6 month birthday for THE STATE SHE’S IN (time does not exist)

I recently ordered a 2021 calendar–I favor a portable Moleskine number–but, with heavy-handed symbolism, the order keeps being delayed. I’m a planner by temperament and I SO wish I could anticipate my future doings again. Not possible. It’s all clouds.

For the near term, all a calendar-minded person can do is brainstorm short-term ways to mark the passage of time, because around here, the cooling air and spots of yellow at the tops of trees strongly imply that the fall equinox is near. I keep daily work rhythms, even on sabbatical. On Saturdays, we take walks somewhere outside of this small town, hiking in the woods if we can. I’m applying for writing-related opportunities that might bear fruit next spring or summer. Other people are desperately trying to layer multiple workdays on top of each other right now–work, homeschooling, other responsibilities–so feeling lost in blurry weeks means I’m getting off easy, but to a surprising degree, it’s still a stressor.

Here’s a small anniversary: my fifth poetry collection, The State She’s In, was published on March 17th, 2020, so if it were a baby, it would be a chubby little person rocking forward onto its hands and trying to figure out locomotion. I bought it flowers and arranged a photo shoot to celebrate the occasion. It actually IS a book about time, among other subjects–the history of my region but also the approach and arrival of my 50th birthday, an event that I could watch descending like Wile E. Coyote awaiting the anvil. Processing age and change, I wrote many poems that reference the dreaded number explicitly (as in “Fifty-Fifty”) or use 50 as a formal constraint: poems of 50 syllables, 50 words, 50 lines, and more. I’m sure much of that formal play is invisible. It worked, though. Attacking a number every which way gave me some control over its meaning. I wonder if I could do some version of that by writing poems about 2021? I refuse to give 2020 that honor.

Here’s the last poem in the book, published in Gettysburg Review but never online. “L” was a title I contemplated for the whole book (50, Lesley, Lexington); for this particular piece I researched events that happened in 1967, my birth year, as well as having a conversation about ambition with the mountain that looms over my town. The weirdest thing about the poem, though, is that all of its 50 lines are 50 characters long–a persnickety constraint you can’t even see without using a monospace font, which neither the magazine nor the book does. I might always have to hedge optimistic claims like “I’ve stopped counting”–nope, haven’t yet!–but that’s one of my aspirations, to let go of measure and comparison. To “avoid mirrors except the page” and spend these blurry days as best I can because everything ends sometime and I can’t, in fact, control when that is.

L
 
1967 was on fire: Apollo 1 waiting to launch / Jim
Morrison on Ed Sullivan stoking it higher / Mekong
Delta / Newark riot hurling out sparks / summer of
o sock it to me sock it to me sock it to me sock /
pulsar first glimpsed black hole first named / far
south Deception Island’s volcano in flames / while
an infancy rages / some recently extinguished soul
was slotted in my pigeonhole (Oppenheimer Coltrane
Magritte) / but I’m no reincarnate star not even a
meteor tail (Toklas) / just a minor cloud of space
dust reborn to squall anew / Four decades & change
accrue & a big birthday looms / half & half golden
jubilee 5-0 code for pigs closing in & also atomic
number of tin / Mystery heat rises to scald / What
is it I’m reaching for over this terrible wall / A
relocation / destination / permission for ignition
because beauty burns low / potential guttered long
ago / I don’t know / So I avoid mirrors except the
page and work / burn the fuel of myself in words /
program words to change this space & time / Recall
Cobain & Philip Seymour Hoffman dissolved to smoke
/ Does it even matter how in that year of our new-
born howl Lou Reed crooned heroin into the cradles  
/o it was a Warhol year surreal bananas / From my
room painted like late-in-the-daylily / I can gaze
across a blank tin roof pocked by finch claws past
snow-packed sockets of a desolate maple toward the
lavender brow of House Mountain that for this poem
let’s personify as Ambition / the blaze considered
discourteous to mention especially by women / Well
shouldn’t I be striving? / Talk to me Mountain / &
with a higher perspective than mine Mountain cries 
/ You are a conflagration / Adrenaline singes your     
capillaries / Let the anniversary of your ardor to                 
be born cool you like a shadow / Desire leads only               
to more desire even were your sororal motives pure              
and they are not / Mountain has spoken! / It meant
cease building with borrowed stones unless to lift
somebody else / message over bottle / O & hey says
Mountain one more thing / All poems may be ash but
some shelter small hot hopes / their seed swaddled
in earth’s velvet / What strikes me now like flint
on tinder is how talking to mountains or to you is
the same as talking to myself / just as impossible           
& just as hopeful / either / or / both / & / Maybe
we’re all alpine & none of us is / disconnection a  
gift of language we are supposed to hand back / No
presents please what’s yours is mine already / But    
come in & have a drink on me / Today’s everybody’s
birthday & I’ve stopped counting / well just about  

