Virtual Poetry Salon with Tess Taylor

I’ve always liked fierce poems and feminist poems, but it wasn’t that long ago that I noticed how many of the poetry collections I like best are deeply grounded in place. In Tess Taylor’s new collection, Rift Zone, that place is California in a century perched on a fault line. Taylor writes of suburbs that bury violent histories, and also how that violence keeps erupting and threatening to upend today’s polluted prettiness. There’s an apocalyptic Plathian verve to some of Taylor’s similes: “My parents renovated that old home. / It is clean as a lobotomy.” There’s resonant music, too, with some of the poems framed as songs and lullabies, and others just prickling with echoed sound: “The air rings with lost force we call the waves.” I hope you’ll read the book, the interview below, and the poem Taylor links to in the last line. It will appear in tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine, a physical copy of which I cherish over tea every Sunday morning. Is that another precarious pleasure? How long will our luxuries last?

  1. If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

Broken cookies cracked apart by seismic pressure.

2. If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

I would say I am horribly sad and that some days I cannot even bear it. I would say writing a book of poems about the precarity of our lives in this brutal era only to have the era be too precarious for the poems has been staggering. I would say that beauty and song have a nagging way of sneaking up on me despite my rage and grief. I would say: I am waking up at midnight and keeping a raw insomniac’s journal. I would say I feel unkempt and also deeply alive. I would say “thank you so much for asking.”

3. How can your virtual audience find out more?

There is a lot up at www.tess-taylor.com!

A virtual reading here: 
https://www.ptreyesbooks.com/event/virtual-poetry-reading?fbclid=IwAR0oiHkMHdUk8LHonRo3CAWe5unQbxzS07h715aifPM8eK3N-Nf349hcnlU

And:  Here’s a stalwart defense of reading books NOW –  which you may like. 

And:  here’s a poem from the NYT Mag to send you into the weekend. 

October list, with bright spots

  1. Every U.S.-residing woman I’m in conversation with, of every generation, remains upset about Kavanaugh’s confirmation. For me it’s like trying to do my best work as some disembodied voice mutters in my ear, Even when we believe you, we consider the “assaults” you have suffered laughable. This is worth remembering about people as we walk through the world, how some are raining on the inside.
  2. The day I rotated off the AWP Board of Trustees, the scale read two pounds lighter. You think that’s related to salt consumption, and you’re entitled to that opinion.
  3. Grounded by Hurricane Michael, I missed my last board meeting in San Antonio. I’m sad to have missed catching up with the AWP staff and other board members, who are really the most wonderful people. But I wrote a poem (about Kavanaugh). Rested. Caught up on some work. As soon as I gave up trying to rebook flights, the sun came out.
  4. One of the papers I graded argued that while it was offensive for Sylvia Plath to use Holocaust metaphors in the persona poem “Daddy,” she may have appropriated that collective persecution because she knew that her own story, as a survivor of domestic abuse, would not have been believed. It was such a measured essay, not excusing anything, yet tending towards empathy in a way I found moving. People have to stop trash-talking millennials.
  5. The other essays were pretty damn good, too. Messy, sometimes, but we’re all messes, right?
  6. This is not a to-do list. This is a doing-it-because-I’m-not-yet-undone list.
  7. Have I mentioned that in response to those iffy blood sugar numbers I received in late summer, I’m doing a pretty good job drastically reducing carbs? I’m shocked I can manage it, given all the stresses of the season, but I actually feel better. There’s a certain undergrad I often see walking to school while munching a bagel, however, and every time I pass her, I groan.
  8. Mice are trying to repossess our house. When Poe catches one then absent-mindedly releases it, I’m reminded of the Senate and Brett Kavanaugh.
  9. The president is dog-whistling the KKK again, but my university gave us all some relief this week: a couple of buildings are being renamed (one after our first student of African descent, John Chavis, who was also the first African American in the COUNTRY to receive a college education–and that was here; the other after our first tenured woman professor, Pam Simpson, who was also my mentor); some important alterations are also happening in Lee Chapel.
  10. More sunshine: I received an acceptance this week from The Common, and two other magazines I admire gave me “but send more” rejections. I now understand how very, very kind that is. My thanks go out, too, to Rise Up Review, which featured my sonnet “Inappropriate” last week.
  11. This morning I read Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin and mumbled “holy shit” on every other page. It’s a forever-book. Hayes may be, as he claims in those pages, a Time Lord.
  12. I believe you and will keep on believing you. I’m convinced that matters. I just wish the weather weren’t taking so long to change.

