Change of State

The poetry collection I published almost exactly a year ago, The State She’s In, roughly coincides with the moment the U.S. started taking Covid-19 seriously. I was on alert in February, to the point that when we took my mother out to dinner for her eightieth birthday, I wondered whether I would ever see her again. I was an outlier then but most people caught up soon. On Friday March 13th, 2020, my university announced that it was going virtual. A few days before, when he was at home with a friend for spring break, my son’s college did, too. I had already panic-bought a lot of food, but I snagged canned vegetarian soup for my son’s friend, because I expected us all to get sick and it was possible his friend wouldn’t be able to fly home to India (he managed it, with difficulty). No one wore masks because we didn’t know the virus was airborne and the government told civilians not to snap them up. I mourned my book party, which was organized to the hilt and scheduled for the following week. I also felt like a selfish jerk for being sad about it. I still have the favors I meant to give out then (message me if you want stickers or a signed bookplate!).

As fast as the world was changing, the material in this book didn’t date as fast as I expected. It contains a bunch of poems about approaching 50 and menopause, and I had already fallen off those cliffs in March 2020 (although the hot flashes seem like they’ll linger forever). Yet menopause has become a more openly-discussed subject than ever and it was cool to catch that wave. The State She’s In also addresses the Trump apocalypse, but as I started giving virtual readings, that topic still seemed pretty damn relevant, and continued to be so at least until January 2021. The parts of the book about learning the history of where I live and the fights about local memorializations are still very much underway.

There are lots of poems in the book, too, about the landscape I inhabit, and the pandemic has acquainted me with it more deeply. We’ve tried to take a weekly hike in a different site most weekends, and yesterday we explored the countryside north of Staunton and hiked a bit of the Wild Oak Trail along the North River (picture below). There are vestiges of a former railroad boomtown up there, Stokesville, that I’d never even heard of, and while rolling pastures are common in this region, they were especially dramatic. Driving the country roads felt like riding a yo-yo. I’m very tired of my small town and ready to travel for book promotion, if that becomes possible and/or bookstores will feature aging books among the new releases (please check out my novel Unbecoming, too–it’s fun, I swear!). Yet clearly there remains a ton to learn about where I live.

And meanwhile, who could have predicted the state I’m in now? My teacher daughter, my mother, and I all received our first shots in the last ten days. (I’m eligible because having a BMI over 25 makes me elevated-risk, which seems both bogus and dispiriting, but I’ll take it.) I received the Moderna vaccine, and the following day, I was intermittently woozy and headachey and even more insomniac than usual. Honestly, the latter could be a kind of future shock. I’m a veteran student of apocalypse, but I hadn’t imagined this.

The vaccine site epitomized the current weirdness. There was a Peebles department store on the edge of town for decades that went out of business a couple of years ago. Then it became a Gorman’s, which also died, and then the state leased the empty building for vaccinations. I arrived there Friday morning and a line snaked out the building, the most people I’d seen in one spot in ages, but it moved with rapid efficiency. Cheerful guards at the door kept us spaced six feet apart. Inside, I checked in then waited on along a switchback line made of yellow caution tape strung along traffic cones. Above our heads hung purple retail signs saying “big names not big bucks!” and “fashion is fierce!” The jab with a tiny needle was painless. I waited in the sea of chairs for longer than the required 15 minutes, just watching people and feeling stunned. It looked sf, surreal. Even more strangely, the people inhabiting the dreamscape were fizzing with hope.

Virtual Salon #3 with Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers

There’s one scar
             a river carved, but this ground isn’t
a bible you know. True,

there are chapters
            of basalt and clay,
but no leaves get saved between them.
           -from "Amazonis, Mars"

The Tilt Torn Away from the Seasons by Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers documents a different crisis than the one we're currently, ineffectively navigating: people depart from Earth's terrible environmental damage to help settle a colony on Mars. As a big fan of Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars trilogy, and as someone who fantasized in childhood of rocketing off in interplanetary travel, I love this premise and its inventive execution. Rogers' language is lovely and surprising, and she's exceptionally formally adventurous. "Red Planet Application," in which she mimics, you guessed it, an application form, reminds me (in a good way) of Oliver de la Paz's powerful "Autism Screening Questionnaire" series in another wonderful new book, The Boy in the Labyrinth. (At least I remember that as a series--I'm away from most of my books now.) There are also loose riffs in The Tilt on more traditional forms, such as two unrhymed sonnet crowns and "Lolita's Rover Ballad."  Often Rogers uses the page as field in the tradition of Charles Olson, a strategy that particularly suits the book's strange terrain. Finally, like all good sf, this book interrogates history, such as the gendered violence that accompanies all kinds of missionary experiments. Below, she attends the next meeting of my Virtual Salon.

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

Whiskey, I believe, is the only true drink mentioned in the collection–it’s pretty dry on Mars–and maybe we could use it to make red-planet themed cocktails in space-aged looking glasses.

Eats: Olive varieties from the old Gethsemane (referenced in “Arcadia, Mars,”). Lolita’s candy stash, which includes old-school jawbreakers (“Lolita’s Rover Ballad”). Fried rice, eggs, and magic mushrooms (from “Seven Catastrophes”). 

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?

Right now, on top of the terrifying crisis we’re all a part of, I’m dealing with the disappointment of having my robust book tour cancelled.  Some things will be rescheduled, but it’s not the spring I was expecting. I’ve been mostly home with my baby since he was born last April, and instead of going out into the public, I’m home with our kid. 

This pandemic is going to change us as a culture in ways I can’t even imagine. We’ll be talking about it for the rest of our lives.

