Reasons to be cheerful, part 4

We’re supposed to be cheery in late December, right? Ho ho ho.

I’ve been having a rough time, for reasons I can’t write about at the moment. But like H.D., when times are bad, I eat my way through it. This can be literally true: hello, Christmas pudding! But I also mean that I chew through piles of work. Writing and reading are never more important to me than when I’m feeling down and powerless. I can’t always work on the stuff I’m supposed to–my focus is more fragile–and I can hardly talk to other people, sometimes, even the kind people who don’t run in the opposite direction after a glimpse of me glowering. (Most people run, the cowards.) But I do hunker down, and this slow desperate doggedness adds up, and eventually some work bears fruit. A reference letter helps someone win a fellowship. An essay builds, paragraph by paragraph.

There are worse ways to cope than hypergraphia, I guess, even when it means isolated days of typing in pajamas.

Out of heaps of fermenting crap, small good things grow. And here I sit in that stinky paradox, feeling lucky and, alternately, choked by fumes. Ho ho cough cough.

The most surprising small good thing this December: my poetry chapbook Propagation, a fable in which a middle-aged woman in crisis enters the woods and weirdness ensues, was just accepted by Dancing Girl Press for publication in October 2017. I first drafted it in April 2014, writing a poem per day for thirty days, using Vladimir Propp’s 31 functions of the folk tale as prompts (I dropped one function and I’m not sorry). It took me a while to revise, obviously–long poems are complicated creatures. But now my protagonist gets a genuinely happy ending.

Other mss I completed last year are still gestating, but I’m receiving supportive notes and friendly feedback. This is rare, and lucky.

Additional amazements: for all the rejections I’ve received this year, and there have been a boatload, an oil tanker load, a number of generous editors have helped deliver my work to the world. Since summer, poems have appeared in Fjords, National Poetry Review, Thrush (that’s the first poem from Propagation), Tahoma Literary Review, and Queen of Cups. I’m also delighted to have a poem in the outstanding anthology edited by Jane Satterfield and Laurie Kruk, Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland. Next year will bring an essay in Crab Orchard Review and more poems in journals. Again, I labored hard to make those pieces and keep them in circulation–I’m not saying I didn’t earn a few laurel leaves. But I am also lucky.

I’ll post sometime around the new year about some terrific books I’ve been reading. The good company of dead or distant writers sustains me always. But it also feels urgently necessary to express gratitude for the friends and family near and far who keep checking in on me and cheering me on. Their persistence is the primary reason to be cheerful. Bless them, and bless leftover Christmas pudding, and bless Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and bless the antisocial hours I can spend revising mss over pots of tea.

And, finally, thanks to anyone whose reads this far. I hope, most sincerely, that whatever kind of holiday you’re laboring to create for yourself and loved ones, it bears surprising fruit, and it doesn’t stink.

 

 

The important stuff

On Thursday afternoon of last week I thought I’d organized all my obstreperous administrative ducklings into a row and marched them off into a soft-focus sunset. Or, if that metaphor isn’t working for you, you could say I was heading into Washington and Lee’s weeklong break with a clear desk and a nearly-empty email box, ready to produce a stellar grant application for the NEH Public Scholar Program (due 3/3, yikes) and prepare to give a talk and a reading at Roanoke College on 3/24 and get my final revisions of my poetry manuscript to my publisher and relax and read several books and, oh yeah, maybe do a little work on current writing projects.

Well, THAT was foolishness. A minor bomb dropped on Friday at noon, and since these bombs often have my name painted on the side like I’m Wile E. Coyote or something, here I am shifting personnel around again on my mental chessboard, spending hours reorganizing our course offerings and conferring with colleagues. In the face of unanticipated bureaucratic responsibilities, triage: of all the NON-department-head work I meant to do this week, what’s the most important?