fem lemon blam
Still life with oblivious cat and lemon balm

 

The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

plath2

How intense it was this week to be alternately following and averting my eyes from the Senate hearings as I taught Sylvia Plath to seventeen stingingly sharp students–trying to open up space to talk about anger, violence, gender, and race in powerful but often disturbing poems. Plath’s handling of metaphors related to the Holocaust, slavery, and Civil Rights always seemed problematic to me–it was a big topic in the early nineties, when I attended grad school–but I am now wondering how defensible it is even to keep the poem “Ariel” in particular on an undergraduate syllabus. While Plath’s use of terrible slurs wears worse and worse over the years, however, her bee poems–explorations of rage and other dark drives, sometimes encoded in racial metaphors–also feel more and more fundamental. Plus last year’s news about her abusive marriage , especially as captured in Emily Van Duyne’s “Why are we so unwilling to take Plath at her word?”, is crucial right now. We need to do a way better job at respecting survivors and understanding the costs they suffer.

I assign Plath in part to discuss the complex layering of selves even in apparently confessional work, and how she constructs identity as a performance. I believe Christine Blasey Ford utterly, but I also found myself thinking hard about what it meant for Dr. Ford to perform trauma, especially on a such a public stage. She was wise to play it so calmly, because many people, as she must well know, detest and fear angry women. In contrast, as others have pointed out, a woman candidate for the Supreme Court could never have ranted the way Brett Kavanaugh did, although among some constituencies, his emotional performance probably went over well. And of course their projected selves are inflected by race and class stereotypes, too, as were those of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas decades ago. My class is about sincerity and authenticity in mid-century poetry, during the Civil Rights movement and women’s lib and increasingly open discussions of sexuality, mental illness, and many other vividly embodied identities and experiences–and what a lesson this week was.

It was a lesson, however, I did not particularly need. I’m overloaded with work, struggling to tick down the lists and not get too anxious about tasks I cannot yet get to, and harsh reminders of assaults I suffered–and guilt about men I did not report–brought a level of stress into the equation that I’m just barely able to manage. I suspect I’d be a terrible beekeeper, unable enough to suppress whatever pheromones anxiety gives off, although I seem to keep myself together well enough that most humans don’t smell my fear.

“They have got rid of the men, // The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors,” Plath writes about the bees in “Wintering.” I keep wondering what the world would be like if every unremorseful assaulter–every person who has abused privilege in such a serious way without admitting and trying for atone for that abuse–were swept out of power, so that better people could rise up into those positions of money and prestige. It would be nice to find out, one day. But I can’t say I’m tasting the spring, just yet.

Sylvia Plath Quiz

My students’ responses to the real Plath quiz I just administered were too red, they hurt me, so I hereby offer an optional retest.* If your brain has not emptied of images like a cup or a room, please answer the following legibly without using the words hook, bald, black, moon, or blood.

1. What brand of cleanser works best to clear the white tumuli of a father-figure’s eyes?

2. Why did “Morning Song” make you all vow never to bear or sire children, while it strikes me as the most cheerful poem one could possibly write about the identity-negating sleep deprivation resulting from tending a newborn?

3. What marine creature does Plath see in the mirror, and what does that teach you about avoiding reflective surfaces?

4. In “Wintering,” what does Plath keep in the cellar, and please don’t all write “dead bodies” again, because that was seriously creepy?

5. Stop crying. Come here, sweetie, out of the closet. Will you major in it, major in it, major in it?

6. On a scale of 1 to 13, with 1 meaning “totally justified critique of patriarchy” and 13 meaning “wildly offensive trivialization of the Holocaust,” how ich-ich-ich-icky is “Daddy”?

7. Pure? What does it mean?

8. Why is bleeding because you “fall upon the thorns of life” so superior, Scott, to oozing gore from a trepanned veteran, dirty girl, thumb stump?

