Radioland, an outtake

The world’s going to hell, but my writing is going well…Mostly revising and submitting, these days. I now have THREE projects under submission: 1. Taking Poetry Personally: Twenty-First Century Verse and the Multiverse; 2. a chapbook-length long poem, Propagation; 3. and a first novel, The Changeling Professor, although that one is just at the beginning-to-query-agents phase. Meanwhile I’m keeping poems under journal submission, and in the process I keep finding verses I drafted quickly and then forgot about. Whenever you put together a poetry book a LOT ends up on the cutting room floor.

I think the poem below was just too specific to my life at that moment–it didn’t seem inclusive enough of readers outside my bubble. I’d just attended a memorial service for Severn Parker Duvall III, the grand, legendary, reportedly cranky old poetry professor whom I’d replaced at W&L (I say “reportedly” because the man left behind some astonishing stories, all of which I believe, but he was always beautifully genteel to me). The immediate scene is the lawn in front of Lee Chapel on campus, where I was leading a workshop in a writing prompt (and doing some drafting myself, obviously). Like a lot of poems, though, this one has a heterotopia, an other-place: I’d been back from my Fulbright in New Zealand for less than a year and clearly missed it.

I’m looking forward to reading from Radioland at Washington College in MD next week. In the meantime, a poem for the road. Maybe it’s about running out of time and not entirely minding.

The Opposite of Elegy

The shadow of a chapel spire ticks over
my shoulder; the students write. Severn said,
“Do you mean of my departure?”

when his granddaughter asked, “Are you scared?”
Struck like a bell but finally amused
by the notion of fearing death.

Last night’s dead-hour dream fused
everything I’ve been thinking of: I
visited an old hotel, beachy views,

near Nelson, New Zealand. Bill Manhire
was running a poetry conference
that was really the afterlife.

When told I had to jump back over the fence,
return to the living for a while, I cried…
My students are still writing. Present tense

continuous, sprawling all over a spikily
germinating lawn. Younger and smarter
every year. Sere leaves brushed aside.

I guess that’s spring for you. Clock for a heart.

April 2, 2012

roseoneill

 

Elephant blessing

On Sunday afternoon I took a bubble bath–I know, tough life–during which I was visited by an apparition. My spouse and kids say I overheated myself, and I did emerge flushed bright-red and a little dizzy, but I swear I spent that half-hour with an elephant made of bubbles. This wasn’t just a heap of foam with a snout, but a nicely shaped creature with ears, an eye-dent, and an impressive proboscis. It rocked back and forth on top of the water cheerfully, refusing to dissolve until I pulled the plug.

I had been laboring hard on several projects, including the ninth chapter of Taking Poetry Personally, the critical book I want to finish during this year’s sabbatical. Each chapter–and they’re short-ish, under 5000 words each–concerns a single twenty-first-century poem, paired with an issue I’m thinking about as I consider what it means to immerse oneself in a poem’s possible world. This one, “Brevity,” is keyed to a sonnet by Rafael Campo. I was finding it amazingly hard to be brief about it. Poetic compression is a big issue.

This book blends criticism with personal narrative, too, and the story I’d chosen, with the alleged virtues of smallness in mind, concerned weight. Like a lot of women, I’m a serial dieter. I began counting calories as a teen feeling the usual pressures to be small and feminine, to deny any appetites. Periodically for the next three decades, I’d decide the padding was getting out of hand and resolve to count calories and/or carbs. It was always excruciating, but it always worked, until a few years ago. Now if I eat healthy foods moderately and exercise daily, I slowly gain weight. If I get stricter, I stop the dial’s uptick, but no matter what I do, I don’t lose. Plenty of perimenopausal women experience the same thing, I gather, and medical opinion seems muddled about it. Some sources the body is desperately trying to maintain an estrogen supply–if the ovaries won’t keep producing, fat cells can be made to serve the purpose–so dieting is no use. (But you can game your metabolism if you take our supplements!) Others say you can reverse the gain through a more rigorous diet and exercise program. (1300 calories a day and intense exercise forever–you can do it! It just means making a career of weight control!) It’s all alternately depressing and infuriating. After all, I have other work to do, and I’m healthy. The prescribed level of hunger makes me angry all the time and unable to think straight–and now that austerity doesn’t even work anymore, it just seems like the stupidest kind of vanity. Better to come to terms with occupying more space. And yet, as I drafted the chapter, I felt increasingly crushed, unable to let go of the desire to be thin once more, to feel in-control and approved-of. I have been hungry, hungry, hungry for about a week, spending more time at the gym, and the scale hasn’t budged one ounce.

