Not with a whimper but a bang!

Actually, that title sounds sexual–sorry. I MEAN to tell you how my year is ending, show off some cool student work, and wish you a happy solstitial impeachment frenzy.

My happy news–honored above by a photo of Ursula ecstatic about catnip–is receiving a Katherine Bakeless Nason Scholarship to Breadloaf Environmental Writers Conference this June. This is also the season I gear up for book publicity, and I’m SO glad to have ONE set of dates in stone now, as I query bookstores and reading series and the like. I’m thinking I’ll roadtrip to Vermont and book a few dates at mid-points along the journey, since both the poetry collection and the novel will be out by then. I’m also applying for additional conferences, residencies, etc., which is a ton of work. I’m really grateful that of the dozen or more applications I’ve already put out there, one came through. In the spirit of making visible my shadow c.v.: I’ve also received a cartload of rejections and non-answers (if you can imagine those ghostly silences filling up a cart, anyway). That’s just the way it goes, but it’s good to have one nice shiny “yes” to light up these long dark nights.

I’m also preparing, intellectually and socially, for the MLA conference in Seattle in January, where I’ll be speaking on a panel organized by Janine Utell called “The Space Between Creative Nonfiction and Literary Criticism:  Theorizing, Writing, Publishing Critical/Creative Hybrids.” Right up my alley, but I still have work to do on my remarks. I have a lovely date set up with Jeannine Hall Gailey for the day I arrive, and I’ll also be reading with her on Saturday the 11th at Open Books, but I’d love to see as many friends as possible, so please let me know if you’ll be there.

That’s on top of Shenandoah and tenure-file reading, holiday prep, and all the other little tasks I fell behind on during the term, so this week has been pretty intense. I hope to put up a blog around new year’s, though, about the year’s reading, and another about certain resolutions that are forming in my stubborn brain. In the meantime, some delights from last week’s grading.

In U.S. Poetry from 1900-1950, my fall upper-level seminar, the students became so excited about researching little magazines that I ended up giving my students an experimental option in lieu of a second conventional essay: they could create 8 pages of a little magazine from the period, including a cover, masthead, mission statement, table of contents, and a few “solicited” submissions (mostly real poems from the period, but they were allowed to make up one or two plausible imaginary modernists, too, and write poems in those personas). They also had to write reflective essays explaining their literary and design choices and providing a bibliography of models and other sources they consulted. You’ll notice that’s actually MORE work than a conventional essay, but perhaps more fun. I’m sneaky that way. Pictures below, plus a particularly cool videopoem from my creative writing workshop.

Moving Poem by Amanda Deans

Rusting robot poetics

Lots of stress on this bucket of bolts lately–family, health, and writing-related–but I’m tickled to report that my first poetry comic has been published by the gorgeously-redesigned Split Lip Magazine. My spouse Chris Gavaler and I created it a couple of years ago; he made the images and I wrote the words, although there was some cross-influence in revision, more or less as we’ve cross-influenced each other in life (“Go for it!”/ “Don’t wear that!”). To me, this comic is about a pretty-long-running partnership from a midlife perspective, very much inflected by the self-reassessment that happens when your kids grow up and move on (my daughter graduated in May and just returned home after a summer gig, and my son starts college in about 10 days). We’ve changed so much since we were undergrads together, and I love the way the images capture our disintegrations and haphazard rebuildings from odd materials at hand, bringing forward the idea of resourcefulness under constraint. Chris built these robots rather laboriously in an outmoded program; my constraints were spatial, meaning seven lines per poem, with the line-length controlled by panel-width and the letters of Chris’ homemade font. It’s so gratifying when you make something weird in a weird way, for fun, and other people like it enough to publish it!

Not much other luck in that department lately. Rejections are flying; I haven’t had a poem accepted in months. As I’ve said here before, though, I actually feel more philosophical about that since beginning to work on Shenandoah. You just have to keep trying, revising and targeting your work as intelligently as you can, but knowing there’s a heap of luck involved. Submission rates are very high, and chances of hitting the right reader in the right way at the right moment are low, so it’s a numbers game. I did some poetry revision/ submission work this week, though, and I’ll keep at it until the semester swallows me whole–I’ve also got essays to tweak and keep in circulation plus a difficult grant application to finish. The meetings and new-tech-training-sessions, all that late summer jazz, starts tomorrow.

