Prove or disprove and salvage if possible

Both your children will be away, people said, thus you will have a productive summer. In honor of my younger child, who is studying number theory for six weeks straight, let’s do the math. On the plus side:

  1. Cooking, cleaning, shopping, and laundry are far easier and cheaper. (I cannot BELIEVE how much less money we are spending on food.)
  2. No one is inconvenienced by my favorite work schedule.
  3. Knowing my kids are happily having successful adventures eases my mind. My daughter communicates constantly so we knew right off she was thrilled with her internship; my son is cagey but when we visited we finally felt assured he was okay.
  4. I can’t think of any other pluses. Until the kids are twelve or so, they need ferrying to part-day camps as well as close attention much of the time. My youngest is 17 and has a driver’s license. He hasn’t been needy, except in that way teens can need you in unpredictable spikes amid long intervals of independence, for ages. If I have more time in his absence, it’s minimal.

Negatives:

  1. Sad, sad, sad. Husband is sad. Cats are sad. Well, one cat is.*
  2. The U.S. government.
  3. My screwed-up town.
  4. Existential crisis brought on by the 3 problems above.

It’s a wash. I’m getting a perfectly respectable amount of work done for an empty-nest academic in the summer, but so far, no holy miracle of ramped-up sentence success. I spent June enacting deep revisions to my novel manuscript, responding to very good advice I received from a small press, and we’ll see where that goes. I enjoyed concentrating on it, at any rate, and it’s definitely a way better book now. And I’m a better writer for having undertaken the challenge.

I’ve also been reading in all genres, working on submissions, and writing a few poems, although I find tuning my brain to fiction-writing makes poetry harder. I’m now revising a couple of essays and finishing research for a third–I’m visiting an archive near Richmond on Tuesday, so Chris and I will stay overnight and share a fancy dinner, maybe visit a museum. I really don’t know yet how much I’ll finish by the time September hits in all its frantic glory. I’m trying not to worry too much about that, either, although being zen about the passage of summers and outcome of my labors–well, it hasn’t been my specialty. Working on it.

*The other cat, pictured below, is wondering if it’s snack time yet. Honey, aren’t we all? Also: good friends for whom I am very grateful; a number theory problem set; taking the mathematician out for dinner; and a new poem in Grub Street, with cool art and a handwritten edit.

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Intertidal zone

Robinson_NewYork2140_HCI’m currently reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s flood of a novel, New York 2140, at the edges of the work day. Sea levels have risen fifty feet but stubborn New Yorkers are trying to redefine their big moldy apple as SuperVenice, navigating the street-canals via vaporettos and hydrofoils. When you read a long book slowly, it seeps into your consciousness, so my metaphors have become watery. Not that I’m composing lots of new stuff–it’s mostly revisions, submissions, and correspondence this month, as well as a few blogs and reviews, squeezed in between meetings and other end-of-year chores–but every hour I’ve stolen for poetry has oozed with damp.

I’m especially preoccupied by the book’s dominant setting and metaphor, the intertidal zone. This whole month has been liminal. I’m in between the intensities of the teaching year and the writing summer, not quite free of one nor immersed in the other. I’m also waiting on the outcomes of queries, but trying to use suspenseful hours usefully–to not act like I’m waiting. Sometimes I’m optimistic and grateful, but often I’m down and worried. Rough seas this year, on a national and personal scale.

So, first, let me stress gratitude, which lately I’ve beaming out at the editors, agents, and other literary people who remind me that even when I feel stranded on a deserted isle, some of my bottled messages reach people.

  • I just brushed up an essay called “Women Stay Put” for Crab Orchard Reviewa piece about Claudia Emerson’s first book and her years adjuncting at W&L. It also concerns friendship, ambition, the toxic mess of university teaching hierarchies, and other topics I find REALLY hard. Thank you, Jon Tribble, for liking it enough to grant it space in the final print issue!
  • In this week’s intertidal zone, I also recorded a poem called “American Incognitum” accepted by Cold Mountain ReviewI’ve received a zillion rejections this spring but also had poems taken by the CMRBarrow Street, Water~Stone Review, Ocean State Review, Notre Dame Reviewand SalamanderSome of those acceptances brimmed with praise. How nice is that?
  • I’m looking forward to picking up my daughter from Wesleyan this weekend. It’s a long, hard drive, but we get quick visits with family on the way, and Madeleine is brilliant and hilarious company. We get home Sunday and I head right back to CT Tuesday morning, by plane, for Poetry by the Sea, where I’ll listen to poems and participate in panels alongside the shoreline, sharing lunch and dinner and conversation with literary friends. Bound to be lovely.

I’m going to skip the part where I tell you what I’m not grateful for, unless you take me out for a beverage and an earful, but I can redefine even that mildewy mess á la SuperVenice by observing: maybe the self-enriching tyrant will actually get impeached. And summer’s nearly here. I’ll get to work, at least part of the time, on what I personally find good and important. What’s tough about my workplace will recede to the background. And then in September I get to teach again, and my small classes are full of gifted students to whom I can offer real help, for a respectable salary. I appreciate this luck even at the lowest tide.

