Modernists Vs. Zombies, the Rematch

“J’accuse!” shouted our daughter last night. No, not really, but she did hold us sternly to account for misleading her. Our dinner table conversations had given her the impression that science fiction and fantasy were high-prestige literary modes. Now, in her junior year AP course, the most seriously literary English class of her life, she has learned this is not, in fact, true. Poor child, raised by evil spiders in a sticky web of lies.

It’s that pre-Halloween grading-like-a-demon season—what northern hemisphere English professor has time to blog, excepting my insanely prolific spouse, who dragged me to Carrie for a Saturday night study break? Still, I feel provoked enough by an article in this morning’s Chronicle of Higher Ed to jot a few words of protest over my leftover sweet potatoes. The author, Adam Brooke Davis, seems like a dedicated teacher who wants to do the best he can by his creative writing students. The comment section, while full of fascinating and very smart responses, also brims with the usual ad hominem attacks (“this is so stupid!” “no, YOU’RE stupid!”), and he doesn’t deserve them. Still, as a serious poet and a serious speculative fiction reader, I find “No More Zombies!” seriously depressing. Since the article is paywalled, here’s the opening: “I banned alt-worlding from my advanced creative-writing workshop. Told my students that their fiction had to take place in real environments with real people, facing problems that are actually likely to confront us (as opposed to stories involving international spy rings, penal colonies on Proxima Centauri, or aliens).” He goes on to describe the sf premises of a series of student stories, some of which sound hokey and some kind of interesting. He then laments their reading practices:

“On their own, students were reading The Hunger Games, Twilight, and World War Z, and most of their experience of narrative came from time-constrained, market-determined, sponsor-vetted, focus-group-tested, and committee-created television and movies. I tried to provide some other models, including contemporary writers like Annie Proulx, Ha Jin, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Louise Erdrich, Alice Walker, and Raymond Carver.”

He doesn’t say so explicitly, but this list strongly implies he knows full well that the best contemporary literary fiction is full of ghosts, mutants, dystopian futures, and gothic horror. (Come to think of it, what is my daughter reading for that English class? Morrison’s revenant tale of undead American history, Beloved.) Strong writing can address any kind of story in any milieu; it just requires skill and understanding of the precedents, qualities a good workshop can cultivate in any student who is willing to work hard and read widely.

The sentence that drives a stake through my heart, though, is Davis’ assertion that “I gamely acknowledged the potential for allegorical treatment but tried steering the class toward the real world—what people want, what obstacles they face, that sort of thing.” What a reductive way of reading, and what a narrow way of understanding what’s real! I’m right now preparing to teach a wonderful essay by Ursula K. Le Guin called “The Critics, The Monsters, and the Fantasists,” in which she argues, “true fantasy is not allegory.” I’m not sure what Davis is getting at near the end of his piece when he alludes to the “purposes” of writing, but as Le Guin insists, books are not tracts. “Relevance,” one of those values realism is supposed to achieve, doesn’t equate to literary power, but even using that benchmark, I can testify that alt-world tales, when they’re very good, can be at least as relevant to our lives as realism. I admire Faulkner, but Tolkien has been of more use in helping me consider what I want and what obstacles I face, to use Davis’ criteria. Fantasy’s engagement with the “pre-human and non-human,” as Le Guin puts it, is more ethically challenging to me than anything I’ve found in Fitzgerald or Hemingway—though I’ve taught their work often and love much of it, their visions do not alter how I live. Le Guin’s vision, however, sustains me.

I’m all for challenging students. Make ‘em read books they don’t like; give them assignments that feel unnatural. I love rhyme, but I’ve created temporary bans against chime when faced with rhyme-addicts in my workshops, just as I try to kick against my own poetic reflexes. And I wouldn’t object to a workshop teacher pointing out that our literary culture has a strong prejudice in favor of realism, and students should get to know this dominant mode, whatever they want to write eventually. Davis projects a sense, though, that realism is somehow the basic, fundamental thing, rather than a fashion from which genre fiction only diverged a few decades ago.

