Thursday, September 21, 2006


So I decided to give my students a break from our usual write-a-poem-a-week routine, partly because we have a visiting writer in class next week & won't be workshopping, and partly because it's fall, and to welcome fall, I thought we'd do something more celebratory & communal. I asked my poetry seminar students to type out one poem that serves as a kind of touchstone--one poem that they each return to again and again, or have memorized so they carry it always, one poem that still gives them goosebumps or some kind of visceral response. And to write a paragraph about why they've made their particular selections. We'll read them around the table & talk about them on Monday. I'm hopeful that we'll make some interesting connections, cross-connections.

But this morning, in my foundation seminar, in our warm-up table talk, I realized that several of the students hadn't read much poetry outside of whatever had been assigned to them in high school, and were less likely to have favorite poems in mind (much less in their journals or iPods). So I amended the assignment & asked them to browse both Poetry Daily and Verse Daily to find one poem that grabbed their attention (and then to type it out, write the same paragraph as in Group One).

Does anyone carry poems in their iPods? How awesome to randomly shuffle from Sharon Olds to Yusef Komunyakaa, Sonia Sanchez to Robert Lowell to Alberto Rios and everywhere in between. . .

* * * * *
In the Stadler Center, a series of black-and-white portraits line the hall: photographs of each of the poets-in-residence since 1981, from Carolyn Kizer to Marilyn Chin. We're in the midst of selecting poems to accompany each portrait. (I wish we had the budget to print nice broadsides of each poem!) I get to pick poems by Kizer and Betsy Sholl. Betsy got William Matthews and Jean Valentine. It would be hard for me to pick a Jean Valentine poem: so many feel like part of the same dream language. . .

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


For some reason--well, for obvious reasons--I'm pondering the physicality of the cold: how it physically occupies the body, and, when it leaves, how it does so reluctantly. In difficult, recalcitrant globs that want to remain stuck, gluelike, inside my skull. Out with you. Out with all of you.

* * * * *
I typed up five or so poems from Matthew Zapruder's The Pajamaist yesterday to share with my students & give them some sense of what he's writing. I didn't enjoy the task: these poems make me feel excluded, irrelevant. I feel like I'm spying on Uncle Orson in his attic while he babbles. Other books that take a similar aesthetic approach seem, to me, more engaging; they give more to the reader: examples are Ben Lerner's The Lichtenberg Figures or Dan Beachy-Quick's Spell. This one? --Sorry, not so much.

Somebody out there educate me. Give me a reason to like this stuff.

* * * * *

Monday, September 18, 2006

Onward (through the fog)

--was the favorite phrase of a man I dated briefly in my twenties, just as I came out to my parents. Bruce was older (which meant, to me then, that he was over 30), an ex-Marine, who called me his puppy and wanted me to move with him to a farm he owned in upstate New York. We didn't last long: puppy wanted to sniff around some more.

My cold is waning, though I didn't get much accomplished these past three days. But at least the brunt of the misery occurred over the weekend: it would have sucked to teach my morning classes with constant nose-dribble. Now that I'm up and about, Randy is taking his turn with it. He slept downstairs last night so his coughing wouldn't wake me, and came up to bed at six.

* * * * *
Organizing my teaching notes. Playing the Indigo Girls--All That We Let In--my favorite songs are "Cordova" and "Come On Home."

* * * * *
Teaching Ben Grossberg's chapbook, The Auctioneer Bangs His Gavel, in both my classes this week. Next week he's making a campus visit; I'm really looking forward to that.

* * * * *
I'll be reading a few poems this Saturday, 9/23, with a few local Common Wealth poets at the Susquehanna River Basin Conference here at Bucknell.

* * * * *
Matthew Zapruder is giving a Writers at Work talk here on campus this Friday, 9/22, from 12-1 at the Writing Center, hot on the heels of the Wave Books Poetry Bus Tour stopover.

* * * * *
Off to teach--

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A little help

Passing this along for Scott Hightower:

"A very nice small bi-lingual (Arabic/English) journal in New Orleans which is a single publication with two issues out has contacted me about wanting a lead to anyone at AWP-Atlanta who would be willing to share their table with another small organization/publication: Meena."