9. How can there be “nothing there” after Lady Lazarus’ “big strip tease,” except a phoenix? Alternatively, explain in three lines or less how these poems can be A) so messed up and B) simultaneously so powerful and indelible.

Extra credit if you can fold these poems back into your body OR tell me why the moon has nothing to be sad about.

*Passing this retest will not affect your actual grade in any fashion.

Union of future literary titans

 

Twenty-four years ago this June, Chris and I set up our first shared apartment. Possessions: a double bed my mother purchased (“don’t tell your father”); one brown vinyl couch with no rear legs picked up off the street, so if you sat down on a humid August night in shorts you wouldn’t be able to peel free until October; and a tipsy round table with white plastic bucket chairs from a university surplus sale. We took a further step and made things legal twenty years ago this week; the wedding was a wonderful celebration. Our most momentous decisions, though, occurred in the summer of ’89, when Chris was managing the database of a regional theater in Montclair and I was buying an improbable number of texts for my first graduate courses. We moved in the wee hours, because the new tenants of my previous house claimed possession at midnight. Our friend Scott Nicolay had a truck or a station wagon, I can’t remember, but he was always game for adventure, so he shuttled our belongings over to the first floor of that old stucco house in Highland Park, New Jersey. We were babies, but we were also somehow right about each other.

 

The stickiest problem, besides the couch, was merging our book and record collections, although after a little wrangling we devised a system that compromised my alphabetical ordering with his topical clusters. Chris and I got to know each other through Anthologist staff meetings—that’s the Rutgers College poetry magazine—so books were at the center of our friendship from the beginning. I studied his copies of Watchmen, Cerebus, and Dark Knight, and then handed him my Charlotte Brontë. We read Dante to each other at night and Adrienne Rich. We argued about chores and Derrida.

 

We were also reading each other’s pages, learning how to deliver tactful critique to the person you sleep with but more importantly cheering each other on. I was and remain mostly a lyric poet; Chris began that way, but his poems started mutating into thirty-page collages. He spent a lot of time in rare book rooms reading missionary diaries back then, learning about the Lenape. Probably Scott got him started—Scott grew up nearby, found arrowheads in his suburban backyard, and made the history of the area vivid for both of us—but in any case, Chris was thinking through problems that required large, complex architectures. Within a few years, he would shift his primary effort to novels and stories.

 

We were writers. We had plans. Art and marriage were intertwined endeavors. One day we wanted children and better furniture and a house of our own, but we also wanted magazine publications and author photos and artistic triumph. We were fascinated by Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, devouring their books as they hit publication, gleaning what information we could about their glamorous writerly marriage. Okay, it didn’t turn out so well, but we were striving for some ideal version of that. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath without the carnage.

 

You know the bit about “wives of geniuses I have sat with” in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, really written by Gertrude Stein? Chris and I, over the years, have taken turns playing genius and wife. We’ve both struggled not to feel invisible and dull while the other was fêted. Mostly, though, we root for each other strenuously and help each other materially. Magazine publication started to click for both of us when our kids were little. Our first books were accepted the same year. Perseverance is key to getting anywhere and I wonder if I would have struggled so insanely hard without Chris’ model. Rejection is constant but if you’re always telling someone else to suck it up and keep going, maybe you talk yourself into the necessary persistence, too.

 

Right now Chris is revising a novel for an excited literary agent. Could be the big one. Another thing we’ve learned together, though, is about the randomness of it all: you get a major acceptance and then the press crashes, but then another day some prize or honor hails on you out of the clear blue. Even more peculiarly, you attain the goal you’ve been striving toward for years and then it starts to feel ordinary. Every success is shadowed by some could-have-been, dwarfed by some higher peak in the distance. The only cure for the constant sense of inadequacy is writing itself, although it’s nice to have company for the ups and downs. 

 

Twenty years ago, twenty-four years ago, though, if we could have seen our 2013 resumes, we would have been damn impressed. All we had then was our unreasonable faith in ourselves and each other, vague plans for world domination, a crazy work ethic, and a promise to stand by each other through it all. We have those bylines and decent couches now, although we’re still waiting on the paparazzi.