Of course, there are moments in Le Guin’s essay that rankle, too. “The modernists are to blame,” she tells us. “Academic professionalism is at stake—possibly tenure.” Well, yes, I’m a modernism scholar with tenure and I do see justice in Le Guin’s claim. But realism=academic, fantasy=populist is too simple a binary. As I keep saying, my modernist poets are actually pretty fantastic. Eliot, Frost, H.D. and others find poetic power to be essentially mysterious. No more zombies, no more “Waste Land.” If we can’t overthrow our own prejudices as teachers and really see the weirdness latent in the canon we love, how can we expect to open anyone else’s mind, either?

There, a 1000 word rant in a lunch hour. For more considered prose in which I contemplate my father’s likeness to T. Rex, see my recent essay in Verse Wisconsin, “The Dinosaurs Are Breeding.” If you’ll be near Fairmont, West Virginia this Saturday, too, I’ll be reading some poems at Heston Farm Winery from 2-4 with other Kestrel contributors. I’ll try for a selection that’s literary, serious, and not mundane at all, because man, you should see my email in-box. Life is realistic enough: bring on those magical elves.

Poetry as speculative fiction; or, being naive

I don’t share in ritual contempt for literary criticism as an enterprise—how could I and still bear to live with myself?—but having spent too much of the summer engaged in a massive review of several critical fields, I feel annoyed about the whole endeavor. English Departments are full of brilliant, passionate people but most of them aren’t using their publishing powers for good: shouldn’t criticism persuade others that reading and thinking about literature are intensely rewarding experiences? Dull writing is The Big Awful. If you can’t be consistently fascinating you should at least be clear and concise, and few of us meet that bar.

My peeve this week, though, is how every critic fondly dismisses the previous critic’s naïveté. Oh, Frye, he’s so naïve about genre. Oh, all those guys, they think literature is mimesis. Silly theorists. Here’s how things actually stand… I find myself wanting to answer with a manifesto claiming naïveté as my personal philosophy just to save everyone the trouble. It’s okay, Future Critic. I already know I’m benighted.

I really am doomed to be so damned. I’m writing a book about twenty-first century poetry, arguing that it’s all (well, often) speculative fiction or perhaps fantasy. Definitions of the latter tend to include the words “possible,” “knowable,” or “reality”—I can promise you this because I’ve read ALL OF THEM—with the frequent co-stars “strange” and “uncertain.” Fantasy is literature preoccupied with the question “what’s real?” or its corollary, “what are the rules?” Its arch-nemesis, according to various explainers, is sometimes realism and sometimes science fiction, both being arts invested in plausibility, whereas fantastic literature proposes that everything is more mysterious than we thought. I prefer “speculative fiction” as a term to “fantasy” because it suggests a useful kind of blurriness, potentially including straight-up genre books as well as all the crossover territory, but for most people it’s so blurry it doesn’t mean anything, so I may have to give it up. The working title of my book is Poetry’s Possible Worlds and since June I’ve drafted four chapters of a projected dozen. I’d like to sketch out the whole monster in the next thirteen months, but I’m burnt out right now and I teach full-time from September through May, so we’ll see.

I realized in early July: oh, I’m writing literary theory. Which is stupid, because I have a limited tolerance for reading literary theory; the gist is often interesting but the nuances make me sleepy. And sleeping through chunks of Jameson or Todorov is bound to make me extremely naïve.

Worse: I can’t even use the butt-covering jargon du jour. Poetry’s Possible Worlds is also a book about reading. It’s aimed at anyone with some interest in, though not necessarily deep knowledge about, contemporary poetry. Each chapter begins with a poem quoted in full. Permissions will be tricky, but it’s really important to me that readers have their own encounter with each poem before I start messing around with it. My premises are that it’s pleasurable to get lost in a poem’s pocket universe, that we should take poetry personally, and that we have a right to our own responses. The chapters add layers to those responses by telling stories about the personal contexts of my own readings—yep, that means memoir—as well as fiddling around with exegesis and what-it-all-means argument (a.k.a. theory). I think twenty-first century poetry is absolutely worth reading. I’m selecting focal poems with variety in mind (national and aesthetic diversity as well as diversity in race and gender), but my most important criterion: I have to find each poem powerful, and imagine it could detonate powerfully inside readers who don’t recognize allusions or linguistic fashion statements.

