The other side of fear

This Friday, I’m moderating the first panel at the Outer Dark Symposium 2020 (virtually): “Weird Metamorphosis or Life Change.” Moderating panels doesn’t especially scare me. It’s basically leading a class discussion, except with very smart people who love to talk. I’m always nervous about Zoom, though; I’m no technological wizard, plus catching all the undercurrents in a virtual conversation is hard. To make things eerier, I have to tune in from my extremely haunted office, because I’d be competing for bandwidth at home. I usually clear out of Payne Hall when darkness falls.

I’m also thinking about fear because it’s an inescapable part of transformation stories in Weird fiction and film. Some of the panelists are especially interested in body horror, which involves violence or violation to the body, as in “The Button Bin” by Mike Allen or “Anatomy Lessens” by Edward Austin Hall. Some, in our pre-panel discussion, expressed fascination with what puts people emotionally onto that uncomfortable-to-terrified continuum. They explore it in awesome ways, thinking about race, gender, sexuality, disability, and their intersections.

I’m involved in this panel because my new novel involves the deeply weird transition of menopause. As I wrote and revised Unbecoming, though, the feeling I focused on was not fear but desire. The uncanny power growing in the main character, Cyn, lies in wishing for change, both through small rescues and major redirections. Desire is key to making characters interesting and complicated, so it’s probably central to all fiction. I had a list taped to my wall as I composed, listing what each major character thought they wanted plus what they REALLY wanted (which is often the opposite of what they thought they wanted), and sometimes what they really, really, really wanted in their secret hearts. The push-and-pull among those impulses can make a character–really a bunch of words–come to life in your imagination. Like magic.

My conscious subjects in the last few years have been ambition (a species of desire) and anger, but as I prep for this panel, I realize how fear is bound up with both emotions. My main character, Cyn, wants to rewind the clock on her rapidly changing life, so that her kids stop growing away, her marriage returns to a happier state, and her body and mind behave in the reliable old ways. She’s also afraid of being stuck in the past, as she simultaneously, paradoxically fears metamorphosis. Her powers excite her and scare her. Fee, the stranger in town, also excites her and scares her. Change tends to come violently, breaking apart the old balance, and it’s sane to dread that pain.

In actual life, this is a year of fearing not only disease but that a racist, sexist, ableist, transphobic, polluting, murderous, systematically unjust America will fail to change. I thought about that last night as I watched my own emotions unfold around Biden’s VP pick. I thought it would be Kamala Harris, so first I thought, oh, okay, that works. Harris is to the right of me, but a center-left, Democratic establishment leadership would be a BIG step up from what we’ve got. I’ll be voting for them.

My next reaction, though, was to skip right over the gratification I expected to feel about having a Black woman, a child of immigrants, on the ticket. Instead I went straight to fear. The misogyny of the last election cycle–from lefty friends, moderates, right wingers, the whole spectrum–destroyed me, not least because I was battling harassment at work simultaneously. The season of misogynoir ahead might break me again. I’m also worrying about the math. Will young people and progressives skip voting because a Biden-Harris ticket depresses them? Will all the moderates who don’t know they’re misogynists start using sexist lines like “she just rubs me the wrong way” or “I don’t see her as presidential”?

If you’re thinking, “um, Lesley, if you’re having a fear problem, maybe take a break from the Weird”: I do better with engaging fear and seeking answers on the other side. The narrative I’ve had the hardest time with lately is Mrs. America on Netflix. I can see it’s good–strong acting, important material–but watching that Schlafly character try to monster her way out of a toxic miasma of oppression: THAT is horror. I grew up in that cloud, starving myself to hold off adolescence; directed to smile and avoid upsetting my always-angry father; criticized by family and strangers for not being femme enough; even told by my mother during my first pregnancy that women who work shouldn’t have children. I prefer fictional werewolves any day of the week.

Anyway, here’s to climbing out of what’s bad, toward the better. I had a wonderful time talking to Anya Martin and Ed Hall on the Outer Dark podcast last week, for all of the thunderstorms banging around in the background. We discuss the novel in the first half of the podcast, my new poetry collection in the second half, and the episode concludes with an absolutely amazing seven-minute review by Gordon B. White. The Outer Dark conference should be fun; I’m giving a reading there, too. I close my #TinyBookFair today, in which I gave away 17 signed copies of my books in exchange for donations to Project Horizon, a local organization dedicated to reducing domestic and sexual violence–the total is $385, exceeding my goal. Also today, I have a poem of politic desperation and, I hope, resistance up on Verse Daily (it was originally in 32 Poems and I have to credit editor George David Clark for helping me make the poem stronger–bless the editors!). I’m still looking at that mountain, its gloomy hunch but also its glow.