The rational answer is the grant, since that deadline is the soonest and its success would have the biggest potential impact on my life. I’m working on it. But I’ve also slept in some and read aloud excruciatingly funny passages to my son from Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, a book Deborah Miranda gave me last fall and which I found again this past Sunday under a pile of papers. Both kids have been home due to school closures and now, for Cam, a bad head cold. Lawson’s memoir is hard to read aloud, because you start weeping with laughter and can’t see the pages, but this almost-futile exercise still goes on my important list. I’m hyper-aware that our family will change when Madeleine goes off to college next September, so I find myself treasuring non-productive interactions with my kids, like our rambling dinner discussions about presidential politics and time travel.

Teaching feels important too, but breaks from it are helpful. Poems and essays have been harder to believe in, and therefore to heave into being. I’m rarely as poetically productive in the winter as in other seasons—maybe my muse is a hibernating bear—but I’ve had a particularly intense existential despair about it in the past few weeks. You know, the usual poet thing: what’s the point of striving at an art so few people want to read? I’ve gotten over such fits of reasonable bleakness before, so I presume I will again. I tell myself the despair is triggered by bad weather, or steroid withdrawal (the sciatica is finally somewhat better), or exhaustion at the prospect of promoting another book later in the year. At any rate, poetry has always wandered back, so I don’t really fear it’s abandoned me forever. And as I reread the Radioland manuscript, too, while I do keep finding improvements to make, I also think: you know, this is good work. I can help it find its way in the world.

While I ponder my menagerie of ducklings and bears, here is a guest blog on some other important stuff for the Tahoma Literary Review. It refers to a poem, “Sticky,” in their current issue. You can download a free electronic copy of the issue here (or order the print version). Thank you, kind and supportive editors of the world. Now this coyote, super genius grant candidate, has to make like a roadrunner after the fellowships, dodging work-missiles along the way: wish her luck.

Good reads

One of my 2014 resolutions was to track my reading via Goodreads, and I’m here to say I hated it. Record-keeping in itself is a good thing. It’s interesting to know I read or reread at least 95 books last year (a few weren’t in the Goodreads system and I can remember a few more I seem never to have logged), in addition to the beginnings of many books I didn’t finish; a ton of journalism and literary magazines; articles, blogs, and posts; and many manuscripts and student papers. That’s 36 poetry books, 11 books of nonfiction, and the rest fiction, including a few YA titles, lots of genre and literary fiction, and one short story collection (George Saunders). 55 were authored by women—phew—but only 8 by nonwhite authors (excluding a few multi-author anthologies), a number that shocks me with its single-digit lameness and teaches me I have to do better. A third were books I taught; the rest I read for pleasure or, as described in my last post, from professional curiosity about contemporary prize culture.

Unless I have a major obligation bearing down, I won’t finish a book I don’t find engaging, so almost everything on my 2014 list was worth attention or at least fun. Some of it was outstanding, but then, I reread Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bishop, and Gwendolyn Brooks. I’ve also been on a classic-mystery kick so I plunged into Wilkie Collins and P.D. James for the first time. The Moonstone was one of my favorite books of 2014 (and 1868), but mentioning that probably doesn’t do the contemporary publishing industry much good.

Some recent books I loved: a week or two ago I praised two 2014 National Book Award poetry choices: the long-listed Gabriel by Edward Hirsch, and the finalist Citizen by Claudia Rankine. However, lots of less-recognized books offer the NBA selections serious competition. A few comparisons among books that share affinities: Cynthia Hogue’s Revenance rivals Fanny Howe’s Second Childhood in eerie resonance. Rafael Campo’s Alternative Medicine is just as skillful, high-stakes, and risky as Spencer Reece’s The Road to Emmaus. Martha Silano’s Reckless Lovely outshines Maureen McLane’s This Blue. I was moved by Sally Rosen Kindred’s Book of Asters and Laura Gray-Street’s Pigment & Fume. A couple of 2013 poetry volumes I didn’t finish until 2014 but admired were Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec and Maria Hummel’s House and Fire.

