Moldy

Some good advice I received from Barrow Street editor Peter Covino about the manuscript of Heterotopia:  stop saying “I remember” so much. After all, he remarked—I’m sure I’m paraphrasing badly—isn’t “I remember” implicit in every poem? I received that comment with chagrined recognition. I’d even published a poem in my first book, Heathen, called “I Remember Last Weekend,” inspired by a friend describing his MFA classmates: their workshop submissions were often based on experiences about five minutes old, because they were, after all, mostly in their early twenties, and hadn’t had much tranquility for recollection yet. My snarky old title anticipated Peter’s suggestion and my subsequent revision program. I’d just forgotten.

This August, I found another bit of lost knowledge stashed and forgotten in a poem’s attic. I’d been having health problems all summer that were escalating from irritating to worrisome: heart palpitations, a persistent cough, and other weirdnesses that I’d been attributing to my increasing middle-aged decrepitude but, well, maybe not. A blood test suggested mold exposure. After I described last year’s flood and extensive renovations to an air quality expert, he said any mold probably wasn’t in the walls but in our old AC units. While I waited for him to come inspect the joint, I worked on old poems, and there it was, in a piece from several years back. I had used my inappropriately racing heart as a metaphor in some rickety ballad stanzas about the onset of summer. A click ensued: I’ve been having palpitations for ages, but only in the hottest months (and the least anxious ones for an academic, which should have tipped me off). When I sleep under a faint cool breeze from the moldy old AC units. Poem as medical history.

Poems can be wiser than their writers in far more significant ways than that. I’m teaching Robert Frost this week in a modern poetry class. He’s an example, surely, of a difficult human being, someone I might have disliked personally, whose poems nevertheless make the world a better place. It startled me, though, to reread his essay “The Figure a Poem Makes” and find such a mysterious description of the writing process there. A poem “inclines to the impulse,” he writes, “runs a course of lucky events,” and lands somewhere the author could not have predicted. He muses about “the surprise of remembering something I did not know I knew.” I recognize this sense of wilderness hovering around the edges of his well-ordered verse—something there is that does not love an iamb. I’d just forgotten.

I suppose all the poets I’m teaching in “American Poetry from 1900-1950” are going to seem strange to me this term, because the second course I’m teaching, on alternate days, is a first-year seminar on speculative fiction. The tales and poems on the latter syllabus obsess over the questions, What’s real? What are the rules? That persistent uncertainty about big problems resonates in me and it’s going to carry over to everything I read. Besides, Millay, H.D., Williams, Hughes, and the rest of the modernist crowd are great enough that if a question’s on your mind, you can probably see an image of it flickering deep in their poetry’s mirror.

Their poems are dirty mirrors, too, speckled by age, the kind that make you look strange to yourself—and the more you know about authors and contexts, the more provocatively filthy the poems seem. Yes, that’s a positive fungus metaphor (my moldy poems will come after my moldy blog posts, because the former take longer to ferment, but expect the motif to propagate). I know my hundred-year-old house will never be entirely free of invisible spore. I presume the spore are present for good reasons, too, even though they got out of balance in my particular secret ducts. I’m not freaked out by their alien proliferation, though I wish I’d noticed the problem sooner, and that it didn’t cost such a fortune to remediate.

I also wish I could clean out the toxins in my workplace as easily. I’m freshly crushed, this September, by the radical reconfiguration of a department I worked so hard to culture. Several individuals moved along of their own accord, for perfectly good reasons, though I miss them; and a former administrator against whom I’d brought complaints, even testified in legal battles, was bumped down into our midst. I can’t be comfortable at department events anymore or even in the halls. No one who has power to remediate the situation cares enough to do so—the trouble I make about it, after all, is almost microscopically small. Conversely, no one does care knows how to clear out the poison.

I can breathe in the classroom, though, and if elements get out of balance there, I can address the disorder myself. The other healthy space is the page: reading and writing can be disturbing and hard as well as joyous, but they’re good occupations. It’s not that these environments are sealed off from the rest of the potentially toxic world—they’re distinctly permeable by everything from market pressures to the Syria crisis to anyone’s lousy mood—but they’re premised on values not evenly respected elsewhere. Reason, fairness, complexity. But the student who is checking her cellphone under the desk, you say, who is cursing, like A.J. Soprano, that “asshole Robert Frost”? I think I can keep even that kid invested in literature’s idealistic questions, but maybe I’m crazy. It’s probably the mold.

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.