This week has been a bummer. I voted for Elizabeth Warren, whom I love love love but who did poorly across the country in Super Tuesday. It’s been clear for many weeks that she wasn’t going to win, so I’m more resigned than some to this country being a sexist retrograde mess, but still… I’m also worried about coronavirus–not freaked out yet but worried, less for myself than for all the immune-compromised people out there, including my mother and many friends, some of whom lives very close to the quarantine implosion in Seattle. Further, colleges are a petri dishes, although I can see that mine is taking this chance of pandemic seriously. So many people at W&L just got back from travel to hot zones, so I and many others think the bug is already here, incubating. One little fact that struck me: I have a relative who’s a VP at a major insurance company and she said they’ve been preparing for one of these hundred-year major pandemics for 5 years, because it’s due. If Big Money is worried, the risk seems more real. I sure hope this is a false alarm; I’d be delighted to have egg on my face. I am, after all, a Cold War baby who did nuclear bomb drills in grade school–the threat of apocalypse has always been on my mind. But, worrisome.
Also, and I know this will rightly seem trivial to many, I’m so sad about AWP. I decided to opt out for several reasons: I have a cold and didn’t want to expose people to it on the plane, nor deal with their alarm at my sniffles, nor pass through security wariness. Further, one of my panels got canceled, I knew attendance levels were crashing, and my press (very understandably) decided to not to come. Advance sales at AWP are a big deal for the success and visibility of a poetry collection, which is my best yet and which I’ve been hoping would make a tiny splash. If you’re interested in it, I hope you’ll consider ordering it at an excellent discount from the Tinderbox Editions website. Just use the discount code AWP2020. In fact, check out all your favorite small presses, many of which canceled and are giving similar #virtualbookfair deals. I’ve been buying a lot of books myself.
There are compensations, plus more than my share of good things happening. I sorely needed some rest and time, and since I had already arranged makeup assignments for my classes, I’m taking it. Bonus: many friends who couldn’t attend AWP are enjoying these bookfair perks. A few lovely people have lately offered to review The State She’s In (which, by the way, is a pretty political book–let me know if you’d like a copy for reviewing or teaching). If you can, I hope you’ll look at some of my recent publications: poems in Kestrel andLiterary Matters; microreviews of recent collections by Erin Hoover and Amy Meng in the very first issue of Revolute;an interview in the anthology Inside the Verse Novel, edited by Linda Weste. Please, friends, stay well, and if you get stuck at home, read poetry!
Guys yelled slurs and catcalls from fraternity porches and dorm windows. At Rutgers in the late 80s, walking to class could be an ordeal, so one of the first things I learned at college was how to disappear behind an armor of apparent indifference. I often arrived at lectures and seminars demoralized, and sometimes what happened in the classroom compounded those feelings. One distinguished politics professor announced to a sea of nodding undergrads that Othello was about how attracted women are to violent men, then mocked me for sticking my hand up to protest (race haunted the dynamic he was evoking, but I didn’t have the words to call him on that). Or there was the French professor who spent the period discussing the bohemian chic of my outfit. Yes, it was a great sweatshirt, thanks, but I would have rather learned about Flaubert. It was painful to feel so looked at all the time, so minutely surveilled.
Yet while my English professors were a mixed bag in their temperaments and talents, not one of them ever reduced me to a stereotype. What mattered, in those Rutgers English classrooms, was the work I did, the quality of what I wrote and said.
I marvel, when I look back, at their dedication. I know now that the politics of teaching in a state system can be hard; the pay’s not great, classes are large, and support is often limited. Yet even when those professors must have felt intensely frustrated, they managed to make me feel respected. For instance, I’m not sure I even knew there was an award for the top English honors thesis until the winner was announced, so I had no expectation of receiving a prize–I just remember thinking, when I heard the winner’s name, that I’d heard his work (on Wordsworth) and found it unimpressive. But then a senior person in the department pulled me aside and said something like, “A number of us argued that you deserved the honor, but there was a faction in the department who wouldn’t let the prize go to a young woman working on Rich and Sexton.” He affirmed that I wasn’t crazy–that the game was rigged, and not in my favor–but also that I was doing good work. People whom I admired valued me, even went out on a limb for me. An instance of nearly-invisible bias was transformed into an affirmation I would carry with me for the rest of my life. Of course, that guy presumably still thinks his win was unrelated to gender, but maybe we’re culturally in a place to discuss that now.
