That’s a line from “Pushing Toward the Canopy,” a pantoum in Blackbird and The State She’s In, and it’s an example of one of my own lines becoming an earworm, which happens to me all the time, although I probably shouldn’t admit it. Being at sea suits me sometimes. I like learning. It’s why I’m always trying unfamiliar forms and genres. I just published a short essay, “Hand of Smoke,” in Speculative Nonfiction, that’s about being a student and also demonstrates me in a state of experiment–what am I willing to say about myself in the plainer mode of prose, and is this a risk I can succeed at? Enjoying being at sea can shipwreck into stress pretty quickly.
The future is rushing at me fast, after a couple of months first in the bubble of my mother’s illness then riding grief’s first hard wave. My badly named college is graduating its class of 2021 tomorrow. The Board of Trustees has apparently already voted on whether we’re dropping Robert E. Lee from the name, but they’re not announcing the decision until June, citing security reasons. Either decision could change my relationship with the job. Would I search for a new position rather than continue to work for a place resolute in its association with white supremacy? Not sure yet, and I know I’d wait a year in any case, because I’m still cashing in on W&L’s college tuition benefit for my son’s pricey education.
The town is emptying out, the weather is steamy, the peonies are wilting, and there are only three months left of my sabbatical. I have an essay due to editors on Monday–it ain’t ready–and a twenty-page packet of poems for the Sewanee Writers Workshop in July. The following Sunday, Breadloaf Environmental Writers Workshop starts, and I have homework! I’ll be dedicating myself wholly to poetry during those times, but otherwise, I really only have five solid writing weeks left. Which is more than many people get in a year, I know. But I have three teaching preps in the fall, two of them new, plus editing and reviewing commitments to Shenandoah and the Fulbright Foundation, so my writing life is going to shriek to a stop come September.
The other side-effect of my mother’s death, though, is a changed perspective on what’s urgent. Apparently I CAN put everything aside for big swaths of time to take care of others and myself. I’d lost that muscle memory since my kids became independent. It’s a lucky thing to like your work, but work doesn’t always like you back. When it’s too much, it really is fine to say screw it. Literature is watertight and unsinkable.
In The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction, Peter Atkins conveys an impressive degree of excitement about entropy. “No other scientific law has contributed more to the liberation of the human spirit than the second law of thermodynamics…because it provides a foundation for understanding why any change occurs,” he writes (37). Later in the chapter, after reminding us that we are basically steam engines, he describes how “wherever structure is to be conjured from disorder, it must be driven by the generation of greater disorder elsewhere” (61). (Is that why my house and office get so messy when I’m writing?)
For example, in human beings: “the dispersal that corresponds to an increase in entropy is the metabolism of food and the dispersal of energy and matter that that metabolism releases. The structure that taps into that dispersal is not a mechanical chain of pistons and gears, but the biochemical pathways within the body…Thus, as we eat, so we grow. The structures may be of a different kind: they may be works of art. For another structure that can be driven into existence by coupling to the energy released by ingestion and digestion consists of organized electrical activity within the brain constructed from random electrical and neuronal activity. Thus, as we eat, we create: we create works of art, of literature, and of understanding.”
I am reading about thermodynamics and quantum theory in order to better understand some poems, naturally. A former undergraduate student–a poet and a Physics/ English double-major, Max Chapnick–is now an English PhD student at Boston University, and he contacted me last summer about putting together a panel on physics and poetry for the International MLA Symposium. It was accepted, so now we’re all going to Lisbon in late July (hurrah!). This requires me to spend a few preparatory weeks analyzing Samiya Bashir’s excellent 2017 collection from Nightboat, Field Theories. I understood what she was doing with thermodynamics and quantum theory just enough to generate a proposal, but to be able to write in some depth about what radiation means in her book, how blackbodies function, whether or not that one poem is meant to resemble the “ultraviolet catastrophe” graph, etc.–well, it’s hard.
“Work is motion against an opposing force,” Atkins writes, and I’ve definitely been feeling the weight of my own intellectual resistance. It’s not that I don’t want to do the writing or even the thinking; it’s a privilege, truly. But I’ve been puzzling through problems laboriously, in a mood of worry. I’ve written before about the annual difficulty of kicking my brain into a different gear, and surely that’s part of it, but I’m also experiencing one of those bouts of insecurity that afflict most writers I know, no matter the genre. It’s not only “am I interpreting these difficult poems in plausible ways?” but something more like “are my scholarly/ interpretive moves sufficiently interesting that anyone would really want to read or listen to me, or is everyone just humoring me because I once showed some intellectual promise and remain a reasonably nice person who tends to do the work and show up on time?” It doesn’t help my morale that I was just informed that I’ll receive an average raise this year, percentage-wise, when I know my DH recommended me for an exceptional one. Between you and me, I did a monstrous amount of good teaching, service, and publication in 2018, but my radiation did not seem to fall into the spectrum of visible light.
