May 23, 2017

Talking About "Good Bones"

As any poet who has experience this will tell you, having a poem catch on--to go viral, to be replicated and shared even among those who don't usually consider themselves to be readers of poetry--is a strange feeling. For Maggie Smith, it's fair to say that the effect has been tectonic in scale. 

Her poem, "Good Bones" (originally published in the journal Waxwing), has been shared on Twitter by numerous celebrities; translated into multiple languages; interpreted in music and dance; used as a plot device on the television show Madam Secretary; and recited by Meryl Streep in front of a crowd at New York's Lincoln Center. Public Radio International named it "the official poem of 2016," estimating it to have been read by a million people. Her poem was made into a limited edition broadside (seen left; you can purchase it here). Her forthcoming book, previously titled Weep Up, has been retitled Good Bones (cover art below; you'll be able to purchase it from Tupelo Press this September)

I read the poem the day it was published, via an editor's Facebook link. Poets shared it, as poets do. But within the day, all kinds of people were sharing, tagged with comments mourning the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. (Another poem that resonated was "At Pegasus," by Terrance Hayes.) Sharing surged after British politician Jo Cox was killed, and again after America's presidential elections. Last night, as news spread about the bombing at pop star's concert in Manchester, "Good Bones" began making the rounds. The bittersweet side of this poem's success is that it's not a harbinger of happy times. Smith's words are embraced by those looking for comfort in the wake of disorder or outright tragedy. 

This is the kind of poem you spontaneously bring in to share with students on a numb and gloomy day. Or perhaps this is the kind of poem a student brings in and says, "I want to write about this." In the classroom, there will be a real temptation for any discussion of "Good Bones" be entirely thematic in focus. This is a poem about salvage, someone might say. This is a poem about hope. But to praise a poem on entirely topical terms is to miss out on Smith's precise craft. 

With that in mind, here's what I'd like to talk about, when I read "Good Bones":

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.

The first line--neatly endstopped--establishes a first-person speaker, identifies the speaker as a parent, and adds urgency by conveying its information in present tense. The poem presents a familiar truism ("Life is short"), but then personalizes the banality by framing it as a secret to be kept. The reader becomes complicit in the ruse. 

Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. 

If you pair the first clause (in line 2) and the final one (all of line 5), this sentence mirrors the opener--with the subtle shift into future tense, creating a pledge on top of line 1's claim. What interests me is how the speaker's character is developed substantially in the middle clauses, identifying with an impulse toward pleasure. At first, the comma proposes that "delicious" and "ill-advised" are in contrast to one another; in the refrain, the voice admits that the ways are delicious precisely because they are ill-advised. The speaker's choices made outside of being a parent is yet another secret to be kept from the kids. 

                                                 The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.

Secret #3, kiddos: life is short, yes; we're not in the best of all possible worlds, either. 

The first enjambment teases us by briefly teetering toward optimism (the "at least" in "The world is at least...") before a reality of pessimism sets in (the completing "...fifty percent terrible"). The usage of a numerical figure moves us to thinking about studies, statistics, and the march of infographics signature to contemporary reporting. The second enjambment splits "estimate" from its modifier of "conservative," leaving that word dangling in the eye of the reader. One's mind might go to the modern dichotomy of American politics (liberal vs. conservative), though the motive could simply be conserving the median length of line. 

For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. 

If you're going to assert a "terrible" state, you have to provide evidence, harnessed here through anaphora. The image of line 8 is straightforward: for every bird, symbolic of nature, man makes a gesture attacking nature. This is the ecological balance of of today's world. Note that this line is also endstopped, free of commas or other intermediate grammars, which anchors the poem's syntactic momentum. 

Lines 9-10 raise the stakes to human life. The previous sentence is the first to omit mention of the speaker's children. In this sentence, that awareness returns in the distillation of a "loved child" and, in symmetry, one subjected to violence--violence driven home by the hard consonance of "broken," "sunk," and "lake." In another poet's hands, this equation-making could become expository and prosaic; Smith smartly relies on the comma after "For every loved child," creating a midline caesura that fills with dread for the reader. 

                              Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. 