Anyway, you can see why I really need next week’s mindless beach vacation. The chapters are not very long (4000-4500 words each) and the writing has been really fun, but it taxes every resource at my command. The style is essayistic—driven not only by arguments but motifs and lyric association—and I’m including a scaffolding of endnotes, at least for now, to keep track of the sources influencing me most. I’m getting feedback as I go from my spouse, a fiction writer who’s really good at macro/ structural considerations, but mostly I’ve just been charging ahead like a maniac. I’ll probably send a couple of chapters out to lit mags that publish creative nonfiction with a critical bent, but I’m not ready yet. I need to be quite sure of where I’m going first. Plus, creative writing just needs more fermentation time as text than the writing that appears in scholarly journals, which is really just a delivery system for ideas—the sentences need to be balanced and elegant, with no clumsy transitions, and that takes multiple rounds of scrutiny.

This is the most urgent book I can think of to write at this moment. Caring so much about it makes the work harder. I know my argument is idiosyncratic. Some people will think I’m diminishing poetry, or fantasy, or both. Others will find huge blind spots in the poems I include or neglect. There will be too much criticism for some readers, too much personal crap for others. The experience of writing it reminds me more of poetry composition than criticism-writing, in large part because of the driving terror. After all, if something about the jostle of the words in a poem doesn’t delight, confuse, or outright alarm you, why are you writing it? Who knows if you’ll ever have readers, so you have to imagine them and forget them. You have to please yourself.

Chimeras in the poetry zoo, or speculative verse novels

Knock me over with a griffin feather: even though I published one, I did not understand that the contemporary speculative verse novel for adults was a thing. Much less a thing that gets published by Norton and Knopf.* So I’ve been roaming the field, discovering weird beasts lurking around the poetryscape. Preliminary conclusion: the stories I most want to read are not out there, or I haven’t spotted them yet. But here are some interesting ones anyway.  I’m deploying the terms “adult,” “speculative,” “verse,” and “novel” pretty loosely, by the way, but more on definitions another day.

The best verse: Marly Youmans’s Thaliad (2012) tells a future matriarchal civilization’s origin story: eleven-year old Thalia, because she’s on a field trip to a cave, survives the apocalypse (solar flares, I think) and ends up leading a small band of other children to safety. Thalia’s story has a frame narrator, a young woman poet deciding to dedicate her life to books instead of love, whose attempt to create myth about her recent ancestors makes sense of the Thaliad’s form and allusions to classical models. This is a beautiful poem in pulsing iambic pentameter. Some of my favorite passages are the beginning of XVII: The Bridal May, which is hypnotically romantic, and snarkily funny bits like the opening sentence describing our pre-apocalyptic decadence:

It was the age beyond the ragged time
When all that matters grew disorderly—
When artworks changed, expressive, narcissist,
And then at last became just tedious,
A beetle rattling in a paper cup,
Incessant static loop of nothingness,
When poems sprang and shattered into shards,
And then became as dull as newsprint torn
And rearranged in boredom by a child
Leaning on a window seat in the rain.

Fashionable poems of 2013: blank verse is coming from the future to whoop you. However, I’m not satisfied by the ending, even though it’s supposed to reflect the goals and desires of the nation-building poet more than any truth about the original survivors. I was captivated by Thalia as unlikely leader, but the book closes on a romantic note and that ends up casting a different light on the whole tale. I was a hungry marriage-plot reader as a teen and learning that my life did not end at marriage was kind of important. Marly Youmans, maybe we need a sequel?

The most linguistically astonishing: I can’t believe Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution (2006) even exists. Scene: a fictional luxury zone called The Desert in 2016. Dramatis Personae: the Historian from Sierra Leone, whose voice appears in standard English prose, and the Guide, whose invented Creole includes bits of her native Korean, English, Middle English, Latin, German, Spanish, French, and a billion other languages. Most of the book is from her perspective in a series of individually titled lyrics such as “The Lineage of Yes-Men”: “Me grandfadder sole Makkoli wine to Hapanese colonists/ din he guidim to insurrectas…sticka hop? Some pelehu?” There are plenty of brilliant poems out there composed in various Earth One Creoles and reading Hong’s book was actually an experience of comparable difficulty, for me anyway. You just work slowly, sounding it out. My problem was I couldn’t see a reason to commit the effort required for full understanding of the full book—I read it through with spots of intense attention, but otherwise just absorbing the texture. I know from reviews that there is a plot, but the intellectual obstacles to its detection are just crazy. I wish Hong cared about hooking and moving her readers, because if she did, I would follow.

