Hundred-year nap

For the last week, I’ve lived in the land of the long blink. We arrived home eight days ago from the aforementioned intense trip to Europe, and I dutifully took sunlit walks to reset my body clock, swallowed melatonin at the appointed hours, and vigorously swept out my email inbox–begone, reference letters and peer review!–while getting organized for a spousal birthday and our son’s impending six weeks at the Ross Mathematics Program in Ohio.

I was plenty busy, in other words, but not desperately so, and as I ticked off the most urgent tasks, I found myself revving down. You know, my brain said Wednesday morning, before you work on permissions inquiries, there’s this poem idea. And on Friday morning, over breakfast by an open window, Hey, you haven’t taken a three-day weekend just to read and cook and hang out for a long, long time. As I let myself do less, I started getting sleepier and sleepier, “After Apple-Picking” style. The past few nights I’ve been unable to keep my eyes open much past 9 p.m.

My spouse says that I haven’t really exhaled for the last two years and I’m just tired–I should indulge my sleepiness, says the kind unprince. I don’t feel depressed or sick, so I guess he’s right. And it’s a pleasure to continue with the novel-reading I did on various planes and trains in late May. The recent read that’s staying with me most powerfully is Overstory by Richard Powers, in which trees are major characters. I felt artistically irritated a couple of times at polemical passages or how he handled exposition, but at the same time, I’m deeply impressed by the book. It has actually changed my brain–I’m observing landscapes differently. Even watching the last few episodes of a favorite show, The Americans, I kept getting diverted from  human spies doing their dead drops in parks or sitting on benches, becoming lost in admiration of trees that shared the frame. That’s a big accomplishment for a work of fiction, to shift a person’s angle of vision away from human beings toward the more-than-human world.

Now I’m catching up with poetry in books and magazines. The new Ecotone is on my desk and, as always, it’s full of loveliness. It often contains a powerful poem by a writer I’ve never heard of, and this time that’s “Coywolf” by Katie Hartsock. I also especially enjoyed the opening note by Anna Lena Phillips Bell discussing the departure from the magazine of Beth Staples, who will move to this sleepy town come August and take over Shenandoah. I’ll be reading poetry submissions under her editorship and I’m beyond excited about the magazine’s transition. I’m nervous about the workload, too, but my term on AWP ends in October, and being a trustee during that organization’s recent changes has involved plenty of time and worry. I’m eager, at any rate, to spend time in a different region of the po-biz.

The picture below tells you, too, that I’ve been reading a beautiful chap by Sally Rosen Kindred, who often works at the fringes of dream and fairy tale, from Porkbelly Press. In Says the Forest to the Girl, Sleeping Beauty is a recurring character, and sleep can be a dangerous condition–a response to trauma that, by hushing struggle, puts you at risk again–but also forest-like in a good way, a zone of growth and strange associations. From “Sleeping Beauty Says Goodnight to Little Red”:  “A lullaby is a broken cup waiting to slice your lip.// Close your eyes, hope for a hundred years.”

Personally, I’d rather enjoy a solid eight hours, stop yawning, and get back into summer writing now. I’m not a princess or even a girl, and I’ve got uses for daylight. But what the body says to the poet deserves attention, too.

says-the-forest.jpg

Instructions for creating England

My speculative poetry students have been asking brilliant questions during the past two weeks: what’s Tracy K. Smith’s attitude towards a posthuman future in Life on Mars? How does assigning a higher priority to the natural world change Marvin Bell’s sense of what death means? How do Jeannine Hall Gailey’s villainesses differ from their counterparts in Ovid and Hans Christian Andersen, and why? What does James Merrill admire in that other weird spiritualist, Yeats, and what does he reject? This is also a course in research writing, so each student is pursuing a topic and teaching some part of it to the rest of the class. Their presentations have been wildly interesting, though, of course, pulling coherent papers out of a mess of tough questions is a hard thing to do—we’ll see next week how well the actual writing is going.

