Future schmuture

No NEH grant again, a magazine acceptance, a solicitation of poems from a magazine I’d never cracked (!), several poem rejections, some drafting and revising, lots of Shenandoah work, a vague but persistent headache, short days and blustery cold–hello from a mixed-blessing November in Sabbatical Land. I hereby mark the sixth-month birthday of my novel Unbecoming, and remind you that you can message me if you want a signed bookplate for that OR The State She’s In. (Here, by the way, is a new and very lovely review of the latter by Luisa Igloria in RHINO.) I can’t say I’m in much of a mood for hustle, though; it feels like crawling-under-a-rock season. I’m not doing a ton of writing, nor am I experiencing that burst of energy I’d hoped for after the election, but maybe that’s because there’s no “after”? It’s more like an intensification of suspense, a “now” that just keeps spreading its tentacles.

As a mood of hibernation comes on, I’m also cleaning closets and readying us for an actual trip, first through a flurry of lists and shopping and now by hunkering down. We have to pick up my son from Haverford College on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and a lot of my family lives around there, so I brainstormed this whole elaborate trip protocol. After testing and a period of isolation, we pack the car within an inch of its life and visit my bored-out-of-her-mind mother; then we meet up with our kids at a rented house in the Poconos for a few days; then we meet my sister and maybe some of her kids for a socially-distanced hike in the woods; finally, we return home and hide for the rest of this third wave, however long it lasts. The theory is that I’ll drive Cameron back to Haverford at the end of January for his spring term, but I have a feeling college openings will be delayed. I believe Biden WILL be inaugurated and will run the pandemic response sanely; vaccines are clearly coming; but winter may well be a long blank chapter. If we’re lucky.

In case you’re trying to do some writing yourself and like prompts, I give two in this five-minute reading:

It’s one of many launched this week by the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival, thanks to Stan Galloway, Nicole Yurcaba, and their students. However, Bridgewater College, like many others, is laying off people, including Nicole, so the conference has an uncertain future (aren’t you tired of that phrase?). If you’re in the mood to write more spell-poems on the off-chance it will make you or the world a bit better, I just dug up this post, “Uncanny paneling,” for a friend. The second half of it consists of writing prompts from six people, including me, and having been reminded of them, I plan to try them myself.

Hocus, pocus, try to focus…

Not resolutions but invocations

Last year, I substituted a mantra for a resolution: “breathe.” It helped a little. This New Year’s Eve I wrote up more resolutions, got upset about them, and then decided: to hell with self-improvement. I need fewer bullet points on my endlessly guilty, mildly self-loathing to-do lists. And better ones. In fact, let’s not even call them bullet points. They look like open pupils, too. Pencil points. Poppy seeds.

In considering what words I and others DO need to hear, I’ve been crafting a call for Shenandoah‘s next poetry submission period that will read something like this: “During our March 2020 reading period, please send us prayers, spells, charms, curses, blessings, invocations—poems that try to make change happen. All forms, styles, and procedures are welcome. A selection will appear in a special Shenandoah portfolio in the Spring 2021 issue.”

I know I’m not good about practicing self-care, but I want to keep asking for help this year, sending something like prayers or petitions outward and earthward. (I don’t believe there’s a god up in the sky, although it’s fine with me if you do; I do believe in a living earth that I can listen to and do better by.) I plan to mutter, be kind, pay attention, especially to myself. (And I will remind us to vote for kindness, too, whenever a crooked system gives you the chance. Fires blasting Australia, the U.S. president stirring up war to deflect attention from impeachment–I’m not sure we or the more-than-human-world can take much more of this.)

It may seem paradoxical, given these meditations on care, that I’m beginning 2020 by trying to be in two places at once. As the term starts here in Virginia, I’m handing a pile of syllabi and first-day lessons to my professor-spouse (I swear he’s fine with it, and well-rested!), then hopping on a plane to Seattle to attend the MLA convention. After thinking deeply about whether saying yes was another instance of crazed dutifulness, I decided that, actually, I want to go, as long as I can conference kindly.

