Monday, August 3, 2015

The Lizard Man of Lee County

The Lizard Man has made a reappearance! My daughter's College of Charleston history professor went hunting for him! Here's my poem from the North Carolina Literary Review, way back in 2007. I took my daughter to a ghost tour of the State Museum, and our favorite piece of art was the L.C. Carson carved painting of the Lizard Man. The poem, for once, is a true story. And that was one loud little girl scream. :)

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Sunflowers and syllabi

Working on new classes! But still wanting a bit of summer. :)

Monday, January 12, 2015

2014 reading stats

67 books, 22,023 pages!

Lots and lots and lots of rereading this year—but here are my favorite and new books for the year!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Poetry artifacts

My ENGL 286 class is turning out to be LOTS of fun. I always enjoy this class, but this year is particularly interesting. :)

Friday, August 22, 2014

Fresh Start

A new semester! I’m in a bit of denial about that whole thing—this summer just did not feel like summer at all. I had two major work projects this summer, neither one of which is quite finished. We didn’t travel, since my husband and I are saving for a big trip to Europe next summer (we started in 2010! and we’re still worried we won’t have enough money!). We tried a staycation, but it was not fun, not relaxing, and I will NEVER do that again. In a way, I’m glad school has started, since at least now I can quit feeling cranky about how everybody else is at the beach while I’m working. But I sure wish I’d had some down time.

Still! I do love the beginning of school. Time to start fresh, buy new pens and notebooks for me and the kids, help my daughter get her dorm room situated, watch my son actually wake himself up for school this year (that is especially exciting).

I’m teaching South Carolina Studies online again this fall, and I’m looking forward very much to working with a new group of students from all over the state—and sometimes they’re out there other places in the world too. I’m going to start ramping up the funky South Carolina culture elements of the class this year, so that’ll be fun. Ernest Lee! ghost tours! that fireworks store in Rock Hill I haven’t had a chance to visit yet! and who knows what wonders my students will share with me! And after a solid week trying different things, I figured out how to work around the wonky Blackboard formatting so that I have actual space between paragraphs in my posts. I am embarrassingly excited about this. I don’t have a face-to-face class until October when my Poetry course starts, so that’s a little different, but no matter what—it’s the first week of school! new pens! new people to meet! new words to write! new things to learn! even just the awesomeness of seventh-grade vocabulary! New semester, I welcome you—and readers, I welcome you along on the journey too!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Texts and Metatexts

Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings have a new album out; I’ve always loved their work, but I am mesmerized with their crazy new video, “Retreat.” I’ve been debating changing topics for my fall ENGL 101, but I may have to do one more turn with the fairy tales just so I can teach this rich and fascinating riff on Red-Riding Hood.  

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Years in Review

Back to work yesterday. Very strange, because at one point Friday I was working on my post-tenure review and assembling my student evaluations from 2007 to the present, and then later that day I finally put together notebooks for the kids with the Christmas letters I started saving for them from 2007 to the present. So I had a fairly comprehensive life review yesterday.

Next year’s our Italy year, but if I keep reminding myself about it every day, maybe I can actually manage to keep saving my money!

Friday, December 20, 2013

My Year in Books! 2013!

In the last couple of years, I started using Shelfari and Goodreads to track the books I read. (Though I still keep a handwritten list in a notebook too!—just a little OCD there. And I use them both because Goodreads links to Facebook more easily, but Shelfari lets me track multiple readings better. Maybe a lot OCD, come to think of it.). I like seeing the covers lined up on my virtual shelves, especially when I’ve read the book on my Kindle, and then it’s super fun at the end of the year when the site emails your statistics:

This is an estimate of the number of pages you’ve read in 2013: 20,025 pages.

But then you also get this kind of depressing thing:

You’ve read 59 books this year. Last year you read 70 books, so you’re behind your pace.

In a rather roundabout way, it reminds me of that Monty Python novel writing skit, with the sports announcer calling Thomas Hardy’s new novel: “Thomas Hardy here on the first day of his new novel has crossed out the only word he’s written so far, and he’s gazing off into space!” It’s true that it’s not very exciting to watch somebody write (one day I actually ended up with a NEGATIVE word count), but I love this silly and wonderful quantifying of our relationship to words and books.

