Change of (literary) life

upsidedown

It’s fall, 2015. I’m on sabbatical. My mother is direly ill with what turns out to be lymphoma. I’m mourning my daughter’s departure for college and worrying about her experience there; my son, new to high school, faints in a clinic and is diagnosed with pneumonia. My own body is going haywire, perimenopausally. Amid doctor visits, road trips, and existential crises, I can’t concentrate on anything.

I have, however, been batting around an idea. I spent my girlhood writing stories and have always been an avid novel reader–literary fiction but also fantasy, science fiction, mysteries, horror, and a lot of the slippery genre-crossing stuff. Could I write a novel myself? A short one, maybe, drawing on worlds I know well to ease the learning curve? Could I do it–what the hell–right now?

I’d been inventing character backstories and had a couple of narrative threads in mind. Aside from artistic curiosity about the practice of novel-writing, though, the motivating impulse was to rewrite transitions like my own–which seemed at the time wholly about loss–so that they became empowering. In so many tales, magic or superpowers hit at puberty, and the physical changes I was undergoing were basically puberty in reverse. So wouldn’t menopause ALSO be a logical time for a person’s power to change? Why should teenage characters get all the joy?

So I wrote round the clock from November 2015 to January 2016, joyously, shocked at how fun and absorbing the work was, until I had a full draft. It was pretty terrible, but luckily for me, I’m married to an excellent teacher of fiction-writing. I rewrote it a few times and started sharing the ms with other friends. Many gave tough criticism in an encouraging way, bless them forever. Putting the ms under revision after revision, I killed some of my darlings and maimed a few, too. I deleted characters, complicated others, overhauled plot twists, faced a number of things I hadn’t wanted to admit about myself, and cut summary and adverbs and pretty descriptions and clever metaphors (I am a poet…). I queried agents; a bunch asked to see the whole ms but then passed, because I’d been deluded about its readiness. I revised some more.

Somewhere in there I queried Aqueduct Press, whose editors had been good to me during the publication of my speculative poetry collection, The Receptionist and Other Tales (all my poetry books feature ghosts and other flavors of uncanniness, but only The Receptionist is speculative through and through). The verse novella at the heart of it was named to the James Tiptree, Jr. Award Honor List, something I never would have thought I could even be in the running for.

Revise and resubmit was Aqueduct’s verdict, with some challenging, even deflating advice that I quickly recognized the utter justice of. More brainstorming, more character and plot overhauls, and a lot of the smaller screw-tightening fine-tooth-combing stuff. And then, a couple of weeks ago, with yet more notes about revision because that’s the writing life, came the offer of a contract.

So apparently, one of the magical transformations of midlife is that a poet can become a novelist. I have moments of elation about that, and moments of alarm. My turn to novels is a way bigger change than anything that’s happened in my writing life since I won a prize for Heterotopia ten years ago. It’s NOT a turn away from poetry, which is still very much at the center of my daily life, but it will be a turn away from traditional scholarship, I think. My novel, Unbecoming, and my next poetry collection, whose title I’m still fiddling with, will be out in 2020 (there’s a small chance of late 2019 for the novel, but I’m not banking on it). AND I have a book of poetry-based nonfiction, a hybrid of criticism and memoir, scheduled for 2021 (more details on that soon!).

Creative writing across the genres, full speed ahead!–I’ve been drafting a lot of micro-essays and some micro-fiction this winter. Reviewing, too. But I can’t do everything. And I know where my heart lies.

