Mother of stories

My mother died early Friday morning of lymphoma in my sister’s house in New Jersey. There’s a lot to process–the good way the family gathered around and helped her through rapidly worsening illness; all that she said to us as we nursed her; great kindness and serious failures in the medical treatment she received–and the logistics have been and continue to be challenging. My brother as executor now has a million kinds of paperwork to do in Pennsylvania, where he and my mother lived together. My sister has a roomful of equipment and supplies to clear, having expected my mother to stay there for months (it turned out to be just 36 hours), and she’s taking the lead with the funeral home. I arrived back in Virginia last night after spending April as a tri-state nomad, helping negotiate facilities and doctor appointments as well as caring for my mostly bedridden mother for five or six days in my brother’s house. I’m also in charge of obituaries, and I’m sure I’ll work through the experiences and feelings of the past few weeks in five bazillion new poems. In this blog, though, where writing intersects with with the complicated business of being a person muddling through, I’m honoring the ways my mother shaped my literary life.

My mother, Patricia Cain Wheeler, wasn’t a writer, but she was an avid reader. Born in Liverpool during World War Two, in a crowded tenement that she longed to escape, books helped her imagine other, better worlds. She was the storyteller-in-chief during my own childhood, conjuring Liverpool in the nineteen-forties in all its sharp contrasts with my suburban New Jersey comforts. I learned about the coal-heated houses she grew up in, with privies and bomb shelters in their back gardens, and in at least one of them, a swing she loved to ride as she daydreamed. My sister and I mapped our respective territories by upholstery seams in the backseat of an Oldsmobile; my mother’s sister drew chalk lines to construct a sort of privacy in their tiny shared bedroom. Rationing meant food was scarce for my mother and her three siblings; I grew up on Cheese Whiz, bacon-draped meatloaf, Wonder Bread, and the British chocolates my grandmother stuffed in her suitcases when she flew over for long visits. My mother’s educational opportunities were very limited, but she won a scholarship to Calderstones High School, where she played Caesar and Macbeth in school plays because, at 5’5”, she was the tallest girl in the class. At sixteen she left to study nursing at Royal Liverpool Babies Hospital, but it was difficult work. She left it to clerk at a store then, in 1962, to emigrate to the US and give in-home care to the children and elderly relatives of rich Long Islanders before she married. I wrote about these and other stories in my 2010 book Heterotopia. They’ve always exerted a powerful hold on my imagination.

My mother taught me to understand my life as a series of tales in which I was the adventurous heroine. She also gave me books. Each Christmas, the best present was a heavy shirt box filled with paperbacks, with the implication that at nine or ten, I was plenty old enough to enjoy them. They included most of the Alcott and Brontë novels plus works by Shakespeare, Jules Verne, Sir Walter Scott, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, George Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Homer, Chaucer, and much more. I remember walking down stairs carpeted in cream shag to ask her the difference between “impudent” and “imprudent.” When I was having trouble making sense of Wuthering Heights, she reread it and explained the story to me. Her taste wasn’t all high-flown, though. I also devoured her Reader’s Digests and Harlequin romances. It’s largely due to her that I always had my nose in a novel or play or epic poem, depending on them for escape and education. I told her how much I owed her for this a week ago, when she lay semi-conscious in a hospital bed, and it won me a rare smile.

She was also the parent who read all my poems and stories and, eventually, my published books, cheering me on. I owe certain teachers, too, for encouraging me to write poetry particularly, but I wrote Unbecoming because my mother taught me to love character-driven genre fiction (though she would never have used those words!). There’s a maybe-supernatural character in my novel because she loaded me up with tales about fairies and brownies and ghosts. I can’t believe that’s all in the past now, but my mother will survive as the stories we tell about her. Below are a couple of poems inspired by her life, the first from Heterotopia, the second from The State She’s In, in which she’s also a presiding spirit.

