I am transcribing annotations from a book (Time: A Vocabulary of the Present, edited by Joel Burges and Amy J. Elias) I’ve been slowly making my way through for a while. I’m almost done reading it, but figured I’d get started on gathering what I’d found, to whatever ends I may have. Who knows.
This particular chunk, which I LOVE, feels relevant to my last post about revision/sneak circuits/whatever the heck else I was on about — but I don’t know (yet?) how to wedge it in there. But I want to keep it nearby. So I’m putting it here for now, and maybe some of you will also appreciate this thinking. It’s from the chapter/essay, “Anticipation/Unexpected,” by Mark Currie. (all giddy boldface emphases mine)
TLDR: Surprise used to be less surprising.
“How are these connotations, positive and negative, of the unexpected related to the notion of anticipation? This seems a straightforward question, since the unexpected, whether positive or negative, must be the negation of expectation, or the failure of anticipation. It is the arrival of what we did not see coming. It is that to which our expectations were oblivious. But in a less obvious way, the category of the unexpected is actually produced by anticipation, expectation, and prediction. The unexpected event is more prominent in a world that is methodical and accurate and expert in its predictions, and the degree of unexpectedness is proportional to the extent to which we are accustomed to seeing things coming. The unexpected storm, for example, acquires a significance in a world of increasingly sophisticated weather forecasting that it did not have when weather was generally unforeseeable, and all storms were unexpected. The science of prediction itself foregrounds and gives emphasis to whatever is unforeseen, which stands out against a backdrop of regular, rule-governed, or repetitive behavior. Paradoxical though it may be, we might be justified in regarding these emerging ideas about a world less predictable than it used to be as ideas actually produced by the general environment of reliable and accurate prediction rather than by simple failures of prediction. This is not simply a structuralist logic that points out the normally imperceptible relation between a concept and its dark structural other, the conceptual inseparability of the contingent and the necessary. It is instead a recognition of the heightened experience of surprise produced by the labor of its annihilation. The modern species of surprise at the unexpected is the product and not the negation of sophisticated expectation. For this reason it is always necessary to regard the unexpected not only as a term of futurity, but also one of belatedness, of realization of what, in the past, we did not know. The unexpected arrives from the future, but it also springs an unexplained past, or a gap in what we knew about the world.” (99-100)
Beyond weather and other similar physical phenomena, I’m not entirely convinced “we” are “better” at predicting stuff, or how we’d even know whether we were or not. But this idea is compelling to me, this notion of “the heightened experience of surprise produced by the labor of its annihilation” is really setting up shop in my head right now.
After the deadly Apollo 1 fire, one of the groups investigating what happened to try and ensure the safety of the astronauts and program moving forward, was the “Sneak” Circuit Analysis Program. By “sneak” they mean surprise, essentially – an unplanned event caused by a combination of conditions, an event that seems to exist outside of normal or predictable cause/effect dynamics, an event that tends not to be detected during systems tests – not a hardware failure, but, to use astronaut Frank Borman’s words, a “failure of imagination.” A failure to imagine as much as possible of what might or could happen, or where, or how.
When I (fail to?) imagine the work of hunting down these circuits, I imagine dogged, optimistic focus, a relentless search for the thing not thought of, for the not just unintended but unimagined consequence. The work of believing that sneak circuits exist and can be found. The work of thinking the unthought-of, imagining the unimaginable. Of redefining “think” and “imagine.” Countless permutations of hundreds of what-if threads, versions upon versions of the circuitry. The work of examining what you thought you knew through a new lens, a lens that might be called “not-knowing.” (Forgetting what you [thought you] knew?) A curiosity – but a new curiosity that has been somehow untethered from the assumptions that structured the old curiosity, the assumptions that were so invisible as to seem . . . sneaky.
The word sneak suggests a degree of malice that those diligent engineers all know is impossible for a non-sentient machine to actually conjure; but that non-existent malice may nonetheless usefully inspire said engineers to conjure a personified adversary down in the circuitry, the “sneak circuit” biding its time like a hidden trapdoor or bomb. So the engineers’ job is to find what’s hidden, to imagine and root out paths to catastrophe (always catastrophe?) that no one had imagined yet; to worst-case-scenario all the possible choices.
The Apollo 1 fire was caused by frayed wires, and/but, more importantly, a huge failure to imagine what might happen if, while the vehicle was still on earth, at sea level, just running a test, a spark were birthed in a tiny space pressurized with a 100% oxygen atmosphere; a failure to imagine how materials believed safe might become explosively flammable in such conditions; a failure to imagine how the escape-hatch design meant to protect astronauts, to ensure that it wouldn’t open by accident somehow, would in fact get sealed shut by the internal pressure of the sudden, deadly fire in the capsule. The fire wasn’t the result of a “sneak circuit,” but if we think of our mental processes of imagining and planning and designing as circuits, something unimagined definitely snuck through.
Conventional wisdom around the fire and its aftermath is that the tragedy and the rigorous back-to-the-drawing-board degree of self-scrutiny it inspired probably saved the Apollo program in the long run. Some in NASA, engineers and astronauts and administrators at the time, have explicitly said that they believe there would probably not have been a moon landing had the Apollo 1 fire not happened. As I listen to their recorded voices and read their words, they seem gravely well-aware of what a heavy thing that is to say. To imagine.
One engineer, John Rankin, guesses they found about a thousand sneak circuits in various components at various times over the years of the Apollo program flights.
I was planning to write a poem about sneak circuits, and may yet, but instead I have found myself thinking through this longer, sprawly prose about making poems generally, about the possibility of both “composing” and “editing” ultimately being processes of revision. How composing is a process inclusive, necessarily, of revision at all stages. Or a process that cannot exclude re-vision. These notions about the writing-as-revision process are definitely not me “discovering” anything new; rather, the lens of the “sneak circuit” work, in the context of some current editing and revising work I am struggling with, invites me back into these ideas.
