I’ve been working flat-out on honing the manuscript of an essay collection, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, due from Tinderbox Editions late this year or early next (I suspect the latter at this point). It’s a blend of memoir and criticism with a good dose of cognitive science and narrative theory, plus thirteen 21st century poems reprinted in full to anchor the short chapters. Recounting the close of my con-man father’s life, it’s also the story of reading poetry through personal crisis AND an analysis of how “literary transportation” works when you enter a poem’s pocket universe (that’s immersive reading or getting lost in a text, for the layperson). I’ve been drafting this book since 2012 so it’s really important to me. Closing in on a final version I’ll submit to an editor, though, always makes me nervous. You’re down in the weeds, seeing ways a sentence here and there could be made more elegant, checking the bibliography, and wondering whom you’ve inadvertently omitted from the acknowledgments. But it’s also the last time you can try for the 30,000 feet perspective, imagining how the book will be received by others and trying to catch those moments of obtuseness or under-explanation that inevitably linger. Hard work in multiple ways.
This book, though, works through challenging personal material. On the good side, there are stories of travel, particularly my 2011 Fulbright in New Zealand; reflections on growth and change; and positive representations of sustaining relationships. The dark stuff involves, of course, tales of my dishonest and narcissistic father but also workplace harassment; a long-ago sexual assault; Chris’ mother’s dementia; and my mother’s first round of lymphoma in 2015. It shook me to spend time with that material again. Worse, since my mother died of the lymphoma’s recurrence in April, I had to put my sentences about her into the past tense. No wonder I was resisting finalizing the ms.
I did the same thing to myself in July, at the Sewanee Writers Workshop. I had to finalize my workshop ms in May, and it was full of poems about my mother’s death and other tough material. Somehow, for the last couple of years, I’ve finally been writing about childhood abuse and mental health. My mother always read my poetry books, but I think at some level I knew she wasn’t likely to read this new stuff. I’m freer to be honest than before, and some of what hurt me long ago was my mother choosing not to protect us from my father. Again, no wonder Sewanee was emotionally intense.
I came to a good pause point on Poetry’s Possible Worlds this morning, and I go to Chris’ play The Zombie Lifein Richmond tonight, so next week I’ll be turning my attention to different things: a department retreat, course prep, reference letters, poetry submissions, and as many other smaller writing-related tasks as I can squeeze in. That sounds like a lot, but except for the poetry subs, it isn’t nearly as difficult. Writing, as I tell my students, is a complex task with many factors always in play, which is why even a short, imperfect essay or poem is such an achievement. It’s salutary to be reminded, as I approach another academic year, that it can be hard in other ways, too.
I’m home from Sewanee followed by a pretty decent week at the beach. It was wet in North Carolina, but we hot-tailed it to the beach whenever the rain stopped for a couple of hours. The surf was wild, the water hospitably warm. Our rental house on the sound had kayaks and bicycles we made the most of, plus an insane parrot and flamingo decoration scheme, which I’m inclined to put down in the “plus” column. If you see some metaphors in my beach report, so do I. This summer was packed with challenges–and sometimes opportunity–for me, my family, and friends. It’s not over, but my tan is fading. My tarot spreads, a pandemic hobby that hasn’t run out of gas, are full of aces and fools, signs of new beginnings, but also upside-down wheels and travelers. They hint that it’s time for change, although I’m resisting it.
Our teaching year begins properly in September, preceded by buckshot meetings that I will dodge as possible. In the meantime, I’m prepping for one last summer event. ReaderCon, which I’ve never attended but which has a rep for being the most serious and interesting U.S. speculative fiction convention, kicks off this weekend for its first virtual iteration. I’m moderating two panels, one on historical sf by women, the other on critical theory and sf. I’m bemused to realize I actually do have some expertise in the latter. Among English PhDs, I definitely don’t count as a theoryhead, but among sf writers who read for writerly inspiration, I think I’ll do okay. Wish me luck. And if you’re intrigued, it’s still possible to register here for just $25.
I’m also revising like crazy, converting drafts workshopped at Sewanee into snazzier models. That involves sifting through a lot of advice, putting much of it aside, then tinkering with suggestions small and large. Mostly I like this work, but there’s too much of it for a compressed late-summer timeframe, and I’m afraid that if I put it off I’ll forget what my scrawled notes mean. I thought I was going to do the Sewanee Workshop in the summer of 2020 then cruise into the relative intellectual leisure of a sabbatical, but, you know, best-laid plans. The upside: better poems! I’d like to get some submissions out during August magazine reading windows, but we’ll see, because I’m ALSO also completing final revisions on my forthcoming essay collection, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, as my editor’s advice rolls in.
