Tuesday, May 25, 2010

If I slept with a laptop on my belly, the damned thing'd be done by now.

Every night these days: writing dreams, most of them dramatizing a crucial point of discovery which I am furiously typing to record when I wake....

Sunday, May 23, 2010

In which I am indignant that no one has thought of this before, and speak a bit too overtly about my subject

Because here's the thing about EQUESTRIAN TRAINING: it seems ever so to depart from the kinds of things that Herbert scholars tend to obsess about. Indeed, it seems in its very existence a big stuck-out tongue to the kinds of issues that tend to get attached to the pious minister of Bemerton. But the reason I like Herbert, and the period generally, is that they're all freaked the hell out in exactly the same ways we are, though the archaic accent may throw us PoMos off. I read Donne, and Crashaw, and all the young dudes of the 17C precisely because they resonate with me in ways that the mannered 18C doesn't, in the way the we-feel-existentially-coherent-enough-for-narrative 18-19Cs don't. So why shouldn't EQUESTRIAN TRAINING, which articulates so well the way poetry responds to these kinds of freakouts, illuminate Herbert? To suggest radical difference between Herbert and, say, me (as a 21C writer), is to be reductive and insulting to both Herbert and me, right? Right?

Friday, May 21, 2010


Which is what my sibs and I call a tired rear-end. I think I need to buy a new office chair. My current one is an old (= my parents', when they married) dining chair. Its padding has worn a little thin. At the end of the day I think "new chair," but then forget until the end of the next day. And then I think "not enough money-flow," and "I'll reward myself with a new chair when I finish the book." And yes, I can see the flaw in that plan.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

I am quirky, hear me roar!

My first mentor was a formidable figure in the world of American poetry. He was supportive and invested in me at a time when I had no conception that one could even pursue a career in writing (remember that I converted from the sciences, largely due to my first mentor's encouragement). I was awed and honored to have his support, and, not surprisingly, I produced lots of poems that bore more than passing resemblance to the work he did, meditating on the issues that haunted him. Hero-worship, yes, but also the oldest-child Pleaser in me.

When I was finishing my first graduate degree, I was fortunate to be taken under the wing of a very, very smart older scholar and poet, a person who has, literally, written the book on lyric poetry, and many fine works of poetry and criticism alike, for which he was justly decorated. I took classes with him and learned much, but he also allowed me to do a kind of private poetry tutorial with him once a week--like a workshop, but smarter and more brutal in tone. After I'd been meeting with him like this for about 8 months, he said to me, gruffly but not unkindly, "Ms. RG, you are lively, and loud, and sort of a geek. You are interested in strange scientific phenomena. You are playful. Why do you write the meditative poems of a 65-year-old man obsessed with death? Where is your voice?"

The question took me aback. And, though it took a year for me to process it and comprehend what he was saying, his insight changed my style as a writer, wholly. And, I think, for the better--if only because the stuff I produce is recognizably me.

That's sort of what happened to me when our department arranged that works-in-progress workshop with the visiting hotshot not of my field last year. And it's taken me, again, over a year to process it fully. (I'm a muller.) But in the last week, as I've really found my rhythm in this Herbert chapter, I've understood it anew. It's not just a matter of finding what I'm interested in. It is, in fact, finding the contribution that ONLY I can make to this long conversation--not because I'm this dazzlingly original thinker, but because I have tools in my little pouch that folks like, say, SF and RS and MS and even JS and HA and all those other supersmart scholars, don't have. I'm not talking about intellectual skills, but my own little hobbyhorses. RW is a good reader, but he just hasn't done enough (to rescue some measure of discretion and exploit the last sentence's metaphoric potential) EQUESTRIAN TRAINING to find this cool thing I'm arging in Herbert.

I think we sometimes forget, as scholars in the humanities, that it's our humanity that makes our contribution to the conversation interesting.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Once the spigot opens....

I am on record in various places (including here) noting that, for me, writing poetry and writing critical prose are not distinct activities, but rather the same activity expressed in two formally different modes. So it shouldn't be a surprise that, in the last couple of weeks, as I've been able to focus on the scholarly stuff full-bore, the poetry-production side of things so long dormant (put to sleep, no doubt, by class prep and all those bad student poems I have to respond to) is roused as by a jacked-up rooster. I've finished 3 very, very slowly percolating poems in the last two weeks, which for me is an astonishing rate of composition. I'm spending all of every day my kids aren't with me thinking about how language works. It's only natural that I should, you know, think about how language works, even when the computer is turned off for the day.

Friday, May 14, 2010

(Just Like) Starting Over

Ah, Herbert chapter. Our life together, albeit of relatively short duration, has taken a turn. We have grown. We have grown.

I know about myself that my tendency is to start with an idea and then write my way into an argument. Which in practical terms means that I have to adjust my focus based on what new, clearer, argument emerges in the process of writing an essay. But I have to say that I always hate that part, because it usually means that I have to scrap what I've been writing and begin again, this time with an eye toward the argument that actually developed (as opposed to the vague idea I may have thought I was pursuing). It's part of the process, I know. But it's always disheartening to have to scrap 10 pages or so and begin again. It makes the time one's put in so far feel futile, pointless. (Though I know that's not the case--the clearer argument COMES from its long, and now invisible, preamble.)

A-ha! I FOUND you, you wily little bastard. I mean, my argument.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Economy of Mind

Well, two paragraphs today, despite the fact that last night's sleep was marred by academic insomnia: you know, when you can't sleep for worrying about 1) the project at hand, 2) the immediate point you're trying to make, and 3) your ability to do it. You lie there trying to convince yourself that sleep is the best ingredient for productivity, but you are harrowed by self-doubt, exacerbated by the news that your esteemed nemesis's book is under contract.