It doesn’t feel particularly revelatory to describe or imagine revision as a search for and analysis of (or just a noticing of, a speculation towards) “sneak circuits” – a “circuit” in this metaphor being the author-chosen language (word choice, syntax, white space, sentence length, usage of capitalization, punctuation, arrangement/sequence, repetition of various types, etc.) which was presumably chosen for reasons (“intent?” “desire?” “purpose?” “pleasure?” conscious and/or unconscious?), toward some kind of end or effect (for the writer? for the reader/listener?).
(Ugh. Are all my compulsive parentheticals and slashes themselves sneak circuits undermining everything I am trying to say, even when what I mean is to clarify, or to include a multiplicity of possibilities? Well, they sure don’t sneak. They are anything but sneaky. They are something, but they are not sneaky.)
I don’t mean a metaphor of “sneak circuits” in the potentially reductive sense of a poem being a coded fortress which can only be broken into by an “expert” like a critic or English teacher, or which is only truly accessible by The Poet. I don’t mean to confirm the suspicion that poetry is by its very nature an arcane, miserly, specialist code to be cracked, that sense that poetry is only for special people with special knowledge. (OK, yes, yes, language is maybe a sneak circuit, yes, language itself is ALSO A [DE]CODE[ING] but I have to move along. I just do.)
I am, however, thinking very much about an author and their language, their desire to create (summon?) an image, an impression, a meaning, a communication, or . . . something. (To make/to uncover/to reveal/to conceal/to create a dynamic of revelation and concealment.) I am thinking this as I delve with a very attentive editor back into poems I wrote pre-pandemic, in a world both chronologically and emotionally so distant.
Delve, in that last sentence, is a verb I’m inclined to revise – it connotes a kind of assuredness or fearless excavation that I don’t feel about this work. Do I dip? Scratch at a surface? Flirt? Tiptoe? Toe-then-foot-then-calf-et cetera? I look but do I actually ever leap? Do I creep? Do I sneak? I am, on average, six years distant from the initial composing/revising of nearly all of these poems, from their “origins.” My feelings about these poems, my relationship to them, to their origins (?) have changed since I submitted this (finished, I would have called it) collection to presses for publication. Part of my struggle here is the distance I feel, across pandemic, across forgetting, across other transformative life experiences, from those origins; origins I feel pressed to revisit now, with the guidance of an editor who is suggesting a lot of changes.
The editor I am working with is attentive and engaged and kind – early on in our work together, she was explaining her philosophy around insisting on doing this close editing work face to face (via Zoom), instead of via back and forth emails. She offered that she and I might have different ideas about the effect of language in a particular line or stanza or image, and that she wanted to be clear about communicating hers and understanding mine. Explaining how important dialogue is to her, and wanting to avoid potentially negative points of disconnection or disagreement about the poems, she reassured me, “you can teach me differently.” Not an argument, not a back-and-forth horse-trading, but an opportunity to teach, to learn, to be taught. The process has, indeed, often felt like a dynamic of teaching and learning, moving in two directions. This feels, fundamentally, like revision – revisiting the manuscript with an ally who doesn’t carry the baggage of feelings about my poems’ “origins” that I carry. An editor-ally who believes the manuscript is “worth” publishing, who indeed accepted the manuscript for publication, even while thinking it was not quite “finished” yet.
In one of the poems I’m working on, I’m revising a stanza wherein I consider the implications and possible revisions of a word choice. (Kind of like I do with “delve,” two paragraphs ago.) I repeatedly use a particular word in the poem, then wonder in the final stanza about my choice of that word, my motives for those choices, about what it might mean if I chose other particular words. The stakes for the choosing of the word feel significant to the poem.
So, I’m revising a stanza about revision. From a years-later standpoint, I am revisiting a poem’s attempts at language about considering how language can create (and distort and obscure and reveal) realities. I’m revisiting the poem’s attempts (my attempts, the attempts of years-ago me) to “show the work” rather than just changing the word and erasing the evidence of having considered a “wrong word.” But the “wrongness” (or the attempting, the grasping, the emotional significance of choosing “wrong”) is a big part of the point. More so in the latest iteration, I think (I hope?) than the earlier.
I remember reading Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid, feeling and feeding a big urge to play out all possible versions/combinations/choices/consequences/(circuits?). I would read one version, one series of choices, then trace my paths backwards, testing out alternative choices as I went, somewhat systematically. I don’t know whether or not I kept any kind of track of my methods, but I can easily imagine younger me keeping a tally, some kind of accounting or mapping of all my different routes. Apparently I’m not the only one who had that kind of desire.
Of course, there’s no “correct” or “incorrect” version of a Choose Your Own Adventure, except perhaps if you just read the thing through, page by page, in the order of the page numbers rather than in the order of your particular choices. That might be considered “wrong,” but also maybe really interesting. I wonder if my urge towards slashes, parentheticals, etc., in this essay, in other things I write, (though not as often in poems) is me seeking a way to have all possibilities at once, to not have to choose and make the wrong choice? A delusional planning for, and inclusion of, every possible outcome, good or bad, so as to be seen (!) as not making a mistake.
As I work on my poems with this editor over several months, as I piece together this essay in fits and starts alongside that work, some language finds its way to my feeds, from a poet and thinker I admire, Keith Wilson: “A strategy for revision is to put the poem away in a drawer for a while. To come back to it when you are less emotionally invested. To see it with a cool heart and mind. On one hand, I am doing that when I find an old poem. But what else I am doing, when I hate the voice of my youth, is discovering myself in a drawer. And finding that one can never divest themselves from themselves—I am still invested in this snapshot of my soul, and if I find it ugly, it is not a rational part of me finding it ugly, it is a rational part of my finding an excuse to look for flaws, now that I can pretend I am looking at a page I have moved fully on from. I am skilled in the art of bias against myself.” Here’s Wilson’s full essay.