The diction relaxes a bit here ("half" instead of "fifty percent"), as the speaker reflects on the accumulated realizations of the first ten lines. We return to the refrain of "though I keep this from my children," but the power and authority located in the decision has been diluted. This is also the first occurrence of "you," though we don't pay too much attention to the word choice because of its colloquial stance.  

                                                                    I am trying
to sell them the world. 

Ignorance is not enough to protect them. Isolation is impossible. So what the speaker must do, instead, is attempt to promote engagement. The metaphor of "sell" takes the risk of moving us to the realm of commerce (raising questions of sincerity). Rather than dodging these connotations, Smith doubles down on the conceit of real estate. 

                                           Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: 

How strange and wonderful, in a fraught landscape, to encounter the humor of these lines. "Decent" is the perfect choice, implying good but also good-at-one's-job, which in this case is the task of closing the deal. There is a perverse, lively internal music between "realtor" and "real shithole," and the crassness of the latter term cuts through potential sentimentality. "Good bones" is an appealingly familiar term of real estate (there is an HGTV show called Good Bones) that summons thoughts of the body. 

Note that there are two deft conflations executed in this sentence. The first conflation--activated by the verb choice of "chirps"--is between the realtor and the bird of line 8. The impact of this is that we're encouraged to favor this character, regarding the realtor as ally rather than predator. The second conflation is between the "them" (the children of the previous sentence) and the "you" who is now taking the tour. 

                                   This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

This second conflation is significant because in these final lines, a facade drops. Though this is positioned as dialogue in-scene, these sentences break the fourth wall of the poem. We may argue that we're trying to sell the world to our children--that may be a useful external priority--but the truth is that we're trying to sell it to ourselves as well. The "you" becomes invitational and encompassing of the reader. 

Note, too, how the seemingly declarative repetition of "beautiful" is undercut by the modal verb choices. This is about what "could be," not what is. The penultimate line's enjambment leads into the affirmation-seeking "...right?" 

The irony of framing this as a text of comfort is that what appeals about "Good Bones" is its indeterminacy, the liminal space it occupies between hope and despair. That's what rewards multiple re-readings. That's what makes us trust the poem. 

Why am I sharing a text that you've probably read in at least a dozen other places? Because I'd like for you to see it with fresh eyes. Because I want Smith to be credited with more than "Right place, right time, right emotion." I'd like for you to see what I see--phrasing that sticks to your ribs not just because of its politics, but because of its construction. Form enacts content, I say to my students. This poem can be used to explore how to take on a big idea and ground it in bright, specific language and technical decisions on the page.  

Through all this attention, Smith seems to have maintained her generous spirit and a sense of humility. In an interview with Ohio State University (where she is an alumna of their MFA program), she said: “This poem feels less like mine than any other poem I’ve written. It belongs to others. I live in this nest in Ohio and my poem is flying to people and places I will never see. It has a bigger job to do.”

Thank you, Maggie Smith.

March 24, 2017

From the Hermitage Artist Retreat

I am on my penultimate day of five weeks at the Hermitage Artist Retreat in Manasota Key. The house that is the heart of the Hermitage space is over a century old; if you stand in the right spot you can see the Gulf out of one window, and the bay out of  another. I've overlapped with a drummer, a novelist, a composer, a photographer, a clarinetist, two playwrights, and a visual artist who is working on a memoir. 

Residencies are a chance to flex your wingspan. No one is pressuring you to get dressed, eat, or sleep at a certain hour. You might go a week without driving a car. The point isn't to take a break from working; the point is to privilege work you care about, that might live beyond you as art. If you're like me, you sit down with a piece of paper and literally reinvent what a day can look like.

I came down to Florida to work on my next nonfiction book. I came down here with an idea. But it was the long beach walks that gave me a title, solidified the outline, and fueled the drafting of opening chapters. The funny thing about an "idea" for nonfiction is that it's like an egg; perfect in concept. But you have to expose the inherent fragilities in your idea in order to overcome them. Here, the egg has been cracked. The real work begins.

Because I'm in the midst of writing nonfiction, I've been feasting on nonfiction. These are the books I read or re-read while I was here...

