Yesterday, Akron Poetry & Poetics editor Mary Biddinger announced her return to the reinstated University of Akron Press. Coordinator of Print Manufacturing & Digital Production Carol Slatter and Editorial and Design Coordinator Amy Freels returned to work Tuesday under the new leadership of transitional director Jon Miller and the umbrella of the University of Akron’s Library. This is a great victory for the press’s supporters who protested the University’s July decision to shut down the press and lay off its entire staff. I’m especially grateful to the Press’s staff, board, and authors. We saved the University of Akron Press!
Now that staff is back and the University has assured ongoing support for its Press, my second poetry collection Groundspeed has returned to the production calendar for publication in early 2016.
Below are statements from editor Mary Biddinger, transitional director Jon Miller, and the University’s president Scott Scarborough about the future of the Press.
MARY BIDDINGER’S STATEMENT ON SOCIAL MEDIA ABOUT HER RETURN
Many, many, many thanks to everyone who helped us Save the University of Akron Press. I am very happy to be back at work making beautiful poetry books and supporting our authors, who spoke out so passionately against the closing of the press.
TRANSITIONAL DIRECTOR JON MILLER’S LETTER TO UA PRESS AUTHORS (EXCERPT)
Thank you for your patience and support of the Press these last three weeks. I’d especially like to thank Kevin Kern for his advocacy and his updates on behalf of the editorial board. I appreciate all that Tom Bacher has done for the Press, and I look forward to working with him. And I am very grateful for the poise and professionalism of Carol Slatter, Amy Freels, and Mary Biddinger as we discuss the nature and possibility of their continued work for the press. We are also fortunate to have the support of Phyllis O’Connor, our Dean of Libraries.
I am optimistic about the future of the Press–for 2015-2016 as well as for many years to come. Otherwise I would not have accepted this role.
We are working to return the Press to a condition that will satisfy authors, readers, faculty, and students. I wish our progress could have been quicker. It has been a very tough time for the entire campus, however. In this context, I think our progress has been about as quick as it could be. Provost Mike Sherman and President Scott Scarborough have responded to our arguments and recommendations in ways that would surprise their critics. They have demonstrated a genuine and patient interest in developing a deeper understanding of the great promise of this gem of a university press. I expect there will be more good news over the next few days, weeks, and months. Please bear with us. And thank you so much for your continued patience and support.
PRESS RELEASE FROM UA PRESIDENT SCOTT SCARBOROUGH
The University of Akron Press has been and will continue to be a vital part of the academic core of this institution. As we complete its transition to University Libraries, we will take all steps necessary to make sure it maintains its well-earned reputation as a vibrant, active academic press, and to maintain its full membership in the Association of American University Presses. It will honor all existing publishing commitments, continue to seek out new, high-quality works to add to its catalog, and proudly continue to support its nationally recognized poetry series.
After consultation with Professor Jon Miller, transitional director of the University of Akron Press and Phyllis O’Connor, interim dean of University Libraries, regarding staffing plans within University Libraries, we are re-engaging the services of the two staff members who will help ensure operations of the UA Press.
University of Akron Provost Mike Sherman sent out this statement to Akron employees about the future of the University of Akron Press, my publisher. The statement doesn’t mention publishing any other books beyond what’s already under contract, and there’s not any revelation about the future of the Akron Series of Poetry & Poetics. I have applied for pro bono representation from the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (VLA) through the Cleveland Bar.
I want to update you on developments concerning the University of Akron Press, which is transitioning to University Libraries.
I am pleased to announce that Dr. Jon Miller, associate professor of English, has agreed to serve as transitional director for the University of Akron Press. Dr. Miller has published two books with UA Press; served on the Faculty Senate’s Library Committee for six years, including the last two as its Chair; and, has significant experience as a scholarly editor of journals, an encyclopedia, and critical editions.
Dr. Miller will work with Tom Bacher, current UA Press director, and Phyllis O’Connor, interim dean of University Libraries, to manage the current activities of the UA Press (acquisitions, editing, marketing, distribution, etc.) and recommend a staffing and operational plan to meet obligations for previously published and currently contracted publications. As part of this process, they will determine how the Press’ future operations are incorporated into the ongoing strategic planning relating to University Libraries. Dr. Miller also will help strengthen opportunities for University of Akron students to publish their scholarly works and to learn about careers in editing and publishing through internships and classroom experiences. In addition, he will ensure that IdeaExchange@Uakron continues to showcase the research-based information generated from faculty and students.