Learning to write a novel has been hard and surprising and wonderful, but now I have to learn about publishing one. PLUS do my best job ever at getting the word out about my new poetry collection, simultaneously, while revising the essay collection. It’s a lot. I anticipate a big pivot next year from the introversion of writing/ revision/ submission work to the extroversion required for traveling, reading, guest-teaching, panel-surfing, and all the other stuff. Some of it at SF conventions! And all this will happen right at my empty nest moment–this is also the winter of helping my son get college applications out and waiting for the verdicts. I mean, really–what’s the appropriate cheerful-but-scared expletive for THAT?

swamp

 

Poetry, suspense, and reading Maria Hummel

She stared at the screen until her eyes ached, willing an email to flicker into existence: would the prospective poetry publisher like her new manuscript? See, that’s an example of raising suspense in prose, but good poems do that too. As Stephen Dobyns writes in an excellent essay, “Writing the Reader’s Life,” only discovered by this belated reader last week:

“The energy in a work–meaning whatever keeps us reading–comes in part from (1) the balance between what we know and what we don’t know and (2) how well the writer has made us want to know. A failure in much writing, especially poetry, is that the writer has not created sufficient tension, has not done enough to make us want to know. A failure in much writing, especially poetry, is that the writer has not created sufficient tension, has not done enough to make us want to know. If the writer takes the reader’s interest for granted, then he or she will fail.” (in Poets Teaching Poets, ed. Orr and Voigt)

In case you were in suspense after my last blog post about procrastination, I did in fact have a great writing week last week. I drafted a new chapter about “Suspense” in lyric poetry, focusing on House and Fire, a first collection by Maria Hummel. I started tracking her work in May 2012, when I spotted the amazing ghazal “One Life” in Poetry. Ghazals aren’t really supposed to be narrative–or at least linear–but this one raises several kinds of suspense: why does she stop believing in heaven? what happened in the accident? what’s the matter with her son and will he be all right? There’s also the beautiful formal suspension of rhyme and refrain, and the drama of how she handles the ghazal’s other requirements (if you know the form, for instance, you’re always curious to see how a poet includes a signature in the final couplet). Maybe perversely, after reading “One Life” I became anxious about Hummel’s real son’s well-being, and followed hints about it through individual poems in various magazines and, finally, this May, through her book. Maybe this isn’t what Hummel wanted me to want to know, but I did. Somehow she generated quickly in me that weird, not-quite-justified level of identification that turns a mild-mannered professor into an embarrassed but desperate poem-stalker. As a mother whose son has had a scary hospitalization or two, maybe I was especially primed for it, but I also think Hummel is just really good. (All the sons involved, by the way, seem to be okay, and mine is nearly ecstatic that it’s finally June.)

As I hoped, drafting this chapter helped me plan for this Saturday at the West Chester Poetry Conference. I’ll be speaking about genre, plot, and time and reading a little from “The Receptionist” in the panel “Narrative and Non-Narrative in the Book-Length Poem” (June 7th at 3:15). I’m looking forward to poetic conversation but I also feel a little strange about going. Last time I attended–in June 2012–my father had just died and I was in suspense about his military funeral, because his young widow, officially next of kin, wouldn’t tell us when and where it would be (shortly after the conference and nearby, as it turned out). I was also waiting on copies of The Receptionist and Other Tales: the long narrative poem at the heart of it was inspired in part by the bad behavior of certain administrators at my home institution, one of whom was still my dean, and while the book is truly fictional, I was quite worried about fallout. While at West Chester, I got the call that this toxic dean had been demoted–this is quite the punchline, so wait for it–TO MY DEPARTMENT. Where he still lingers. So even though the 2012 conference was full of wonderful events and meetings, including Natalie Gerber’s excellent seminar on free verse prosody, it still makes me sick to my stomach to remember it.

As for my opening tease about my current poetry ms, Radioland, this one largely about my father: don’t know yet. The publisher asked to see it exclusively in January and still has it, promising me a verdict by mid-June at the very latest. I felt relaxed about the process all spring. While I’d be honored to publish with this press, I feel strongly hopeful that someone will eventually want this book. It would just be nice to deliver it to the world sooner rather than later, I told myself. Now, though–probably because I finally have time to think–I’m getting seriously antsy. But, dear reader, both of us are just going to have to dangle a little longer.

 

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.

In which the modernism scholar attends her first con

Three weeks out: What do these panel/ event names mean? “Queers Dig Time Lords and Outer Alliance TARDIS Party”? “Is Feminism Magic? The My Little Pony Panel!”? “None of Us Are Goats”?

