July 06, 2018

June

*blinks in bright light of day*
*waves*
I did a lot in June, just not here. 

I've begun working with PEN / Faulkner to visit local high schools and teach the personal essay. On June 5, I went to KIPP DC College Preparatory to visit three classes. They had Edward P. Jones's photo taped to my desk and Jericho Brown's poem on the wall. On June 6, 826DC took over Petworth Citizen's Reading Room to celebrate their new anthology, Spit Fire. The anthology showcases student work from the SEED School and is as good-looking a book as you will ever see. I anchored the lowercase series open mic with poems from my new manuscript--DC poems for folks with DC institutional memory. 

I hosted my book group for a discussion of Valeria Luiselli's Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions. This was our first time in the new apartment and twelve of us fit into my living room with no space crunch, always good news. Many gummy bears were eaten. 

In pursuit of sanity, I spent time with careful, discerning essays:

Yet I also reveled in Essay Daily: Talk About the Essay: What Happened on June 21, 2018, the premise of which, I suppose, is "hot takes" of the best possible variety. 



In Tampa, I heard readings from Kazim Ali, Sonya Huber, Tracy K. Smith, and others, including Elizabeth Engelman, an alumna from the MFA program who is going to bust the world open with her memoir. I got to present on "DisLit, CripLit, and Inspiration Porn: Centering Narratives of Illness and Disability," a forty-slide lecture (the assembly of which was complicated by the fact that my laptop broke the weekend before the residency). Students learned about the Fries Test. Three of the program's faculty poets teamed up to discuss poetry in translation and world poetry. 

I met with my four students for the fall term--three of whom are in their thesis semester--two poets, two nonfiction writers. Because we meet every day for a workshop and the students are juggling a tremendous amount of other responsibilities during the residency, we need creative readings that we can do "cold," as a group, and then discuss on the fly in terms of their craft. Since I frequently have returning students, I have to always be on the lookout for new material. Here were a few of my favorites this time around:

Tiffany Midge - First-World (Story) Problems: Brown Girl Multiple Choice Edition

Karrie Higgins - "Prince and the Sparkle Brains: Growing up epileptic, surviving sexual abuse, and loving Prince"

Jono Naito - "Winter Is My Favorite Season"

Elizabeth Wade - "Variant Table" & its origin story

Steve Fellner - "Self-Portrait as a 1980s Cineplex Movie Theatre (An Abecedarian)"

I'm intrigued by Fellner's decision to graft a poetic form, the abcedarian, onto an essay format. He did one of these with 1970s cinema, as well; that essay appears in The Normal School. If you notice a preponderance of Waxwing excerpts in the links above, that's no coincidence. I have five poems in the new issue, which sparked a deep dive into their archives. Feels particularly welcome to be on a table of contents beside Alison Stine, Wayne Miller, Paul Guest, Mary Biddinger, and Matthew Guenette, writers with whom I've been sharing space for over a dozen years now in one place or another, including the blogosphere; and to see work from voices that are newer to me but that I am tremendously excited about, such as Iliana Rocha and Franny Choi.






I got back from teaching and had two days to unpack my suitcase. Then I re-packed it for the Berkshires. We made the seven-hour drive so I could I co-host a creatives' symposium in a quirky new hotel space, TOURISTS, a reimagined motor lodge in North Adams, Massachusetts, thanks to the vision of Scott Stedman and Jeff Gordinier. I got to hug poets Beth Ann Fennelly and Erika Meitner and January Gill O'Neil, and finally meet Rachel Zucker; new friends, poem-toasts, an oddly tasty spread of pork and Calabrian chiles on seed bread thanks to Cortney Burns, wandering through the woods to the chime chapel, more poems around an open fire, Jeff & company's late arrival from the Esquire thing; touring Mass MOCA (Louise Bourgeois & James Turrell & Anselm Kiefer), lunch at Bright Ideas Brewing,  a p*cha k*cha talk, broccoli rabe with wood-ear mushrooms, beet salad, more reciting of poems, live music from Sean Rowe (whose foraging expedition I'd missed earlier in the day while on the hunt for a digital projector), following Jan's lead to talk about fostering inclusivity in the literary scene; finally meeting Laurie's brother (which made me miss Mississippi), more beet salad, introducing some folks to Tommy Pico's Nature Poem, learning one of my co-conspirators had been Tommy's classmate, learning another, Rachel, had just interviewed him for her Commonplace podcast series, and getting up to the top of Mount Greylock; stopping off for a Sam Gilliam glimpse at Williams College and dinner in Troy, New York, on the way home. 