I’m “working” on my own essays pretty minimally right now: using my classes, for sure, to read and think about research, but not putting fingers to keyboard much. My students’ efforts, though, made me want to try. So, briefly: I’ve been dunking my toes in Lubomir Doležel’s Heterocosmica on and off for a couple of years now, interested in his descriptions of how novelists construct and readers enter fiction’s incomplete possible worlds, and trying to figure out how and why poets summon up possible worlds, too. They certainly do in epic and other long narrative modes, but my gut says that lyric poems can also constitute virtual universes, although they’re even more incomplete. I suspect, for instance, that one reason I prefer reading single-author collections to anthologies, and why knowing a poet’s biography deepens my pleasure in the verses, is that increased data helps me fill in more details of whatever place a poem evokes.

That’s a reader’s approach to poetry’s possible worlds; the writer’s involves a series of technical problems. How, in the space of a few lines, do you absorb a stranger into some alternate spacetime? During those class presentations last week, I realized that one of the poets I’ve been teaching addresses that problem quite overtly. As Chase talked about Todorov in relation to Sally Rosen Kindred’s Peter Pan poems—is Kindred hesitating between realities, as Todorov says fantastic stories do, or do her poems inhabit some straight-up version of the marvelous?—it clicked for me how much her chapbook Darling Hands, Darling Tongue concerns literary world-building. Look at this passage from “What Wendy Darling Tells Her Brother” (full version here):

Don’t you remember
the smell of her—lemon and ash—
her skin’s speckle like wrens’ eggs
and the warm wind of her moving in
off the edge of the bed, to hover
by cool sheets and bring her hands
down on your face
like rain?

Kindred’s Wendy, as the stand-in for the poet in this collection, is struggling to create successfully absorbing fictional universes. In this case, she wants desperately to remind her brother about England and the parents he’s half-forgotten. One of her strategies is to call up sensory detail as vividly as possible–sight, smell, touch. Simile and metaphor are portals, too. Michael in Neverland knows what warm wind and rain feel like, so they might help him remember or imagine. From Wendy’s current vantage, England isn’t exactly real (tangible? available? important?), but the storyteller misses it all the same:

And though it wasn’t real
it was home. And though it was in time
it was ours, the mother and father
who draped the air, their bodies strange
and soft with yearning.
It felt right to have a mother, to live
in the lap of a world I hadn’t made.
Don’t you remember?
It felt just like this story
that I am telling you.

Stories transport us, and certain ones transport us to “the lap of a world” safer and better than the mundane existences we often seem to inhabit. For Kindred, reality is relative and fragile. Wherever you are, you might try hard to believe in an elsewhere–maybe that effort to believe defines you–but your longing can never be fully satisfied. Not only do Neverland and England shimmer a bit, mirage-like, but Kindred’s also invoking the universe of oral storytelling from the pages of a handbound chapbook. This gap between print and voice is one engine, in fact, of lyric poetry’s power: nostalgia for sound, or attempts to represent its complexity in little black characters, drive verse’s turns and repetitions. In Darling Hands, Darling Tongue, the loss of a voiced world also entails all the losses of growing up.

Where are we? How does it feel to be not there? I type these questions into a blog-box, writing and not-writing, reading and not-reading, having just tipped from a long winter into a spring with snow in the forecast. I think Todorov is wrong about genre: fantasy is bigger than he allows, and often entails not just hesitating between explanations but understanding that our wildest speculations can be more real than, say, our social security numbers. There’s no knowing what matters, after all, until you lose it or find a way to step away from it. The oscillations of my professorial life show me that, too. Fantasies about writing’s Neverland, viewed through the portal of teaching English, clarify what’s at stake in both universes.

Valentine’s Day in the uncanny valley

valentinesOn Valentine’s Day, I was asking my class about the psychedelic weirdness in Natalie Diaz’s poems about her brother’s meth addiction, when I suddenly realized I felt surreal myself: headache, vertigo, a conviction the last leftover scraps of bo ssam had not been such a good lunch plan after all. I muddled through a few more hummingbird gods and human sacrifices in When My Brother Was an Aztec, stumbled home, and slept through romantic dinner reservations.