So it was particularly funny to share my bathtub with the elephant, biggest land mammal around. What does it mean?, I wondered, and the kids said, It means you should stop boiling yourself alive. (They also oppose austerity measures on principle because it means I stop making pasta.) With a pang of guilt, I remembered Asha from a roadside breeder zoo near here. We took the kids sometimes when they were little, but it was a depressing place, and in fact the zoo has been accused since of mistreating its animals. Asha is a female African elephant there who has been alone for nearly 20 years, although elephants are profoundly social. She touched my sneakered toe long ago with her trunk, jolting me awareness of her as a fellow creature, and likely a lonely, suffering one, but I had never done anything for her. On Monday I wrote a letter, signed a petition, thought of her. Was I called to do or learn anything else?

That night I dreamed of an elephant, male. He and I were going on a journey together, not as beast and rider, but as friends. Our house had a special door, like at a car dealership, large enough to admit him. He was thirsty and kept drinking from suburban hoses as we walked down the street. It was a sweet, companionable interlude.

Today I learned that one of the world’s many elephant deities, Ganesha, is a patron of wisdom and learning. People invoke him at new beginnings because he places and removes obstacles. Is that why I dreamed of him, looking for help with my sabbatical, my book? It’s not for the doomed diet: I’m not expecting any miracles as far as my own middle-aged girth. If I could choose my luck, anyway, I’d rather be a good writer than a skinny one.elephant

Pound, Eliot, and vintage radios

I’m between stations with a head full of static. I just finished teaching–submitted my last grade, for an honors thesis on Wallace Stevens–but my sabbatical doesn’t officially begin until July 1. I’m also signing off on an interim year as Department Head, and the final hours involve an unbelievable amount of writing. The letters for colleagues feel important, the reports feel trivial, but in any case, none of it is remotely literary. I’ll be glad to remove my needle from this particular groove in a few weeks.

Another reason I’m not fully here, or anywhere, is that modernism’s greatest hits have been playing relentlessly in my head. I recently visited Washington and Lee’s Special Collections to visit a dazzling new acquisition: 100 letters from Ezra Pound to Thomas Henry Carter, once a student editor of Shenandoah. Old issues of the latter literary magazine aren’t online, so you can’t easily look up Andrew J. Kappel’s 1980 article about the correspondence: “Ezra Pound, Thomas Carter, and the Making of An American Literary Magazine” (31.3: 3-22), but librarian Jeff Barry sent it to me and it’s pretty interesting. In 1952, Carter was a W&L sophomore who wrote to Pound at St. Elizabeth’s for publishing guidance. Carter was also hoping for, say, a Canto or two, but Pound didn’t oblige for a few years. When Pound finally did send in part of Canto 88, a different student editor rejected it–and Carter died young, at home in Martinsville, Virginia. The letters had been housed at Patrick Henry Community College for decades, and now a Digital Humanities class at W&L is trying to figure out how to preserve and promote the legacy. There are also boxes full of other materials, including Carter’s great little magazine collection and a Wyndham Lewis portrait of Pound that really should be hanging somewhere (I vote for Payne Hall). I will be thinking about how these collections can inform my teaching of modernism, but in the meantime I’m preparing to give a lesson to the DH class–Pound 101, basically, or Modernism: Quick and Dirty. Whoops, did I say I was done with teaching?