The most improbably moving: In both Red Doc> (2013) and its 1998 precursor The Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson creates not a future dystopia but a classically-inflected world that’s just off to the side of the dimension I personally inhabit. The hero Geryon (in the second book, “G”) is a winged red cowherd-photographer who he can drop a television from an overpass in one scene and meet Hermes in another without busting the space-time continuum. I really don’t understand how poetry so experimental and disorienting can at the same time be gorgeous and full of heart, but I guess it’s a lesson: writers should follow their weirdest impulses, marketing be damned, because those projects are the ones that turn out to be truly amazing. Amazed as I am, though, I kept putting Red Doc> down to pursue assignations with less austere books. I wouldn’t sacrifice a jot of complexity, but I wouldn’t have felt condescended to by, say, an occasional pre-canto argument. Only my love for Geryon, instilled by the more accessible Autobiography of Red, made me keep at it.

The best candidate for film or TV adaption is also the most novelistic and least poetic. Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth (2007) conjures up turf battles among werewolf gangs in L.A. Baroquely plotted, full of interesting characters, it’s well-paced and often smart and funny. The choice of free verse teases out an aesthetic of mixture exemplified by cross-species romance and all kinds of border-crossings. Barlow sometimes handles race clumsily—some of the “native American legends” references seem ignorant as well as corny—but deep in its DNA, this is a book about affiliation, about how love and kind attention can ameliorate the world’s horrible brutalities. Being human means being mixed. For me, a more fundamental problem is that the verse just isn’t good. Standard phrasal lineation here, so it’s easy to read, but line breaks provide neither a score for performance nor artful layers of meaning. Plus, I know I sound like an English prof, but the punctuation’s a mess. Missed opportunities here.

It’s as if the verse novel might be a difficult form to pull off…still, I’m hopeful, and would be glad to hear more recommendations. I suspect the menagerie is much more various than I can currently see. All verse novels may be little uncanny, prone to sprout fur and claws at the slightest provocation.

*I did know and can recommend Anne Kennedy’s The Time of Giants, 2005, although I don’t have a copy anymore. A twentieth-century speculative verse novel that was a “where have you been all my life?” literary love affair: James Merrill’s “The Book of Ephraim” (in Divine Comedies, 1976, and eventually part of a much longer trilogy). “The stories I most want to read” are that insanely inventive, spooky, engaging, high-stakes, and smart, but with a middle-aged mother in the leading role and all good-looking teenaged lycanthropes required to sulk in the wings.

In which the modernism scholar attends her first con

Three weeks out: What do these panel/ event names mean? “Queers Dig Time Lords and Outer Alliance TARDIS Party”? “Is Feminism Magic? The My Little Pony Panel!”? “None of Us Are Goats”?

One week out: Why aren’t my co-panelists answering the let’s-get-prepped email the conscientious WisCon organizers prompted me to send? Do they hate me for presuming to butt into their Con? Becoming quite sure everyone wishes I’d just stay home.

Day One: Had a deep conviction, while packing, that I needed more purple and feathers, but said “screw it” and just packed professor-clothes. I’d been clairvoyant about the purple and feathers—in professor-clothes at WisCon you feel like Clark Kent, only straighter. (For more on conference-gear anxiety, see “Rhymes with Poetess.”) On the upside, my co-panelists for “Women’s Speculative Poetry Now” are brilliant and enthusiastic and funny and show no signs of hating me whatsoever. The audience is good-sized and seems delighted. I learn a ton and am so glad I set this into motion.

Day Two: Sleep deprivation has now thinned the veil between dimensions. I lose time, in a good way, at Karen Joy Fowler’s reading. I have dinner with my doppelganger: turns out, though poet Meg Schoerke and I have never met before, we interviewed in 1993 for the same jobs and each got offered different ones. She informs me about my life in an alternate timeline and also how and why she is in the process of transforming into a science fiction writer. The day climaxes at the Haiku Earring Swap: I pick out sparkly pink beads, Elise gives me the title “The Duchess Regrets,” and I compose the follow-up lines “her indiscretion/ with the jelly. Really, love/ is sticky enough.” I am allowed to barter this haiku for my jewels.