These experiences came back to me at the end of this fall term, when I was asked to take part in a faculty development panel called “Tough Talk in Troubled Times,” convened by my wonderful colleague, the history professor Sarah Horowitz. The topic: what hard conversations are we facing in classrooms right now, and how do we handle them? A primary source of the toughness here in Virginia has been an intense argument about race and memorialization–our university is named partly after Robert E. Lee. But hateful talk from the President about immigrants, and harsh new immigration policies, have major implications for all U.S. educational institutions. Plus Fall 2017 was the #metoo semester, bringing a new honesty about the costs of assault and harassment. It’s a lot to manage in a writing seminar or a poetry course (or in any other context).
The panel was great, focusing on responding to anger and prejudice by asking questions–as another colleague put it, intervening with a calm, “Well, let’s talk about that.” Sometimes you have to name bias and tackle it head on, but you stand more chance of opening minds when everyone has room to do their own clear, hard thinking. As usual, questions are the answer. I felt like an impostor on that panel, giving advice about managing volatile class discussions, because I’ve made a ton of mistakes. I realized in preparing, however, that I do have a governing ethic, and it stems from my undergraduate experience at a busy state campus, so different from the pretty lawns and freshly-painted columns of Washington and Lee.
I never expected my professors to fix everything wrong with my university, because it was the same stuff that was wrong with the culture at large. In any public place, it just wasn’t safe to be a woman. Daylight hostility became, after dark, groping and rape. When I was assaulted, it never even occurred to me that I could or should report it–the lesson I learned was to protect myself with more vigilance.
But I was angry when the classrooms I entered failed to be zones of respect. It was fine to be criticized if I hadn’t done the reading well or my arguments were shoddy, but I shouldn’t be praised for cuteness or shamed for having strong opinions. My serious-minded Rutgers English professors encouraged mutual respect as well as respect for the literature under discussion. I still bring that egalitarian idealism to the classrooms I supervise, although I’ll never fully solve the questions of what fairness means and how to foster it.
Since I started in the 90s, I’ve seen enormous cultural shifts in what students feel entitled to say in W&L classrooms. Twenty years ago, I sometimes had to stop class to explain that homophobic slurs were not acceptable; this fall, when I assigned digital storytelling in first-year composition, one student chose to focus on the first time she kissed a woman. We workshopped the story as we did all the others, and while I was moved nearly to tears by witnessing that grand new normal, I kept my emotions to myself, mostly. Some things really have changed.
Of course, some haven’t. I know of repulsive behaviors that occurred on my pretty campus this fall, although they’re not my stories to tell. And while these days, I don’t hear brutal young men sneering from porches, that’s just because surveillance has gone virtual. I assume that some of my students–maybe even the ones who look like they have it all together–are coming to the room raw from verbal and physical assault, and direly in need of literary discussion as a sanctuary. I don’t mean that our discussions are apolitical; they can’t be when you’re teaching Yeats and Ginsberg, Hughes and Clifton and Carson. But our conversations are respectful of the work, and of human beings within and beyond the room.
I don’t have any particular resolutions for 2018 except to keep giving others careful, serious attention. Maybe if more classrooms could be zones of respect and compassion, disrespect outside of the classroom would become harder to sustain.
Yeah, I know that’s small-scale and slow, but it’s what I’ve got, and at least it honors the gifts I received thirty years ago. Happy New Year, stay warm, and I’ll be back in 2018 with more about reading, writing, and teaching poetry (plus a New Year’s Day piece on Poetry Daily!).