The University’s three-year financial plan approved by the Board of Trustees in June includes a strategic investment fund to enhance the academic mission of the University. That fund will be accessed to help facilitate the transition of the UA Press to UA Libraries.
We will continue to update you on these and other developments in the weeks ahead.
All the best,
William M. “Mike” Sherman
Senior Vice President, Provost and Chief Operating Officer
August 11, 2015
The plastic surgeon had thumbed three syringes of lidocaine into my cheek and made his first incision when he asked me what I teach. It was late spring 2013, and this was the first of several surgeries I’d have in the coming year and a half to remove melanoma, expand margins, and later reconstruct what another doctor called my architecture. “Oh-eh-ree,” I said, drooling-numb, but he didn’t—or pretended not to—understand. He squinted at his work, like a copyeditor examining a comma, and warbled, “Come again?”
My lips refused the consonants, especially that p, but after several gos, a few tugs on my cheek, and the doc’s distracted grafts of discernible words onto my guttural sounds (chemistry? herbology?), he gasped into a full belly laugh, the scalpel bobbing above my right eye.
I’m not sure how I would’ve made an expression then, or what it would’ve conveyed, but he caught it. “Ohh, you’re serious. Sorry, ” he switchbacked. “I just didn’t know that anyone reads that anymore, must less teaches it!”
That cosmetic surgeon, more anti-Muse than Jacob Marley, wraiths into my mind every time I encounter and attempt to answer the question Is poetry relevant?, a favorite wheelspinner among cosmopolitan op-eds. Although the doc’s latex-pinched fingers anviled my head against the exam table as he excised the mole, my shoulder devil still swaggered—Tell him, “Hey, buddy, I deal in real beauty”—but even that defense seemed to helium up the misconception that the work of poetry is delicate—lace doily stuff.
Prior to going back to clinical surgery, I’d spent thirty minutes or more with patients who were open—even loud—about their Botox and lipo treatments at the receptionist’s window. The waiting room had felt more like that of a salon or spa than a doctor’s office: all gossip, emery boards, beauty magazines, and cell phones. I’d passively protested by re-reading Ovid’s Metamorphosis. And the irony wasn’t lost on me.
Later that day, I wrote a poem that exemplifies the essential connections I’d like to make between my work as a poet and as a teacher, and, in its discussion, offers one of my student’s rebuttal to the doctor’s dismissal of poetry.
I’d like to share the poem for you now, and then I’ll illustrate some of the practical and conceptual ways teaching has nuanced my writing and clarified my feelings about poetry’s relevancy. The poem is called “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s” and it begins with an epigraph from Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.”
Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
No one else with a book, the slick
weeklies gossip amongst
themselves on the side
tables as the ticker rolls the Dow
Jones downdowndown under
a profile of the marathon
bombers (the older, a boxer). Jove
argues for the removal of a race
of peoples that do not please
him: What is past
remedy calls for the surgeon’s knife. He will take a hunk of my
cheek (cancer) and though I can’t
see mid-procedure, I imagine
the site as an apricot, bitten.
This, a survival mechanism—
romanticism. David says, If you’re out
in public and you don’t want anyone to talk to you, bring a book
of poetry. Even as I enter the confidence
of the room, I avoid my
reflection in the window, for there,
most of all, I see myself as only I can,
as only the eye will have me—
as light, as light alone.
I chose that Bishop quote not only because of its situational associations—she’s looking at a National Geographic while waiting on her Aunt Consuela at the dentist—but because of its implied self-assessment: if she scarcely dared to look to see what it was she was then, then we might assume she does look to see what she was, and therefore is, in the poem.
In my poem, I wind up on the notion that all we see of ourselves is really just light, something untenable and transcendent. In this way, all our memories of self and personal experience are memories of light. It makes what we witness—violence, racism, greed, the degradation of our own bodies—both less threatening (it’s just light) and more so: What are we dealing with if we’re not dealing with something that we can trap, contain?