I did get out of bed, though, for a dreamlike valentine exchange. I’m pretty sure a heart-shaped card from my daughter read:

Roses are red
violets are blue
I love you a lot
shoe new canoe
(idk how you do this for a living)

My son’s note to me contained the immortal verses: “When you do play Scrabble,/ you’re better than the average rabble.” Aw. My husband, too, typed me an android-themed valentine, each line on its own neatly-scissored scrap of scarlet paper. No problem there—we’ve been watching Almost Human, Äkta människor, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, so we’ve both got artificial intelligence on our biochemical minds. We have a tradition of writing each other sf valentines, like our zombie convergence a few years back; I’m the one going off the deep end recently, writing him verses about narwhals and eighteenth-century brain science. Nonetheless, he presented me with some pretty bizarre sweet nothings, including “I’m half crazy with almost human error,” “more robo-love, more robo-robo-love,” and “I fall upon the thorns of love—I leak!”

I woke up human the next morning and picked up a copy of the New Yorker containing a sort of history-of-atheism essay by Adam Gopnik which, on the whole, I disliked, but a couple of points stuck with me. First, there’s his relabeling of rationalists and believers as Self-Makers and Super-Naturalists, among whom he notes some convergences. For example, plenty of not-very-religious and even outright godless people nonetheless practice holiday rituals. That’s me: I paint eggs come spring and fix a red-white-and-blue pie in July and drag the whole family along with every demented tradition, but I’m a skeptic in most ways. Well, seasonal turns mean a lot to me, and I’m patriotic enough to spend much of my life reading and teaching the U.S.’s damn fine art, but mostly I just like making up weird family activities.

More annoying was Gopnik’s assertion that “nearly all of the major modernist poets were believers.” He cited Auden, Eliot, and Yeats, with Stevens as a counter-example. The first two, sure, and you could add in Marianne Moore, but is it Yeats’ idiosyncratic mysticism really anything at all like Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism? And, ahem, how about the irreverences of Hardy, Frost, Williams, Millay, Langston Hughes, and Helene Johnson, or the syncretic strangeness of H.D.? Oh, that’s right, nearly all of the major modernist poets were also white guys. I love poetry, modernist and otherwise, because it offers an alternative kind of sacred grove, with the worship diffused among every sensation, idea, and syllable the poet attends to.

I’ve been thinking a lot about familial love lately, partly because of Diaz’s powerful book, but also because I’m teaching Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars in another course. I first read her elegies for her father on the train to New York City in May 2012. I was about to give a reading in Bryant Park, and on the return trip, I would visit my father in the Philadelphia Veterans Hospital—not knowing he would die a week later, but suspecting he didn’t have another winter in him. Smith’s father, who worked with the Hubble telescope, becomes nearly godlike in the second section of Life of Mars, which is mostly comprised of a long poem, “The Speed of Belief.” She hated to imagine a world without him. I felt immense pity for my own bedridden, isolated father, but I also thought he had done at least as much harm as good with his eighty-six years. I knew I would grieve but not miss him, and I was right.

I’m currently revising an essay containing the line, “when all-powerful patriarchs run the show, things don’t go well for most of us.” I was raised to be a skeptic, but I do wonder if that intellectual position has remained congenial partly because, for biographical reasons, I just find the idea of a father-god obnoxious, not consoling. I adore Smith’s intelligent, exploratory, deeply felt book not least because it contradicts my pop-psychologizing: her poetry seems agnostic despite its author’s love and admiration for her earthly father. I wonder if my own kindly-fathered kids will continue to feel as they do now—as they have felt ever since they had the words to express opinions. One’s a spiritual seeker and one’s as profoundly rationalist and religion-resistant as anyone I’ve ever met. Well, whatever their future relationship to positronic Christmas elves, both of them can rhyme.

If you need more juice for your poetry battery and your rocketship can take you there, check out two speculative poetry readings next week in which I play a small, humanoid part:

Monday, Feb. 24th, 7 pm, Studio 11 Gallery in Lexington, VA: a night of sf, fantasy, and gothic poetry featuring Sally Rosen Kindred! Come for briefer readings, too, by Mattie Smith, Ted Duke, Brittany Lloyd, Chauncey Baker, and Tamara Lipscomb. Chris Gavaler and I will read from the HOT OF THE PRESSES anthology Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comics.