News flash: in April, poet feels moody

Spring’s been happening in fits and starts–blossoms one minute, wind-strewn petals the next. I walk a nearby trail most mornings, and on Tuesday, Woods Creek churned and roared from heavy rains; parts of the path were massive puddles, and the lowest bridge was half-underwater. The next day was frigid; others have been balmy and still. National Poetry Month basically occurs during the year’s moody adolescence.

I’ve been just as inconsistent. Every April since 2013 I’ve tried to have some kind of daily poetry-related practice. In 2013, I was pent-up and just exploded in daily drafts. In 2014, I wrote a section of a long poem every day according to Vladimir Propp’s numbered phases of folk tales, and that became last year’s chapbook, Propagation. In 2015 I worked on poems in response to images by Carolyn Capps, and that collaboration became an exhibit. In the Aprils since then, I haven’t been as focused, but tried at least to work on poetry every day, often by drafting something new, sometimes by revising or submitting work. This year, it’s been really, really hard, and I’m not sure why.

I do know my monkey mind has been up to serious mischief, in part because I had a very intense winter term, working round the clock just to stay afloat (around here, the twelve-week “winter” term ends the last week of April, and the four-week intensive spring term begins tomorrow–oy). I don’t know if this is a symptom or a driver of my stress, but I have noticed my reading patterns changing dramatically. I’m normally a hungry novel-reader, averaging one a week on top of classwork, and that’s supplemented by fairly heavy poetry reading and a lot of journalism and magazines. I keep a list of the books I finish, in part so I don’t draw a total blank if asked to write a year-end column somewhere. There’s usually a balance among genres in my novel consumption, depending on time of year and state of mind, including challenging literary stuff, pulpy mysteries, and a good share of speculative fiction.

2018-02-22-igloria-final-250pxThis year, since January 1, I’ve finished just three novels. That seems demented to me. I’ve been sustained by partial residence in fictional universes since early childhood, because this world kind of sucks, even for a person like me whose life has been pretty lucky. I can and do read lots of short-form stuff, including many poetry books, some by our first Glasgow Writer in Residence, Luisa Igloria, who’s settling in now to teach an advanced seminar on hybrid genres. Right now I’m in the middle of Beth Ann Fennelly’s micro-memoir collection Heating and Cooling. I also watch various novelistic TV series. But my lifelong drive towards narrative immersion in long fiction just seems broken. I’m not sure whether to nudge myself back into the old reading patterns, which I’ve always found calming, or just let the monkey mind swing how it wants to.

So far, I’ve been doing the latter, both in my reading and my NaPoWriMo practice. I sent a bunch of work out, and received a quick acceptance and a quick rejection; the other poems wait for editors to have opinions about them. I think I’ve drafted a couple of poems that will be keepers. I’ve also written poems about being too discouraged to write poems. I’ve been collaborating with my spouse on some visual poems here and there, and I also spent much of this week, our spring break, revising my own novel, because I received some helpful feedback and that’s what I wanted to do. Perverse, but so be it. The very best thing I did for myself, poetry-wise, was join a group of women poets just sending their daily drafts to each other for the month of April, with no apologies and no judgments. It’s felt like everything I love about poetry, with none of the striving–what a blessing.

On a probably related note: last weekend was the first time I  completely broke my commitment to blog something poetry-related weekly in 2018. This vow was in response to a challenge Kelli Russell Agodon and Donna Vorreyer leveled in December–see Donna’s awesome list of participants here–and has been facilitated by the great gift of Dave Bonta’s weekly roundups (most recent one here). I realized Monday morning I hadn’t posted anything and thought, well, damn. Then I decided I’d rather spend a few more hours on poetry subs, then work on the novel. It was good to prove to myself that I could focus immersively on something.

And now it’s back to running at top speed, with a seminar on African American poetry starting tomorrow. On the creative community front, I’m also also looking forward to a reading at 7 pm this Friday, April 27th, in Staunton, at the Black Swan. And I’m SO grateful to Gettysburg Review for including my poem “L” in its pages–that’s my poem about turning 50, in 50 50-character lines, which I drafted at 47 because I like to plan my crises in advance. An ambitious poem about the problems with ambition, it felt like a turning point for me and I’m so glad it found a good home–confirmation that springs of moody weather can, in the long run, bear fruit.

poetry reading poster

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.