Dreaming

Blue Ridge Mountains from Glen Maury Park
Deferred Action
 
Look at the mountain, find my boots, abandon
     walls, look at the mountain. It’s all I do.
The president tweets DACA is dead while
     the magnolia publishes other news: the future
will be pink. Whom should I listen to?
     Beets for lunch. Do not think of my father,
who loved them, as juice bleeds over the salad. Do not
     remember my mother-in-law, whose jewelry I wear,
glassy teardrops strung along a chain.
     She died far away, last verses unheard.
It’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall,
      he plays, the curator of beatness who
visits class with Dylan on cue. Scratches
      under scratches. No one’s allowed to dream
anymore. A student comes by with poems and fear
     of deportation. So many words; so few.
Evening, home, where once I found on the lawn
     a note from neo-nazis. Look at the mountain,
crowned in rose. Where black is the color and none
     is the number, the singer foretold. Still I talk,  
fail to talk, and grant some songs their visas.
     And look at the mountain, its gloomy hunch, its glow.

House Mountain, visible from my desk past telephone wires, is a daily reference point that appears in many of my poems, often as a way to touch base with forces much larger than my own little life. The piece above was in 32 Poems; in the final poem of The State She’s In, now three months old, the same mountain gives me a stern talking to about ambition. This morning House Mountain is invisible behind haze. It doesn’t mind giving me a metaphor for an uncertain, unforecastable future, apparently. Nor does my cat Ursula, who has taken to chasing her tail on a staircase newel. The other day she fell off, busted a lamp, and slid down rump-first behind the upright piano–clearly enacting the state of my brain.

DACA survives, at least for a while: good. A monstrously destructive president slides in the polls: all right. My daughter’s stories of recurring police brutality to Black people in Philadelphia: the record keeps spinning. I’m not writing much these days, but I think the 2020s are going to be another great decade for protest poetry. There were two powerful ones in the New Yorker I flipped through yesterday, by the always amazing Marilyn Nelson and Terrance Hayes. They remind me that I don’t have to be writing; I can just wait out the mists. Being a reader, voter, donator, person at rest: those are all fine, too.

A few good things I’ve been a part of lately: the Practices of Hope reading I participated in a week ago was warm, lovely, inspiring, and pretty much ego-less (recording here, the About Place issue it’s based on here). Verse Daily kindly featured a poem of mine, “Unsonnet,” that recently appeared in Ecotone. I have a gigan about my parents’ pine green Gran Torino in Literary Matters: anybody else old enough to remember those seatbealt-less rides in the “way-back”? Sweet interviewed me here. And I have an essay about teaching in my part of the south in Waxwing (a former colleague calls this place “Confederatelandia”). That one I did write recently–miraculously, really, given how hard this spring was!–but it’s just a 1500-word expansion of comments I would have made on an AWP panel called Teaching in the Confederacy, organized by Chris Gavaler and featuring Lauren K. Alleyne, Tyree Daye, and Gary Dop. Editor Todd Kaneko urged me to keep digging deeper into my own evasions, making it a better piece, but I presume it will be outdated in about five minutes. As I just wrote to a former student, now a professor himself and wondering about how to be a better teacher-scholar during Black Lives Matter, I’m in a constant process of self-renovation these days.

As is necessary. I think about Breonna Taylor every day, and the dreaming she can no longer do.

Practicing Hope

I’ve never had much talent for hope, and what hope I’ve managed to summon tends to get squashed. It’s a feeling I’ve learned to distrust. Yet widespread public outrage at police assaults to Black lives and dignity: it springs from that four-letter-word. Protests and anger, imply at least some tiny spark of faith that the world can change.

I’ve been trying to write more poetry from and about hope during the past couple of years, and one of those pieces, “We Could Be,” appeared recently in About Place: Practices of Hope. I’ll be reading it–and listening to some of the other fabulous contributors–in a group reading today, Friday 6/12, at 7pm EST on YouTube Live (details above). I find poems of joy, hope, gratitude, and love hard to generate. For me, poems grow more readily from complex, often negative, emotions and situations: conflict often powers the turn or volta that makes a poem surprising; ambivalence and ambiguity somehow sharpen the language (I’m not sure how that last process works, but I certainly feel it). “Unsonnet,” a poem of mine recently published by Ecotone and reprinted by Verse Daily, operates in the latter mode of darkness and uncertainty. It comes from grief about my son growing up and getting ready to leave for college, and it ends not with optimism but denial and a wish to turn back the clock. I like the vivid language of “Unsonnet,” a poem that came relatively easily last spring; I started “We Could Be” four years ago and revising it was monstrously difficult. I don’t know if one is aesthetically better than the other. But the way the latter poem puts hope out there does seem ethically better. (Those are fighting words, I know, that poetry can have an ethics, but I think it can. It’s just slippery, as language itself is.)