I’m also sighing, but philosophical, about the timing of book edits. I’d hoped to have feedback in hand on two mss–or at least one of them–by early August so I could do at least some of the work before the term starts, and that no longer seems likely. Editors are heroes, and like me they have chaotic lives–so be it. There’s still a TON to do without waiting on anyone else, not least preparing my courses, finishing those submissions, and organizing all the book promotion work I have ahead of me during this very busy school year.

In the midst of all this, I followed a link yesterday to a powerful article in n+1 called “Sexism in the Academy.” ” Depending on the funding agency, the gender gap in winning grants is about 7 percent,” Troy Vettise writes in this heavily-researched and very persuasive piece, adding, “when women are successful in their grant applications, they usually receive less funding, about eighty cents to a man’s dollar.” Talk about constraints! Discouraging, but I was grateful for all the work Vettise pulls together here, documenting everything from discrimination in resources to the costs of harassment, and more. And the recommendations at the end are provocative in an exhilarating way, including radical structural changes to universities and foundations.

Our robot comic is, I think, also about ambivalence toward gender roles, both in Chris and in me. It’s hard to be your best self and do your best work with all the gender shrapnel flying–as if teaching and writing aren’t hard enough.

Well, “keep your skin on,” as the robots say. There’s change ahead, good and bad. My visor may be foggy, and my sensors all scratched up, but I just have to be a self-reconfiguring modular robot, slipping free of my programming and adapting to my own increasingly buggy hardware as well as the unpredictable terrain. I can do it. Right?

Errant in the Bewilderness

If I told you I’m just screwing around this week, I’d be exaggerating. This is exam week after our twelve-week winter term, so there’s lots of grading, as well as chores involving grants, event programming, etc. Liberation from the rigors of my former schedule, though–during which I was trying to do much of the same work while also prepping and teaching–is making me feel giddy. It helps that my antibiotics have kicked in, because I came home from a tiring AWP with strep throat. Bonus: it’s really spring!

Each day I’m carving out a little time–maybe just fifteen minutes–to draft something, a poem or the seed of one. This morning I responded to a request from someone who wants poems about Mina Loy. I ended up rereading most of The Lost Lunar Baedeker, which is really teaching-prep, too, because I’ll teach Modern U.S. Poetry in the fall and book orders are just around the corner. I hadn’t spent serious hours with this collection in years and was newly struck by all the beautiful poems about aging. When I was 49, I thought I’d write a suite of poems about my poetic idols when THEY were 49. I ended up writing one sonnet about Edna St. Vincent Millay then quit, because it was so damn depressing. 49 is apparently not the happiest age for women poets. Now, past the hinge of 50, finding Loy’s intelligent take on what she calls the “excessive incognito” of “An Aged Woman” is such a gift. Plus Loy’s coinage “Bewilderness,” which appears in a poem about widowhood called “Letters of the Unliving,” is my new favorite word. I have the most fun when wandering a vague landscape you could call by that name–sort of working, sort of playing around.

One side effect of this work-play is reflection on how I’m spending time. I was just catching up with Dave Bonta’s Poetry Blog Digest and found this great post by Erica Goss about just that–a procedure for carrying the intensities of a major literary conference into a quieter, post-conference writing zone. I think it would mitigate the post-AWP blues I always feel, whether or not I get sick.

Of course, one of the things I’m reflecting about is the very teaching year I’m finishing up (I teach our four-week May term every other year–but not this one!). I honestly don’t know what my creative writing students thought of the first blended-genre workshop I’d taught in years. Many of them did outstanding work, but the vibe in the room was hard to read. My general education course in Protest Poetry, however, was warmly enthusiastic, although plenty of the conversations we had along the way about politics, privilege, and anger itself were very tricky. I posted earlier this term about a benefit reading we organized together. Their final project was to choose their own causes and find a way to advance them through poetry, then write reflective essays about the results. I was so proud and delighted by the variety and quality of their efforts! One student took poetry commissions to benefit Project VOICE; another broadcast a feminist radio show of songs and readings; others waged broadside campaigns about body positivity and the collapse of bee populations. Final products included found poems drawn from community participation; a poetry-infused brochure on the indigenous history of this area; and beautiful little chapbooks on climate change; water crisis; the experiences of queer students at W&L; and addiction and recovery, all distributed to the people who would most appreciate them.