Day Three: I put on the magenta tights I bought on State Street along with Elise’s earrings and I feel a little better, even though a street person shouts, “I love you, Pink Ass Lady!” (That seems fair enough, actually, since I’m the most colorful thing walking through his living room.) During a solo brunch at Graze I intend to read Caitlin Kiernan’s fabulous Tiptree-co-winning novel, The Drowning Girl. Instead, I sit next to an architect whose green designs, she tells me, include self-repairing airplane wings and a kind of paint that makes concrete surfaces absorb and trap greenhouse gases. Amazingly, she has nothing to do with the science fiction convention. More great readings today, plus the Dessert Salon. (I have never attended such a FEMINIST feminist conference: safe spaces for every identity plus constant access to chocolate conceived as a basic human right.) Having The Receptionist and Other Tales announced as a Tiptree Award Honor List book makes me feel magenta all over.

Day Four: I know I didn’t really DO WisCon because I never had enough stamina for the late-night parties, but I met some lovely people, and when I read from my book this morning at Michelangelo’s the audience laughed and said “mmm” at all the right moments. At the Sign-Out, Tiptree judge Andrea Hairston described reciting my book while parading around her house—wish I had that for a book trailer or something, especially since SHE has serious feathers going on.

I’m drafting this in the Madison airport. My bags are heavy with books and my head is jammed with still more titles—tons of reading to do. I don’t know the work of keynote speaker Jo Walton, for instance, but her reading and talk were amazing. I’m still pondering what she said about the relation between writer and audience: “I’m writing it inside me and they’re reading it inside them…the art is happening in the space between.”

I’m still writing mostly in the space between “literary” poetry (that’s a terrible label, but it’s what I’ve got) and sf. There are lots of speculative poems in my new ms, which is all about uncanny transmissions and connections, but it’s not a genre venture at its core as clearly as “The Receptionist” was. I’m just trying to write and read the very best poems I can, and I think “best” often harmonizes with “speculative” because sf asks such good questions about what’s real and what matters. I loved WisCon, but I find myself wishing for a poetry-focused conference this smart, this fun. I want to see what the rhyme-nerds wear when they’re really letting it all hang out.

Poets do it for free

 

My Try Poetry GiveawayYou thought I meant poetry readings, I’m sure, and yes, we will talk dirty to you in bookstores, classrooms, cafés, and other marginal spaces, for little or no compensation. But at the moment I’m referring to another kind of freebie. The wheel of the year has turned and it’s time to get Feral for National Poetry Month. At the prompting of verse alchemist Susan Rich I’m participating in The BIG POETRY GIVEAWAY (follow the link if you’d like to give away some books yourself). As she says in her invitation:

“Anyone with a blog can giveaway 2 books of poems. Anyone with an email address can enter any or all of the giveaways. Yes, poetry is that easy! You can give it away and you can also sign-up to receive it! You don’t need a blog to participate, you just need to visit different participating blogs.”

The two books I’ll be giving away at the beginning of May are my most recent poetry collection, The Receptionist and Other Talesand Janet McAdams’ 2007 book Feral. Both have a slipstream vibe, occupying the littoral zone at the edge of speculative fiction. I like to call the long poem “The Receptionist” a feminist fantasy campus novella in terza rima; it’s followed by shorter poems involving revenants, hallucinations, zombie apocalypse, and other alarming lyric materializations.

Feral  explores another kind of wildness—tales of feral children—although Janet McAdams also populates this intensely lyric book with fish girls, polar explorers, and others who hover between worlds. McAdams is a brilliant writer who teaches at Kenyon College in Ohio; other equally fabulous books include her novel Red Weather and her first poetry collection, The Island of Lost Luggage. She founded the Earthworks series for indigenous poetry at Salt Press.

If you’d like a chance to win these books, leave a comment below that includes a way to reach you. At the end of April I’ll develop some magical randomizing process for choosing a name. Like any of the participating bloggers, I’ll cover postage to any place in the universe. Here’s a teaser from Janet’s book.

What She Will Sing to You

My mother cast into the wave that nudged my birth
and I finned out with a slime-covered flipper

and learned a different kind of love:
this dorsal fin could cut you through like a razor.

