I’ve had a few requests for materials I can share with book clubs reading RUE. And I was so excited because BOOK CLUBS ARE READING POETRY?! I mean, of course they are, poetry is great. But apparently I’ve been underestimating poetry AND book clubs.
So I’m making the book group discussion guide for RUE available here for anyone to use. And I also want to share a couple resources for book club organizers who might be wondering how to have a great discussion about poetry.
Below are some questions groups are welcome to use to get the conversation going about RUE. If your group likes to incorporate writing exercises into the evening, I recommend modifying this one to suit your needs.
Discussion Questions for Book Clubs Reading RUE
Poets’ voices are often described as lyrical, impressionistic, allusive, narrative, confessional, or intimate. Nuernberger is often described as a “chatty” poet. How would you describe her voice in these poems and how does that style serve the subject?
Do you think anger ever has a purpose? After reading RUE, do you think Nuernberger would agree with you?
Nuernberger frequently references feminist theories and key feminist thinkers like Adrienne Rich. A key feminist principle is that “the personal is political.” To what degree are the very personal poems in this collection political?
What poem was the most challenging for you? Which one was the easiest to understand or relate to? Why?
There are a number of poems in the collection that are about plants historically used for birth control. Before talking about them, think of a flower you recently saw in bloom and google its folklore. Share these findings with the group. Then talk about what kinds of relationships between people and the natural world you see Nuernberger imagining or proposing in these poems.
The book is dedicated to Maya Jewell Zeller and a character in the one of the central narrative poems of the book, “When We Dead Awaken.” How do themes of love and friendship intersect in this collection?
Nuernberger also writes essays. These poems are very conversational and long by poetry’s usual standards. Why do you think she chose to use line breaks? Would the poems work without line breaks?
Are there other writers, artists, or films RUE reminds you of?
I spent this week attending the thesis defenses of my graduate students. I don’t love the word “defense” in this context, as it implies an adversarial stance between mentors and student and suggests that an authority’s approval of a creative work matters. I tend to think to think the task of an artists is to imagine a way through and beyond what has been done before; “defending” requires very opposite impulses.
But I do love defenses!
Specifically, I love the craft talks the students in our program give. I love learning from them and the way the delivery of public craft talks is an invitation to faculty to reverse roles and become a student once more. I love the way I spend a week each May reminded of my own teachers, who once nudged and challenged and nurtured me up to the point of my own thesis defense, and then beyond. And I love that we have a ritual in which we remind students their voices, their aesthetics, their path through the writing life must become entirely their to chart and that there is nothing about the fact of that path they need defend.
Another of the pleasures of defense week for me is that task of writing questions for defenses. I like my questions to serve as jumping-off points for self-reflection. I try to craft questions akin to the ones I ask myself when I feel I am a crossroads in my own writing practice – at the beginning or end of a series, sequence, or manuscript; also when I am thinking about abandoning a project.
While many of my questions this week were personalized to my students’ particular theses, some I think could serve as useful provocations for anyone making a transition in their writing. I’ll share those here:
I often ask students to write imitation poems as a way to build muscle memory for certain kinds of craft techniques or rhetorical moves. To do an imitation you have to read a writer closely and deeply to understand how their styles and themes, syntax and sensibilities are interwoven. How would you go about writing an imitation of yourself?
Whenever I read a poet’s collected works I like to look for poems I think of as vestigial tails – pieces that seem odd or distinct from the other works in the book where they first appeared, but fit in nicely with a book that came after. I love this reminder that writers seldom know in real time who they are becoming and even masterpieces are the result of fumbling in the dark. What poems or pieces of poems in your body of work are outliers that might be pointing towards the voice or style or approach you are growing towards?
What was a particularly challenging poem to shape or craft or articulate? What did you learn from making it work that you have or could apply to other projects?
Describe a piece you tried to make work that never came together. Why did you ultimately decide to abandon that work and what are some of the works that succeeded during or near that time you were struggling? Is it possible that feeling of seemingly fruitless struggle might have made other kinds of work possible, and if so what and how?
When have you been most productive as a writer and what circumstances contributed to that? When have you been most joyful as a writer and what circumstances contributed to that?
As we near the end of the semester I’ve been busy having conferences with students finalizing their senior theses. A lot of these conferences include a conversation about whether students are ready to start submitting their work for publication and what the risks/benefits of that process might be at their stage of development as a writer.