My favorite new literary fiction this year was Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, a book that has earned plenty of attention. In nonfiction, Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read is pretty extraordinary. I was really looking forward this year to new speculative fictions by Lev Grossman, Jo Walton, and Stephen King, and I liked them all, especially Walton’s My Real Children. I got even more of a kick, however, out of slightly older books I didn’t get to until 2014: Elizabeth Knox’s Mortal Fire and Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child. Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet has stayed with me and, older still, Carol Emshwiller’s The Mount. And I loved spending time with Wayne Koestenbaum’s My 1980s in preparation for his fall visit to campus.

In other words, 2014 brought lots of good reads. I can also see a tilt towards British fiction and U.S. poetry, as well as towards white authors generally, so I’ve learned I need to widen my range. I just don’t find the Goodreads platform convenient or useful as a way of discovering personal trends. There are too many clicks to enter and date titles. Nor does the year-in-review feature sort titles by the factors that most interest me.

And then there’s the tyranny of the rating system. I gave precious few threes, which to me means “a decent book but not my cup of tea,” and I wouldn’t even bother to finish the ones and twos. Which leaves me the grand range of four and five to handle poetry books I admire and would recommend as well as, you know, Sylvia Plath. The same binary system has to handle the last in Glen Duncan’s werewolf trilogy, the Tina Fey memoir that cracked me up as an audiobook, and Jane Austen. I feel mean giving fours to contemporary books I hope others will invest their time and money in, but shouldn’t five stars be saved for must-reads, the most powerful works around? Maybe the problem is that I’m temperamentally more critic than booster.

At any rate, this year I’m listing books in a word processing document. I’ll still give you the upshot next January, but without that gold star for stress.

In the meantime, the new term is grinding into gear, with classes beginning Monday. I owe a couple of shout-outs to the Tahoma Literary Review for publishing “Sticky” (a poem about reading and teaching!) and nominating it for a Pushcart; and to editors Albert Bendixen and Stephen Burt for including my essay “The Formalist Modernisms of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Helene Johnson, and Louise Bogan” in the new Cambridge History of American Poetry. And I’m looking forward to hearing unfamiliar poets and meeting old friends at the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival next week (I read on Friday afternoon).

I feel like hibernating with poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh, but apparently work must be done. Zero stars for the weather and one for the month of January in principle. I’m saving the rest of my shiny stickers for spring.  

Forgiveness, gratitude, and other things I suck at

Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday—historically, emotionally, even logistically. (Reason #647 to be grateful: I don’t have to get on the highway this year.) And yet I love all the rituals leading up to the feast. Last weekend, I made stock and baked pumpkin bread to freeze. This Saturday I scribbled out long lists and laid in ingredients. Now homemade cranberry sauce is chilling in the fridge and cranberry-orange bread is perfuming the kitchen. Wednesday is for pies; Thursday morning I embark on an elaborate plan that will theoretically get all the food hot in time for dinner with Chris’ brother and his family. This orderly sequence—a crazy amount of work for one meal, but carved into small steps doable over time—seems all the more beautiful because I know it will have to change before too long. My daughter goes to college next year, and who knows how our traditions will need to alter as our children’s lives expand?

thxA sense of loss, prospective and retrospective, permeates the rituals. I scored some challah bread at the market because two decades ago, my friend Gayle taught me that it makes the best stuffing—but I haven’t seen Gayle for ages. Some of the recipes, like a maple-glazed sweet potato and apple dish, are from sticky old copies of Bon Appetit, to which I subscribed in the early nineties when I was a grad student learning how to cook. Those first attempts at domesticity are hazy in my memory now. The pumpkin bread recipe was transcribed in a neat hand around the turn of the century by my departmental partner in crime, Suzanne, whom I see much less of since she moved to the dean’s office, although she emails me generous notes of praise after I submit departmental reports. The cranberry bread instructions are scrawled less precisely on a soft green index card given to me by another now-distant friend. She broke off contact with me in long-nursed anger over something I’d said years before. I apologized but couldn’t remember making the harsh remark, or even secretly holding that opinion; I suspected misunderstanding. Not surprisingly, my apology didn’t help either of us—another friendship faded out.