Issue 18 of Barrelhouse came out, with my essay on "Pioneers of the Digital Trail." If you want an essay that name-checks Mavis Bacon, Carmen Sandiego, Number Muncher, The Oregon Trail, The Secret of Monkey Island, and pained teenage love affairs, this is the essay for you. You can't find the text online--thank god--but the issue is for sale here, and they typically sell out every print run. 

Somewhere in there, I drafted a 3,000-word essay on sestinas that is scheduled to run in American Poets.

The funny thing is that when I came here to explain my June absence, I felt nothing but a sense of failure--a silent blog, a wasted month, and a fixation on the deadlines that were missed and are still pending, rather than any of the ones met. This despite an envelope full of thank-you notes that arrived from the KIPP students. Don't let the corrosions of the world fool you, friends. Please keep doing the good work that I know you are doing. 


May 13, 2018

On Craft & Canon


I have a piece coming out in the Washington Post tomorrow, exploring the dilemma faced by teachers whose syllabi include authors now credibly accused of abusive or harassing behavior. The conversation began in a Facebook post. Funny coincidence: only two days earlier, I'd been talking about the fine line between professional time and procrastination as a freelancer, particularly when it comes to social media. [Update: link to the article]

I don't advocate for the banishment of these authors; I'm not looking to label anyone "trash" or "canceled," two words I've seen applied with (understandable) anger by others. But I definitely believe that anyone choosing to teach the work has to take on the responsibility for teaching the work in context--and I'd question why any one author would ever be irreplaceable when putting together a multi-era, multi-genre syllabus. That suggests, to me, a certain lack of imagination or research on the part of the professor. 

Fifteen years ago, would I have argued to preserve these hallowed syllabi? In 2003, did I think that you have to separate the artist from the art? Perhaps. Then again, the me of fifteen years ago wasn't quick to see the urgency of aligning herself with feminism, either. I might have been 90% of the way through my formal schooling, but I've learned a hell of a lot in the fifteen years since. The authors I looked up to, back then? Some I still admire, more than ever in fact. Some I've set aside. Some now have the connotations that I imagine people attach to the funkiest cheese--an embrace of the mold and stink, not without value, but not something you'd turn to on a daily basis or give to a friend. And maybe that's making light of something that I can't really bear to make light of. I'm still learning more, day by day.

In hindsight, I realize how fortunate I was to be exposed to terrific and relatively varied voices in the classroom. At the University of Virginia, Scott Saul's syllabi were racially inclusive and edgy in their politics. At American University, Myra Sklarew made sure we understood poetry as a conversation within the world, not just the United States. That said, I was still fumbling my way toward understanding the biases and machinations of the "canon" as it had been handed to me (credit Grant Snider's great cartoon, above); and I was a long way towards understanding that I could do something to change it. Because that's an empowering thing: we can change the canon. We can do it when we write smart critical essays centering the work of African-American poets, of disabled and D/deaf fiction writers, of Appalachian memoirists. If you're Dr. Emily Wilson, you can do it by translating The Odyssey.

Earlier today, I opened the latest issue of a magazine to which I subscribe and have published in. When I spotted an essay on political poetry, I flipped ahead. Maybe this would be something I could share with students. I then, with disbelief, tallied those cited on the first page: Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mark Edmundson, David Orr, David Biespiel, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, Dana Gioia, W.H. Auden. When presenting critical thoughts on the political poem, in this day and age, I'm genuinely surprised that someone would open with eight Caucasian cis-male writers and not think, Huh, maybe I need to widen the lens a little

Ultimately, five women are mentioned: Anna Akhmatova, who is presented in (literal) parenthesis; an exploration of the journals of Etty Hillesum, killed at Auschwitz in 1943; Deborah Garrison, whose poem is reproduced and given a close reading, immediately following the same treatment for a poem by Bob Hicok; Simone Weil's arguments regarding The Iliad; and Eavon Boland's take on a poem by Yeats. 