The Third Child Counts Her Options, 1949

We did own roller skates. I sometimes strapped
one over my shoe, gliding down Vronhill
Street like a sad flamingo. My sister

buzzed by on the other, pretending to
be a Luftwaffe raider. My brothers
rowed over the bicycle. There were four

of us, three fighters, and never enough
biscuits. One of us had to read the old
books instead. One of us had to sit still.  
Ambitions: Liverpool


I. In ‘62, my young mother flew from known melodies, from clouds rolling up and down the Mersey with the tides.
II. Where would I be otherwise? Each curved person a lattice of contingency. Weak sunlight filters through.
III. She was born in a curved iron and glass shed, Lime Street Station platform eight for London Midlands, with a hissing exhale and a rocking momentum.
IV. Corridors of red sandstone, arched brick, concrete bearded with soot and moss. Four pairs of rails rusted pink. The city’s muscles contract.
V. Towers topped with empty nests. Where are the birds? 
VI. My return ticket bought by her departure. My diplomas. My pay stub. My upwardly-mobile American refusal to pick up after men.
VII. Brakes whine softly until the country opens and I pick up speed.
VIII. Far away, joint-sore, she is throwing off a duvet, opening blinds, creaking downstairs to her son’s kitchen, listening to news of brutal collusions.
IX. Daisies, buttercups, yarrow—flowers that cannot be suppressed—and sheep-cropped hills beyond.
X. Clouds are heavy, sorrowful. They resist breakage but wind has its own ideas. Look at the azure vents it opens, with a tearing cry. 

My brain hurt like a warehouse

It is a truth universally acknowledged that middle-aged women sleep poorly. Hormones, hot-flashes–pandemic and political ugliness are just icing on the cake, really. From what I can see, middle-aged women, although they don’t seem like an envied or celebrated category of human, do a LOT, and it weighs on their brains. They pile myriad many obligations onto their full-time jobs, including caretaking of growing children and aging parents; all the invisible labor of maintaining social ties at home and at work; organizing the resistance; community service of a million kinds; some tolerable minimum of housework and the vocations that may or may not overlap with what they do for pay. I’m not the most overworked by a long shot, but I often fall asleep (eventually) worrying about my latest failure of compassion as well as what I’m not doing to nurture a career; I wake up planning chores, meals, and tweets. In between, I now have anxiety dreams about teaching in person and suddenly realizing that no one is wearing a mask. Meanwhile, apocalyptic Bowie lyrics repeat on a loop: “My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare,/ I had to cram so many things to store everything in there.”

I gave myself some time this week to write and revise, and it reminded me how happy that makes me, to concentrate on one kind of work at a time. Instead of hurting like a warehouse (I love that simile), my brain shifts into a mode of focused exploration; I can fall asleep all right, and I wake up almost cheerful. It’s amazing to me how even sabbatical, a time supposedly dedicated to focused reading and writing, gets fractured into a million tasks. Or, I mean, I fracture it; there is a world of need out there, but there’s also my guilt and, often, restless energy. The problem with the writing-dream being my salve is that it eventually begets more busy-work: submissions, proofs, getting word out on social media even when I know social media makes me unhappy (oh, FB)… Again I think of Bowie, whose 1970s diet allegedly oscillated between cocaine and milk.

My endless little post-writing tasks bore sweet fruit this week. Last winter, I thought about who shine a light on The State She’s In: my small press sends out copies but doesn’t have a publicist, so I was telling myself I needed to make my own luck. I sent out a ton of applications for festivals, reading series, conferences, etc., but I also tried something I hadn’t before: I studied the reviews in The Rumpus, found someone who writes really great ones and seems to be interested in books like mine, and wrote to her out of the blue to ask if she’d like to see my digital ARCs or receive a copy of the published book. Yes, she said, although no promises; even if she got to it, it would be a while. And here it is, an extraordinarily long, thoughtful, generous dream of a review by Julie Marie Wade in The Rumpus.

Most queries and applications are rejected or ignored, and most publications are greeted with what sure looks like silence. I’ll probably never figure out what level of effort is worth it. But here is a notice in my graduate school alumni magazine–I thought they’d ignored me. And a friend just texted me about teaching an essay I published last year in Waxwing: “White Rice: Teaching in the Confederacy.” She said “it was a big hit. It allowed the group to voice apprehensions and see that failure can be a vital process in making art.” I need to do more “pushing through the market square” this week, to quote Bowie–writing bookstores about potential readings in summer or fall–and those little echoes of efforts long past give me heart.

Pacing

Dear Poetry Professor,
How do you get the writing done?