  • On Looking: Essays, by Lia Purport
  • Tell Me If You're Lying: Essays, by Sarah Sweeney
  • Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, edited by Joy Castro
  • All Grown Up: A Novel, by Jami Attenberg
  • Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953, by Elizabeth Winder
  • I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, by Howard Norman
  • Self-Portrait with Dogwood, by Christopher Merrill
  • This is Running for Your Life: Essays, by Michelle Orange
  • Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System, by Sonya Huber
  • Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, by Sarah Manguso
  • The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood, by Richard Blanco
  • Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere But Here, by Angela Palm

In particular, I've been thinking a lot about the variegated ways one can construct longform creative nonfiction. Several of these books very delicately tread the line between essays and memoir. One factor is the brevity or lyricism of the chapters at hand; another is the decision to recycle key narrative moments or factual contexts from one essay to the next.

In addition to book-work, I served as the Annette Dignam Writer in Residence to the State Colleges of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota (SCF). I took over seven classes taught by four different professors, and I gave a reading. My final event was spending an hour with the "Swampscribes" (the creative writing club), talking about persona poetry. 

On one hand, using exercises and readings I've used before is key to making this a privilege rather than a burden. On the other hand, I like being spurred to create new lessons, and I came up with one on public speaking that I will use going forward. We talked about eye contact, projection, and defining your "batter's box"; we looked at how to annotate a text for emphasis, interpretation, and dramatic pause. 

Though this wasn't a literature course, I wanted to bring poetry to the table. So I de-lineated and made anonymous poems by William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lucille Clifton, in order to give us "raw texts" for discussion (revealing, only at the end, their actual forms and authors), During a partnering exercise, I got to circulate and listen to the music of four students--four corners of the classroom--each simultaneously delivering Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

SCF has graduated 47,000 students in the sixty+ years it has been open. They have four campuses and the Venice campus is cozy and bright, with a nature preserve at the edge. Each day I took ten minutes to walk the perimeter, listening to birds and looking for alligators. They were to be found--and one time, a little too close to my toes for comfort. 

Back at home, there has been snow falling on bewildered cherry blossoms. Here, we had a tornado on a Monday night, which took out power to the lower half of the island; many afternoons get windy. But my sun-loving heart has been lightened by being here. I've taken over two hundred photos. I'll share a few with you here. 

The first night, you do a lot of standing around and gawking
View from my writing desk at the Hermitage House
Dolphins accompanied us on our bayside boat ride
Collaborative art: Amanda Marchand's Lumen Project
Resident Andy Biskin on clarinet 
An hour's worth of hunting for shark teeth
Trespassing pelican outside the Whitney House
An unusually moody sunset
Expedition to the Ringling Circus Museum
A detail of the "Howard Bros Circus" model...
...modeled on the Ringling Bros Circus...
...which Howard C. Tibbals spent his life completing
Into the "Pathless Woods"
Ghost of the girl who just ran through

Another girl running through
Central silence, and then out again
Courtyard of the Ringing Museum of Art
Michelangelo's David: Sarasota edition
Scotch with two rocks, please
Field trip to the Selby Botanic Gardens
I need more bromeliads in my life
Marc Chagall-inspired stained glass throughout

Orchids, orchids everywhere
Thursday afternoon in March
Thursday afternoon in March--just ten minutes later

Time to go home. But I'll be dreaming about this place for months to come.

DC folks, see you soon! I'll be hosting a National Poetry Month celebration at the Arts Club of Washington on Tuesday, April 4--with two featured readers, Claudia Cortese and Francisco Aragon, plus an open mic. Angela Maria Spring will be on hand to talk about Duende District, a new bookstore initiative that will emphasize multicultural literary community.  7 PM start time, doors opening at 6:30 PM for the open mic sign-ups; free and open to the public. Full details are on the Facebook event page

February 14, 2017

On Advocacy & Disability in the Creative Writing Community

I don't usually bother checking the stats for this blog, but I was curious about my last post, which was shared among the community of those who attended the recent AWP Conference, predominantly writers and teachers of creative writing. 3,500+ views! That's a lot of views. If you used it to guide your visit, I hope it was helpful. I hope you went to a panel or two. I hope the Metro got you where you needed to go. I hope you ate well in D.C. 

