My brain hurt like a warehouse

It is a truth universally acknowledged that middle-aged women sleep poorly. Hormones, hot-flashes–pandemic and political ugliness are just icing on the cake, really. From what I can see, middle-aged women, although they don’t seem like an envied or celebrated category of human, do a LOT, and it weighs on their brains. They pile myriad many obligations onto their full-time jobs, including caretaking of growing children and aging parents; all the invisible labor of maintaining social ties at home and at work; organizing the resistance; community service of a million kinds; some tolerable minimum of housework and the vocations that may or may not overlap with what they do for pay. I’m not the most overworked by a long shot, but I often fall asleep (eventually) worrying about my latest failure of compassion as well as what I’m not doing to nurture a career; I wake up planning chores, meals, and tweets. In between, I now have anxiety dreams about teaching in person and suddenly realizing that no one is wearing a mask. Meanwhile, apocalyptic Bowie lyrics repeat on a loop: “My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare,/ I had to cram so many things to store everything in there.”

I gave myself some time this week to write and revise, and it reminded me how happy that makes me, to concentrate on one kind of work at a time. Instead of hurting like a warehouse (I love that simile), my brain shifts into a mode of focused exploration; I can fall asleep all right, and I wake up almost cheerful. It’s amazing to me how even sabbatical, a time supposedly dedicated to focused reading and writing, gets fractured into a million tasks. Or, I mean, I fracture it; there is a world of need out there, but there’s also my guilt and, often, restless energy. The problem with the writing-dream being my salve is that it eventually begets more busy-work: submissions, proofs, getting word out on social media even when I know social media makes me unhappy (oh, FB)… Again I think of Bowie, whose 1970s diet allegedly oscillated between cocaine and milk.

My endless little post-writing tasks bore sweet fruit this week. Last winter, I thought about who shine a light on The State She’s In: my small press sends out copies but doesn’t have a publicist, so I was telling myself I needed to make my own luck. I sent out a ton of applications for festivals, reading series, conferences, etc., but I also tried something I hadn’t before: I studied the reviews in The Rumpus, found someone who writes really great ones and seems to be interested in books like mine, and wrote to her out of the blue to ask if she’d like to see my digital ARCs or receive a copy of the published book. Yes, she said, although no promises; even if she got to it, it would be a while. And here it is, an extraordinarily long, thoughtful, generous dream of a review by Julie Marie Wade in The Rumpus.

Most queries and applications are rejected or ignored, and most publications are greeted with what sure looks like silence. I’ll probably never figure out what level of effort is worth it. But here is a notice in my graduate school alumni magazine–I thought they’d ignored me. And a friend just texted me about teaching an essay I published last year in Waxwing: “White Rice: Teaching in the Confederacy.” She said “it was a big hit. It allowed the group to voice apprehensions and see that failure can be a vital process in making art.” I need to do more “pushing through the market square” this week, to quote Bowie–writing bookstores about potential readings in summer or fall–and those little echoes of efforts long past give me heart.

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.

Best for what?–reading 2018

urs and booksI love hearing about people’s favorite books, and regularly shop and read from lists published everywhere every December. I’ve even written a short discussion of my favorite genre books in 2018, to appear in Strange Horizons‘ annual roundup a few days from now.

But I’m skeptical of these lists, too: “best” for whom, when, and why? For what purpose? I’ve found no single critic out there who shares all of my own tastes and obsessions, even though I’m part of a demographic heavily represented in literary journalism. What makes a book powerful is partly latent in the text, but is also contingent on circumstances. Even for one reader, the stories or voices that feel most necessary can vary from day to day. There’s no value-neutral, objective “best” out there.

I can certainly name the poetry books that most wowed me this fall, that I kept wanting to share: If They Come For Us by Fatimah Asghar, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassins by Terrance Hayes, and, a little belatedly, Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang. Does that make them the best? It means they’re really good, for sure.