"The director/editor of the journal is Andy Young, a poet, teacher, organizer who began this project out of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina. Andy is still living in the French Quarter and working diligently to keep thiswonderful publication afloat. We originally met at AWP New Orleans back when. She took me out to see her lovely city; we walked along Frenchmen Street and took in local live jazz at the 'Spotted Cat!' :-)

"Meena is a high quality publication. It uniquely arranges translations of all of its poems and publishes them in both English and Arabic... and joins the sister ports of Alexandria and New Orleans in a unique cultural dialog. If you can suggest anything, please send it my way or her way."

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Interview's up!

I was interviewed this summer by Dan Jaffe for his "Talking Across the Table" series; the interview is up now and you can read it here. The blog is mentioned at the end, but the URL isn't provided. Of course, if you're heading there from here, that's not a problem. I'll see about getting that fixed.

* * * * *
I'm still leading off each class session by reading a "daily poem" (though I forget every now and then). Here's the list so far, including this week's scheduled poems:
  • Thomas Lux, "Virgule" (Split Horizon)
  • Tess Gallagher, "I Stop Writing the Poem" (Moon Crossing Bridge)
  • David Groff, "Birthing" (Theory of Devolution)
  • Tony Hoagland, "Fred Had Watched a Lot of Kung Fu Episodes" (Donkey Gospel)
  • Linda Bierds, "Seizure" (The Ghost Trio)
  • Ron Koertge, "The History of Poetry" (Making Love to Roget's Wife)
  • Betsy Sholl, "Back with the Quakers" (Late Psalm)
  • Robert Pinsky, "Poem of Disconnected Parts" (Poetry, Feb 2006)
  • Tony Hoagland, "Self-Improvement" (Donkey Gospel)
  • Mary Ruefle, "Glory" (Cold Pluto)
  • Terry Ehret, "At the End of the Season the Apples" (Lost Body)

* * * * *
I have eaten three tomatoes from my windowsill plants. They're exquisitely tart, almost citrusy. Such a treat.

* * * * *
In my foundation seminar, I like to save time for a short writing prompt: usually a brief phrase with some kind of fill-in-the-blank element, something that arises from my expectation of where the day's discussion might lead. We start with the prompt and write like hell for about five minutes, and then the brave among us read what we've written. This morning's prompt was My parents looked _____. Just for the hell of it, here's mine:

My parents looked unhappy. They looked like they were waiting at the dentist's office. My parents looked at the table, looked at their hands. My parents looked out the window. They did not look at me. My parents looked tired, battle-weary. She looked beaten. He, he looked guilty. My parents looked like they were about to speak. My parents chewed their potatoes and peas. The sound sticky and loud in the dining room, where my sister sat goggly-eyed in her high chair, trying to put her whole hand into her mouth. My parents looked like someone else's. Her green eyes--none of us had those. His yellowed fingers, the black wiry hairs on his knuckles. My hands were scabbed, my nails bitten to the quick; sometimes I'd pick at the skin until it bled. I had weak hands and I punished them. My parents' argument felt like a hover of gnats that wanted to morph into hornets, break the window, sting us all to death. My parents were danger.

Monday, September 11, 2006


I was telling someone about one of my undergrad professors the other day, and found that I couldn't remember her name. Her name was Lorraine, and I kept referring to her as Lorraine in the telling of this story--which I have since forgotten--but as I was talking about her, I could not recall her last name. It's Stock. Lorraine Stock. I took her Women's Narrative course. And now I remember the story:

This was about the same year that the movie Steel Magnolias came out, and one day Lorraine was going on in class about how it was such a strong woman's narrative. I remember thinking to myself, "but it's such a queer narrative." And lacking the nerve to say so in class.

But was this Lorraine Stock? If so, then who taught my medieval lit course? Is this the next signpost of my middle age, that I can't recall the names of some of my favorite professors?

* * * * *
Poets who complain in their blogs about other poets who complain in their blogs should shut the hell up and go write some poetry.