This is not my first self-doubt rodeo, so I can reassure myself that continuing to work is better than the alternatives, and confidence comes back. Besides, delivering Bashir’s accomplishments to new audiences is in itself worthwhile service to an art I love. And when self-doubt veers into guilt, as it should sometimes–a mediocre raise, how sad for you! or why do I get to eat a nice lunch and metabolize the results into criticism while refugees ail at the border in dangerously overcrowded detention camps?–I should make a donation or put that rally on my calendar, but still keep dispersing most of my daytime labor among tasks I’m competent at and believe are worthwhile.
Scholarship is a smaller portion of that array of tasks than it used to be, in part because it sharpens my existential angst more than other kinds of labor. I’ve been studying a couple of brilliant, well-written books about literature and science by scholar N. Katherine Hayles, for instance, and realizing again: look how amazing this is, how much work and hard thinking it represents, and here I am skimming the damn stuff. I would so much rather read and be read than keep participating in the scholarly skimmability system…so whenever I reenter this arena, I end up pondering ways to reinvent the universe.
So I remind myself: just write the conference paper, Steam Engine. Next week, start re-revising your book of hybrid criticism, which WILL come to print in 2021. Keep submitting and revising shorter works around the edges and planning some exciting new courses. At an undetermined date (but soon?), you will be asked to submit your poetry ms to Tinderbox Editions, then there will be edits, then galleys. In August, after Lisbon, come novel edits (the pub date for Unbecoming has been pushed back to March-ish, same as the poetry collection, yikes). In the mix should be book promotion planning, reviews and reference letters, grant applications for that 2020-2021 sabbatical. There’s a lot of landscape to cover, Steam Engine, but address one task at a time. Don’t panic and increase the pressure unsustainably, but don’t quit either. It’ll take as long as it takes.
A former student, visiting campus for her 20th reunion, was telling me about deciding to remarry, as we shared glasses of wine by the window in a local bar. She recounted how the man she was dating said apologetically, as they started to get serious, “But I’m just not ambitious.” Her face brightened as she described her delighted reply: “That’s fine! I’m ambitious enough for the both of us!”
I love hearing about my students’ ambitions–may they change the world, because it needs changing!–especially when I once knew them as brilliant but underconfident young women. This former student is happily working long hours, while her husband has happily shortened his to care for their two young children. If I helped model that for anyone now building the life she wants, veering from the inherited scripts to do work that lights her up, that would be AWESOME. I felt so guilty about my own choices for so long, but I’ve reached a moment, with my kids aged 18 and 22, when most of that guilt feels quaint. Yes, I failed as a parent sometimes, but never because I had an intense job or wrote poems in my scant spare time. The things I was stupid about, I would have been stupid about regardless of occupational and vocational status, because then, and now, I’m still learning how to be a decent human being. In fact, teaching and writing help me be a better person. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self some things.
After that glass of wine, I walked home through a small town under construction and swarming with alumnae/i, pondering ambition. It was very much on my mind in my mid-forties, when I started writing the poems in my forthcoming collection. My current working title for the latter is The State She’s In, but whether or not my editor ultimately agrees about that, I’m polishing the ms now and the book will be out in March or April 2020. The collection, in fact, contains a sequence of five list-poems called “Ambitions,” and I considered whether I could or should incorporate the word in my book title. I guess I was asking common midlife questions: what is all this striving for? Am I on a path towards something good, goals I genuinely care about? Am I fulfilling my responsibilities to other people, to my work, and as a citizen–not the trivial stuff, but the deep obligations? Then an ambitious woman ran for office, and a man who despises women trumped her, and some of my struggle over that episode is in the book, too.