But I also bought poetry books for friends, marking a few poems for each that I thought would especially appeal. Asghar and Chang were on that list, but so was Ada Limón’s The Carrying, which I also remembered loving–and as I reread it, the book gained even more force. Some books grow over time. Does that make Limón’s book the best, even if a December reviewer barely has enough perspective to see it? Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment by Alessandra Lynch worked like that for me, earlier this year. On first encounter, I felt frustrated by how the poems skirted the central subject–rape–but the successive readings you have to do for a reviewing assignment changed my reaction to profound admiration. And while I just read Patricia Smith’s Incendiary Art, I can say it’s almost unbearably powerful, and maybe you should read it wearing oven mitts–where does THAT criterion go in the rankings? Really, I liked or loved almost all of the poetry collections I read in 2019 (listed below, excluding things I didn’t like enough to finish)–but I have no idea which will mean most to me five years from now.

Honestly, much that I read last winter is pretty hazy. On the novel side, I remember being deeply affected by Jesmyn Ward’s Sing Unburied Sing and thinking the prose beautiful. I feel similarly about Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, which I read just this week, although the book’s sad irresolution disturbs me. There were several other novels I couldn’t put down–that inspired hours of intense delight. But Richard Powers’ Overstory, a massive tome that struck me in June as being a little clunky in a few passages, seems so far to have changed my brain the most. I mean, I’ve always loved trees–isn’t that practically a requirement of poethood?–but they loom larger now, more deeply rooted in my imagination, more prone to overshadow those little humans flickering around their boles. If a not-quite-perfect book alters how a human sees the world, might it not be the best for, say, trees?

Well, what do I know, really? I read a lot, but I’ve consumed the tiniest fraction of this year’s output (and fewer novels than usual, perhaps because I spent much of the summer revising my own). Happy New Year, and go read something from this list, or somebody else’s, because they’re all partial. In any case, bruit what you love. We all need a variety of angles to make sense of a landscape.

POETRY

1/2 Allak, Keine Angst* (poet I met in England)

1/2 Driskell, Next Door to the Dead (met through AWP)

1/3 Winn, Alma Almanac* (Barrow Street press mate)

1/4 Adair-Hodges, Let’s All Die Happy* (reviews)

1/5 Fisher-Wirth, Mississippi* (friend and writer I admire)

1/6 Young, Ardency (teaching), and reread 5/6 for another class

1/9 Rukeyser, The Book of the Dead (teaching)

1/15 Forche, The Country Between Us (teaching)

1/20 Lynch, Daylily Called it a Dangerous Moment* (for review)

1/28 Cooley, Breach (teaching)

2/2 Dungy, Trophic Cascade* (reviews)

2/9 Chen, When I Grow Up I Want To Be A List of Further Possibilities* (reviews)

2/16 Gay, Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude (teaching)

2/25 Trethewey, Thrall (teaching)

2/27 Kaur, Milk and Honey (recommendations)

2/27 Mahato, In Between (recommendation)

3/3 Hutchinson, House of Lords and Commons (AWP prep)

3/3 Schwaner, Wind Intervals (local poet)

3/6 Smith, Good Bones* (AWP prep)

3/14 Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (teaching)

3/17 Bell, Ornament* (teaching)

3/23 Taylor, Work & Days (prepping for campus visit)

3/25 Taylor, Forage House (teaching)

3/31 Igloria, Haori (prepping for campus visit)

4/1 Igloria, The Buddha Wonders If She’s Having a Mid-Life Crisis (“)

4/14 Givhan, Protection Spell (author I admire)

4/23 Reagler, Teeth & Teeth* (friend)

4/23 Keen, Milk Glass Mermaid (friend, rereading)

4/28 De la Paz, Post Subject (friend, also scouting for teaching)

4/29 Smith, Wade in the Water* (poet long admired)

5/7 Van Clief-Stefanon, Black Swan (reread for teaching)

