Thursday, May 29, 2008

Report from the chain-gang.

One of the courses I teach is a graduate poetry workshop (I'm teaching it now). The convention is that students submit poems they've written, and class time is spent reading and discussing the students' work, identifying its strengths and weaknesses with an eye toward improving the work as it is revised. It's a good model—the whole sounding-board thing provides a (more or less) impartial response, so that the writer can discover what's getting communicated well, and what's not making it to the reader.

Because I think you can't write well without reading much, I make them read much. I teach a couple of poetry collections at the start of the term, and then I make the students each teach one book of poems at some point as the semester continues, so that we usually discuss one book per class session all term.

The upside is that we get to read a lot of poetry—and not the choppy and random selection found in anthologies, but whole collections, arranged (one hopes) deliberately by the writer, with an argumentative arc and some stylistic/thematic/technical unity. It’s like listening to a good album rather than having the iPod on shuffle (and less and less they understand that distinction, I’m sorry to say). And we read a variety, since the students each pick the text they teach and their tastes tend to be wildly disparate; it opens the door to conversation on a wide range of topics in poetic theory and craft.

But here’s the downside, which is playing out with consistency and vigor this term: sometimes I just LOATHE the books they choose to teach. For a variety of reasons, this term's students have—by sheer chance—decided upon books of poetry that have a particular and shared axe to grind. Now, because THEY’RE doing the teaching, I don’t have to come to class having tunneled into the criticism on these texts. But I do have to read them, and read them thoroughly and responsibly, and at least come up with some craft-related insight...which isn’t easy when the poems seem lazy, predictable, and/or downright propaganda. And I don’t want to spend all my comments talking about the books as if they were negative examples, because someone in the room picked that book out of some sense of aesthetic sympathy, and I’m not looking to say to them, “Clearly, your poetic sensibilities are juvenile.”

And again, I have to read them. Closely. And it’s killing my writing to have so much plodding and artless language filling up my life these days.


***Just for the record: I am aware that if my big complaint is that I have to read bad poetry, I should probably not bitch about my job. It's a pretty good gig, all things considered.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Useful skills.

Today, in anticipation of my taking possession and his moving out, Kids'FabDad and I went through the entire house, so that he could show me how to work and maintain all the things I'd never taken apart myself. We summer-ized the swamp cooler, replacing filtration pads and hose-bib washers and waterproofing the reservoir; we replaced the furnace air filter; we disassembled the gas heater and put it back together; we shut off the water to the house at the main line....etc.

It made me realize how much I have managed not to learn to do, how much I relied on him to take care of the mechanical and maintenance stuff. I'm pretty capable in that handy sort of way, but I've never had the time or need to learn to do these things myself. He repeatedly said that he'd come over and help out anytime I had a problem or needed help, but he wanted me to feel ownership over all the machines.

I'm a little nervous to have sole responsibility over all that can go wrong in a house. But after all that tinkering and handymanning today, I actually do feel better able to handle it. I like the sense of independence--or maybe it's an expanded sense of self-confidence--that follows from playing around with tools.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Take 2.

Hey! My book is in print! It's oranger than I expected it would be, but now the several folks I've really wanted to share it with can give it a look-see. That's pretty cool.

Plus, it stole its cover art from George Wither's 1644 Emblemes, because THAT, baby, is precisely the kind of geek I am.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Slow turning.

The wheels of publishing move very, very slowly.

Yesterday, I received, without any warning, a big box in the mail. Inside: hard copies of my most recent book. (Poetry, folks; not the scholarly book that's going to be the death of me.) Amazon has it listed as coming out late June/early July, so I didn't expect to see it until then, but for some reason, it shipped to me before it will be available to ship to anyone else. So that's cool--like I have an inside track on something in this little instance. (Except that, having written it, my track was already pretty much inside.)

But I find myself experiencing this strange disconnect, a detachment from this moment of publication. It's interesting to see the material artifact, to hold it in my hand, to see what the font looks like on paper as opposed to on the computer screen..... But I don't get any sense of jubilation, triumph, satisfaction, or whatever I used to imagine I would feel on handling a book with my name on the cover. (The same thing has happened before, and with all the periodical publications along the way.) My theory is that so much time elapses between when the contract gets signed and when the book is produced that all sense of accomplishment has been well and thoroughly overtaken by, you know, life. I did, after all, do a little jig and treat myself to a decent meal when the contract got signed, and that moment did look toward/ encompass this one.

On one hand, I suppose it's good and healthy not to fetishize one's little productions. But on the other hand, I keep thinking that I ought to be able to muster up more than a blase' shrug.


Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Academic kindness

There's this Big Famous Scholar in my Field, at another university halfway across the country, and he and I have become friendly, mostly by email. He just emailed me to offer encouragement on my book proposal (he kindly asked to look it over a couple of months ago and gave helpful suggestions), and offered to be identified as a reference for its quality, and encouraged me to drop his name when I contact publishers.

I find myself a little bit teary with gratitude at this communication. Not because it's a guarantee of any publishing success, because c'mon; and not so much because of his much-respected intellectual validation of the project. But really, I'm so totally moved by the kind gesture of his unprompted note of encouragement.

So much of academia is characterized by mental insularity and self-absorption--or at least, that's certainly been the default atmosphere as I've jumped the various hurdles of the academic life. (Weirdly? no perspective on whether it's weird... Anyone out there have a different kind of experience?) I remember when I was studying for my phd qualifying exam, and had to prepare a couple of lengthy reading lists in my historical field and another in an additional field of specialization: not a single person who'd gone through the process before would let me look at their lists for guidance. Same stone wall when I asked to see people's job application letters. And, post-PhD, it continued with the third-year review file. And now, tenure file. And book proposal documents (prospectus etc.). In each case, a template would have been useful--not because I need to plagiarize, but so that I could get a sense of what that particular document looks like, what its protocols and conventions are. Now, I've made it my tiny little mission to share my completed documents to anyone who asks, in part because I was so frustrated (and, in truth, a little tiny bit hurt) in my efforts to find models for my own documents.

It's in this context that I feel so grateful for the support of BFS, who seems to regard his great success as an opportunity to mentor and guide those coming up after him. I heart him.

Friday, May 2, 2008

"Break" is over.

I had ten days between the end of last term and the beginning of the short spring term I'm teaching. During those ten days, I graded. And graded. And went to a conference. And proofread a tremendous amount of text in a foreign language in preparation of its going to press. And added elegant BS to the tenure file. And tried to devote all waking hours of attention to the kids. And proofed divorce documents.

So, not really so much a break.

And I'm beginning to suspect that the schedule for completing my MS, which I've articulated and distributed to a couple of presses in my book proposal, is perhaps overly ambitious, not to say impossible. (But then, why not to say it, since it seems to be true?) I'm hoping I can get at least a little work done on it during this short spring term, and then eat and breathe 17c poetry this summer. (Except, of course, when I'm hiking, camping, and so forth with kids, and trying to remember that being a human being is more important, in the long run, than producing a book that no one is panting to read.)

In other news:

* A particular, and particularly soulful, Irish singer-songwriter is playing tonight at a club in town, opening (if you can believe that) for a couple of musicians whose recent film work has given them a high profile. It's sold out. I'm trying to plot a way to talk my way in just for the opening act, perhaps promising the bouncer that I'll leave and make room for the ticketholders when his set finishes, perhaps by contacting the opening act himself; I have a strong history of talking my way into concerts, so I'm feeling confident about that...but what to do with the kids if I can pull it off....? If I do, I'll be happy to count tonight as my "break."