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2020 in Review

Well, 2020 was something, wasn’t it? Looking back on my previous year in review posts brings back lots of good memories, but also some lines that, in retrospect, are…interesting. In 2016, I remarked that “[a] lot of people have been saying that 2016 was awful”. I would bet that pales in comparison to what they’ve been saying about 2020. And last year, I said, “let me zoom back in on 2019”! Little did I know how much Zooming was to come (though in fact I personally have been doing very little Zooming, since my institution prefers other platforms).

2020 was admittedly a devastating year for my country, for much of the world, and for many, many people. I have been extraordinarily lucky to have been sheltered from the worst ravages of the pandemic. I don’t blame anyone who’s not ready to look for the silver linings or who’s not interested in hearing about all the good things that happened to other people amidst a year of suffering and loss. Paradoxically, the pandemic gave me a marvelous gift I would never have otherwise had, so it’s impossible for me to say it’s been all bad.

I will say that 2020 has felt long. The things I did in January and February feel incredibly distant. But they belong to this year too. Here is the bird’s-eye view of my 2020:

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that we can’t imagine what the future will bring. Nevertheless, I wish you hope and connection in 2021.

AugurCon 2020

It’s been nearly a month since AugurCon, but I’m only now getting around to writing about it. Consider it a belated Solstice present! I took a bunch of notes during the panels I attended, and now I’m going to attempt to postify them. I’ll be mostly retelling, not editorializing, so if you want to know what happened, you might like this. (It’s long.) If you want to know my personal thoughts on allegory in spec fic, well, I haven’t really come up with any yet.

AugurCon was a conference (I think they were trying to keep it ambiguous with “con,” but I’d call it a conference?) held on the Saturday after (American) Thanksgiving and brought to us by Augur Magazine, a relatively young Canadian spec fic magazine. They put together a day of amazing-looking panels (not to mention workshops!), and I tuned in to two of them. Did I buy a ticket to AugurCon mainly because Amal El-Mohtar would be speaking and I am kind of a fan of hers? Quite possibly.

The first panel was “Problematic and/or Powerful: Allegory, Analogy, and Spec Fic,” moderated by Augur Magazine co-editor-in-chief Terese Mason Pierre and featuring panelists Daniel Heath Justice, Evan Winter, Amal El-Mohtar, and Amanda Leduc. The panel opened with a general discussion of allegory in relation to spec fic. Amal noted that allegory is one of the strengths of spec fic, but spec fic is often reduced to a tool for exploring real world problems when in fact it has much more expansive potential. She maintained that all fiction is the opposite of reality, which is inherently random and meaningless (an observation she attributed to Ken Liu), and so all types of fiction are subgenres of fantasy. Daniel said that allegory was great as a starting point but was not an endpoint of what spec fic writers do. Trying too hard to write an allegory will get in the way of doing justice to your story. While allegorical resonance makes sense to him, strict allegory doesn’t make for god storytelling. Amanda described using allegory as a tool, not as the entire backbone of a story. She said allegories work best when they’re soft and shifty, when you can’t tell where they begin and end. She made a comparison to chocolate cake with zucchini. Evan pointed out that literary fiction also uses allegory but maybe isn’t so much “accused” of doing so. Amal proposed an analogy: allegory is to story as rhyme is to poetry. That is, don’t let allegory constraint your story. Where it occurs naturally, it will contribute to what you’re writing. Daniel also said that if readers think they’ve picked up on an allegory, they’ll think they know what your story is about, and they’ll start applying preconceptions to it, which can be more troublesome for minoritized writers.