One week out: Why aren’t my co-panelists answering the let’s-get-prepped email the conscientious WisCon organizers prompted me to send? Do they hate me for presuming to butt into their Con? Becoming quite sure everyone wishes I’d just stay home.

Day One: Had a deep conviction, while packing, that I needed more purple and feathers, but said “screw it” and just packed professor-clothes. I’d been clairvoyant about the purple and feathers—in professor-clothes at WisCon you feel like Clark Kent, only straighter. (For more on conference-gear anxiety, see “Rhymes with Poetess.”) On the upside, my co-panelists for “Women’s Speculative Poetry Now” are brilliant and enthusiastic and funny and show no signs of hating me whatsoever. The audience is good-sized and seems delighted. I learn a ton and am so glad I set this into motion.

Day Two: Sleep deprivation has now thinned the veil between dimensions. I lose time, in a good way, at Karen Joy Fowler’s reading. I have dinner with my doppelganger: turns out, though poet Meg Schoerke and I have never met before, we interviewed in 1993 for the same jobs and each got offered different ones. She informs me about my life in an alternate timeline and also how and why she is in the process of transforming into a science fiction writer. The day climaxes at the Haiku Earring Swap: I pick out sparkly pink beads, Elise gives me the title “The Duchess Regrets,” and I compose the follow-up lines “her indiscretion/ with the jelly. Really, love/ is sticky enough.” I am allowed to barter this haiku for my jewels.

Day Three: I put on the magenta tights I bought on State Street along with Elise’s earrings and I feel a little better, even though a street person shouts, “I love you, Pink Ass Lady!” (That seems fair enough, actually, since I’m the most colorful thing walking through his living room.) During a solo brunch at Graze I intend to read Caitlin Kiernan’s fabulous Tiptree-co-winning novel, The Drowning Girl. Instead, I sit next to an architect whose green designs, she tells me, include self-repairing airplane wings and a kind of paint that makes concrete surfaces absorb and trap greenhouse gases. Amazingly, she has nothing to do with the science fiction convention. More great readings today, plus the Dessert Salon. (I have never attended such a FEMINIST feminist conference: safe spaces for every identity plus constant access to chocolate conceived as a basic human right.) Having The Receptionist and Other Tales announced as a Tiptree Award Honor List book makes me feel magenta all over.

Day Four: I know I didn’t really DO WisCon because I never had enough stamina for the late-night parties, but I met some lovely people, and when I read from my book this morning at Michelangelo’s the audience laughed and said “mmm” at all the right moments. At the Sign-Out, Tiptree judge Andrea Hairston described reciting my book while parading around her house—wish I had that for a book trailer or something, especially since SHE has serious feathers going on.

I’m drafting this in the Madison airport. My bags are heavy with books and my head is jammed with still more titles—tons of reading to do. I don’t know the work of keynote speaker Jo Walton, for instance, but her reading and talk were amazing. I’m still pondering what she said about the relation between writer and audience: “I’m writing it inside me and they’re reading it inside them…the art is happening in the space between.”

I’m still writing mostly in the space between “literary” poetry (that’s a terrible label, but it’s what I’ve got) and sf. There are lots of speculative poems in my new ms, which is all about uncanny transmissions and connections, but it’s not a genre venture at its core as clearly as “The Receptionist” was. I’m just trying to write and read the very best poems I can, and I think “best” often harmonizes with “speculative” because sf asks such good questions about what’s real and what matters. I loved WisCon, but I find myself wishing for a poetry-focused conference this smart, this fun. I want to see what the rhyme-nerds wear when they’re really letting it all hang out.

Incarnation: WisCon

I’ve been a virtual sf author since Aqueduct published The Receptionist and Other Tales last summer: you can conjure me by textual transportation device. At WisCon this weekend, though, avatar and body will undergo fusion.

I’ve given readings from the book all year, but on all those occasions my primary identity seemed to be poet. At the “World’s Leading Feminist Science Fiction Convention,” though, my primary identity will be person invested in speculative fiction. Which I truly am. But I still feel jittery as I pull on the boots.