I’ve always had the sense that people looked at me skeptically when I characterize my life as damaged by sexism. I’m a US-born person of European descent who never had to go hungry. I obtained a good education, was legally able to marry the person I love, and now earn a respectable living. How bad can it be?
Yet I’ve also been discriminated against, groped, and raped. I’ve done work I’m proud of despite the constant battery–I’ve fought hard, that is, to prove myself, even as others hurt or just underestimated me–but those achievements are often disparaged or overlooked. The message: as a woman, I am less than a full person; I don’t have rights over my body; I can’t be trusted to lead. And now roughly half the voting adults in my country have confirmed that message by electing a woman-despising groper to the presidency.
Yes, I’m taking this election personally. It is personal. As I write, at dawn, my phone is buzzing with misery. Downstairs, my son and husband are choked up and slamming around. I feel terrible for my brilliant feminist children, and for my students, even though some of the latter surely voted for our criminal president-elect. They’ll have to live with the repercussions longer than I will, and who knows what the world is in for?
At the top of this post is a sunset picture I took a few days ago in Tampa from the River Walk. I was in town for an AWP board meeting, trying to serve an underfunded organization that serves writers mightily, but I was also just aching from a brutal week at work, so I thought, well, I should take care of myself, by spending a couple of hours walking, looking, breathing. It felt good. Tampa is going to be a great site for the AWP conference in 2018–how awesome will it be to duck out of the convention center between terrific readings and walk along the water in balmy weather? I was, in short, tired and worried but also optimistic. I thought, well, there’s a lot of poison at my college and everywhere else, but I know an awful lot of good people who are working to clear it out. That’s auspicious, right?
I guess it still is. The same good people–like the AWP staffers who left the Gwendolyn Brooks quote below at my place setting–will keep battling to make the world better, one word at a time. And this morning’s news certainly clarifies my work as a writer and teacher.
I don’t feel safe, but now it seems even more vital to voice that persistent truth. I don’t know how I’ll be handling all this in my classes today, but I will convey that I like and respect all of my students and hope to help them thrive. That is, I’ll make safety, or try to, while, somehow, we live in the along.
“The last thing I thought I’d be doing today is talking about Walt Litz,” Molly Peacock marveled to me. I’d admired her work from a distance but never met her until last week, when we ended up sharing a few lovely breakfasts at the Faunbrook B&B, before panels at the West Chester Poetry Conference. Over berry parfaits, I learned that her partner, Joyce scholar Michael Groden, had studied with A. Walton Litz decades ago. Walt was first reader for my own 1994 dissertation on Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, H.D., and Gwendolyn Brooks. Molly and I didn’t realize, as we spoke, that Walt had just died nearby, in a Princeton hospital.
I don’t know how many dissertations Walt directed, but I meet his former advisees all the time. At the 2012 T. S. Eliot society meeting in St. Louis, braver scholars were stripping down for a chilly dip at the Phlebas the Phoenician Pool Party. I was swapping Walt stories with other resolutely-clothed modernists and acquiring the name of his nursing home. Nervous about calling, I mailed Walt a note afterwards, but I never heard back.
In his glory days, Walt was a powerhouse of a department head, as well as one of the biggest names in the field. By the time I met him in 1990, he was growing frailer, but he was still fostering networks, dispensing favors, and teaching popular courses. He would take me to lunch at the Annex, a little basement restaurant near Firestone Library, before his three-hour afternoon seminar on the Modernist Long Poem. When I arrived at 11:30, the waitress would be whisking away two martini glasses and serving him a civilized glass of white wine and a boiled egg, though he couldn’t really eat much anymore. I’d order a grilled cheese and we’d chat. The Spenserian Tom Roche, lunching alone at a nearby table, would listen without embarrassment and sometimes chime in. Omar Pound might stop by and massage my shoulders in a totally inappropriate and disturbing way, trying to engage me in conversation about Lorine Niedecker. I was Persephone—treated royally but still trapped in a weird and slightly sordid academic underworld.