In the meantime, I’m preparing to review a new biography: Young Eliot by Robert Crawford. At some point you’ll find my remarks in the T.S. Eliot newsletter, but the short version, although I’m only up to Tom’s undergrad years, is that so far the book is rich, detailed, fresh, and useful. I guess it’s trivia if you’re not a fan, but it’s satisfying to learn that the poor air quality of the early poems–all that soot and yellow fog–is not just informed by Boston or European cities, but by St. Louis, where industry was fueled by burning soft coal. Eliot seems more American all the time (even as biographied by a Brit who really should write “tornado” instead of “cyclone”).

AND my teenage daughter just wrote an essay about “The Hollow Men” so she’s reading further and demanding on-the-spot “Waste Land” lectures over grilled chicken. AND, as I finally relax a bit, seeing enough time enough next year to finish my current critical project about 21st century verse, Taking Poetry Personally, I start wondering what comes after. Is it some version of Taking Modernism Personally? From contemporary poetry, back to golden oldies?

Well, before that comes a quick trip to Swarthmore, and graduation here, and finishing the damn assessment report. Plus, I have to finish pulling together my fall poetry collection, Radioland. Photographer and vintage radio collector Mark Meijster of Amsterdam has just given me permission to use his gorgeous photograph on the cover. I am jazzed. Hey you out there in radioland: stay tuned.

Radioland cover image

The embarrassing grant genre of the “career narrative”

Posting this feels way scarier than uploading bad selfies to Facebook. The genre potentially fuses bombast with whining: “I am the most awesome candidate in your enormous pile of awesomeness” with “please please I NEED this.” But many of us at least consider applying for grants from time to time, and I thought it might be helpful for others to see one take on a common assignment. I am not posting the “statement of plans” for a variety of reasons, but hey, this whole blogging enterprise is heavy on “career narrative,” right? Below is a draft towards some fall applications, so it is not from a winning application and probably won’t be–the odds are always terrible. As I brag below, though, I’ve been lucky before, so I can’t be the worst career narrator ever. Hope this helps someone.

*

Taking Poetry Personally integrates intellectual and artistic concerns I have pursued for twenty-five years. Most of my scholarship zeroes in on lyric poetry, and since studying for a B.A. from Rutgers College in the late 1980s, I have been writing sound-driven short poetry as well. Focusing on this genre and its hazy boundaries means considering medium and reception ever more deeply—hence my current project on how and why to read twenty-first-century verse.

I earned my PhD from Princeton in 1994 with a dissertation that became the basis of my first book. The Poetics of Enclosure: American Women Poets from Dickinson to Dove (Tennessee, 2002) investigates the lyric poem as a virtual place. Each poet under consideration—Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, H.D., Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Bishop, and Rita Dove—treats the lyric as a contained space. Moreover, each poet uses enclosure as an idiom defining women’s verse and conveys a complicated relationship with that evolving tradition. Domesticity, maternity, sexuality, and other aspects of women’s experience and embodiment suggest “closure,” even as “open” form becomes the reigning ethos.

I completed this project as I earned tenure at a rural liberal arts college, Washington and Lee University, submitting final revisions in September 2000, a week before the birth of my second child. At the time, my English Department colleagues and I taught seven writing-intensive courses a year on a long academic schedule that abbreviated the summer research window. There was no junior leave, though a grant from the American Association of University Women funded one summer’s research. During my post-tenure sabbatical, therefore, as I marked up proofs and nursed a new baby, I contemplated what I actually wanted to write, now that scholarship no longer seemed like a dire emergency.

I discovered an ambition to pursue a riskier project by asking questions I felt unqualified to answer. In a new line of research, I assembled a history of poetry performance in the U.S. I also considered what it means to discuss sound in the twentieth-century lyric poem, and what poets and critics intend when they refer to “poetic voice.” All these problems extend in some ways from my first book’s preoccupations with the lyric as a genre and the complicated feedback loops between poets and audiences. The project I eventually developed—Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present (Cornell, 2008)—represented both a fresh start and a return.