-Lots of People

This has been a super-hard September, beginning with emotional transitions–dropping my son off for his first year at college, establishing my daughter in her first apartment–and proceeding through too many doctor visits and grant applications on top of the usual stuff. And the usual stuff brings its own challenges. It’s hard to kick off classes well; students and advisees need and deserve a lot of attention. One of this month’s biggest difficulties, though, arose from the good luck of having two books scheduled for spring publication. Edits for my poetry collection arrived in late August, but while finalizing any ms makes me super-anxious, those edits weren’t heavy. As soon as I turned them in, though, the novel edits began arriving, and they have been much more demanding, in large part because I’m newer at prose fiction. I had more to learn about economy and precision than I realized.

In short, I don’t really have time to blog! I just felt a drive to get some thoughts down about a question people address to me frequently. And that’s usually part of the answer, isn’t it?–something like drive. Honestly, I find time for certain things, even when frantically busy. This week I taught my classes, went to meetings, and handled a zillion pieces of apparently urgent paperwork; I also texted cat pictures to my kids, watched some lame Netflix, did the New York Times spelling bee puzzle every day, finished Atwood’s The Testaments, and started King’s The Institute (both novels are marvels of effective pacing, by the way–you can’t put them down). I also edited the hell out of my forthcoming novel, Unbecoming, following advice from my editor that the middle was kind of flabby. You’ve set up the world with vivid detail in the early chapters, she said; in the middle chapters, that detail is just clogging the gears. Pick up the pace.

I haven’t, however, been able to work on Unbecoming for more than two hours at a sitting, and that’s on the freest days. The aforementioned medical problems have cost me concentration, but it’s not just that. Work too long, and the quality of your attention starts to degrade, and a book ms is not something you ought to rush through tiredly. I get upset, too, if I feel like I’m shortchanging my students or my loved ones, or if I have no downtime, as happens when you’re trying to find myriad extra two-hour blocks in a full schedule. I overworked myself into a run of illness last year–that’s another way pacing matters. I’m mostly fortunate in the health department (there’s luck and privilege as well as drive in being able to get the writing done), but I have to keep reminding myself that when I push myself to the wall, I lose more than I gain.

I can be ruthless about writing, and sometimes that’s okay, especially when it’s a matter of shirking a minor chore or squeezing out just a little more work at the end of a long day. No one really cares, for instance, that in putting so much overtime this week, I never found time to clean that gunk off the front door (what even is that?), or do extra reading about Millay before class, or keep up with social media. I try to make lists and keep reminding myself what’s actually important, but playing hooky is necessary, too. My friend is probably right that I should make time to read The Slow Professor…when I get through this run of craziness, that is.

But one last point, something I’ve observed in others as well as myself: I’m most likely to push myself when the writing obligation involves someone else’s time and effort, as is the case in delivering mss to editors, and if you’re like that, too, you can find ways to create obligations that don’t involve imminent book contracts. One colleague made a lot of writing progress this summer, for instance, by blocking off non-negotiable writing time on her calendar and making public commitments to get a certain amount done. Another has started a writing group for two hours a week: with snacks, in silent camaraderie, we sit together and work on something not related to teaching, then set goals aloud for what we’ll do in the week ahead. I’m usually very solitary about writing–I’ll always choose a shut door and a quiet room over a cafe, for instance–so I’m surprised to be enjoying it, at least in small doses. I’ll probably be happier when I can use that time on new work rather than face up to the endless failings of this endless ms, but it’s good to be reminded that all the writers you know are waging similar battles with themselves.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever just hang up the towel on the stress of publication, but I guess this post is one possible answer: I would keep writing even if no one wanted to listen anymore. I seem to rest from writing by writing in other modes, or at least reading. Lunacy, probably, but here I am.