1989

“Next Big Thing” weird self-interview blog meme thing

Sally Rosen Kindred tapped me for this game of blog-tag in which I contemplate my ms-in-progress as a high-concept Hollywood thriller starring James Franco minus apes. Let the bidding war begin.

What is your working title of your book (or story, or project)?

Radioland or some variation involving additional nouns, verbs, and/or prepositions. For a long time I was calling it Signal to Noise, but radio is emerging as a recurrent metaphor, and I like the idea that listening establishes a virtual place full of attentive ghosts: hey you out there in radioland… Plus, the latter is also the title of a graphic novel and I don’t want to annoy Neil Gaiman.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Writing requires a reception-transmission loop. You always have antennae up.

What genre does your book fall under?

On the lyric poetry radio dial, it’s that faint yet tantalizing broadcast, almost impossible to tune in, between the expensively-boosted signals of certain New York stations.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Who is the star du jour for all poet roles? In addition, my father, a major character in the manuscript, will be played by Alan Rickman.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Receiving a welter of signals from uncanny sources suggesting the approach of the end of days, the brave poet assembles a crack team of spirit-bards who help her save the human race from possessed Tea Party Republicans. (Illegal second sentence: afterwards, her parents divorce, her father dies, her house floods, and the world ends anyway, but she remains implausibly cheerful.)

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Being an Ah-tist, I am too busy wrestling the Muse in my unheated garret to acknowledge the frenzied door-knocking of agents and publishers. Or, to put it another way, I’ll write the best book possible and then send it out with my fingers crossed, no guarantees. Heathen took years and years to place while Heterotopia and The Receptionist and Other Tales found congenial homes without epic questing, so who knows.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I was playing with the same ideas when I started writing The Receptionist in the winter of 2008-9 and poems are still coming, but I have a critical mass now and hope to organize a full draft of the book during a VCCA residency in April. I’m not yet sure which poems will make the cut.

What other books would you compare this collection to?

It’s not much like Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Second April, H.D.’s Sea Garden, Langston Hughes’ Montage of a Dream Deferred, James Merrill’s Divine Comedies, Bill Manhire’s Lifted, Thomas Sayers Ellis’ Skin Inc., Paula Meehan’s Painting Rain, or Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars, but all of those books helped me think through certain problems—how to risk weirdness, tune in something bigger without blowing out the speakers.

This book will also contain a suite of poems about my father’s mean, sad death—at eight-five, he remarried a woman forty years younger and died in a veteran’s hospital nine months later, alone and alienated from nearly everyone who would have taken care of him. His funeral was another apex of awfulness. I thought a lot about famous dead father poems by Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, and Sharon Olds.

Actually, come to think about it, yes, my book is exactly like those weird works of genius Ariel and The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats. All my books are. Don’t try to live without them.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Radio in the 80s; red wolves; spring light; dreams; other writers.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

If you’re pure of heart and not sexually active, push past the fur coats in one poem—I can’t tell you which, and you must hold the book receipt in your left hand—and you will be transported to a magical kingdom. Plus, you really need to experience the book early on your own terms. Otherwise, movie posters of Franco in my sweaters and pink paisley eyeglasses will completely co-opt your inner life.

Poems that may be in Signal to Noise:

“Dead Poet in the Passenger Seat,” Prairie Schooner, reprinted as Shenandoah Poem of the Day

“Red Wolf Howl” in Valparaiso Poetry Review

“Adolescence is a Disorder of the Mouth” and “Entrée Vs. Lightning” in StorySouth

“The Book of Neurotransmitters” in Fringe

Three more in Talking Writing

Also see the journals Kestrel, Puerto Del Sol, Rattle, Notre Dame Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Rabbit, Studio, and 32 Poems, all of whom have awesome editors.

More takes on “The Next Big Thing” here:

http://kathleenkirkpoetry.blogspot.com/2013/01/the-next-big-thing.html

http://wordcage.blogspot.com/2013/01/the-next-big-thing.html

Emma Neale, Rosemary Starace, and Sarah Kennedy, I tag you!

Dead Father Poems

The best condolence note so far was an offer from a former student who grew up in New Orleans: “Let me know and I’ll put the voodoo on her.” It came with an anecdote about an effective curse on a scheming widow. Her jinxed swimming pool cracked as if buckling under an invisible burden of guilt. This is one good outcome of teaching poets. They rarely make the dough to create scholarships in your name or loan you their tropical islands for vacations, but they do know just what to say.

