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.



April 09, 2018

Subtweet to the Universe



Dear ________ ,

Let's say you set out to be a writer in the world. 

Along the way, you meet someone who is charismatic and perhaps has the power to help you. But the dynamic goes wrong. Maybe it's a matter of one conversation, one evening. Maybe it's a prolonged exchange over months or even years.

For them, the consequences may exist--a cold look from a colleague, "moving on" from a job--but they are still part of a world that considers them eligible for readings, publications, awards. Maybe even more than eligible: celebrated. 

You, in the meantime, are trying to restore something that was lost. You're finding it hard to advocate for yourself when you meet writers, afraid of lapsing into the patterns of last time. Maybe you no longer even think of yourself as a writer. 

Some time later, in a cultural moment when people are being encouraged to step forward, you wonder if something would be gained by speaking out. And as you are trying to gather your courage, they speak out instead.  

Because they, too, have been abused. They write something jaw-drop beautiful about it. Of course they do--they're writers. Of course, people you love and respect, people who don't know of your experience (and maybe a few who do), are going to cheer this person on in their moment of revelation and honesty as part of a road to (fingers crossed) recovery. And I don't want to devalue that natural response.

But I do want to acknowledge that their words can 'save someone's life,' while making it harder for you to live yours. 

Don't let their public confession of damage become a bulwark against owning your own private pain, as if you somehow no longer have the 'right' to be angry. Being abused does not justify abusing others. Period. This is particularly galling when the narrative, which has given such rich attention to one's own victimhood, grows so much....vaguer...when talking about the era of your encounter. If mentioned at all. 

Just know there are some of us who are listening for your voice. We're here. And the louder and more specific you are--though I know it takes courage--the louder and more specific we can be when we stand alongside you. 

You are a writer in the world. Please write it. 

With much respect,
S