Women surface but, by the numbers, the waters are presented as masculine. At almost every turn, their voices are presented as counterbalance, subjugate, accessory. The one cited most, Hillesum, is also the relative novice of the group; she died at 29, her diaries published only posthumously. Here's one example of how the analysis handles her:


Considering Etty Hillesum's statement, "I am not afraid to look suffering straight in the eyes," we might consider the expression of individual style--well-written, conscientiously crafted--as the literary equivalent of this individual act of seeing, as an embodiment, a framing, of this recognition as suffering that is also the second, active meaning to suffer. Style, individuality brings us into the act. Often, too, the difficulty of expression is part of what needs to be expressed. Homer states the difficulty outright; Merrill renders it with stylistic complexity. 

There's a subtle hierarchy being reinforced here. Hillesum's talent is positioned as naive and experiential witness, "conscientious" in her craft of witness (a backhanded compliment if there ever was one). She is a vessel. Homer, Merrill--they are agentsThe irony is that this essay earnestly and sincerely wishes to wrangle with the issue of who is ignored, and why, and the legacy of poets as "legislators" of our collective spirit. The author wants to interrogate our impulses toward memory and history-making. He should begin with questioning why this essay cites who it does, and in what proportion. The rhetoric of the essay wants to claim a middle ground between "traditionalists arguing for a consensus poetry" and "an avant-garge arguing of a destabilizing poetics." But when your endnotes consists almost entirely of the hegemony, that is just as loud a rhetorical statement as the body text.

My point is not to drag any one author, especially a poet whose work I admire, and one who is making time for the under-compensated track of literary scholarship. My point is that these approaches to writing about craft are endemic and entrenched. This is not a matter of the teachers who are "woke" or not "woke." This is a process of not only wakening, but questioning the conditions of your previous slumber, and wondering what you can do to respect and engage those who were never asleep to begin with. That's why I'm wary of anyone determined to enshrine a syllabus that features a particular contemporary author ("a genius!"). You're telling me, on some level, that your mind is already made up on who the next generation of the canon should feature. That's still changing. That's in our hands. Ready; aim; fire.

April 30, 2018

Golden Rule

Yesterday, I went over to a friend's house. I arrived at 4 PM; I left six hours later. In between we drank wine, cooked four pounds of mussels, grilled vegetables, and traded poems. I was grateful for the sunshine, the gorgeous cherry tree flowering in her backyard, and her overly enthusiastic (and freshly washed) pup clambering for pets. 

Most of all, I was grateful for the balance of the exchange: two poets who have been following each others' work for years, with a baseline of respect and appreciation, talking freely about drafts in progress. We don't have particularly similar styles, especially in our projects of the moment. But we're able to be frank about what's working and what's not on the page, and that's worth its weight in gold. Everyone needs trusted readers. 

If you pursue being active in the literary world for a while, you're going to end up in all kinds of relationships. Literary journals, reading series, giving interviews or interviewing someone else, conferences and festivals, teaching gigs, blurbs, freelance, shared advocacies, spontaneous friendships--each of these is a path-crossing. Money sometimes comes into play, but the money is rarely consistent or proportional to the economy we live in. In other words, breaking a fee or honorarium down to an hourly wage won't help you make sense of how you spend your time, or necessarily help you set goals for the future. Sometimes the Yes we give to the unpaid thing leads to a lucrative opportunity. Sometimes the Yes we give to the thing with $$$ attached ends up costing us something of truly great (though unmonetized) value. 

You're going to have to figure out some rules for yourself. Otherwise, you'll burn out. The first time I stumbled across this reality was helping a friend name what had become, for her, a toxic relationship with a larger organization. They thought they were doing her a favor. She thought she was doing them a favor. 