Writing-wise, I’m in a period of relative quiet, I would say. We have a small human here, and it’s been so hard to write this year; it’s hard to even think. My biggest goal this year is to make sure he was taken care of. I’m always writing–slowly, badly–and it takes a very long time for me to figure out what the next project really is.  I’ve been writing a lot this year about parenthood and climate change. One of those subjects is perennial for me; the other is new. I also have a book of essays I’m trying to publish. Stay tuned.

How can your virtual audience find out more?

Acre Books’s page; author‘s page; and you can order the book here. The Tilt Torn Away from the Seasons was a Rumpus Book Club pick, and you can read our various conversations here: https://therumpus.net/2019/12/why-i-chose-elizabeth-lindsey-rogerss-the-tilt-torn-away-from-the-seasons-for-the-rumpus-poetry-book-club/ Here‘s an interview with the journal MEMORIOUS about the book.

*Finally, dear readers, please check out an interview about The State She’s In on Will Woolfitt’s terrific Speaking of Marvels blog. It includes my thoughts about research, giving readings, and the difficulty of writing whiteness, plus a PLAYLIST for the book. All kinds of writers and editors are volunteering to bruit new poetry books now. I’m so grateful to Will and all of the rest of them!


			

Incarnation: WisCon

I’ve been a virtual sf author since Aqueduct published The Receptionist and Other Tales last summer: you can conjure me by textual transportation device. At WisCon this weekend, though, avatar and body will undergo fusion.

I’ve given readings from the book all year, but on all those occasions my primary identity seemed to be poet. At the “World’s Leading Feminist Science Fiction Convention,” though, my primary identity will be person invested in speculative fiction. Which I truly am. But I still feel jittery as I pull on the boots.

If you’ve gone to grad school—especially if you’ve been a woman in a fancy program—you probably remember episodes of feeling like a complete impostor. I often thought my admission was an accident or grudging concession: I was offered a fellowship by a state agency so Princeton said oh, all right, dammit, we can let in ONE New Jerseyan. I was the youngest person in my year and one of only two who had attended a public university, so I felt constantly outclassed, outread, and intellectually outmaneuvered.

O miracle: I scored a decent job as I was finishing my dissertation. I worked really, really hard, for years. I caught up. There are still huge holes in my education but I know a lot of stuff about twentieth- and twenty-first-century poetry. I’m confident enough that I don’t worry much anymore about the gaps—very few are as well-read as they let on, really, and I plan to keep educating myself for at least three more decades.

I wonder how much of my confidence is rooted in the actual work I’ve done and how much comes from authority being mirrored back at me by other people, especially in classrooms, at conferences, and at the various other places we strut our professordom. I noticed this year, as I read course evaluations and exit surveys, a number of remarks such as great teacher but doesn’t have an enormous ego. This made me laugh, wondering which of my colleagues were being implicitly accused of egomaniacal behavior. Even if I don’t project a sense of overweening self-importance, though, it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the ego-boosts of teaching. I do. I just cited praise from my course evaluations, for heaven’s sake. And I love it when people ask me for advice or an opinion and then listen to the answer as if they expect it to be smart. As my daughter says about herself: being bossy is, like, my favorite thing.

And yet I keep throwing myself into situations in which I really am a green, untutored creature. I guess I like being a student. I’m attending WisCon in part to make the book visible to people and in part just to listen, learn, take it all in. I’m hoping that because it’s a feminist conference—fiercely egalitarian in all its communications with attendees—the whole ego parade thing will be less in evidence than, say, at the AWP. It’s an adventure, in any case, a portal into an alternate universe.

The protagonist of my poetic campus novella, “The Receptionist,” is also a half-reluctant, timid sort of quester. The alternate reality Edna inhabits remains vivid to me. People who know my real colleagues keep asking me who’s who in the poem’s imaginary English department and it really doesn’t work that way. I visualized the elfin Victorianist as someone I met elsewhere years ago. The dragon resembles several distinguished older women professors I’ve known, but physically I was projecting Helen Vendler, whom I’ve never met. Many have said, “oh, the hermit woodsman is totally Jim Warren,” and I get why, but I actually saw him very clearly as a small, dapper, wiry, silver-haired man, a little more formal and courtly than our real Americanist. The problem dean is definitely an amalgam of administrators I’ve known or heard stories about from friends, but mentally I dressed him up like the perfectly-nice-to-me postmodernism expert Andrew Ross as he was photographed for the New York Times in the nineties: longish black hair, bright mustard-yellow jacket (I think this is the article but the picture I remember isn’t attached). See?

Oddly, as far as seeing goes, the only character I can’t visualize is Edna. I would have said that I identified with several characters in my story, but drawing a blank on her features, build, coloring, and clothes makes me realize I was really looking over Edna’s shoulder the whole time, focused on how she saw others rather than as others saw her. She’s probably a good person to think about as I beam out to Madison, Wisconsin. A good watcher and listener, definitely jittery, but when she hears that voice in her ear, she’s willing to leap through a painting into the Narnian ocean.

And off I go to Madison, as soon as we get this batch of too-flattering students graduated. I’ll be moderating a panel Friday, May 24th, 9 p.m., called “Women’s Speculative Poetry Now” with Amal El-Mohtar, Shira Lipkin, Sofia Samatar, and Sheree Renée Thomas (Conference Room 4). And I’ll be reading in an event called “Overflowing the Aqueduct” on Monday, May 27th, at 10 a.m. with Eleanor Arnason, Nancy Jane Moore, and Deb Taber (Michelangelo’s in the Best Western Inn on the Park). If you’re also visiting this particular dimension, please say hello.