As I veered off Main St. onto the smaller road that leads home, I realized I may have turned a corner where ambition is concerned. I’m not sure how much of the change comes from turning fifty, or other revolutions in my life, or even just the fact that three books I worked on for years all have contracts now, so I can afford to be less anxious! Maybe my state of relative equilibrium is temporary. But while I still think many kinds of ambition are good and important, and anyone who’s nervous about ambition in women is a sexist jerk, I find I’m not fretting about productivity this summer, for once. I can’t even drum up worry about the reception my poetry book will eventually meet (the novel’s a bit different–still feel like an imposter there). I have a number of writing projects percolating, and I’ll be helping my kids launch into college and the working world, but I’m mainly grateful that a summer slow-down is allowing me to strengthen these mss and plan for how I can help them find audiences. My chief ambition, I’m realizing, is to make the books as moving and crafty and complicated and inspiring as possible.
After this trio (poetry and a novel in 2020, an essay collection in 2021), I may have a few more books in me, but my writing years no longer feel limitless. The lightning of major post-publication attention doesn’t strike most people and probably won’t strike me; I can live with that. I can’t control the luck, but I can make each book deserve readers and find at least some of the people who would enjoy them, and that’s what I’m really striving for. Well, deep down. I’m sure I’ll keep getting distracted by the other stuff, but the kind of ambition that ties a person up in unproductive knots seems to have less of a stranglehold on me than once upon a time.
Is this a Mother’s Day post? Maybe; work and motherhood have been tangled up with each other for my whole adult life, both logistically and emotionally. Plus, on Mother’s Day itself I’ll be reading at the Ox-Eye Vineyards Tasting Room in Staunton with Lauren Camp and Susan Facknitz, thanks to Cliff Garstang’s organizational genius, and then bringing Lauren back down to W&L for a reading on Monday, all of which is right after launching the new issue of Shenandoahthis Friday–in other words, there won’t be much blogging time. I will be leafing through poems, though, trying to find the best pieces I’ve written on being a mother and a daughter, and maybe pondering whether I have any other important things to say on the subject. Because, you know, if it matters, I could find a couple of hours.
We’re supposed to be cheery in late December, right? Ho ho ho.
I’ve been having a rough time, for reasons I can’t write about at the moment. But like H.D., when times are bad, I eat my way through it. This can be literally true: hello, Christmas pudding! But I also mean that I chew through piles of work. Writing and reading are never more important to me than when I’m feeling down and powerless. I can’t always work on the stuff I’m supposed to–my focus is more fragile–and I can hardly talk to other people, sometimes, even the kind people who don’t run in the opposite direction after a glimpse of me glowering. (Most people run, the cowards.) But I do hunker down, and this slow desperate doggedness adds up, and eventually some work bears fruit. A reference letter helps someone win a fellowship. An essay builds, paragraph by paragraph.
There are worse ways to cope than hypergraphia, I guess, even when it means isolated days of typing in pajamas.
Out of heaps of fermenting crap, small good things grow. And here I sit in that stinky paradox, feeling lucky and, alternately, choked by fumes. Ho ho cough cough.
The most surprising small good thing this December: my poetry chapbook Propagation, a fable in which a middle-aged woman in crisis enters the woods and weirdness ensues, was just accepted by Dancing Girl Press for publication in October 2017. I first drafted it in April 2014, writing a poem per day for thirty days, using Vladimir Propp’s 31 functions of the folk tale as prompts (I dropped one function and I’m not sorry). It took me a while to revise, obviously–long poems are complicated creatures. But now my protagonist gets a genuinely happy ending.
Other mss I completed last year are still gestating, but I’m receiving supportive notes and friendly feedback. This is rare, and lucky.
Additional amazements: for all the rejections I’ve received this year, and there have been a boatload, an oil tanker load, a number of generous editors have helped deliver my work to the world. Since summer, poems have appeared in Fjords, National Poetry Review, Thrush(that’s the first poem from Propagation), Tahoma Literary Review, and Queen of Cups. I’m also delighted to have a poem in the outstanding anthology edited by Jane Satterfield and Laurie Kruk, Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland.Next year will bring an essay in Crab Orchard Review and more poems in journals. Again, I labored hard to make those pieces and keep them in circulation–I’m not saying I didn’t earn a few laurel leaves. But I am also lucky.
I’ll post sometime around the new year about some terrific books I’ve been reading. The good company of dead or distant writers sustains me always. But it also feels urgently necessary to express gratitude for the friends and family near and far who keep checking in on me and cheering me on. Their persistence is the primary reason to be cheerful. Bless them, and bless leftover Christmas pudding, and bless Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and bless the antisocial hours I can spend revising mss over pots of tea.
And, finally, thanks to anyone whose reads this far. I hope, most sincerely, that whatever kind of holiday you’re laboring to create for yourself and loved ones, it bears surprising fruit, and it doesn’t stink.