Although “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s” doesn’t take on teaching as its dramatic situation, the way that Philip Levine’s “M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School, Detroit 1942” or Claudia Emerson’s “Student Conference” do, the poem outright invokes advice from one of my own teachers and teaching mentors—David Wojahn, whom I assisted in two classes and who served as my thesis adviser in grad school—as well as exemplifies both practical and conceptual effects on my writing of teaching, namely a shift toward musical plainspokenness and the realignment of empathy’s presence and function in my poems.
Shift in Diction
Back when I was in graduate school and my primary job was to write, David suggested that I read texts that were in, what he called, “English that isn’t English.” This meant Scots-language poets like Hugh MacDiarmid and Kathleen Jamie; the Matthew’s 1537 Bible; and early translations of the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th-century Germanic witch prosecution manual, and the Turba Philosophorum, an early alchemical text from the 10th century. The texts’ language and, in some cases, their content reinvigorated language’s inherent mystery, that alchemical reaction between sound and meaning, and re-formed the traditional bridge between poetry and incantations, spells, etc. The effect was not unlike that of repeating a word over and over again—banana, banana, banana, banana, or, for you Tennessee Williams fans out there, “Stella! Stella!” It gestures toward the effacement of meaning and the solidification of the word into thingness apart from what it signifies. I want my poems to retain mystery, and to be both about the words and what the words convey, but many of the poems I wrote in graduate school, that later landed in my first book Signaletics, absorbed archaic, obscure, and esoteric language from my reading. Here’s a short passage from another poem that takes reading as its subject matter, titled “Reading Joyce on U.S. Flight 2309.” And, as an aside, I can’t help but wonder how much of a co-conspirator Joyce was in this dictional antiquarianism . . .
Behind you, encorona, the sun,
& I in the grass, looking up, saw a plane
insectile (without my glasses)
fly through your head
in one ear & out the other.
An illusion. The first love poems I knew were
prayers. What then of free fall’s
rash grace, wings sheared & released
into other trajectories? (Daedalus winds
the alleys, gathered as wreckage
in the arms of a harlot.)
“Encorona”: in a crown of sunlight! that nearly scientific “insectile”! These dense linguistic renderings forfeited the attention of some readers, particularly casual ones who value the kind of poetry that penetrates the blood-brain barrier of emotion in seconds flat. (My book’s emotion has more of a extended release effect, and often manifests itself as anxiety about violence in the Middle East and, closer to home, against the body and identity.) In an ultimately positive review of Signaletics, one reviewer suggested the missteps in the book were those places when I used “five-dollar words.”
I still believe this dictional maneuvering was appropriate for the project, as many of the book’s poems situate forensics or, at the very least, the body as its subject matter. The use of such diction mimicked the effect of coming to an obscure piece of “evidence” and having to make sense of it from its context. Additionally, it insists on language’s sovereign thingness—a body itself with tandem mysteries.
Although I wouldn’t go back and change a thing about that first book, I don’t think I could ever write the same poems again. Perhaps it was the death of my half brother in April 2012 followed by my diagnosis of stage-4 melanoma—really misdiagnosis, at least of its severity—in May 2013. Around the same time, however, I also began teaching with regularity, first at VCU and later as the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.
In the classroom, I found myself realigning my linguistic tendencies in order to make the theory and craft of writing accessible and relevant to my students. I began to value and the teachability of and to spend more time with poems my own post-gradschoolian tastes splashed the “dull as bathwater” judgment on. Suddenly plainspokenness, especially the way it subverted my students’ feelings of inferiority and gave them access to an art form that they’d previously thought archaic in and of itself, became as rich as the elaborate linguistic confections of poets like Hart Crane or H.D. I found that plainspokenness also, in its way, taught students how to read more labyrinthine sentences with totemic diction, at least in how it increased students confidence in their abilities to read poetry. One poem that I teach often—which was also taught to me—is by Belle Waring, who passed away earlier this year, that begins its first sentence in the title:
It Was My First Nursing Job
and I was stupid in it. I thought a doctor wouldn’t be unkind.
One wouldn’t wait for a laboring woman to dilate ten cm.