The poems I’m working on have been in the figurative drawer. Some part of myself, in the drawer, yes. But if anything, I feel more (differently?) “emotionally invested” than I remember feeling two years ago, and my heart and mind don’t feel “cool” about it. I am grateful for (and anxious about) how Wilson’s words and ideas invite me to think about what I’m doing in this composing/revising/editing. What I say (to myself, to others) I’m doing.
I feel an urge today, in this new paragraph, in the weird, fractured present tense of my experience writing this essay in fits and starts, to account for the passing of time. The continuity implied by the equal spaces between the paragraphs is a false one. I’m returning to this essay after a couple of months away from it. I started writing it nearly a year ago. It has been in and out of a drawer. The poetry manuscript I’ve been editing, pending the final (?) word from the editor, is . . . finished? I don’t know what word to use now.
I am acutely aware that there will soon be published versions of several of my poems which are very different from one another. The “old” versions, in literary journals, online and in print, and the “new” ones, in the book. One conventional narrative arc of revision is “the new versions are improvements on the old” or “the poems are finally finished,” but my capacity to comprehend “final” has shifted, is shifting. It’s unsettling. I hope it might mean new things for me in poetry, in living. But/and I am anxious: what if the newer versions aren’t “better?” What if they are better than ones I had felt were “finished” earlier? What if I just can’t tell the difference anymore? What if I don’t care about the difference, or care differently about what such differences might mean or teach me?
I feel an urge today, nonetheless, to finally (!?) finish (?!) this essay. To end or to be done with it. I notice as well my urge to put a turn here, a volta of some kind, and I want it to be about sneak circuitry. About the catastrophes I fear, the ones secreted away in little machines of language I scarcely understand but which I made, re-made, may yet continue re-making. Strophe (a term related to stanzas and “turns” in poetry, like some use “volta”) and catastrophe conveniently (poetically?) share an etymological root.
Yes; revision can be (among other things) a “reversal of what [was] expected.”
If I’m really engaged with the work, not just dusting and polishing, perhaps the catastrophe of revision is not only unavoidable, but desirable. Even as it makes me anxious. I think I feel anxious because I’m experiencing this particular revision process as twofold: not just changing the poems themselves, but (for the first time? more intensely or intentionally than in the past?) revisiting and somehow (re)seeing the structures or systems within which the earlier versions were made. The circuitry from which the poems emerged, itself a made thing. Sure, I am probably (always? inescapably?) replacing old “failures of the imagination” with new ones. “Better” (?) ones. But, as Cornelius Eady wrote in his poem, “Dance at the Amherst County Public Library,” the final poem in Victims of the Latest Dance Craze: “even the failure was a sort of dance.”
Here’s a little more of the poem leading to that line, for context:
This is how I wasted my time, Trying to become the Henry Ford of poetry, And mass produce a group of words Into a thing which could shake And be owned by the entire world.
Naturally, I failed.
Of course, even the failure was a sort of dance.
Cornelius, my teacher from years ago (and still, always, inescapably, teaching me), inscribed my copy of that book in July of 1986. It was one of the first books of poetry by an individual poet I ever bought, the first ever signed by the poet, I think. The spine is broken in a couple of places. The cover features a photograph of a pair of Chuck Taylor All-Stars on fire. I had to pull the book from my poetry shelves so I could add his lines at the end of this essay. How glad I am to have it in my hands, to read it — all of it — again.
Blake, from the pest control service, stands several feet back from the front door of my house, after having knocked and waited, holding a mask in one hand, a box of rodenticide in the other. It’s Good Friday, 2022, and the mask says one thing, and the box another, and I tell him I’m fully vaxxed and ask if he is, too. He says yes, and I tell him he doesn’t have to wear the mask if he doesn’t want to, but if he’d prefer to wear the mask, I want him to wear the mask. Blake stuffs the mask into his pocket.
His first question is whether I want the rodenticide. That question comes first because it seems many of us do not want the rodenticide, and I don’t want the rodenticide. I’m making my first foray into professional pest control because of carpenter ants, not mice. The ants are so much smaller and tidier than mice, but mice I can at least capture. These ants, though: the obsidian armored, some winged, we see exploring our floors, are part of a larger, unimaginable, un-trappable thing, a nest or maybe a colony, an organism like a vast underground mushroom, a network, an idea, a virus.
In the basement, the attic, the main rooms, Blake attends to the windowsills, the corners, the baseboards, the doorjambs, with a flashlight and a big syringe of something he injects into cracks, in some pattern I can’t discern but which I assume is strategic. Then he does the outside, a slow, precise perimeter of the entire house, even beneath the deck, stuffing up some holes, ministering again to the sills, this time also wearing eye goggles as he applies a spray to finish it off. At the beginning, in the basement, curious and awkward, I watch him, but after that, I just listen, imagining, from another room, from inside, through a window.
Meanwhile, in town, a friend messages to confirm she has COVID, after all this—a suspected cold unmasked itself on the fourth day’s test, and, at risk, she’s already off to get infused with antibodies, to shield the cells, to stave off what wants to go further and further inside. To make a vast and expansive network of itself. A colony. A nest. Or at the least, a place to live and thrive for a while. For as long as it can last.
The carpenter ants, Blake warns me as he prepares to leave, will probably surge back, baited now by the delicious poison he has set out for them, drawn anew from any secret hideouts they’ve chewed through water-softened spots in this collection of boards we call our house. He has found one such spot beneath the deck where he crawled–because his job was to touch every part of this house that he possibly could—one spot we need to have taken care of, added to a growing list of tasks we don’t know how to accomplish ourselves.
That a thing as solid as a house could have such spots, could harbor such tender, slowly festering wounds you could push your thumb through, but had better not—isn’t news, yet feels sudden as a bombshell when Blake confirms in words what the last month’s daily reconnaissance of tiny, seeking scouts trickling across the hardwood floor was making plain as day.
