That’s a line from “Pushing Toward the Canopy,” a pantoum in Blackbird and The State She’s In, and it’s an example of one of my own lines becoming an earworm, which happens to me all the time, although I probably shouldn’t admit it. Being at sea suits me sometimes. I like learning. It’s why I’m always trying unfamiliar forms and genres. I just published a short essay, “Hand of Smoke,” in Speculative Nonfiction, that’s about being a student and also demonstrates me in a state of experiment–what am I willing to say about myself in the plainer mode of prose, and is this a risk I can succeed at? Enjoying being at sea can shipwreck into stress pretty quickly.
The future is rushing at me fast, after a couple of months first in the bubble of my mother’s illness then riding grief’s first hard wave. My badly named college is graduating its class of 2021 tomorrow. The Board of Trustees has apparently already voted on whether we’re dropping Robert E. Lee from the name, but they’re not announcing the decision until June, citing security reasons. Either decision could change my relationship with the job. Would I search for a new position rather than continue to work for a place resolute in its association with white supremacy? Not sure yet, and I know I’d wait a year in any case, because I’m still cashing in on W&L’s college tuition benefit for my son’s pricey education.
The town is emptying out, the weather is steamy, the peonies are wilting, and there are only three months left of my sabbatical. I have an essay due to editors on Monday–it ain’t ready–and a twenty-page packet of poems for the Sewanee Writers Workshop in July. The following Sunday, Breadloaf Environmental Writers Workshop starts, and I have homework! I’ll be dedicating myself wholly to poetry during those times, but otherwise, I really only have five solid writing weeks left. Which is more than many people get in a year, I know. But I have three teaching preps in the fall, two of them new, plus editing and reviewing commitments to Shenandoah and the Fulbright Foundation, so my writing life is going to shriek to a stop come September.
The other side-effect of my mother’s death, though, is a changed perspective on what’s urgent. Apparently I CAN put everything aside for big swaths of time to take care of others and myself. I’d lost that muscle memory since my kids became independent. It’s a lucky thing to like your work, but work doesn’t always like you back. When it’s too much, it really is fine to say screw it. Literature is watertight and unsinkable.
Marianne Chan’s brilliant debut collection engages a wide array of topics with insight, wit, and brio: not only religion but colonization, copulation, space exploration, and family relations (her mother is a funny and wonderful recurring character). I fell hard for Chan’s work in the process of selecting pieces she had submitted to Shenandoah,and All Heathens expands on the pleasures of those pieces in a satisfying way. As I take notes for these micro-reviews I make notes in the back of each book about zingy lines and titles, and there are too many here to list. One of the most hilariously wicked poems is a retort to “When the Man at the Party Told Me He Wanted to Own a Filipino,” and there are so many great metaphors, too (“the sun was hot yellow tea in a saucer”). A few lines near the beginning of All Heathens crystallize something about the book for me: “my mother keeps telling me/ that I should move my hips when I dance, because I am as stiff/ as a Methodist church in the suburbs…” I’ve never met this author and can’t tell you how she would boogie if this virtual salon ended in a dance party, but her poems are full of oscillations and surprising turns that could constitute poetry’s answer to her mother’s instruction. Words can move, too.
If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be? Since we’re using our imaginations and I don’t have to worry about going broke, I think I’d opt for all of the food mentioned in my poem “Lansing Sinulog Rehearsal, 2010”: pancit, dinuguan, pinakbet, caldereta, lumpia, leche flan, bibingka and five Hot-N-Ready pizzas! We shall feast!
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? My answer to the first question is that I’m doing okay most of the time, and my answer to the second question is: yes, thank goodness, yes! Despite the worry and sadness I feel about the pandemic, and despite having to focus some energy on virtual book promotion, I’ve been able to write new poems. In fact, I think I need to read and write poems more than ever right now. Other than talking with friends and family, writing has been one of the only things keeping me centered.
Actually, that title sounds sexual–sorry. I MEAN to tell you how my year is ending, show off some cool student work, and wish you a happy solstitial impeachment frenzy.