I was so glad I experimented with this assignment, even though, at moments, I was alarmed by my own ambitions. It’s easier for me to play around in my teaching than it is for many others: I’m tenured, my college has great resources, and I teach small classes full of talent. But the Bewilderness, that zone of not knowing what you’re doing and being willing to risk mistakes–it’s where the good stuff happens. I need this breather from the classroom for a while and will make earnest use of it. One of the ways I’ll do so will be dreaming about fall’s wild experiments.

Teaching poetry activism

Coffee at the RARA Benefit reading

Almost everything I do that might make the world slightly more kind and just, I do with literature’s help. Teaching feels like my main avenue for helping others; in writing and editing, too, I try to increase the general light. I’ve failed in those activities many times, but I’m also sure I’ve done good, perhaps in a more lasting way than by attending rallies, signing petitions, and writing letters to congresspeople or newspaper editors. The latter work is vital–my daughter wants to make a career of improving how the government works, and I am so grateful for her intelligence and commitment! But I’m personally better, I think, at kinds of activism that tap the deepest wells of my knowledge and skill.

Poetry’s usefulness can be exaggerated. Writing verses is NOT a particularly effective way of influencing politicians, getting a law changed, or (god knows) attracting money. So even though I created a new course for this term, Protest Poetry, in the deep conviction that poetry helps people, I brought some skepticism to the topic, too. The course is designed for exploration and experiment, and while I’ve done research into its central questions, I’m a genuine student here, with lots to learn. When literature does influence people, how does that work? What poetic strategies are most likely to affect someone’s biases or even, possibly, alter their behaviors? We read a suite of Civil Rights poems and are now working through The Ecopoetry Anthology, discussing (without agreement) the costs and benefits of writing angry poems, grieving poems, and poems of praise; drawing on personal feeling or using the imperative voice; creating works of sonic beauty, grammatical difficulty, or narrative force; and much more.

“Protest Poetry” also carries my college’s “experiential learning” designation, which means the students are creating a couple of public-facing projects. The first, a collaborative venture, happened this Wednesday. We began planning it a few weeks ago, after a tour of the Rockbridge Area Relief Association as well as reading poems about hunger on the Split this Rock database. The assignment was (for very low stakes, grade-wise) to raise money for RARA through poetry. I told them a benefit reading would work–I’ve organized them before–but it was up to them. We toyed with the idea of a Haiku Booth or poetry-related crafts, but decided on an hourlong event that would be organized, promoted, and emceed by students in the class. They chose and booked a campus space, issued invitations to the readers, created fliers, set up sound equipment, decided the flow of the event, and brought refreshments (I acquired a small budget for the latter).

My undergraduates also did some extra work I did NOT expect or require, because, I think, they became genuinely invested in the cause. Some of them made another trip to the food pantry with questions for the clientele, cleared in advance by RARA staff, such as “What’s your favorite meal?” and “If you had to describe RARA in one word, what would it be?” They constructed poems out of the answers, performing them at the event as well as interspersing information between the poems about RARA’s work. They also set up a fundraising table for three days in the Commons, where they offered soft drinks and home-baked treats. Talking to unsuspecting muffin-eaters about how much food RARA can buy for a dollar, they then sweetly solicited donations in any amount. All told, they raised $470!

When we talked about the event during Friday’s class, they were awed by the amount of money raised but also reflected that the event in itself felt good. RARA staff attended and my students watched them tear up during poems. I’m pretty sure a couple of my students choked up, too. They’ll be devising individual activist projects using poetry next, serving whatever cause they feel most invested in, and I’m excited to see what they come up with. I’ll give you an update at the end of term!

Raising money: a clear win. Did the poetry itself change anyone’s thinking? My gut feeling is that it’s way too early to tell. Nobody in my class spoke about having personally experienced food insecurity (not that they necessarily would have), so I’m pretty sure our readings conveyed new information about that flavor of suffering to many, as well as making space for deep thinking about our obligations to each other. Maybe the example of those RARA staff and volunteers mattered most of all.

