Spring’s nonlinearity

You’ve got to keep an eye on April: it’s slippery. I’m seeking discipline I lacked this winter, wanting to make the most of this brief season, although I’m skipping #NaPoWriMo in favor of surveying and refining older drafts. Mid-March, I overhauled a lot of poems and put them under submission; two have been accepted already, and maybe I’ll earn a couple more wins as the months pass. It’s a long process, but it’s wise to submit work in spring if you can, because so many markets close in summer. I’m also writing to bookstores and submitting conference proposals, in hopes there will be an in-person future for the literary world. I get my second Moderna shot on April 9th. I’ll be careful even after the T-cells multiply, but already I feel less anxious about brief forays into the populated world, as well as happier about the down-time I’m taking outdoors.

Shortly after I hit a better work rhythm, though–moving from revising and submitting poems to overhauling some fiction projects–my mother went into the hospital. She lives in eastern Pennsylvania, so for unvarnished information (she downplays every ailment), I depend on my adult brother, with whom she lives, and my sister, who lives 45 minutes away but has seen less of my mother during the pandemic. Turned out my mother had a very bad wound on her leg that had become severely infected. The usual hell-zone of diagnosis was harder than usual because of the limits on visitors, the busy-ness of medical staff, and my mother herself being too sick and drugged to pick up the phone. Eventually they ruled out the scariest things. Her circulation is just terrible, so damage is easy to do and hard to mend. She’s in rehab now, getting on her feet again while her wound slowly heals, so the crisis period is probably over, but it was intense. Intensely concerned and wondering if I would need to drop everything and drive 5+ hours, I alternately read medical websites, texted furiously with my siblings, and distracted myself with more revisions. I rewrote a short story from scratch, for instance, without looking at the original; that’s not a strategy I’ve tried much before, but it worked really well. Yay?

This all reminds me of my last sabbatical, when my mother was diagnosed with lymphoma and I spent many months shuttling back and forth, doing what I could to help my on-the-ground siblings. (That’s also the year I drafted what became my first novel, Unbecoming–go figure.) Here’s another way time is tricky. Spring always reminds you of previous springs, for better and worse. Academe, too, is structured by seasonal recurrences: semesters and breaks, registrations and grading, and the longer cycles of teaching years and sabbatical interludes (if you’re very lucky). The latter are big markers in my memory. 2015-16, when my mother was sick; 2010-11, when a life-changing Fulbright brought us to New Zealand; 2005-6, when I wrote Voicing American Poetry in “Mod Hall,” overflow office space in a decrepit trailer by a stream; and my first leave in 2000-1, when my son was born, my first scholarly book went under contract, and in the long deep breath after achieving tenure, I thought about what I wanted for my liberated writing life. Perhaps I have two sabbaticals left before I retire–again, if I’m lucky.

All of which is to say I’m feeling the cyclicality of time right now just as much as the forward march of my precious writing year and uneasy anticipation about the difficult-to-plan future. I’m more than okay, plenty anxious, glad to be balancing different kinds of writing work, well aware of how spinning plates can unexpectedly crash. Meanwhile, the trees are budding maybe a little earlier than they have before, as the world heats up. It’s freshly amazing how beauty and danger arrive together.

Poets among you maybe be interested in an upcoming virtual conference I’m preparing for, the Poetry and Creative Arts Festival at WCU on April 7-10. $50 for general registration isn’t bad; you also get a free workshop, such as Molly Peacock’s “Snap Sonnets.” I’ll be running a panel on Saturday 4/10 called “Feeling Across Distance” with Lauren Alleyne, Tafisha Edwards, Luisa A. Igloria, and Jane Satterfield, and I’ll post writing prompts from all of them here. Finally, here’s a review I wrote of Tyree Daye’s new collection Cardinal, just published in Harvard Review. I hope to write more reviews for them in future, but not just yet, because I want a slower kind of focus. Perhaps because of a mild March 2020 case of Covid-19 I couldn’t get a test for, I couldn’t smell anything last spring, so I need to make up for lost flower-time.

Coniferous forests of hard thinking

When your child takes a summer internship in Siberia, you think, hmm, THAT’s a long way for a teenager to go to escape parental interference. Maybe you made the normal adolescent struggle for independence a little difficult?

Parents can follow their kids now through multiple technologies and social media platforms, and I do. With trust, and love!–but it doesn’t give a twenty-year-old a ton of room. I went to college only an hour from home, but without cellphones or email or Facebook or any other mode of mutual visibility, just a payphone at the end of the hall that, occasionally, someone would pick up after twenty rings. That could be hard, but also a huge relief.

I’m not saying M. went to Siberia BECAUSE the word is synonymous for “as far away as possible.” She’s long been fascinated by all things Russian, studying the history, literature, and politics. But my eldest has finally, ingeniously escaped my range!

So I’ve been sending my thoughts so far east it’s west again, in between revising mss, organizing submissions and queries, recovering from an annoying back injury (totally unrelated, I’m sure, to stress over packing my child off to the Altai Mountains for six weeks), and building up new research for an August conference in Amsterdam, which has involved the usual leaps and dead ends, excitement and wailing. You know–the coniferous forest of hard thinking, prowled by tigers of self-doubt. The tundra of isolated work, wondering when you’ll find a settlement. Supply your own ridiculous poet-parent Siberian metaphor here.

altai kraiI’m also watching my phone for updates from the countryside south of Novosibirsk, but trying not to appear desperate for them. I’m happy to report that a twenty-first-century voyager can text even from Siberia, and that, from what I can judge, my daughter is having a fabulous adventure. She’s teaching English to kids and working hard to learn as much Russian as possible (from a teacher with a Kazakh accent). The locals are friendly and her fellow interns are a cheerful group of Brits from Bristol Uni (though most of them leave soon, with a couple of new interns coming from other countries). The lowlands have been balmy and beautiful, and they’re heading towards a new camp, higher in the mountains (have you seen The Eagle Huntress?). The stresses are sleep deprivation–it’s light all the time–and food, but neither is dire. M. has become a connoisseur of kasha, preferring the barley-millet version served at lunchtime, with its tantalizing flavor of “burnt electrical cord,” over the less describable breakfast variety. What she can’t get behind, not surprisingly, is the meat–“myaso,” I think, in my alphabet. (“What kind of meat?” Blank looks: “Just myaso.” Ah, mysteries.) I wish I’d insisted on packing another bag of almonds.

From the present wilderness, here are a couple of new reviews, a micro of Niall Cambell’s First Nights up at the Kenyon Review, and a longer one of Athena Kildegaard’s Ventriloquy at Valparaiso Poetry ReviewBoth collections are very much worth your time.

For now, back to the quiet life. Well, quiet on the outside. Here’s a glimpse of the current menage, with Chris helping me rearrange a poetry ms, the still-at-home child eating American food in a Doctor Who shirt, and Poe making sure no recyclable grocery bags wing off to Russia, or the next room.

summer 2017