* * * * *
Working through the proofs of WB #59, which includes excellent poems by Paul Guest, Betsy Sholl, A.V. Christie, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, and (leading off the issue) Jason Myers. There's a great story by Josh Weil, and a truly wonderful short piece by Emily Wortman-Wunder. I'm not name-dropping. I'm mentioning the work that genuinely moves me. There are some other (read: "big") names in this issue, and it's all fine work. I love this stage: reading each page one line at a time with the help of a ruler; tagging anything that seems questionable (is it fifty cents worth of change, or fifty cents' worth?); digging through the dictionary and Chicago Manual of Style to track down the right usage and punctuation. Galleys are scheduled to go out on 9/24, and we go to press two weeks after that.

* * * * *
I'm helping to coordinate a campus reading again this year for World AIDS Day. This time, we'll hold it in conjunction with a showing of panels from the NAMES Project. And again this year, the panel that I made for David will be included. It's been two years since I've seen it.

* * * * *
The WAVE BOOKS Bus Tour hits campus next Thursday night, September 21. See my *other* blog (PA Poetry) for details.

* * * * *

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Great day

Heavy fog this morning: I kept stopping on my walk to campus to photograph spider webs. I love to wander through a landscape made unfamiliar in this way.

[photo: web on fence of Lewisburg Cemetery, 9/07]

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Cave Canem shakes the house

Erica Doyle, Yona Harvey, and Tyehimba Jess presented a stunning reading tonight at Bucknell Hall. I had fucking goosebumps for most of the hour, and for a good twenty minutes afterward talking with some of my students who'd attended. What a kick-ass start to the fall reading series. The bar's been set, y'all. If you get the chance to hear any of these poets, go.

Monday, September 04, 2006


Thinking lately about shadows, and noticing them everywhere. Today at work, the sunlight through the miniblinds crossed a leaf axil of my schefflera tree, and the shadow it cast on a lower leaf was a perfect eight-spoked wheel. You don't have to be pagan to read a sign in that one.

In the garden, about a month ago, we noticed a gorgeous black-and-yellow argiope spider. I have been hoping for three years that one would show up. I check in on it every afternoon and have resisted the urge to try to feed it. Until today: moved the hose bucket (the big plastic bucket where we keep the water hose coiled) and caught a fat black cricket. Carried it quickly to Madame's web, my resolve eroding: aren't crickets good luck? Isn't it wrong (in so many ways) to interfere like this? Mehhh, I flung it at the web. It passed right through, landing on a sandpapery leaf of echinacea. Madame Spider bobbed on her vertical trampoline. Miz Cricket calmly preened. I'll probably dream of creeping bugs tonight.

We ate a late dinner of sushi rice, kim chee, and mung bean pancakes. It was spectacular. I am the luckiest queer in Pennsylvania, to have a husband who can cook like this. Yuu-uuum.

[photo: R & R at Harrisburg train station, 2004]

Sunday, September 03, 2006

School night

Ehh, it's hard to get to bed early on "school nights." I'm not complaining, just reluctant to fold up my tent. Upstairs on the laptop, tinkering with a bad poem draft and shoring up my resolve to carve out time this week to write.

Sadie has nosed and pawed the quilt into a pile in the middle of the bed; she twitches and whimpers in sleep. This afternoon, the public television station aired a program about Alaska, and Sadie woke from her nap to ear-perked attention during the segment on sled dogs, which were barking. We can never get her to look at the TV when there's a squirrel (as in the Geico commercial), though to say the word is enough to rev her up. So I sat and watched as she watched, rapt, focused on those sled dogs. What were they saying?

Randy is working on a new project, a "whole cloth" quilt: plain white fabric, dense quilting throughout. He's already got the center medallion almost finished, and his stitches are even better than usual. It's looking good.

On Tuesday night, three Cave Canem poets are reading at the Stadler Center: Erica Doyle, Yona Harvey, and Tyehimba Jess. I'm really looking forward to this event; I've only read a bit of Yona's work.

