Twitter as commonplace book

I’ve done just enough archival work to be fascinated by poets’ commonplace books. It’s been more than a decade since I worked among Marianne Moore’s papers at the Rosenbach, but I was impressed by her fantastically crabbed hand in a series of tiny notebooks, recording quotations she liked. At the Library of Congress, you can leaf through Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sparser notes, mixing drafts, travel plans, and lists of poems that might go together in her next collection. And how I wish Anne Spencer had kept notebooks! Instead, I learned last summer how hard it is to date any of her drafts, many of which must be lost in any case, because she penciled ideas on any scrap of paper or cardboard within reach.

I’m more organized that Spencer, but not by much (you can see one physical notebook

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Some notes by Spencer on a pantyhose box

I kept here, and read a reflection about it here). If the internet ever disappears, much of my “archive” will go with it, not that I really expect anyone to care. This blog is the closest I come to an intellectual/ artistic journal, supplemented by Facebook posts. They’re all personal, although I’m performing and curating a version of myself: in these media, I’m honest, but not always intimate. My poetry and creative nonfiction feel much closer to the bone–riskier.

The space that feels most like a commonplace book for me is, of all places, Twitter. Like many other writers, some of whom the future will actually care about, I occasionally jot lines there from whatever I’m reading, or tweet links or photographs of pages. I like following what other poets are reading, too. I suspect if you peruse a year’s worth of some authors’ tweets, you’d only get a partial sense of the media they’re consuming, but that’s true of my 2017 list of books below, too (kept in Word). I can’t keep similar track, after all, of the vast number of posts and essays and magazines and portions of anthologies I read, much less the Netflix series and SNL clips I watch or the paintings I gaze at. It’s just too much. I’m a hungry art-consumer!

terracotta soldier
Art survives empires–terracotta soldiers at VMFA

So, belatedly, here is my very partial new year’s account of myself as a book-reader. I gave the sf highlights in a Strange Horizons’ summary review. In addition to those, I liked Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s first book, Ornament, enough to teach it in a poetry and music class this winter. I was excited by and admiring of all the poetry collections that made the most prestigious year-end lists, but I’d add that David Wojahn’s 2017 collection, For the Scribe, was just as strong as the ones receiving fizzier receptions. Among slightly older collections, Majmudar’s Dothead and Miller’s The Cartographer Maps a Way to Zion were new to me last year, and I loved them. Among nonfiction books, Tisserand’s Krazy probably had the biggest influence on me, and aside the more sf-y novels by Saunders, Hamid, Jones, and others I mention in Strange Horizons, I greatly enjoyed the latest mystery from Livesey, Mercury. Between submitting the review and New Year’s Day, I also finally read Alderman’s The Power, which both riveted and irritated me. It’s definitely a book to talk about. “Chewy,” as reviewers keep writing.

For future record, or for naught (if I remain obscure, or if 45 presses his really big nuclear button and civilization collapses, taking the internet down with it):

POETRY

1/3 Kaufman, Krawiec, Levin, Parker, eds, Intimacy* (teaching possibility)

1/15 Briante, The Market Wonders* (reread for class)

1/22 Blanco, Looking for the Gulf Motel (reread for class)

1/24 Sexton, Transformations (reread for class)

2/5 Camille Rankine, Incorrect Merciful Impulses* (micro-review)

2/7 Kei Miller, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (reread for class)

2/12 Etter, Scar (reread for class)

2/19 Hankla, Great Bear (by local author I admire)

2/21 Evans, Superheroes and Villanelles* (traded books at AWP)

2/25 Shire, Our Men Do Not Belong to Us (reread for class)

2/26 Smith, Life on Mars (reread for class)

3/3 Carson, Autobiography of Red (reread for class)

3/3 Givhan, Landscape with Headless Mama (scouting for teaching)*

3/20 Diaz, When My Brother Was an Aztec (reread for class)

3/24 Vuong, Night Sky as Exit Wound (reread for class)*

4/3 Michelson, Swimming Through Fire (by friend; reread 12/4 for teaching)*

4/8 Hogue, In June the Labyrinth (by friend)*

4/? Satterfield, Apocalypse Mix (by friend)*

4/? Brown, The Virginia State Colony for the Feebleminded (recommended by friends)*

4/30 Sevick, Lion Brothers (local author)*

5/? Campbell, First Nights* (for review; reread 12/3 for teaching)

5/18 Borzutsky, Performance of Becoming Human (Prize winner)*

5/29 Friman, The View From Saturn (bought at conference)

7/6 Dwarf Stars Anthology 2017 (to vote on winners)

7/18 Rauk, Buried Choirs* (comp copy from press I ended up reviewing)

7/19 Willoughby, Beautiful Zero (gift)

7/20 Anderson, Rough (unpublished, to give feedback)

