September 16, 2016

Sharon Olds & Close Reading

There was a whole lotta rejoicing among poets when the Academy of American Poets announced that Sharon Olds has received this year's Wallace Stevens Award, which recognizes mastery of poetry and carries a $100,000 cash prize. The portrait above is Vogue's version of Olds. While a reminder of her beauty, the version I've encountered in person is more endearing--spectacled, with a constellation of clips and barrettes holding back her thick, long hair. Whenever anyone mentions the need for a more professional haircut because of having reached A Certain Age, and I start to wonder about myself, I picture Sharon Olds and think, Nope. I'm keeping it long and unruly. 

I've spent so many years looking up to her work, taking permission and inspiration for my own poems from collections such as The Living and The Dead and The Gold Cell. When I was in college, I gave my mother a copy of Blood, Tin, and Straw, hoping we could form some kind of mother-daughter book club. But I haven't gotten to spend much time with Olds in person. I've spotted her at a AWPs but she seemed both shy and rushed, and I was afraid of bothering her. When we both read at The New School for the 2010 Best American Poetry anthology, she mouthed "I love that poem" as I returned to my seat on stage after reading "Unit of Measure." I about died of happiness. I still didn't have the courage to strike up a conversation. I also spent the rest of the reading trying to see the audience from behind Gerald Stern's hat.

Navigating the creative writing world post-MFA, in the later 2000s, I had sometimes encountered a weird vibe surrounding her work...a weariness? a wariness? I'd mention Sharon Olds as a favorite, then feel like I had to defend myself--and her--the same instinct I had in mentioning Sylvia Plath, another "infamous" poet "of sex and psyche," which is how Billy Collins once described Olds. 

When a poet has disproportionate influence over a subsequent generation, one easy way for insecure colleagues to diminish that accomplishment is to claim that the poet in question only has one stylistic mode; one story to tell. I see this sniping happen over and over. I see this happening now. But when Olds published Stag's Leap in 2012, a collection as powerful as anything she has ever written, those trying to do that to her had to bite their tongues. I didn't just carry that book around; I clutched it to my chest. 

One way we develop as poets is by expanding our ability to show not just affection for a text, but respect. I have a generation of students in front of me, and I want them to take Sharon Olds as seriously as I do. So I don't just use her work as a gateway drug--a quick hit of thematic satisfaction. We slow down. We look at her decisions on a line-by-line, word-by-word basis. We talk about the metaphors and similes that drive "I Go Back to May 1937," the lineation system (that dangling "I"), and the ways in which the poem formally privileges the observer. We read the December 2015 interview she did with Kaveh Akbar at Divedapper. We immerse ourselves in "Stag's Leap," a study of the in media res opening:

Then the drawing on the label of our favorite red wine
looks like my husband, casting himself off a
cliff in his fervor to get free of me.....

I'm always urging my students toward close reading in their annotations and critical essays. Cite illustrating lines; apply your craft vocabulary; resist the urge to summarize. If reading is an act of computation, I'm more interested in you showing your work than in whether your final answer matches my own to the decimal point. Don't tell me what the poem is about; tell me what you notice of the poet's concerns. I imagine, at times, all this emphasis on close reading is a bit annoying. 

What I don't say out loud, but what I believe, is that "close reading" is the first step to "canon-building." If we want the poets we love to be taken seriously, it's upon us to give future readers the tools to do so. There's a magic that happens when we go from "I really like this" or "this really moves me" to being articulate how, exactly, the poem is working (or playing) on the page. It's the same magic that happens the first time you point out to a student how Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" is in formal dialogue with the sonnet. One of my longterm projects is a collection of craft essays, and a component of that will be a half-dozen close readings; "I Go Back to May 1937" is at the top of the list. Maybe the next time I see Sharon Olds, I'll have the guts to say hello--and congratulations. 

September 08, 2016

On Being Connected

I accidentally crashed my website. Overwrote the code during a WordPress install for another project. And the theoretical backup didn't do the trick.

If you visit, you might not notice initially--the very first thing I did was re-create the landing page and the two pages most people come to visit ("Upcoming Events" and "For Hire"). But if you start navigating into the page detail for individual books, you'll come up blank. No hi-res cover art, no purchase info, no blurbs, no record of reviews. I'll spend the weekend rounding that stuff up, and re-editing for website display, and hope that by next week it's good as new. 

I would be more devastated if it wasn't something I manage to do every few years. I'm of the cusp generation of modern computer using--we had to take computer science in high school, but we were learning things like Pascal and C++. In other words, when I go into the HTML I know just enough to make a big mistake, and not enough to fix it. 

