Change of State

The poetry collection I published almost exactly a year ago, The State She’s In, roughly coincides with the moment the U.S. started taking Covid-19 seriously. I was on alert in February, to the point that when we took my mother out to dinner for her eightieth birthday, I wondered whether I would ever see her again. I was an outlier then but most people caught up soon. On Friday March 13th, 2020, my university announced that it was going virtual. A few days before, when he was at home with a friend for spring break, my son’s college did, too. I had already panic-bought a lot of food, but I snagged canned vegetarian soup for my son’s friend, because I expected us all to get sick and it was possible his friend wouldn’t be able to fly home to India (he managed it, with difficulty). No one wore masks because we didn’t know the virus was airborne and the government told civilians not to snap them up. I mourned my book party, which was organized to the hilt and scheduled for the following week. I also felt like a selfish jerk for being sad about it. I still have the favors I meant to give out then (message me if you want stickers or a signed bookplate!).

As fast as the world was changing, the material in this book didn’t date as fast as I expected. It contains a bunch of poems about approaching 50 and menopause, and I had already fallen off those cliffs in March 2020 (although the hot flashes seem like they’ll linger forever). Yet menopause has become a more openly-discussed subject than ever and it was cool to catch that wave. The State She’s In also addresses the Trump apocalypse, but as I started giving virtual readings, that topic still seemed pretty damn relevant, and continued to be so at least until January 2021. The parts of the book about learning the history of where I live and the fights about local memorializations are still very much underway.

There are lots of poems in the book, too, about the landscape I inhabit, and the pandemic has acquainted me with it more deeply. We’ve tried to take a weekly hike in a different site most weekends, and yesterday we explored the countryside north of Staunton and hiked a bit of the Wild Oak Trail along the North River (picture below). There are vestiges of a former railroad boomtown up there, Stokesville, that I’d never even heard of, and while rolling pastures are common in this region, they were especially dramatic. Driving the country roads felt like riding a yo-yo. I’m very tired of my small town and ready to travel for book promotion, if that becomes possible and/or bookstores will feature aging books among the new releases (please check out my novel Unbecoming, too–it’s fun, I swear!). Yet clearly there remains a ton to learn about where I live.

And meanwhile, who could have predicted the state I’m in now? My teacher daughter, my mother, and I all received our first shots in the last ten days. (I’m eligible because having a BMI over 25 makes me elevated-risk, which seems both bogus and dispiriting, but I’ll take it.) I received the Moderna vaccine, and the following day, I was intermittently woozy and headachey and even more insomniac than usual. Honestly, the latter could be a kind of future shock. I’m a veteran student of apocalypse, but I hadn’t imagined this.

The vaccine site epitomized the current weirdness. There was a Peebles department store on the edge of town for decades that went out of business a couple of years ago. Then it became a Gorman’s, which also died, and then the state leased the empty building for vaccinations. I arrived there Friday morning and a line snaked out the building, the most people I’d seen in one spot in ages, but it moved with rapid efficiency. Cheerful guards at the door kept us spaced six feet apart. Inside, I checked in then waited on along a switchback line made of yellow caution tape strung along traffic cones. Above our heads hung purple retail signs saying “big names not big bucks!” and “fashion is fierce!” The jab with a tiny needle was painless. I waited in the sea of chairs for longer than the required 15 minutes, just watching people and feeling stunned. It looked sf, surreal. Even more strangely, the people inhabiting the dreamscape were fizzing with hope.

She’s in a state, all right

THIS is the best thing about this week: a stunning cover for my forthcoming poetry book, featuring a painting called “Censer” by Ida Floreak and designed by Nikkita Colhoon. Nikkita’s work was one of the draws, for me, in working with Tinderbox Editions–all her covers stop you in your tracks. I feel really lucky. I owe thanks, too, to Clover Archer for bringing Ida’s art to Staniar Gallery on campus, and to Kevin Remington for getting a high-quality photograph of the work. I went to Ida’s talk just as I was puzzling over possible covers, so there was something magical about the convergence.

Like Ida’s other work, “Censer” has a meditative quality I love. She’s arranged a shrine out of natural objects, highlighting their grace–and the cracking egg suggests rebirth (when am I being reborn again? I’m ready!). Ida says she’s influenced both by botanical drawings and religious art, and this book is full of plants, creatures, and spirit-questions. I had wondered what colors Nikkita would choose for the words on the cover; the pink is both surprising and right. The poems reference pink constantly, from pussy hats to magnolia blossoms to rose-tinted medicines. And somehow the pink lettering makes the shadows more striking, which feels appropriate to this collection, too. Yes, I know I’m close-reading my own cover at length, but I’m excited, dammit.

Of course, having a cover helps me kick publicity into high gear (well, as high a gear as I can manage in my rural location, with no publicist). I’ve been busy arranging a local launch and seeking readings elsewhere with more success that I’d expected but also some disappointments/ loud silences, as you’d imagine. Here’s a preliminary list, but I’ll fill in more details soon. One thought: I’d somehow imagined that when big-name poets posted their tour dates, bookings had just fallen into their laps, because of their dazzling fame. Maybe that happens sometimes. But now I’m suspecting there’s way more hustle involved (my list represents a ton of cold queries and painstaking applications, but also many kind suggestions from allies). I don’t have chutzpah but I am diligent, so I’m trying to compensate for one with the other. I’m also taking any and all ideas about reading venues and I’d be grateful for yours.

I’ll be traveling this spring and summer from Vermont to the Carolinas, with a detour to Wisconsin, and I’m both thrilled to get out there and a little worried about pacing myself. I’ve always been an anxious person but anxiety has been WAY harder to manage this year than ever before–the old tactics and treatments are almost useless, as they sometimes become during menopause, I hear, and I’m having to reinvent my approach. One of my doctors pointed out recently, “The bell rings, and you jump,” meaning I consistently meet my obligations, even when I feel bad. I even enjoy some of them–teaching and giving readings, for example, are generally fun for me. But the costs are higher; I take longer to return to calmness. So I’m thinking maybe I should pair each professional event with a restorative treat–following a guest workshop with a couple of silent hours in an art museum, for example, or a cozy dinner with Chris in an interesting restaurant. I also think I need to decouple the pleasure of sharing work from anxiety about whether the event sells books or not. Sometimes I feel wonderful, knowing that my poems connected, and then I feel crushed when all the impecunious people rush out without buying. But one should not negate the other. Ideas on how you manage the emotions of promotion would be very welcome, too.