Too much, right? I like all of the projects I have underway, just as I’m excited about each of my three fall classes, but I also can’t work this hard all the time, keeping the engine just this side of overheating. Meanwhile, I hear my university’s administration wants to raise caps on our fall courses, basically because they miscalculated, underhired, and don’t have enough seats for first-years (strategically, would be my guess). My question for them at a Zoom meeting last spring was “how are you planning to lower the stress next fall for your burnt-out and exhausted faculty?” (Demoralized, too–we had voted to change Robert E. Lee’s memorialization in the university name and the trustees said “nah.”) Instead, the administration is putting out ask after ask, even during the summer, which was once time we were urged to protect for research and recharging. There’s an analogue here to the U.S. “worker shortage,” meaning people resisting working too hard for too little money under bad conditions. I’m personally fine, with way more options than most if I can just make myself rev down, but generally, the university’s aspirations to remain a top-ranked liberal arts college do not jibe with undermining the faculty’s ability to teach well and thrive.
Speaking of change: my poem “Convertible Moon,” a sapphics-ish elegy for my mother-in-law, appears in the new issue of One. I wrote it maybe five years ago, right after she died, and rewrote it many times, struggling to open a hyper-compressed poem to the air. Meanwhile, an etymological riff of a poem, “In Weird Waters Now,” appears in Smartish Pace 28. That one came fast. I drafted it, polished it, sent it off, and it was taken on the first try. I’d like more magic like that in my life, but in my experience, you earn the breakthroughs only by keeping your writing practice alive, and that’s time an overstuffed workday tries to edge out.
Finally, if you’re in Virginia and can make it to Virginia for a play in Richmond, please buy a ticket to The Zombie Life, written by my brilliant spouse, Chris Gavaler. There’s a feature on it here. Talk about weird transformation. It’s as if it’s a theme in our lives, or something.
There’s plenty I’m NOT going to tell you about the Sewanee Writers Conference until the next time we can share a cup of tea or glass of wine together, after I check that your phone’s voice recorder is off. I’m also still processing and will be for a long time yet–a lot happens in twelve days! But here’s a sketch.
First off, I felt lucky to be accepted to this conference in winter 2020, and I still feel lucky. I hadn’t applied previously because of stray comments and stories I’d heard. I live in the U.S. South and I’ve encountered the clubbier bits of literary old-boy culture. Who needs it, I thought, until my friend Anna Lena said no, a great new director is coming in, try. She was right. Leah Stewart’s debut as conference director would have been in summer 2020. This deferred version is in person, with our vaccine records downloaded and masks indoors, so it’s still a Covid-complicated enterprise but very well run. The hitches seem small, like someone lighting a candle in the dorm at midnight and setting off fire alarms. I mean, I’m positive worse things are being handled quietly, but this is a staff you trust to handle things. The ethos is inclusive and respectful. Every reading is terrific. Audience members stay off their cellphones (well, mostly) and really listen.
The structure: there are five fiction workshop streams, two nonfiction, three poetry, two playwriting. Each workshop has two teachers and 12-14 students; it meets five times for two to three hours, so basically every other morning. The co-teaching model is unusual, but it seems to work smoothly. My workshop was run by Monica Youn and Nate Marshall. I was in Monica’s cohort in that she’s the one faculty member I had a personal meeting with, but Nate was a deeply thoughtful participant when Monica’s students were workshopped, and vice versa. I was also given three 20-minute meetings with editors and an agent, and spots in four one-hour master classes, which are “master” to varying degrees. My favorite was an exciting hour on using speculation in creative nonfiction, brilliantly taught by Tessa Fontaine, a Fellow.
Which brings us to hierarchy. There are “Visitors,” like the editors who swoop in for three days, taking meetings and giving a presentation or two. People in the “Faculty” role co-teach the workshops and give readings in mixed-genre pairs at 8 pm every night. Some of them also give afternoon craft talks. (The other poetry faculty this year, by the way, were Carl Phillips, Tarfia Faizullah, Mark Jarman, and A. E. Stallings.) Next come the “Fellows,” at least two in each workshop, and they have half-hour meetings with the other students in their classes as well as group reading slots. Some of the Fellows are rightly famous, like Eduardo Corral; others are amazing writers I’d never heard of before, some of them just starting out. I had a half-hour meeting with Arhm Choi Wild, whose poetry is dazzling and whose vibe is warm and generous.