Back now to more ordinary good works: responding to student writing, preparing for class, reading for Shenandoah, working on the search for AWP’s new director, and maybe, maybe, squeezing in an hour or two for my own writing projects. Whatever you’re up to this week, I hope it involves good art and good food. I’ll leave you with a shot of me reading a poem by Lauren Alleyne from her book Difficult Fruit, plus the poem itself: “Grace Before Meals.” It’s a nourishing one.

Me reading at the RARA Benefit

The ending’s beginning

manifest west

One cheerful thing about bare trees is the omen of changed rhythms: the hard work of fall is coming to fruition, with dream-time ahead. Two more weeks of teaching, then I hope I’ll finish making decisions about the terrific poems lingering in Shenandoah‘s inbox. Editor-in-Chief Beth Staples is frantically gearing up to relaunch that magazine in the next couple of weeks (the new logo, for instance, will debut by Twitter count-down any minute now, so watch @ShenandoahLit). Other editors are obviously sorting through their leaf-duff, because I had a rejection over Thanksgiving that made me sigh, and an acceptance that made me giddy (Beloit Poetry Journal!–a magazine I’ve long admired but never before cracked). I have poems in the handsome new issues of Cascadia Subduction Zone and Manifest Westand Sweet very kindly featured me on their blog on Thanksgiving Day. I also had the pleasure of slowing down for a few days in a Virginia Beach rental house with my immediate family, my mother, my brother, and one of my daughter’s housemates–as well visiting nearby egrets, sea turtles, sting-rays, and more. I love my students this term and have some cool lesson plans for the end-game, but lolling around with books and pie, as well as taking long walks on chilly beaches and in the Back Bay Wildlife Refuge, were very much needed.

One task I completed just before the trip was a residency application for 2020 (!), which gave me cause to reflect on where my poetry has been and where it’s going. I knew midlife had been a big topic in recent years, but I realized more clearly just how much of my poetry has also been about anger, more specifically women’s anger. Now I’m thinking about the consequences of anger, how it can be useful but also harmful, so my poems seem to concern healing and metamorphosis. My new magazine publications contain some of each–poems from a complete ms, in which I’m coming to terms with being middle-aged in the middle of nowhere in an especially messed-up part of a messed-up country, and from a newer ms, just taking shape, that I feel superstitious about describing yet (except in grant/ residency applications, in which you basically have to act like you know EXACTLY what you’ll be writing for the next two years). Peeks at two of the older poems, “Fifty-Fifty” and “White Noise Machine,” are below.

white noisefifty

On first looking into Shenandoah’s submissions

Turns out there’s some good news about rejection I never really grasped before. I’m reading poetry for Shenandoah in earnest now and realizing rejected poems DO reach sympathetic readers, at least if you send them to well-edited magazines: the editors and staff readers themselves.

I am moved, entertained, impressed, and intrigued by far more work than Shenandoah can accept. I’m sure some journal readers are burnt-out or ego-tripping, but I’m inclined to guess magazine editors are often a good audience–smart about the field and in love with the art. You’d think I would know this by now. I’ve definitely felt that connection with certain editors who reject my work with personal notes like “admired these” or “came close.” But being on the other side makes it more vivid, and it cheers me.

My earlier forays into editing were less heartening. When I was newer at W&L–hired as a scholar, but writing poetry always–I once picked up a batch of poems to screen for Shenandoah‘s previous editor, R. T. Smith. Everything was paper then, and I remember sifting submissions at home by lamplight. It was clear that certain cliche-ridden lines centered on the page in flowery purple ink were not contenders, but much of the work was good. As an aspiring poet, this horrified me–how could I ever shine in these realms of gold? I suspect my competitive reaction made me a bad reader, but I was also, in those days, much less sure of my own taste and likely to be overly-influenced by the biases of other poets and critics (not unlike other young screeners at some journals now, maybe). Also a problem: I was solidly well-read in early-to-mid-20th century verse, but my knowledge of contemporary verse was spotty. At any rate, Rod never asked me to read general submissions for him again, and I was busy enough never to seek another chance.

Later, working with a couple of undergraduate interns, I edited a portfolio of poems from New Zealand for Shenandoah. That was more fun, but I also learned hard lessons. First: personal feedback in rejection letters is often returned by expletives and other hostilities, and is rarely worth it. Second: I didn’t have a strong enough network to solicit a seriously diverse portfolio, especially since Rod suggested not paying contributors, given the difficulties of international paperwork without a managing editor (I wish I’d pushed back on that point).