The first thing I’m going to do when I arrive is hang out, for the pleasure of it, with a long-distance friend I hardly ever see, Jeannine Hall Gailey. Over the next few days, I’ll attend a few panels, and I’m speaking on a fun one, too (and trying not to stress about it). I joined Janine Utell’s MLA roundtable, “The Space Between Creative Nonfiction and Literary Criticism,” because I thought it would enrich my thinking as well as making my own work more visible, especially the creative criticism in my 2021 book Poetry’s Possible Worlds; this is the kind of conversation I want to have more of, genuinely. On Friday night, I’m part of an all-star lineup at the MLA Offsite Reading (2 minutes each and I’m quite sure most stars will peel off by the time we get to my part of the alphabet, which is fine with me–see the poster below). And on Saturday night, I join Jeannine Hall Gailey to read speculative poetry at Open Books. In between I’m planning to sleep, avoid my email, take a walk or two, and do minimal homework, as well as being super-nice to the anxious job-seekers in the MLA elevators.

Attending is also a way of being kinder to myself as a writer, rather than being maniacally diligent as a teacher (what do you mean, miss a class?!–we will NEVER GET THAT HOUR BACK!). I’d like to do better at fulfilling my responsibilities to what I’ve written, as Jeannine says in PR for Poets, which I’ve been rereading. In addition to the aforementioned 2021 essay collection, I have a fifth poetry collection, The State She’s In, and a first novel, Unbecoming, to launch this spring (look, I made pages!). I believe in them and I want them to find readers. No more prioritizing a tidy email inbox over inquiring about a reading series or submitting to a post-publication prize! I need to do less busy-work, somehow, in 2020, but also keep priorities straight. I will achieve this imperfectly, if at all. But it’s not about checking off a list, right? It’s about keeping those pupils wide. Wish all of us luck. And write some powerful spell-poems, please, no matter where you plan to release their magic.

Credit to a local poet-friend, Julie Phillips Brown, for making a shareable poster!

Uncanny paneling

When you write a poem that resembles a spell, prayer, charm, curse, or blessing, are you trying to make something happen, and if so, what or how?

That’s what we talked about on the Uncanny Activisms panel I organized for the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference last weekend (the conference as a whole was wonderful, especially the keynote by Camille Dungy). “We” from left includes Hyejung Kook, Jane Satterfield, Anna Lena Phillips Bell, Anna Maria Hong, Ashley M. Jones, and yours truly, talking with her hands again. Some brilliant tidbits I scribbled down from this brilliant cohort: Ashley remarking that all poems are spells; Anna Lena responding that spell-poems are the poemiest kind of poem, and speaking about how poems help us focus attention; Jane musing about shape-shifting through reading and writing, and how poetry can be a means to power, sometimes as an alternative when legal recourse isn’t working; Hyejung talking about poetry as an act of transformation (and about Icelandic fart curses, which I have yet to look up). I LOVED this conversation and it seems as if others did, too, which made me happy, as if we might be a small band of spellcasters setting out to fix the world through verse. If you want to join the effort, check out the amazing prompts I gathered from these writers for a pretty handout (less prettily listed below). We will be soliciting uncanny activist work for a future issue of Shenandoah, but for the moment, note that poetry subs open today (11/15-12/15), and there’s a special prize for Virginia poets: $1000 for the Graybeal-Gowan award, no entry fee, judged by Beth and me. Everything submitted will be considered for general publication as well as the prize. I’m excited to start reading but also a little worried about managing the deluge. My novel galleys just came in, and my students need lots of conferences this time of year, and I’m trying to squeeze in time to apply for book promotion opportunities…oy.

In other news, my review of Franny Choi’s amazing collection Soft Science is up on Strange Horizons, and my poem “Spring Rage” has been posted by storySouth. Thanks to the kind and careful editors at both magazines.

I’ve been down despite all the good things happening, at least partly because I’m not finding enough time to rest and read and think and play. I didn’t bring my laptop to the conference and that gave me respite, but Monday morning I was neck-deep again as soon as I walked into the office. I’m trying to take better care of myself, and I’m wondering if I shouldn’t start with one of these prompts. Writing poetry tend to channel the simple magic, at least, of temporary self-transformation: I feel calmer when I’m immersed in the work, possibly BECAUSE there’s so little money or prestige involved. Hope you get some drafting time, too.