Another full week looms. Time for bed.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Should a man go childless

Home this morning, reading through my share of WB submissions: though I read mainly fiction for the mag, I find myself lingering over the poetry. (I get roughly two poetry mss for every ten stories.) The title of this entry is a line by Andrew Sage, from a poem I loved but WB rejected, a poem that will (I'm happy to hear) be published in Natural Bridge. Andrew's sent more poems--I asked him to--and I'm savoring these, too, especially two that I think I'll recommend at our next editorial meeting.

Our meetings are public: we hold them in the campus coffee house, amid the traffic of students and the noise of the espresso machine. Sometimes I glance up to notice students (or faculty) listening to our (sometimes heated) discussions. Each semester, we hire two new interns, undergrads who log in all the mss and who read the work we (the editorial staff)select for the editorial packet: we encourage them to jump right into the fray but I'm sure it's a shock at first, the way we wade in, gloves off, to defend (or dismiss) each piece. It's nothing like even the most shark-infested workshop session they've attended. The author is nowhere present, and therein lies the difficulty, because sometimes, for at least one of us, the author is very much in our minds:

  • It's hard to like someone's work, invite the writer to send more, and like the new work less.
  • It's hard to like the new work just as much--or even more--but see it shot down in the meeting.
  • It's hard to write a rejection note in either case, but harder in the second scenario, because it's hard to resist the easy route of placing the blame on others ("I'm sorry we couldn't agree on this one") ("Some of us just couldn't be brought on board") (meaning, you're still the tops in my book but some people just can't see how good you are).
  • It's weird how, at my particular journal, we're simultaneously public but also secretive about the process: while a ms. is moving through the pipeline, we rarely contact the author, unless a lot (read: too much) time has passed (it happens) and we want them to know we're still considering the work.

If I had time--say, if I were paid a living wage to do this for 40-50 hours a week--I would be tempted to write a personal note on every rejection slip, just to let each writer know that someone really did read their work attentively. The problem with this notion is that some work really sucks: it's sloppy, leaden, dull, or suffers from any number of fatal flaws. If I had the nerve, and if this were my magazine, I sometimes fantasize that I would be truthful in every rejection note:

  • "I liked one of these but the rest bored me."
  • "You should stop wasting Priority Mail postage and save your money instead toward a writing class."
  • "Why must you barrage us with submission after submission, one hot on the heels of the other, like fists upon our door (which, based on your work to date, shall always be closed against you)?"
  • "I loved these--loved them--but was outvoted at our meeting."
  • "Seek out a writing group, or one good mentor, to help you develop your work, and try us again in five years."

What we say instead--what most journals say--is nothing. We did spend quite a lot of time developing a series of rejection slips with quotes from Rotten Rejections. The intended message: "Hey, you're not alone; even some really great writers were panned by editors, so maybe we're wrong and you're right." I've grown to loathe our rejection slip: it's just a mask that we, the editors, hide behind. Its implicit message is often nowhere near the truth. I usually send one of our postcards instead, with a minimum “Sorry” and my initials, or (as often as I can) a quick but honest note.

But who has time to tell the truth? It's like teaching composition, or more specifically, the dreaded heart of teaching composition, which is grading the essays. When I taught second-year composition one fall at another campus, one of the fellow adjuncts boasted that he'd worked his grading down to "four minutes per essay." I was horrified. Even if the writing's terrible, even if you know the student doesn't give a fuck, how can you reduce their work to this level? Four minutes, tops. For everyone?

I linger too long on bad stories, stories I know we will never publish. By "too long," I mean that I sometimes catch myself on page three when I knew on page one that the cause was lost. I want to say that I'm getting "better" about this, but it still distresses me that "better" in this case means "ruthless.” If I’m ever going to get to the good stuff during the hours I set aside for reading slush, I have to mow through the bad stuff like a hot knife through butter, like Sherman through Atlanta, like every bad simile that has ever caused me to grimace and toss another envelope into the “no way” bin.

Here’s something, though: the last time I could afford to go to AWP (Chicago), someone came up to our table specifically to meet me. Another one of “our” writers! I thought. But no. She said “I just wanted to thank you for writing the nicest rejection note I’ve ever received.”

Well, okay then.