What’s changed: I’ve been reading new poetry heavily for years now, so while nobody knows all the names and scenes within even just U.S. verse, I know a lot more. I’ve also become a better poet myself and a better creative writing teacher, more adept at literary diagnosis.

Plus, the new editor, Beth Staples, is fabulous, and she’s framed the gig in a way I love. She reads everything that comes in and assigns many of the poems to me via Submittable. I vote yes-no-maybe on each batch with a brief explanation, and she makes the final call. We agree most of the time but not always, which strikes me as a great thing–two thoughtful people willing to challenge each other’s reactions probably make better choices.

I had feared that reading so much poetry as a teacher might drain my potential well of editorial energy, but even though I will run out of hours when the term intensifies (I’m on the verge!), I find the tasks of responding to student writers and evaluating a submission pile quite different. Basically, the Shenandoah part of the job involves delivering educated gut reactions to Beth bluntly–I am far briefer and more straightforward than I would be with an undergraduate because I’m describing a judgment rather than cultivating promise (for the most part). I’ll note that a poem moved me but the lineation doesn’t make sense, or I was dazzled by the voice but there’s one clunky clause that bothers my ear. Beth has a lot of experience about the tipping points: when might slight changes be acceptable to an author if you frame the response the right way? When is it too much to ask, too interfering?

For anyone who submitted poems to her several weeks back and hasn’t received a response yet: you might be in our growing “maybe” pile, which means at least one of us really liked your submission and we need to come back to it and make some hard calls. We are receiving a high volume of poetry subs and they’re impressive–it’s a much more diverse stack than I expected, too, both in terms of aesthetics and in the identities and experiences of the submitters. This is AWESOME but it does make poetry an especially competitive genre at Shenandoah. 

For anyone who has received a rejection: I am sorry, and please don’t send me hate mail for saying so. Many submissions are powerful without quite making it into the must-have pile; some nag at my memory already and make me wish I had a spare hour to talk with the writer. Bringing urgent material together with strong craft is HARD. Yes, there are batches by people who clearly don’t read contemporary writing, as well as sexist tripe and other obnoxiousness. But most authors are working hard and are worthy of a reader’s respect.

Also know that I look forward to reading submissions and wish I had more time to spend with them, even after long, tiring September work-days. Hang in there, keep ruthlessly revising your poems until the power beams out of them, and do hit send, and send, and send.

poe books
Poe with books I really want to read, but subs are calling me…

Current weather and forecast for the Confederacy

track 1973

I’m often proud of my brainy, big-hearted students and colleagues, and I’m occasionally even proud of an administrator–when I hear, for instance, that someone deployed funds to help my advisee get through a crisis. Wealthy small liberal arts colleges can be very good places to work and study. And in ways I did not expect when I arrived in 1994, I’ve developed strong feelings for the land I live on. Sometimes, however, all the good resources make it harder to accept my college’s failings.

One of the strangest, most upsetting aspects of being at Washington and Lee has been the university’s uncritical reverence of that second namesake. I know many white southerners were raised to think of Robert E. Lee as an honorable, heroic leader during a terrible war, but most faculty, and a good proportion of staff and students, come from elsewhere and find the mythology alienating. I never really got over the shock I felt about those narratives at first–in fact, my shock has deepened, as it becomes more and more obvious that white supremacist ideals have not lost their grip on our country, that violence against people of color remains epidemic. I worried that white supremacy was in fact part of what my college was selling–come here, white students, and feel validated in your prejudices! I know that is NOT what happens in our classrooms, but nostalgia for the Lost Cause is nevertheless the lesson imparted by our architecture, some of our publicity materials, rhetoric at some events, and even by our name. I’ve felt despair about reconciling the goals of liberal arts teaching with the fundamental unkindness of, say, marching students into Lee Chapel for required events while denying that the building, standing above Lee’s actual crypt, is a shrine to the Confederacy. History is complicated and no one is innocent, but still, these are men who might have enslaved my students’ great-great-grandparents, lashed them, poured brine in the wounds. It’s that plain, that brutal–not something you can fairly ask a person to be politely silent about.