My happy news–honored above by a photo of Ursula ecstatic about catnip–is receiving a Katherine Bakeless Nason Scholarship to Breadloaf Environmental Writers Conference this June. This is also the season I gear up for book publicity, and I’m SO glad to have ONE set of dates in stone now, as I query bookstores and reading series and the like. I’m thinking I’ll roadtrip to Vermont and book a few dates at mid-points along the journey, since both the poetry collection and the novel will be out by then. I’m also applying for additional conferences, residencies, etc., which is a ton of work. I’m really grateful that of the dozen or more applications I’ve already put out there, one came through. In the spirit of making visible my shadow c.v.: I’ve also received a cartload of rejections and non-answers (if you can imagine those ghostly silences filling up a cart, anyway). That’s just the way it goes, but it’s good to have one nice shiny “yes” to light up these long dark nights.
I’m also preparing, intellectually and socially, for the MLA conference in Seattle in January, where I’ll be speaking on a panel organized by Janine Utell called “The Space Between Creative Nonfiction and Literary Criticism: Theorizing, Writing, Publishing Critical/Creative Hybrids.” Right up my alley, but I still have work to do on my remarks. I have a lovely date set up with Jeannine Hall Gailey for the day I arrive, and I’ll also be reading with her on Saturday the 11th at Open Books, but I’d love to see as many friends as possible, so please let me know if you’ll be there.
That’s on top of Shenandoah and tenure-file reading, holiday prep, and all the other little tasks I fell behind on during the term, so this week has been pretty intense. I hope to put up a blog around new year’s, though, about the year’s reading, and another about certain resolutions that are forming in my stubborn brain. In the meantime, some delights from last week’s grading.
In U.S. Poetry from 1900-1950, my fall upper-level seminar, the students became so excited about researching little magazines that I ended up giving my students an experimental option in lieu of a second conventional essay: they could create 8 pages of a little magazine from the period, including a cover, masthead, mission statement, table of contents, and a few “solicited” submissions (mostly real poems from the period, but they were allowed to make up one or two plausible imaginary modernists, too, and write poems in those personas). They also had to write reflective essays explaining their literary and design choices and providing a bibliography of models and other sources they consulted. You’ll notice that’s actually MORE work than a conventional essay, but perhaps more fun. I’m sneaky that way. Pictures below, plus a particularly cool videopoem from my creative writing workshop.
As the New York Times reports, we’re seeing industry-wide hand-wringing right now about how rarely books are fact-checked, following scandals involving Naomi Wolff and others. I’m proud that Shenandoah editor Beth Staples makes fact-checking a priority: the interns comb through every piece we publish, following up on names, dates, and a host of other check-able details. Not every poem needs fact-checking, of course, but some do. For example, I posted my own poem about the moon landing recently. Most people wouldn’t notice if I got the date wrong, but some would, and spotting the error might impair their faith in me as a writer.
So what level of precision do poets owe their audiences? Spelling proper nouns correctly, and checking dates and quotes, seems important, if a poem references real-world people and events. The trivia doesn’t matter, really–if I tell you right now that my teapot is as blue as loneliness, but it’s actually an unromantic beige, that seems like a reasonable bit of poetic trickery. (Gotcha! It’s orange.) Even in a persona poem like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a piece that’s obviously fictional, you’d want to check the Dante quote before you hit send.
I just handed in copy-edits for my next book, The State She’s In–overcoming the usual Prufrockian abulia to do so, because finalizing a book makes me REALLY ANXIOUS–and the process involved a final round of fact-checking on my end. Several poems involve public history that’s important to get right. While I know I was careful during the period of composition, what if I made a bad mistake in a poem about slavery, say, or Confederate history? The vultures aren’t wheeling around my publications the way they do around high-profile nonfiction, but still, I’m addressing sensitive material.
For example, last year I published a poem in Flock. They nominated it for a Pushcart, bless them, although it’s a very tricky piece about studying lists of enslaved people once owned, then sold, by my employer. In it, I think especially hard about a boy named Albert, 13, who was the same age as my son at the time; his name appears on an 1826 list but has disappeared by the 1834 version, and I’m wondering what happened to him. This weekend, I went back to the sources one last time to check the names and numbers, and guess what? I’d made some mistakes. They didn’t change the tenor of the poem: I had to change “fourteen names further” to “thirteen” and the sum of “twenty thousand” to “twenty-two.” Still, I make the dodgy move in the poem of speculating about how Albert’s ghost might have answered me, if that were possible, and that’s enough risk for one poem. I’ll likely never know his fate, but I can damn well be true to the part of history that’s verifiable.