I’m in the next group, the “Scholars.” Being a Tennessee Williams Scholar (!) means that my tuition was paid but room and board ($700) plus travel is on me, although I have help from my employer on those because again, I’m a lucky bastard. Scholars also have group reading slots of five minutes each (the Fellows have 15 minutes each and the Faculty 25, at a listener’s guesstimate). There are staff readings, too, and regular students have the chance to read at alcohol-fueled open mics after 9pm, which I kept missing. I can’t, as it turns out, do hikes, very intense workshops, several other daily events, three group meals, AND an open-mic party. My head gets full, my body tired, and besides, I’m your standard poet-introvert who needs to retreat periodically. Fortunately the dorm rooms are big, air-conditioned, and quiet.
That’s maybe more math than you wanted, but the structure is important to the experience. Conference veterans told me that Sewanee has been democratized in a big way: lunch tables with agents used to be arranged via sign-up, cocktails at the French House used to be limited to faculty and fellows, etc. All of that is gone. Did I still feel the hierarchy? Absolutely. Some of it is what we’re here for, frankly. I want to hear from writers whose achievements I admire and get a window into what high-profile publishers are thinking. Sometimes, though, I felt invisible, and my ego took bumps. A graduate student advised me on how to submit to a magazine I’ve published in multiple times, sigh. One editor told me, during our twenty-minute meeting, that I should sit down with him at a meal sometime, and when I did, he didn’t even acknowledge I was there. (That one was hilarious, actually. Over it.) The jockeying for status could be intense. But other people at every level of career success were remarkably open and kind and funny and encouraging. I suspect these dynamics are bound to occur when humans get together for any common purpose: dentistry conventions, quilting bees, spiritual retreats. Imagine the delicate snark of monks.
My occasional feelings of invisibility are partly on me. I started off anxious, which made me quiet, and then powerful readings and workshops stripped off my doing-okay veneer. I (briefly) fell into a pit of grief about my mother then climbed out again. Feeling fragile, I don’t think I made the most of my opportunities, although I relaxed some in the final few days and gave a good reading. I also remembered, oh, I don’t want to compete with the literary players, although it’s good to join the lunch table once in a while and see how it feels. I REALLY get that people have to protect their time and energy. But watching the eminences here and elsewhere, I aspire to be one of the friendly, non-power-hoarding types, if I ever hit the big league, which isn’t friggin’ likely for me or anybody.
The career introspection triggered here has been useful. I clarified for myself about what I want for future book-publishing experiences, for instance. I met a ton of writers whose work I like and will follow. Shenandoah will get subs from new people this year containing the sentence, “It was such a pleasure to meet you at Sewanee!” I’ll send a few of those subs to other people. It’s all good.
The most important thing, though, is the work itself. I have a lot of feedback to sort through, but I’ve already identified some habits I’ve fallen into as a poet that need interrogation. I have ideas about how to transform some messy poems into their best selves. I also see how to improve work I’ve been doing in other genres–the fiction and nonfiction talks and readings have been great. Even advice that I wouldn’t implement gives me information about how my work is coming through to different kinds of readers.
A few more readings, a booksigning party, and then I pack up and drive to NC tomorrow to meet my family at a rented beach house, where the long decompression begins! Well, not too long. Damn you, August, I am not ready.
I’ve been dreaming of my mother as a younger woman, the way she looked when I was a child and teenager, although in these dreams, she’s also somehow elderly and dying. The night of the summer solstice, she was sick in bed staring at a crack that had just formed on the ceiling. It looked like a man with antlers, and she was afraid of him. The next morning I, of course, went down an internet rabbit hole reading about deer-deities and Horned Gods. Underworld guides and mediators. Huh.
I thought more about the dream as I caught up with fellow poetry bloggers and read Ann Michael’s post “Constricted” about literary blockages related to sorrow. I’m pretty healthy right now, aside from the usual trouble sleeping and some chronic tendonitis (ah, middle age), but I feel the draggy reluctance to work, cook, or take walks that I associate with illness. The heat and humidity, my husband said. Sadness for my daughter, who is going through a rough breakup, is in the mix. But grief for my mother is also moving through my body and mind even when I’m not aware of it. It’s a more complicated, subterranean, barbed process than I would have guessed. I hope she’s okay out there and not frightened by whatever she’s processing. I’m not religious, or even a monotheist, but I do think we continue after death, and I feel an inner orientation to her as I did to my father during the months after he passed. I had the strong sense that he was being called to come to terms with his life and refusing the work. Being angry and avoidant would have been very much in character.
Meanwhile, after my post-Bread Loaf bout of poetry revision and submission, I’m trying to concentrate on near-final edits to the essay collection I’m publishing this fall, Poetry’s Possible Worlds. It’s about reading twenty-first century poetry, but it’s also about my mother catching my 85-year-old father in an affair with a woman forty years younger (it was 2011 and I was 43, pursuing a Fulbright in New Zealand). My mother promptly divorced him, discovering along the way that he’d lost their retirement savings. Within a year, my father remarried, fell ill, had more divorce papers served to his bedside, and died. I had LOTS of dreams about him, although my grief was different because, while I loved him, he was an impossible person to like. My relationship with my mother was full of stresses–a new poem of mine in SWWIMgives a glimpse of that–but still, I loved her wholly.