I usually can’t recall my dreams at all; whatever fragments or sensations linger when I wake tend to dissolve very quickly. But recently I’ve remembered a few in which I forget to wear my mask somewhere, usually a restaurant. In the dreams, I’ve stopped in, unplanned, with friends, and am seated and suddenly realize, panicked, that I’m not wearing a mask, that I need to leave, and I do, I just get up and leave. In my waking life, I haven’t returned to public indoor dining yet, haven’t returned to spending more than a few minutes indoors anywhere public without a mask. It helps that I still mostly don’t go to public indoor spaces besides the post office, the doctor’s office, the pharmacy, and, a handful of times over two years, my office on campus. After a year of remote teaching (2020-2021), I’ve been on sabbatical leave for 2021-2022. During this leave I have done some writing, some editing, a lot of reading, and a lot of driving. I have tried to take care, as pandemic has permitted, of some home-related tasks and maintenance, since I can usually be at home for those hours-long service provider “arrival windows.”
I feel taken care of by Blake. He’s very good at the part of his job where he must explain things to people, like me, who think they understand more than they actually do. He has a good way of helping me understand, a way, not unlike that of nurses who have cared for me, of calibrating my attention, tuning me to just the right spot on a spectrum that stretches from blissful ignorance on one pole to full panic mode on the other. I am inclined to trust him, to believe the things he says, the tone with which he paints this situation, which is real, but not yet dire. And so for a moment, I feel competent enough, glad I called before it got out of hand. I called, they set up the appointment, and sent Blake, who stood a few feet back from the door I opened, holding a box rodenticide in one hand and a mask in the other.
As I write this scene, I remember that I opened my door to him maskless, as he stood safely distant, holding his mask so I could see it, as if to say something to me without words: I know there’s a pandemic. I know it’s real. I expect you might want me to wear this and I’m ready to do that. You’re not crazy. That’s the nature of what I heard, anyhow, the nature of what I read in that sign. I wish I’d been holding a mask, too, as my wordless answer. Or wearing one. I wish I had said something different in my wordless reply, though I suppose only Blake gets to say what I said, even if it’s not what I meant. Had my masklessness said something I didn’t mean to say? It’s over. Why do you have a mask? You don’t need that. I don’t care about your health. I think I might have been wearing my house — the luxury of its solitude and therefore perceived safety — like a mask, even as ants were maybe slowly destroying it from the inside out. The actual masks were right there, where they’ve been stationed for over two years now, right by the door, hanging on a peg meant for a coat you’d grab without thinking on your way out into the cold.
(a thin breath of air through a faulty window seal? a sip of ale drawn from a cask? a conscription of the unwilling? the distance from waterline to keel?)
and language itself is maybe the first transformation, and already it is wrong, the poem, it can never be right—and the body changes, and the world, and the understanding wrought between them, and I come to the poem a draft from a different direction, I change, I change, the language
is insufficient, a reaching, a lie, and so I change it, and I change it again, and then I change, and so I change it, and it changes me, and I change, I’m conscripted, poised always to dodge, eye on the northern border, and how did war come to the page where I meant nothing of the kind? my mean-ing wages itself, weaponized, against an impervious breeze—
I spent most of January at a very rural, isolated retreat, a place I love and have visited before. I brought with me some printed drafts I’d forced myself to write during three month-long daily “grinds” in 2021. I’d completed my commitments to write a poem or poem-like thing every day for those three months; then, for the most part, wrote nothing in between the three grinds; with a few exceptions I didn’t even glance at those drafts again until I printed them, didn’t give them any kind of deeper look until the retreat.
When I was finished with each printed forced poem draft, finished writing on it, crossing out, circling, adding – after I’d typed it into a word doc or given it up to the unfinished, the forgettable – I found myself folding the paper copies into cranes. My brother taught me how to do this years ago. This didn’t mean I was “finished” working on the poem, only that my work with that particular paper copy was over.
When I was on “work study” at the Vermont Studio Center, a dozen years ago, for a month-long writing residency, my job was to work breakfast and lunch prep – I can’t remember how many days a week, but not all of them. It was a very early morning shift, in the small dining hall/kitchen, and that early dark work shift was a boon that particular July, given the smothering heat wave that had settled over northern Vermont. My job included setting up/making the coffee and hot water for tea, putting out the coffee/tea fixings, topping off and putting out the cereals, setting up the breads at the toasters. The other piece of my job was prepping the salad bar for lunch, which meant that I had to duck into the walk-in cooler, frequently, respite from both heat wave and, as the other morning-duty worker got the hot entrees going, the blazing griddle and burners. I liked also that the work shift got me up and going so early in the day, because even if I had a totally unproductive, stuck, distracted failure of a writing day, I could console myself with the fact that I had helped feed us. I had made something. With my hands, a physical thing.
I spent some of the past pandemic year and a half folding and tearing and gluing and sewing paper. I was taught some new techniques. While I was doing it, it often felt more real or meaningful or grounded than writing poems did. Most of the poems I drafted felt forced because they were forced. But/and, that work sometimes seems all of a piece – the folding and tearing, the writing and even the not-writing. The threads, the glue. Even the forcing.
I made a list, called “options” at the beginning of the January residency. I tacked it to the bulletin board over the desk. I didn’t want to spend time having to think of something new to do or work on when I was tired of doing or working on whatever I was working on. I made a list that included different kinds of things – a handful of revision and writing projects, sure, but also writing letters and postcards, or doing counted cross-stitch, or listening to a podcast, or reading a book or article or literary journal issue I’d brought with me. I didn’t want to get hung up in potentially paralyzing “productivity” imperatives, yet I didn’t want to squander the incredible time and space I had been granted to “do my work.” I think this list was trying to be generous about pace and scope and rhythm and what might constitute work, or conditions that might make work rich, rewarding, surprising, sustaining, sustainable.
After I had folded a lot of paper cranes, I found the feather. The feather from a bird, a real bird, some kind of brazen flicker. Enough feathers spread across a section of the grass near the fenced in garden that it seemed like there might have been a squabble or an attack.