Voicing American Poetry explores voice as a defining medium and figure throughout a wide range of poetic movements and affiliations. In addition to chronicling conventions of poetry recitation, I analyze Edna St. Millay’s performance persona on the stage, the page, and in radio broadcasts; Langston Hughes’ inventive translations of sound culture into print; and the illusion of poetic voice in collaborative projects by James Merrill, David Jackson, Denise Duhamel, and Maureen Seaton. A final chapter compares conventions of the contemporary academic poetry reading to slam poetry.

I remain proud of my first book, but when I developed this second project, with more publishing experience but without terror of publish-or-perish consequences, I produced a study that meant more to a larger audience. A sabbatical fellowship from the National Endowment from the Humanities in 2005-6 enabled its completion through a fifteen-month work marathon and also significantly increased the final project’s visibility. Voicing American Poetry was a finalist for the Modernist Studies Association’s book prize but also reached students and specialists in creative writing studies. I still receive notes about it from literary magazine editors and meet audience members at poetry readings who know me through this scholarship. This project persuaded me that high-stakes, accessibly written criticism still has an eager audience—and that boldness pays off.

The other commitment I made during that first sabbatical was to my own poetry. I had been pouring all available publishing and networking energy into scholarly production, desperately needing advice and new mentors: as I finished the PhD, one of my dissertation directors collapsed and was nudged into retirement, even as the other was denied tenure and left for the west coast. Yet I never stopped writing poetry, and my poetic obsessions with sound, place, and story had often intersected with my teaching and research preoccupations. Now I resolved to give this kind of writing high priority. I allowed more time to write, revise, and submit poetic work, with limited success at first. My knowledge of contemporary styles, coteries, and venues deepened after a few years of reading. Good magazine publication credentials accumulated. I published my first collection, Heathen, in 2009. Heterotopia, judged winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize by David Wojahn, followed in 2010. A 2012 novella in verse, The Receptionist and Other Tales, received notice on two prize lists that generally recognize prose fiction: it was named a James Tiptree, Jr. Award Honor Book in 2013 (“for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender”) and was nominated in 2014 for the Ackies (the Chronicle of Higher Education’s list of recommended academic novels). My next collection, Radioland, will appear late in 2015.

A 2007-2010 stint as department head subtracted from research and writing time, but one transformative adventure occurred shortly afterwards. In 2011, I received a five-month Fulbright Senior Scholar Fellowship to Wellington, New Zealand. My original plan was to develop a book-length study of twenty-first-century poetic networks. One chapter would focus on the International Institute of Modern Letters, New Zealand’s first academic creative writing program, as an example of institutionally-fostered community. The experience confirmed my sense that while twenty-first-century poetry in English is marked by national border crossings and is liberated by virtual networks from complete dependence on urban centers, mutual presence remains vital. The increasingly electronic nature of our professional and creative relationships paradoxically makes local scenes more powerful and live performance more rewarding.

The Fulbright vastly widened my reading and my own international connections, resulting in essays, interviews, reviews, poems, a special co-edited poetry feature in Shenandoah, and other projects still in the pipeline. A related article I had envisioned as part of the book, “‘Salon with a Revolving Door’: Virtual Community and the Case of Wom-po,” appeared in Contemporary Women’s Writing. Yet this venture also persuaded me to reconceive my book project. I remained committed to writing about twenty-first century poetry and its border crossings—I intend to shape critical conversation about this emerging field in which my pedagogical, artistic, and scholarly interests so often converge. I realized, however, as I began a blog called “The Cave, The Hive: Poetry’s Possible Worlds,” that a different kind of book, a riskier one, might reach a broader audience and have a greater impact.

Blogging about poetry taught me what appeals to readers in real time. I describe above how reactions to Voicing American Poetry have unfolded over years; suddenly I had data within hours about what kinds of posts inspire comments and social media shares or attract new subscribers. These brief, informal essays incorporate literary criticism, but require weaving argument and narrative together. Doctoral students are taught to efface the personal roots of their research obsessions; university press editors often invite more autobiographical reflection; but in a blog post, the conditions of writing come to the fore, inflecting critical judgments and ideally rendering them more urgent and persuasive. I began to apply this experience in longer essays and two acceptances persuaded me I was on the right track. In a more personal mode, “Coffee with Poets in New Zealand” appeared in the Gettysburg Review and was later featured by Poetry Daily. “Undead Eliot: How ‘The Waste Land’ Sounds Now,” forthcoming in Poetry, is criticism dangling only a few shreds of autobiographical material, but I could not have written it before starting that blog.