5/8 Howe, Magdalene* (NBA finalist 2017)

5/10 Santos, Square Inch Hours* (NBA finalist 2017)

5/10 Miller, Women Disturbing the Peace* (friend)

5/15 Erin Belieu, Slant Six (picked up at AWP)

5/22 Emerson, Claude Before Time and Space* (fandom)

6/6 Tavila-Borsheim, Love Poems* (picked up at conference)

6/6 Robinson, A Cruise in Rare Waters (by a friend)

6/6 Hancock, The Open Gate (local writer)

6/10 Kindred, Says the Forest to the Girl* (friend)

6/21 Eusuf, Not Elegy but Eros* (met at a conference)

6/21 Meng, Bridled* (review)

6/24 Chang, Barbie Chang (word of mouth)

7/5 Banka, You don’t scare me (“met” her virtually)

7/11 Joseph, Confessions of a Barefaced Woman* (fandom)

7/22 Kildegaard, Course* (fandom)

7/29 Daye, River Hymns* (recommended by a friend)

7/29 Williams and Humberstone, ed, Over the Line: Intro to Poetry Comics (research)

7/30 Hayden, Collected Poems (teaching prep)

7/31 Coleman, ed., Words of Protest, Words of Freedom (teaching prep)

9/11 Ginsberg, Howl (reread for class)

9/25 Plath, Ariel (reread for class)

10/12 Limon, The Carrying* (fandom)

10/13 Hayes, American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin* (fandom)

10/15 Bishop, Questions of Travel (reread for class)

10/17 Bishop, Geography III (reread for class)

10/18 Harjo, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings* (fandom)

10/19 Brooks, A Street in Bronzeville (reread for class)

11/11 de la Paz, Requiem for the Orchard (reread for class)

11/17 Gay and Nezhukumatathil, Lace & Pyrite* (fandom)

12/10 Ostriker, Waiting for the Light (former teacher)

12/18 Asghar, If They Come For Us* (reviews and word of mouth)

12/19 Reed, Indecency* (Pulitzer)

12/20 Stallings, Like* (reviews)

12/20 Taylor and Roberts, Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle* (I’m in it)

12/20 Senechal de la Roche, Winter Light* (colleague)

12/23 Vorreyer, Every Love Story Is an Apocalypse Story (review)

12/27 Meitner, Holy Moly Carry Me* (fandom)

12/29 Smith, Incendiary Art* (fandom)

  

FICTION

2/10 Hill, Heart-Shaped Box (word of mouth)

2/18 Strout, Burgess Boys (friend’s rec)

3/4  Ward, Sing Unburied Sing* (prizes/ reviews)

3? Albert, The Hazel Wood* (review in NYT)

5/3 Locke, Bluebird* (NYT mention)

5/20 Due, The Good House* (NYT mention)

5/23 Robinson, Shaman (fandom)

5/29 Baldwin, Go Tell It On the Mountain (had somehow never read it)

6/2 Powers, Overstory* (reviews)

6/8 King, Outsider* (fandom)

6/? LaValle, Changeling (reviews)

7/8 Weber, Still Life with Monkey* (fandom)

7/18 Shaffer, Hope Never Dies* (what the hell)

7/20 O’Callaghan, The Dead House* (NYT review)

7/25 Hummel, Still Lives* (like her poems)

8/19 Walsh, Ghosted* (audiobook, from review of book)

9/5 Makkai, The Great Believers* (general fandom)

10/5 Galbraith, Lethal White* (general fandom)

10/7 Carter, The Bloody Chamber (reread for class)

10/16 Jones, Mongrels (reread for class)

11/11 Adcock, The Completionist* (audiobook, from review of book)

11/17 Schoffstall, Half-Witch* (review)

11/18 King, Elevation* (fandom)

12/1 Novey, Those Who Knew (book club)

12/8 French, Witch Elm* (review)