Work: 25 notions & reveries

  1. This is my twenty-fifth fall teaching poetry at my first real job, at a liberal arts college in Virginia. I never thought I would stay this long.
  2. When I arrived, I was twenty-six with a new PhD and limited experience. A bunch of publications and a bazillion classes later, I am a better teacher, scholar, and poet, but I am still learning.
  3. During the same period, I brought into the world and helped raise two children. Five days ago, we moved the youngest into his first college dorm. He seems to be enjoying orientation but also has an appetite for academic work. His classes start tomorrow.
  4. So much change! This Labor Day weekend, I helped settle the eldest into a third-floor studio in a Philadelphia brownstone so she can start HER first real job. Her furnishings include items from my own post-graduation apartment: wooden chairs we picked up at a college surplus sale and a table we bought with one of Chris’ first paychecks as a high school teacher.
  5. It was fun to have a little spending money after a couple of years of grad-student penury, to buy a couch rather than lug a castoff away from a New Brunswick curb!
  6. Chris loved that teaching job, where he had stellar colleagues. The high school gig he started once we moved to Virginia was less rewarding in all ways.
  7. He taught there a while; then was a stay-at-home dad for a few years; then earned an MFA in fiction; then adjunct-taught at my college; and then, twenty years after the big move, earned a tenure-track slot in my department. He loves his job again.
  8. I mostly love mine, but I’ve seen it change massively. In the 90s, many students were amazing and some colleagues were role models, but classes were big, loads heavy. I still work sixty hours a week during the term but I can serve the students better; it feels saner.
  9. And they’re different students–more diverse in every way, in a century growing hotter by the minute. Demographics and politics change the job; these students need different things from me.
  10. I like change, I’ve realized, or at least some of it.
  11. Change is built into academic life. Tired of a certain course dynamic? No worries. The term is nearly over. You can reboot radically any minute now.
  12. Writing is like that, too. Within a poem, you pivot. Between projects, you reinvent what you aspire to do.
  13. Maybe I’m more fond of pivoting than some people?
  14. As I become an empty-nester, I am also becoming a stronger prose writer. My forthcoming novel will be called Unbecoming and it concerns midlife transitions.
  15. I’ll be doing final edits on the novel this fall, in between classes and committee work and grant applications and Shenandoah work. Yikes.
  16. I’m doing final edits on my forthcoming poetry book, The State She’s In, this week. Hard work, but fun, too.
  17. We have a launch date for the poetry book: March 17th, with prelaunch copies available at AWP!
  18. Awesome! Terrifying!
  19. This poetry book, my fifth full-length collection, feels like a big one.
  20. Everything feels momentous right now. Cusp, limen, hinge.
  21. My cat Ursula isn’t interested. She alternately sits on my neck, so I can’t type this post, and bites my toes, so I can’t type this post.
  22. When my daughter was applying for policy jobs in D.C., she felt anxious about it. Understandable, I thought–what a transition!–but I also admit I felt impatient. What would be the next step in her life, and therefore in mine?
  23. When she started applying for teaching jobs instead, her anxiety shifted to excitement. (Oh, I thought: it wasn’t just anxiety before, but inner struggle over a deeper uncertainty.) This Thursday, exactly one week after submitting her first four teaching applications, everything clicked. She was hired by a progressive preschool, a place that seems like a great fit for her–to start five days later. Double yikes.
  24. Follow the excitement is a pretty good life motto. It’s certainly a good way to write. If a project feels bogged down, I try to pivot, play around, think about what would make it fun again.
  25. Paychecks are important; doing useful work in the world is important. But the biggest question on my mind (besides, um, can I really meet all my obligations this school year?) is: how can I make these sad, hard, exhausting, exciting, whirlwind changes also, somehow, fun?

Rusting robot poetics

Lots of stress on this bucket of bolts lately–family, health, and writing-related–but I’m tickled to report that my first poetry comic has been published by the gorgeously-redesigned Split Lip Magazine. My spouse Chris Gavaler and I created it a couple of years ago; he made the images and I wrote the words, although there was some cross-influence in revision, more or less as we’ve cross-influenced each other in life (“Go for it!”/ “Don’t wear that!”). To me, this comic is about a pretty-long-running partnership from a midlife perspective, very much inflected by the self-reassessment that happens when your kids grow up and move on (my daughter graduated in May and just returned home after a summer gig, and my son starts college in about 10 days). We’ve changed so much since we were undergrads together, and I love the way the images capture our disintegrations and haphazard rebuildings from odd materials at hand, bringing forward the idea of resourcefulness under constraint. Chris built these robots rather laboriously in an outmoded program; my constraints were spatial, meaning seven lines per poem, with the line-length controlled by panel-width and the letters of Chris’ homemade font. It’s so gratifying when you make something weird in a weird way, for fun, and other people like it enough to publish it!