If you’ve gone to grad school—especially if you’ve been a woman in a fancy program—you probably remember episodes of feeling like a complete impostor. I often thought my admission was an accident or grudging concession: I was offered a fellowship by a state agency so Princeton said oh, all right, dammit, we can let in ONE New Jerseyan. I was the youngest person in my year and one of only two who had attended a public university, so I felt constantly outclassed, outread, and intellectually outmaneuvered.

O miracle: I scored a decent job as I was finishing my dissertation. I worked really, really hard, for years. I caught up. There are still huge holes in my education but I know a lot of stuff about twentieth- and twenty-first-century poetry. I’m confident enough that I don’t worry much anymore about the gaps—very few are as well-read as they let on, really, and I plan to keep educating myself for at least three more decades.

I wonder how much of my confidence is rooted in the actual work I’ve done and how much comes from authority being mirrored back at me by other people, especially in classrooms, at conferences, and at the various other places we strut our professordom. I noticed this year, as I read course evaluations and exit surveys, a number of remarks such as great teacher but doesn’t have an enormous ego. This made me laugh, wondering which of my colleagues were being implicitly accused of egomaniacal behavior. Even if I don’t project a sense of overweening self-importance, though, it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the ego-boosts of teaching. I do. I just cited praise from my course evaluations, for heaven’s sake. And I love it when people ask me for advice or an opinion and then listen to the answer as if they expect it to be smart. As my daughter says about herself: being bossy is, like, my favorite thing.

And yet I keep throwing myself into situations in which I really am a green, untutored creature. I guess I like being a student. I’m attending WisCon in part to make the book visible to people and in part just to listen, learn, take it all in. I’m hoping that because it’s a feminist conference—fiercely egalitarian in all its communications with attendees—the whole ego parade thing will be less in evidence than, say, at the AWP. It’s an adventure, in any case, a portal into an alternate universe.

The protagonist of my poetic campus novella, “The Receptionist,” is also a half-reluctant, timid sort of quester. The alternate reality Edna inhabits remains vivid to me. People who know my real colleagues keep asking me who’s who in the poem’s imaginary English department and it really doesn’t work that way. I visualized the elfin Victorianist as someone I met elsewhere years ago. The dragon resembles several distinguished older women professors I’ve known, but physically I was projecting Helen Vendler, whom I’ve never met. Many have said, “oh, the hermit woodsman is totally Jim Warren,” and I get why, but I actually saw him very clearly as a small, dapper, wiry, silver-haired man, a little more formal and courtly than our real Americanist. The problem dean is definitely an amalgam of administrators I’ve known or heard stories about from friends, but mentally I dressed him up like the perfectly-nice-to-me postmodernism expert Andrew Ross as he was photographed for the New York Times in the nineties: longish black hair, bright mustard-yellow jacket (I think this is the article but the picture I remember isn’t attached). See?

Oddly, as far as seeing goes, the only character I can’t visualize is Edna. I would have said that I identified with several characters in my story, but drawing a blank on her features, build, coloring, and clothes makes me realize I was really looking over Edna’s shoulder the whole time, focused on how she saw others rather than as others saw her. She’s probably a good person to think about as I beam out to Madison, Wisconsin. A good watcher and listener, definitely jittery, but when she hears that voice in her ear, she’s willing to leap through a painting into the Narnian ocean.

And off I go to Madison, as soon as we get this batch of too-flattering students graduated. I’ll be moderating a panel Friday, May 24th, 9 p.m., called “Women’s Speculative Poetry Now” with Amal El-Mohtar, Shira Lipkin, Sofia Samatar, and Sheree Renée Thomas (Conference Room 4). And I’ll be reading in an event called “Overflowing the Aqueduct” on Monday, May 27th, at 10 a.m. with Eleanor Arnason, Nancy Jane Moore, and Deb Taber (Michelangelo’s in the Best Western Inn on the Park). If you’re also visiting this particular dimension, please say hello.

