Poetry, pickled

I spent a lot of 2017 thinking about what poetry can DO. I wish poems could stop inhumane deportations and government shutdowns, and I hope poets will keep trying to make the world more kind and fair. Mostly, though, my aims are smaller in scale: can writing this poem change ME for the better? The stories we tell about ourselves really matter, and I’ve been trying to tell hopeful ones. After all, that’s what I want to read–literature that acknowledges the complicated mess we live in but ultimately tilts towards love.

Now, two weeks into a new class on documentary poetics, I find myself thinking about poems, instead, as testimony, carrying some part of the past into our present attention. That’s not unrelated to poetry as spell, prayer, or action, but the emphasis is a little different. The poets we’ve been reading–Rukeyser and Forché at first, and a host of Katrina poets now, including Patricia Smith, Cynthia Hogue, and Nicole Cooley–are asking what we need to remember. Their poetries still look towards the future but are more explicitly grounded in history. We’ll be sailing even further in that direction soon with Kevin Young’s Ardency, a book I’ve never taught before. (I’m really excited about this class, but once again I’ve scheduled a lot of new labor for myself, as if destroying work-life balance is my explicit goal.)

Then these arrived in the mail. THANK YOU, SCOTT NICOLAY!

cans

There’s art just in the words on the stickers, right? I’m excited to taste what delicious parts of an apparently bad year my friend transformed and preserved for me. And I’m thinking , too, about poems boiling up in me that I can barely snatch time to can, these days. What surplus can I doctor up and put by for another time, when I or somebody else might need them more?

Well, not much, maybe. I’m working flat out right now just staying on top of tomorrow’s obligations. But I do have some jam from April 2014 to share this Wednesday: I’ll be reading from Propagationand my colleague in the History Department Roberta Senechal de la Roche will be reading from her poetry chapbook, at 4:30 pm on 1/24 in Northen Auditorium in Leyburn Library at W&L. There will be a fruit and cheese platter, coffee and tea service, and books for sale, and I will endeavor to keep the poetry tasty–but, selfishly, I won’t be sharing Scott’s plum-pluet-Asian pear jam with amontillado. Maybe visit me with a good baguette, and we’ll talk.

In the meantime, here’s a poem from a few years back. It’s about another government shutdown, with salsa verde on the side. My thanks to One for serving it up.

Collaboration

Lone wolf humanist here to tell you that while reading and writing in solitude are some of my favorite things, experiences with intellectual and artistic collaboration have astonished me, shaking loose all kinds of work and thinking I might never have otherwise produced. As poets

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Merrill and Jackson: collaborators on a seance-based epic?

Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton say in this great piece–which ends with the “10 Commandments of Collaboration”–working with another person can produce a “third voice” likely to surprise its parents. Yes, teamwork can slow down or intensify the labor, a big problem if you’re on a tenure clock or your collaborator’s literary metabolism differs radically from yours. I’ve also seen it speed and improve work in various genres. Writing can beget more writing.

That’s why, for the early-summer edition of my Modernism/ Modernity blog on the writing process, I’m seeking short reflections from scholars, editors, teachers, students, and artists about collaboration, in hopes that a collection of perspectives will shake good work loose from other writers, too. I sent out an email to some modernist scholars who collaborate, but I’d like to hear from people outside my network, so if you have something to say, please contact me! You can post replies here or email them to wheelerlm (at) wlu.edu, but I need responses by May 15th. The assignment:

  1. Choose one of the following prompts, or ask your own collaboration-related question, and send me an answer of under 200 words, along with a bio of 1-2 sentences.
  • How has collaboration changed your writing, your thinking, and/or the direction of your professional life?
  • What advice do you have for people considering a collaborative venture?

You can write this with a collaborator, if you want, or try a two-way interview. Just please keep it short and sweet. Alternately:

  1. Forward this to a friend or collaborator and ask him or her to write a reflection on one of these questions, or on another question you’d rather ask. It can be submitted directly to me, with a bio.

I’m looking for collaborators on modernism-related projects, but you can define that however you like. Collaborations in teaching as well as research, editing, and writing are absolutely fair game, as are student responses. Cautionary tales as well as positive stories are welcome—collaboration can be a complicated endeavor. (One of my first co-authors was my spouse, Chris Gavaler, on an article about H.D. for Sagetrieb, and we did a lot of anxious joking at the time about how commas were posing a marital problem.) My goal is to put together a June blog for the Modernism/ Modernity Print-Plus platform in many voices, with diverging perspectives. You can see the inaugural “process” blog post here, if curious.

lettersI could describe lots of other projects here, because I’ve been experimenting for a while now. Editing Letters to the World with a team of women I’d never met was a huge, at times stressful project with a beautiful result. I also love revisiting these poems I composed with Scott Nicolay in an email-based game of oneuppoetship. Last but not least, every class discussion is a collaboration, as we argue our way towards a joint reading of whatever text is to hand.