Not much other luck in that department lately. Rejections are flying; I haven’t had a poem accepted in months. As I’ve said here before, though, I actually feel more philosophical about that since beginning to work on Shenandoah. You just have to keep trying, revising and targeting your work as intelligently as you can, but knowing there’s a heap of luck involved. Submission rates are very high, and chances of hitting the right reader in the right way at the right moment are low, so it’s a numbers game. I did some poetry revision/ submission work this week, though, and I’ll keep at it until the semester swallows me whole–I’ve also got essays to tweak and keep in circulation plus a difficult grant application to finish. The meetings and new-tech-training-sessions, all that late summer jazz, starts tomorrow.

I’m also sighing, but philosophical, about the timing of book edits. I’d hoped to have feedback in hand on two mss–or at least one of them–by early August so I could do at least some of the work before the term starts, and that no longer seems likely. Editors are heroes, and like me they have chaotic lives–so be it. There’s still a TON to do without waiting on anyone else, not least preparing my courses, finishing those submissions, and organizing all the book promotion work I have ahead of me during this very busy school year.

In the midst of all this, I followed a link yesterday to a powerful article in n+1 called “Sexism in the Academy.” ” Depending on the funding agency, the gender gap in winning grants is about 7 percent,” Troy Vettise writes in this heavily-researched and very persuasive piece, adding, “when women are successful in their grant applications, they usually receive less funding, about eighty cents to a man’s dollar.” Talk about constraints! Discouraging, but I was grateful for all the work Vettise pulls together here, documenting everything from discrimination in resources to the costs of harassment, and more. And the recommendations at the end are provocative in an exhilarating way, including radical structural changes to universities and foundations.

Our robot comic is, I think, also about ambivalence toward gender roles, both in Chris and in me. It’s hard to be your best self and do your best work with all the gender shrapnel flying–as if teaching and writing aren’t hard enough.

Well, “keep your skin on,” as the robots say. There’s change ahead, good and bad. My visor may be foggy, and my sensors all scratched up, but I just have to be a self-reconfiguring modular robot, slipping free of my programming and adapting to my own increasingly buggy hardware as well as the unpredictable terrain. I can do it. Right?

Dear poetry professor: self-doubt

Giant squid considers applying for a poetry opportunity then second-guesses herself

Q: I question the worth of my writing on a near-daily basis. Is there a way to just get over it?

A: Okay, okay, I admit it, that question comes from Dr. Ms. Poetry Professor herself, but it’s a genuine one. If you have better answers, please post in the comments. In the meantime, here’s what I’m telling myself.

I should say, before I start, that I’m speaking from a well-supported life, with access to friends and meds and counseling. My own self-sabotage AND successes are rooted in having grown up with many privileges and some challenges; my well-educated engineer father, for example, constantly undercut and disparaged my bookish mother, who left her British high school at sixteen to apprentice at Royal Liverpool Babies Hospital. As the first woman in my family to go to university, I felt like both of them and neither, struggling to find a different way. Through hard work and good luck, I’ve won some great honors and opportunities, but I’ve also been underestimated for most of my professional life because of my gender, and I’ve endured episodes of assault and harassment. The laws of my time allowed me to marry the person I loved, who loves and supports me still. While I’ve had health problems, I’m more able-bodied than many. The thoughts below arise from a stew of factors, many nourishing and some toxic.

First: there are different kinds of self-doubt. Some are salutary. Every writer SHOULD say to herself sometimes: hmm, I’m not sure this poem/ essay/ story etc. is very good–because most drafts aren’t. Without self-doubt, weak first starts would never go the distance, yet many eventually do. The most constructive response to this species of doubt, if you can recognize it as reasonable, is to work harder. If your standard repertoire of tweaks (strengthening diction, cutting adverbs, etc.) doesn’t banish that tentacle of uncertainty, can you free write about what makes the material so important and interesting to you, then try to bring that urgency/ clarity back into the piece? Maybe there’s a missing link you need to develop. If neither of those strategies fly, maybe talking to a smart friend about it would help? Or take a break–exercise, adjust your blood sugar, or do some unrelated task–and come back when you can see the piece clearly. Maybe that’s weeks from now, and unless you’re under external deadlines, that’s fine. Poetry keeps.