So, um, maybe that’s another reason I’m struggling to focus. The book is emotionally hard right now. Plus, the previous version ended with my mother’s recovery from lymphoma, the disease that just recurred and killed her. I haven’t revisited the book’s conclusion yet.
In short, I am negotiating my need for mental rest in relation to my work drive, which is probably the overarching theme of this blog (and my life?). My best strategy for sidestepping a sense of obligation has always been travel, which has not been possible for a while, but: I’m going to ICELAND soon! Like, next week! Just with my spouse, for fun! I hope to return to you in two weeks with my Celtic deity nightmares replaced by musings about glaciers, volcanoes, and overpriced Icelandic microbrews–although the revisions will still be waiting.
Okay, so my cats weren’t impressed with the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers Workshop, but I was–although since I would have been able to attend in person, the virtual format was a bit of a bummer. (I know virtualness makes a weeklong workshop so much more accessible for others, though, and cheaper. Tradeoffs.) The scoop:
I was assigned to a poetry workshop with 5 other poets led by Dan Chiasson, whose writing I follow but about whom I knew nothing as a person. First blessing: he’s smart and generous with praise and help. We met for three two-hour workshops based on 10-page mss we had each submitted, and we also had individual half-hour conferences with Dan. I’m sure the various workshop teachers varied in style, but I felt lucky–this class was the best part of the conference for me. I learned a lot about my own work and spend the week revising like a demon. Another big benefit: the other people in the class were ALSO talented, kind, and wise, although our styles and concerns varied quite a bit. I felt grateful for their attention and really hunkered down over their work, too, trying to give what I received.
My classmates’ comments were sometimes contradictory, in the way of all workshops, but that can be useful. You gain a sense of what’s working for some readers and what’s not, but it’s up to you to pick through the suggestions and figure out how to address the issues they raise. What’s typical for me: I get praise for the sound textures of my poems, told they’re beautiful, but sometimes that I’m shying away from unfolding their deeper stakes. And of course some things are a challenge for any poet, such as closing with punch yet unpredictability. My job this week was to crack many of the poems open and figure out how to keep the language good while also going for broke on the material. I think I made progress, which is all anyone ever does, right? Part of the pleasure of poetry is that it’s an art no one ever masters.
There were also three lectures from the Environmental teachers and a bunch more from the Translation conference, which runs simultaneously. These were very good, but none was the state-of-the-field lecture I was craving. There’s so much brilliant environmental writing out there now and I know I miss a lot, so I had hoped for at least partial maps of current practice–a cross-genre mini-course, basically. This conference wasn’t that, although to be fair they had never promised it, either. If I were empress, I would have set up a panel discussion among a few experts in related fields to compare notes. The other thing I missed was time and space for unscripted, spontaneous interaction among participants (there was a Slack channel but no one really used it). I ended up setting up a final Zoom happy hour for my small cohort, just to chat a little more, but I did that too late to figure out how to make the party wider. We introverts need to connect with each other, but we also need a nudge to do it.
The other stuff: the tech was well-run and the staff responsive and friendly. There were also chances to meet with agents and editors in 15-minute segments, and I signed up for two of them. That’s not like me, I’m deficient in hustle, but I had promised myself to make the most of the conference, even the elements that unnerved me. I prepped like hell for each meeting and I think they went well? It is way too early to know how big a difference the whole experience will make in my writing or my ability to find audiences, but I didn’t let myself down, despite all the anxiety I described in my last post. I brought my best energy to meet what felt like a rare opportunity. It was a LOT of energy, though. I seriously need to wind down and sleep like a cat.
Two other parts of my conference plan worked out in a mixed way, in case it’s of interest. My husband went off to visit family so I could simulate a writing retreat at home. I was able to work hard, but it took a major effort of will to stop spending my nervous animation on cooking and cleaning. I think, if I had the means, I’d try to find another space if I did this again. I did, as I hoped, manage to rough out a draft of a possible next collection; that’s what Poe’s rolling around on above. It’s a mess but a start. Submissions felt impossible, but I’m going to try again tomorrow. Today I’m resting my brain, catching up on chores, and having a back-porch drink with local friends during which I’m very unlikely to think about the po-biz at all.