7/29 Wojahn, For the Scribe* (poet I admire)

7/29 Phillips Bell, Ornament* (by a friend)

7/30 Majmudar, Dothead* (heard NPR piece & bought book ages before)

7/31 Campana, The Book of Faces (research)

8/1 Campana, Natural Selections (research)

8/20 Stewart, Cinder* (research)

9/4 Bashir, Field Theories* (research)

9/29 Taesali, Sourcing Siapo* (review)

10/13 H.D., Trilogy (reread for class)

10/24 Pollard, Outsiders* (by a friend)

11/5 Forche, The Country Between Us (for class)

11/7 Michelson, ed, Dreaming America* (by friend and colleague)

11/21 Cooley, Girl after Girl after Girl* (review)

11/25 Smith, Don’t’ Call Us Dead* (in response to reviews)

12/19 Akbar, Calling a Wolf a Wolf* (good reviews)

12/21 Long Soldier, Whereas* (daughter gave it to me)

12/24 Der Vang, Afterland* (NBA list)

12/31 McCrae, The Language of my Captors* (NBA list)  

 

FICTION

1/2 Whitehead, Underground Railroad* (good critical attention/ year-end lists)

1/14 Muth, Zen Shorts (gift from a colleague)

2/4 Gonzalez, The Regional Office Is Under Attack* (Christmas present)

3/5 Goldstein, The Oven (scouting for teaching)

3/6 Gaiman, Norse Gods (for fun)

3/7 French, The Ticking (scouting for teaching)

3/11 Hamid, Exit West* (scouting for teaching)

3/26 Butler, Duffy, Jennings, graphic adaptation of Kindred (scouting for class)*

3/30 Zoboi, American Street (scouting for class)*

4/8 Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo* (fan of his work)

4/18 Livesey, Mercury* (heard at the AWP)

4/23 Kidd, Himself* (reviewed well by author I admire)

5/20 Strout, Anything Is Possible (audiobook on car trips)

5/26 Robinson, New York 2140 (always read his books)*

6/10 Gavaler, Kill the Messenger (unpublished, to give feedback)

6/16 Rash, The Cove (people had been recommending his work for a while)

7/13 Herriman, The Kat Who Walked in Beauty (research)

7/14 Yuknavich, Book of Joan* (good reviews)

7/16 Croy Barker, How To Talk to a Goddess (unpublished, to give feedback)

7/23 Perry, The Essex Serpent* (NYT Times review, I think)

7/27 Gowdy, Little Sister* (NYT review)

8/6 Atkinson, Life After Life (recent classic I’d never gotten to)

8/13 Mandel, Last Night in Montreal (for research)

8/14 Dickinson, Poison Oracle (fan of his work and Small Beer Press)

10/1 Jemisin, The Stone Sky* (for fun)

10/8 Mandel, The Singer’s Gun (for research)

10/15 Mandel, The Lola Quartet (for research)

10/21 Mandel, Station Eleven (reread for teaching/ research)

11/8 Egan, Visit from the Goon Squad (reputation)

12/1 Erdrich, Future Home of the Living God* (for fun)

12/22 Hoffman, Rules of Magic* (for fun)

12/31 Alderman, The Power* (reviews)

 

NONFICTION

1/24 Culler, Literary Theory (reread for class)

2/18 Smith, Ordinary Light* (I love her poetry)

3/10 Rekdal, Intimate (I heard her give a great AWP reading)

6/24 Tisserand, Krazy* (research project)

6/30 McDowell, O’Connell, de Havenon, Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman (research)

7/5 Gailey, PR for Poets (in ms, to give feedback)

7/17 Vetter, A Curious Peril: H.D.’s Late Modernist Prose (research)

7/28 Greene, Time’s Unfading Garden (reread for research)

8/09 Frank, Diary of a Young Girl (rereading because I was in Amsterdam)

8/18 Stewart, A Poet’s Freedom (research)

8/19 Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (reread for research)

9/2 Allen, Our Declaration (first-year reading program)

10/19 Bialosky, Poetry Will Save Your Life* (research)

11/2 Leahy, Tumor* (gift, also by a colleague)

12/2 Sulak and Kolosov, Family Resemblance anthology (research and teaching)

12/23 Johnston, My Life As a Border Collie (by friend)

 

 

Amygdala, shut up

While I boiled myself in the bath Sunday morning, emerging so puce-colored and limp I had to start drafting a blog post because I was just too weak to go buy groceries for my hungry family, I thought about how I’d woken up at five a.m. in a panic about my Twitter handle (too long! full of inconvenient caps! wait, is Twitter even case sensitive? I’m so stupid!).