Even a giant squid-sized portion of self-doubt can be helpful, to a degree. It’s good to think long-term about your aspirations as a writer and whether you’re really taking the necessary steps to accomplish your goals. Your imagination won’t always obey your agenda, but that’s why it’s good to have a couple of projects at different stages. If something stalls, you can then procrastinate productively. I find it grounding to return, too, to the less-elevated kinds of writing that directly help people, like reference letters and reviews. The sentences don’t have to be beautiful and you KNOW you’re being of use.

But misgivings attached to the work rather than your capacities as a person–well, that kind of doubt isn’t really what motivated my question, although I find it useful to remind myself that self-questioning helps smart people work smarter. Nor am I all that worried about the occasional acute episode of writing-related panic. I had a rough time getting started this summer and tried slogging doggedly through the doubt. Then I put myself on a course of related and unrelated reading, and that helped more. Reading is the best tonic I know (which probably explains some things about my career choice). I finished a draft of the short project that was killing me, put it aside, and then moved onto work that feels more congenial. This is a standard cycle in my writing life, and some combination of grit and rest always gets me through it, eventually.

The self-doubt that I find hardest isn’t about my relationship to the work itself. It’s about my relationship to other people. Like the juvenile giant squid in the video above, I’m both curious and wildly reticent. I’d much rather submit work towards publication or a grant from a distance, say, than approach an editor in person, at a conference. I’ve shied away from conversations and connections that might have helped me about a zillion times. And when you’re a middle-aged woman without influential mentors, no one’s rushing to hand you opportunities because you’re doing such good work in your quiet corner of the deep. I mean, it happens–I’ve put the work out there steadily, and sometimes nabbed a win–but it would happen more if I didn’t sabotage myself and hide in the murk. I’ve vowed to do better, especially with new books coming along. I WILL put myself and my work forward, because I DO believe in it fiercely. We’ll see.

Commencements



“I, too, am not unhopeful,” Saidiya Hartman said to Wesleyan University’s Class of 2019 during a long, hot ceremony on a bowl-shaped lawn. Soon-to-be-alumni/ae in the audience, including my daughter, wore robes of Handmaid’s Tale scarlet. I was turning scarlet in the sun, wondering what we were all on the threshold of.

I loved Hartman’s oration, which was deliberately weird. She analyzed the genre of the commencement address and explained why she wasn’t going to fulfill its conventions by offering advice towards a shiny future that it’s currently impossible to believe in. Her beautiful lines sounded more like poetry than persuasive rhetoric. I scribbled down some fragments, like “the gift of bare uncertainty that hurls you into adulthood.” The longest chunk I captured: “These remarks are really an elaborate ask. Speculate how the world might be otherwise…we pause in anticipation of the world you might make.” As she then pointed out, the expectations attached to commencement addresses were sucking her in after all: how can a speaker, and just as importantly, a teacher, address such a cusp without a glimmer of curiosity about what comes next?

After the cap-tossing and the toasts, my family of four headed to Cape Cod for a few days, to take a breather and contemplate other borderlands. We stayed on Lieutenant Island, which is only an island for 1 or 2 hours a day, when high tide reaches the salt marshes and makes it impossible to cross the wooden bridge. I drafted a couple of commencement-themed poems there, and we took lots of walks and ate lots of delicious seafood. Also, to be unsocial-media-ish: I had nightmares, and my daughter was sick, and plenty of bad news penetrated our bubble. It’s good to have all the ceremonies behind us, and I’m really proud of what my children have achieved. I feel grateful, as well, for so many lovely moments–long breaths poised on the water’s edge, not looking forward or backward–but I can’t say my heart is peaceful.

We’re home again now, trying to get sorted for a summer of work, about which I am a little anxious, always, but not unhopeful. I have writing and revising to do as my graduation sunburn peels; my son is doing math research for a W&L professor; and my daughter will soon be teaching in a summer camp while she applies for policy-related jobs in D.C. (employment leads welcome!). In the meantime, anyone in the Charlottesville, Virginia area can look for me at 2nd Act Books on the downtown mall on Sunday, June 9th. I’ll be reading there with Sara Robinson from 2-4 pm. I promise a few writing prompts toward the possibility of a peaceful, productive summer. A wild dream, I know.



