What’s cooking and what’s already on the table

My mother in 1966

Being on sabbatical puts a insulating layer between me and the academic seasons, but I can still sense the weather shifting via publication cycles. Even for magazines and presses without university affiliations, there are year-in-review lists and columns: Aqueduct Press just published one of mine, and I’ve just submitted another to Strange Horizons for early January publication. I’ve been reading proofs for December issues. Rejections are souring my inbox. I also received three delicious acceptances from magazines I’ve never cracked: I’ll have poems in Smartish Pace and Kenyon Review Online next year, plus an essay that’s central to my forthcoming book, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, will be in American Poetry Review. I’m freaked out, sad, tired, and feeling like a shut-in, yet that is some serious holiday cheer.

I’m rarely in a good mood, honestly, when I’m processing publication’s endless clerical business, even the wins. Being immersed in writing and reading feels better. Yet there are payoffs. A big one today is getting to celebrate the just-published issue of Shenandoah. I’ve been proofing the fiction, nonfiction, comics, and translations sections, which I otherwise have almost nothing to do with, although I love what the other editors have selected. The poetry section, though, is full of my babies. I recruited a few of the authors; most are people whose work I didn’t know before last year, when I sifted their beautiful poems out of the hundreds and hundreds submitted during our brief reading period. I can’t play favorites, loving them all equally, but here’s a tasting menu, each chosen because it will make you feel replete:

There’s a wide range of other feelings and experiences represented in this suite of poems, but for now: honey, rhubarb, persimmons.

More fruit of past efforts: this Sunday at 4 pm ET, you can check out poetry readings by Anna Maria Hong and me, courtesy of Hot L. (They’re recorded.) I’ll be virtually live (oh the paradoxes) in the Poetica-Malaprops series at 3 pm ET on Sunday January 3rd, and in the Cafe Muse series on Sunday January 4th at 7 pm ET. In the meantime, I’m trying to figure out what end-of-year submissions I need to scramble up for postpublication book prizes, other random opportunities, and yes, the magazines. It’s a lot, and most of it won’t end palatably. But no cooking, no feast.

Blue/ jazzed

The other day we got up early and drove to western Augusta County because the hikes there are much quieter than along the Blue Ridge Parkway, where foliage is peaking and so are the visitors. On autumn mornings here, especially if the day is going to be sunny, mist hugs the ground, gathering most densely over water and other warm places, wreathing the mountains. As the car wound along the empty highway, past farms and Trump signs and gun shops and churches, we alternately dipped into foggy hollows and rose up into sunshine where dew spangled the trees and the last wisps of steam curled up from roofs and embankments. The drive was an obvious metaphor for this October. I have moments of shiny hope but I keep crashing into feeling bad in the most sweeping ways, fearing the election and many more months of isolation, losing faith in everything I’ve written, unable to concentrate on the work I should be doing now. I’m pretty sure everyone feels the same–unless you’re stuck entirely in the lowlands. Here’s hoping the view gets clearer soon.

I can’t write poems but I need to work on prose anyway, particularly honing Poetry’s Possible Worlds, a book of hybrid essays due sometime in 2021. It blends criticism and memoir in a discussion of literary transportation–meaning immersive reading or getting lost in a book–in relation to short twenty-first century poems. I was going like gangbusters last week, but I’m dragging myself through the work very slowly this week. That’s okay, I keep telling myself. The two weeks before the US presidential election were always going to suck. Even when the world isn’t in dangerous meltdown, writing is full of hills and valleys.

I traded messages with a friend last week about the discouragement we often feel about finding readerships. It’s damn hard work and doesn’t get you very far; luck and connections probably matter more. Yet it’s helpful to have camaraderie in frustration. I always read Dave Bonta’s weekly Blog Digest, and this week that struggle was a major theme, especially in Kristy Bowen’s amazing post about self-publishing. It’s awful but cheerful, as Elizabeth Bishop said, or at least cheering to remember that this is just the way writing goes. You’d better be doing the work for it’s own sake or as a gift to others, not expecting anything in return, not even attention–yet the gifts will come back to you sometimes in surprising ways.