Rejection is a major part of submitting so I think one important question for writers to consider is whether a rejection will make it hard for them to keep writing or not. A lot of newer writers admit that they still feel vulnerable about their work and suspect a rejection might make them question whether they can or should keep going. I admire that kind of self-awareness and think it is really important to protect your psyche as you develop both your voice and confidence as a writer. It is okay to keep your attention on the art itself and save publication for later.
Other students are hungry for an authentic audience to read their work and feel that the idea of an editor reading their work, even if they ultimately decide to pass on it, would be invigorating to their writing and revision process.
Whether or not you are seeking publishers for your work, studying the publishing landscape can be a really helpful way to imagine how your work might speak to its readers. There are so many fantastic magazines with such a diversity of aesthetics flourishing right now. But this abundance can make it hard for emerging writers to find the writers, publishers, and readers who will be most inspiring to them. To help navigate this terrain and find their place among the many writers flourishing right now, I give students the following assignment:
Finding Your Readers by Reading Your Writers
Start by reading a single literary magazine published in your community. (I used to assign my students Pleiades: Literature in Context, because it was the magazine affiliated with my university and many students worked as interns for the publication. Now that I am in Minnesota I might recommend Conduit, Mizna, Water-Stone Review, or Great River Review, though Pleiades continues to be an reliable source of brilliant new work I will never stop recommending.)
Pick 1-3 writers whose work you enjoyed. These form the trunk of your reading tree. If you’re using Pleiades 40.1 to start this project it might look like this:
Look at the bio notes for each of those writers, identify other literary magazines where their work has appeared. Branch out and read a bit of those literary magazines, looking for more writers whose work you like. Your tree will begin to look more like:
Just keep reading and exploring:
Eventually you’ll run out paper and have to let this process of branching and discovering become an ordinary part of your reading and writing life. As a practical matter, this list will help you know which magazines you are most likely to have success submitting to, because if you like what the editors choose to publish, it stands to reason that they are more likely to be drawn to what you are writing. But reading with an eye towards finding those writers who can be models and inspirations to you will also make you a better writer, someone whose craft is always deepening and growing, which will in turn, make your work more likely to be published when you decide to submit.
For years I’ve been starting my writing practice every day by walking to the woods (when I lived near the woods), the meadow (when I lived on homestead in the prairie), or the community farm (when I lived in the city), on the lookout for a plant that lit a spark in my mind. I’d come home and research the plant and then poems would start to happen. (If you’d like more details on this creative practice, I wrote a post about it here.)
Even though I can’t imagine writing poems about plants again after writing about them so much for RUE, I still love the rabbit holes botany research sends me down. Did you know quinine is derived from the bark of the cinchona tree, which the post-colonial historian Rohan Deb Roy described in Malarial Subjects as “symbiotic with Empire”? I didn’t, until the day I wanted to know something about liverworts.
I’m a recent convert to Instagram — I missed the pictures-of-food years — but I have loved transforming my private practice of spotting and researching plants into a more public one that incorporates photography into the exercise. This practice has been reminding me how much the craft of poetic imagery overlaps with photographic techniques.
When I started trying to make the camera see what I see in the plants every day, my friend, the filmmaker Polina Malikin, suggested I try to see the plants from below and also at their eye-level. (Or do I mean leaf-level? root-level? blossom-level?) I spend a lot of time these days contorted oddly in the grass at the park, but it really helps my writing to practice so many different ways of seeing.
Louise Gluck’s “The Silver Lily” is a great example of how this videographic approach to poetic imagery can work. The poem begins with tactile sensations in the body:
The nights have grown cool again, like the nights of early spring, and quiet again. Will speech disturb you? We’re alone now; we have no reason for silence.
Then she moves on to an establishing shot of the moon over the garden:
Can you see, over the garden—the full moon rises. I won’t see the next full moon.
We get a sequence of close-ups — snow drops opening and closing, maple seeds falling. There are daffodils in the crook of a tree trunk which the reader sees as if peering over the shoulder of the newly risen moon:
In spring, when the moon rose, it meant time was endless. Snowdrops opened and closed, the clustered seeds of the maples fell in pale drifts. White over white, the moon rose over the birch tree. And in the crook, where the tree divides, leaves of the first daffodils, in moonlight soft greenish-silver.
And then we return to the sensations in the body — fear, trembling, longing:
We have come too far together toward the end now to fear the end. These nights, I am no longer even certain I know what the end means. And you, who’ve been with a man—
after the first cries, doesn’t joy, like fear, make no sound?
