Errant in the Bewilderness

If I told you I’m just screwing around this week, I’d be exaggerating. This is exam week after our twelve-week winter term, so there’s lots of grading, as well as chores involving grants, event programming, etc. Liberation from the rigors of my former schedule, though–during which I was trying to do much of the same work while also prepping and teaching–is making me feel giddy. It helps that my antibiotics have kicked in, because I came home from a tiring AWP with strep throat. Bonus: it’s really spring!

Each day I’m carving out a little time–maybe just fifteen minutes–to draft something, a poem or the seed of one. This morning I responded to a request from someone who wants poems about Mina Loy. I ended up rereading most of The Lost Lunar Baedeker, which is really teaching-prep, too, because I’ll teach Modern U.S. Poetry in the fall and book orders are just around the corner. I hadn’t spent serious hours with this collection in years and was newly struck by all the beautiful poems about aging. When I was 49, I thought I’d write a suite of poems about my poetic idols when THEY were 49. I ended up writing one sonnet about Edna St. Vincent Millay then quit, because it was so damn depressing. 49 is apparently not the happiest age for women poets. Now, past the hinge of 50, finding Loy’s intelligent take on what she calls the “excessive incognito” of “An Aged Woman” is such a gift. Plus Loy’s coinage “Bewilderness,” which appears in a poem about widowhood called “Letters of the Unliving,” is my new favorite word. I have the most fun when wandering a vague landscape you could call by that name–sort of working, sort of playing around.

One side effect of this work-play is reflection on how I’m spending time. I was just catching up with Dave Bonta’s Poetry Blog Digest and found this great post by Erica Goss about just that–a procedure for carrying the intensities of a major literary conference into a quieter, post-conference writing zone. I think it would mitigate the post-AWP blues I always feel, whether or not I get sick.

Of course, one of the things I’m reflecting about is the very teaching year I’m finishing up (I teach our four-week May term every other year–but not this one!). I honestly don’t know what my creative writing students thought of the first blended-genre workshop I’d taught in years. Many of them did outstanding work, but the vibe in the room was hard to read. My general education course in Protest Poetry, however, was warmly enthusiastic, although plenty of the conversations we had along the way about politics, privilege, and anger itself were very tricky. I posted earlier this term about a benefit reading we organized together. Their final project was to choose their own causes and find a way to advance them through poetry, then write reflective essays about the results. I was so proud and delighted by the variety and quality of their efforts! One student took poetry commissions to benefit Project VOICE; another broadcast a feminist radio show of songs and readings; others waged broadside campaigns about body positivity and the collapse of bee populations. Final products included found poems drawn from community participation; a poetry-infused brochure on the indigenous history of this area; and beautiful little chapbooks on climate change; water crisis; the experiences of queer students at W&L; and addiction and recovery, all distributed to the people who would most appreciate them.

I was so glad I experimented with this assignment, even though, at moments, I was alarmed by my own ambitions. It’s easier for me to play around in my teaching than it is for many others: I’m tenured, my college has great resources, and I teach small classes full of talent. But the Bewilderness, that zone of not knowing what you’re doing and being willing to risk mistakes–it’s where the good stuff happens. I need this breather from the classroom for a while and will make earnest use of it. One of the ways I’ll do so will be dreaming about fall’s wild experiments.

A mouth of purple crocus

One of the first sonnets I wrote, as an undergraduate, contained the lines: “A mouth of purple crocus opens through/ the snow, wild to speak the store beneath. / It carries coin.” I don’t remember the rest, although the poem is probably in a bin in the attic somewhere. The lines have been running through my head all week as the weather flips from warmish to snowy to springlike again. March is always a crazy month in my academic calendar, but I am ready for the madness, as long as it brings me color!

Elements of recent frenzy: I injured my right knee a week ago (I don’t know how) and my mobility has been limited; now that knee is improving but I’m realizing there’s background noise of inflammation and low-grade pain that I need to figure out and deal with. My son is at the state chess tournament in Charlottesville this weekend, which meant extra driving, although I’m happy for him. This afternoon’s report is that he played really well. Even though his rating is finally high enough that he was required to play in the championship division–meaning basically everyone he matched with was higher-rated, many of them drastically–he won half his games. And my daughter drove down yesterday for spring break, and it’s her birthday tomorrow. AND Aimee Nezhukumatathil was due to arrive yesterday for the second part of her residency, and got grounded overnight in Memphis, so we’ve been scrambling to rearrange things. That’s all on top of the usual busy-ness of the teaching year, plus trying to resolve all Shenandoah poetry submissions from the reading period that recently closed, plus hitting the crux of the AWP search for a permanent executive director (I’m off the AWP board, but on this committee), plus being stern with myself about carving out time for novel revisions (minimum of an hour 3x/ week).