My first website was part of GeoCities; I was a "homesteader" in the Soho neighborhood, which was designated for pages related to arts and writing. Once buying your own domain became a thing--and once I realized there were other Sandra Beasleys out there--I bought the URL of my name and created my first standalone website, painstakingly cobbling together code copied from how-tos. Black background, white font, with bumble-bee yellow accents. Frames and animated gifs were a big deal. 

My "about the author" entry was a painfully long, awkwardly personal and yet third-person account of my life to date. The drawbacks of oversharing became obvious when I sat down to dinner with a potential suitor. I made the usual small talk of volunteering facts about myself--grew up in Virginia, daughter of an Army general and a visual artist--only to be met with a muted response. He'd already looked up my website. 

Then blogging came along, and this space (with its blessed WYSIWYG editor) became the repository of quirky stories and passing interests. WordPress put professional design within reach. I took at step back and re-conceptualized a website as a streamlined, relatively static resource for a professional career.  

The fundamental elements of a good author website:

-Name, at least one photo, professional bio note
-Titles of any books or genres in which you write
-Major media coverage for any publications
-Recent and upcoming activities--readings, festivals
-Services for which you're available 
-Hi-res, easily downloadable files for publicity
-Instructions for how to contact the author or a rep

It's important that no one ever need to click more than twice to access content. I think it's better to link outward when you can--whether to a Twitter feed, a YouTube channel, or a lit mag's page--rather than trying to aggregate everything under one roof. That's it, really. Add a shopping cart element, if you have pubs that aren't distributed through traditional or online retail channels. Be sure to look at the site on a cell phone, and an iPad, to see what transitions smoothly and what gets buggy.

(That "buggy" came to mind dates me to the days of running a compiler on my code.)

The last time I crashed my website was in 2015, two days before Count the Waves came into the world. I had no choice but to simultaneously rebuild my website while keeping the conversation going here, on Facebook, and on Twitter. In those moments, it is reasonable to wonder if it is all worth it, this availability. The words I put into the world as an "author" vastly outnumbers the number of words I publish in poems and nonfiction. There is something undeniably strange about that.

Is my website any putting information in people's hands that they couldn't get via Google search or an email query? Does anyone actually read this blog, in the weeks when the only comment I get is a spambot promising twenty-pound weight loss? How many positive Facebook threads counterbalance a random attack or painful misinterpretation? Am I spending the energy of what could have been a paying freelance piece into a series of 140-character shouts into the void? 

I don't know, to be honest. None of us do. Writers manage this question of how much to connect, and the vulnerability that creates, day by day. This morning, a spiteful comment to a friend's blog had her debating whether to deactivate her Facebook account. Another friend only dips his feet into that water twice a year. I know authors who have had great success, who travel the world with their work, all without the aid of a website or blog or Tumblr. They have never lost a night's sleep trying to correct something on an outdated Wikipedia page. 

There is no magic formula. No one teaches you how to handle this in graduate school. One writer's joy of networking is another writer's personal hell. Every author stands at a unique crossroads of free time, experience, tech savvy, thick or thin skin, financial resources, sense of humor, and desire, all of which shapes the extent to which they do or don't connect beyond the page. I've been part conversations where poets were described as being really putting themselves "out there," a judgment that can quickly turn uncharitable--as if he or she is overcompensating for average talent with supersize social media savvy. I don't believe that, but I understand where the sentiment comes from. Connecting is a privilege and a gift. It's also a skill set. 

In Illinois, a high school English teacher's final assignment to his students was to artistically depict a line of poetry from the semester's readings. One of his students chose to illustrate "The Piano Speaks."

For an hour I was a maple tree, 
and under the summer of his fingers  
the notes seeded and winged away  

in the clutch of small, elegant helicopters.

I'm going to try and hold on to the exhilaration of seeing my poem translated into these bright hues this weekend, as I tinker away for hours in WordPress's Customizr template, trying to redo what was undone. I'm also going to try and remember my delight and pride--years ago--in figuring out how to turn a link from blue to purple after it had been visited. I'm going to tell myself, as I always do, that the website will be a little bit better this time around. 

There has been a few times someone has said "You're so out there" to me, then paused. I think we're both unsure, in that moment, whether they mean it as a compliment. Yet every time I feel the urge to withdraw, I get pulled back. I only know about this homage to "The Piano Speaks" because that high school teacher felt comfortable sending it my way (and passed along permission to share it here). He texted it to me this morning. Because he has my cell phone number. Day by day, we navigate.

