Blue/ jazzed

The other day we got up early and drove to western Augusta County because the hikes there are much quieter than along the Blue Ridge Parkway, where foliage is peaking and so are the visitors. On autumn mornings here, especially if the day is going to be sunny, mist hugs the ground, gathering most densely over water and other warm places, wreathing the mountains. As the car wound along the empty highway, past farms and Trump signs and gun shops and churches, we alternately dipped into foggy hollows and rose up into sunshine where dew spangled the trees and the last wisps of steam curled up from roofs and embankments. The drive was an obvious metaphor for this October. I have moments of shiny hope but I keep crashing into feeling bad in the most sweeping ways, fearing the election and many more months of isolation, losing faith in everything I’ve written, unable to concentrate on the work I should be doing now. I’m pretty sure everyone feels the same–unless you’re stuck entirely in the lowlands. Here’s hoping the view gets clearer soon.

I can’t write poems but I need to work on prose anyway, particularly honing Poetry’s Possible Worlds, a book of hybrid essays due sometime in 2021. It blends criticism and memoir in a discussion of literary transportation–meaning immersive reading or getting lost in a book–in relation to short twenty-first century poems. I was going like gangbusters last week, but I’m dragging myself through the work very slowly this week. That’s okay, I keep telling myself. The two weeks before the US presidential election were always going to suck. Even when the world isn’t in dangerous meltdown, writing is full of hills and valleys.

I traded messages with a friend last week about the discouragement we often feel about finding readerships. It’s damn hard work and doesn’t get you very far; luck and connections probably matter more. Yet it’s helpful to have camaraderie in frustration. I always read Dave Bonta’s weekly Blog Digest, and this week that struggle was a major theme, especially in Kristy Bowen’s amazing post about self-publishing. It’s awful but cheerful, as Elizabeth Bishop said, or at least cheering to remember that this is just the way writing goes. You’d better be doing the work for it’s own sake or as a gift to others, not expecting anything in return, not even attention–yet the gifts will come back to you sometimes in surprising ways.

Gifts of late: a wonderful, thoughtful review of Unbecoming in Strange Horizons and a poem called “Dragon Questionnaire” in the same magazine; participating in a warm and intimate reading series organized by Johns Hopkins professor Lucy Bucknell; word of forthcoming reviews of The State She’s In; and a local author talk on Unbecoming scheduled and promoted by W&L’s amazing library staff. The latter is Tuesday October 27th, 7 pm EST, and open to the public–just register here: https://go.wlu.edu/unbecoming. I’ll talk about the book’s origin, read a couple of spooky excerpts, take questions, and give a couple of writing prompts.

Late breaking, too: I just got tapped to read from Unbecoming at the World Fantasy Convention, virtual this year. I’ll be part of the Weird Fiction Cluster on Friday October 30th from 10:30-12:30 pm ET, 8:30 Mountain Time (it should have been in Utah this year). The timing: oy. I’m no night owl, but I’ll manage somehow. The opportunity: hallelujah! The readings will be recorded for registered participants to view for weeks afterwards, which makes potential audience reach pretty good. See? I should be pleased to have attained this little hill.

In local politics, there’s good news, too. No word yet on whether W&L is changing its name, but The Washington Post just called our next-door neighbor, Virginia Military Institute, to the carpet for failing to deal with its deeply racist campus climate, and the governor is launching an investigative probe. In a small town like this one you inevitably have friends who work there, and I’m more optimistic for them and the cadets than I’ve felt for a long while. All the little justice struggles do add up, even if it takes forever, with lots of ups and downs along the way.

The generosity of writers in Crisis

Just a quick note from my hermit’s retreat: I am so impressed by the gallantry of writers, editors, and reading series organizers, so many of whom are ingeniously making the show go on. I wrote last time about hitches in publication pipelines, but for authors who had reached the culmination of years of work and were ready for spring book launches, there’s an extra edge of strangeness in how the world has shut down. You do all this advance work to set up events (unless you have money for a publicist? not me!), and then some are scrapped, some go virtual, and you’re scrambling for find new launch outlets like podcasts, interviews, and web features that might get your name out there. I’m trying to say yes to every offer, but it’s a challenge! Unexpectedly, I’m figuring out how to record mini-audio-readings with a blanket over my head for extra resonance, and how best to prop my laptop on boxes of books I can’t sell to get a flattering angle on Zoom video recordings. Live readings are challenging to get right, but recorded ones are much stranger, since you can’t respond to visual cues from your audience.

Whenever you read this blog, you can check out a recorded 6-minute podcast from The Drum: A Literary Magazine for your Ears, featuring memoirist Alia Volz and me. Thanks to Kirun Kapur for including me!