I reread a LOT, partly because I usually read at night when I’m pretty tired, and it’s hard to get the energy up to read something new or demanding after spending all day in class and meetings and grading. Mostly, though, I just love to reread a book I loved the first time around; it feels like visiting old friends. I just looked at my Shelfari listing for Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian and found I’ve read it four times since it was published in 2005. This year for the first time I read all seven Harry Potter books back to back. And then out of sick curiosity, I totaled up how many times I’ve read one or the other of the HP books: 38. (Whoa.)

At the end of the year, though, when I think about what I’ve read, I tend to think first of the new books, things I hadn’t read before. So here are the books I found most interesting in 2013 (well, and also The Historian), and here’s hoping I have time to squeeze in one or two more before January!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Albums, Love, Hadestown

I am obsessed with this new album.

I’ve had my history of album obsession, starting with wonderfully disgraceful pop music: Donna Summer’s Bad Girl and the soundtrack to Grease during my tween years (though nobody had ever heard of tweens back when I was one). My guy friends apparently all spun Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon while I belted out Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable until I found the real thing, Ella Fitzgerald’s The Best of Songbooks (I have the complete songbooks now, thank you God!). Sheryl Crow’s eponymous second album echoed late in the empty office hallways during the years I worked on my tenure file, with me singing along way too loud. And there were the Michelle Shocked Arkansas Traveler days, and the days I played nothing but Atlanta Rhythm Section’s Champagne Jam, and She & Him Volume 2, or the Dixie Chicks’ Fly.

Suzanne Vega’s Retrospective haunted me during my divorce; Jack Johnson’s In Between Dreams became my anthem for a new and more complicated life, and my second husband and I debated over “Better Together” for our wedding dance before settling on Ella Fitzgerald’s “I Could Write a Book.” We listened in bed to Sarah McLachlan’s Wintersong over and over again. I only need to hear the first chords of a song from one of those albums to be back for a moment in that time, remembering working too late too many nights, remembering that dark Christmas Day that I realized I would be divorced soon, remembering that later giddy Christmas when my old friend courted me with chocolate and roses and music.

A song is a fun little fling, but an album is a full-fledged love affair. I’ve flirted with individual songs like Pink Martini’s “Hang on Little Tomato” and Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You into the Dark.” And compilations! and playlists! I have a not-so-secret and pretty seriously bourgeois fondness for compilation cds from Williams Sonoma and Pottery Barn and Starbucks. I love playlists and make one every Valentine’s Day for my husband, and I add every year to my famous Halloween party playlist, spreading songs around me like photos for an album and choosing only the most wonderful. Still, a playlist isn’t an album and never will be, and I can love a song without giving it my heart.

People of my generation (oh my God! I’m old!) have a special relationship with albums, one I sometimes think my children and my students can’t fully understand, growing up as they have in the perpetual earbuds-iPod-mp3-Pandora-Spotify world. Just like most of my students have never read a collection of poems written by a single author, they seem to have a different experience of music, one that seems more scattershot to me, but also somehow more fundamental—they live their lives immersed in an perpetual stream, eddying from old favorites to new music in way I can barely begin to imagine.

I’ve ventured into that brave new world and love it too—but the album! especially vinyl! turning the album to the B side, the hiss of my not-very-good record player still a part of my memory of those old songs. The album, the perfect whole, each song a beat in the heartbeat of the whole.

My husband is interested in the music in music; I’m interested in the words. Once as we listened to the Beach Boy’s “Good Vibrations,” Hayes said “Listen to that cello, how it comes out in the mix towards the end,” and I said in surprise and without thinking, “Are there instruments in this song?” I hear the music too, of course, but when an album rockets to the top of my personal charts, I learn the lyrics first and fast. I can’t sing—though of course that never stopped me—but if I can’t sing along with an album even in my own limping way, if the lead is too deep or too high, I’ll never love that album quite the same way. Ibrahim Ferrer’s Mi Sueño is so lovely, but I’ve forgotten so much of my Spanish now that the best I can do is hum along, and so that album has never risen to the true heights of cult following for me.