Gifts of late: a wonderful, thoughtful review of Unbecoming in Strange Horizons and a poem called “Dragon Questionnaire” in the same magazine; participating in a warm and intimate reading series organized by Johns Hopkins professor Lucy Bucknell; word of forthcoming reviews of The State She’s In; and a local author talk on Unbecoming scheduled and promoted by W&L’s amazing library staff. The latter is Tuesday October 27th, 7 pm EST, and open to the public–just register here: https://go.wlu.edu/unbecoming. I’ll talk about the book’s origin, read a couple of spooky excerpts, take questions, and give a couple of writing prompts.

Late breaking, too: I just got tapped to read from Unbecoming at the World Fantasy Convention, virtual this year. I’ll be part of the Weird Fiction Cluster on Friday October 30th from 10:30-12:30 pm ET, 8:30 Mountain Time (it should have been in Utah this year). The timing: oy. I’m no night owl, but I’ll manage somehow. The opportunity: hallelujah! The readings will be recorded for registered participants to view for weeks afterwards, which makes potential audience reach pretty good. See? I should be pleased to have attained this little hill.

In local politics, there’s good news, too. No word yet on whether W&L is changing its name, but The Washington Post just called our next-door neighbor, Virginia Military Institute, to the carpet for failing to deal with its deeply racist campus climate, and the governor is launching an investigative probe. In a small town like this one you inevitably have friends who work there, and I’m more optimistic for them and the cadets than I’ve felt for a long while. All the little justice struggles do add up, even if it takes forever, with lots of ups and downs along the way.

Best for what?–reading 2018

urs and booksI love hearing about people’s favorite books, and regularly shop and read from lists published everywhere every December. I’ve even written a short discussion of my favorite genre books in 2018, to appear in Strange Horizons‘ annual roundup a few days from now.

But I’m skeptical of these lists, too: “best” for whom, when, and why? For what purpose? I’ve found no single critic out there who shares all of my own tastes and obsessions, even though I’m part of a demographic heavily represented in literary journalism. What makes a book powerful is partly latent in the text, but is also contingent on circumstances. Even for one reader, the stories or voices that feel most necessary can vary from day to day. There’s no value-neutral, objective “best” out there.

I can certainly name the poetry books that most wowed me this fall, that I kept wanting to share: If They Come For Us by Fatimah Asghar, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassins by Terrance Hayes, and, a little belatedly, Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang. Does that make them the best? It means they’re really good, for sure.

But I also bought poetry books for friends, marking a few poems for each that I thought would especially appeal. Asghar and Chang were on that list, but so was Ada Limón’s The Carrying, which I also remembered loving–and as I reread it, the book gained even more force. Some books grow over time. Does that make Limón’s book the best, even if a December reviewer barely has enough perspective to see it? Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment by Alessandra Lynch worked like that for me, earlier this year. On first encounter, I felt frustrated by how the poems skirted the central subject–rape–but the successive readings you have to do for a reviewing assignment changed my reaction to profound admiration. And while I just read Patricia Smith’s Incendiary Art, I can say it’s almost unbearably powerful, and maybe you should read it wearing oven mitts–where does THAT criterion go in the rankings? Really, I liked or loved almost all of the poetry collections I read in 2019 (listed below, excluding things I didn’t like enough to finish)–but I have no idea which will mean most to me five years from now.

Honestly, much that I read last winter is pretty hazy. On the novel side, I remember being deeply affected by Jesmyn Ward’s Sing Unburied Sing and thinking the prose beautiful. I feel similarly about Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, which I read just this week, although the book’s sad irresolution disturbs me. There were several other novels I couldn’t put down–that inspired hours of intense delight. But Richard Powers’ Overstory, a massive tome that struck me in June as being a little clunky in a few passages, seems so far to have changed my brain the most. I mean, I’ve always loved trees–isn’t that practically a requirement of poethood?–but they loom larger now, more deeply rooted in my imagination, more prone to overshadow those little humans flickering around their boles. If a not-quite-perfect book alters how a human sees the world, might it not be the best for, say, trees?