He’d brace one hand up his patient’s vagina,
clamp the other on her pregnant belly, and force the fetus
through an eight-centimer cervix.
She tore, of course. Bled.
Of course, I worried that content here would dispel the immersive attentions of students who find the words “vagina” and “cervix” still funny, but, on the other hand, when I include this poem in a packet, my students always say its among their favorite poems they’ve ever read. They gravitate toward its candid exposition of narrative and the speaker’s fear, not to mention the conversational asides like “of course” that make the speaking feel authentic and, arguably, intimate, as if she’s telling the story to them herself. The poem later notes with some irony that the doctor was an elder in his church and that, upon delivering a stillborn baby, he “flipped open” the blanket . . .
to let the mother view the body, according to custom.
The baby lay beside her.
He lay stretched out and still.
What a pity, the doctor said.
He seized the baby’s penis between his own forefinger and thumb.
. . .
Look, said the doctor. A little boy. Just what we wanted.
His hand, huge on the child, held the penis as if he’d found
a lovecharm hidden in his grandmother’s linen.
And then he dropped it.
The doctor leaves without telling the baby’s father, forcing the speaker, inexperienced and in shock, to deliver the news. With mostly long, end-stopped lines in couplets, the poem doesn’t look like the whittled poetic miniatures my students read in high school, and while it does use literary devices like simile, nothing feels ornamental.
This exposure to and engagement with uncoded diction and plainspokenness—that means what it says and says what it means—particularly influenced my poems about my half-brother’s death and my cancer, including “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s.” Too much poeticizing didn’t seem appropriate for the subject matter, and I found myself—appropriately, as my students had pushed me in this direction—wanting to tell these poems to an audience not unlike my students, who desired vulnerability in both emotion and language. Because of teaching, my relationship to language has pangeacally realigned, away from the interior and intuitive to the conversational and exploratory.
If I had written “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s” prior to this shift, I would’ve likely landed on a revelation of an image delivered so that the image felt estranged from the reader through a dictional obscurity, as a means to mimic the speaker’s own feelings of estrangement from her own image. Now, however, I can produce this effect without obscure diction, so that the reader doesn’t have to extrapolate what the speaker is thinking from the image but receives this information from the speaker herself: “I see myself as only I can, // as only the eye will have me— / as light, as light alone.” This, of course, means that the reader doesn’t only have to connect to the speaker intellectually but is actively acting upon an empathetic response.
Empathy and Relevancy
Teaching hasn’t only engineered technical shifts in my writing, it’s also influenced my the function of empathy in my poems.
I once had a student who balked at a short story called “Section 8” by Jaquira Díaz, a fierce rendering of a Latina girl’s struggle with juvie and her sexuality. “This isn’t relatable,” my student scoffed, “I don’t know why we’re reading it.”
At that moment, I banned the word “relatable” from my classroom, as it presupposes that all literature must appeal to all readers’ personal experiences and rejects the possibility that it’s the reader’s job to do that relating. (And it is the reader’s job!) I likewise vowed that all of my class texts would expose students to a variety of voices and backgrounds, as a means to honor Mark Doty’s notion that “Literature makes other people more real to us.”
As I’ve read more diverse texts with my students, our conversations include both craft issues and social concerns. In my fall Writing Poetry class, my students and I looked at poems that were in conversation with the events in Ferguson, poems like Jake Adam York’s “Postscript,” Lucille Clifton’s “Jasper Texas, 1998,” and Danez Smith’s “Alternate Names for Black Boys.” When one student, whose primary class persona was charismatic Devil’s Advocate, then said that he felt that poetry wasn’t relevant and couldn’t enact any change, several other students, all young women, jumped in before I could propose a counter-argument. “If poetry can help one person understand someone else a little bit better, it matters. It’s relevant,” my student N. insisted.
It’s with this in mind that I take to the classroom and the page, with the hope that I demonstrate empathy and generosity in my own work, bridging the gap with my poems rather than delineating the distance, just as my students have done so in our classroom discussions. I believe that my newest poems, those in my forthcoming second collection Groundspeed and my in-progress hybrid book Bluff, make the personal political, after my student’s idea and with the hope that, like one poem teaching us how to read another, knowing me through my poems will help readers know one another.