You will learn to breathe here after all. Over these joined legs
are two fat breasts and a mouth, soft and open. A tongue to wrap

around the words I might whisper, through water, salt water.
Sailor, you can learn to breathe here. Come down, come

down. I was never human, not your fairy tale. I will teach you more
than breathing. I will make your body ache open with salt pleasure.

 

I write my way out of it

One of my talisman poems is section 6 from H.D.’s “The Walls Do Not Fall.” The poet imagines herself as a worm, emblem of lowly persistence, among mist-jeweled grass blades. Her mantra: “I profit/ by every calamity;/ I eat my way out of it.” The calamity for H.D. was living in London during the Blitz.

The apocalyptic trilogy of my summer 2012 is on a much smaller scale: the death of my father; workplace disaster (more to come on that subject); and, just for fun, that derecho last weekend tearing open a beautiful four-story maple and dumping half on our roof and porch. Damage from the latter wasn’t terrible, but I’ve already had enough of insurance, repairs, and power outages. And the dark green canopy I once faced from my desk is stripped away in favor of a long, jagged wound of pale wood.

So, yes, I’ve been eating my way through psychic debris—that’s a family tradition. Wheelers don’t waste away from anxiety and grief; we gird our loins against it with peach pie. But so far, I’m also having a good writing summer. Some of the pages I’m churning out are just letters, though I’m enjoying even the promotion reviews. I just wrote a supporting document for a project to digitize Columbia’s modernist-era audio holdings: some of those strange metal disks can only be played from the inside out, or by the application of a cactus needle to the grooves! I’m drafting poems, revising slightly fermented ones, and working on essays. I expected to descend into brain fog, but I’m not. Writing is consoling me. It reminds me of what I care about, what I’m good at, what I have some modicum of control over.

I also just finished the galleys for The Receptionist and Other Tales, my forthcoming speculative feminist academic novella in terza rima. This stage involved a little re-writing but mostly careful reading, with the help of wonderful Aqueduct editor Kath Wilham: are the italics and capitalization consistent? How often may I use the word “moron”?

Drafting “The Receptionist,” though, was an act of survival. I was a new department head, never an easy gig, but a few factors made it harder—bureaucracy ramped up sharply in those years and many systems needed reinvention. Easily the worst aspect of the job, though, was having a lousy relationship with the dean, a person I wanted to look to for strategic advice and moral support. I was a friend of his predecessor, a woman treated badly by university administration, and while I wrote to him immediately that I in no way held him responsible for that debacle and looked forward to working with him, he clearly didn’t like me for having objected to those events. The years immediately following his arrival were also terrible for women on this campus and this time he was partly responsible. He had inherited an associate dean from his precursor, another smart and industrious woman, and I watched him undercut her at meetings, listened to her accounts of physical intimidation, and tried to be her ally when he nudged her out of the position before her term was up. I saw him put his arm around other female professors and staff and watched them shrink back. I talked to colleagues from various departments who felt impotently furious about his ominous or badgering notes. He spoke to people in derogatory ways more often than any administrator I have ever worked with. A lot of these incidents were trivial, in isolation. Further, I’m not saying everything this dean touched was poison; he actually gave me better raises than other deans, and even the new red tape isn’t all bad. Better bureaucracy than back-room deals. And some people worked well with him, a few of them women. He was sometimes pleasant, even to me.

Even having received so many anguished confidences about this dean’s behavior, I was still somehow shocked to be on the receiving end as chair. I would be chastised for missing reports handed in weeks earlier (organization was not his strong suit), or told I was in the wrong in a conflict before he learned the details. The dean seemed to be scanning for weaknesses to pounce on while my achievements were invisible. Then, during a tenure and promotions meeting, when I was making a point he disagreed with, he started poking me under the table, jabbing me in the arm. I wish I’d yelled, “Stop touching me!” Instead, I shut up, pulled back. You know the story. I told his supervisor, the provost. She said no one had ever complained about such behavior from him before, and I wouldn’t want her to fire the guy for that, would I?

So, I invented a campus and a set of oddball academics. The main character, an administrative assistant and mother of two young boys, is obsessed with fantasy tropes, so when the dean at her campus commits some very different kinds of malfeasance (the kind you do get fired for), she starts thinking of him as the Dark Lord and wondering if she can be a Hero. On Tuesdays and Thursday mornings, I stayed home until I’d drafted a canto and mapped out the next; around ten o’clock I’d head in to triage demoralizing emails. The craziness of the project, a brilliant secret joke, sustained me until I could create a buffer against toxic interactions by becoming an ordinary professor again.