August 29, 2016

Syllabizing the Essay

When American University asked if I could teach a section of creative nonfiction this fall, I was thrilled. I've spent much of this year strategizing and drafting essays, so their craft is on my mind right now. Although I get to engage both genres as part of the faculty for the University of Tampa's low-res MFA program, poetry commands most of my time and my student assignments. Also, AU is the program that sent me out into the world as a writer; the first alumnus portrait that comes up on their splash page shows Derrick Weston Brown, one of my classmates from days of workshopping poems with Henry Taylor, Myra Sklarew, and Cornelius Eady. 

I decided to emphasize essays that incorporate lyric energy, by which I mean energy that is grounded in perception by (or will of) the author over the material, versus a topic’s intrinsic narrative or suspense centered in plot. Signature elements of a lyric essay usually include framing figurative language, raw juxtapositions, and unconventional structures--for example, a personal revelation embedded within a seemingly objective encyclopedia entry. Poets who crossover to nonfiction are often drawn to lyric forms, which I have written about here.

The great thing about teaching a class you've never taught before is that you get to envision everything from scratch--no preconceptions of the canon, nothing you're loyal to simply because you know it well. The terrifying things about a class you've never taught before is assembling a syllabus from scratch. I chose two core texts to anchor the workshop, which meets on Mondays, and will always include at least twenty minutes of craft talk before we segue to discussing student drafts. 

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction is a very straightforward and democratic guide, edited by Dinty Moore. Each contributor--including Bret Lott, Robin Hemley, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and Norma Elia CantĂș--offers a brief essay on different aspects of flash nonfiction, accompanied by a prompt and an exemplar. Other than his introduction to the form and, implicitly, his shaping of the table of contents, Moore's voice is absent from the RMP anthology; he is happy to step back and let the contributors speak for themselves. 

In contrast, The Next American Essay, part of John D'Agata's trilogy of anthologies for Graywolf, embraces subjectivity. D'Agata's voice is interspersed throughout the collection, which is arranged chronologically from 1975 into the early 2000s, via prose-passages that comment on the particular moment in American literature--and sometimes D'Agata's personal biography, and sometimes the larger pop culture. I don't know if the students will find those passages useful; I don't know if they'll find them at all. I cherrypicked individual essays from within a slightly overwhelming (if very well curated) 450+ pages. Then, because that selection lacked pieces of the last decade, I added another nine pieces of my choosing. 

So these are authors whose essays we will give a close reading to:

John McPhee 
Barry Lopez 
James Wright 
Harry Matthews 
Eliot Weinberger 
Dennis Silk
Fabio Morabito 
Susan Mitchell 
Sherman Alexie 
Susan Griffin 
Carole Maso 
Mary Ruefle 
Thalia Field 
Jenny Boully 
Eula Biss
Maggie Nelson
Kiese Laymon
Roxane Gay
Sarah Einstein
Carmella Guiol
Camille Dungy

In addition, we have two weeks where we do not meet, so I've suggested hefty longform pieces--Joan Didion's "the White Album" and David Foster Wallace's "Ticket to the Fair," both conveniently anthologized by D'Agata --as supplemental reading. 

Toward the end of my syllabus, I've included "A Note about the Reading":

It is not your imagination if you find this reading list intensive. We have essays by thirty-some authors, plus lengthy suggested readings for the two weeks we do not meet in person. We will not always have a chance to discuss the readings fully, given the demands of our schedule. 

Here is my motive: being well read as a writer is a form of currency. If you stay in the publishing world, you will find yourself part of a thousand conversations in which the names of authors are dropped. When that happens, I have found that if I have even one genuine point of reference—that one essay I read, for that one class—I can contribute to the conversation with confidence. When I have no familiarity with the author, I’m a little embarrassed. I fall silent. 

So our reading list is intended to fill your coffers, Scrooge McDuck-style.

This is a pass / fail course with no pop quizzes. There may be days when you skim the reading and lay low during discussion, and no one is the wiser. That doesn’t make you a bad person—we all have weeks when we fall behind and need to cut ourselves some slack. But if you choose that path consistently, just be aware that you’re missing out. These readings, one and all, are ones that I wish that I’d gotten to digest during my MFA years. 

In addition to the reading, they'll be writing two longform essays, which I hope will incorporate lyric elements inspired by the readings, and four flash nonfiction pieces inspired by Rose Metal Press prompts. How will it all turn out? I have no idea. But I'm excited to find out. Class starts in the three hours.