And people near to me are managing much harder losses. I’m giving a poetry reading the week after Thanksgiving at VMI and only belatedly realized the date coincides with a terrible car accident at W&L last year. Over the mountain, the University of Virginia is in the news after the murder of a young woman earlier this fall and more a recent Rolling Stone article about gang rape in its fraternities. In class we’ve been discussing anger in poems and essays by Amiri Baraka, Adrienne Rich, and others—how rage can liberate, how it can harm. This is in the context of our own campus troubles with assault. You want a university to be a place where everyone can discuss their differences passionately yet respectfully, where good arguments can change minds, where everyone is safe to pursue their intellectual curiosities. But it is very, very difficult to cultivate and maintain even a temporary bubble of safety around one seminar or workshop, much less a college that has a million points of intersection with a dangerous world.

What I am truly most grateful for is that my spouse and children are safe and well, that my son can whine about his World History project and Chris can get so obsessed with his works cited list that, after shopping, he leaves the groceries in the car overnight (at least it’s cold). But my relief is so small it feels almost mean-spirited. I always want to hedge my thanks, too. I do feel very lucky, for instance, to teach great students in this lovely college town, but I want to add “where the campus culture can be toxic and good morale is fragile despite splendid resources.” Not very gracious, am I?

And forgiveness! I was so moved by my colleague Deborah Miranda’s reading from Bad Indians last week. She excerpted a passage about her dad coming home from San Quentin—a honeymoon of cooking and woodwork and gardening—but then segued into their alienation and his death. Deborah’s childhood was vastly different from mine, but my father was also an alcoholic and unpredictably mean, so as I listened I resonated like a bell. She finished on a passage about holding in her mind an image of her father as a child, still innocent, and feeling a wave of cool forgiveness wash over her. I’ve been meaning to ask her since: did the wave ebb, or does it stay with you? I have forgiven my father many times. The feeling seeps away, floods in, seeps away again. That night I sat down opposite a baby picture of my father I’d put up shortly after his death. The frame suddenly smashed face-down, though the room was still and the shelf unjostled. That’s how I feel: peaceful most of the time, but subject to sudden crashes of refusal.

Since I’m an unforgiving obscenely lucky ingrate, you’ll know it must be genuine when I say that I’m recently able to feel a little less angry about something that has chewed me up for years. About a month ago I responded to a small-potatoes bit of bullying in my department—by a guy whose previous behavior added up to gangantuan, ugly, poisonous potatoes that still lurk around campus unacknowledged—by publically saying cut it out. (You’ll forgive that potatoes metaphor, I hope, for getting so mashed up.) A tiny act of self-expression has made a big difference in my sense of well-being. I’ll try to make a habit of it.

I’m also feeling unhedged gratitude to have Deborah and other friends around, giving me recipes for sustenance. Thanks to a long-distance poet-friend, too, Jeannine Hall Gailey, for a shout-out last week on her blog. Thanks to Gordon Ball, soon retiring from VMI, for asking me to read there (Weds. 12/3, 7:45 pm in Preston Library). A generous writer from Ghana contacted me out of the blue a few weeks ago to interview me for his blog, Geosi Reads–I talk about anger and forgiveness there, too. And thanks to magazine editors who recently turned on their personal amplifiers on my behalf: the people at Crazyhorse, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Gettysburg Review, as well as guest editor Anny Ballardini at Truck. Tahoma Literary Review just nominated a forthcoming poem of mine for a Pushcart, too. Does that sound like trivial po-biz stuff? It’s not. All my poems are love-letters, solitary broadcasts, petitions for human connection. I am so grateful to feel heard.