In early June, about a week after my father died, one of those real-life time-for-a-change-of-leadership emails came through. The dean would be relieved of his responsibilities as of July 1 and join my department (he was a literature professor elsewhere before he began deaning around). It’s like a big storm that clears the air but leaves a hunk of deadwood on your house.

So how do I write my way out of it? I’m working on it.

Searching for habitable planets

Otherworldly poetry is an adaptable traveler—it can thrive in many climates and habitats—but the new science fiction-themed issue of the New Yorker does not, apparently, possess a life-sustaining atmosphere.

My favorite reading bandwidth is slipstream, new fabulism, whatever you call it: that place on the dial where so-called literary values of complexity, moral ambiguity, and linguistic precision fuzz into the world-skewing tendencies of speculative fiction. Various definitions include any narrative that makes you feel strange, that reframes reality as a somewhat random consensus, though the main uses of these categories seem to be a) marketing and b) giving critics, teachers, and students something to argue about. (My recently graduated student Mathew, now off to do micro-finance in Mongolia, prefers the term post-realism; my rising senior student Eric growls when you put “post” in front of anything.)  I like realism too, and straight-out fantasy when the dragons are handled responsibly. The problem with the former, though, is that it can be too much like life—isn’t the real world mean, sad, boring, and pointless enough?—and the latter can be different from life in ways that are too predictable. My Darth Vader died a few days ago and I would like literary support, but no symbolic castrations, please, or death-bed reconciliations (in my family, last words run along the lines of “I need you to go retrieve cash from a secret compartment in my spaceship while my third wife is at church”—not something you want ringing in your ears during battle scenes).

So I awaited this New Yorker optimistically, eager to escape into a bracingly cool slipstream. It’s a decent issue. The stories by Junot Díaz and Jennifer Egan are terrific; the ones by Jonathan Lethem and Sam Lipsyte are passably entertaining; and the essays by Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Karen Russell, Colson Whitehead, and others are interesting and often very funny. I also really appreciated Emily Nussbaum’s piece on “Doctor Who” and “Community”: one theme of these shows, she observes, is that “the fan’s experience of loyalty and loss is its own, legitimate form of romantic love.” Inspector Spacetime, I love you madly.

But Paul Muldoon, you blew it! I guess I knew you would. I saw the names Kay Ryan and Charles Simic, though, and hope flickered in my dying warp drive. Both are wonderfully weird poets. Ryan’s “The Octopus” focuses on the extreme oddity of the titular creature, estranging it for us further: what does it have eight of, exactly? Arms or legs? And why is it so smart? She envisions some production factory where “Sometimes a brain-feed/ sticks until the brain/ that gets delivered has/ a hundred times the/ strength it needs in/ nature. Which changes/ nature.” Ryan’s a “strange intelligence” too. I like her questions, and it’s OK that none of her eight appendages is pointing to an answer, but this isn’t a world-skewing poem. And it’s short on the soundplay and crazy lineation that give some of her apparently slight poems their black-hole-gravity.

Not a speculative poem, and not a great poem either. Same goes for Simic’s “Driving Around,” sadly. He’s performing that surrealistic trick: imagine small town Main Street as “an abandoned movie set/ whose director/ ran out of money and ideas.” The unhappy woman in the bridal shop window becomes an out-of-work actress. I suppose the poignancy he intends is how a Hollywood metaphor makes ordinary desolation more vivid: aren’t we bad people, grieving more for the actress than we would for Miss Nobody? Simic is applying an alien perspective to a familiar scene, a strategy that once made James Fenton describe poet Craig Raine as “Of the Martian School.” This way of writing is a little science fictiony—hence the name—but in these particular cases, it’s also a little disappointing.

I speculate Tim Green at Rattle will do better (see his call for sf poems here). In the meantime, I’d be grateful for summer reading suggestions for half-orphaned poet-heroes: anything absorbing, preferably a little otherworldly; goofy is good as long as it’s not dumb. Elven stereotyping has gotten totally out of hand.