12/25 Meijer, North Wood* (gift)

12/26 Edugyan, Washington Black* (gift)

12/27 Moore, Ghostographs* (review)

 

NONFICTION

1/2 Harney and Moten, The Undercommons (references in other books)

2/2 Adichie, We Should All be Feminists (word of mouth)

4/22 Fennelly, Heating & Cooling (word of mouth, teaching possibility)

5/? Brownell (for teaching/ research)

7/5 Cleland, Mastering suspense, structure, and plot (for research)

7/6 Moore, Flash Nonfiction (for teaching)

7/9 Percy, Thrill Me (research)

7/12 Nelson, Bluets (reputation)

7/13 Connors, Salmon Matters (by a friend)

12/16 Tsvetaeva, Letter to the Amazon (recommended by daughter)

*=published within the last year or so

book-presents.jpg

Ligeia’s fleas

fem-eyesThe following fragment was received telepathically from our feline boarder Poe on October 27th, Black Cat Day, about a month after my mother-in-law’s cat joined the household.

I cannot, for my soul, remember how or when I became aware of Female’s* residence in the empty bedroom. Or, perhaps, I cannot now bring these points to mind, because, in truth, the character of my beloved, the singular way her belly sways as she waddles on toothpick legs, and the thrilling eloquence of her quacks and growls, made their way into my heart by paces so steadily and stealthily progressive.

There is one dear topic, however, on which wit fails me not. It is the alluring beauty of Female. In stature she is tiny, although astonishingly rotund and possessive of the kibble upon which I had heretofore made solitary repast. I would in vain attempt to portray the majesty, the supreme crankiness, of her demeanor, or the incomprehensible thumping of her footfall. She comes and departs as a cannonball. Her loveliness is the radiance of a catnip-dream. Yet her features are not of that regular mould which we have been falsely taught to worship. “There is no exquisite beauty,” says Bacon, Lord Verulam, without some strangeness in the proportion.” Yet, although I see that the features of Ligeia–I mean Female–are not of a classic regularity –I have tried in vain to detect the irregularity and to trace home my own perception of “the strange.” I examine the contour of the short fuzzy forehead –faultless. I regard the whiskers, ivory and sable–her bared teeth glancing back, with a brilliancy almost startling, every ray that emanates from the reading lamp. And then I peer into the large eyes of Female.

They are, I must believe, far larger than the ordinary eyes of Felis catus. They are even fuller than the unnaturally azure eyes of the newborn Florida panther. The hue of the orbs is the most brilliant bronze, foxed with brown spots. The “strangeness,” however, must be referred to the expression. The expression of the eyes of Female! How for long hours have I struggled to fathom it! Those eyes! those large, those shining, those divine orbs! they became to me ominous meteors, and I to them devoutest of astrologers.

The uneasiness of that expression transferred itself to me until my own shaggy mane itched. And too, too slowly, understanding dawned. The obsessive scratching and rolling on Indian carpets–the chemical stink she bore home from a mysterious expedition by automobile–the humans’ alarm and fussing with sprays and tinctures–my beloved’s moon-white dandruff and the rare irritability of her temper–Female has a persistent case of fleas. And yet, helplessly drawn, I continue to stalk her during her restless wanderings, scrambling from piano to coffee table to evade her claws, scratching in devoted mimicry, until naptime doth us part.