Thread. Revision having to do with picking up threads, or following them, or discarding them. Thread of thinking – like a theme. Here – literal thread – borrowed from spare skeins from the cross stitch amusement that was Not Writing (an other thing, a thing to do with my hands) – links the one work with the other. Or suggests a set of linkages. Like a trail? Like a leash? Like an umbilicus? From the folded words to threads to wings.
My old cigarette-smoking hands, my idle hands, my hands that wanted something more than a poem at hand, wanted a poem inhand, for folding. Some occupation. No more smoke-breaks for this iteration/version/draft of myself. Folding, sewing, reading, listening, staring, taking the cranes out into the landscapes. Re-reading via crane-folds.
I finished my planned cross-stitch project – a bowling towel with The Dude from The Big Lebowski on it – and had a set of small patterns but no big project left, so I experimented a bit with using random “wrong” colors of thread in place of the suggested colors in those small patterns. This made me remember someone I knew — a poet, actually — who did paint-by-numbers but instead of following the instructions, wherein paint #1 would be added to the sections marked #1, he’d use #1 to paint all the #7 sections, and so on.
Transform, re-form, re-figure the paper, fold, press the creases, then press them against themselves. Fold new lines against the old, printed ones. Fold with the grain, fold against it. Consider and reconsider the materials. Follow part of the pattern, ignore part of the pattern. Recombine. Recycle.
Bring an edge closer, push what’s at the center to an edge, reconsider here, and there, scope and relation and perspective – one window, another window, edge and ledge –
This past summer, in advance of anticipated autumn travel, before Delta fully unfurled and the Covid numbers painted the U.S. map almost entirely red, I had optimistically ordered copies of my book to have on hand during the trip. I was vaxxed, maybe more people would get vaxxed, maybe things would actually be better/safer/more accessible. I thought I might hit some open mics, some readings. There were a couple of series where I knew folks and which might be up and running.
I don’t remember more than the fuzziest contours of that small, sweet, brief optimism I permitted myself — to maybe read poems aloud in person to strangers, to hear the poems of others read aloud, in person. To travel in the ways I have traveled in the past. Along with eating inside restaurants and, well, doing anything maskless in a public indoor space, giving readings in person is a thing that did not happen during my travels, and that has not happened since March 2020. Other things happened on the road, good things, interesting and strange and profoundly uncomfortable things. I’m very grateful to have been able to travel at all, even within limitations I have tried not to resent too deeply.
At one point, outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, we happened to encounter one of those little free libraries, and I ended up leaving one of the copies of my book there. I signed it “Passing through Santa Fe,” and included the date.
Later on this trip, I decided I’d make it a point to find more Little Free Libraries where I’d leave a copy of my book and pick up anything that I was interested in reading, as is the spirit of the enterprise. In Chicago, visiting a friend, a fellow poet, I asked for a copy of each of her books so that I could leave them in the Little Free Libraries along with my own as I made my way home.
I visited a total of five more Little Free Libraries after Santa Fe — Boise, Idaho (#23842), Ogden, Utah (#32414), Cheyenne, Wyoming (#125480), Erie, PA (#53892) and the “Little Pink Library” in Corning, New York (#81419). Here are some photos. That first one is an image from Google Maps of the Boise LFL — I like the shadow. The rest are by me.
It felt satisfying to leave copies of my book in places where nobody (or okay, maybe one person?) knows me, where my book would probably never enter the book ecosystem more organically. I signed the books, always indicated that I was “passing through,” and included the date. It helped me get rid of some books, got me off the interstates briefly, and was another kinda-social-but-at-a-distance experience to add to the growing list of such experiences. There was something mildly therapeutic about this small ritual — something about me dealing with having dared to allow myself even a small optimism, feeling stupid for having done so.
I might make this a new road trip tradition moving forward, to make it a point to visit Little Free Libraries when I travel. Not necessarily with my own book, but because they are interesting, such a great project overall, and sometimes so freakin’ adorable.
Well, maybe the truly last thing I need is more canvas tote bags – but mugs may come in a close second. I do have a lot of books also, but . . . I will always need more books, let’s be real. A mug is such a frequent prize or souvenir, a popular, inexpensive and easily brand-able giveaway in a goodie-bag. In spite of the fact that our cabinet is overfull of mugs (in further spite of my having done a couple of significant mug-purges in my mug-owning life), I still welcome mugs into my world. I don’t actively seek them out, though. I may pick one up from time to time, from the display shelf of the artist co-op, but I have trained myself to put them back again and walk away. I don’t buy mugs anymore. My partner doesn’t buy mugs anymore. They find their way to me, to us. Over this past pandemic year, three new mugs joined the exclusive collection in our kitchen cabinet.
This first mug arrived in August 2020, with no indication as to who’d sent it. No note. Right from the brewery, which is in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was someone who knows that our home is called “Surly Acres.” Surly Brewing had to close their Beer Hall at the end of October, due to revenues being down 82% (compared with the same period the previous year) since the pandemic’s start.
There was some speculation that they closed the Hall as a union busting move in response to their employees announcing an effort to unionize. The vote to unionize failed in early October, by one vote. The company is still brewing and selling beer, and the Beer Hall is still closed. I’m not sure what the status of the unionizing effort is at present. A more recent vote to unionize Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama also failed. I have served as a member of our university’s Faculty Union negotiating team this year – and it has been pretty strange and sometimes not so great trying to renegotiate a fair and transparent contract over Zoom during a pandemic, on top of the ongoing dismantlement and defunding of higher education, on top of everything else.
The very notion of “working conditions” (“learning conditions!” “living conditions!”) has taken on new textures and urgencies — for our faculty, staff and students, as well as residents of the small New England town where our university has existed for 150 years. Since March 2020, the “work” many of us are doing — to learn, to live — has shifted profoundly, to varying ends. Much has been written by people smarter than I about all that has been revealed by both the pandemic and by responses to the pandemic. And of course the financial “conditions” within which public higher education, especially in New Hampshire, has struggled to survive, already desperate in pre-COVID years, were further revealed, amplified, and, by some, leveraged as reasons to, oddly, cut even more deeply, as the pandemic’s conditions were added to the mix.