John Robinson’s List, 1826
This ruled and foxed document the only record of your name, followed by numbers firm and fat: three-hundred-twenty-five flat for Albert, age 13. Your face, nowhere.
Ma’am, you do not know the first thing.
Persons bequeathed by Jockey Robinson to this university, along with a thousand acres at Hart’s Bottom. A sepia squiggle ties you to Jerry, 53, and Elsey, 36, blind. Your parents? Dick, Amorilla, Claiborne, Pompey, sisters and brothers?
I couldn’t say but it does look likely. Some of the entries hint at stories. Creasy, 68, twenty dollars, but the note, in a column usually blank, offers a hard “worth nothing.” The cursive relaxed but well-groomed. A breeze huffs at linen curtains. A pitcher sweats on the marble sideboard. How unworried the appraisal. How satisfied the gloss.
Or thirteen names further, James the Preacher, 40, costly, his wife Mary, their eight children, eldest five hired out, down to eight-year-old Isaac for five dollars a year. What did James preach about to Creasy-without-price, “club foot” Nero, and “lame” Dick McCollum?
Your son is thirteen. Would he listen to a sermon or sleep right through? Are you like him? A quick boy, loves a game, strategizing always? I remember you, eyebrows hoisted, forehead grooved with notions.
No one gains by your imaginings. Unless you do yourself.
I can’t find you on the 1834 “List of Slaves Belonging to Washington College,” with Amorilla, Claiborne, Pompey, although I riffle all the bills. Eighteen months later Garland purchases nearly everyone to send to his Mississippi plantation: “Old Jerry was refused upon inspection.” After the commission, trustees count twenty-two thousand dollars into coffers. That money translated to red brick buildings, lichened shady trees, and my salary. Is that how you linger, a ghost of ink boiled from walnut shells? A row of desks, a library shelf, digits propagating in some faraway white-pillared bank?
Ma’am, I cannot say.
I’ve posted about revision A LOT in this blog–I just went back and reread this post from 5 years ago, which contains most of the wisdom I possess about ordering and pruning poetry books, and then there’s this shorter one about reading aloud to revise. Revision feels like a big subject, though, almost as big as the subject of inspiration in the first place. I think often about the day I first drafted the poem above: I was sitting in my office in the supposedly-haunted colonnade, shivering as I read that brutal history, typing out my questions, and then hearing the answers float up, a gift from my own unconscious, I suppose. The various days I wrestled with the poem, though, to make it as accurate as I could–those are important, too.
Sometimes the news just silences me: children suffering in camps, the Justice Department refusing to seek justice after the killing of Eric Garner, racist tweets from the white-nationalist-in-chief. I make donations and sometimes participate in political action, but mostly I’m sitting around like Ursula, all ears and touchy whiskers, no words. I will say, having just heard members of the “Squad” on the radio explaining, with some exasperation, that they do not comprise a conspiracy: for years, if I stopped on campus to talk to a distinguished woman professional or two, or went out to lunch with those women, male professors and administrators passing by would, without fail, pause with looks of alarm or mock-alarm and exclaim, “Uh-oh, you’re plotting!” It’s interesting that strong women in conversation inspire such paranoia. Let’s keep being scary.
Here’s a scary poem, with thanks to the editors at Verse Daily and at the original publisher, Cimarron Review. It’s from a blizzard of sonnets that overcame me during the last presidential election, the best of which will be in my next poetry collection. Otherwise I’ve just had my head down lately, revising Poetry’s Possible Words and ticking down my to-do list: minor jobs under deadline (reviews of various kinds), and house and family chores. Self-care is on the list, too: continuing to negotiate health problems but also talking to friends, reading a ton, searching for fox-themed clothes I can wear when I have a fox-themed novel to read from…
I’m pleased at how strong Poetry’s Possible Worlds has become, by the way. That’s my forthcoming essay collection (Tinderbox, 2021), a hybrid of contemporary poetry criticism and personal narrative, perhaps along the lines of “creative criticism” as Lesley Jenike describes it here (also see a cool example of it by Jenike in the most recent Shenandoah). One chapter of PPW appeared a few years ago in Ecotone; I’ve adapted another that’s under submission; and a third is nearly ready to go out. I’ve been trying to crank because I’m leaving Sunday for the MLA International Symposium in Lisbon, Portugal; we’ll spend 5 days there and then take a train up to Porto to vacation for several days. We return at the start of August, also known as the beginning of summer’s end–and final edits of my novel are supposed to arrive then, which I’ll need to throw myself into before the school year gets me in its clutches.