Creative Revision Exercise: Choose a poem that isn’t quite working and try rewriting it with three new close-ups. Add an establishing shot and a shot that moves in some way. What happens to your poem if, as in Gluck’s, you frame it with lines situated in the sense of touch or sound, before you turn the camera on?
Regretfully the Spring 2020 book tour for RUE had to be cancelled. It was a bitter pill since I had planned to drive around the country in my used 2002 Coachman RV (we call her Baba Yaga’s House of Poets), picking up friends to read with in different cities along the way. But I am loving the unexpected joy of getting to attend virtual readings during this time of social distancing. I feel closer to the literary community than ever.
Since I’ve been loving the way virtual readings give these lonely days a jolt of unexpected human connection, I wanted to shout out a few of the other online events I’m looking forward to in a couple weeks:
I’m really excited to have my essay, “Medusa and the Poetics of Spells” up at Guernica today. You can read it here. The essay began as a craft talk for a poetry class and evolved into something much more historical and much more personal, so I thought I’d share some outtakes of poems and essays that informed the earlier, more crafty version.
One definition of magic is “making things happen.” Under that rubric a spell is “words that make things happen.” In this context, a political poem can be understood as a spell. Especially the most powerful ones like:
Loricas and caims are ancient forms of protection spells that use litanies as a way to make a circle of language, to have the lines wrap their arms around the speaker. One famous example is St. Patrick’s lorica, also known as “The Deer’s Cry.” The story goes that St. Patrick recited this poem-spell to disguise himself and his followers as deer. I call bullshit on the suggestion that the enemies they sought protection from were druid warriors, though, or at least declare any enemy of a druid is an enemy of mine. Jennifer Givhan’s book Protection Spell is rich with more contemporary examples how the circle of a poem can become a shield. Here’s one.
I wrote a book-review essay on other contemporary poets whose work might be interpreted as spells for West Branch, available online here. Faylita Hicks, Kenji C. Liu, Gala Mukomalova, Ariana Reines, and Janaka Stucky’s work, reviewed in that essay, is always in the back of my mind when I’m writing and thinking about spells.
Southeast Review just came out with their new issue, which includes “A History of Disrepair,” one of the poems I’d hoped to share on the AWP panel, Science at the Source, this year. Unfortunately, but necessarily, the panel was cancelled due to the pandemic. Go here to read that poem, which is about Genevieve Jones, a nineteenth century ornithologist, climate change anxiety, and what it means to love each other in a crisis.
I’d also like to share some of the remarks I’d planned to make on that panel, which was organized by Rosalie Moffett and also included John James, Nomi Stone, and Rushi Vyas.
I am interested in science because I am interested in error. I am interested in learning as a process of determining which assumptions created confusion and unexpected insights that led to the understandings of the world I now think of as “known” or “true.” In science error is an invitation to try asking different questions.
When Benjamin Franklin began his experiments with electricity the driving question about electricity was whether it was a wet or fire. Because the guiding framework for understanding the world was based on the elements, not the periodic table. When I was a fellow at the Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life scientists and historians of science would ask me what I was there to research. I started out saying “quack medicine” and was told “don’t say ‘quack’ that’s pejorative.’” I said “dead ends” and they said “you never know.” I said “mistakes,” “wrong thinking,” “foolhardy notions” and they said “you’d be surprised what has turned out later to be true.”
Which has me thinking about Cortney Lamar Charleston’s poem “It’s Important that I Remember a Current Event is a Current –” in Southeast Review:
…carries a charge, attracts the opposition’s glee or anger to the anonymous comment section. Of course, the current state of affairs flows through me entirely, twists static into my hair…
Love, I want to tell you all I learned today of the mayfly, known for their one-day life spans. How they’re named after the fact of their fast deaths: ephemeroptera, briefest of wings. How this isn’t fully true, as they can live submerged as nymphs for years until their sex forces them out of the water. Just because we don’t see their living doesn’t make it void….
I became interested in science as a subject in my poems because of how fascinated I was by scientific processes at the beginning of the age of Enlightenment when so much scientific work was based on seeing – microscopes and many other ocular devices were brand new, devices like the chronometer were developed to create a precise way to talk about shared experiences perceiving the color blue. I liked reading scientists’ notebooks and letters were the wonder was utterly unfettered; Carl Linnaeus makes some great tender and self-deprecating jokes in the course of his work on plant and animal taxonomies that are mixed in with some truly terrible drawings. Maria Sibylla Merian annotated her ecological illustrations of plants with their pollinators with information she learned from people indigenous to those ecosystems about the medicinal uses of the plants, the red bird of paradise for example was used as an abortifacient.