If you were at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Saturday afternoon, you may have witnessed a protest form of people linked arm in arm, chanting. This was inspiring for many. That said, consider how anxiety-inducing that kind of formation might be for someone with mobility issues. Consider the irony for those in the "Writing With and About Dis/Ability, Dis/Order, and Dis/Ease" who could no longer hear our own dialogue: a group whose lives are under threat via the current administration. Consider that at 6:30 PM, there were folks in the hotel bar instead of in front of the White House--not because they did not sympathize with the goals of the Split This Rock candlelight vigil, not because their voices shouldn't be counted, but because that kind of physical activity is not realistic or safe. Get real about the fact that by 10 PM, many in that same group would find the hotel bar a nightmarish, jostling space in which boundaries and balance are not protected.  

For many, this was a successful and vibrant conference, and a gathering infused by heightened political awareness and real urgency about the state of American affairs today. For all who brought their voices and energy, thank you. For all the planning aspects that AWP as an organization got right--and there were many--thank you. 

But if you came and went from the AWP Conference thinking it was nothing but a literary lovefest, you missed a substantive conversation about access, disability, and inclusion. I want to revisit that conversation here because it is not too late to make your feelings about these concerns heard. Many of you have a survey sitting in your email inbox, asking for feedback about the conference experience. Don't just reply on your own behalf. Advocate. 

What if all 3,500+ people who visited this blog for my last post were to advocate on behalf of writers with disability, and writers within the D/deaf community?

Let's keep it relatively simple--a few trees in the larger forest. 

-There were 20+ panels this year with themes relevant to disability! The "Advanced Search" option for the schedule should allow one to seek these out. 

-An "Accessibility Desk" that requires physical access in order to seek assistance is...ironic. The Accessibility Desk should have an associated hotline for phone queries from conference attendees, with either a TTY or real-time text messaging option for those who are D/deaf. 

-AWP Conference events explicitly affiliated with disability (or upon request) should be assigned rooms with accessible performance spaces--ramps to a stage, or no stage at all--and the doors to such rooms have push buttons, or assigned attendants who will manually open / close doors for conference-goers for the duration of the event. Ideally this would be the case for ALL events, but I'll take what I can get. (Photo of stairs leading to the stage in the room for Friday's Disabled & D/deaf Writer's Caucus, courtesy of Jennifer Marie Bartlett. The group circled around on the floor instead.)

And I want to say here: it'd be unfair to put blame on the current events coordinator for failure to serve all constituencies and needs simultaneously. One person cannot be everywhere. AWP needs to hire a professionally trained coordinator responsive to ADA compliance issues, or sponsor that training in-house, and that person should then be compensated for time spent responding specifically to these issues. 

-AWP has done quite a bit to expand the scope of their "Accessibility Services" in recent years, and that should be applauded. But the requirement that conference participants seeking ASL translation, Cued Speech Transliteration, or CART services file their requests, specific to the panel, a month in advance is ableist. Any AWP Conference-goer can attest that spontaneity and freedom to change plans are hallmarks of the experience. Aware of this issue and hoping to circumvent, at least one set of panel organizers requested translation services on principle--based on the event's stated theme, anticipating audience attendance, wanting to welcome all. This request was met with resistance. 

-The $50 replacement fee for badges is poised to intimidate and disenfranchise those who, because of neurodivergence issues, tend to lose things. Quickly doubling back to grab a forgotten badge may not be realistic for someone with mobility issues. There needs to be stated accommodations for those with complicating medical conditions when it comes to badge replacement. 

-Caucus meetings need to be scheduled in a manner sensitive to intersectionality, and should not "compete" by being given the same time slot. (Thanks to Metta S├íma for orienting me to the importance of this.)

Did you notice this, when you looked at the Conference Schedule grid?

...regardless of intent, stacking caucuses in the schedule undermines people's efforts to advocate in regards to multiple identity issues. They are forced to choose. 

Fierce and talented people such as Quintan Ana Wikswo have written about this. Fierce and talented people such as Stephen Kuusisto have written about this.

Make no mistake, there are people within the structure of AWP, on the staff and on the board, who prioritize these issues. There are others who do not. The only way change will happen is if those who wish to make policy changes, and allocate the budget to implement them, can point to a significant constituency that shares these concerns. Those lobbying can't just be those directly impacted. We need allies. 