And the winner of the Big Poetry Giveaway is…

Poet and blogger Joseph Harker! I’ve never met him but just looked him up and his last post for NaPoWriMo, “Adam and Steve,” is pretty great. Nice list of favorite poets, too. I’ll be sending him my latest, The Receptionist and Other Talesand Feral by Janet McAdams.

Thanks to Susan Rich for organizing this and to everyone who put themselves into the lottery–27 people, three cubed and always my favorite number. The process: I counted down and gave everyone a number, making sure that the people who posted multiple comments were only counted once. Then I used a random number generator to determine the digit.

If you didn’t win and still want The Receptionist, it’s only $9 from Aqueduct Press, or $6 for an ebook. Or if you can review or teach it, ask for a complimentary review copy. Contact me at wheelerlm (at) wlu.edu if you want a signed book. I’ll also be at WisCon in late May and, this coming Friday, I’m reading new poems at Chroma Projects gallery in Charlottesville, Virginia–that’s May 3rd, 6 pm, in conjunction with a show by visual artist Carolyn Capps called “We Are Not Our Work.” Much of what I’ve been doing during NaPoWriMo is generating new pieces in response to her collages. It’s been really fun but now I have to revise them and read them while the linguistic paint’s still wet. Yikes.

I did keep to the NaPoWriMo program, by the way, often drafting multiple poems in a 24 hour period–but being at an artists’ residency for 2 weeks in the middle of April helped. Some days my output was extremely lame and yesterday, in the very last evening of obligation, I almost decided to bag it entirely. I’ll leave you with the poem from the 29th, one of those I-just-don’t-have-the-energy-for-this days. I was inspired when a former student, now a teacher at a middle school in Baltimore with a community garden, tweeted sadly that there aren’t enough poems about asparagus in the world. Poor neglected vegetable. I tweeted back:

spar grass loves spring’s steamy mood:
from woody shoot to point d’amour
a short and terribly tender fuse

Poets, go revise your April brainstorms, read as much verse as you can get your eyeballs on, and eat your sexy delicious greens.

 

 

Poets do it for free

 

My Try Poetry GiveawayYou thought I meant poetry readings, I’m sure, and yes, we will talk dirty to you in bookstores, classrooms, cafés, and other marginal spaces, for little or no compensation. But at the moment I’m referring to another kind of freebie. The wheel of the year has turned and it’s time to get Feral for National Poetry Month. At the prompting of verse alchemist Susan Rich I’m participating in The BIG POETRY GIVEAWAY (follow the link if you’d like to give away some books yourself). As she says in her invitation:

“Anyone with a blog can giveaway 2 books of poems. Anyone with an email address can enter any or all of the giveaways. Yes, poetry is that easy! You can give it away and you can also sign-up to receive it! You don’t need a blog to participate, you just need to visit different participating blogs.”

The two books I’ll be giving away at the beginning of May are my most recent poetry collection, The Receptionist and Other Talesand Janet McAdams’ 2007 book Feral. Both have a slipstream vibe, occupying the littoral zone at the edge of speculative fiction. I like to call the long poem “The Receptionist” a feminist fantasy campus novella in terza rima; it’s followed by shorter poems involving revenants, hallucinations, zombie apocalypse, and other alarming lyric materializations.

Feral  explores another kind of wildness—tales of feral children—although Janet McAdams also populates this intensely lyric book with fish girls, polar explorers, and others who hover between worlds. McAdams is a brilliant writer who teaches at Kenyon College in Ohio; other equally fabulous books include her novel Red Weather and her first poetry collection, The Island of Lost Luggage. She founded the Earthworks series for indigenous poetry at Salt Press.

If you’d like a chance to win these books, leave a comment below that includes a way to reach you. At the end of April I’ll develop some magical randomizing process for choosing a name. Like any of the participating bloggers, I’ll cover postage to any place in the universe. Here’s a teaser from Janet’s book.

What She Will Sing to You

My mother cast into the wave that nudged my birth
and I finned out with a slime-covered flipper

and learned a different kind of love:
this dorsal fin could cut you through like a razor.