Thursday, Feb. 27th, 8 pm, Jack Straw Cultural Center in Seattle, WA (an AWP offsite reading): The Superheroes of Poetry, starring Bryan Dietrich, Jeannine Hall Gailey, Sally Rosen Kindred, Jason McCall, Jason Mott, Evan Peterson, and me.

What I really read, and why, and what it means (Splinter Reviews Part 2)

High winds are plucking the last shriveled leaves off the branches while professional reading piles accumulate, isolating as snow-drifts: student papers, dossiers and writing samples from job applicants, scholarly mss I’ve promised to evaluate. At war with myself about whether I really need a Sunday off or a Sunday making a dent in it all, I decided to collect evidence from my Twitter account of what I’ve read and watched for fun since July. Some surprises: first, even when school’s in session, I read plenty of novels and feel no guilt about tossing off some half-baked remark about many of them. I’m actually less likely to tweet about a book that cuts deep—I reread Erdrich’s Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, for example, and it really impressed me, but that’s not in evidence here. Second, I’m less likely to tweet about poems. I read and liked Dean Young’s Falling Higher and Sally Rosen Kindred’s Darling Hands, Darling Tongue during the past few months, as well as revisiting older collections including Langston Hughes’ Montage of a Dream Deferred, but didn’t have pithy observations about them. Is poetry less susceptible to summation? Or am I just more loyal to its complexities? I also would have told you that I prefer full poetry collections to the fragments in magazines, but that’s not borne out by what I’ve actually done lately—I read a single-author volume a couple of times a month this fall, but absorbed much more poetry online, through anthologies, or via the journals I subscribe to. I know we all consume media in part by convenience and happenstance—watching the mediocre movie that plays locally rather than the great one featured in some Hip But Distant Metropolis—but I wonder about that gray area between laziness and actual preference. I don’t always like the things I’m supposed to like, but rooting out those prejudices and admitting what I actually personally enjoy in a piece of art can be surprisingly hard. I haven’t kept a proper journal in decades so Twitter-as-reading-diary actually turns out to be sort of revealing.

Poetry and nonfiction:

On Jean Valentine’s Break the Glass: hairline crack in a bowl of light but the light doesn’t leak away

From Quiver, Nat Anderson on sleep as her squeeze: “he turns that key so soft, I won’t know he’s come/ until he’s left me.”

& today’s other delight: the cranky connoisseurship of Fry’s Ode Less Travelled. He didn’t even have to write it for tenure!

If unpersuaded about deep links between EB Browning and Battlestar Galactica, check out the essays in Derek Furr’s Suite For Three Voices

Sf and adjacent territories:

No sf in Karen Joy Fowler’s wonderful We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, but it is all sf: sneaking up on the unknowable

Jo Walton’s Sulien walks in god-haunted woods between familiar versions of the world. I mean, she REALLY does.

Jo Walton’s Among Others made me wonder if I’ve been practicing magic for years. It’s brill.

Want to visit 2312‘s version of post-global-warming NYC and float along canals between skyscrapers #sfvacationdestination

Traversed @GrahamJoycebook‘s weird alt-world Silent Land through weird alt-world of headphones. Ears still feel packed with snow

@EmilyCroyBarker‘s #RealMagic, a scholar finds a portal. Turns out ice demons really like WC Williams, but Ashbery, not so much

What woke me up about #DoctorSleep is the poetry: incantation, sure, but also Eliot, Auden, and a kickass poet-great-grandma

Movies:

The excellent Much Ado reminded me cynics (Beatrice) morally trump idealists (Claudio). Also made me envy @josswhedon’s beautiful house

#Gravity proves my mom right: it’s crucial to wear nice underwear on field trips because accidents do happen

For the theory behind these tweet-length assessments see “Reviews the Length of an Irritating Splinter.” For another kind of conversation about art we love and how it worms into our brains, go to the latest issue of Midway, scroll down, and see some works of visual art by Carolyn Capps and the poems I wrote in response to them. The real landscape at hand when I drafted them were the Virginia hills around the VCCA.