Even boozed up, Walt taught memorably; I still quote him in my own courses. I also served as T.A. for a couple of rounds of his undergraduate lecture course on modernism. He basically blew the dust off yellowed old notes before reading them aloud—a way I would never teach—but they were interesting notes. And then, in 1993 I think, he collapsed at the podium; an assistant professor named Doug Mao, who has since become a leading modernism scholar himself, took over the lectures; and Walt was ushered into retirement. I was one of the last students he helped with one of his legendary hire-this-person phone calls. In the winter of 1994 I had a campus visit at Washington and Lee. W&L still employs old guys who don’t want to work with women, but back then it employed many old guys who would openly say, “I don’t want to work with women.” English was fending off an EEOC lawsuit and needed to diversify pronto. I was told later that Walt, a genteel southern man who knew how to sound all the right notes, reassured them I was competent but not especially volatile, a safe compound to introduce to the department’s chemistry experiment. “She’s pleasant to work with,” he reported, “but she is not a doormat.”
I’m grateful to Walt for giving me good advice—about conducting archival work, negotiating my job offer, and a million other matters—while granting me space to follow my own stubborn muse. When I told him I didn’t like Four Quartets as much as the early Eliot, he smiled and said, “It’s a poem for middle age. Wait a couple of decades.” When I wanted to write about Gwendolyn Brooks, he was not pleased, but he nodded. His one response to that chapter, framed as compliment/ comeuppance, was also the most shocking thing he ever said to me: “You almost make it sound as if she were worth writing about.” I was too young and green to understand his prejudices, his generosity, or the potentially terrifying extent of his power. I just knew how to get along with alcoholic old guys, being my father’s daughter. Further, while my father was terribly pained by my independence of opinion, Walt seemed indulgent of it; I was grateful for some academic fathering that was mostly angst-free.
And how strange that Walt died while I was unpacking at Faunbrook! As I wrote last week, the last time I attended West Chester, my alienated alcoholic Republican father had just died at the Philadelphia V.A. Hospital and I was waiting for details about his funeral. So this will forever seem like the Dead Patriarch Conference to me. The event itself is full of men who operate in a sexist and racist way, as well as better folks trying to take deep breaths and maintain a positive attitude. I had stimulating conversations with old friends and new, but I also observed one distinguished poetic statesman onstage who kept egregiously passing over the raised hand of a younger African-American woman to call on older white people. I attended a number of moving readings and generative panels (Marilyn Nelson was particularly stunning), but I also saw members of a closed club congratulating each other ad nauseam.
You learn from the bad as well as the good, though. One of those breakfast conversations with Molly Peacock will haunt me. Echoing what female actors say about Hollywood, she told me that her metaphor for turning fifty as a woman poet is taking the purple veil. She observes others of her generation ceasing to be sexually desirable to the fifty- and sixty-something men in power, and therefore becoming invisible when it comes to the honors that waft towards some men in the same age-range. Some women pass through it by seventy or so, though, she said—good roles exist for grande dames and grandmothers. In the anniversary panel for A Formal Feeling Comes, the fix she prescribed to women was criticism-writing: don’t be afraid, she said, to frame the standards you’ll be judged by.
I wonder, as I march through my own forties, if I’m spending too much time blog-writing when I should be bombarding high-circulation magazines with my prose. Lots to ponder. In the meantime, thanks to all the West Chester attendees who were open, wise, and thoughtful. And thank you, Walt, wherever you are. I really am tremendously grateful for all you taught me. Even though I learned just as much from my paper mentor, Gwendolyn Brooks. Who is definitely, permanently, transcendently worth reading.
I’m not sure how soon I’ll post again because I’m off to France shortly: if you’re lucky enough to be in Paris next week, check out http://poets-live.com/. Also, I forgot to mention last week that The Receptionist and Other Tales made Ms. Mentor’s summer reading list for campus novels—woo-hoo!