You will learn to breathe here after all. Over these joined legs
are two fat breasts and a mouth, soft and open. A tongue to wrap

around the words I might whisper, through water, salt water.
Sailor, you can learn to breathe here. Come down, come

down. I was never human, not your fairy tale. I will teach you more
than breathing. I will make your body ache open with salt pleasure.

 

Career Suicide

I’m risk-averse, at least financially. My mother felt trapped in a bad marriage by her lack of education and her sense that she couldn’t earn a decent living. I remember thinking as a child: come hell or high water, I WILL have my own salary, health insurance, retirement fund. I will never have to sit and swallow it while a man puts me down, mocks what I don’t know and can’t do.

There’s no such thing as perfect safety in money or anything else, but tenure’s about as close as I’m going to get: I have a job I love, a fair amount of freedom in what I say and write, and even a little fund for annual conference attendance. This year I spent a big chunk of the latter at the AWP in Boston, an 11,000-person conclave of writers blowing all kinds of crazy smoke. I had several gigs to perform. One of them was to describe modernist poetry performance for Iris Jamahl Dunkle’s very rich panel, “Shaking the Burning Birch Tree: A Celebration of Amy Lowell.” Another was to interview Rafael Campo for a magazine. A third was to emcee a panel I’d devised with the distinctly risky title of “Career Suicide.” As I said to the well-populated room, I had worried for months that audience members would rise up and berate me for being too flip about one word and too serious about the other—that is, using suicide as a metaphor for risks that are typically less apocalyptic, and for implying that writers should think in terms of “career” at all. After all, publishing and professorships are in some ways pretty tangential to the difficult and important business of getting the words right. Isn’t conceiving of writing as a career the beginning of a whole mess of problems?

I did register a number of people grimacing painfully when I told them the name of the panel, but no one stormed out. Instead, we had a pretty good conversation; I’m still pondering what we said and what we left unsaid. How much is any one of us willing to reveal, really, when the room is full of current and future readers, editors, and grantors? Talk about career suicide.

What we did say: a big topic was the risk inherent in switching or bridging genres. Lawrence Schimel has some particularly compelling stories about how writing gay poetry and erotica has been an obstacle to publishing children’s fiction under his own name in the US, but a useful credential-builder in Spain for the same enterprise. Place was a major theme, too. Luisa Igloria described leaving a thriving career in the Philippines for a position in the US where her previous accomplishments seemed to weigh little. She and Lawrence spoke movingly, too, about how marriage laws and cultural understandings of gender make a big difference in a writer’s life. Ann Fisher-Wirth told us about leaving a prestigious job where she was unhappy and eventually creating a career that fit her needs and talents just right. There were similar stories from the audience: sometimes, if you’re stubborn enough about what you want and/or what you feel compelled to write, you survive the hostility and resistance to make a decent place for yourself. We talked a little about physical risk, some about financial risk, probably most about reach and reputation. We broached the topic of the astounding generosity I see in many writers, but probably didn’t address it sufficiently: for example, editorial work, university service, or outreach to underserved populations make it difficult to get your own writing done but can make the world better. There’s so much to say about risk, really. It encompasses everything from how you word the first line of a poem to how you live on earth.

I like to bloviate about myself as much as any author, but I genuinely did call this panel together to hear what others had to say rather than dispense pearls of dubious wisdom. My own genre experiments were certainly on my mind, though. I’m thrilled by the good reception so far of The Receptionist and Other Tales, starting with those blurbs from sf writers I’ve never met but have adored for years, and peaking recently in a great review by Sally Rosen Kindred in Strange Horizons and a place on the Tiptree Award Honor List. I’m unequivocally proud of the book. But I do see now how a genre change can jeopardize the audience you’ve been building instead of, or in addition to, expanding that audience to include new readers. When I tell poets and editors about the venture, some of them just get this look, and I know they won’t even read the first page. I wonder about the implications for future reviews, grants, and opportunities.

But you know, while I’m scared, I’m not the least bit sorry. The creative dangers of this project have started conversations I’m enjoying wickedly. They’ve also somehow authorized more risk-taking in my new writing: I’m a little more likely to leap before I look.