Well, what do I know, really? I read a lot, but I’ve consumed the tiniest fraction of this year’s output (and fewer novels than usual, perhaps because I spent much of the summer revising my own). Happy New Year, and go read something from this list, or somebody else’s, because they’re all partial. In any case, bruit what you love. We all need a variety of angles to make sense of a landscape.

POETRY

1/2 Allak, Keine Angst* (poet I met in England)

1/2 Driskell, Next Door to the Dead (met through AWP)

1/3 Winn, Alma Almanac* (Barrow Street press mate)

1/4 Adair-Hodges, Let’s All Die Happy* (reviews)

1/5 Fisher-Wirth, Mississippi* (friend and writer I admire)

1/6 Young, Ardency (teaching), and reread 5/6 for another class

1/9 Rukeyser, The Book of the Dead (teaching)

1/15 Forche, The Country Between Us (teaching)

1/20 Lynch, Daylily Called it a Dangerous Moment* (for review)

1/28 Cooley, Breach (teaching)

2/2 Dungy, Trophic Cascade* (reviews)

2/9 Chen, When I Grow Up I Want To Be A List of Further Possibilities* (reviews)

2/16 Gay, Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude (teaching)

2/25 Trethewey, Thrall (teaching)

2/27 Kaur, Milk and Honey (recommendations)

2/27 Mahato, In Between (recommendation)

3/3 Hutchinson, House of Lords and Commons (AWP prep)

3/3 Schwaner, Wind Intervals (local poet)

3/6 Smith, Good Bones* (AWP prep)

3/14 Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (teaching)

3/17 Bell, Ornament* (teaching)

3/23 Taylor, Work & Days (prepping for campus visit)

3/25 Taylor, Forage House (teaching)

3/31 Igloria, Haori (prepping for campus visit)

4/1 Igloria, The Buddha Wonders If She’s Having a Mid-Life Crisis (“)

4/14 Givhan, Protection Spell (author I admire)

4/23 Reagler, Teeth & Teeth* (friend)

4/23 Keen, Milk Glass Mermaid (friend, rereading)

4/28 De la Paz, Post Subject (friend, also scouting for teaching)

4/29 Smith, Wade in the Water* (poet long admired)

5/7 Van Clief-Stefanon, Black Swan (reread for teaching)

5/8 Howe, Magdalene* (NBA finalist 2017)

5/10 Santos, Square Inch Hours* (NBA finalist 2017)

5/10 Miller, Women Disturbing the Peace* (friend)

5/15 Erin Belieu, Slant Six (picked up at AWP)

5/22 Emerson, Claude Before Time and Space* (fandom)

6/6 Tavila-Borsheim, Love Poems* (picked up at conference)

6/6 Robinson, A Cruise in Rare Waters (by a friend)

6/6 Hancock, The Open Gate (local writer)

6/10 Kindred, Says the Forest to the Girl* (friend)

6/21 Eusuf, Not Elegy but Eros* (met at a conference)

6/21 Meng, Bridled* (review)

6/24 Chang, Barbie Chang (word of mouth)

7/5 Banka, You don’t scare me (“met” her virtually)

7/11 Joseph, Confessions of a Barefaced Woman* (fandom)

7/22 Kildegaard, Course* (fandom)

7/29 Daye, River Hymns* (recommended by a friend)

7/29 Williams and Humberstone, ed, Over the Line: Intro to Poetry Comics (research)

7/30 Hayden, Collected Poems (teaching prep)

7/31 Coleman, ed., Words of Protest, Words of Freedom (teaching prep)

9/11 Ginsberg, Howl (reread for class)