I don’t have formal training as an historian and I was raised inside the white supremacist propaganda machine that is the prevailing curriculum in most US schools so I’m sorry to say I have learned slowly and at times only by accident or through the generosity of people willing to correct me important truths like how Carl Linnaeus was also the scientist who, in the course of his work on taxonomies, proposed the racist notion that there are four human races. Maria Sibylla Merian I learned used the labor of enslaved people to obtain her specimens, she did not credit or compensate her sources for the knowledge she commodified in her book and that knowledge, particularly about plants that could be used for birth control was likely used by slave-holding colonizers to further control the reproductive choices of people they believed they owned.
These kinds of errors, which are more precisely called moral failings, are to this day a part of the systems of science and are encouraged by the close relationships between research funding and for-profit enterprises.
If I list the word enchantment under occupation, I imply that it’s never been felt on these islands. But people have always been running amok across all oceans, returning home late at night with monstrous appetites, welts embroidering their backs.
Kabel Mishka Ligot
We had planned to include a discussion of other poets engaging with science who have influenced us. If you are interested in reading more I suggest starting with:
Brenda Hillman’s tetralogy of books on the elements all provide different, interesting approaches to this subject. I’m particularly interested in Practical Water and Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire because of the way they incorporate transcripts and notes taken while she was doing work as an activist attending congressional hearings on the environment.
Camille Dungy’s poems in Trophic Cascade and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison, as well as her anthology Black Nature are essential reading for poets interested in writing about science.
Rosebud Ben-Oni’s poems and also her work editing a special feature for the recent issue of Pleiades in which poets write on elements from the Periodic table.
Hahn Kimiko’s Toxic Flora is such a great example of a poet engaging with science. She wrote her poems in response to a column about botany that appeared regularly in The New York Times and blends the precise rhetorical registers of science writing with the more affective possibilities in confessional lyric in such resonant ways.
Hopefully we’ll get a chance to talk about these ideas and other at AWP in Kansas City next year.
It means so much to me that the first review of RUE was written by Karen Craigo, the poet laureate of my home state of Missouri (and the landscape that forms the backdrop for the book). It also means a lot to me that Craigo understood and appreciated the way this book was born of myriad interlocking misogynies, including those in the medical profession and those surrounding the experience of motherhood.
Craigo writes: “Although I’m going on and on about the rhetoric here, don’t think for a moment that Nuernberger doesn’t get personal. Within the bounds of these arguments, the speaker of these poems talks about her workplace politics (and I absolutely love that she writes about this topic), or she calls out a townsperson who is too touchy-feely at the coffee shop, or she indicts an obstetrician… I know so many mothers who have part of this story to tell — a birth plan mocked and ignored, with no chance that it will be put into effect — but the story told here, of a doctor physically hurting the speaker, goes much further.”
Karen Craigo, by the way, writes with wit and painful honesty in her book, No More Milk, about motherhood and fertility. I’d also like to shout out Dominique Christina’s Anarcha Speaks about the violence at the core of the OBGYN profession and how the field is based on James Marion Sims’s torturous experiments on Anarcha and other enslaved people.
Other poets who have written important and deeply moving books about what it is like to in this culture with a uterus include:
Elizabeth Alexander, Antebellum Dream Book
Lucille Clifton, Next
Olena Kalytiak Davis, The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems
Jennifer Givhan, Landscape with Headless Mama
Brenda Shaughnessy, Our Andromeda
Rachel Zucker, Mothers
I’m grateful for all of these poets who provide models for how to talk and think about the experiences of living inside a body that is sometimes fragile and sometimes treated like a target.
The Salem witch trials were a miserable shit show, but Tituba’s ingenuity, subterfuge, and resistance was extraordinary. My essay about her testimony is now up at The Public Domain Review in their Conjectures series. While writing this essay I became fascinated by the power a story can have to create an oppressive power structure and also to disrupt one:
“Glamour, grammar, and grimoire all share the same root. The Inquisitors imagined in one testimonial after another that they saw the transformation from person to demon before their eyes, even as they clung more fiercely to the power in the illusion they held about themselves, that they were not the ones conjuring such nightmares. It was Goodwife Sibley who asked Titiba to perform that old English spell with bread, dirt, and urine to ease the suffering of the poor afflicted child Betty, but that moment glimmered back in court as Titiba’s idea, her spell, her fault.”