Oh, the existential horror of a North American professor in August…Teaching at a liberal arts college full of talented students is an excellent gig, but during teaching terms, the job eats me alive. This is going to be an especially intense fall for coursework, plus I’m running a search. In a few weeks, in short, I will be all tied up and dangling upside down in the den of the monster Work.
Every year, the prospect frightens my saner summer self. I have a history of asking for books about meditation for my September birthday–until Chris laughed at the request, commenting he’d already bought me a shelf-full and I’ve never cracked any of them. Whoops. I actually have done marginally better this year with meditation, yoga, etc., but mainly because conditions were dire and I really had to work at not going under. Being on sabbatical is awesome, but anxious person that I am, I felt internal pressure to come to closure on long-standing projects–and then I was floored by the emotional stress of sending my first child off to college, my mother’s lymphoma, and a host of health problems. Lots of pain this year. Having a middle-aged body seems to require striving harder and harder to maintain a deteriorating status quo.
Relative to others, I remain very lucky. My mom is recovering well, my daughter had a brilliant first year, and I have the resources to handle most of the hitches the universe throws at me. A rusting roof that needs to be fixed and sealed? Cracked car windshield requiring replacement? Dental work? Do less pleasurable ways to spend pots of money even exist? But it’s okay. It’s getting done. And I’m likely to survive the fall, too, with only minor breakdowns.
Some strategies, since asking for self-help books should clearly be off the table.
Do the work that stresses me out most, no excuses. I’ve spent the summer so far writing and revising (work I like) but, most importantly, making sure that all the best writing I did this year is under consideration somewhere. I dislike submissions intensely–it’s hard to figure out where work should go, but also emotionally hard to ask respected editors, “hey, do you like this thing that’s, you know, the very best I’m capable of, and intensely personal in ways that may not be obvious, as well as my cosmic reason for existing, kind of?” Ugh.
When I’ve done at least one hard thing per day, use the rest of the time available to get a jump on work that’s easier, but would stress me out at a busier moment. I’ve been writing micro-reviews for the Kenyon Review Online so I have a backlog. Fall syllabi are well-developed and winter ones are roughed out. I’ve drafted the summer/ sabbatical reports due in the fall, made to-do lists, done advance planning for events I’m in charge of, etc. I cleaned out my office, even, and did a lot of chores at home.
Pay attention. When I have pain, for example, instead of trying to live around it and maintain writing’s dream, I’m attempting to notice it, think about causes/ patterns, see if it can be remediated. Podiatrist tomorrow, sigh. The same goes for anger and worry. I’m noticing that FB has been making me unhappy lately, so I need to spend less time there. Many people in my life need attention, too. Lots of friends are having rough years. And while teenage kids don’t require a parent’s bodily presence as much, they need intelligent awareness more than ever.
Bask in the good stuff. I had a couple of poetry acceptances this summer I’m really pleased about (Blackbird and Thrush). I’m including pictures here from two magazines that just arrived. The triolet is one of two just published by Kestreland “Crow on the House,” inspired by Plath’s “Black Rook in Rainy Weather,” is from the latest Fjords. Clearly it’s the summer of birds, so remind me, please, of other avian-themed journals. I’ll fly to submit.
And next week I’ll bask big-time. The four of us are heading down to a beach rental in North Carolina. I plan to do zero work and as much pleasure-reading in the hammock, or on the sand, as possible, and play board games, and explore an unfamiliar island with the ever-hungry and curious Gaveeler crew. The monster Work, as far as I am concerned, will just have to snuffle in frustration at my glib auto-reply.
Last week, as another birthday hurried past, I taught Frank O’Hara! It was the first time ever I chucked the Selected Poems at my students instead of relying on anthology standards! Many of the poems I assigned were the WRONG ONES but it was still exciting—the papaya juice, George Washington in his tight white pants, unpunctuated rushes climaxing in exclamation points! My undergrads were delighted, pissed off, and puzzled in aesthetically pleasing proportions.
We also read an essay by Wayne Koestenbaum, who is visiting later this term for our Shannon-Clark series of scholarly lectures. “‘Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!’: Frank O’Hara’s Excitement” starts, as many works of literary criticism do, by getting personal, and proceeds rapidly through a range of great insights about poetic structure, allusion, tone, and the minutiae that add up to style. One passage in particular has been resonating in me:
“Excitement comes from being lazy and fun loving. O’Hara worked hard, but he also took it easy. His Collected Poems are a manifesto of the high aesthetic rewards that accrue from a life—albeit a tragically abbreviated life—of taking easiness as the gold standard. Like Warhol’s professed love of easy art (or art that was easy to make), O’Hara’s love of easeful production stood in ironic contrast to the uneasy intensity that electrifies his work and complicates its every emotional posture, threading melancholy and ambivalence and the threat of self-loss into the most apparently insouciant exclamations.”