All this means a lot of juggling, but except for the joint/ mobility problems–and the pain of rejecting good poems, because Shenandoah gets SO MANY GOOD POEMS–I’m feeling optimistic. Put that little spark of good feeling against a big gray landscape–the treatment of refugees at our borders looms large for me, as well as the worsening environmental crisis–and a bunch of purple crocus isn’t worth much, I know. But I’ll take it.

News flash: in April, poet feels moody

Spring’s been happening in fits and starts–blossoms one minute, wind-strewn petals the next. I walk a nearby trail most mornings, and on Tuesday, Woods Creek churned and roared from heavy rains; parts of the path were massive puddles, and the lowest bridge was half-underwater. The next day was frigid; others have been balmy and still. National Poetry Month basically occurs during the year’s moody adolescence.

I’ve been just as inconsistent. Every April since 2013 I’ve tried to have some kind of daily poetry-related practice. In 2013, I was pent-up and just exploded in daily drafts. In 2014, I wrote a section of a long poem every day according to Vladimir Propp’s numbered phases of folk tales, and that became last year’s chapbook, Propagation. In 2015 I worked on poems in response to images by Carolyn Capps, and that collaboration became an exhibit. In the Aprils since then, I haven’t been as focused, but tried at least to work on poetry every day, often by drafting something new, sometimes by revising or submitting work. This year, it’s been really, really hard, and I’m not sure why.

I do know my monkey mind has been up to serious mischief, in part because I had a very intense winter term, working round the clock just to stay afloat (around here, the twelve-week “winter” term ends the last week of April, and the four-week intensive spring term begins tomorrow–oy). I don’t know if this is a symptom or a driver of my stress, but I have noticed my reading patterns changing dramatically. I’m normally a hungry novel-reader, averaging one a week on top of classwork, and that’s supplemented by fairly heavy poetry reading and a lot of journalism and magazines. I keep a list of the books I finish, in part so I don’t draw a total blank if asked to write a year-end column somewhere. There’s usually a balance among genres in my novel consumption, depending on time of year and state of mind, including challenging literary stuff, pulpy mysteries, and a good share of speculative fiction.

2018-02-22-igloria-final-250pxThis year, since January 1, I’ve finished just three novels. That seems demented to me. I’ve been sustained by partial residence in fictional universes since early childhood, because this world kind of sucks, even for a person like me whose life has been pretty lucky. I can and do read lots of short-form stuff, including many poetry books, some by our first Glasgow Writer in Residence, Luisa Igloria, who’s settling in now to teach an advanced seminar on hybrid genres. Right now I’m in the middle of Beth Ann Fennelly’s micro-memoir collection Heating and Cooling. I also watch various novelistic TV series. But my lifelong drive towards narrative immersion in long fiction just seems broken. I’m not sure whether to nudge myself back into the old reading patterns, which I’ve always found calming, or just let the monkey mind swing how it wants to.

So far, I’ve been doing the latter, both in my reading and my NaPoWriMo practice. I sent a bunch of work out, and received a quick acceptance and a quick rejection; the other poems wait for editors to have opinions about them. I think I’ve drafted a couple of poems that will be keepers. I’ve also written poems about being too discouraged to write poems. I’ve been collaborating with my spouse on some visual poems here and there, and I also spent much of this week, our spring break, revising my own novel, because I received some helpful feedback and that’s what I wanted to do. Perverse, but so be it. The very best thing I did for myself, poetry-wise, was join a group of women poets just sending their daily drafts to each other for the month of April, with no apologies and no judgments. It’s felt like everything I love about poetry, with none of the striving–what a blessing.

On a probably related note: last weekend was the first time I  completely broke my commitment to blog something poetry-related weekly in 2018. This vow was in response to a challenge Kelli Russell Agodon and Donna Vorreyer leveled in December–see Donna’s awesome list of participants here–and has been facilitated by the great gift of Dave Bonta’s weekly roundups (most recent one here). I realized Monday morning I hadn’t posted anything and thought, well, damn. Then I decided I’d rather spend a few more hours on poetry subs, then work on the novel. It was good to prove to myself that I could focus immersively on something.