Imaginary journals with real poems in them

journals-all

If you’re not enjoying what you’re grading, maybe the problem lies in the assignment. I think I’m right in attributing this provocation to Paul Hanstedt, either during a faculty development talk he gave here or on a long-ago Facebook post, but at any rate, it was electrifying, and resulted in real changes in my course design. I still teach writing genres that any English professor would recognize: close-reading, motif-tracing, proposal, annotated bibliography, research essay, response paper, etc. Those genres are part of what my students need to learn and practice to succeed in their coursework, and, in some cases, their graduate school applications.

But underlying those genres are much more important skills people need for the rest of their lives: how to analyze nuances of language in a poem, a piece of legislation, or a comedian’s unconvincing apology; how to make evidence-based arguments in Philosophy papers, op-eds, or grant proposals; how to explore unfamiliar intellectual terrain through research, then cite reliable sources when mapping it. Another set of goals that may be more idiosyncratic to poet-scholars like me: I want my students to think hard about what they like in literature, versus accepting what they’re told is admirable. I certainly have my own tastes to advocate for in the classroom and elsewhere, but in an ongoing way, we all ought to accept challenges to our literary prejudices and keep trying to articulate what’s great about books we love. This is what passionate readers do, and I want my former students to remain passionate readers, no matter their day jobs.

So with all this in mind, I set up three writing assignments for my seminar this term on British and Irish Poetry since 1900 (not including response papers and a scansion or two). The October essay, on modernism, was of a conventional variety, requiring close-reading of poetry in service of a literary argument. The December essay, on twenty-first-century poetry, will be a review of a single contemporary collection–another important academic genre, but requiring evaluative as well as analytic moves.

The November assignment was the weird one, cooked up in part by W&L Associate University Librarian Jeff Barry, who has been working on a variety of Special Collections materials related to Shenandoah at mid-century, including correspondence with Ezra Pound from one of the magazine’s earliest editors, Tom Carter. In between seminar meetings on Auden, Larkin, Thomas, Smith, Heaney, Bennett, and other wonderful poets, we brought the students in to examine an array of rare old mid-century magazines. They also read old issues of Shenandoah, not yet digitized but in the stacks.

Then they had to cook up a mid-century literary journal of their own–perhaps with a transatlantic reach, but based in England, Ireland, Scotland, or Wales. They produced eight folio pages of their imaginary magazine, including title, mission, masthead, table of contents, and the first few pages of poetry. Finally, a reflective essay about the process was required, including bibliographical information on at least three journals they had studied for inspiration. Most of them read other materials, too, to learn about corners of the literary scene and locate poets from beyond the syllabus.

I’m convinced, as I read the products, that my students did illuminating research and learned a few things about periodicals, mid-century British history and culture, and even about fonts. They collected work from writers whom they and I had never read before. They also remedied my syllabus, finding materials of pressing interest to each of them that I had not included: more women writers, more poets of the African diaspora, more verse about war and cities and animals and the Welsh landscape.

I have to say, they’re really fun to grade.

Onto reading applications for the Shenandoah editorship, thinking about a real magazine’s possible new directions, which, though time-consuming, is fun, too. I also hope to post in coming weeks about some digital storytelling students are doing in my other class. Meanwhile, here‘s a guest blog from me that StoryCenter just posted, about how and why I took a workshop in digital storytelling last summer. I’ve got a hankering to try making another videopoem, but first: cranberry sauce.

“The wonder is that you are here”: poetry, community, and Anne Spencer

One of my favorite visiting-writer stories involves a New York-based author who, while guzzling artisanal cocktails in a local restaurant, said something like, “I don’t know why anyone would bother to write if they don’t live in Brooklyn.” That was a hilariously awful remark to make to his Virginia-writer-dinner-companions, but I get it. The literary path I’m hiking seems to point only uphill, through tangles that hide my efforts from sight.

asm nasturtiumAs a break from the trail and for inspiration to persist, I recommend visiting the Anne Spencer House and Museum in Lynchburg, Virginia, about an hour and a quarter from where I live, just over the Blue Ridge. The lesson it teaches: how to surround yourself with what you find beautiful–how to fight for it–and write anywhere, on anything, with spirit.