9/25 Plath, Ariel (reread for class)

10/12 Limon, The Carrying* (fandom)

10/13 Hayes, American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin* (fandom)

10/15 Bishop, Questions of Travel (reread for class)

10/17 Bishop, Geography III (reread for class)

10/18 Harjo, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings* (fandom)

10/19 Brooks, A Street in Bronzeville (reread for class)

11/11 de la Paz, Requiem for the Orchard (reread for class)

11/17 Gay and Nezhukumatathil, Lace & Pyrite* (fandom)

12/10 Ostriker, Waiting for the Light (former teacher)

12/18 Asghar, If They Come For Us* (reviews and word of mouth)

12/19 Reed, Indecency* (Pulitzer)

12/20 Stallings, Like* (reviews)

12/20 Taylor and Roberts, Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle* (I’m in it)

12/20 Senechal de la Roche, Winter Light* (colleague)

12/23 Vorreyer, Every Love Story Is an Apocalypse Story (review)

12/27 Meitner, Holy Moly Carry Me* (fandom)

12/29 Smith, Incendiary Art* (fandom)

  

FICTION

2/10 Hill, Heart-Shaped Box (word of mouth)

2/18 Strout, Burgess Boys (friend’s rec)

3/4  Ward, Sing Unburied Sing* (prizes/ reviews)

3? Albert, The Hazel Wood* (review in NYT)

5/3 Locke, Bluebird* (NYT mention)

5/20 Due, The Good House* (NYT mention)

5/23 Robinson, Shaman (fandom)

5/29 Baldwin, Go Tell It On the Mountain (had somehow never read it)

6/2 Powers, Overstory* (reviews)

6/8 King, Outsider* (fandom)

6/? LaValle, Changeling (reviews)

7/8 Weber, Still Life with Monkey* (fandom)

7/18 Shaffer, Hope Never Dies* (what the hell)

7/20 O’Callaghan, The Dead House* (NYT review)

7/25 Hummel, Still Lives* (like her poems)

8/19 Walsh, Ghosted* (audiobook, from review of book)

9/5 Makkai, The Great Believers* (general fandom)

10/5 Galbraith, Lethal White* (general fandom)

10/7 Carter, The Bloody Chamber (reread for class)

10/16 Jones, Mongrels (reread for class)

11/11 Adcock, The Completionist* (audiobook, from review of book)

11/17 Schoffstall, Half-Witch* (review)

11/18 King, Elevation* (fandom)

12/1 Novey, Those Who Knew (book club)

12/8 French, Witch Elm* (review)

12/25 Meijer, North Wood* (gift)

12/26 Edugyan, Washington Black* (gift)

12/27 Moore, Ghostographs* (review)

 

NONFICTION

1/2 Harney and Moten, The Undercommons (references in other books)

2/2 Adichie, We Should All be Feminists (word of mouth)

4/22 Fennelly, Heating & Cooling (word of mouth, teaching possibility)

5/? Brownell (for teaching/ research)

7/5 Cleland, Mastering suspense, structure, and plot (for research)

7/6 Moore, Flash Nonfiction (for teaching)

7/9 Percy, Thrill Me (research)

7/12 Nelson, Bluets (reputation)

7/13 Connors, Salmon Matters (by a friend)

12/16 Tsvetaeva, Letter to the Amazon (recommended by daughter)

*=published within the last year or so

book-presents.jpg

Reading underwater

When you’re deep in a book, do you become irritable about pesky interruptions like sleep, mealtimes, and the basic human needs of your dependents? I do. Unfortunately, I’m like that about long writing projects too. I spend summers and sabbaticals, when I’m lucky, bobbing in the surf: under the wave of the book I’m reading or the chapter I’m writing, then breathing for a span in the trough between them. I’m lousy company, my not-very-social twelve-year-old tells me, and he sets a low bar, mainly wanting someone to chat with about computer game triumphs.

