Hope, ambition, and other tricky green things

“Let him who is without my poems get assassinated!” Walt Whitman wrote, when the self-published 1855 Leaves of Grass didn’t make much of a splash, despite the three glowing reviews Whitman himself wrote and published anonymously. I’m reading him for a 4-week, all-remote Whitman and Dickinson seminar I’m teaching right now, and bonus: it helps to know that even a famously self-celebratory poet had bad days. Next up: discussion posts plus selfies of students reading “Song of Myself” on the grass or at least next to something green. After that sprawling long poem, I’ll have the pleasure of talking with them about a great cryptic recluse poet, who seems pretty well-suited to this moment. I’m both having fun with the class and anxious about it. It’s really hard to read social cues over Zoom as I usually depend on doing in person, and I suspect some of them are nervous about the queer theory part of the course, which also counts for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. My mantra is that I’m doing my best, and so are they, and we’re lucky to have this interlude of fun reading in a spring that continues to be shaded by sad and worrisome news.

It’s hard to say yet whether April was the worst month for the pandemic in the US, but I’m still glad it’s over! I tried to kick the poetry-writing part of my brain into gear, attempting to write a poem a day and share drafts with a small group of friends. What I wrote was neither great nor daily, but it felt like a productive practice and a way to feel connected across distances. I also devoted time and energy to getting word out about The State She’s In, although time and energy both seemed to be in short supply. (It’s a book about gender and ambition, among other subjects, which is another reason why I’m finding Whitman interesting to reread.) Maybe I’ve set myself up better for May. April’s unpredictability was getting me down so I organized my May class better: M/W for online discussion forums, T/Th for Zoom discussions, and Fridays and weekends, I hope, for poetry revisions, submissions, and publicity.

Any of you poets trying to submit work have probably noticed, too, the rush of editor verdicts lately. I’ve had some acceptances and some rejections (without wanting to assassinate anybody). It probably helps me stay philosophical that another April task was to reject some damn fine poems submitted to Shenandoah (650 subs for 12-15 spots). There was much hair-tearing and teeth-gnashing on my part, truly, so I now mostly see people who reject me not as nepotistic demon kings but as other stressed-out people making hard calls. Spring journal issues are also busting out all over. Thanks to About Place for including my poem “We Could Be” in their “Practices of Hope” issue, which is full of good writing and very well-timed. I’m grateful also to the print journal Cave Wall where the last two poems from The State She’s In were just published: “Invocation” and “No Here Here”–which are also poems of hope, or at least I aspired for them to be, because that’s what I’ve needed most in the past few years and I’ve been guessing others crave the same. Not to deny the bad days–it helps, as I said, to have company in them–but to imagine them gusting through me and not sticking.

More Virtual Salons are coming soon, but in the meantime, consider checking out the ROCKED BY THE WATERS: Poems of Motherhood anthology Facebook Live launch reading, hosted by the English Dept. at Normandale Community College in Minneapolis, MN, May 7, Thursday, 7-8 PM, CST. Reading with me will be Kris Bigalk, Teri Cross Davis, Camille Dungy, Rebecca Foust, Hedy Sabbagh Habra, Athena Kildegaard, and others (note that’s 8 pm for friends on the east coast of the US). This book is also well-timed! It’s a wonderful collection, full of literary luminaries and just plain luminous poems speaking to many experiences of mothering and being mothered, the losses as well as love. No matter what you’re able to read, write, or do these days, I hope you’re well and enjoying sparks of optimism once in a while.

Looking off cliffs

I’m not processing very well, here at the quiet edge of apocalypse. Sometimes I’m fine, scared, down, or stir-crazy; often I’m busy teaching remotely, being fortunate enough to still have a job; generally I can’t concentrate. New York City has always been the center of the world for me; how will it fare? When will everyone have access to testing, so we know the scope of things? A few steps from now, what will happen?

I wonder, too, what art is in the pipelines now, and to what extent those pipelines are or will be blocked. My novel, Unbecoming, was available for pre-order for a hot second and scheduled for publication on May 1, but now that’s been postponed. My publishers are in Washington State and can’t safely mail out copies, and one of their key distribution warehouses is not accepting shipments anymore. I hope the book is for sale in time for my reading dates this summer, but who knows how much we’ll be traveling and congregating then anyway? One nice augury, anyway: it just earned a star and a lovely review from Publishers Weekly. At least one stranger likes it! That’s more of a relief to me than you might expect. A debut work in any field–who can really judge her own writing, at first venture?

Many have told me that the novel will do better at a later date, anyway; apparently the brilliant Margot Livesey launched a book on 9/11/01, a day of crisis for all kinds of art, and I heard from many people that nobody bought books right after Trump’s election. I am also relieved to focus for longer on the virtual launch of The State She’s In, my fifth poetry collection (also languishing in a locked down warehouse, although copies are available directly from my saintly publisher, at least for now–this has me suspecting that a ton of books from independent presses must be similarly stranded). People have been generous about helping me publicize it over social media and otherwise, although general sadness has put me behind on sending in the recordings people have asked for. Here’s an interview Will Woolfitt posted on his terrific Speaking of Marvels blog. And I’m going to keep paying poetry back by putting up virtual poetry salons, although with the term in gear again, I might be slower.

The picture above is from last Saturday’s drive to the nearby Blue Ridge mountains, where we’re trying to take walks most weekends to watch spring’s advance. It’s beautiful out there in a way that seems bizarre and reassuring in turns. The photo below is of three new anthologies I’m fortunate enough to have a poem in–all of them terrific and all of them coming out, as my own books are, at a pretty difficult moment. Here’s a shout out, then, to Choice Words: Writers on Abortion, edited by Annie Finch; Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habit, Defiance, and Democracy, edited by Simmons Buntin, Elizabeth Dodd, and Derek Sheffield; and Rocked by the Waters: Poems of Motherhood, edited by Margaret Hasse and Athena Kildegaard. The Tables of Contents of all three brim with the names of the writers I admire most, and all bring together immensely powerful and moving work. Having work in them is good company. I’m also proud to have an essay on Millay’s abortions, “The Smell of Tansy through the Dark,” in the latest Massachussetts Review. I’ve talked to several editors of print magazines who were rushing to send off spring issues before their university mail services ground to a halt, and I’m so glad this one made it. I wonder how the publishing landscape may change for them and others. One good thing: Ecotone’s most recent issues, a couple of which I have poems in, are temporarily free online. What a gift to the housebound!

I am writing a bit for National Poetry Month, without confidence that I’m producing anything lasting, although I’m not able to get myself together to mail recent work out. And for Shenandoah, I’m reading the 650 batches of poems that came in during our 2-week March reading period (holy cow). My first read is usually a quick-ish screen to winnow the submissions down to likely top contenders, and I’m only halfway through that; it’s going to take a while. Looking off the edge of this April, though, I feel confident that Shenandoah WILL keep bringing you great art. So many collaborative artistic productions are stalled now, but writing is cheap and lonely, any season. We’re all going to go through weeks of blockage and flow, I guess, but you can’t stop poetry.