I may post a few pictures from the trip, but in general I’ll be trying NOT to work or fuss with social media. Aside from the conference, I just want to eat and drink deliciously, see lots of sights, and read novels for pleasure. It might frustrate Ursula and Poe to be in the care of an oblivious 18-year-old math whiz for 11 days, but I’m sure he’ll remember to feed them, and himself, occasionally. And I’m really grateful to be getting out of here for a while.
I read Beth Staples’ Editor’s Note to the new issue of Shenandoah aloud, in the car, from my phone. Chris and I were on our way to a poetry reading by Sara Robinson, Patsy Asuncion, and others at Ragged Branch Distillery–a gorgeous setting–while sun and clouds chased each other across the mountains. We had read an earlier draft of Beth’s essay, which was prompted by a piece of hate mail:
She nailed the revision, we agreed, and then argued about which was the funniest line in the piece. “From a person with questionable taste in fonts,” Chris insisted. No, it’s her rewrite of the opening of Pride and Prejudice, I countered. In any case, Beth’s remarks are important, reflecting questions I often think about while reading submissions AND reading for fun. In much contemporary fiction by white authors, nonwhite characters are typically described by race, while white characters get to be defined by other characteristics, like status or occupation or temperament–which makes me sputter with irritation when I want to be lounging with a paperback.
In verse, how a white author addresses, or sidesteps, whiteness comes through more clearly over a suite of pieces than in a single poem, mostly because a poem contains fewer words and less story than your average prose piece. A poem gives you select glimpses from which you intuit and imagine a landscape. Race, therefore, is sometimes a matter of hints and absences in the poems from this Shenandoah issue. I love them all, and I delight in the ways they refract different identities and experiences: 68.2 contains poetry about language, immigration, aging, abortion, artificial insemination, difficult parents, difficult children, difficult neighbors, food, friendship, nonhuman animals, love, anger, political treaties, sexual harassment, disability, music, apocalypse, and clowns. Race joins that heady mix, but mostly in poems by authors who are not white–and that’s something an editor, and an author, must think about.
Books of mine currently in the publication pipeline–especially a novel and my next poetry collection–DO concern whiteness. In early drafts of these works, I made mistakes, because my skill and thoughtfulness were inadequate. Many editors rejected many of those efforts–rightly, I now believe, although it was discouraging at the time. Writing about race in a contemporary or historical way, from the perspective of a white person who hasn’t always been required to pay attention to it, was/ is risky, and I’m not sure the products are thoroughly successful–I’m worried there are failures in the books I can’t yet see, and really hoping, if so, that my editors will call me out–but in any case, I did learn some things and end up with at least some good writing. I decided I’d rather fail by trying than by silence.
So I especially appreciate Beth’s Editor’s Note. If you find it provocative and/ or useful, also check out the “Gutting the Chicken” feature, about a flash fiction piece by Stephen Graham Jones that was initially rejected. The editors focused on gender questions the piece raised and missed some things about race, and I would say the author did something similar but in reverse, although all parties are brilliant and careful (I think Jones’ work is amazing). The intro, flash fiction, and accompanying interview would be a great suite to teach, raising some pretty interesting editorial and writerly conundrums.
But every piece in the issue is worth reading! I’m particularly excited about the novel excerpt (and eager for Joukhadar’s book–he’ll give a reading here in February). Don’t miss the special features at the bottom of the page, either, which are full of their own insights and challenges. I’m happy, heading into summer, that there’s so much cool stuff to read, even (or especially?) when it makes me uncomfortable–as long as the author doesn’t address me as “girl.”
A former student, visiting campus for her 20th reunion, was telling me about deciding to remarry, as we shared glasses of wine by the window in a local bar. She recounted how the man she was dating said apologetically, as they started to get serious, “But I’m just not ambitious.” Her face brightened as she described her delighted reply: “That’s fine! I’m ambitious enough for the both of us!”
