Urgent: curse for moonlight declamation

Two blessings and a curse–guess which one is the most fun to read aloud? My poxy poem, “All-purpose Spell for Banishment,” written last New Year’s Eve, just appeared in the new issue of SalamanderMaybe if we all chant it naked by moonlight on the solstice, inserting the name of our least favorite president, the new year will bring us more light. On the beneficent side, “Border Song,” from Ocean State Reviewis the way I remember the especially moving 2016 wedding of my friends Jenna and Lucy, bless them both. And check out my poem in the new Blackbirdif you have time, in which I try, through a slightly banged-up pantoum’s repetition, to turn a bad year around.

Benedictions to the editors of all those journals, including interns who slipped issues into the mail during the last sliver of fall term. Blessed be, too, the good people at Modernism/ modernity, who posted my column on archival frustrations last week: “Seeking Anne Spencer.” Blessed be Anne Spencer. Salutations to the gods who permitted me to finish my full-length essay on her and submit it by today’s deadline, as well as to my spouse, who suggested some timely edits at a very busy moment of the term. All hail Janet McAdams, micro review editor at Kenyon Review Online, for assembling such a mighty roster of smallnesses every other month, including, this December, my praise of Nicole Cooley’s Girl after Girl after Girl. 

I haven’t been writing poetry much, but I’m hoping to change energies now by reading voraciously and steaming a Christmas pudding. In the meantime, I hereby beam out good cheer to all my friends, and all poetry’s friends. It’s been a stupid, toxic, nasty year, but there are lots of good words left to utter, and sometimes they make a difference.

Failing that, please enjoy a gratuitous black cat, caught in the act of chewing my tree.

 

Intertidal zone

Robinson_NewYork2140_HCI’m currently reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s flood of a novel, New York 2140, at the edges of the work day. Sea levels have risen fifty feet but stubborn New Yorkers are trying to redefine their big moldy apple as SuperVenice, navigating the street-canals via vaporettos and hydrofoils. When you read a long book slowly, it seeps into your consciousness, so my metaphors have become watery. Not that I’m composing lots of new stuff–it’s mostly revisions, submissions, and correspondence this month, as well as a few blogs and reviews, squeezed in between meetings and other end-of-year chores–but every hour I’ve stolen for poetry has oozed with damp.

I’m especially preoccupied by the book’s dominant setting and metaphor, the intertidal zone. This whole month has been liminal. I’m in between the intensities of the teaching year and the writing summer, not quite free of one nor immersed in the other. I’m also waiting on the outcomes of queries, but trying to use suspenseful hours usefully–to not act like I’m waiting. Sometimes I’m optimistic and grateful, but often I’m down and worried. Rough seas this year, on a national and personal scale.

So, first, let me stress gratitude, which lately I’ve beaming out at the editors, agents, and other literary people who remind me that even when I feel stranded on a deserted isle, some of my bottled messages reach people.

  • I just brushed up an essay called “Women Stay Put” for Crab Orchard Reviewa piece about Claudia Emerson’s first book and her years adjuncting at W&L. It also concerns friendship, ambition, the toxic mess of university teaching hierarchies, and other topics I find REALLY hard. Thank you, Jon Tribble, for liking it enough to grant it space in the final print issue!
  • In this week’s intertidal zone, I also recorded a poem called “American Incognitum” accepted by Cold Mountain ReviewI’ve received a zillion rejections this spring but also had poems taken by the CMRBarrow Street, Water~Stone Review, Ocean State Review, Notre Dame Reviewand SalamanderSome of those acceptances brimmed with praise. How nice is that?
  • I’m looking forward to picking up my daughter from Wesleyan this weekend. It’s a long, hard drive, but we get quick visits with family on the way, and Madeleine is brilliant and hilarious company. We get home Sunday and I head right back to CT Tuesday morning, by plane, for Poetry by the Sea, where I’ll listen to poems and participate in panels alongside the shoreline, sharing lunch and dinner and conversation with literary friends. Bound to be lovely.

I’m going to skip the part where I tell you what I’m not grateful for, unless you take me out for a beverage and an earful, but I can redefine even that mildewy mess á la SuperVenice by observing: maybe the self-enriching tyrant will actually get impeached. And summer’s nearly here. I’ll get to work, at least part of the time, on what I personally find good and important. What’s tough about my workplace will recede to the background. And then in September I get to teach again, and my small classes are full of gifted students to whom I can offer real help, for a respectable salary. I appreciate this luck even at the lowest tide.

There’s a minor character in Robinson’s novel, a government finance guy, who describes his meditation practice: he lies down on the roof of his building and lists all the crap he cannot fix or change, and somehow feels relieved by the exercise. I’ve been trying an inland Virginia version: I cannot make the president obey the law. I cannot make colleagues treat me, or each other, with kindness and respect. I cannot make the world perfectly safe for my children, or other people’s children. I cannot force myself to go back to sleep at 2 a.m. or be productive or cheerful all the time. My metabolism will never obey me, nor will my cats.