Hadestown, though.

A friend who knows I love poetry and music and literature and mythology sent me a link to Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown—listen, he said, to this, this folk opera, this retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. And I listened, and listened, and have listened since August to Orpheus’s multivoiced epic desire, to Eurydice’s sweet longing, to Hades’s deep-throated swagger, to Persephone’s earthy jazz, to Hermes’s scratchy hobo tenor, to the Fates' bright harmonic cynicism—to this myth of the grand but always already doomed quest to bring back love from the dead.

The 2010 album was presciently set in darkness and poverty, the songs written well before the recent US economic slump, and in that setting we see the first and really most substantial departure from the myth. Eurydice is blameless in the classic tale, dying from a snakebite on her wedding day to Orpheus. In Hadestown, though, Eurydice is a woman deeply conscious of the precariousness of her situation, and that anxiety becomes her downfall. In the first piece in the album, “Wedding Song,” she asks Orpheus repeatedly how he will provide for their wedding and their marriage, “Times being what they are / Hard and getting harder all the time.” Orpheus blithely assures her that the river will provide gold for the wedding rings, the trees the food for the wedding table, the birds the feathers for the wedding bed, but Eurydice’s questioning foreshadows her fall into Hadestown.

Eurydice’s yearning for both love and safety resonate profoundly throughout this album, and her unease about her possible life with Orpheus echoes even in her declarations of love for the poet. She is fascinated with Hadestown and its overlord, a world so beguiling and flush that she sees only “Everybody sipping ambrosia wine.” While Orpheus and Hermes warn her that “Mister Hades is a mean old boss,” she sees only the “goldmine” that is Hadestown, not the “graveyard” they try to show her. She is tempted by the prosperity of Hadestown, ending the song “Way Down Hadestown” with her frank desire to be secure:

Mr. Hades is a mighty king
Must be making some mighty big deals
Seems like he owns everything
Kind of makes you wonder how it feels

The plaintive tone of her song here makes it hard to blame her for what we know already will be her seduction by Hades. In one of his most important songs, “Hey, Little Songbird,” Hades plays expertly on Eurydice’s uncertainly and need; such a “pity for one so pretty and young,” but “nobody sings on empty,” he assures her. She wavers, wanting what we all want, “a nice soft place to land,” and calls out a lament to Orpheus, whom she clearly loves. But Orpheus is nowhere in evidence as Hades draws a grim portrait of her life with her artist husband:

Hey, little songbird, let me guess
He’s some kind of poet—and he’s penniless
Give him your hand, he’ll give you his hand-to-mouth
He’ll write you a poem when the power’s out
Hey, why not fly south for the winter?

And so Erydice slips into the afterlife in “Gone, I’m Gone,” giving Orpheus her heart but telling him “It’s my gut I can’t ignore / Orpheus, I’m hungry.” This grim vision of the life of the artist is something about this album I find compelling—I gotta say, poets don’t get much respect or cash in this world, and nobody knows that better than Hades.

But what I love most about this album is the profound way Mitchell retells and transforms the story, honoring it and making it live again. I’ve been working for years now on a collection of poems imaging the life of a goddess in contemporary American, and translating a myth is hard work—or at least I have found it very hard. Fascinating, compelling, rewarding—but really damn hard. I adore Mitchell’s Persephone—her loveliness, her confidence, how smoothly she moves between the ancient myth and today’s world, as a goddess should. In her largest moment in the album, “Our Lady of the Underground,” Persephone sings in a speakeasy, offering the men of Hadestown a forbidden taste of their earthly lives. She knows their despair and longing as only the Queen of Underworld could: “I don’t know about you, boys / But if you’re like me then hanging around / This old manhole is bringing you down,” she begins the song. She’s “got the wind right here in a jar,” “the rain on tap at the bar,” and in lovely moment of contemporary mythmaking, she’s got the moon “right here waiting in my pay-per-view.” Mitchell’s lyrics are superb, and Ani DiFranco performs Persephone’s silky croon with an elegance that is as seductive as the lady herself. Persephone’s power has its bounds, but she embraces that power fully; while Hades is the king, she is his wife, and it is her love for her husband and her pity for Orpheus—and Hades’s love for her—that allows her to persuade Hades to give Orpheus his chance to reclaim Eurydice. Though we know the attempt will fail, she earns him the grace of the chance. As Orpheus sings of the moment Hades first saw Persephone, we are pulled back into the ancient Greek world, but these epic figures have stepped into our world today and made that myth new again—no mean feat, given how often Orphues’s tale has been revisited in literature and art.