In class, a surprising remark issued from my mouth: I said something about finding that paragraph provocative, given that our culture has virtually adopted busy-ness as a religion. Now, I’m normally pretty skeptical of phrases such as “our culture.” Who is included and excluded from the “our”? Yes, there’s a lot of media coverage on ever-expanding workweeks and the now-standard response of “Busy!” to the old-standard question, “How are you?” I’ve seen plenty of social-media vows not to talk about being busy anymore; I’ve even issued one myself (and broken it repeatedly). I’m not sure it’s a new phenomenon, though. Hard work has been core to the U.S. national myth for a long time. Think of Melville’s busy lawyer facing down Bartleby: clearly you can be smug about your own industry whether or not you wield a cell-phone.
It’s probably truer to quote Ginsberg’s “America”: “I am talking to myself again.” While I’ve been trying to construct a relationship towards work my whole life, the problem seems more acute now in the second half of my forties. For seventeen-plus years kids have been a helpful counterbalance to ambition, reminding me that from a certain highly valid perspective, my urgent deadlines are meaningless. I accomplished a lot in those decades, and did a ton of kid-cleaning-up-after and school-project-advising too, but there were inevitably big chunks of just hanging out. We tossed pebbles into streams, read chapter books aloud for the fifth time, made birthday cakes in honor of cats who would never deign to sniff them, consumed seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, walked toddlers around the mall until one or the other of us finally collapsed like Lana Turner.
My daughter just handed me a sweet handmade card, though, in which she pointed out that if her college applications go well, this may be the last September ever in which she’s present to celebrate my birthday. (I hugged her and she said, “See, even your birthday is all about me.” Funny kid. Works too hard.) My son is younger so I’m not exactly dangling over a precipice, not yet. Still, there’s less and less standing between me and potentially WORKING ALL THE TIME.
I’m more like that stupid lawyer than I am like Bartleby. Work satisfies me, as long as I get pleasant breathers. And while I don’t know about Frank O’Hara’s writing process, his brand of poetic ease is shockingly difficult to pull off. Good poems only flow readily when you put in a lot of hours reading, writing, talking, and thinking about art, and often not even then. Striving is not the enemy. I just can’t stay clear of the anxiety maelstrom work tends to generate, much less keep it all easy and fun-loving.
I do know it’s impossible to predict which hours are going to matter. You have to write the bad poem before the good one, so walking down dead ends isn’t wasted time. Professional generosities sometimes seem like diversion from vocations—putting in a stint as a department head, writing reviews—and sometimes they are, in fact, almost meaningless exercises that subtract painfully from leisure. Other times a former student expresses gratitude for some kindness you’ve totally forgotten and you realize, well, it cost me forty-five minutes, but maybe that recommendation letter was, in fact, a more transformative literary production than any single poem I’ve ever written.
Koestenbaum also provokes me by asserting, “The point of a poem, or an essay, is to pose questions, not to answer them.” How often have I told a student to explain why his observation matters? Or railed against a grant application in my overlarge reading pile for not stating the significance of the research project? Poems, too—a lot of contemporary poetry is frustrating because the author hasn’t done the work of thinking through her fragmented inspirations. It’s not that she should hand me The Answer on an iambic platter. It’s just that if she doesn’t know what she means, the poem probably doesn’t either, and therefore a smart reader can’t puzzle it out. Jigsaws with lots of missing pieces rightly end up mulched.
Yet here I am, raising an unanswerable question about the right way to work. Asking questions is fun; devising even provisional answers is head-breaking. Maybe that’s the proper retort to the problem. If it’s not paying the bills or saving someone or intrinsically fun, should I ever do it?
And ah, here’s where I’m too much like O’Hara for my own good, and at the same time, much dumber about excitement’s necessary lassitudes. It’s ALL fun, isn’t it, from a certain angle? Poems and people and even devising the winter course schedule! But doesn’t Melville’s excitable lawyer strike you as a few ticks less intelligent than his enervated scrivener? It takes introspection and nerve to realize that even when it’s sequins and chocolate soda, sometimes you just prefer not to.