Writing Taking Poetry Personally has been difficult in every possible way. I spent a year working out the best possible structure. Each chapter requires great quantities of research into reading and literary world-building, and then effacing that research, so the scholarly scaffolding is present but not dominant. Prose memoir, too, is more emotionally challenging to write than autobiographical lyric, in which image offers a handy bypass around the trickiest terrain. Literary pressures shape each sentence as well as the exigencies of scholarly reasoning; resolution of narrative suspense must converge with the argument’s periodic conclusions. Yet this feels like important, exciting labor for which I am well equipped. Not only blogging but programming community readings and teaching introductory poetry courses to undergraduates for more than twenty years—all have sharpened my insight about what kinds of poems and presentations appeal to different audiences. And my critical impulses have always tended in a literary direction. Why not strain every skill at my command and exercise every unlikely ambition? Whose permission would I be waiting for?

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.

Writing process blog tour plus AWP detox

Maybe, like me, you’re recovering from the AWP and thinking about focusing on writing again, rather than publishing, networking, and collecting bookfair swag. An annual post-AWP occasion for hard work is April, National Poetry Month in the U.S., when some disciplined souls adopt a poem-a-day regimen. I tried it first in 2012 and shocked myself by producing spring floods of poems, many of them keepers; I tried it again in 2013 and found my brain much more resistant, even though I spent part of the time at an artist’s colony—I was just in a headspace for revision, I think, not generation. This time I may use April to work on a long poem, one segment per day. If a big project is on your mind, you might like to follow some of the links below and consider various writers’ perspectives on process.

Thanks to Jeannine Hall Gailey for tapping me for this blog tour. Jeannine, a superheroic poet if there ever was one, recently served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington and is the author of three books of poetry: Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, and Unexplained Fevers. She has been featured in The Year’s Best Horror and Verse Daily, and her work has appeared in journals like The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review and Prairie Schooner. I met her non-virtual self for the first time at the AWP and the evening was a delight—she’s as warm, funny, and open as her poems, and I would have loved to spend more time with her talking about the writing life. One day…

Here are her answers to the prescribed questions. Below are my own.

1)     What am I working on?

I have a new poetry ms, Radioland, under submission. Who knows if the title will survive the process, but like the one-word titles of my first two full-length collections, Heathen and Heterotopia, “radioland” gestures at an imaginary place. In this case it’s not the wild heath where the unchurched live, or the other-place of my mother’s childhood Liverpool, but the sustaining idea of a communal audience, their heads bent towards receivers in dimly lit rooms across a wide broadcast range. Some of the poems were written during a Fulbright in New Zealand, where I felt decidedly distanced from U.S. feedback circuits—and impressed with the reasonable size of the NZ poetry world, its possible comprehensibility. U.S. publishing feels so vast by comparison—so big that outside of little coteries, no one can possess a sense of common enterprise (the AWP convention certainly dramatizes this). Radioland connects to those preoccupations, but the word’s antiqueness also suggests my father’s life, a recurrent subject in the collection. He was born in Brooklyn in 1925 and died in Philadelphia in 2012, and communication channels were never clear between us. Radioland is where he lives now, in the afterlife of memory and uncanny dreams.

My prose project, one-third drafted, is Taking Poetry Personally, described here.

2)     How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Like many writers, I’m trying to produce the kind of stuff, in poetry and prose, that I’d like to read but can’t find enough of. In poetry, I crave transport to vivid alternate worlds—sometimes speculative, sometimes just faintly strange. I want the stakes to be high, each poem conveying the author’s urgency. I admire formal intelligence, whether that means deploying received forms or not, and a sense that deep reading is hovering unobtrusively behind the words. I also like kindness and humor in poems, as I do in people. Are my poems all that? I don’t know, honestly. I just know what I’m trying for and probably attaining only sometimes, in fragments.