I love hearing about my students’ ambitions–may they change the world, because it needs changing!–especially when I once knew them as brilliant but underconfident young women. This former student is happily working long hours, while her husband has happily shortened his to care for their two young children. If I helped model that for anyone now building the life she wants, veering from the inherited scripts to do work that lights her up, that would be AWESOME. I felt so guilty about my own choices for so long, but I’ve reached a moment, with my kids aged 18 and 22, when most of that guilt feels quaint. Yes, I failed as a parent sometimes, but never because I had an intense job or wrote poems in my scant spare time. The things I was stupid about, I would have been stupid about regardless of occupational and vocational status, because then, and now, I’m still learning how to be a decent human being. In fact, teaching and writing help me be a better person. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self some things.
After that glass of wine, I walked home through a small town under construction and swarming with alumnae/i, pondering ambition. It was very much on my mind in my mid-forties, when I started writing the poems in my forthcoming collection. My current working title for the latter is The State She’s In, but whether or not my editor ultimately agrees about that, I’m polishing the ms now and the book will be out in March or April 2020. The collection, in fact, contains a sequence of five list-poems called “Ambitions,” and I considered whether I could or should incorporate the word in my book title. I guess I was asking common midlife questions: what is all this striving for? Am I on a path towards something good, goals I genuinely care about? Am I fulfilling my responsibilities to other people, to my work, and as a citizen–not the trivial stuff, but the deep obligations? Then an ambitious woman ran for office, and a man who despises women trumped her, and some of my struggle over that episode is in the book, too.
As I veered off Main St. onto the smaller road that leads home, I realized I may have turned a corner where ambition is concerned. I’m not sure how much of the change comes from turning fifty, or other revolutions in my life, or even just the fact that three books I worked on for years all have contracts now, so I can afford to be less anxious! Maybe my state of relative equilibrium is temporary. But while I still think many kinds of ambition are good and important, and anyone who’s nervous about ambition in women is a sexist jerk, I find I’m not fretting about productivity this summer, for once. I can’t even drum up worry about the reception my poetry book will eventually meet (the novel’s a bit different–still feel like an imposter there). I have a number of writing projects percolating, and I’ll be helping my kids launch into college and the working world, but I’m mainly grateful that a summer slow-down is allowing me to strengthen these mss and plan for how I can help them find audiences. My chief ambition, I’m realizing, is to make the books as moving and crafty and complicated and inspiring as possible.
After this trio (poetry and a novel in 2020, an essay collection in 2021), I may have a few more books in me, but my writing years no longer feel limitless. The lightning of major post-publication attention doesn’t strike most people and probably won’t strike me; I can live with that. I can’t control the luck, but I can make each book deserve readers and find at least some of the people who would enjoy them, and that’s what I’m really striving for. Well, deep down. I’m sure I’ll keep getting distracted by the other stuff, but the kind of ambition that ties a person up in unproductive knots seems to have less of a stranglehold on me than once upon a time.
Is this a Mother’s Day post? Maybe; work and motherhood have been tangled up with each other for my whole adult life, both logistically and emotionally. Plus, on Mother’s Day itself I’ll be reading at the Ox-Eye Vineyards Tasting Room in Staunton with Lauren Camp and Susan Facknitz, thanks to Cliff Garstang’s organizational genius, and then bringing Lauren back down to W&L for a reading on Monday, all of which is right after launching the new issue of Shenandoahthis Friday–in other words, there won’t be much blogging time. I will be leafing through poems, though, trying to find the best pieces I’ve written on being a mother and a daughter, and maybe pondering whether I have any other important things to say on the subject. Because, you know, if it matters, I could find a couple of hours.
Fall term is over except for the grading, and THANK GOD: I had terrific students but a lot of them, and I really had to drag myself over the finish line. But winter term starts early here–January 7th!–and it will also be a busy one, so one of my tasks over the next few weeks is to finalize syllabi for two courses. One is “Protest Poetry,” which starts with the Civil Rights era, moves through Standing Rock and ecopoetry, and ends with independent projects: students have to identify their own causes, find some public way poetry can serve them, enact their plans, then write reflective essays. The other is a multigenre introductory creative writing course, moving from flash memoir to poetry. I’ve never taught either before so, yikes.