But I’d rather hear from you.

Union of future literary titans

 

Twenty-four years ago this June, Chris and I set up our first shared apartment. Possessions: a double bed my mother purchased (“don’t tell your father”); one brown vinyl couch with no rear legs picked up off the street, so if you sat down on a humid August night in shorts you wouldn’t be able to peel free until October; and a tipsy round table with white plastic bucket chairs from a university surplus sale. We took a further step and made things legal twenty years ago this week; the wedding was a wonderful celebration. Our most momentous decisions, though, occurred in the summer of ’89, when Chris was managing the database of a regional theater in Montclair and I was buying an improbable number of texts for my first graduate courses. We moved in the wee hours, because the new tenants of my previous house claimed possession at midnight. Our friend Scott Nicolay had a truck or a station wagon, I can’t remember, but he was always game for adventure, so he shuttled our belongings over to the first floor of that old stucco house in Highland Park, New Jersey. We were babies, but we were also somehow right about each other.

 

The stickiest problem, besides the couch, was merging our book and record collections, although after a little wrangling we devised a system that compromised my alphabetical ordering with his topical clusters. Chris and I got to know each other through Anthologist staff meetings—that’s the Rutgers College poetry magazine—so books were at the center of our friendship from the beginning. I studied his copies of Watchmen, Cerebus, and Dark Knight, and then handed him my Charlotte Brontë. We read Dante to each other at night and Adrienne Rich. We argued about chores and Derrida.

 

We were also reading each other’s pages, learning how to deliver tactful critique to the person you sleep with but more importantly cheering each other on. I was and remain mostly a lyric poet; Chris began that way, but his poems started mutating into thirty-page collages. He spent a lot of time in rare book rooms reading missionary diaries back then, learning about the Lenape. Probably Scott got him started—Scott grew up nearby, found arrowheads in his suburban backyard, and made the history of the area vivid for both of us—but in any case, Chris was thinking through problems that required large, complex architectures. Within a few years, he would shift his primary effort to novels and stories.

 

We were writers. We had plans. Art and marriage were intertwined endeavors. One day we wanted children and better furniture and a house of our own, but we also wanted magazine publications and author photos and artistic triumph. We were fascinated by Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, devouring their books as they hit publication, gleaning what information we could about their glamorous writerly marriage. Okay, it didn’t turn out so well, but we were striving for some ideal version of that. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath without the carnage.

 

You know the bit about “wives of geniuses I have sat with” in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, really written by Gertrude Stein? Chris and I, over the years, have taken turns playing genius and wife. We’ve both struggled not to feel invisible and dull while the other was fêted. Mostly, though, we root for each other strenuously and help each other materially. Magazine publication started to click for both of us when our kids were little. Our first books were accepted the same year. Perseverance is key to getting anywhere and I wonder if I would have struggled so insanely hard without Chris’ model. Rejection is constant but if you’re always telling someone else to suck it up and keep going, maybe you talk yourself into the necessary persistence, too.

 

Right now Chris is revising a novel for an excited literary agent. Could be the big one. Another thing we’ve learned together, though, is about the randomness of it all: you get a major acceptance and then the press crashes, but then another day some prize or honor hails on you out of the clear blue. Even more peculiarly, you attain the goal you’ve been striving toward for years and then it starts to feel ordinary. Every success is shadowed by some could-have-been, dwarfed by some higher peak in the distance. The only cure for the constant sense of inadequacy is writing itself, although it’s nice to have company for the ups and downs. 

 

Twenty years ago, twenty-four years ago, though, if we could have seen our 2013 resumes, we would have been damn impressed. All we had then was our unreasonable faith in ourselves and each other, vague plans for world domination, a crazy work ethic, and a promise to stand by each other through it all. We have those bylines and decent couches now, although we’re still waiting on the paparazzi.

1989

Amygdala, shut up

While I boiled myself in the bath Sunday morning, emerging so puce-colored and limp I had to start drafting a blog post because I was just too weak to go buy groceries for my hungry family, I thought about how I’d woken up at five a.m. in a panic about my Twitter handle (too long! full of inconvenient caps! wait, is Twitter even case sensitive? I’m so stupid!).

I suffer from post-talking insomnia. If I’ve said anything at all to a friend, coworker, sales clerk, etc., I fret later that I’ve been insensitive, dumb, or boring. After forty-something years, I can almost always let the worry go after one bad night: really, if it’s still on your mind after the first cup of caffeine you should apologize, and if not, life will probably struggle on.

