers, but Ned Balbo’s Upcycling Paumanok impressed me as especially ambitious, crafty, and big-hearted. Books I read for various reasons and liked so much I put them on syllabi include Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Field Guide to the End of the World, Susan Briante’s The Market Wonders, Erika Meitner’s Copia, and Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds.

Other genres: I’m finishing Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad right now and am totally dazzled. I was also delighted to discover, a little belatedly, Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being and N. K. Jemisin’s sf. But all the novels I read this year were good, with the likely exception of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, of which I cannot remember one scene. My book-length nonfiction reading was more uneven–a few brilliant tomes, a couple of weak choices–but I hope to do better in 2017.

And on that note, I would REALLY like to catch up with NZ poetry this year–I’m appalled to see not one item here from a country I remain so in love with. Please put the word out I’d be happy to get review copies, print or electronic, for my micro-review gig at Kenyon Review Online. I probably won’t lose 10 pounds or exercise more, but sit around with cups of tea and new poetry collections? THAT’s a resolution I can uphold.

Best wishes for everyone to thrive in the new year, except the orange man, upon whom I wish shame, frustration, and disaster.

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/? Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds* (multiple good reviews)

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)

7/18 Dietrich and Ferguson, eds., Drawn to Marvel (reread for class planning)

7/21 Thompson, The Myth of Water* (review)

7/30 Carlson, Symphony No. 2 (review)

8/2 Paschen, Infidelities (AWP board member)

8/30 Baca, Selected Poems (class prep—coming to campus)

9/2 Wood, Weaving the Boundary* (regional author I’ve heard at readings)

9/24 Rackin, The Forever Notes (met at reading)

9/24 Campbell, Dixmont (met at reading)

9/30 Eliot, Prufrock and Other Observations (for class)

10/8 Miller, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (friend’s recommendation)

10/8 Briante, The Market Wonders* (future campus visitor)

10/10 H.D. Sea Garden (for class)

10/22 Savage, Parallax* (by a friend)

10/24 Eliot, The Waste Land (for class)

11/? Hughes, Montage of a Dream Deferred (for class)

11/? Gailey, Field Guide to the End of the World* (for class)

11/? Anderson, Stain (to blurb)

12/16 Diaz, The Hand Has Twenty-Seven Bones (follow her work)

12/16 Balakian, Ozone Journal (Pulitzer winner)

12/22 Sharif, Look (NBA finalist)

12/28 Seuss, Four-Legged Girl* (Pulitzer finalist)

12/31 Gizzi, Archaeophonics* (NBA finalist)

 

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)

7/16 Hoffman, The River King (friend’s recommendation)

7/28 Brodie, Adulterer’s Club (unpublished, to comment on ms)

7/31 Kohrner-Stace, Archivist Wasp (interest in Small Beer Press)

7/31 Thorne & Tiffany, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child* (couldn’t help it)

8/8 Walton, Necessity* (favorite author)

8/20 Nguyen, The Sympathizer (dual Pulitzer/ Edgar wins intrigued me)

8/27 Millet, Sweet Lamb of Heaven (recommended by friend)

9/10 Morganstern, The Night Circus (recommended by friend)

9/28 Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate* (sequel I was waiting for)

11/? Willis, Crosstalk (author I follow)

12/14 Jones, Mongrels* (recommended by a friend)    

 

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)

7/25 Mayock, Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace (by friend and colleague)

7/27 Culler, Very Short Introduction to Literary Theory (course prep)

8/10 Biss, On Immunity (widely recommended)

9/1 Gay, Bad Feminist (audiobook, widely recommended)

9/30 Shumer, Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo* (audiobook, whiling away a car trip)

10/29 Meehan, Imaginary Bonnets with Real Bees in them* (poet I research)

12/24 Connors, Milkweed Matters * (writer is a friend)

12/31 Greene, Time’s Unfading Garden (research)

*2016 publication or pretty damn close

 

Waving and also drowning

When, while bobbing in the ocean, you spot a larger-than-usual wave steaming your way, what do you do?

A. Jump into it with joy, trying to hit the breaker where it crashes, for the wildest ride possible. (This is my husband and son.)

B. Shout “no!” in a stern voice, demanding the ocean behave itself. It does not. Before long, you decamp to the sand, electing to pursue a challenge of your own choosing, namely to read as many Russian novels as possible while summer lasts. (This is my daughter.)

C. Express alarm in a comical way that entertains your son, concealing some actual nervousness about getting out of your depth because you’re a pretty lousy swimmer, and then enjoy the tumult until things get fierce, when you actually do panic and nobody takes you seriously because you seemed perfectly fine until a second ago, like a character in a Stevie Smith poem. (Guess who.)

This was one of several potential metaphors I contemplated at the beach ten days ago. It could refer to all kinds of challenges, but what’s on my mind right now is work. I’m doing that late-August surfing, when you madly try to finish summer projects as you simultaneously madly try to get ready for classes starting. Big wave coming.

While I still had decent footing a week ago, moreover, my ability to get things done was sharply diminished last week. Four of my adult molars have been missing from birth–it’s a genetic thing–so baby teeth hung around in their places. One of the latter, bravely standing ground for forty-plus years, finally gave up in December. I went in for a bone graft and dental implant last week and the surgery was more complicated than usual, so my pain levels have been high and I’m sporting a mother of a bruise. I have several friends with serious illnesses, and this is comparatively NOT a big deal, but it’s a reminder of how hard chronic pain can be to live with and work around. It also reminds me I am NOT in control of my “productivity.” This time I can’t just scramble up to the beach and rest on a towel; I have to face the force of water until it’s done with me.

Weights I’m carrying, besides worry about work ahead and physical stress from the various ways a middle-aged body can thwart a person: there were a couple of post-publication prizes I thought Radioland might be a finalist for, and I just heard from the last of them. No luck.

Sources of buoyancy: a wonderful and eminent poet wrote me a fan letter out of the blue. Two friends who are ALSO wonderful poets have given me the gift of critical-but-usefully-specific feedback on unpublished mss, liberally salted with praise. I’m genuinely excited about my fall courses (although maybe not the grading). And I’ve been doing some sustaining reading, too. I just finished Viet Than Nguyen’s The Sympathizer as well as an advanced review copy of Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Field Guide to the End of the World (I’m preparing to teach it this fall in my composition course, which has a speculative fiction theme). Both are powerful and I’m feeling blown away, with more great books and mss piled up waiting. That’s a burden that helps me float, if you’ll tolerate the hyperextension of my marine metaphor.

Okay, the secret is, I’m not as seaworthy as people seem to think, but I do have help, thank the gods. And what threatens to overwhelm me also sparkles.

SPRINGSUM2016 085

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