Remembering, foreseeing, and missing the Pacific

Three years ago, the flurry of Christmas was eclipsed by a blizzard of planning for a Fulbright fellowship. In January 2011, Chris, Madeleine, Cameron, and I departed for Wellington, New Zealand for nearly six bracing, gusty, exhilarating months. We arrived at our Cuba Street hotel on an overcast summer day. My photo album also documents the rain that came sheeting down shortly after, and, when we relocated to Nelson for a few beach days, a rainbow manifesting over the sea (only one visible here, but there were two—that year we became almost blase about rainbows). Nelson rainbow

When I look at those images now, I can’t believe how young the kids seem: my son was only shoulder-height and now he’s nearly as tall as I am, big and noisy enough to play the tenor sax. In poetry-time, though, the seasons are longer. The poems I drafted in the southern hemisphere, revised in the months after my return, and started sending out late in 2011 are just beginning to see publication. The sonnet crown that recently appeared in Valparaiso Poetry Review, “Damages,” took ages to get right (and maybe still needs tweaks, time will tell). Although the basic shape of it crystallized quickly and I read a section on Radio New Zealand during my stay in Wellington, there were blurry patches for a long time I couldn’t quite bring into focus: a single vague or clunky phrase can scuttle an entire poetry sequence, especially if it occurs early on so the reader loses confidence in your control. “Damages” is also the sort of outcome you can’t predict when you’re writing a grant proposal: “While watching a major national crisis unfold in the background, I will obsessively ponder the sudden, painful dissolution of my parents’ 45-year marriage.” This crown is a slant-rhymed companion to the prose piece that appeared in The Gettysburg Review and Poetry Daily, “Coffee with Poets in New Zealand,” itself an alternate-universe answer to the research I was undertaking (and don’t even get me started on the incubation period for scholarly publication).

The pace isn’t always glacial. A couple of other poems inspired by that trip appeared more quickly in print magazines. “In Other News” was taken by Poet Lore. “Inside the Bright,” formally modeled on Marianne Moore’s “The Fish” and responding to a visit to Kauai on the way home, was published by Subtropics. These pieces may or may not hold their ground in a book-length poetry manuscript, Radioland, I’m beginning to shop around to presses—an alarming amount of what I write never makes the magazine cut, and a lot of my journal publications get shut out of my books. The latter have to be really lean and limber to survive the current market. At any rate, the current version of Radioland begins with the New Zealand material and ends with poems from winter 2012-3, a season of more travel and slowly processing my father’s death, even as we rebuilt a large part of our house after catastrophic flooding. Expect my output for the next few years to be extremely damp, metaphorically.

Meanwhile, here are a couple more Aotearoan poems in the new Unsplendid. “Things That Move Forward” is based on an incident on a walking trail near our Virginia home, but I first drafted it during a workshop I ran for the New Zealand Poetry Society that culminated in terza-rima-writing (the goodhumored participants promptly rechristened the form “torture rima,” which sounds funnier in a kiwi accent). “It Is Difficult to Get the News from Poems” quotes the extremely American William Carlos Williams in the title, but otherwise responds to a powerful event I attended right after the Christchurch quake (the next day, I think). The poet who counts tuatara at the beginning is Harry Ricketts, whose comments on local species of sonnet in 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry inspired my couplets. The poet whose understated reading moved me so much is Bill Manhire.

The other two selections in Unsplendid came later. “Past Meridian” was my first try at a fourteen-word sonnet in spring 2012—I remember because I drafted a poem a day that April and kept them together in a single folder. “Belief,” a random eruption from no occasion I can recall, is the poem Unsplendid’s editors have kindly nominated for a Pushcart. I’m so grateful to the editors of all these magazines for working so hard to bring poems to a world that doesn’t know it needs them. And grateful, too, to the Fulbright Foundation for granting me those wild, windy months. Everyone in my family was transformed by the undertaking.

Still, I hope the dramas of 2014 are more comic than the rather-too-epic adventures of the last few years. I can foresee some of them: we’re planning a couple of weeks in France in June, and touring universities in April and August. Madeleine will be a high school senior in September, biting her fingernails over SAT scores and applications. I’ve agreed to serve as interim department head in 2014-5 while the current chair takes a sabbatical, and I’ll be applying for a leave of my own in 2015-6 (here in Virginia, I think, given that I’ll likely be the cash-strapped parent of a first-year college student). While we all miss the climatically unpredictable Pacific, here’s to mild weather for all of us in the new year.