My mood these days is totally tied to the daily fortunes of writing—I’m apocalyptic when the prose-building isn’t going well, elated when it is, frustrated when I can’t make time. The latter is pretty frequent, even though I’m luckier than many. On summer weekdays I can almost always carve out a couple of hours of actual writing time, but I crave fuller spans I can only attain irregularly. My writer-spouse and I are juggling incomplete camp coverage and various other family needs.

I’m a lot more cheerful, though, than I described feeling in the Vomit Post. I’m hip-deep in the new critical book now, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, and beginning to see the shape of it. It springs from several goals. I’m thinking about how lyric poems map possible worlds that readers enter immersively, a practice of absorption or entrancement usually associated with long narratives, especially novels. Victor Nell calls it “ludic reading” because it’s a kind of play; if you read addictively, you probably know the experience of the language becoming invisible as if you’ve entered an alternate universe. Lost in a book, deep in a book, transported. I’m going against the grain of narrative and poetry studies, but I know lyric poetry can do this too. That’s the part of the book, the how and why of poetry immersion, I hope will interest creative writers and literary scholars. I’m aiming at a general reader, though, by interspersing argument with narrative and writing as engagingly as I can, with a scandalous paucity of endnotes. Each chapter, based on a single twenty-first-century poem placed right up front, involves close-reading, autobiographical writing, and theorizing. I’m choosing poems that I hope will appeal instantly. I know a lot of novel-addicts who are put off by contemporary verse, don’t even try to read it. This is probably the Sisyphus in me, but I want to convince them that as in novel-reading, they have a right to like whatever they like, and they will like some of it. I’m choosing the poems and reading lots of background stuff as I go, so I’m never more than a couple of steps ahead of myself.

I decided last week, as I was reading about reading, that I needed to consider my own novel-entrancements more consciously. I chose The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, a fantasy novel of the type set at a school of magic; a friend recommended it as to me as the only book she knew in which a student magician received financial aid. I have mixed feelings about The Name of the Wind. The main character hates poetry and is really stupid about gender, and while these are character traits, they implicate the authorial world-builder. One more scene in which men muse about feminine mysteries might kill me. On the other hand, the book treats poverty intelligently and it’s every bit as absorptive as I’d hoped. Many writing strategies are supposed to encourage engrossment: sensory detail, suspense, free indirect discourse, the historical present tense, round characters, first-person or figural narration, a logically consistent fictional universe, some adherence to genre formulas. Most of those are tricky to test; there isn’t actually a science of immersive writing, and reader reactions are heavily dependent, anyway, on culture and context. Still, these are smart guesses, and it’s not surprising to find most of these in Rothfuss’ book. I’d even say, two-thirds through the sequel, these books are about narrative immersion—I just finished a section in which a song pulls the hero into another world.

Some reflections: I do visualize scenes as I read. The main character has no distinct facial features but I see his red hair and his green cloak with all the pockets (why does it have a crazy-quilt lining?—that can’t be appropriate). Turns out I have a generic Fantasy Tavern where I’ve been placing scenes from Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and various other novels for years—if it ever had a real-life inspiration, I can’t remember it. The landscape is western Virginia with some Welsh mountains and Irish stone walls pasted in. I also feel with this character, whom I do not much like, in startling ways. When Kvothe can’t breathe, my chest constricts. When he’s hungry and cold, I get a chill despite the hot weather. Those specific realizations surprised me, but other feelings are perfectly familiar: the slow concentration of the first few pages, when I’m still distractible and getting acclimated, followed by increasing absorption and finally, when something interrupts me, disorientation. I never fully leave the book, experiencing a double-citizenry in “real” life and book-world. And now the next Neil Gaiman just came in, so I’ll never get to that drift of lit-mags…

I’m also testing the immersiveness of verse novels, so a round-up of those will come one of these days. For some other stuff I’ve been up to, see my goodbye to Fringe Magazine, a review of Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Unexplained Fevers in Strange Horizons; and new poems in Avatar Review. But if I wind this up now, I can squeeze in a chapter before my son gets up and whines about those basic human needs. 