When I received that Surly Brewing mug, I reached out on Facebook to see if I could get the secret gifter to identify themselves, but nobody ever claimed credit – so I still don’t know who sent it. It’s a good, solid mug. Decent size. You could see drinking beer from it, as it’s got a mild “tankard” vibe, though so far I’ve only had coffee.
The second mug, sporting the text “YOU’RE ON MUTE,” arrived right around Christmas – again, anonymously. Again, I posted a photo on Facebook, with the caption, “I feel seen. (But not heard.)” Under the caption, I wrote, “THANK YOU to whoever sent this to me, possibly someone with whom I spent a lot of time in Zoom these last months, someone who has witnessed and can attest to my ongoing struggle with the un/mute function.”
Teaching remotely for the first time over the last year, not by choice, to students who are learning remotely, some for the first time, some not by choice, has troubled assumptions or habits of my own teaching in productive, fascinating, frustrating, helpful and sometimes paralyzing ways. It has stirred up old insecurities and nurtured new ones. Some of what is being troubled by teaching online was already shifting in my third decade of teaching. Much of what is being troubled has needed troubling.
I have been thinking about the myth (it feels like a myth) of “synchronicity” embedded in ubiquitous questions about “asynchronous versus synchronous online courses.” I have, perhaps more importantly, been reflecting on how that myth or set of assumptions has infused so much of my teaching in the physical classroom. I have been thinking about (a)synchronicity with respect to important (to me) pedagogical notions such as accident and improvisation and surprise and planning and emergence. I have also been wading a little further, if still gracelessly, into “ungrading.”
The use of Zoom as the main way of connecting with students, advisees, colleagues, and friends, is exhausting. Zoom takes energy from me that it does not give back the way I have found that being in a live classroom gives back. The “option” (is it really an option if the conditions of the pandemic forced the choice?) to learn from a distance has been a real boon to some of my students, or so they tell me, and a real burden for others and, I think, a mixed bag for many. I’m guessing the same is true for some of my colleagues, but am curious to know more.
One Zoom boon for me has been a new degree of access to talks, seminars, workshops, and especially readings and Q&A’s with poets I’d not otherwise be able to hear “live” because of geographic distance. For readings I haven’t been able to attend, there are often (not always) recordings I can view later. I do occasionally feel strange guilt (?) for not taking even more advantage of the bounty that is available via Zoom, especially with regard to poetry readings — but I am spending so much time on the screen, I feel like I need extra or different “rest.” The bounty can be exhausting.
An old, dear friend (also a colleague) did confess to having sent me this mug. It was a much needed and appreciated gesture and moment of levity. I haven’t used this mug as much as the Surly one. I should bring it into the rotation.
In the mid-Fall of 2020, I stopped making the trip onto campus to be Covid-tested – because – why bother? I was teaching remotely. True, it meant I wasn’t allowed on campus or in campus buildings at all, but I started to feel, as winter crept in, that it might actually be more risky to go in to get tested than to stay home and not be tested. For the most part, I wasn’t going anywhere besides the Rite-Aid drive through and the Local Foods Plymouth curbside pickup. The only time I entered another building besides our house was to go to my regular required blood tests at the health clinic, and a few times to the post office. Both of those experiences masked and very brief, in the five to ten minute zone. The thought of going to stand in line for a possibly longer time than that, and among a possibly bigger number of folks, many of whom were spending time in residence halls and classrooms together, just didn’t make sense. Also, I think it was making me increasingly sad and anxious to go onto the quiet pandemic campus, the masked and socially distant campus, the once-familiar-now-strange campus where I was only a visitor. Of course it was also making me sad and anxious not to go onto campus. It has been a sad and anxious time. Maybe mugs — with their attendant connotations of cozy warm beverages, steam rising, or maybe a mug of soup — symbolize for me a kind of comfort or deep, common familiarity.
At the end of February, 2021, a box arrived in the mail from a friend and colleague, Amanda. I opened up the box to find a blue #PanthersUnited wristband – which was how they were tracking which students had gotten a particular week’s Covid test on my college campus; a set of “honey spoons” (solid honey on the end of a stick so you can stir it into your tea); and a “First Fire” mug. And a very kind and loving note, so needed. I wrote at the time, “I have not once ever been so moved by the gift of a mug.”
Amanda, who was being COVID-tested on campus, knew I would be especially happy to get one of the 2020 First Fire mugs they were handing out that day. On our campus, “First Fire” is a recent tradition, but already a well-loved one, during which the first fire of the fall is lit in the fireplace in our student union building. Folks come and enjoy donuts and coffee or hot cider in that year’s commemorative mug. And, most years, I write and recite a poem for the occasion. The poem is, I’m afraid, what you have to endure to get your free mug and donut. I try to keep it short.
There was an attempt to hold a kind of socially distanced pandemic version of First Fire for this past fall, but it never quite came together. But they’d ordered the mugs already. Maybe far in advance? Ordering the mugs seems like an optimistic move. I did not start drafting a poem ahead of time for the occasion; I pretty much didn’t write a poem from May until December. Had I been pressed, I’m afraid I couldn’t have summoned the lightness or cheer such an occasion seems, reasonably, to ask for. But I was not pressed.
I haven’t had a drink from the 2020 First Fire mug yet. I need to remedy that. I’m more of a coffee drinker, but I should have at least one cup of tea in this mug, so I can swirl the honey stick in it, for the full effect.
I have collected, not entirely intentionally, a number of souvenirs from this year, though to call some of them souvenirs feels a little strange. But also right. A small collection of cotton masks made by a local acquaintance, from different fun fabrics. The playlists of recorded Zoom poetry readings, many of which I’ve attended “live” through the screen. A year’s worth of the town’s weekly newspaper. A good deal of student writing about their pandemic experiences. The stash of letters and postcards I’ve accumulated since last summer, when I posted online that if anybody wanted me to write to them, they should message me their mailing address. I wrote and am still writing a lot of letters and postcards – and so many folks wrote (and still write!) back.