There’s a minor character in Robinson’s novel, a government finance guy, who describes his meditation practice: he lies down on the roof of his building and lists all the crap he cannot fix or change, and somehow feels relieved by the exercise. I’ve been trying an inland Virginia version: I cannot make the president obey the law. I cannot make colleagues treat me, or each other, with kindness and respect. I cannot make the world perfectly safe for my children, or other people’s children. I cannot force myself to go back to sleep at 2 a.m. or be productive or cheerful all the time. My metabolism will never obey me, nor will my cats.

I can practice compassion and diligence, but it’s really practice–trying, with no guaranteed results, ever. Thrum, swish, say the tides of my body. Even when you feel stuck, life is never static.034.jpg

In which I procrastinate with snacks, parties, and fake-writing

The peony heads slump over in their lushness. I can hear the baccalaureate speaker’s voice faintly behind the air conditioner’s hum, and I wonder again: in what sense does featuring another white Christian minister make this religious event “more inclusive”? Well, I’ll sit it out in my office but don my robes tomorrow for another long hot graduation ceremony on the lawn, then rush to the departmental luncheon to scarf down a little fruit and chicken salad before the students arrive with their dads sweating through cotton jackets and little old grandmas tottering around on the edge of heat exhaustion. I like the luncheon—praising students quite genuinely to their emotional parents, shaking damp hands, asking neutral questions that don’t imply a new BA should have firm post-grad plans yet, celebrating when they offer up good news about a job or grad school acceptance. It’s a happy kind of closure after a long hard year, especially since the mini-saunas of our dress clothes will have purged us of old grade disagreements.

I’m still in that delusional dilatory state in which I think I ought to clear the deck before I really write. This is delusional because there is ALWAYS another bit of paperwork to finish, emails to send, clean-up from the previous term or planning for the new one. Though some colleagues still linger over dwindling piles of student writing, I tend to get my grades in as fast as possible, read and summarize course evaluations, move books from the “on deck for class” spot to regular shelving, and proceed to other marginally OCD term-closure rituals. May always brings magazine rejections and acceptances, too, as faraway editors clear their own desks, and I get a little frisson of record-keeping joy as I document their decisions and list the lucky yeses on my curriculum vitae and Faculty Activities Report.

I do know this is a little crazy, even though as procrastination goes, clerical work is more productive than painting my toe nails a new color or watching funny cats on YouTube (not to cast aspersions on those venerable amusements, but I do feel pleasantly smug when that FAR comes due and I am ready to hit send). I do have to remind myself every year that it is procrastination, not some exercise of virtue. Writers write even when their desks are messy and that faculty development event they attended isn’t properly logged. My spouse is a good reminder of this. He writes even when he’s showering, running, folding laundry. This time of year—once heavy teaching work is on pause for three months—I need to seek a similarly single-minded focus instead of, say, mentally drafting memos or dreaming about my next snack.

I am showing early, hesitant signs of hunkering down. During April I drafted a crazy long poem in a section per day, using Vladimir Propp’s thirty-one functions of the folk tale as prompts; the quester is a middle-aged woman taking a three-hour walk in the April woods, pondering a career change and worrying about whether she may be pregnant. I reread it last weekend, shaped it up a bit, sought the aforementioned spouse’s feedback, revised it again, and gave it the provisional title “Propagation.” It was really fun to draft, requiring lots of, you guessed it, long walks in April woods, and at least for now, I like the results. I just shipped it off to a friend who wants to trade critiques this summer. That’s work, right?—although I always start summer’s meal with dessert.

This project has been good preparation for a presentation I’m giving on “The Receptionist,” a very different long poem, two weeks from now at the West Chester Poetry Conference. The panel is “Narrative and Non-Narrative in the Book-Length Poem” with the very accomplished and hip poets Dolores Hayden and Jehanne Dubrow (Saturday June 7th at 3:15, in case you’re around). We’re going to discuss problems of genre and composition then read from our various works. I find myself thinking particularly about how all narrative is time-management—deciding when to work through a scene in slow detail, and how to handle those sudden, disparate jumps of an hour, a day, a month of story-time. The form I chose for “The Receptionist” was highly symmetrical, involving thirty-three terza rima cantos of thirty lines each, and that made time-jumps harder to regulate and clarify. Grounding the story in an academic year, September to June, helped, as did liberal seasonal and holiday references.

I wouldn’t say I’m ready to give that presentation yet, but at least I’m finally turning my mind into the right groove. I’m hoping to segue right from working up my talk into writing a narrative-themed chapter for my prose-book-in-progress, Taking Poetry Personally. I’ll lay some groundwork, at least, and do a little more research during a work-and-pleasure trip to France in the second half of June. More on that here before takeoff, I hope.

In the meantime, back to “work” on the conference by arranging meals with friends, including poet Rafael Campo, who is sage and inspiring in this recently published interview for Shenandoah. Oh, and there’s a reference letter I have to write, and this really fun collaboration with artist Carolyn Capps that’s been languishing (see a bit of it at the new issue of Levure littéraire), and I’m really behind on my literary-magazine reading after which, whoops, it will be time to race home and get dinner on before my son’s band concert, and of course tomorrow will be all ceremonies and parties, and who could squeeze in writing time then? And maybe Friday I should begin to update my poetry submissions—I haven’t sent work out for ages, and while submission has its own agonies, it’s not as hard as actually writing. But soon, very soon, I’ll definitely, seriously get cracking.

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.