Golden Rule: The gift economy only works if everyone is clear and in agreement on who is giving the gift to whom. Sometimes you give. Sometimes you get. But if you're in a lit-world situation where no one's clear who is giving, and who is receiving--run.

Melissa Febos explored setting rules in a great 2017 essay called "Do You Want to Be Known For Your Writing, or For Your Swift Email Responses?" The truth is that I read that essay with a tingling sense of euphoria, followed by a wave of regret: I will probably be someone who goes to my grave known for her swift email responses. Replies at 3 AM. Replies at 5 AM. I'm an Inbox-12 girl and I actually feel really good about that. Accumulating a vast inbox of unanswered queries, implicitly tiered by their ease of reply and relevance to my professional momentum, would bring me absolutely no satisfaction whatsoever. 

But I admire the core of her point, which is: find what works for you, prioritize it, and let go of the rest. If I spend the rest of my life in DC (the area in which I grew up, and attended graduate school), I'm going to end up with seven or eight tree-trunk rings of lives, concentrically embracing one on top of the next. I can't honor all of them, all the time. I think of this frequently in terms of local readings and arts events, which often stack 2- and 3-deep for each day of the week here. It's fantastic! It's ridiculous! It's impossible to experience in the way my completist heart desires!

How do you figure out when to say Yes, and when to say No? How do you know when to skip something? How do you know when to outright quit something? How do you accurately gauge the best use of your time?

Dang it. I was so hoping to have an answer to these questions by the end of this post, a winning strategy that could help me conserve my time so that encounters like the one described above--fresh mussels, flowering cherries, an exchange of poems--have the room to occur. The truth is that it's a process, one I'm in the thick of right now. I mention that so that if you're in the thick of it too, you know you're not alone.  

April 19, 2018

Heirloom (Old Poem / New Poem)

People sometimes ask how to know when a poem is "Done." I resist that term, actually; I think of poems as ideas and insights gathered to the consciousness of the poet. The text on the page (or as delivered live, in readings) is always just the best possible approximation the 'poem' available to that poet at the given moment. There's no one definitive version.

The practical advantage of that attitude is that I try to be easygoing about accepting other people's edits to my poems, or even typos in reproduction. Poems aren't cars; you can't ding their bodywork or crack their glass. Poems are clouds you get to ride for a little while, if you're lucky. Then the vapor yields to rain. Then you start over. 

All of which is to say that I revise freely, sometimes heavily, as part of a poem's journey from draft to magazine publication to appearing in a book. I published a variation on this poem in 2013 via the southern Foodways Alliance's Gravy. Same title. But when I hunkered down with history--one of the central organizing principles of this new collection--I wanted to adjust the focus. The result feels like a new poem.



Heirloom


Lo, twelve children born to a woman named Thankful
in Nampa, by the border between Idaho
and Oregon. Lo, two brothers drive to Miami
not knowing if their plan will work.
Lo, what were once waste scraps fed to the cows
now repackaged—the fry shavings sliced, spiced, and oiled.
Lo, a chef at the Fountainebleau takes the bribe.
Lo, Tater Tots are dished onto the tables
of the 1954 National Potato Convention and soon,
enshrined in the freezers of America. Three decades later,
the golden age of my childhood is a foil-lined tray
plattered with Ore-Ida product, maybe some salt, maybe
nothing but the hot anticipation of my fingertips.
Lo, my mother is an amazing cook and Lo,
my grandmother is a terrible one, but on the tinfoil plains
they are equal. I need you to understand
why my father will never enjoy a ripe tomato
glistening, layered in basil. Put away your Brandywines,
your Cherokee Purples, your Green Zebras.
Lo, as with spinach, as with olives, he tastes only
the claustrophobia his mother unleashed from cans
to feed four children on a budget. We talk little of this.
Lo, what is cooked to mush.
Lo, what is peppered to ash. Lo, the flavor
rendered as morning chore—that this, too, is a form of love.