Career Suicide

I’m risk-averse, at least financially. My mother felt trapped in a bad marriage by her lack of education and her sense that she couldn’t earn a decent living. I remember thinking as a child: come hell or high water, I WILL have my own salary, health insurance, retirement fund. I will never have to sit and swallow it while a man puts me down, mocks what I don’t know and can’t do.

There’s no such thing as perfect safety in money or anything else, but tenure’s about as close as I’m going to get: I have a job I love, a fair amount of freedom in what I say and write, and even a little fund for annual conference attendance. This year I spent a big chunk of the latter at the AWP in Boston, an 11,000-person conclave of writers blowing all kinds of crazy smoke. I had several gigs to perform. One of them was to describe modernist poetry performance for Iris Jamahl Dunkle’s very rich panel, “Shaking the Burning Birch Tree: A Celebration of Amy Lowell.” Another was to interview Rafael Campo for a magazine. A third was to emcee a panel I’d devised with the distinctly risky title of “Career Suicide.” As I said to the well-populated room, I had worried for months that audience members would rise up and berate me for being too flip about one word and too serious about the other—that is, using suicide as a metaphor for risks that are typically less apocalyptic, and for implying that writers should think in terms of “career” at all. After all, publishing and professorships are in some ways pretty tangential to the difficult and important business of getting the words right. Isn’t conceiving of writing as a career the beginning of a whole mess of problems?

I did register a number of people grimacing painfully when I told them the name of the panel, but no one stormed out. Instead, we had a pretty good conversation; I’m still pondering what we said and what we left unsaid. How much is any one of us willing to reveal, really, when the room is full of current and future readers, editors, and grantors? Talk about career suicide.

What we did say: a big topic was the risk inherent in switching or bridging genres. Lawrence Schimel has some particularly compelling stories about how writing gay poetry and erotica has been an obstacle to publishing children’s fiction under his own name in the US, but a useful credential-builder in Spain for the same enterprise. Place was a major theme, too. Luisa Igloria described leaving a thriving career in the Philippines for a position in the US where her previous accomplishments seemed to weigh little. She and Lawrence spoke movingly, too, about how marriage laws and cultural understandings of gender make a big difference in a writer’s life. Ann Fisher-Wirth told us about leaving a prestigious job where she was unhappy and eventually creating a career that fit her needs and talents just right. There were similar stories from the audience: sometimes, if you’re stubborn enough about what you want and/or what you feel compelled to write, you survive the hostility and resistance to make a decent place for yourself. We talked a little about physical risk, some about financial risk, probably most about reach and reputation. We broached the topic of the astounding generosity I see in many writers, but probably didn’t address it sufficiently: for example, editorial work, university service, or outreach to underserved populations make it difficult to get your own writing done but can make the world better. There’s so much to say about risk, really. It encompasses everything from how you word the first line of a poem to how you live on earth.

I like to bloviate about myself as much as any author, but I genuinely did call this panel together to hear what others had to say rather than dispense pearls of dubious wisdom. My own genre experiments were certainly on my mind, though. I’m thrilled by the good reception so far of The Receptionist and Other Tales, starting with those blurbs from sf writers I’ve never met but have adored for years, and peaking recently in a great review by Sally Rosen Kindred in Strange Horizons and a place on the Tiptree Award Honor List. I’m unequivocally proud of the book. But I do see now how a genre change can jeopardize the audience you’ve been building instead of, or in addition to, expanding that audience to include new readers. When I tell poets and editors about the venture, some of them just get this look, and I know they won’t even read the first page. I wonder about the implications for future reviews, grants, and opportunities.

But you know, while I’m scared, I’m not the least bit sorry. The creative dangers of this project have started conversations I’m enjoying wickedly. They’ve also somehow authorized more risk-taking in my new writing: I’m a little more likely to leap before I look.