Which is why I want to use my last post before a ten-day trip to give a shout-out to two amazing projects. First: look at this report just issued by W&L’s Commission on Institutional History. It’s very long and detailed–I confess my first move was to read the prologue and then skip to the recommendations–but all of it is worth careful reading, if you’re at all interested in this corner of the world. The conclusions about renaming and repurposing certain buildings are spot-on, and the history the committee tells is the most honest and even-handed I’ve ever seen in a W&L publication. I’m just stunned by its scholarly fairness (oh, those hundreds of footnotes!).

The report does NOT recommend changing the school’s name, or at least not yet. I respect the opposing view, and I suspect we’ll revisit the issue eventually, but I’m personally in agreement with the commission here, even though everyone I meet, these days, hears my institutional affiliation, pauses for a beat, and says, “They’ll be changing that name.” I read the report on my phone between sessions at the Bridgewater Poetry Conference, where multiple people made that remark, in fact. But at the same conference, I also talked to a professor from Randolph College, who recounted how tough their name change has been. It’s a costly step in all kinds of ways, and I’d rather put resources into making more substantive changes, at least at first.

If we DO change. The report itself, posted online in its full glory, gives me hope, but will W&L act on those recommendations, and if so, at what speed? There’s a massive culture gap between trustees and current students, for sure, and since the former have the money…well, in my experience, change happens very, very slowly here, with many constituencies fighting it every step of the way.

A better place to rest that optimism is in the students themselves, and in how, generation after generation, they challenge the status quo and strive to push crucial conversations forward. Witness “The Black Experience @ W&L,” a website just completed by the 12 general-education students, from all years and a wide range of disciplines, in my spring term African American Poetry class. In addition to reading and writing about poems from four centuries, we heard from an archaeologist, a genealogical researcher, and a specialist in Black Arts; talked to a visiting poet; and worked in Special Collections. For this final digital memorial, one group conducted interviews with eight current black students (audio posted online) and compared them to a series of interviews conducted in 1997. They’re all worth listening to (the seniors are the most blunt), but the upshot is that while academics have changed in a positive way since the nineties, the social life hasn’t–black students still get kicked out of parties and challenged to show ID, as if they couldn’t possibly be enrolled here. “How can you explain what it’s like to live in Confederate Virginia with, like, 83% of your fellow students being white?” one interviewee laughed–explaining it pretty well, I thought. Another group investigated integration on athletic teams and discovered that while there was a big jump in the seventies, the numbers of black players on teams has stayed the same since then. Other individuals created exhibits on protests and controversies, from offensively-themed formal dances to peace marches. I’m proud of their hard work and, again, the unvarnished honesty of the stories they tell.

We can do better, but there’s no moving forward without remembering where we started, and being honest about who paid for the privileges we now enjoy, musing about Lucille Clifton in well-furnished, sunny classrooms.

Peering across the Atlantic

When, back in the primordial mists of the 90s, I was hired to teach 20th century poetry in English, I well-prepared to construct U.S.-based syllabi. British and Irish poetries, however, were visible to me only as hills and treetops peeking above a general fog. I knew the international modernists and a few later border-crossers, especially Plath and Hughes; I had historical context for debates about Britishness, empire, language, and identity. Otherwise, I had to worked up the field like any grad student of the era, beginning with Norton anthologies and reference essays. A familiar landscape soon took shape: Hardy, the poets of the Great War, Auden, Larkin. Mina Loy sauntered into place among my modernists, and I explored Stevie Smith’s work with delight. Thinking more white women and some, a few, ANY people of color had to be out there, I found Bloodaxe Books and then Moniza Alvi and Jackie Kay, and eventually news of a Black British scene (Jahan Ramazani’s scholarship became increasingly helpful). On the Irish side, my map was similarly faulty. I’d met Muldoon and heard Heaney while at Princeton, so Muldoon’s Faber Anthology of Contemporary Irish Poetry was the obvious place to start, but it included only ONE woman. The Wake Forest Book of Irish Women’s Poetry appeared soon, by way of remedy. The internet happened. Traveling and listening to readings has helped, too (cheers to Carrie Etter and Zayneb Allak, most recently). I still feel, however, that if I were asked to teach a course on post-1900 British women poets, I wouldn’t be confident about how to shape the story–whereas on the U.S. side, I’ve done it, and the only problem is how to give time to all the overlapping narratives, choosing among riches.