The Lynchburg-based Harlem Renaissance poet gave hospitality to many luminaries, during an era when African-Americans didn’t have many safe spaces to stay while, for example, traveling between D.C. and Atlanta. Spencer became close with frequent visitors W. E. B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, and Langston Hughes, and published, sometimes with their urging and assistance, more than two dozen poems in magazines such as The Crisis. Her home is still welcoming: you can arrange a wonderful tour led by her granddaughter, Shaun Spencer-Hester, and the gardens are open to anyone without appointment from dawn to dusk. The house built by her husband, furnished colorfully and full of art, still feels like a good place, full of sunny nooks for reading, brimming with evidence of authors at work. The long garden with its writing cottage, abundant flowers, grape arbor, and lily pond remains an oasis.

asm spare bedroomHow Anne Spencer lived is worth remembering, but so are her poems. The title of this blog is from “At the Carnival”, and the poem above, painted on a kitchen cupboard by artist and architect (and neighbor) Amaza Lee Meredith, is the second stanza of “Lines to a Nasturtium”. Many of her writings, however, are uncollected and unpublished. asm-boxtop.jpgCheck out these fragments (a poem?) jotted inside the cover of a panty-hose boxtop. Plus she scribbled all kinds of things on the walls, as the phone booth under the stairs attests. I’m looking forward to studying her papers at the University of Virginia later this summer. One of the questions I’m considering is the relationship between art and activism, in Spencer’s life and generally. The local branch of the NAACP, for example, was founded in Spencer’s living room, and her work as a librarian supported African-American literacy. Nor did she submit to Jim Crow segregation–J. Lee Greene’s book, Time’s Unfading Garden, is full of stories of spirited resistance. But her poems are rarely overtly political, with “White Things,” about lynching, offering a powerful exception.

I’ll leave you with a few more pictures plus a link to a recent column I wrote for Modernism/ modernity whose themes resonate with this post: “How to Do Things with Poetry Criticism, or Scholarship and Justice, Part II.” If you’re in the region and have time, I hope you’ll visit 1313 Pierce Street. If not, go write a poem on a boxtop, or paint it on the wall, and read, remembering all the people who fought for the right to.

Killing your 18th c specialist darlings

My imaginary English Department was overstaffed, according to fictional administrators. Unfortunately, the first readers of my novel ms said the same thing. One of those professors, everyone said, has got to go. And it was pretty clear who had the least seniority.

I hated firing the poor guy. Jay’s specialty is not, in real life, my favorite literary period. But my character taught what’s called the long eighteenth century, and was the only tenure-track person between the Renaissance and the Romantics. Milton shoring up one end! Austen and Blake straddling the other!

Fictionally bound to a traditional coverage model, I dug in at first and made his presence bigger and more distinct. Turned out he was a burly blond dude from the midwest, young, a little ADHD, the kind of person who sits at your desk and snaps your stapler open and shut when you’re talking. He was shocked, shocked, to realize some colleagues did not regard his specialty as instrumental in the earth’s rotation. He also had a boyfriend in D.C. and a mermaid-shaped lamp in his office. Aside from an occasional panic attack about tenure, he was kind of oblivious, and happy.

I’m clearly egotistically invested in my own world-making, because disappearing him seemed SO MEAN. But I finally sharpened my weapons this week. It felt less like eviction than murder, the science fictional alternate universe kind where no one admits the lost person ever existed. His frozen appetizer pastries vanish from the potluck. Someone else has to spew crackers at the secret meeting and keep time at the public one. A bunch of lines never get spoken, or come out of someone else’s mouth, with fewer exclamation points. And when a crucial piece of information comes in via text alert, it now vibrates the phone of his former partner in crime, the other tenure-track member of the department, Camille. She’s lonelier these days.

Writing this novel was a whirlwind of serious fun. Revising it has required way more hard thinking and finicky patience. This is not an especially long or ambitious ms (80,000 words, one narrator, chronological, and obviously using a kind of workplace I know well–I wasn’t sure I could do it at all, so my plan was straightforward). Yet there are inevitably gears inside gears, so every small alteration requires days of labor, and there have been a lot of small alterations. The bigger ones–changing pacing, replotting–well, they’re that much tougher to implement. You writers of long forms, man: hats off. My experiment was worthwhile even if it goes nowhere, because I’ve learned so much. This poet is now vastly more appreciative of the novelist’s labors.

And how in the hell did anyone do this before the advent of word processing? I guess Jay would know.

Rest in peace, fictional character, now residing only in this blog post. I know the novel’s better off without you, but still, buddy, I’m sorry.

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