My son, a college sophomore, is a fiend for math and loves teaching it, too. Since he’s finishing the term at our dining room table, I get to eavesdrop on the tutoring he does by Zoom as well as his study groups’ conversations. Sometimes he and I break for a midday walk in the middle of it, and yesterday he reflected that when he comes to an impasse in his work, he’s more willing than his friends to just sit with the problem and wait for inspiration. He told me something like, “When I hit a wall, I’ll just sit and look at it and say, “Wall, whatcha got for me?'”
This is mostly just temperament–he and I are both stupidly resistant to asking for help, and we both enjoy puzzles. But he also said that he prefers hard math problems to easy ones because the answers to easy problems are just “coincidence,” whereas you know you’ve solved a “proofier” question because the solution comes with a deep click, a sense of rightness. I’m not sure I fully understand that, but I’ve been thinking about it as I bash my head against poem revisions, unable to decide when each ornery little piece is finished.
This hasn’t been a good workweek. My simple goal for Monday was to gather some poems to submit to the annual Poetry Society of America contests. I rarely throw in, but I thought that hey, this year I have time, right? But mostly these awards are for unpublished poems so I thought I’d finish up recent ones, pieces I haven’t sent elsewhere yet, and it’s NOT going well. I know none of us should be beating ourselves up for poor concentration right now; the soaring virus rates are horrifying and the political circus depressing. I had the added suspense this week of a couple of family members waiting for test results (everyone is negative and feeling fine). I never handle suspense well! Still, my fuzzy-headedness feels frustrating.
My son is right, though, that facing hard problems can lead to more interesting math or art–and that the way forward involves just showing up, again and again. None of these poems is easy: my tabs are open right now to pieces about giant tube worms, domestic violence, viral replication, divination…So I try to solve for x, take breaks, and circle back, hoping for flashes of intuition. History suggests that tough writing patches eventually end. I didn’t like it when my phone autocorrected “I was told” to “I am old” recently (!), but aging does bring a kind of equilibrium in knowing that time, careers, etc. aren’t just linear. They’re cyclical, too.
In the meantime, here’s my latest little mag publication, two poems occupied and preoccupied by catbirds, with thanks to Carol Dorf at Talking Writing. And if you missed my unusually cheerful post-election reading with the brilliant Anna Maria Hong–part of the Hot L series, it launched Sunday–you can catch it on YouTube (and below). Stephen Reichert is a great online-event organizer and promoter. After another stupid workday, I’m about to raise a glass to Stephen and to everyone else who is helping poetry shine in these dark nights.
Shouldn’t talk with a mouthful of half-chewed flags,
but he smirks and suggests her Secret Service guys
disarm and see what happens. The crowd turns wild
and you can spot a star wedged in his molar. Scraps
of stripe dangle from a lip. Maybe, he cracks,
the Second Amendment people will get wise.
While, you know, Russians hack her to bytes.
Silk between his teeth. Democracy. Facts.
Bleeding on the street’s not too good for her,
thinks forty-plus percent of my broken
country. The liar calls her liar and the smear
sticks. After all, horror’s ordinary. The thirteen-
year-old boy just killed for holding a BB gun.
And an open-mouthed woman—well, blood’s her career.
Lots of 2020 poetry collections bristle with political outrage–appropriately! The slant-rhymed sonnet above, first published in Cimarron Review and now collected in my 2020 collection The State She’s In, dates from a month four years ago when I couldn’t believe the sexist, racist incitements to violence spewing from a candidate’s mouth. Two months later I couldn’t believe he’d been elected, but, silly me, I also couldn’t believe he’d last all four years. I suppose the verdict’s still out on the latter–he has to crash when the steroids wear off, right?–but surreal as it’s seemed, this presidency continues to be brutally real. My spouse’s picture is now up on the FB site of a local self-styled “militia,” the GOP is in voter-suppression overdrive, and people are hunkered in their homes, if they have them, fearing increasing right-wing violence and, oh yeah, contagion. Even if a miracle Biden landslide happens, Trump concedes without a fight, and domestic terrorist groups keep their anger to a low grumble (all of which strike me as big ifs), poets and everyone else in the US are going to continue to have a LOT to protest about, including police violence against Black Americans, deep economic injustice, catastrophic environmental damage, and a Supreme Court banking hard to the right.
I’ve felt cheered by the upswell of political poetry these last few years, and wretched as 2020 has been, it seemed right for my book to come out in March (I just wish I’d been able to read from it more). As the next collection brews, though, I’m wondering what kind of poetry I and others will need three to four years from now, which is how long the process takes, if you’re lucky. I’m now sending poems to magazines, trying to catch fall submission windows that are often quite brief, and some of them will surely go in the next ms., although I’m getting more rejections than acceptances at the moment. I tend to draft, forget, revise, forget, revise again, then send, so I didn’t know what I’d find when I reopened my 2019-2020 folders. I had been consciously working on poems with spell-like qualities meant to transform anger, and I discovered some of those, but I unearthed many more poems than I expected about mental health struggles (2019 was rough–better now). I’ve been using poetry to explore some of the hardest episodes from my past and have no idea why now. I’ve also been writing more ecologically than ever, looking for hope in natural processes.