Next, Terese asked whether spec fic writers were pushed toward allegory in order to avoid the accusation that they were writing about political or social issues directly. Recalling Amanda’s zucchini chocolate cake, Amal said that there is a sense that writers have to get people to eat their vegetables, a notion which has its own weird politics (why are vegetables bad?). She drew a distinction between didacticism and pedagogy and used the example of Natalie Zina Walschots’ novel Hench (which apparently has difficult, thorny friendships? Ooh!). In Amal’s words, you don’t have to be convinced of the evils of late capitalist modernity to appreciate that the characters in Hench are having a hard time. Moreover, she said that reaching out to bigots through literature doesn’t appeal to her, but reaching people who may not know how to articulate their own oppression does. Evan evoked the labor of having to code switch in daily life, of having to make what he wants to say palatable to others. Allegory allows him to talk about things on his own terms. Amanda talked about the political context out of which magical realism developed as a way to criticize regimes in disguised arenas. She also mentioned how fairy tales are instrumental in shaping who we become as adults. She observed that today’s sensibilities seem to favor subtler allegory and consider older texts too obvious. On the other hand, Daniel noted that people can ignore allegory quite easily and take what they want out of the stories they consume.

Soon after, Amal said that although they were all using analogy and allegory interchangeably, there are in fact different kinds of each. She also saw two ways of treating fairy tales, which kind of do opposite things. There are fairy tale retellings, like those of Angela Carter, and there there’s building a secondary fantasy world around a fairy tale, creating fully realized characters instead of archetypes. She called this making fairy tales stand up to scrutiny, endowing them with emotional realism, logic, and catharsis. Evan and Amal then talked a little bit about the stories that get told and have an impact on the real world. Stories in the justice system, for instance, or about the police. Amal said that allegory, like any model, inevitably reduces the thing it’s intended to model, and different models are suited to different tasks.

There followed some discussion about the (in)completeness of allegories. Daniel said they don’t work when they’re being used to avoid the truth (e.g. to avoid a direct depiction of racism). If they’re being used to illuminate, though… Evan contended that allegory and analogy are not necessarily doomed to be incomplete; rather, it’s the points of view of the people who create them that are incomplete. Amanda said that analogy and allegory are inherently incomplete, but she saw that as a good thing. An allegory that is too complete is too pat and doesn’t have staying power. It may not involve enough work on the part of the reader. Amal, citing others, said that incompleteness is necessary in storytelling, but not being totally accurate to the thing you’re representing allows you to open up other things. Allegories can be too close, but perhaps they can also be too open, in which case they don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Finally, Terese asked the panelists whether there was something particularly useful about allegory for marginalized folks. Amanda said that although she is a disabled writer, she doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. Daniel said that marginalized people already live lives very much impinged upon by dominant allegories, constantly coming up against existing scripts. He finds marginalized writers’ uses of analogy and allegory liberatory, but he’s much more suspicious of those who want to allegorize them from an outside perspective. Amal mused about the extent to which the lives of marginalized people (I think) are lived in an act of translation and how there’s an aspect of dislocation to that translating work. Riffing on T. S. Eliot, she suggested that SFF writers break reality into its meanings. She said that for her the recourse to fantasy was instinctive. Fantasy feels like a kind of native language. Evan agreed that something about fantasy did feel very much like coming home.

The other panel I attended was the Featured Conversation, also moderated by Terese, with Jael Richardson, Joshua Whitehead, and Larissa Lai. Early on, the panelists talked about what drew them to spec fic. Joshua said he was drawn to the ability to destroy. He evoked the indigenous perspective of needing to burn or deadhead to allow for future growth and said a lot of things needed to be destroyed to make way for rebuilding. Although Jael wasn’t immersed in spec fic as a child, she wanted freedom from the constraints of reality as she asked the question: what is it like to grow up in a world designed for your failure? Spec fic gave her a space to explore these questions without being tied to truth of a real time and place. Larissa said that spec fic was a space in which she didn’t have to explain herself to white folks. She said she came from a culture that doesn’t like to talk, that carries things in the body. When you don’t have a lot of concrete knowledge about your own history, a genre that doesn’t require factuality to tell the truth can really work for you. She said she took an interest in her own history and mythology because she wasn’t given them as a child. She has also lost her mother tongue.