A few notes from the last few weeks:

  • Please don’t be disappointed in me but I did not read a poem at my father’s funeral. It was a brief military service at Washington Crossing National Cemetery, involving a small but very mixed crowd: my brother, sister and brother-in-law; my spouse; my kids and their cousins, ranging in age from five to sixteen; my father’s most recent wife, a woman my age who had served him divorce papers in hospital a week before he died; a few of her friends and relations; and a couple of people from the senior center where my father played bridge and began an affair with his widow-to-be. I knew I would be the only speaker and decided I just needed to say a few true things plainly.
  • Writing a eulogy is appallingly like writing a blog post. You have a limited window of composition, although you may have been mulling over the material for years (I basically had a day); it has to be pithy; it’s an ephemeral piece but you know if you screw it up those mistakes could dog you for a long time. This means you choose a theme, pound it out, revise once, put your dress on, and blurt. The audience is as blank-faced as the ether but afterwards a few post comments or hit the “like” button.
  • My words were sort of literary. I spoke about our afterlives in the tales others tell about us. A storytelling motif seemed appropriate, given that I’m a poet, my dad was not honest, and neither of us feels/felt certain about any other kind of heaven. It allowed me to tell a factual story about his life, bringing in memories of other family members, acknowledging the bad while honoring the good. That’s what I tried for, anyway.
  • Of course I was THINKING about poems, two in particular, both of them monuments. Lines from Sylvia Plath’s “The Colossus” kept rising before my eyes, with a vision of a tiny woman sitting on scaffolding, scrubbing down a giant statue of her father with pails of Lysol: “I shall never get you put together entirely… Thirty years now I have labored/ To dredge the silt from your throat./ I am none the wiser.”
  • And, of course, there’s Dylan Thomas. I told a poet-friend months ago about the dissolution of my parents’ marriage and she replied, “Talk about ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’!” Just days before the funeral I was talking to someone else about villanelles and she agreed that, perfect as it is, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” seems stupider in its basic sentiment the older one gets. I am now trying to write a villanelle containing the phrase “Enough with rage.” I have low hopes for it but need to give my two cents to Mr. Thomas. (It makes no sense that while I believe my father can’t hear me, I CAN talk to dead poets. I’m entitled to irrationality for the time being, right?)
  • Did you know that poets.org has a mini-anthology of “Dead Father Poems”? Go to the “Do Not Go Gentle” page and look left. Scott Hightower’s “The Father” is pretty great.
  • This post sounds flippant, I’m guessing, and angry; to use Thomas’ language, there’s more cursing than blessing. I am angry at my father’s widow, who behaved badly at the funeral. Letting us see the will without a legal injunction shouldn’t be too much to ask, and she should have directed the flag and condolences to his children, given the circumstances, instead of sending over her sister to whisper promises that “you will get what you want, just not today” (meaning: I’ll tell you anything to keep you quiet in front of my friends). She should let his grandchildren have some worthless keepsakes; otherwise, three of the six don’t have a single pleasant memory of the man. She should be a less awful person.
  • But, you know, people are awful, and she can’t do us any long term hurt. My father can’t hurt us anymore, either; it’s done, and I can see my way towards forgiving him. It would dishonor everyone to forget mean things he did and said, but I think there’s a way to let the bad stuff float off without disappearing. To live at a scenic distance from it. It will involve a lot of writing and remembering and attention.
  • What it doesn’t seem to involve so far, though, is grieving as I recognize it from other losses, not to mention novels, movies, and all those fierce dead father poems. I heard my spouse telling someone: “She had to put her feelings in a box and we don’t know where the box went.” He could be right; I’m waiting for the alleged box to burst, but I don’t think my feelings are unfolding that way. I worked hard before he died to surrender hope he’d transform into a loving person. “No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel/ On the blank stones of the landing”: I suspect Plath never did stop listening, but I did attain strategic hopelessness, after lots of grieving. One sad true thing: I don’t miss who he was, just who he never was. I’d like to be done with rage and with Lysol.