Looking for hope sounds right; many of us need optimism and humor desperately, and I expect that will be true, too, a few years from now. Once again, as a reader, I can’t concentrate on any book that isn’t a page-turner–will that be true even a few months from now, or will I more-or-less get my brain back? I have to record a reading for the Hot L series that will air November 8th: holy cow, how can I even imagine what listeners will need a few weeks from now? All you can do is take a deep breath and remind yourself: what you should offer the world is your best, whatever that is. The best version of your art; the best energy you can summon; and writing centered on material that feels important to you, addressed with as much kindness and clear-eyed intelligence as you can muster. That’s all there is.
After that poetry submission binge, I’m back to writing ABOUT poetry in essays and reviews, at least when I can stop biting my nails over the news. I’ll be reading poetry submissions, too, as Shenandoah opens for Graybeal-Gowan Prize entries (Oct 15-31). Entry is free, the prize is $1000, and you can submit 1-3 poems in one document. You have to have a significant connection to Virginia to enter, as specified by the generous donor, but you don’t have to live here now–you could have been born here or gone to school here, for example (just describe your link to VA in the cover letter). Beth Staples and I will choose 10-12 finalists to forward to Kyle Dargan, who will choose the winner by sometime in January. If you’re not a finalist you’ll hear back by early December, probably sooner, but we get hundreds of subs, so I can’t promise those results by Election Day, either! Hang in there, friends.
My debut novel launches this Friday, May 15th, 2020. Here’s the story of how the book came to be.
I was in my late forties in 2015, sending my oldest child off to college and feeling glum about the next phase of my life. Hormonal shifts were not helping. On a walk with my spouse, I said something like, It’s not fair that mutant superpowers always come at puberty. Menopause is basically puberty in reverse–I want my superpowers now. He said, That would be a good premise for a novel.
A poet, scholar, and teacher, I thought I’d passed the forking path to novel-writing a long ways back. Chris is a cheerleader, though, and–this is crucial–author of a couple of published novels and many short stories, so he’s a great person to talk to about small, vague story ideas. I’d been fantasizing about another tale I never expected to write: a changeling professor, Dr. Perfect Poet, visits on a faculty exchange program and makes literary triumph look like a breeze. I’d drafted a bad poem about her, in a fit of frustration about my own messy life. (The closest thing I had to a superpower was yelling, Flame on! during a hot flash). As we walked and talked, I realized these two plots could interlock. Chris and I started spinning it out–who this main character might be, with her irritating and uncanny new colleague, and how she might react when weird things started happening.
Even when possible structures appeared in the air, I wasn’t sure I had the will or the stamina to put them on paper. I wrote fiction as a teenager but it always stalled. I’ve never taken a fiction writing class, either, although I’ve been an obsessive novel-reader since childhood. But I was on sabbatical 2015-2016, so I thought maybe I would try to write a short, mediocre novel, told chronologically in a single voice–no pressure, no big ambitions, although I wanted it to be fun to spend time with. Complexity with humor, possibly even hope, plus a world that draws you in quickly and won’t let you go: that’s my sweet spot as a reader. That’s one reason poetry is important to me, by the way. The world can be unrelentingly awful, and I’m ready to stare down that badness in short forms, especially when they deliver the consolations of patterned sound, but you have to live in a novel for days. I need novels to be better than life, or at least absorbingly different.
That fall, my mother came down with a mysterious but devastating illness, eventually diagnosed as lymphoma. My concentration and schedule were broken into fragments. When, stabilized, she moved back into her home (in Pennsylvania, a six-hour car ride from here) and entered a steady chemo regime, I had time again, but still couldn’t seem to finish the book of essays I was supposed to wrap up. A scene came to me in the shower. I dried off and wrote it down. I finished a chapter. I kept going. For weeks, sentences arrived in my head and I typed them in. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had writing, and by late January, I had that short, mediocre draft.
The rest of this origin story is less fun, and not just because it coincides with Trump’s election and presidency (some of my characters saw that coming, by the way, but at least in my conscious mind, I did not). I learned that my draft was considerably more mediocre than I realized and had to put the ms through numerous painful overhauls, fixing everything from clumsy prose and plotting to tricky problems of character I’d been refusing to confront. I queried agents prematurely, earning some requests to see the full ms but never an offer. I revised more, with help from many readers, and eventually received a “revise and resubmit” letter from Aqueduct Press, which specializes in feminist sf. Further excruciating revisions ensued, plenty of them at a rapid pace last fall, as I was teaching full-time and delivering my youngest to college. And here it is. Good early reviews make me hope it’s a decent book now, not god’s gift to literature but engaging and sometimes funny (in Locus, Gary K. Wolfe, whose sf criticism I admire, even said parts were hilarious and evoked the campus novels of David Lodge–whoa). I presume I have plenty of ego blows ahead, but I’m glad I took the risk and followed the spark of impulse.