And by "you," I mean "me," obviously.

I woke this morning thinking how ridiculous it is that I should have felt so harrowed. It's not as if the currency of ideas in society moved the way the film Wall Street imagines money: that I only win if someone else loses, and vice versa. Ideas are infinitely generated, and generative. (Though that may now also be the case with money, according to some derivatives traders.) It's really NOT the case that my nemesis's book means I don't get one. It's ACTUALLY TRUE that the presence of my nemesis's book helps me, by continuing to stir up the conversation I so wish to enter into, by keeping it relevant.

I deal with this notion of a finite Economy of Mind a lot in the Po-Biz. There are, let's just say, five book prizes. If Magical Poetry Queen wins one (or, more accurately, if Neruda wins one), then, the logic goes, that's one less that I can win. I'm not sure whether I buy into that sophistry in the Po-Biz--I do know it breeds snark--but I know I don't buy into it in the field of scholarly writing. And I also know that the nemesis's book contract is NOT my loss, either in terms of the Economy of Mind or in real terms, not least because his press was not one I was interested in working with. I truly do wish him well, and want his good work to get read, and hope that his book demonstrates to all publishers everywhere the urgency of the questions at the heart of his/ my respective investigations.

I think my insomnia can be chalked up to my own sense of my timetable. I wanted to be done with this book well before now. And then I had a few years when life intervened, in various forms. And now, I simply can't mother and teach and produce at high rates all at the same time (which is why this leave is so vital for me--carving out as it does time DURING MY KIDS' SCHOOL YEAR, when many hours of every day are mine alone). But suddenly I am aware that the person with whom I had been moving more or less in tandem has gone on without me, and it makes me feel like I've lost a race--not with my nemesis, but with my own check-list, with my own potential.

Bleargh. Whatever. I've done two paragraphs today, and they're chunky enough. Tonight I get to make dinner for a friend (couscous with caramelized onions, braised Moroccan carrots, and fava bean sauce; wilted dandelion greens with roasted garlic vinaigrette). Tomorrow begins the Mother's Day Weekend Spectacular, with all its attendant cuteness. I'll get the book done this year, and it will certainly be better, smarter, more capacious and less naive--richer, in terms of the mind's economy--than it would have been if I'd finished it a couple of years ago.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

My nemesis.

I don't think I've mentioned my nemesis before. It seems impolitic and catty to admit to having a nemesis, and only announces my own insecurity, but there I am. My nemesis is racing to write a book on a topic very similar to, but not identical to, the book I am racing to write. He has published on many of the same figures I have published on. He and I are interested in a lot of the same historical/ religious/ representational issues. The distinctions between his arguments and mine are sometimes very subtle, and I fear that he may get his into print before I do. This terrifies and angers small and precarious me, because I don't want my project to get pre-empted by his, or to be seen in comparison as theoretically clumsy, or less elegant in its readings.

But I have to say that as a nemesis, my nemesis sucks. He seems to have no earthly idea of what it means to be a nemesis. Has he never read a comic book? Never seen Othello? Avoided the Star Trek franchise and films by M. Night Shyamalan? Doesn't he follow the NBA playoffs?

First off, he does not behave, at least in public, much like a nemesis. I've crossed paths with him at a couple of conferences, and he is lively and engaged. I've even presented on a panel with him once. Could he not feel the antagonist-protagonist electricity between us? He was--or, cagily, seemed to be peaceably unaware of it. In fact, he performed the role of Eager Colleague with admirable aplomb, and has since made friendly contact by email in which he's happily acknowledged our mutual interests. The bastard.

Secondly, I admire his work. He's very, very smart, which is what one would expect of a nemesis, obviously. He is simply far more theoretically sophisticated than I am (though I have him beat on philological stuff). And he acts for all the world as if he is using his powers for good--that is, making really cool and insightful arguments, some of which I wish I had made. He is, I suspect, doing scholarship to which I am sympathetic in order to get me to relax my guard against him, so that I will be lulled into interest and persuasion and a lack of desire to nitpick, and then, cruel and sudden, WHAMO!

Finally, and clearly as a result of his nefarious maneuvers, I find myself really wishing he and I were better friends, because I could use his perspective as I struggle through this Herbert chapter. He and I both disagree with two influential studies on this one issue in Herbert, but for different reasons. And I'd like to be able to talk the matter through with someone who is as steeped in this problem, day and night, for better or for worse, as I am. The worst thing about my nemesis, it's starting to appear, is how much I feel I need him, and how little I feel I can communicate that to him.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Grindstone, end week 1.

My goal is modest: write a paragraph a day. That's the goal I set while dissing with an infant, and it worked for me. A paragraph, after all, is usually close to a page, and it requires a good few hours of work to produce. This model allows me to make measurable progress every day without lapsing into self-hatred for not workaholically accomplishing everything in two weeks. And it keeps me from brain-exhaustion, from working beyond sharpness. And if some days I get on a roll and do more than one paragraph, then I'm ahead.

But as I begin this last body-chapter (that is, I have still to write the intro chapter, but that must come last), I am confronted by how little I know about Herbert and the field of Herbert studies. I mean, I have spent so many years working on my other guys that I know the field of their criticism pretty well. But I've only recently realized that Herbert does, after all, play into the topic of this book, and merits a chapter. And I'm clearly a decade behind on him compared with those other guys. So I am writing that paragraph a day--which means that I'm nearing 4 pages now--but these paragraphs are very hard-won. They do all the contextualizing for the chapter, and that's requiring me to read a pile of material very quickly. I'm feeling unprepared and daunted, and not at all authoritative enough to write this chapter.

But then, I don't have to write a chapter. Just one paragraph. And then, the next day, another.