And now it’s back to running at top speed, with a seminar on African American poetry starting tomorrow. On the creative community front, I’m also also looking forward to a reading at 7 pm this Friday, April 27th, in Staunton, at the Black Swan. And I’m SO grateful to Gettysburg Review for including my poem “L” in its pages–that’s my poem about turning 50, in 50 50-character lines, which I drafted at 47 because I like to plan my crises in advance. An ambitious poem about the problems with ambition, it felt like a turning point for me and I’m so glad it found a good home–confirmation that springs of moody weather can, in the long run, bear fruit.

poetry reading poster

The spring beauty are starting to bloom

My body and brain tell me it’s December. At work I’ve been teaching, grading, going to meetings, reading files, doing paperwork, conducting interviews; the rest of the time I’ve been making lists, shopping, cleaning, cooking, digging out wool sweaters, and wondering when I’m going to get the house decorated. The sun rises late and vanishes early. I’ve got sniffles and deadlines.

But my long-awaited chapbook Propagation has arrived! And it’s set in early spring in the Virginia woods–or a slightly uncanny version of them, with Russian folktales climbing the tree boles like an invasive species–where the main character tastes bluebells and ponders her choices. Order it from dancing girl press here; read about it at William Woolfitt’s Speaking of Marvels blog here. Or contact me–I’m happy to send signed review copies gratis if you’d consider reviewing or teaching it.

Thanks to everyone who helped me get this long poem into print, and who helps me survive the world’s stupidities. Occasionally something really does blossom through the duff (subtext: Alabama).

propcover

Intention / haplessness

As usual, I’m tripping over my own sleepy feet into National Poetry Month, knowing I should have a WRITING PLAN but instead feeling indecisive, half-awake. April is when W&L’s winter term ends in a flurry of meetings, receptions, and papers; exam week and spring break, which are relatively calm, occupy the middle; and by the last 10 days or so I may or may not be teaching one of W&L’s hyper-intense 4-week spring courses, meeting 15 undergraduate poets for a couple of hours daily and otherwise grading and planning like a demon. It’s rough to establish a writing schedule during those transitions, but on the other hand, it’s a moment when the earth is all churned up inside and out, and those are fertile poetry times for me. I get much less done during winter’s still darkness.

I began observing NaPoWriMo in 2012, drafting a poem every day that April, and it was an amazing season: I wrote some good stuff and made real progress as a writer. It was also my first spring in two years, because of a six-month stay in New Zealand where the seasons are flipped, so I went from light-starved to ecstatic sun-worshiper in the most intense attunement to spring I’ve ever experienced. In May, my father died, so I wrote furiously all summer and fall, too. Those poems form the core of my next book.

April 2013 was less successful, even though I spent part of the month at a writer’s retreat, perhaps because I didn’t need the release so desperately. In 2014 I shifted approach and wrote a long poem in a section per day, using Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale for prompts. I recently revised “Propagation” for a contest submission. It begins, as the excerpt below shows, with a middleaged woman about to walk into the woods for a solitary hike; she may or may not be accidentally pregnant, but she’s also unhappy and trying to figure out what to do next. I loved researching the local wildflowers as they bloomed on our back campus as well as experimenting with different forms and styles from day to day. The first section is below, just to give you the scent of it.

The deal I’m striking with myself now: as of tomorrow I have to spend at least 20 minutes per day working on poetry. I can write, revise, or just read and think and plan, but I have to prioritize it, including during the AWP. Even if your life is nuts in April, it’s a good discipline to remember that you can carve out little blocks of concentration for what’s important. You just need to make really living your life–as opposed to checking email or hitting snooze or whatever else gets you into trouble–non-negotiable. Wish me luck.

1

An edge will sharpen later:
  bright lot / chilled shade.
Now, at April’s front door,
  the woods begin
imperceptibly.
  Wizened sycamores
crook twig-fingers—come in, come
     in—but their kitchen
vents through a thousand
  seedy chimneys. No
green shingles yet
  divide the interior
from ruminating stars.

  Inside me another
brambled sleeping world:
  another boundary to breach.
Anger / desire. Inside
  me a felted bud may
be fattening. Embryonic
  summer. Infant
premonition of forest.