Last week I wrote in this post about the Docupoetic tradition, drawing on lecture notes and reading lists from a graduate seminar I taught last year called Docupoetics & Lyric Research. I thought folks might be interested in borrowing some of the generative writing exercises the students and I did in that course.
Exercises 1 & 2 were requirements in my class and I asked students to choose 3 or more of the others to guide the development of their projects. Those can be completed in any order and often work best when repeated over many days.
1. Docupoetics is, by its nature, project-based research and writing. To begin you’ll need to identify or create an obsession. If you weren’t a writer, what would you be instead – biologist, conservationist, lawyer, wedding planner? Your answer may point you towards a fruitful area of study. What kinds of non-literary art do you keep going back to – the song you still put on repeat after a decade, a work of art you like to visit at the museum every time, the niche filmmaker you love? Try looking through the classes offered by your community center and think about which ones might be fun to take and imagine learning flower arranging or self defense through a process of poetry instead. My students chose topics that included the slow food movement, orchids, puppetry, beekeeping, and superfund sites.
2. I encouraged everyone in the class to develop a (soma)tic practice to go along with their obsessions. A (soma)tic is a kind of ritual designed to engender poetry, though the rituals themselves can feel like poems or performance art pieces in their own right. CA Conrad developed the idea of (soma)tic poetry practice and Conrad’s descriptions of the (soma)tics as well as the poems that emerge are absolute favorites of mine. You can see some great ones here. When writing my poetry collection RUE my (soma)tic exercise was to take a walk in my meadow every morning and meet a plant (when possible I would sustainably harvest it for food or medicine or bouquets) and then go home to research its medicinal, botanical, and folkloric background. Brenda Hillman kept notebooks while attending the congressional hearings, which could be described as a (soma)tic exercise. The book Practical Water was one of the results of this practice. Students of mine chose (soma)tics like preparing and savoring food in mindful ways, taking aerial acrobatic classes, taking a foreign language class, and undertaking daily photography projects.
4. Collect quotes – scholarly, difficult, jargon-rich – on index cards. Write what the quotes mean to you or what memories they call to mind on the back. Keep and grow this collection as you work on your docupoetic project. Later you may collage these index cards into dialogues like Anne Carson’s in Men in the Off Hours (especially in “Thucydides in Conversation with Virgian Woolf on the set of The Peloponnesian War”). Or check out Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s work for ideas about how to write in conversation with the texts you find most resonant – in our class we read M Archive, where each page of the book is written in response to a line from M. Jacqui Alexander’s Pedagogies of the Crossing.
6. As you compile all of these documents and learn more through various primary and secondary sources, keep a process journal where you describe and observe yourself as a researcher. How does your learning feel? How does the library feel? What are the sounds and smells in the archives or out in the field? What kinds of conversations do you have with librarians, scholars, fellow researchers, yourself, your friends, your family as you dive ever deeper into your subject? Keep track of the sensory details, the conversations, the feelings, and the memories that come to you as you research. Let these daily pages become poems that infuse the rest of your docupoetic work. For examples, see Marwa Helal combine the archival and the personal to incredible effect in Invasive Species.
7. Would persona poems be appropriate for your project? There are questions of cultural appropriation and savior complexes to consider when approaching a persona poem – Alexander Chee’s article here for fiction writers poses some really useful questions in this essay that can help guide docupoets too. In The Afflicted Girls, which recounts stories of the Salem witch trials, Nicole Cooley creates speakers with deep historical knowledge about the trials, but who also step back and reflect on how that knowledge has been acquired, as well as what it means to try to imagine a way into another person’s torment. Creating a specialist persona can be an effective way to integrate your researched material with more personal elements. Dominique Christina’s Anarcha Speaks is a collection of poems that give voice to the enslaved women who were brutally tortured as part of J. Marion Sims’s human medical experiments that are the basis of modern gynecology. Christina’s work provides extraordinary examples of how a poet can imaginatively or spiritually call forth other people’s voices in poetry.
8. Go through all of your notes with a highlighter and identify the most evocative passages and the passages with the most exciting language. Look for recurring images, sounds, characters, and concepts. Think about how fragments can be ordered to create coherent or disrupt narratives. Try to find an idea or two that you come back to again and again. How does the rest of your research, knowledge, and experience form a watershed of streams that feed that central river? Collage your favorite passages together together while creating new material to create greater fluidity or to amplify the fragmented nature of the work.