Last Wednesday, after teaching my TWC workshop at the Hill Center--a wonderful group of eleven students, sacrificing a bit of their summer for six sessions of poetry--I looked at the round-up of links I had for a blog post, and thought, "I'll just write this in the morning." Except in the morning, I found out my grandmother had died.
Many people in the literary world has had a strange past week, where the waves of news have included the seeming implosion of an independent press, the exposure of a fraudulent agent, the revelation of a serial manipulator in our midst, and the publication of an offensively lousy poem in a prominent forum. Then we discovered water seeping through the floor of our living room. The universe, it seems, is trying every which way to keep me from taking pleasure in poetry.
But I'm going to stay my course, in part because I'm so determined to finish my manuscript by the end of the summer. Even on the days otherwise unproductive I've tried for a bit of revising, tinkering, fussing with order. For the first time in my adult life, I've invested in plants, pots, and dirt--and belief that I can cultivate and sustain with my time, that I can grow things. And I'm thinking a lot about what makes a poem a worthwhile endeavor, why we do what we do.
Allison Titus is a writer I've been following and appreciating for a while now, and in a recent interview with Bennington Review she says this:
When I get excited about a poem, it’s always the same way, that I respond most to poets/poems that arrest me and startle me back to attention (to the world, to life, to living) all over again, in some strange or intense manner: I’m always mostly desperate to be staggered/astonished/undone (by the world and thus by language). I just really all the time want to be rearranged; Robert Creeley is really good at doing this to me (“I heard words / and words full / of holes / aching. Speech / is a mouth.”). When I’m working on my own poems, I like most to be surprised by something that develops/materializes in the way that feels as “true” as it feels wild, crucial, off-kilter.
This captures something really right to me, something essential. One of the things I've emphasized recently, in teaching and editing as well as my own work, is the importance of making space for the wild unknown. We often use the rhetoric of a poem's "landscape," but in this context the cartography is both science and art--we need to admit and honor elements that surprise us, that don't fit on first glance. This feels especially important as I work on a fourth collection, and gently resist my natural inclination to plot and plan as a way of easing anxiety over how little control I have over where and how this book lands.
Our Writer's Center workshop is called "The Poem Comes Alive," which is an excellent excuse to emphasize what Titus refers to as "poems that arrest me and startle [us] back to attention." With that in mind I gave the students "Homecoming Cistern Alien Vessel," by Gabrielle Calvocoressi. To start, we considered the mainstream tropes associated with "alien" exchanges, whether entreaty to a new world or return to a "home"; this turned out to be something folks in the room were quite thoughtful about, thanks in part to the manifestation of these themes in cinema.
`Much of what Calvocoressi does is employ the power of simple dislocations of language, such as in the description: "No more // need to make the shape of a machete / with my mouth. Pushing up up up the tired / sides that want to drop below my teeth."...which on one hand engages a familiar idea of forcing a smile, but on the other hand is so much more estranged. Or a few stanzas later, there's a quick twist from the threat of overt sentimentality to something more wry and cynical, via the enjambed sentence "And my arms open and my life / coming in and out of the “ATM."" Life, it seems, is an expensive commodity.
All of this is ramps up to core concerns: the limitations of body as vessel; the peril of a self-congratulatory identity that wants to be liberal and generous, yet is inextricable to mechanisms of consumption and oppression; the question of how to love or welcome the self, once that admission is made: "My pink skin / a sail full of indignation. My eyes pitching // across the feed. It is so good to be home / and yet. I have a ship inside. How can / the organ welcome me? I’m not a sow // on her worst day. Which would be what? / Breaking from the barn? Eating all the acorns / and rolling in the mud? No. // Her worst would be at my hands / and on my plate for supper."
Lordy, an electric poem. If the reader juxtaposes it with another recent one, "Mayflower Cistern I Feel My Pilgrim Worry," a sense emerges of a poet wrestling with inheritance and privilege. These are not novel themes, but Calvocoressi approaches with a wonderment of language and image that is really remarkable.
***An aside: If you're looking for an online class and you read this before August 6, I'd urge you to sign up for Calvocoressi's "Fantastic Worlds In The Realest Poems: How Fantasy Fiction Might Help Our Hardest Realities Bloom" (the class runs 8/6 though 8/31). I've never regretted sending a student in the direction of 24PearlStreet, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown's virtual learning space.
***Another aside: Allison Titus has a new, letter-press chapbook with the folks at Barrelhouse called Sob Story: The History of Crying, and though I haven't ordered my copy yet, I'm betting money ($10, to be exact) that it's worth your time.
Other poems I've read or re-read this past week, ones that "rearranged" me and come to life on the page:
*blinks in bright light of day*
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:
- "Beyond Special Issue: Some Trans / GNC Thought on Literary Ethic," by Chase Berggrun, Jos Charles, jayy dodd, Kam Hilliard, TC Tolbert, and Candace Williams
- "Junot Díaz and the Problem of the Male Self-Pardon," by Lili Loofbourow
- "Not Fleeing," by Lesley Wheeler
- "Wounded Elders: On Racial Identity and Reviewing," by Paisley Rekdal (okay, okay, this last one is from July)
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.