I can practice compassion and diligence, but it’s really practice–trying, with no guaranteed results, ever. Thrum, swish, say the tides of my body. Even when you feel stuck, life is never static.034.jpg

How and why

70000I’m not the only writer who’s fascinated by the processes of inspiration, composition, and revision, but horrified by the processes of self-promotion. And  I do mean full-on gothic trauma complete with repressed guilt rising monstrously from a shallow grave and chasing me through the Cemetery of Dead Projects. Brave heroine that I try to be, I conquer fear enough to submit work, ask for blurbs and reviews, and nominate myself for various kinds of attention, especially if I can do so in writing, without face-to-face contact with my potential rejecter. I always feel haunted, however, by the ghosts of opportunities lost.

So I was surprised, browsing the Jan/Feb Poets & Writers, to feel inspired by the “Practical Writer” column–a piece by Frank Bures called “Brand You: Questioning Self-Promotion.” It’s print-only, but the gist, as I explained it during a chilly walk with my writer-spouse, is Bures’ recommendation to think like “politicians and cult leaders”–in a good way. The existential nausea of self-promotion recedes when you proselytize for the book itself: why you wrote it, why you imagine some group of readers needs or wants it. “Which means the ‘why’ should be deep in a book’s DNA,” Chris said. Yes.

Hows and whys are on my mind because I have a recent book out, but also because my writing life just took a weird turn. A year ago, I had an idea for a novel and started mentally toying around with it. I put a few paragraphs down last summer but didn’t go further.

Then, while balking at other kinds of work in late fall–my mother’s illness colored life with urgency–an opening scene arrived. I wrote it then, to my shock, kept on going. Every day I could, I’d write for six hours in my pajamas, then shower, run errands, exercise, whatever, and go back to work in late afternoon or evening. I generally work hard on sabbatical–seven or eight hours a day, five days a week, which is a lot of writing–but this was full-bore. I wrote in passenger seats and Christmas outfits, at the crack of dawn and in the middle of the night. During respites my brain would fill with sentences like a bucket under a roof leak. I’d put a bunch of tops in motion and just had to keep touching them, maintaining the spin. I ended up drafting 70,000 words in five weeks, adding a few thousand more during the first revision. It’s not ready for prime time, but it’s not terrible, either.

The whole process was a revelation–that I knew how to tell the story, that I loved the work. I will, at some future point, see if readers like it, too. The aforementioned spouse just finished it–thumbs up–but he gave smart suggestions, too, and there’s lots of work ahead.

I thought this experiment worth undertaking even if I never published a word–that I’d learn from the adventure–and already that seems true. Last week I looked at a languishing memoir-critical hybrid piece and, bam, knew how to fix the thing. Distance helps, but I also understand more now about rhythm and pacing in prose. Trained in poetic compression, I had just been eliding too much. I have infinitely more to learn about time in prose narrative, but practice has sped up my education. I’m curious what lessons I’ll bring back to poetry.

I just finished reading a book that holds up a mirror to this experience: Ben Lerner’s 10:04. His semi-fictional narrator Ben figures out how to write a prose book during a five-week residency that he devotes, contrarily, to writing a long poem, even though he just signed a six-figure contract and desperately needs to get some bill-paying prose underway.  A disobedient excursion through one genre teaches him how to approach–maybe even reinvent–the other.

Unfortunately, the milieu of 10:04 brings me back to the publicity dilemma. If I never again read a novel in which bright young literati in Brooklyn earn fabulous amounts of money, it won’t be too soon. It’s a testament to Lerner’s gift that I couldn’t dislike the book. It wasn’t long ago that an author visiting W&L (not Lerner) said, “I don’t know why anyone living outside Brooklyn even bothers to write.” The remark, leveled at Virginia writers over artisanal cocktails, was brutal, but I do get it: I live far from the publicity machines that might amplify my promotional effort a thousandfold.

Disheartening, sometimes, but as a Philadelphia friend reminds me, I do get a lot done in my tiny boring nowhere-town. On the subject of smallness: check out my microreview in a new Kenyon Review series. And thanks to Hampton-Sydney Poetry Review for publishing my poems and reflections about undergraduate teaching, and also to Valerie Duff-Strautmann for reviewing Radioland so intelligently in the new Salamander. Hurrah for all these great people striving to amplify poetry’s signal!

As I gladly receive their broadcasts, I think about the “why” of Radioland, which is a good book but Sisyphean. It’s about how incredibly difficult it is for human beings to get through to one another, and how vital it isSalamander to try anyway–basically a skeptic’s big pitch for listening and love. Which means it’s a qualified pitch, a little wry. Un-Trumpery from the poet as charismatic loser, as Eileen Myles brilliantly puts it.

I hope you’ll accept the connection and read it, whether you buy, borrow, or cadge a free teacher/ reviewer’s copy. (My link’s to the press but it’s also available from your favorite monstrously convenient online retailer). Or come see me at the VA Festival Book or at the AWP–I’m working on keeping my Events page updated, when I’m not, that is, hiding with my exiled friends behind the tombstone of Literary Recognition Undemanded, R.I.P.