Taking Poetry Personally is definitely a beast with an unusual number of heads: criticism, memoir, storytelling, theory, anthology. Here I’m trying to restore or reveal the stakes behind the strange behaviors of scholars: why is reading and teaching poetry so important to me?

3)     Why do I write what I do?

Poetry: can’t help it. Criticism: missionary zeal. All of it: to learn about poetry, other people, and myself by following wherever language leads.

4)     How does your writing process work?

When I’m writing critical prose I’m a prima donna: I carve out big blocks of time, write for hours a day, and guard my attention jealously. I find it difficult to carry all those threads around in my head. Putting together a poetry collection is like that, too: I need to think hard in a sustained way.

I write and revise shorter pieces—poems and blog posts—with desperation, whenever the impulse and a half-hour coincide. Any time of day is fine, but I’m generally not a coffee-shop writer; I prefer to close the door on any possibility of interaction. Sometimes, though, I’ll take what I can get. I’ve drafted a lot of lines during quiet patches in my office hours, some in cafes and on planes, and a few on scraps of paper while leaning on my son’s toybox. The associative thinking of poems and blogs, rather than the linear arguments of essays, is just more congenial, easier. I also need to write poems, which changes the game. If I needed to do scholarly writing, I suspect nothing would stop me squeezing time in at every opportunity.

Next week, look for further entries in the Writing Process Blog Tour by the two bloggers I’ve tagged. I don’t know either personally but I like the literary intelligence, a sort of questing quality, I see in their posts.

Ann E. Michael’s most recent collection, Water-Rites, was published by Brick Road Poetry Press in 2012. A poet, essayist, educator, librettist, and occasional radio commentator, she lives in eastern Pennsylvania where she is writing coordinator at DeSales University. Her blog at www.annemichael.wordpress.com  reflects her multidisciplinary approach to literature, art, science, and philosophy.

Joseph Harker is a twentysomething linguist-poet lately of New York City, where you can find him riding the subways to and fro devouring the works of Kay Ryan (this week). He is a textbook Libra in just about every way. His work has appeared in web/print journals such as Assaracus, Chantarelle’s Notebook, Hobble Creek Review, and qarrtsiluni, but are equally likely to find him at his blog, http://namingconstellations.wordpress.com. Please wipe your feet.

Taking literary criticism personally

It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon, there’s a lull in your chores and caretaking responsibilities (ha), you need a break from your own writing, and you’re at liberty to read anything you want. What would you rather pick up?

a) a novel

b) a collection of poems

c)  a magazine full of models who make you feel pocked and frumpy (whoops, gave that one away)

d) a book of literary criticism or theory

Now, scholarly books vary as wildly as any other kind: they can be moving, enraging, clumsy, hilarious, tedious. The best are much more engaging than a badly-written mystery or mediocre poems. And if you’re really invested in a certain field of knowledge, there is occasionally a work of criticism that you’re genuinely excited to pick up—wow, what is x going to say about y? There are even genres related to criticism that anyone might read for fun, such as biographies or memoirs of literary figures, fictionalizations of their lives, or literary responses to famous works, such as Jane Smiley’s Thousand Acres. Still, latter categories aside, I read criticism and theory only when I’m preparing to teach or write about related material—that is, only the stuff I need, and only during hours designated for work. Maybe I’m lazy, but I’m guessing even the nerdiest English professors find most books of literary scholarship less than fun to read, even when they’re competent, clear, and informative.

When I read advice essays in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how academics can learn to prioritize their writing, I think of this Saturday afternoon dilemma. There’s a reason people can’t get the writing done, and it’s not just how distracted we are these days or the perennial difficulty of plunging into demanding projects. I mean no disrespect to the work itself or what we learn by writing it. It’s incredibly hard to produce competent, clear, and informative literary criticism—painstaking work demanding one’s full intelligence and art. Then editors and peer reviewers inform you how much painstaking revision you have to do. Then it takes forever to get published. The whole enterprise is heroic. The problem is that even when these heroic feats are successful, almost no one wants to read the stuff.