With my students in Composition and Advanced Composition this semester, I did some brief in-class writing, discussion, peer feedback and assignment-prompting around totems, artifacts, and other significant objects. This was inspired in large part by the commemorative exhibition at my university, marking its 150th birthday with 150 objects. When I was thinking about how to spark conversation about how common, familiar objects might be made strange and powerful because of our own experiences and imaginations, I wanted to bring my own examples as a way of sharing a little bit of myself across the physical (and other) distances between me and my students.
With my Composition students, I shared a twist-tie — you know, the kind that holds the plastic bag of a loaf of bread closed. By shared, I mean, I dug it out of the travel toiletries kit where it has lived for years, biding its time. By shared, I mean, I held it up to the Zoom camera and told them how when we scattered my dad’s ashes into the Hood Canal five years ago, they were in a plastic bag, tied with this twist-tie, which, when I opened the bag, I stashed thoughtlessly in my pocket. Later, at home, getting ready for bed I guess, I rediscovered the twist-tie, and it was as if I was pulling from my pocket a different object than I had tucked in there hours before. Before scattering dad’s ashes with my mom and brother. Before coming home again to the house without him. Instead of tossing the twist-tie in the trash, I tucked it into my toiletries kit.
In Advanced Composition, for one class session, I asked us all to check out the online “150 objects” exhibition and to bring to class at least one object of our own that held special personal significance. An object with a story, one we’d be comfortable sharing. I set up a Google document called “Museum of YOU” and invited students to share photos of their object(s) there. The Surly Brewing mug at the start of this essay was one of three objects I brought to our collective museum that day. I have since shared this essay (in earlier draft form, and now in this later draft) with my students. The insightful feedback I got from my Advanced Composition students in particular has really helped me continue to develop this draft, though it also still feels unfinished. As I type this, slogging towards the end of April, the semester is unfinished, the pandemic is unfinished, the essay is unfinished.
Many folks will have souvenirs from this time — and not just physical objects. Some of the souvenirs may feel like wounds, may be wounds. Some will carry and endure for the rest of their lives the deeply embodied and long-term physical and emotional consequences of “surviving” COVID-19. So many have died. So many have lost loved ones. Can an absence be a souvenir? Can a wound? I worry that it’s not the right word. Souvenirs not to “have” like one “has” snow globes or commemorative coins. Souvenirs not sought out but received nonetheless. There are probably souvenirs of my experience of this time that I will hardly, if ever, be able or willing to fully comprehend or claim as such. There are unfinished essays, unfinishable essays, essays unwritten.
In terms of the physical objects that are named and kept as mementoes, there must be such variety out there. What are your souvenirs? What will you carry, willingly or otherwise, from this time? It is maybe too soon, maybe even too cruel, to ask. But I think there will be the obvious ones, the masks and hospital bracelets, but also the more personal and idiosyncratic and totemic ones – the pandemic souvenir that’s only decipherable as such to one person, but which, to the rest of us, is just a book of poems, or a single knitted sock, or a particular song, or a houseplant, or a twist-tie, or a sturdy coffee mug, one among many, waiting its turn in the cabinet above the coffee pot.
NOTE: I had thought I was going to write more, or revise further, or, I don’t know, have some kind of deeper insight or epiphany, before sharing this more broadly. But yesterday I came upon the photo of me reading at the 2015 First Fire, which reminded me that I had drafted this essay with my students, and that I had wanted to return to it/share it. I added that photo to the essay and changed two words, but otherwise, this draft is as it was in April. It still feels unfinished, but something about the photo made me want to share this essay here. So. Here.
I don’t remember how I got introduced to Bob Dylan’s music, but I think it was probably by my dad. The first time I saw Dylan perform live was in July of 1987, at JFK stadium in Philadelphia, as part of that summer’s tour with the Grateful Dead. My friend Derek and his parents invited me along. I was seventeen. I remember fragments — it was very hot, and there were so many people. I wasn’t a particular fan of the Dead, but it was a big, intense show. It was thrilling to hear Dylan. A few years later, I saw him perform again, on his own, in Boston where I was in college. I think that show was at the Boston Opera House — obviously a much different venue and vibe than JFK in July.
Years after that, I saw the documentary (I cannot for the life of me remember the title — MAYBE it was this one?) that inspired me to write this poem:
Dylan Plugs In At Newport
“Maybe he didn’t put it in the best way. Maybe he was rude. But he shook us.” — Jim Roony
The crackle of the amp, the whine. The thunk of the pickup sliding home. The unthinkable. The first pluck sounded like a big fuck you to Pete Seeger, who cowered, hands clapped to his ears, rocking back and forth in disbelief.
The flat electric guitar body looked soulless, and the crowd thought they were getting flipped the bird by that long, skinny neck he fingered to Maggie’s Farm. And who were these friends of Dylan, these black men backing him up with music and bodies that didn’t fit? What did he think he was doing?
It is said the crowd booed him, but the evening sounded more like a wail, a noise of panic and confusion. The sound the rabbit makes only when it’s dying in the jaws of the murderous dog.
The decade snapped open like a cracked skull. What poured out looked like a bad marriage — the folkie soul and the rock and roll moves. Joan Baez and Ike Turner. That bad.
Later we would love him more for pushing us over, for the elbow in the guts, the unrelenting riff and jangle, but that night we couldn’t say what we saw and heard; that long ago night when possibility bled once more from an artist’s fingers, slid from his throat. When, once more, we groaned against it, we threw up our hands, we resisted.
This poem was first published in 2003 in the literary journal 5AM. In 2019, it appeared in the anthology, Visiting Bob: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Bob Dylan. It was (still is!) a thrill to be included in that anthology alongside work from Patti Smith, Johnny Cash, Charles Bukowski, Anne Waldman, Robert Bly, Dorianne Laux, Yusef Komunyakaa, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, Eileen Myles, and others whose work I really admire.