historybritwomenWhich is why I’m grateful to have just found the series The History of British Women’s Writing, and in particular, Vol. 10, 1970-Present, edited by Mary Eagleton and Emma Parker. The ten-page opening chronology, interweaving international politics with developments in literary culture, is a tremendous gift in itself. Indeed, the essays collected here are particularly useful on what often seems like the ephemera of literary history: presses, prizes, laureates, and all the other little recognitions that eventually add up to canons and master narratives. Another great strength of the book is its head-on address to disputes over Britishness: Parker and Eagleton invoke a literary world that’s diverse along every axis, while also analyzing the forces that hamper inclusion.

Fiction receives more attention than other genres, with Jeannette King on historical fiction, Sue Zlosnik on the gothic, Ruvani Ranasinha on British Asian fiction, Suzanne Scafe on Black British fiction, and more. Other pieces are multigenre, however, such as Hywel Dix’s essay on Welsh, Northern Irish, and Scottish literature. And the editors devote discrete chapters to poetry, drama, memoir, and media-crossing literary modes.

The introduction and other elements of the editorial apparatus are wonderful, but the chapter that will be most useful to me is Jane Dowson’s “Poetry on Page and Stage.” Her overview of game-changing anthologies and magazine special issues, as well as their often mixed receptions, is pure gold. She tracks laureateships, Oxford poetry chairs, the shifting status of lyric and experiment, and the importance of poetry performance as a mode of innovation that shapes who gets heard. My reading/ listening list is now twice as long.

In other news, I couldn’t be more grateful for the kind notes I’ve been receiving all week for my own essay, “Women Stay Put,” but I am deeply tired. My three classes, now heading into midterms, are terrific–I’ve never had better groups of students–but with all the extra department work and other service that’s been on our plates lately, I am about as ready as I’ve ever been for February Break. I’m planning to escape next weekend and spend a couple of days gazing at a sunnier bit of the Atlantic, and if the waves don’t sound like poetry, for once, that will be just fine.

 

Videopoems and problems of choice

IMG_0142If you’d asked me in early August whether I could carve out three full days at the end of the month for a digital storytelling workshop, I probably would have responded profanely. Too many other projects! But I had signed up months before–that was choice number one. I was committed.

Choice number two, what kind of text to bring to the workshop, was part of my decision to enroll. I’ve been keeping an eye on the very cool art form of the videopoem–Moving Poems is a good place to learn about it–and I wanted to experiment. So I knew I’d select a poem, and it made sense to pick one from the chapbook Propagation coming out this fall. Since this chapbook is a narrative in fragments, the first piece, “Absentation,” was a no-brainer for the script.

Babayaga_lubokChoice number three was really a months-long suite of choices, sometimes panic-inducing. What images and sounds should I be collecting towards this project? “Absentation” features a woman standing at the edge of a wood on an early spring morning, in crisis, about to go for a hike and think through her options. I figured it wouldn’t do any harm to stockpile literal images I might not use, so last April, I photographed and recorded woods scenes. Imagining other kinds of source material was harder. Propagation was inspired in part by Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, so I searched for public-domain Russian woodcuts and fairy-tale illustrations, as well as books from the library on folklore and wildflowers. I even organized a backpack resembling the one my main character is later revealed to be carrying, in case I wanted to film myself packing or unpacking it. I put books in it, snacks, and random items, like a single high-heeled shoe (why?). As “Absentation” hints and later sections of Propagation make clear, my protagonist thinks she might be pregnant and is carrying an EPT into the forest. Should I buy one for my hypothetical backpack shoot? If so, what if I bump into a colleague or friend in the store? On the Tuesday night before the workshop began, I wondered whether I could talk my husband or daughter into buying a pregnancy test for me. Didn’t seem likely.