If you read this by Saturday 4/11, also check out a Zoom reading I’m doing with Destiny Hemphill and Alan King from 7-8pm EST, put together by Ross White as part of the Bull City Press Presents series based in Durham, North Carolina. (I just canceled my hotel reservations; Chris and I had planned to make a fun weekend out of the trip, which would formerly have occurred during my students’ exam week.) If you’d like to join us, info on how is here. We’re each reading for 15 minutes and I’ll be in the middle.

In other news, I did not win a Guggenheim–not that I expected to, but you always feel a little spark of hope–nor was I accepted for a residency that I applied to. I’m somehow not down about those things at all. It’s such a sad, scary time and it’s hard to keep up with my classwork and even find time to check in with distant loved ones. I’m not sure how caregivers are managing this at all, and I watch friends organizing community outreach efforts with an energy I feel entirely unable to muster. I just collapse at the end of my long days at the screen. Again, I feel grateful and amazed about all the ways people ARE coming through for each other. Our federal governments may be dangerously incompetent, but so many others are good, kind, and generous. It’s enough to give a person hope that we’ll weather this.

Dessert for closure: I was just reading/ viewing/ listening to a presentation on punk by my amazing Poetry and Music students, and I went looking for pictures of myself in my commodified punkish teenage outfits. I didn’t find any of the pre-ripped sweatshirts with weird zippers and safety pins, nor the tiny leather miniskirts, but here’s me at 16 or 17 in fishnet stockings bought at Paramus Park Mall, by a Christmas tree no less. I’m pretty sure I was using Dippity Do to mimic David Bowie’s wet look on the cover of Changes Two. You’re welcome.

Fever dreams, Pound, & Shenandoah

Last week, I wished for an energy display icon on my forehead. Uh-oh, Lesley’s at 12% and has entered low-battery mode, expect her to be dim. Honestly, I’m not sure how I got through all my classes as well as giving a guest lecture and two weekend readings. I fear I said weird things, and I know I sent a feverish work email I can’t recall writing, because I found it in the printer later.

But Erika Meitner gave a terrific reading that I somehow presided over (here’s a guest blog I wrote about her work for Shenandoah). And the audiences, hosts, and fellow performers in my own readings at Fairmont State and Richmond’s Tea for Two series were particularly warm and kind. On the downside, my forty-ninth birthday was spent trying to get a handle on endless homework while treating an awful sinus infection. I’ll have to do better next year.

It’s funny how work that drains you–such as teaching or hosting a visitor–can simultaneously plug you in and start charging you up again. It was tiring to drive to Richmond after a long semi-sick Friday. Laura-Gray Street and I had devised a plan of alternating reader and topic every few poems. Creating a list of poems for each theme was time-consuming. Yet the scheme raised the energy, I think, giving the event some plot and suspense. Perhaps it even raised the stakes. Laura-Gray had found the following quote from an “unnamed Chinese author, circa 575 B.C.E.”:

“Clothes, food, shelter: Satisfy these first, then teach people to be human.”

So our four topics: clothes, food, shelter, and being human (we chose poems for the latter about meaning and spirit). Turns out I’m a shelter poet and a being-human poet–my food poems are mostly about hunger and my clothes poems about nakedness. It was interesting to learn that. At any rate, I had some seriously lovely conversations with other writers afterwards. Connections sparking all over the place.

One more bright node: I had a late-August essay posted at Modernism/ Modernity last week, where I have a column on the writing process. This post’s called “Teaching/ Writing Correspondence, Part I” . It addresses the study of poets’ letters–a big topic for my current modernism students, who, for a final project, will be annotating some 50s correspondence recently acquired by our library between undergrad Shenandoah editor Tom Carter and Ezra Pound. I’m no Pound scholar and have always been skeptical of defining the period according to his program. He was a brilliant, crazy bigot; I like other poetry better. Yet I can feel myself being drawn into the vortex. I don’t really have time to fiddle around but this project is so interesting.

When I first started at W&L more than twenty years ago, I had a dream about walking into a near-empty classroom. The windows were open to a summer breeze and I could hear students running around on the grass. Sitting quietly at the desk working was a young Ezra Pound, pointy beard and all. He gestured me over and we sat and looked at some of my poems together. He didn’t praise them, but as he pushed them back to me, he nodded, implying he saw potential. He said, “Keep working and you’ll get somewhere.”

Was dream-Pound priming young me for later work on his legacy? Damn and blast.

msa-shenandoah-page
A Tom Carter issue of Shenandoah (and dig that tuxedo ad!)