I use a “we” in this poem that might imply that I personally witnessed Dylan perform at Newport in ’65, but I wasn’t actually there. I wasn’t anywhere yet, not having been born. In retrospect (it’s nearly 20 years since I drafted this poem!) I think I’m “borrowing” the “we” from the Roony epigraph, and/or maybe just presumptuously elbowing my way into it (?) and using it less to claim attendance at the literal event, but more to admit that I, too, have resisted or willfully misunderstood art I wasn’t ready for — art that troubled lines or borders I’d drawn or which had been drawn for me, so invisible they seemed natural.
Maybe that’s part of the gift of an artist in a moment like that — offering us (even those of us who weren’t there) a chance to see those lines for what they are, to imagine more expansively the possibilities for art and for culture and for living.
Also, maybe he just wanted to fuck with us a little bit.
Sort of on a lark, feeling a Venn diagram of urges (to do something with my hands, to make something in the space where I’d normally be making poems, to calm and (re)focus myself) I signed up for an online workshop — Non-Linear Books — through the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. I’d also add to that diagram the arrival of birthday mad money from my mom — I used it to pay for the class — and the fact that we’d be making volvelles. I had just recently learned that word, though I have long loved and been fascinated by volvelles. So that word in the description may have sealed the deal.
To prepare for the course, I did some rummaging and scavenging to get the tools and materials I’d need, according to the list I’d been sent. I wasn’t going to be making any unnecessary pandemic trip to an art or craft supply store — I would make do with what I had, and what I could borrow. I already had most of what I’d need — cover papers, regular papers, linen thread, needles, x-acto blade, cutting mat, bone folder, PVA, a compass, etc., etc. I didn’t have any brads (needed for volvelles!), but my friend Sally, unsurprisingly, had a box she brought over for me. (Sal — I owe you a volvelle!)
I have all this stuff because of an on-again off-again practice of book arts. Most of what I know (or what I knew and have since largely forgotten) I learned in graduate school, where I did what they called a “collateral field” (like a “minor,” kind of?) as part of my PhD program. It was a collateral field in “book arts.” My particular aim was to learn how to set type and do letterpress printing, but I also learned quite a bit about paper, about folding it, cutting it, sewing it, etc. Later, through a couple of different workshops and classes over ten years or so, I got more letterpress printing practice, but also learned more book binding/stitching techniques. Sewing is still my favorite piece, I think. This particular class involved minimal sewing — some basic pamphlet-stitching as part of the dos a dos and French door books.
Because the class was hosted by MCAB, it ran on Central time — which meant that the 7-9:30 class actually ran 8-10:30 for me, which is definitely later than I’m accustomed to being capable of doing any kind of sustained work. But it was just once a week, so I figured I could handle it. It was great to put my hands to that work those nights, even if the lighting could have been better and I was a little sleepy. I love folding paper. Our instructor taught us how to score paper properly, which is so great to know! Folding, creasing, unfolding, folding in another direction, creasing, unfolding — I guess there’s a meditative quality to it. The instructor talked us through everything, and the videoconferencing screen was set up with a birds-eye view of her workspace, so we could see her demos. And she also provided printed materials for each week’s style of book. The class was small, and we didn’t really get social with each other. We’d occasionally share work, but mostly we tuned in, asked questions as necessary, and did our work in some kind of tandem.
The most challenging book form for me was definitely the hard-cover flag book. The smaller, “beginner” flag book was challenging, too, but when we bring adhesive and boards (hardcovers) into the picture — my tendencies to be impatient with precise measuring (and other things I need to be more patient about) catch up with me. Here’s the first flag book:
Below is a slideshow of (some of) the process of making the second flag book. If you do some googling of flag books, you can see some really interesting uses of the form — unlike my super-basic first go of it here.
Here’s a link to a video I made, showing how the flag book moves/”works.” It has “pages,” but also it has those flags which fan open into….something like pages but also something else entirely!
The final class was focused on the volvelle, and we spent time using templates to get a feel for the basics of the form, before attempting to explore it a little bit on our own. I’m overwhelmed by the multiple dimensions of the volvelle — very unsure as to how I’d make one, how to conceive of those layers of image, or text, or both. I don’t know how to “plan” it. I don’t know what to expect. I don’t even know, really, what to want to make. This is partly because of my own habits of thinking/making, but also because I haven’t had enough practice just playing around with the basic forms yet. The materials, the parameters, the movements, are still new enough to my hands and mind that I don’t yet have a sense of what I might make of them.
If I keep playing, I feel pretty sure the materials themselves, or rather the the dynamic/action of (mis)handling them over time (cutting, combining, trying, messing up, trying to fix, fixing or not fixing, happy accident) will create conditions wherein I might expand my imagination of what’s possible in the volvelle. Partly this is just what many call “practice.” I feel comfortable sewing bindings largely because I have enough practice (time) sewing to feel a familiarity with thread, wax, needles. What they are capable of, what they might ask for or resist.
Rummaging through my stash of materials — papers in particular — was a fun part of the experience of taking this class. I found papers I didn’t remember I still had — ordered for past book arts workshops or independent projects and not quite used up, or acquired for projects I never got to or finished. Handling that material again, and handling the tools, cleaning out and re-organizing my art supply box, reminded me of specific projects, specific people I’ve collaborated with and learned from in making broadsides, chapbooks, stationery, etc. It also sparked some muscle memory around this work — around the activities of folding, measuring, tearing, and sewing — those pleasures in and of themselves, the “practice” which is not a means, but which is its own end.
You have until the end of April to snag this great discount (30% off!) on all poetry from Hobblebush Books, including titles in their Granite State Poetry Series. These beautiful books unite New Hampshire writers with a New Hampshire book designer and publisher, and I’m grateful that Beating the Bounds is in such good company.