I’ve been listening to Hadestown pretty much daily for the last two months. In that time, my own poor goddess has been closed up in her notebook, her poems neglected, while I grade papers and argue about curriculum and advise students for their spring schedules, while I attend Senate meetings during the day and Scout meetings with my son at night. She’s languishing, that poor goddess, my poor book. My hour’s commute listening this album keeps me connected to my writing, and I know that this album wouldn’t resonate for me so powerfully if there were not something here I must understand. My goddess tends more towards Eurydice’s longing and grief than Persephone’s strength—and here is where I must look further—but I don’t know yet where this observation will take me.

I believe, though, that one day when I recount my life through albums, when I remember grading papers that year to Yo Yo Ma’s Bach Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, and when I think affectionately about my brief new age phase and Songs of Kuan Yin, when I am amazed at how young I was during the Donna Summer days, I will remember Hadestown with more than my usual fondness for the album that represents that period of my life. Hadestown is a masterwork, an elegy to lost love, a gorgeous meditation on the need and doubt we all struggle with each day. Listening to this music, I am Eurydice, I am Persephone, I love Orpheus, I want Hades, and I am lost—but somehow still myself. Only in the greatest art do we recognize ourselves and transform ourselves.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Get this party started

We had dinner the other night with friends and I bought a Woodchuck limited release hard cider called Summer for us to drink, just out of nostalgia. Another summer slipped out of sight in the rear view window as we sped into school.

I never had students write those “What I Did this Summer” essays, although I always thought they’d be fun if you wrote them Natalie Goldberg style. I’ve never had much impulse to write them myself, for that matter, but this summer was so epic (for us) that I’m tempted. Don’t worry! I won’t! But probably that explains why here school has started and I’m as tired now as I was after exams in May. I keep seeing photos from my public school teacher friends’ Facebook pages of their shiny new classrooms, and I can barely muster the energy to just imagine sifting through the piles on my office floor. Never mind actually start!

Still, I have good classes this fall—a first-year composition class, a poetry class, this new South Carolina Studies class online. I worked on the online class much of the summer, which was fun since I really had time to let ideas develop, but also frustrating because—what about the beach?? It’s strange to write a whole course without students there; even if I’m teaching something in a face-to-face class that I’ve taught before, I change it around to work with that group of students.

Each group is a little different, after all, full of people who love to read or hate to read, who are learning how to have their first jobs or who have left careers to come back to school. As I wrote assignments for my classes, I imagined the students and what they would make of the tasks—and then poof! the mythical students are here!

They have practice all afternoon or bad work schedules or new babies or chemotherapy or anxieties about using computers; they’re helping their kids with homework before bedtime. They want to be social workers and lawyers and teachers; they have no idea what they want to be. They want to start businesses, run their businesses better, join the Peace Corps and live off the grid, make money and change the world. They’ve read Melville and Twilight; they watch Game of Thrones and Sherlock.

I see freshmen each year learn that sometimes it’s as simple as doing your homework, see them gain confidence when they start asking for help. I talk to a junior I taught several years ago as a freshman and am amazed at the change. I wonder sometimes what they’re thinking, but then other times I remember hating that philosophy class while I read all the reading, required or not, for that History of Mass Media class. I remember cutting some classes, never missing others, making mistakes, writing that one perfect paper. I showed up for my first college class hoping it would be wonderful—and I keep showing up for my next college class every fall, knowing it will be wonderful and so much work and so frustrating and still so wonderful.

Working on a class all summer alone is odd. It’s like having a long conversation by yourself, like cleaning house and cooking for days waiting for the party to start. The party’s started!