Career Suicide

I’m risk-averse, at least financially. My mother felt trapped in a bad marriage by her lack of education and her sense that she couldn’t earn a decent living. I remember thinking as a child: come hell or high water, I WILL have my own salary, health insurance, retirement fund. I will never have to sit and swallow it while a man puts me down, mocks what I don’t know and can’t do.

There’s no such thing as perfect safety in money or anything else, but tenure’s about as close as I’m going to get: I have a job I love, a fair amount of freedom in what I say and write, and even a little fund for annual conference attendance. This year I spent a big chunk of the latter at the AWP in Boston, an 11,000-person conclave of writers blowing all kinds of crazy smoke. I had several gigs to perform. One of them was to describe modernist poetry performance for Iris Jamahl Dunkle’s very rich panel, “Shaking the Burning Birch Tree: A Celebration of Amy Lowell.” Another was to interview Rafael Campo for a magazine. A third was to emcee a panel I’d devised with the distinctly risky title of “Career Suicide.” As I said to the well-populated room, I had worried for months that audience members would rise up and berate me for being too flip about one word and too serious about the other—that is, using suicide as a metaphor for risks that are typically less apocalyptic, and for implying that writers should think in terms of “career” at all. After all, publishing and professorships are in some ways pretty tangential to the difficult and important business of getting the words right. Isn’t conceiving of writing as a career the beginning of a whole mess of problems?

I did register a number of people grimacing painfully when I told them the name of the panel, but no one stormed out. Instead, we had a pretty good conversation; I’m still pondering what we said and what we left unsaid. How much is any one of us willing to reveal, really, when the room is full of current and future readers, editors, and grantors? Talk about career suicide.

What we did say: a big topic was the risk inherent in switching or bridging genres. Lawrence Schimel has some particularly compelling stories about how writing gay poetry and erotica has been an obstacle to publishing children’s fiction under his own name in the US, but a useful credential-builder in Spain for the same enterprise. Place was a major theme, too. Luisa Igloria described leaving a thriving career in the Philippines for a position in the US where her previous accomplishments seemed to weigh little. She and Lawrence spoke movingly, too, about how marriage laws and cultural understandings of gender make a big difference in a writer’s life. Ann Fisher-Wirth told us about leaving a prestigious job where she was unhappy and eventually creating a career that fit her needs and talents just right. There were similar stories from the audience: sometimes, if you’re stubborn enough about what you want and/or what you feel compelled to write, you survive the hostility and resistance to make a decent place for yourself. We talked a little about physical risk, some about financial risk, probably most about reach and reputation. We broached the topic of the astounding generosity I see in many writers, but probably didn’t address it sufficiently: for example, editorial work, university service, or outreach to underserved populations make it difficult to get your own writing done but can make the world better. There’s so much to say about risk, really. It encompasses everything from how you word the first line of a poem to how you live on earth.

I like to bloviate about myself as much as any author, but I genuinely did call this panel together to hear what others had to say rather than dispense pearls of dubious wisdom. My own genre experiments were certainly on my mind, though. I’m thrilled by the good reception so far of The Receptionist and Other Tales, starting with those blurbs from sf writers I’ve never met but have adored for years, and peaking recently in a great review by Sally Rosen Kindred in Strange Horizons and a place on the Tiptree Award Honor List. I’m unequivocally proud of the book. But I do see now how a genre change can jeopardize the audience you’ve been building instead of, or in addition to, expanding that audience to include new readers. When I tell poets and editors about the venture, some of them just get this look, and I know they won’t even read the first page. I wonder about the implications for future reviews, grants, and opportunities.

But you know, while I’m scared, I’m not the least bit sorry. The creative dangers of this project have started conversations I’m enjoying wickedly. They’ve also somehow authorized more risk-taking in my new writing: I’m a little more likely to leap before I look.