Even as this term’s portfolios and papers come snowing down and I organize next term’s particulars, however, I’m trying to bask in another grand finale: the re-launch of Shenandoah. It’s stunning how much Editor-in-Chief Beth Staples has accomplished since she started in August: the dated-looking website has been radically redesigned on a new server, but most importantly she recruited exciting new work–a few pieces by distinguished writers who’d appeared in the magazine under R. T. Smith’s editorship, but many, many others from writers who might not have considered sending to us before, so that the issue is more inclusive than ever along every possible axis. I say “us” because Beth, who has a collaborative spirit, included her new colleagues as volunteer readers from the beginning, and by mid-fall had appointed several of us as genre editors, including Seth Michelson for translation, Chris Gavaler for comics, and me for poetry. I didn’t read every entry or make every call on acceptance or rejection in my genre, and that will be true of the next issue as well (towards which a lot of work has already been accepted) but I did read thousands of pieces (and am still processing the last few from our fall reading period).
So, OF COURSE I’ll be teaching poems from the new issue next term. My syllabi always include plenty of books on paper; I love print as a medium. But a digital issue can be a great addition to the mix: free, ultra-contemporary, and diversifying a reading list in interesting ways. Below are some thoughts about how to use the poetry section of 68.1, or an online journal generally.
Reading assignment for any group of poems:
Read all the first lines/sentences. Which do you like best and why? Now read all the poems. Does your favorite first line belong to your favorite piece? Why or why not? (This is a good exercise for creative writing students getting a handle on craft.)
Or: identify three strategies at play in these poems that you might want to try yourself and discuss how they work. (In this issue, for instance, there are prose poems, free verse in various arrangements, a persona poem, an ode, and an erasure–check out the erased/ unerased text toggle on “Ethos of I C E”! There are also poems in numbered sections; unconventional uses of punctuation, capitalization, spacing, and abbreviations; elegies, anti-elegies, and riffs on obituaries; and a wide variety of allusions.)
A response paper topic I’ll use for Protest Poetry: Now that we’ve talked about whether or not poems can be “useful,” choose a couple of poems from this issue and write about what potential work they might do for a reader or a community of readers. Which help you think about a problem or an institution in a different way? Did any of them alter your mood or spur you to do additional research into a topic? Which might work best at a rally, in a waiting room pamphlet, on a poster, in a valentine card?
More ways to teach these specific poems:
If you’re teaching elegy: try Patrick Kindig; both poems by Victoria Chang; the poems by John Lee Clark; Janet McAdams’ “Thanatoptic.” On a related note, Hai-Dang Phan’s poem would pair well with Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” and other poems about monuments–it’s also very much an eco-poem that situates the human dead amid “veteran elms” and other representatives of the more-than-human world.
The John Lee Clark poems would also fit into readings about disability, as would Jeannine Hall Gailey’s “Introduction to Writer’s Block,” which adds contemporary politics to the mix, and the question of how we write when our bodies force reconsideration of our ambitions and oh, that’s right, the world’s in flames.
There are countless ways to teach complicated poems, however, and all these are complicated in beautiful ways. I’d love to hear your ideas. In the meantime, hey, just spending an afternoon READING the work is a lovely thing…And hey, if you’re on Twitter, please follow us at @ShenandoahWLU. Some long-ago intern set up the old account, @ShenandoahLit, and we no longer have full access to it, so we’re rebuilding on social media as well as everywhere else. Lots of work to do!
There’s this late-fall moment, every other year, when many U.S. poets feel a little dejected: once again, no NEA fellowship. This year, for reasons I don’t entirely get, I just shrugged it off. Too busy, maybe. The thought had also hit me the week before Thanksgiving–oh, wait, I bet they’ve decided already–so I felt resigned by the time the email came. It’s just one of those honors I may never earn, although I hope one of my long-term comrades in feet* picks one up, one of these years. I know a bunch of very good poets who are not stars; many of them are middle-aged women, a category that often gets the short end of the stick. Poetry fashions skew young, like fashions in everything else.