I’m on sabbatical next year and I have another novel idea, a project that again emerges from a twilight zone between realism and fantasy. I’m not at all sure the drafting process will feel magical again, with characters whispering lines to me. It won’t be a campus novel this time, either, which means much more research. I’ll also work with multiple perspectives–getting more ambitious, basically. It still feels like playing hooky from poetry, knowing I’ll come back to my home genre freshly, having learned a few things.
As the New York Times reports, we’re seeing industry-wide hand-wringing right now about how rarely books are fact-checked, following scandals involving Naomi Wolff and others. I’m proud that Shenandoah editor Beth Staples makes fact-checking a priority: the interns comb through every piece we publish, following up on names, dates, and a host of other check-able details. Not every poem needs fact-checking, of course, but some do. For example, I posted my own poem about the moon landing recently. Most people wouldn’t notice if I got the date wrong, but some would, and spotting the error might impair their faith in me as a writer.
So what level of precision do poets owe their audiences? Spelling proper nouns correctly, and checking dates and quotes, seems important, if a poem references real-world people and events. The trivia doesn’t matter, really–if I tell you right now that my teapot is as blue as loneliness, but it’s actually an unromantic beige, that seems like a reasonable bit of poetic trickery. (Gotcha! It’s orange.) Even in a persona poem like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a piece that’s obviously fictional, you’d want to check the Dante quote before you hit send.
I just handed in copy-edits for my next book, The State She’s In–overcoming the usual Prufrockian abulia to do so, because finalizing a book makes me REALLY ANXIOUS–and the process involved a final round of fact-checking on my end. Several poems involve public history that’s important to get right. While I know I was careful during the period of composition, what if I made a bad mistake in a poem about slavery, say, or Confederate history? The vultures aren’t wheeling around my publications the way they do around high-profile nonfiction, but still, I’m addressing sensitive material.
For example, last year I published a poem in Flock. They nominated it for a Pushcart, bless them, although it’s a very tricky piece about studying lists of enslaved people once owned, then sold, by my employer. In it, I think especially hard about a boy named Albert, 13, who was the same age as my son at the time; his name appears on an 1826 list but has disappeared by the 1834 version, and I’m wondering what happened to him. This weekend, I went back to the sources one last time to check the names and numbers, and guess what? I’d made some mistakes. They didn’t change the tenor of the poem: I had to change “fourteen names further” to “thirteen” and the sum of “twenty thousand” to “twenty-two.” Still, I make the dodgy move in the poem of speculating about how Albert’s ghost might have answered me, if that were possible, and that’s enough risk for one poem. I’ll likely never know his fate, but I can damn well be true to the part of history that’s verifiable.
John Robinson’s List, 1826
This ruled and foxed document the only record of your name, followed by numbers firm and fat: three-hundred-twenty-five flat for Albert, age 13. Your face, nowhere.
Ma’am, you do not know the first thing.
Persons bequeathed by Jockey Robinson to this university, along with a thousand acres at Hart’s Bottom. A sepia squiggle ties you to Jerry, 53, and Elsey, 36, blind. Your parents? Dick, Amorilla, Claiborne, Pompey, sisters and brothers?
I couldn’t say but it does look likely. Some of the entries hint at stories. Creasy, 68, twenty dollars, but the note, in a column usually blank, offers a hard “worth nothing.” The cursive relaxed but well-groomed. A breeze huffs at linen curtains. A pitcher sweats on the marble sideboard. How unworried the appraisal. How satisfied the gloss.
Or thirteen names further, James the Preacher, 40, costly, his wife Mary, their eight children, eldest five hired out, down to eight-year-old Isaac for five dollars a year. What did James preach about to Creasy-without-price, “club foot” Nero, and “lame” Dick McCollum?
Your son is thirteen. Would he listen to a sermon or sleep right through? Are you like him? A quick boy, loves a game, strategizing always? I remember you, eyebrows hoisted, forehead grooved with notions.
No one gains by your imaginings. Unless you do yourself.