Fin

*Female rhymes with Emily. The reason my mother-in-law thought this name funny remains shrouded in impenetrable mists. The reason I thought transcribing this tale a wise use of time, while stacks of grading loom, also remains veiled, except that this dare from Shenandoah worries me like a parasite. And I am beside myself with distress about some sex-based bullying at work, which I spoke up against, then the Title IX officer launched a formal investigation of the perpetrator which is proceeding whether or not I help, so I’m helping, without hope of a good resolution, because my university will protect its own legal interests, as it always has, counting on me to remain better-behaved than the bully, or at least not counting my avoidance of meetings and general stress and alienation as a significant cost–anyway, I’m writing Poe tales to escape the fact that I’m living one, sleepless and upset all the time, which is maybe what Poe himself did too, come to think of it. It’s uncanny, too, to watch a larger and more noxious version of it all play out on a national stage, and I don’t think I’m an unreliable narrator projecting my sense of endangeredness onto the political weather. I really, really wish I could just work and help other people work, and all of us could thrive according to our will and talents, but I suppose such a paradise has never existed, for most of us. Consider this post the unfathomable expression in a female’s eyes.

At any rate, some work of a few months back rises from the dead: my latest Kenyon Review micro-review is up, this time of Jon Tribble’s new book. A review of the new Millay edition appears in American Literary History (scroll down). 

Finally, Happy Halloween, with thanks to the friends who are pulling me through the madness somehow. Safety, justice, and chocolate to all.

 

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

 

Oh, mother

Writing is a confidence game, and while generally I can play it with the necessary brio, occasionally I drop all the cards.

In many ways, I’m having a great spring. I love this new essay on Radioland by Athena Kildegaard in Bloom. I’m happily tinkering with fall syllabi, but I still have a few months before September hits, hallelujah.

I also have some cool events coming up. One is a long weekend with my spouse on Martha’s Vineyard (attending a wedding then just hanging out). Others are work, but the fun kind. With the usual ambivalence–feeling both that my work deserves attention and I am a total impostor–I applied last fall and winter to various series, and some applications resulted in invitations. See my Events page for details on May-June readings In D.C., Maryland, and CT. It reminds me that when you throw out lots of filaments, like Whitman’s spider, a few catch.

So with all that busy-ness ahead, plus a visit with my mother next week and picking up my daughter from her first year of college, I thought: I need to stay focused on the time-sensitive work, which mostly involves tying up the threads on big projects and getting them under consideration. I tried, with some success. I worked, got sick, recovered, worked some more. Then, last weekend, I froze.

I don’t know why I’m having trouble moving ahead, although I always find it harder to send stuff out than to write it in the first place. I know why I write and always will write–building a little world is joyful, healing work. Marketing a little world: less fun. Maybe I don’t want to finish these projects, at some level. Maybe I’m experiencing biochemical chaos, pollen allergies, unresolved anger. I’m worried about my mother, who face-planted in the radiologist’s office recently and knocked out her top front teeth. I was also disheartened by being laid up on the couch all weekend. I’d been so relieved by improved health in the last couple of weeks–I finally seemed to be on a path toward physical well-being, able to take walks again!–and then I twisted my heel and reactivated my plantar fasciitis. Painful for a couple of days, but trivial in the long run. What’s harder is being reminded that all my plans are basically imaginary and can be swept away in a moment.bookcase

At any rate, after that Saturday morning injury came several very low days. Honestly, I’ve gone into deeper holes, and for much longer. I know how to manage an unhappy brain, just like I know the regime of heat, ice, rest, and gentle stretches that helps my foot. I just slow down and do whatever work seems possible; trying to force progress on a project I’m discouraged about doesn’t get me anywhere, so better to clean out a closet or just read. (Although I’m not yet ready to face reorganizing my books–why did I once think all my contemporary poetry would fit in one bookcase?)

So this week I tinkered with writing that felt outward-focused, not self-aggrandizing. I know some people don’t see reviews as acts of generosity, but I receive them that way, and writing them feels like service to poetry. Having finished a couple of tardy reviews, I already feel better. A little.

One obstacle to feeling a lot better is, paradoxically, my basic sanity. A failure of confidence is actual a rational response to the literary market. Most people don’t want to read what any of us is putting out there. Yet, oh my god, am I grateful other writers persist. I need to immerse myself in their consoling fictions when my own imagination fails and I confront the stark truth of things.