One of those fashions right now favors poetry of joy, praise, sexiness, gratitude–and I don’t say that in a disparaging way at all, because I love a lot of the work.** But while I want my writing to lean towards kindness, love, and other happy endings whenever possible, because it’s a hard world and books should help us imagine a better one, I also find myself muttering: you know, screw that. I lead this privileged life and still feel touched by so much sorrow and worry; I’m also basically a serious person from a long line of dissatisfied depressives. Performing lyric joy with my achy body and anxious brain, under the current U.S. administration and amid national conversations about racism and sexual assault, is just not authentic. You wouldn’t believe me. The trend feels linked, to me, to how social media compels so many of us to overemphasize the positive most of the time, because that’s what sells, or gets likes, or whatever.*** We’re just doing too much celebrating, dammit.
I see a therapist from time to time and we had an hour this week in which we talked mostly about self-doubt. She rightly points out that I have a pretty good resume, career-wise; my loved ones, though afflicted sometimes with crises, are basically okay; that I would do well to ease up and slow down. I do not have to be so afraid, say, of never publishing a ms or writing a great poem or getting pats on the head from the prize-dispensers again. I agree with her and we talked about ways to balance my commitments better. I also argued, however, as I argue to myself sometimes, that self-doubt is a necessary part of being a decent artist, and maybe a decent human being. If you don’t stand back and say, “hey, maybe that writing sample wasn’t really good enough to ensure a grant win,” how do you grow? Isn’t a drive to keep upping the bar a necessary pressure? Shouldn’t I keep questioning myself and my work?
Well, I’m probably rationalizing, because that’s what people do. I doubt my self-doubt. Happy December, my writer friends. Put up those twinkly lights, and don’t mind the darkness encroaching.
*That’s a stupid pun, sorry. I just thought “comrades in arms” sounded too military.
**Think of Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil, for instance. They perform poetic joy even as they admit and face the world’s essential crappiness, somehow. But I think they may be taking vitamins that aren’t sold in this state.
***I absolutely do this–only getting on FB, for instance, when I have good news. Hey, did I mention my brilliant mathematician son is interviewing for a fancy college RIGHT NOW? Or that my class is doing a HAIKU DEATH MATCH on Monday morning at 11 in the Elrod Commons Living Room at W&L, because I’m kind of a creative and risk-taking teacher? Or that I’m now poetry editor for Shenandoah, which is launching NEXT FRIDAY? All true! My life is so fabulous! But for once, let’s relegate fabulousness to the footnotes.
One cheerful thing about bare trees is the omen of changed rhythms: the hard work of fall is coming to fruition, with dream-time ahead. Two more weeks of teaching, then I hope I’ll finish making decisions about the terrific poems lingering in Shenandoah‘s inbox. Editor-in-Chief Beth Staples is frantically gearing up to relaunch that magazine in the next couple of weeks (the new logo, for instance, will debut by Twitter count-down any minute now, so watch @ShenandoahLit). Other editors are obviously sorting through their leaf-duff, because I had a rejection over Thanksgiving that made me sigh, and an acceptance that made me giddy (Beloit Poetry Journal!–a magazine I’ve long admired but never before cracked). I have poems in the handsome new issues of Cascadia Subduction Zoneand Manifest West, and Sweetvery kindly featured me on their blog on Thanksgiving Day. I also had the pleasure of slowing down for a few days in a Virginia Beach rental house with my immediate family, my mother, my brother, and one of my daughter’s housemates–as well visiting nearby egrets, sea turtles, sting-rays, and more. I love my students this term and have some cool lesson plans for the end-game, but lolling around with books and pie, as well as taking long walks on chilly beaches and in the Back Bay Wildlife Refuge, were very much needed.
One task I completed just before the trip was a residency application for 2020 (!), which gave me cause to reflect on where my poetry has been and where it’s going. I knew midlife had been a big topic in recent years, but I realized more clearly just how much of my poetry has also been about anger, more specifically women’s anger. Now I’m thinking about the consequences of anger, how it can be useful but also harmful, so my poems seem to concern healing and metamorphosis. My new magazine publications contain some of each–poems from a complete ms, in which I’m coming to terms with being middle-aged in the middle of nowhere in an especially messed-up part of a messed-up country, and from a newer ms, just taking shape, that I feel superstitious about describing yet (except in grant/ residency applications, in which you basically have to act like you know EXACTLY what you’ll be writing for the next two years). Peeks at two of the older poems, “Fifty-Fifty” and “White Noise Machine,” are below.