There are reasons to write criticism anyway. Bits of the process can be fun. I like reading closely, putting sentences together, and, of course, getting some rare words of praise or a merit raise. Sometimes, too, a literary argument feels truly important, even field-changing; I want to write it and some people will need to read it. Mostly, though, while it involves a brutal amount of labor, finally submitting the ring to Mount Doom doesn’t change anyone’s life much. Deep down, most of us are too sensible to believe that writing literary criticism is the most important thing I could be doing with my short life. So we fritter away time we could spend on writing it—the hours we don’t have to spend on job requirements or supervising a child’s science project or buying groceries—by helping students, baking muffins, posting birthday messages on social media, reading that bad mystery, drafting blog posts. In short, we focus on what does feel important or fun.

I’m committing this particular bit of frittering because I said something too flippant in a department meeting Friday. Deep down, I intoned, leaning across the table with an expression of existential despair, I think scholarly writing is a mug’s game. Perhaps I’m exaggerating my performance a little, but I said those words. Later, I thought, “Gee, maybe that wasn’t such a constructive remark for a senior person to level at a roomful of other English professors at various career stages.” There used to be voting members of the department who had published more scholarly monographs than I, but they keep moving to places like Alaska and the dean’s office, so I have become shockingly senior, a sort of middle-aged tree left standing in a forest recently attacked by the lumberjacks of fate. My eccentric pronouncements might therefore be demoralizing, or even alarming, to colleagues who know I’m currently teaching research writing in a gateway course for English majors and may, in fact, evaluate their own promotion files.

It’s not that I have lost faith in the profession. It’s important to learn how to ground arguments in textual detail, find out what others have written on related subjects, and document how your thesis modifies the existing conversation. I’m beyond grateful when a smart article helps me understand a great poem better, and when good notes allow me to follow another scholar’s tracks. Undergraduate English majors and advanced degree programs should require the skills good scholars practice.

I just think what counts as good scholarship is appallingly narrow, and sometimes we make ourselves miserable trying to follow professional scripts that were ill-conceived in the first place. For the PhD and for promotion at most institutions, sure, you write what they tell you to write, and possibly you resent it, but if you do snatch up that holy grail of tenure at an institution where you can bear to remain, you should ask yourself what is the best way to spend my talents now? And there are myriad good answers, including I’m not going to kill myself anymore to accomplish quests that only a small group of people appreciate unless I’m having a seriously good time on the way. I know that I need to write pretty constantly. I love writing poems so much I would keep at it even if I never had any audience at all. For me, though, the pleasures of generating well-researched prose are mixed with quite a bit of pain, so I’m becoming more focused on outcomes as I choose projects–not the money I’ll earn (again, ha!), but will this project really matter, and to whom?  

Right now I do feel sure about what I’m writing. I’ve changed the subtitle of this web site to match my book in progress, which is critical and theoretical but also narrative—what Joyce Carol Oates just called bibliomemoir in a review for the New York times. Taking Poetry Personally addresses how and why we read twenty-first-century poetry. It’s a crossover project, meant to interest general as well as specialist audiences–to expand poetry’s audiences, in fact, by drawing attention to poems I love. Each chapter is keyed to a single poem reprinted in full, so it will be a sort of anthology, too.

I find these chapters insanely demanding to research and write because I’m doing all the scholarly legwork and then hiding it (maybe the endnotes will disappear entirely in later versions, though I’m keeping them for the moment). But it’s the most important work I can think of to do right now. Since I’m tenured and otherwise credentialed, and I’m part of the gloriously open-ended and generalist-valuing enterprise that is liberal arts education, why should I do anything else? I retain huge respect for good scholarship in conventional modes and the dedication it takes to produce it. But I’ve rounded the turn now into the second half of my time on the planet, and writing in a respectable, professorial way for tiny audiences just seems too low-stakes. Most days, when it comes down to it, I’d rather bake muffins.