Well, my lunatic desire to seek audiences has always resurged before. I just have to accept this latest highly symbolic health problem, that my feet don’t want me to move. Work on it gently, and wait it out. I hear I may be getting breakfast in bed this Sunday with some homemade blueberry muffins. My feet, honestly, ought to calm down–they have it pretty good.

 

 

 

Poetic karma

I’m sure I’m doing a horrible disservice to an important theological concept by throwing around the phase above. I understand karma itself only in a pop-cultural way—the idea that you reap what you sow, even if not right away, not obviously. Here’s what I mean by hitching it to the adjective “poetic.”

I fervently hope poets get what they deserve. In the long run, the work itself should be all that matters—not whom you know or where you live but what you have to say and how powerfully you say it. I do not actually believe this is true, but I want it to be, and in the meantime every right-thinking Sisyphean poet-critic should be trying to make it true. I want most of our energy to go into writing really interesting, urgent, capacious, intelligent, brilliantly crafty verse, and then when the Roving Eye of Literary Fashion happens to pass over it, it has to pause: wow! look! has anybody noticed this is REALLY amazing? That is, when luck strikes, we’re ready with the goods. Or, you know, we’re not—the work is just decent, not amazing, and the Eye passes on, but at least then we’ve done our best and the results are fair. Some of us have to be the mulch from which a few splendid lilies rise. I hope I’m not compost, I’m trying not to be, though odds are that I am, and that you are too. 

But I’m a modernism scholar, so I can look back and see that well, hell, most of the modernist-era poets we still read knew and helped each other, both with the poetry itself and with the process of delivering it to the world. Some of them dated each other. Granted, there were multiple overlapping circles of influence. There were also outliers who eventually hit the bigtime despite Ezra Pound’s indifference or their geographical distance from New York or London. But clearly extraliterary factors matter, especially personal networks and proximity to literary power.

So what’s a poet to do? I do think about relocation but I can’t move to a big city unless some crazy stroke of luck changes my marketability (or my spouse’s: he’s a fiction writer wildly trying to wave down the Roving Eye, too). My employer gives a world-portable college tuition benefit to my kids, who are now twelve and sixteen (if you haven’t looked at U.S. tuitions lately, know that the pricetag’s obscene). If I moved jobs now their options would diminish. Yeah, Robert Frost would have made his kids take the lump, but for better and worse, I’m nicer than Robert Frost. And this, by the way, is just the barrier to looking.

Here’s what I’m left with: write my heart out, make friends where I am, keep sending the work out, and do what I can to minimize distance through publication and travel (blogging and Twitter open up interesting interactions too, though, again, I suspect they don’t matter nearly as much as all the accidental conversations you have if you physically live in a literary nexus). And, with a mixture of idealism and skepticism, practice the following principles to create good poetic karma:

1. Read books and journals. Also, buy books and subscribe to journals.

2. Publish reviews.

3. Whenever possible, be generous. Say yes.

I’d like to think they’ll get me further than being a ruthless jerk would, but I don’t know for sure. I can say that while I’ve received a ton of rejections this summer, a few editors have sent along some very cheering acceptances. Also, in one of those random benedictions you can’t apply for, Poetry Daily featured one of my poems, “Powder Burn.”  A review I published in Rattle prompted a letter from a writer named Nina Romano who then put up two of my poems in the “Poet’s Corner” of her press web site (they’ll only be there for a few more days, but still, what a random, nice thing!–and if you click on the link belatedly I think you’ll find someone else’s wonderful poem there). I’m particularly proud of a poem in the new Crab Orchard Review, too, in case you can get your hands on it.

I’ve regretted saying yes sometimes and planted plenty of seeds in apparently dead ground. But actions flower unexpectedly, too. Besides, behaving as if poets don’t get what they deserve—meaning selfish striving, I guess, or despair—might be rational but it also seems poisonous. I have a feeling my poems wouldn’t like it.