Virtual Salon #9 with Sara Robinson

Since poetry, like bourbon, has a long shelf life and often a long trajectory of rising to wider attention, I’m including a couple of 2019 authors in this salon series, including Sara M. Robinson. Blurbing her new book, Needville, I wrote, “So many voices smolder in Sara Robinson’s ambitious new collection. Evoking a fictional coal town named Needville, she channels exploited miners; dying canaries; guilty consumers of coal-fueled electricity; and even the voices of mountains themselves. ‘How are poets like geologists?’ one poem asks. Robinson’s answer is to take the long view, probing the mighty forces that shape us. This powerful book treats its subject with precision, compassion, and not a little fire.” (Hey, I think I succeeded with that blurb! They’re micro-reviews themselves and not easy to craft.)

I find this week that it’s also a rewarding book to reread. Different images jumped out at me: a mountain gutted like a deer, “naked creeks with muted pulses,” fatback sizzling and jumping in an old black skillet, a miner discovering a mammoth in a deep vein of ice, and the observation that “we will all turn to carbon & silica one day”–as well as a rash of Rite-Aids, Dollar Stores, Hardees, and peanut butter nabs. Sara has deep roots in Appalachia and her passion for it pervades the book. She also worked for decades in mineral industries, so many poems have a scientific bent, too. Check out the mini-interview below, including Sara’s excellent ideas about cocktails.

  1. If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

I would have a new bourbon drink called Black Water, a mixture of Writer’s Tears Irish Whisky and a splash of branch water. I would have grilled cheese sandwiches fashioned in the shape of lunch boxes. And for dessert I would offer Lemon ice cream with spoons in shape of little shovels. All would be served in a diner made from a coal car or rustic cabin/shanty. Main entrance would simulate going into a mine shaft. Lantern lights. Dripping water and iron clinking as background music. Fiddle playing intermittent. 

2. If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

I would say I am totally frustrated with our government right now and yes I am able to write. I wish I could write more about the pleasures of whisky drinking but the latest news is really interfering with my enjoyment. I keep wanting to come up with whisky cocktail names like “Shelter-in-Place, Shelter Dog, Old Miner Boots, and Hollertini.”  I have written a few poems about the current state of things but mostly I am composing concrete poetry using lines from the daily paper as verse. These I post on FaceBook. 

3. How can your virtual audience find out more?

I would love to start a blog someday, but in meantime, I’m on Facebook and also easily accessible by email. I’m available for group Zoom conversations or FaceTime. Also Needville debuted as a play this year and actually had a real audience (right before the virus shutdown) under the direction of NY Director, Tom Evans. It was videoed and copies of the play are available.

Commencements



“I, too, am not unhopeful,” Saidiya Hartman said to Wesleyan University’s Class of 2019 during a long, hot ceremony on a bowl-shaped lawn. Soon-to-be-alumni/ae in the audience, including my daughter, wore robes of Handmaid’s Tale scarlet. I was turning scarlet in the sun, wondering what we were all on the threshold of.

I loved Hartman’s oration, which was deliberately weird. She analyzed the genre of the commencement address and explained why she wasn’t going to fulfill its conventions by offering advice towards a shiny future that it’s currently impossible to believe in. Her beautiful lines sounded more like poetry than persuasive rhetoric. I scribbled down some fragments, like “the gift of bare uncertainty that hurls you into adulthood.” The longest chunk I captured: “These remarks are really an elaborate ask. Speculate how the world might be otherwise…we pause in anticipation of the world you might make.” As she then pointed out, the expectations attached to commencement addresses were sucking her in after all: how can a speaker, and just as importantly, a teacher, address such a cusp without a glimmer of curiosity about what comes next?

After the cap-tossing and the toasts, my family of four headed to Cape Cod for a few days, to take a breather and contemplate other borderlands. We stayed on Lieutenant Island, which is only an island for 1 or 2 hours a day, when high tide reaches the salt marshes and makes it impossible to cross the wooden bridge. I drafted a couple of commencement-themed poems there, and we took lots of walks and ate lots of delicious seafood. Also, to be unsocial-media-ish: I had nightmares, and my daughter was sick, and plenty of bad news penetrated our bubble. It’s good to have all the ceremonies behind us, and I’m really proud of what my children have achieved. I feel grateful, as well, for so many lovely moments–long breaths poised on the water’s edge, not looking forward or backward–but I can’t say my heart is peaceful.

We’re home again now, trying to get sorted for a summer of work, about which I am a little anxious, always, but not unhopeful. I have writing and revising to do as my graduation sunburn peels; my son is doing math research for a W&L professor; and my daughter will soon be teaching in a summer camp while she applies for policy-related jobs in D.C. (employment leads welcome!). In the meantime, anyone in the Charlottesville, Virginia area can look for me at 2nd Act Books on the downtown mall on Sunday, June 9th. I’ll be reading there with Sara Robinson from 2-4 pm. I promise a few writing prompts toward the possibility of a peaceful, productive summer. A wild dream, I know.



