Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Nantucket, Maggie Conroy's tobacco barn, and Dean Young on the culture of creative writing

Paul and I got stuck on Nantucket (I know, the limerick possibilities immediately spring to mind) this week. Every boat off the island was cancelled due to the high seas and wild wind, but our friend Maggie Conroy graciously came to our rescue. I'd known Maggie a little in Iowa City, when I was teaching there; we used to go to great parties at her and Frank's house. We hadn't seen her for years, and she appeared as a rescuing angel, loaning us her Ford Explorer and welcoming Paul and Ned the pup and me into her amazing house. It was built, forty years ago or so, by Frank and a carpenter, constructed of cherry-wood beams from an old tobacco barn. They kept the barnlike feel -- a great room in the center, small rooms off to either side. We had a wonderful time; it was a privilege to be in the dreamy, inviting house with Maggie and our friend Joy and Maggie's dog Neville while the rain came down on the salt marsh out the big windows.

I was thinking about these friendships -- all of us brought together by times held in common in various institutions that are part of the culture of creative writing -- as I was reading Dean Young's THE ART OF RECKLESSNESS, one of the new volumes in Graywolf's series of short "handbooks" for writers. I put that term in quotes because of course there isn't any such thing, once you get past manuals or style. These little volumes, a various lot, look into aspects of craft, and their intent isn't so much to explain things as it is to complicate the conversation about craft, providing signposts for exploration.

Early in Dean's book there's a terrific manifesto/rant about graduate education in creative writing. Since MFA-bashing (and now PhD-bashing) is such a perennial activity, I want to post Dean's artful defense here.

"Let us put to rest all those huffy complaints about the proliferation of MFA programs, as if courses of study that offer support and allowance to people for the exploration of their inner lives, for the respected regard of their imaginations, their harmless madnesses and idiosyncratic musics and wild surmises, somehow lead us to a great homogeneity as well as a great dilution of the high principles of art. Some people try to convince you they love poetry by showing you how bad all the poetry they read (more likely don't read) is, just like those who love love so much they've come to the conclusion that nothing and no one deserve to be loved. Some people try to convince you poetry is so important you have no business trying to write it without severe indoctrination. But POETRY CAN'T BE HARMED BY PEOPLE TRYING TO WRITE IT! The billions of MFA programs and community creative writing workshops and summer conferences and readings, all of it is a great sign of health, that the imaginative life is thriving and important, and worthy of time and attention, worthy of conditions in which it is honored and encouraged to wildly grow. It's not a marketplace where the bad forces out the good. We are not a consumer group; we are a tribe. The MFA programs may be booming because our business is to boom. OUR BUSINESS IS BLOOMING. If there is a problem, it is in the professionalization of creative writing. J'accuse, AWP! When Tomaz Salamun was asked by one of my students what was the one thing he would like to tell a young poet, he said, Be artists, not careerists. I do realize that people have real economic concerns, and two or three years of graduate study are traditionally geared toward the establishment of a career. But realistically, all these young writers cannot be English professors, nor do many of them actually want to be. Our creative writing programs would do a better job offering students guidance in other possible employment options, suggesting courses, outside creative writing and literature that could lead them to decent work outside academe. But when I walk into a creative writing class of any kind, I am thrilled with the liberty that all of us in that room have managed to achieve through a faith in and dedication to art, and the profound sense of possibility that something one of us does can become a vibrant part of that art."

I especially love "the liberty that all of us in that room have managed to achieve through a faith in and dedication to art..." But I'd add -- and this surprises me a little -- that in the literature course I taught this spring, a seminar on Whitman and Dickinson, I had that same sense of liberty, of our freedom, dedication, courage and pleasure as readers.

And, in some way, our pleasure inside the dry barn house while the winds battered the island -- thirty miles out to sea! everyone likes to say -- felt a part of those same communities of writers and readers.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Three splendid announcements at once

Teachers have no right to pride, really, when it comes to their students' work. All I can claim to have done is ask questions and make some statements about what I saw in the poems before me. I try to be a friendly, interested advocate for what seems most alive in the work at hand. My ideal is for the writer I'm working with to feel thoroughly SEEN -- that someone (me) is looking very closely at what they've made and are trying to make, and attempting to articulate that project with them.

But even though the writer does the work, I can't help but feel this flush of pride when first books find their way into the world. This week brings the news that THREE of my former students have just had books taken, and I am feeling beside myself with delight. Lauren Berry won the National Poetry Series; Terrance Hayes chose her book for Viking Penguin. Glenn Shaheen won the Agnes Starret Lynch Prize and his book will be published by Pittsburgh. And Lacy Johnson, whose dissertation was a formally rambunctious assemblage of text, video, photos and audio recordings, has just had a print version of the work accepted by Iowa. Hot damn. I am, in whatever relation to these books I might claim (even if it is hardly any at all other than cheerleader) inordinately happy.

Monday, August 9, 2010

In a couple of hours I will be fifty-seven, which is a gigantic relief to me. Fifty-six has been a hard year in general, but it's acquired a particular dark charge because it's the age my mother was when she died, in 1976, of cirrhosis of the liver. At first I thought my aversion to the year was a a kind of magical thinking, but then I learned that if indeed it is I'm not alone with my folly; a number of friends have spoken of their own difficulty in passing through the age of a parent who'd died at her own hand, or perished to some addiction. Perhaps we just don't want to outlive our parents, so to speak -- can we succeed where they did not, is that permitted? Or perhaps it's the fear of a toxic legacy, an inescapable inheritance.

But now I am about to leave fifty-six, alive and breathing, reasonably intact. For the occasion I've been making gestures toward the future. One of them is above: Ned, with whom I am entirely in love, and to my mind quite reasonably so. With good luck we're going to be together now for a a long time to come. And this evening I went over to my neighbor Joanne's and dug up a young catalpa tree, which is going into my garden in the morning. I've always loved them: the big virile leaves, their pungent scent -- does "pungent" really convey anything at all? Think green tomato stems, tannic acid like black tea leaves steeped a little too long. And the word, catalpa, with its Whitmanic echo of Native American speech, something southern in those three vowels, inviting one to extend the a's... In the picture, Ned is resting his head in the hole I'd been digging around the slender trunk, which you can see on the right hand side of the image. After I finished, Joanne and I had some French rose' and listened to the screech owls announcing the twilight. We tried to think why just that moment -- are they waking, is it suddenly dark enough, or cool enough, for the world to begin?

So, a good fifteen years with Ned (knock on the wood of the table where I write), decades of catalpa after I'm gone. Tomorrow Paul's taking me out to celebrate -- presents, lunch, a nursery I like in Montauk? -- and that will be all about the present. But this evening's solitary goodbye to fifty-six has entirely to do with days to come.