 

Good news makes me anxious

France June 2014 221The bad news: I am no longer in France. I know you’re weeping for poor privileged me—try to keep that under control. The other bit of tough luck, about which you may feel genuinely sympathetic: my one-year stint as acting Department Head of English has officially begun. My last term, from 2007-2010, was deeply demoralizing, but this time I have a supportive dean and a briefer sentence, so I’m not too worried. I hope I will not be punished for this blitheness. (“Blitheness” in me translates, by the way, to “slight apprehension only.”)

So we staggered home Tuesday night after only the mildest travel mishaps. With typical Gavalerian efficiency, the mail was sorted and the luggage emptied before we hit those cushy, much-missed mattresses. I had too much jetlag and administrative email to get much done on Wednesday besides hitting the farmer’s market and arranging Bretagne seashells on my office windowsill, but I did look over three poems I had drafted in France. By Thursday, I began working hard on the sixth chapter of Taking Poetry Personally (they’re short chapters, so this means I’m around the halfway mark). On Friday I read over the first five to get my bearings again and you know, it’s good stuff. I’m still on the fence about when, how, and where to query, but I believe in the project and feel a lot of energy about it.  

I’m a regular reader of Jeannine Hall Gailey’s blog about writing, health, and the po-biz, and she had just posted about how those inevitable rejections can hit you hard. Yep. I returned to a few disappointing messages, although the mail also contained contributor copies of two beautiful print magazines: Salamander and Sou’wester, both journals that deserve to be on your reading list. I particularly like the Michelle Boisseau poems that follow mine in Sou’wester. The magazines’ arrival helped cancel out the rejections, even though the Standard Post-Vacation Caloric Austerity Program was aggravating my tired irritability. Plus I’m catching up with friends, and looking forward to a Charlottesville reading next Sunday—there’s plenty of good stuff going down.

I think what lifted me most, though, was writing itself.  I forget this all the time, but whenever I’m low I should hit the damn keyboard, and not for social media updates. I was feeling out of sorts this morning, even as I performed Sunday morning rituals I generally treasure: walking downtown for a copy of the Times, drinking pots of chai. Then I read this little piece on motivation. The authors describe how, in their study of West Point cadets, those “with internal motives did better in the military (as evidenced by early promotion recommendations) than did those without internal motives and were also more likely to stay in the military after their five years of mandatory service — unless (and this is the surprising part) they also had strong instrumental motives.” Translated into poetry terms, this would mean that writing from love of the art will bring more success than writing for fame. Further, pure-hearted poets will ALSO be more successful than poets with mixed motivation, meaning those who love the art AND want to achieve attention for it.

I sort of knew this, but it was still helpful to hear. I just need to focus on the pleasure of putting lines and sentences together. When you’re grumpy about the mixed rewards writing brings, shrug it off and get back to the page.

My mood this morning seemed particularly ridiculous because I received an awesome piece of news yesterday. I can’t give specifics until the contracts are sorted, which will take at least a month, and there’s work ahead. But I’ve been on tenterhooks for six months while a publisher I admire was taking a hard look—multiple reader reports, the whole shebang—at my poetry ms, Radioland. On Saturday afternoon I finally received a yes. They’d like me to make some revisions, details pending, but if I’m game to work with them, they intend to publish it, likely in fall 2015.

My spouse teased me for skipping over the basking-in-joy part and going straight to solemnity. Maybe I’ll feel more pleased with myself when I can make the announcement fully. I could be experiencing caution because of editorial negotiations ahead, but I don’t think so—these are very smart editors, and when you don’t receive editorial advice on a long project, that’s a bigger problem, really. I wish they had proposed a slightly earlier date, and I wish I had editorial recommendations in hand immediately, but there’s no real urgency here. And while I don’t know any poets who love the book-promotion process, I’m up for it: I know what it is and why it matters. So why does a book acceptance rattle me?

As I write, I realize my unbounciness is probably due to that paradox described in the Times piece. Whether or not internally-motivated poets are more successfully than the ambitious ones (I’m not convinced military advancement is an exact analogue), I feel sure they’re happier. I’m a lot happier on writing days than on non-writing days. And apparently I’m more cheerful after a good weekday session of paragraph-drafting than I am on a holiday weekend during which I’m offered a book contract. The latter just shifts my attention too much towards instrumental thinking, measuring my achievements rather than immersing myself in the work.

With this revelation in mind, I include a picture of my kids above, taken over my shoulder by my spouse a couple of weeks ago. This was my favorite day of the whole trip. After a morning touring Lascaux II, we emerged into gorgeous weather and headed to a rental shack in Montignac. My daughter chose to kayak solo, the rest of us piled into a canoe, and we headed down la Vézère, past limestone cliffs and Château de Losse and lots of those tall narrow Van Gogh trees, whatever they’re called. I was initially so anxious about tipping over or running into some weird problem but you know, everything was fine. The process of floating along that river was utterly lovely. Who cares where you’re going, or whether you get there on time?