Buried bulb juts up a spear

More sleet and snow in the forecast, ugh, even as here in western Virginia, snowdrops and crocus and even a few daffodils show the shivering woods in bright spring clothes. I feel winter-locked too. Things have been germinating underground that I can’t talk about much: some hopes that have busted, some that may be hardier. Maybe I’ll be able to leap up from the leaf-mulch of half-graded papers and show some colors soon, but not quite yet.

In the meantime, at the risk of seeming really pretty goofy, here’s news of an inner turn, something that happened a month or so ago and has made me feel calmer. I’d been thinking a lot about ambition. Writers, probably all strivers for beautiful outcomes, have to construct this funny balance. On the one hand, you have to be humble and open about the work, because that’s all that matters and the work won’t tolerate some poet thinking she’s the one in charge. On the other, you have to cultivate arrogance: confidence enough to follow the words in the first place, and then the more public chutzpah involved in getting your work out there. Inspired by VIDA and other projects drawing attention to the weaker networks of women writers, our collective tendency to sidestep struggle and self-aggrandizement, I’ve been plagued by ridiculously heroic meta-ambition. I HAVE to strive, I told myself. Any woman who has the means HAS to, otherwise too few of us will ever see sunlight.

I wondered if that was self-deceptive (“It’s not for my own sake, really, I’m staking out those prestigious journals for my sisters!”). I also noticed that these double pressures to succeed were making me feel inadequate and jealous–more hurt by the inevitable losses, less thrilled by the wins. And then I had not just the thought but the sudden conviction I tried to describe in the verse below, drafted on a February day when you could feel a bit of warmth, a hint that spring would eventually, in fact, arrive. I have the feeling it’s a fragment of process, not a poem yet or maybe ever, but putting those lines together helped me. And I went to the AWP and that sense of smallness we all have at that conference worried me less. I just kept writing down the names of women who said smart, moving things at the various panels and readings I attended, and now I’m going to order their books.

Weed Experiences Trite Yet Nourishing Epiphany

A breath riffles my trichomes:
we are all connected. Sudden sense
of the buried mycelium from which
all creatures sprout: shoots reach
through the air while we root
together invisibly. Why this
consoles a godless poet, I don’t know;
I could say what’s good for one
herb greens the whole field, though
hunger is never so rational; still
I feel relief in every chloroplast,
a hot June slackening of fear.

I’m sorry I’m abandoning you all

All it takes is a wobble
of ankle or attention—
the other racers fly ahead
and I’ll never catch up.

This is a stupid way
to approach a cherry
blossom. With fear,
I mean. What if,

I ask my spouse, I waste
this gift of two weeks?
I will have betrayed
my family. Counting

games and recitals
at which I will not
cheer, mushrooms
I will not fry. This

week I helped my son
imagine how to draw rain.
I mailed my daughter’s
lopped ponytail to a cancer

charity. All that honey.
Now she runs light.
And I pack the car
with tea bags, soft clothes,

books about other books
because who knows what
a mother of teenagers
will do with solitude?

My spouse laughs.
His first gift to me,
a quarter century ago,
was news that my terror

is funny. We keep walking
past a drowned young
green snake, curled
in a spiral, along the brown

creek, all roiled up
by last night’s rackety
storms. Surprised, he admits,
I slept through the thunder.

My NaPoWriMo poem drafting frenzy continues. One of the most fun projects I’ve started is a collaboration with visual artist Carolyn Capps–she sent me an image, I wrote a poem by way of reply, she’s going to create another image and send it to me, and we’ll see where it goes from there. More on that later, I hope.

This morning’s poem, posted above, had several triggers. My daughter is now on the track team. I read an ominously beautiful poem by Jack Ridl in the new Poet Lore called “Within the Moment of Indefinite Suffering” that begins, “All it takes is a tick.” And, obviously, I took a walk with Chris. He’s just back from Pittsburgh, where he’s settling his mother into assisted living. I’m off tomorrow to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I’ll have a studio, three effortless meals a day, and woods to walk in while I think poetic thoughts. I’m obviously feeling guilty and panicked. I’m wondering if I’m the only person who’s dumb enough to approach the amazing privilege of a 2 week fellowship, no strings attached, with this level of fear, or whether this is a totally normal angsty writer way to siphon off the joy from an amazing spring adventure.