Counting-Out Rhyme, from Anna Lena Phillips Bell
a. Choose a category of being- or thing-in-the-world—plants local to or new to your region; particularities of the way your family or community speaks; geologic formations or soil types near you; songs from a specific tradition; birds or small mammals or insects. List as many beings or things in this category as you can think of.
 
b. Optionally, write a paragraph describing what you’ve chosen, as well as any threats to it that exist. Save this text as a plain-text file, and feed it into the n-gram generator available at http://bit-player.org/extras/drivel/drivel.html, created by Brian Hayes. Copy the resulting text into another file, print out the pages, and mine the text for new words that speak to what you’re writing about. You may wish to search for rhyme-words within the text; or you may simply highlight words you like.
 
c. Write a counting-out rhyme using the words and phrases from your list. If you’ve used the n-gram generator to create new words, incorporate some of these as well. Write in lines of trochaic tetrameter (or choose another meter and stick to it); optionally, end each stanza with a line of trochaic dimeter. Where pronunciation of a neologism is unclear, use the meter to help guide readers toward how you hear it. Employ a rhyme scheme (aaa, bbb, ccc; abab cc, dede ff, ghgh ii; or similar), however slant your rhymes may be.
 
d. Your poem will evoke one layer of the landscape or community its elements are part of. For each being or thing you include, imagine how it helps make a portrait of that layer in the time during which you’ve experienced it. Read your completed poem to the beings or things it includes. Read it to other people. Revise based on these readings and imaginings.
 
e. Memorize your revised poem: make it part of your body and mind.
 
Ambitious poem, from Lesley Wheeler: Think about something you desperately want to achieve, an aspiration you may be embarrassed to admit. Imagine how you would achieve this goal and imagine taking those steps; consider who might have the power to help and imagine them giving that help. Write a fourteen-line poem in the future tense describing this process. The first word should be “let” and you should repeat the first line exactly, or almost exactly, at the poem’s close. Weave in references to: a so-called weed or wild plant you noticed recently; a scent that makes you feel good; and something other-than-human that produces a humming sound. (adapted from a prompt by Oliver de la Paz)

Self-invocation Poem, from Hyejung Kook: In this poem, we are going to name, invoke, and invent our most expansive self. Start by doing some research into your given name–how it was chosen, etymology, other people who share it, etc. If you prefer, do this work with a different name that calls to you. From your research, choose the three words that resonate most powerfully and incorporate these words, a color, an animal, and a scientific/historical fact that fascinates you. Use “In my wildest dreams, I” at least three times and allow yourself all the possibility the phrase grants you. Once your draft is complete, remove the phrase “In my wildest dreams,” from the poem.  

Another possibility is to turn the naming-invocation outward, using the phrase “In my wildest dreams, you” while writing.

Po Go, from Anna Maria Hong: This exercise can be harnessed to jumpstart a new project, clear the deck, meditate on a question, or find a new question to guide your writing now.
 
1.   Designate 15 minutes of your day to this exercise for 40 days. Ideally, do this exercise before you speak to or interact with another human being each day (dogs and cats, OK), but if this is not possible, allocate another time free of distractions.
2.   Ideally, also designate a place for this exercise.
3.   Begin each session with an invocation to the “gods” of poetry—whichever spirits might be enlisted to help you—household objects, ancient deities, your ancestors, etc.
4.   Begin writing this invocation as a list: “I call on the bedside lamp, Jupiter’s moons, and the turnips in the fridge to assist me in my writing today.”
5.   Then, free-write for the rest of the session and/or pick up threads from previous sessions (without looking at the previous entries).
6.   Stop writing after 15 minutes.
7.   Repeat for 40 days, and then and only then, review your writings.
 
from Ashley M. Jones: Think of an experience you’ve had that you wish others could experience to empathize with you—maybe it’s a struggle or a pain, or, maybe, even, more surprisingly, a joy that’s unique to your life. Try to think of something that, if experienced, would change the reader/spell recipient’s view or prejudice or oppressive mindset against you. Write a poem commanding them to feel that thing, focusing primarily on specific image. Take photographs with your words. Find the feeling, down to the hair. Your poem might be 10 lines, and it might include each sense (that is, The Five…or Six if you’d like). 
 
from Jane Satterfield: Select a natural organism that you’ve admired or overlooked. Learn more about its species and life cycle; appearance, texture, smell. What are its beneficial or dangerous properties? Associations and attributes? What role has it played in legend, lore, and in myth?  
 
Use tercets to weave your new knowledge of this organism into a poem that purges anger against someone or something that has hurt you, or that serves as a means of countering some injustice in your life or in the larger culture. Consider the way a curse can voice an appeal for restitution: a poem that begin as a curse can banish the harm you’ve experienced. Alternately, consider the way a curse can release the harm of the experience and turn the poem toward forgiveness and healing.