It’s red, reflecting all our sunsets

Prompt: next time you’re at a meeting or professional event, write down the weirdest things your colleagues say. Using one of those phrases as a title, without permission, close the door or at least conceal your screen and write a poem when you should be working.

A couple of years ago–maybe it was during a sabbatical, or maybe I missed the awards ceremony for some other reason–Deborah Miranda told me about an especially peculiar public verbal ramble initiated by someone especially prone to such digressions. “I don’t know how or why,” she said, “but somehow he started talking about cabdrivers during the apocalypse.” “Poem title,” I said, and we both bowed our heads to necessity. Deborah published hers on her blog more than a year ago–a radioactive prose poem, or maybe speculative flash fiction, from the perspective of the person behind the wheel. Check it out here, but watch out for the zombie rats.

cabdriver

My cabdriver likes to give advice, has a sort of philosophical take on gender after the end of the world, and is clearly influenced by certain strong female characters on The Walking Dead, a show I still watch compulsively even though it’s much less smart and riveting than once upon a time. It’s also the only show I forgive for casting mostly skinny women, given the post-zombie-plague food situation (though I find their endless supply of tight-fitting jeans implausible). Mostly, though, my poem, like a lot I’ve written lately, is about surviving middle age. Having walked through the door of age fifty, I DO know what the moon really thinks of you. “Says the Cab Driver of the Apocalypse” just came out, appropriately enough, in the new Moon City Review, handed off to me at the AWP last weekend. Thanks to the editors from granting me right-of-way.

Warm thanks, too, to Patsy Asuncion, who has been organizing Women’s History Month events at The Bridge in Charlottesville. I’ll be reading there with Patsy and Sara Robinson a week from today, at 10:30 am on Sunday 3/25 (and there’s lots of other great stuff, too, including a Le Guin marathon reading). There will be mimosas and other refreshments, and I’d be happy to sign a copy of Propagation for you. Until then, back to business, because middle-aged women have serious zombie-fighting to get on with.

The thing about April

My writing ambitions for National Poetry Month were NOT going well. The end of Winter Term–final classes, visiting writers, grading–doesn’t sound like a good time to reestablish a daily practice, but it has worked for me before. I love spring, when the natural world changes so rapidly from week to week, so when, like this year, I’m not booked to teach our short May term, I tend to feel invigorated and optimistic. Plus, I’d written much less than usual this winter because work was particularly stressful. Partly good stuff, like running a successful search, and partly bad stuff, like being on the receiving end of my university’s familiar old blaming-the-victim culture. But a break is in sight. I thought my chances of making poems happen were decent.

Not so much! Energetically avoiding writing, and especially submissions, for the first half of April did turn me into a dynamo of productive procrastination. I graded with admirable efficiency, got a checkup and a haircut, etc etc. But I avoided the blank page entirely or extruded unsuccessful poems painfully. (That nasty verb “extruded”–I know you don’t like it, but it fits.)

The work is starting to come, finally, and it wasn’t what I thought it would be (meaning, overtly political). Older and more personal material is coming to light. Well, okay.

A frank conversation over lunch with a good friend helped. So did an overnight escape to the Peaks of Otter lodge in the Blue Ridge, where somehow we had never been. The weather’s been gorgeous, sunny days with just an edge left of winter’s coolness, flowers everywhere. We hiked up Harkening Hill, sat on the balcony overlooking Abbott Lake, ate plenty, slept hard. The next morning Chris and Cam climbed the still more strenuous Sharp Top trail while I walked the lake path, a poem coming together in my head. Since then, ideas are popping: oh, I’ve never written about that, or that, or that.

The submissions work is still languishing but there’s hope…and I have some readings coming up, all of which involve new and old friends. All are free and open to the public.

Tues April 18: 7:30 pm, The Colonnades in Charlottesville, VA with Sara Robinson and Seth Michelson

Sun April 23: 5-7 pm, Pale Fire Brewery in Harrisonburg, VA–just one poem here in honor of Leona Sevick‘s book launch for Lion Brothers

Sat April 29th: 3 pm, CityLit Festival in Baltimore, MD (11 West Mt. Royal Ave) with Jane Satterfield, Betsy Boyd, Marilyn Moriarty and Laurie Kruk, in celebration of the anthology Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland

I’ll leave you with just a stanza from a powerful debut collection I read on the balcony overlooking Abbott Lake: The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded by Molly McCully Brown. It begins a poem called “Where You Are (III),” and it sounds pretty much like the painful, hopeful spring I’ve been having.

The thing about the Shenandoah
is everything is always bending
its knees toward ruin or preparing
to rise from the ash.