I spent my first decade in the writing community opting out of open affiliation with disability. I compensated for my needs and refused to ask for help or accommodation; I hid reactions when in literary spaces. I say this with embarrassment but also empathy for my younger self, because I believed that to incorporate the realities of a medicalized body made me less attractive as a writer. That is a stance conditioned and affirmed, over and over, by our society. This is also a privilege of my having a disability that, though chronic, can be managed largely through preemptive action and only periodically manifests itself.

The literary world has a long way to go in incorporating and honoring writers with disability. Those creating syllables, anthologies, and reading series with an eye towards "diversity" rarely factor representing writers with disability the same way they might actively seek out representation of queer voices or voices or color. Submittable, other online submission formats, and websites of journals? Often not accessible for those who have visual impairment. Even when articles and books written by those with disability and chronic illness receive standalone attention, there is a tendency to frame out a fight narrative, featuring a traditional plot arc of conflict, catharsis, and resolution--and oooh, bonus if you're cured. This is inspiration porn.

Fierce and talented people such as Karrie Higgins have written about this.

Fierce and talented people such as Alaina Leary have written about this. 
Fierce and talented people such as Tipsy Tullivan make videos about this and good glory, if you have not seen these you are missing out. 

I revisited this decision to pass as living without disability when I published a memoir and cultural history of food allergies in 2011. Because of amazing and forthright readers, I found myself in conversation with people experiencing anxiety, exclusion, and outright discrimination because of their own dietary restrictions. To not speak up, as someone gifted with a book contract in tandem with my own pervasive and life-changing dietary restrictions, would be pretty damn hypocritical. 

Here's the thing about speaking up: it's terrifying. And you will get it wrong. 

You. Will. Get. It. Wrong. You will need to apologize, occasionally. You will need to listen, always. You will need to accept that your ego (used to being articulate and accurate and elegant, as so many writers pride themselves on being) is less important than the opportunity to learn.

I say this as someone who often gets it wrong. Who once met a favorite poet, one with quadriplegia, and promptly attempted a handshake. Who sometimes forgets the importance of using the microphone, even if you can project your voice. Who prefers to speak extemporaneously and sometimes balks at preparing scripted handouts. Who had to take a step back and realize her classroom practice had, for years, advantaged those who speak quickly and clearly. Who works with a nonprofit in D.C. that she loves, but has stairs instead of ramps and no operating fund for translation services. Who in the past used the metaphors of "sight" and "blindness" unmindfully, without respect to those whose literal experiences are being appropriated. 

I am speaking up not as a role model, but as someone who can do better. I figure it out day to day. I screw up day to day, but I'm trying.

I'm astonished by the number of writers in our community who prefer to avoid accessibility issues entirely, versus risking getting it wrong. Are you clear on what you're pushing to the margins? People. Fellow writers. Voices you need to hear. Voices that--guess what--might someday include your own. Living with disability is something that can happen to anyone, at any time. 

For two AWP events, I made a request in writing to my fellow panelists: "Please bring a few extra copies of any poems you intend to read printed in large font (~14 point), double-spaced, on paper you can give away to an audience member. This gesture is endorsed by the Disabled & D/Deaf Writers Caucus as a way of welcoming and including those with hearing difficulty, who may struggle to follow your reading in real time in a noisy space." I wasn't asking for anything extraordinary--AWP (again, to their credit) already has this embedded in their guidelines for presentations.

One person complied. (Nicky Beer! She rocks.) We made an announcement early on, offering handouts for those with need. Every available copy I had was claimed and I wished I'd had more. The demand is real. The opportunity to include is real. 

This year's AWP Survey gives you thirteen options to describe your gender, and seven options to describe your race/ethnicity.

...all those options, all that awareness, yet the AWP Survey does not have a checkbox under "Attendee Demographics" inviting you to self-identify as a writer living with disability. Much less a break-out for sensory impairment, mobility impairment, neurodivergence, and other categories--all of which would help them protect the specific needs of conference-goers. The only reference to disability is the opportunity to rate the "Accessibility Desk" as a "most helpful" or "least helpful" factor in one's conference experience. That's a funny phrasing, because checking "least helpful" can be interpreted as least relevant to my needs. When in reality, checking "least helpful" might mean biggest letdown.

Do I want to celebrate the things that we, as a literary community, do well? Of course. I love writers. I bring a deep, abiding, and celebratory spirit to moving through this world as a writer. That said: we can do better. We have to.