Each new way of talking, though, dials me back to middle-school-level fits. Facebook almost killed me. I had to sign up. First, I was researching poetry networks in the late aughts, and it seemed pathetic that I hadn’t participated in any virtual ones except for an email listserv. Second, I was planning on half a year in New Zealand, and for all Facebook’s faults, it really is one of the best ways to keep up with friends and family internationally. Finally, over a meal at the West Chester Poetry Conference, Ned Balbo told me to suck it up. Actually, he was very polite, but he did tell me that once you figure it out, you only need to spend ten minutes a few times a week to be a decent FB citizen, which turned out to be true, although when you’re really procrastinating that flickering feed can be dangerously mesmerizing. What destroyed me about the medium, though, was that standard writer’s dilemma of sussing out your audience. How could I post to modernism scholars, my local go-out-for-a-beer friends, my cousin the truck driver, poetry journal editors, college administrators, stray Republicans I’m on uneasily-friendly terms with, and, yikes, former students all at the same time? Starting a blog presented the same problem: for whom was I writing? Last summer I signed up for Twitter to follow my department’s new feed, although I didn’t really mess with it until last week, as a new year’s resolution to just try it, urged on by a few friends and that NYT article people keep sending me. I asked my daughter for advice on tweeting and she said “always be funny,” which of course completely paralyzed me, and not only because I’m rarely funny on purpose. It’s the same who’s-listening-question: funny to whom? Who really gets my lame jokes anyway except Chris and my college friend Scott Nicolay (@methysticin) and certain other poetry nerds, especially repeat-students whom I’ve forced to read everything I love and who have spent shocking amounts of time listening to me chatter?

Besides audience anxiety, or linked to it, there’s the identity question. Each medium invites you to present some facet of yourself, perhaps strategically. It might behoove me to talk like a poet-scholar-endowed-chair in all publishing arenas, which FB and Twitter certainly are, but when I hear other people doing that, it sounds bloodless at best. The funniest things I could tweet are mostly weird comments from my kids, but I don’t want to be a professional mom either—too many people are ready to define middle-aged women that way and I think about lots of things besides my fascinating children, thanks. I have strong feelings about politics and contemporary culture but rarely have an insight or cause to trumpet that someone else hasn’t already blogged about more eloquently; my head’s in the poetry-clouds so I’m just not fast enough. And while Neil Gaiman can tweet about his exercise regimen and still be interesting to people, well…let me know when you really want to hear what brand of mass-marketed tea I’m sipping while I’m watching some TV show six months later than everyone else.

For the blog, I decided I’ll be a poet/ poetry-reader who argues that everything is relevant to poetry and poetry is relevant to everything. Which isn’t much of a decision, really. In Facebook, too, I settled on ignoring the “groups” function and just posting occasionally about any random experience that seems at least slightly interesting, funny, or noteworthy, and not worrying about who’s listening. Basically, I’m just being the same me everywhere.

What works for me is to approach posting the way I approach drafting a poem. That is, I don’t know whom I’m writing for—some ideal geeky tender-hearted reader maybe who likes Emily Dickinson, David Bowie, Dorothy Sayers, Farscape, Langston Hughes, Ursula K. Le Guin, H.D., Thomas Sayers Ellis, Cake, Kim Stanley Robinson, Billie Holiday, Homeland, The Decembrists, Philip Pullman, Rickie Lee Jones, Gwyneth Jones, Rafael Campo, Octavia Butler, cussing in a pirate voice, dark chocolate, red wine, good bread, that handmade French ewe’s milk Roquefort the cheese lady downtown sells (can you tell my other resolution is to eat and drink less?). Anyway, if I’m imagining any reader at all, it’s that dactyl-obsessed slant-rhyme-loving totally anonymous unsexed calorie-padded soul mate. I’m not afraid to tell hir everything, and even better, if s/he doesn’t respond, my feelings can’t be hurt. After all, even if we never speak, I know s/he totally gets me. (I do think about specific readers, including editors, when I revise poems, but while I fiddle with poems for years, a blog might ferment for a day before publication.)

I don’t know if adopting that attitude is genius or an exceptionally bad career move, but this will be my mantra next time a hashtag experiment leaves me sleepless: it’s just like every other kind of writing. Be interesting. Be truthful. Be generous. All at once, in a 140 characters or fewer, several times per week @LesleyMWheeler. While simultaneously producing books, articles, and poems in a constant fever pitch of inspiration as agents, publishers, reviewers, and fans cry up to the office window in faint but passionate voices: “I’m hir!” Okay, not likely.