Professor Aragorn swears a vow

Manifestos are for angry young men, right? I’m more like “cranky” and “middle-aged,” and as far gender stereotyping goes, I actually had a student write on a course evaluation once, “Just as kind as you’d expect from a mother.” Whippersnapper, if you’re out there, be glad that was anonymous. I am weary of hearing that niceness is my salient attribute. Especially when I just spent three months expertly guiding your complaining tenderfoot fellowship through the Nazgul-haunted waste land of modernist poetry.

The title of my piece in the summer 2013 issue of The Gettysburg Review, “Coffee with Poets in New Zealand,” suggests not a fiery declaration of creed but a series of low-stakes, highly civilized quenchings. I lived in Wellington from late January 2011 to the beginning of July as a Fulbright senior scholar researching poetry networks, in particular the rhizome-fibers fanning out from the International Institute of  Modern Letters at Victoria University. I spent the first few months talking to people, going to readings, trying to see the lines of force. By late April I hunkered down to write an article that I thought would become a book chapter.  I aimed for an audience of academics who are thoughtful about creative writing as a discipline. Turns out that’s a mythical tribe. At least, there are very few venues for such work, and do they want to hear my skepticism about the idea of “community” in the MFA enterprise, balanced by a case study of an antipodean program that’s actually pretty successful, better in some ways than many of its US antecedents? No, Lesley, as perhaps you ought to have predicted, they do not.

By late May I had finished a draft of that scholarly article, which, sigh, is still wandering the wilderness. One cold rainy day I played hooky to visit Katherine Mansfield’s dismal childhood home. Afterwards, over lunch in a Thornfield café, my spouse and I talked about the weirdness of the trip so far. Setting up house in a foreign country, sending your small-town kids to school in an unfamiliar city, is bound to be difficult; you know your life is being reshaped and it’s hard to play scholar in the middle of it. Further, a few weeks after we’d arrived, a Christchurch earthquake had resulted in terrible destruction and loss of life. My husband’s beloved aunt Mary had suddenly died. And my parents, whose marriage, when I left, seemed solid as rock and just as affectionate, were divorcing. Radio silence from my eight-five year old father, now living with a forty-five year old woman.  When random Aotearoans asked me what I was up to, I would joke “having coffee with poets”: how else could I possibly sum it up?

“That’s what you should write,” my husband said, when I commented on how hard it was to assume an authoritative, scholarly voice as if none of this other material was boiling around me—how dissatisfied I felt by academic writing, under the circumstances. “An essay about having coffee with poets.” I took off Strider’s costume that afternoon and tried to assume my birthright, composing prose in which I was a whole person. I had lots of paring and reshaping to do later, but I put down the bones in a week or two. By the end of the finished essay, I declare my intention to transmit argument without filtering out all the personal noise that makes me want to make arguments. That is, to brew up criticism that also delivers the pleasures of story—more meaningful to write, possibly even of interest beyond academia.

Declaring that ambition feels arrogant to me, outrageous, not entirely nice. Further, the two years since have been crazy. The kids hit adolescence; our jobs changed in big ways; the house flooded; my father remarried, got sicker, and died. Basically I’ve been trying to survive my life and think about new goals while not laying down the old ones. I’ve written tons of poetry and prose and managed to get some of it revised and into the world but I’ve also been trying to do too much. My spouse’s latest pronouncement: I need to fire the tiny little booking agent who inhabits the cave of my head. She knows exactly how much I can do and she schedules me right up to the limits of my energy and sanity. “I hate her,” he said. Okay, I answered, overruling the homunculus. No modernism conference.

What I’m trying to do now, as the writing summer opens up, is prioritize. I’ve got a lot of projects steeping. The ones I’ve already committed heavily to: it’s time to dust them with cinnamon and serve them to some kind of public or just dump them if they’re too stale, but no more fooling around behind the espresso machine. And the new book, Poetry’s Possible Worlds will NOT be the straight-ahead scholarship I was trained in, but the mixed-up stuff I feel driven to write, the stuff that feels interesting to me and I hope will be interesting to others, too. Goals:

  1. Write what I want to write—poetry and prose that anyone who likes to read would enjoy—but commit to it. Stop trying to walk every path at once.
  2. Work long and hard. Get better.
  3. Unite the kingdom.