I can’t find you on the 1834 “List of Slaves Belonging to Washington College,” with Amorilla, Claiborne, Pompey, although I riffle all the bills. Eighteen months later Garland purchases nearly everyone to send to his Mississippi plantation: “Old Jerry was refused upon inspection.” After the commission, trustees count twenty-two thousand dollars into coffers. That money translated to red brick buildings, lichened shady trees, and my salary. Is that how you linger, a ghost of ink boiled from walnut shells? A row of desks, a library shelf, digits propagating in some faraway white-pillared bank?
Ma’am, I cannot say.
I’ve posted about revision A LOT in this blog–I just went back and reread this post from 5 years ago, which contains most of the wisdom I possess about ordering and pruning poetry books, and then there’s this shorter one about reading aloud to revise. Revision feels like a big subject, though, almost as big as the subject of inspiration in the first place. I think often about the day I first drafted the poem above: I was sitting in my office in the supposedly-haunted colonnade, shivering as I read that brutal history, typing out my questions, and then hearing the answers float up, a gift from my own unconscious, I suppose. The various days I wrestled with the poem, though, to make it as accurate as I could–those are important, too.
Dear Poetry Professor, How do you get the writing done? -Lots of People
This has been a super-hard September, beginning with emotional transitions–dropping my son off for his first year at college, establishing my daughter in her first apartment–and proceeding through too many doctor visits and grant applications on top of the usual stuff. And the usual stuff brings its own challenges. It’s hard to kick off classes well; students and advisees need and deserve a lot of attention. One of this month’s biggest difficulties, though, arose from the good luck of having two books scheduled for spring publication. Edits for my poetry collection arrived in late August, but while finalizing any ms makes me super-anxious, those edits weren’t heavy. As soon as I turned them in, though, the novel edits began arriving, and they have been much more demanding, in large part because I’m newer at prose fiction. I had more to learn about economy and precision than I realized.
In short, I don’t really have time to blog! I just felt a drive to get some thoughts down about a question people address to me frequently. And that’s usually part of the answer, isn’t it?–something like drive. Honestly, I find time for certain things, even when frantically busy. This week I taught my classes, went to meetings, and handled a zillion pieces of apparently urgent paperwork; I also texted cat pictures to my kids, watched some lame Netflix, did the New York Times spelling bee puzzle every day, finished Atwood’s The Testaments, and started King’s The Institute (both novels are marvels of effective pacing, by the way–you can’t put them down). I also edited the hell out of my forthcoming novel, Unbecoming, following advice from my editor that the middle was kind of flabby. You’ve set up the world with vivid detail in the early chapters, she said; in the middle chapters, that detail is just clogging the gears. Pick up the pace.
I haven’t, however, been able to work on Unbecoming for more than two hours at a sitting, and that’s on the freest days. The aforementioned medical problems have cost me concentration, but it’s not just that. Work too long, and the quality of your attention starts to degrade, and a book ms is not something you ought to rush through tiredly. I get upset, too, if I feel like I’m shortchanging my students or my loved ones, or if I have no downtime, as happens when you’re trying to find myriad extra two-hour blocks in a full schedule. I overworked myself into a run of illness last year–that’s another way pacing matters. I’m mostly fortunate in the health department (there’s luck and privilege as well as drive in being able to get the writing done), but I have to keep reminding myself that when I push myself to the wall, I lose more than I gain.
I can be ruthless about writing, and sometimes that’s okay, especially when it’s a matter of shirking a minor chore or squeezing out just a little more work at the end of a long day. No one really cares, for instance, that in putting so much overtime this week, I never found time to clean that gunk off the front door (what even is that?), or do extra reading about Millay before class, or keep up with social media. I try to make lists and keep reminding myself what’s actually important, but playing hooky is necessary, too. My friend is probably right that I should make time to read The Slow Professor…when I get through this run of craziness, that is.
But one last point, something I’ve observed in others as well as myself: I’m most likely to push myself when the writing obligation involves someone else’s time and effort, as is the case in delivering mss to editors, and if you’re like that, too, you can find ways to create obligations that don’t involve imminent book contracts. One colleague made a lot of writing progress this summer, for instance, by blocking off non-negotiable writing time on her calendar and making public commitments to get a certain amount done. Another has started a writing group for two hours a week: with snacks, in silent camaraderie, we sit together and work on something not related to teaching, then set goals aloud for what we’ll do in the week ahead. I’m usually very solitary about writing–I’ll always choose a shut door and a quiet room over a cafe, for instance–so I’m surprised to be enjoying it, at least in small doses. I’ll probably be happier when I can use that time on new work rather than face up to the endless failings of this endless ms, but it’s good to be reminded that all the writers you know are waging similar battles with themselves.
Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever just hang up the towel on the stress of publication, but I guess this post is one possible answer: I would keep writing even if no one wanted to listen anymore. I seem to rest from writing by writing in other modes, or at least reading. Lunacy, probably, but here I am.