I suffer from post-talking insomnia. If I’ve said anything at all to a friend, coworker, sales clerk, etc., I fret later that I’ve been insensitive, dumb, or boring. After forty-something years, I can almost always let the worry go after one bad night: really, if it’s still on your mind after the first cup of caffeine you should apologize, and if not, life will probably struggle on.

Each new way of talking, though, dials me back to middle-school-level fits. Facebook almost killed me. I had to sign up. First, I was researching poetry networks in the late aughts, and it seemed pathetic that I hadn’t participated in any virtual ones except for an email listserv. Second, I was planning on half a year in New Zealand, and for all Facebook’s faults, it really is one of the best ways to keep up with friends and family internationally. Finally, over a meal at the West Chester Poetry Conference, Ned Balbo told me to suck it up. Actually, he was very polite, but he did tell me that once you figure it out, you only need to spend ten minutes a few times a week to be a decent FB citizen, which turned out to be true, although when you’re really procrastinating that flickering feed can be dangerously mesmerizing. What destroyed me about the medium, though, was that standard writer’s dilemma of sussing out your audience. How could I post to modernism scholars, my local go-out-for-a-beer friends, my cousin the truck driver, poetry journal editors, college administrators, stray Republicans I’m on uneasily-friendly terms with, and, yikes, former students all at the same time? Starting a blog presented the same problem: for whom was I writing? Last summer I signed up for Twitter to follow my department’s new feed, although I didn’t really mess with it until last week, as a new year’s resolution to just try it, urged on by a few friends and that NYT article people keep sending me. I asked my daughter for advice on tweeting and she said “always be funny,” which of course completely paralyzed me, and not only because I’m rarely funny on purpose. It’s the same who’s-listening-question: funny to whom? Who really gets my lame jokes anyway except Chris and my college friend Scott Nicolay (@methysticin) and certain other poetry nerds, especially repeat-students whom I’ve forced to read everything I love and who have spent shocking amounts of time listening to me chatter?

Besides audience anxiety, or linked to it, there’s the identity question. Each medium invites you to present some facet of yourself, perhaps strategically. It might behoove me to talk like a poet-scholar-endowed-chair in all publishing arenas, which FB and Twitter certainly are, but when I hear other people doing that, it sounds bloodless at best. The funniest things I could tweet are mostly weird comments from my kids, but I don’t want to be a professional mom either—too many people are ready to define middle-aged women that way and I think about lots of things besides my fascinating children, thanks. I have strong feelings about politics and contemporary culture but rarely have an insight or cause to trumpet that someone else hasn’t already blogged about more eloquently; my head’s in the poetry-clouds so I’m just not fast enough. And while Neil Gaiman can tweet about his exercise regimen and still be interesting to people, well…let me know when you really want to hear what brand of mass-marketed tea I’m sipping while I’m watching some TV show six months later than everyone else.

For the blog, I decided I’ll be a poet/ poetry-reader who argues that everything is relevant to poetry and poetry is relevant to everything. Which isn’t much of a decision, really. In Facebook, too, I settled on ignoring the “groups” function and just posting occasionally about any random experience that seems at least slightly interesting, funny, or noteworthy, and not worrying about who’s listening. Basically, I’m just being the same me everywhere.

What works for me is to approach posting the way I approach drafting a poem. That is, I don’t know whom I’m writing for—some ideal geeky tender-hearted reader maybe who likes Emily Dickinson, David Bowie, Dorothy Sayers, Farscape, Langston Hughes, Ursula K. Le Guin, H.D., Thomas Sayers Ellis, Cake, Kim Stanley Robinson, Billie Holiday, Homeland, The Decembrists, Philip Pullman, Rickie Lee Jones, Gwyneth Jones, Rafael Campo, Octavia Butler, cussing in a pirate voice, dark chocolate, red wine, good bread, that handmade French ewe’s milk Roquefort the cheese lady downtown sells (can you tell my other resolution is to eat and drink less?). Anyway, if I’m imagining any reader at all, it’s that dactyl-obsessed slant-rhyme-loving totally anonymous unsexed calorie-padded soul mate. I’m not afraid to tell hir everything, and even better, if s/he doesn’t respond, my feelings can’t be hurt. After all, even if we never speak, I know s/he totally gets me. (I do think about specific readers, including editors, when I revise poems, but while I fiddle with poems for years, a blog might ferment for a day before publication.)

I don’t know if adopting that attitude is genius or an exceptionally bad career move, but this will be my mantra next time a hashtag experiment leaves me sleepless: it’s just like every other kind of writing. Be interesting. Be truthful. Be generous. All at once, in a 140 characters or fewer, several times per week @LesleyMWheeler. While simultaneously producing books, articles, and poems in a constant fever pitch of inspiration as agents, publishers, reviewers, and fans cry up to the office window in faint but passionate voices: “I’m hir!” Okay, not likely.