It’s especially hard to make these choices the first time you try a form, because you just don’t know how the medium works. I did end up taking woods-edge video at dawn on Thursday morning, just before the second day of the workshop, although I only used five seconds of the twenty minutes I shot. The backpack stuffed with weirdness remains untouched in my dining room. I didn’t use any of the books or Russian pictures, except for photographing the relevant page from Propp and superimposing it over other images. I was going for a sense of old fairy tale structures hovering over the character’s adventures, but the poet Carol Dorf posted on Facebook that the superimposition suggested entering a forest of words. That’s cool.IMG_0163

The funny thing about how the video came together: I ended up selecting images from the pool available to me quickly, almost intuitively, sketching the sequence fast. I was actively avoiding simple illustration, on the principle that visual and verbal images shouldn’t be redundant. But mostly my process was like the process of drafting poems, in that you’re following associations, unsure where they’ll lead. Oh, I realized, those bloodroot flowers against the mulch look starry–let’s try them against the “ruminating stars” line. Later I went back and adjusted color and contrast to heighten the resemblance, and in fact adjusted colors all the way through my piece, so that the video moves from dark, cool tones to warmer ones. But the basic visual structure preceded conscious deliberation. I think I was trying to evoke an introspective mood–that very alive, slow-motion feeling one has during a crisis–but really, I’m rationalizing after the fact. I felt my way through it.

Making my first videopoem involved other decisions I didn’t know enough to anticipate. Crosscut, blurry dissolve, or fade to black? How should I manage ambient noise in relation to voice? What kind of music, among pieces one can use without royalties, would work best over the closing credits? What should titles and credits look like? I practiced reading the poem but in retrospect, I think I could have done better with certain intonations. I didn’t fully understand how hard it is to alter the audio once you have everything else in place, the beats and durations lined up.

It would be interesting to do this again with a very different kind of piece, perhaps even writing towards assembled visuals instead of the other way around. I fell back here on my basic taste in art: I’m attracted to a certain balance of lucidity and mystery, concreteness and abstraction, that I suspect this video reflects. But there are so many other approaches I could try! I’d also like time to digest this manifesto on videopoems by Tom Konyves, which I discovered after my venture. I feel perched on the edge of a world of possibilities.

But fall term is basically here, so my next venture is teaching digital storytelling (with help on the technical aspects!–an expert will teach iMovie and help us troubleshoot). My first-year composition course is on “Other Worlds” and in November and December, students will create videos on the theme of borders and boundary crossing. I don’t know if I’ll have time to make another video alongside them, but I hope so. My warm thanks go out to the Digital Humanities and IT staff at W&L and to our talented visitors from Story Center–without them, I wouldn’t even have set out on the path.

My video is also on Vimeo in case that’s easier: https://vimeo.com/231143331.

Tough Guide to the Field Guide to the End of the World

field-guide-gaileyJust a postcard here from the end of a very tough term–a cheery note from amid the ruins to show off some good work my students just completed. The last book my composition class read was Jeannine Hall Gailey’s excellent new collection, Field Guide to the End of the World. For a final writing assignment after a series of more conventional persuasive essays, my students had the option of writing another essay, OR writing speculative fiction or poetry based on our readings, OR participating in a weirder project. Imagine, I told the intrepid explorers who chose the third path, that Gailey’s End of the World is a real place. Create a web-based travel guide for tourists wishing to visit it, mining the poems for clues about its character.

As we geared up, Gailey Skyped into my class to chat and answer questions, handling some apocalyptic technical glitches, ALL on our end, like a pro. Lonely planet writer and W&L alum Amy Balfour visited in person to talk about going on assignment and constructing punchy, economical descriptions full of revelatory details. We scoured guide books, noting their stylistic tics, and were trained in WordPress by W&L’s Senior Academic Technologist Brandon Bucy.

Here is the mock-travel-website seven students created. I think it’s hilarious, but more so if you read Gailey’s book, which you totally should (sample poems here, for starters). And according to the reflective essays students submitted yesterday, they had more fun with it than seems quite proper for a composition course. (And here, for comparison, is the travel guide to Gaileyland students from an earlier course created, based on Jeannine’s first collection, Becoming the Villainess. Her books have a combination of light, darkness, and just plain weirdness that makes them a really good fit for this world-building assignment.)

May all your grading be this entertaining. And if it’s not, rethink those syllabi for next term. These students, after all, stretched their writing skills significantly and came to know a book of poetry really deeply. As long as everyone’s working hard, why shouldn’t the end-times be fun?

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Writ 100 students conferring, and a blackboard in Early Fielding full of topic ideas