Both the above poems will be candidates for a next collection, one day. Sweet published two more poems of mine recently, again about desperation struggling towards something better–there are links in this mini-interview. Honestly, being able to write more poems, and think concretely about a next book, seems far off, right now. Most of the drafts I’ve accumulated in 2020 strike trivial and less-than-half-baked. But poetry has always come back to me. Fingers crossed it will again.

I’m ending this ambivalent post with one last piece of writing: a statement my English Department just published. I’ve often described how alienating it can be to work or study at a place named partly after Robert E. Lee, where the general lived after the Civil War and is buried. I vacillate on whether to use the college name in my professional bios anymore (they do support their professors pretty well financially, and heading into a sabbatical, I feel grateful for that). My mixed feelings are common here. Many former students have put away their diplomas and tee-shirts, having learned that the name of their alma mater makes people assume they’re racist. I’ve stuck my neck out in campus protests many times, and I’ve often been punished for it while making little headway, so I didn’t make the slightest move, during this crisis, toward proposing an English Department statement that Black Lives Matter. But then a small group of younger colleagues did so, and they made it more meaningful than the rote statements most institutions are issuing so toothlessly: building in a fundraising campaign for two regional groups, a fund for Black educators set up by the local NAACP and the Richmond Community Bail Fund. From a group of under 20 people, they raised more than $1000 for each cause in under 12 hours. I’m amazed and nourished by the hope their work represents.

Big-ears plots her escape

Sometimes the news just silences me: children suffering in camps, the Justice Department refusing to seek justice after the killing of Eric Garner, racist tweets from the white-nationalist-in-chief. I make donations and sometimes participate in political action, but mostly I’m sitting around like Ursula, all ears and touchy whiskers, no words. I will say, having just heard members of the “Squad” on the radio explaining, with some exasperation, that they do not comprise a conspiracy: for years, if I stopped on campus to talk to a distinguished woman professional or two, or went out to lunch with those women, male professors and administrators passing by would, without fail, pause with looks of alarm or mock-alarm and exclaim, “Uh-oh, you’re plotting!” It’s interesting that strong women in conversation inspire such paranoia. Let’s keep being scary.

Here’s a scary poem, with thanks to the editors at Verse Daily and at the original publisher, Cimarron Review. It’s from a blizzard of sonnets that overcame me during the last presidential election, the best of which will be in my next poetry collection. Otherwise I’ve just had my head down lately, revising Poetry’s Possible Words and ticking down my to-do list: minor jobs under deadline (reviews of various kinds), and house and family chores. Self-care is on the list, too: continuing to negotiate health problems but also talking to friends, reading a ton, searching for fox-themed clothes I can wear when I have a fox-themed novel to read from…

I’m pleased at how strong Poetry’s Possible Worlds has become, by the way. That’s my forthcoming essay collection (Tinderbox, 2021), a hybrid of contemporary poetry criticism and personal narrative, perhaps along the lines of “creative criticism” as Lesley Jenike describes it here (also see a cool example of it by Jenike in the most recent Shenandoah). One chapter of PPW appeared a few years ago in Ecotone; I’ve adapted another that’s under submission; and a third is nearly ready to go out. I’ve been trying to crank because I’m leaving Sunday for the MLA International Symposium in Lisbon, Portugal; we’ll spend 5 days there and then take a train up to Porto to vacation for several days. We return at the start of August, also known as the beginning of summer’s end–and final edits of my novel are supposed to arrive then, which I’ll need to throw myself into before the school year gets me in its clutches.

I may post a few pictures from the trip, but in general I’ll be trying NOT to work or fuss with social media. Aside from the conference, I just want to eat and drink deliciously, see lots of sights, and read novels for pleasure. It might frustrate Ursula and Poe to be in the care of an oblivious 18-year-old math whiz for 11 days, but I’m sure he’ll remember to feed them, and himself, occasionally. And I’m really grateful to be getting out of here for a while.