Jael laughingly noted that her forthcoming debut novel, Gutter Child, is an alternate history, rooted in the past, while the panel was supposed to be about futures. But part of our problem today is that we’ve forgotten things that came before, so how can spec fic force us to make connections between the past and the present? Joshua talked about wrenching the past into the present and then breathing life into it for the future. In spec fic, we can craft the worlds we want and need. Referencing the pandemic, which may feel like the first time the world has ended for more privileged people, he noted that indigenous people already have primers for the apocalypse. Larissa said that when she started writing, there was so little out there on the Asian-Canadian front. It was important to just get some language on the page, and she was looking to make a place in story for young queer Asian women, for people like herself, but broadly construed. Jael observed that the more specific you get with who you’re writing too, the more universal your work actually becomes. Larissa added that writing to a non-mainstream audience can open things up for you.

Terese then asked how the panelists would like the publishing landscape to change in the future. Jael said that self-publishing has been the path of the marginalized for a long time and she would like to see a more comprehensive and respectful relationship between self-publishing and traditional publishing. She talked about support for self-published writers, paths to traditional publishing for those who want them, and space in bookstores and review systems for self-published works. She referenced fringe festivals in the theater world as a way of bringing the fringes close together and creating communities. Joshua said he wanted to see ethics in publishing, and he talked up small indie presses. I think Larissa joked about Jael’s pragmatism and said she herself had a pragmatic side she didn’t like to talk about. Then she said there’s a pragmatics in the dreaming and a dreaming in the pragmatics. Impossible dreaming is important; you don’t know what to make happen until you’ve done the work of dreaming.

Next, Terese asked about ways of connecting with other writers of color and marginalized writers and the potential for community building in spec fic. Jael characterized the Black community in the U.S. as very defined, even as it contains multitudes, while in Canada there’s more disconnection in the Black community. Black people are underrepresented in literature, and there is both a community disconnect and a disconnect between publishing and the community. There are opportunities to make more connections, but it’s a long game. Larissa felt that Canadian publishing wants realism from BIPOC writers. She’s found support from the feminist spec fic community in the U.S. and from the queer communities in Canada and the U.S. During the panel, I think, she got an idea for a hashtag #DecolonizeRealism. Joshua stated that nothing could be more real than the stories indigenous people share with each other. CanLit may want memoir and realism, but this stuff is real, however fantastical it might sound to a white audience. He was advised to remove dream sequences from some of his writing, but for him, dreams are very real. They’re grounded in the body and the community and are instructive.

Lastly, Terese asked whether the panelists had dealt with gatekeeping, perhaps even from people within their own communities who didn’t think they should be speaking for them. Jael wasn’t sure she’d experienced that from within the Black community, but she said that publishing has trouble seeing different kinds of stories. While she had “amazing white ladies” involved in her book, their experiences disqualified them in some ways from shaping certain parts of the story, particularly the ending. So she had to navigate that alone, as well as learn that gatekeeping would come at multiple levels/steps of the publishing process. Joshua said that most of the gatekeeping he’d experienced was on the part of older gay men who weren’t happy with his critiques of gayness. He also described the gatekeeping he’d faced as mostly from people who felt they’d been called out just by his existence or his story. Larissa said that yes, she had felt policed, differently at different times in her life. Some of the most painful forms had come from within her own community, but she didn’t want to bring those spirits into the room at the end of a beautiful festival! She said that “policing” at its best is accountability, and she might make a distinction between the two, citing some extraordinary experiences she’d had with sensitivity readers.

New Story: A Burden of Transmuting Metal

Most of my blog posts lately have been about new publications! It’s true I’ve had a bumper crop this fall, but after this one you can expect a lull. I’m pleased to announce that my short story “A Burden of Transmuting Metal” came out on Sunday in Silver Blade. You can read it here. You will notice an accompanying graphic depicting a dramatic tornado; this has nearly nothing to do with the story.

Some of my stories are very much inspired by real places (“Lómr” is a clear example of this). Last fall, when I had just arrived in Grinnell, I somehow got the idea to write a story set at a fictionalized version of Grinnell College, my new place of employment. So this is a story of academia, and grad school. (It’s a pretty happy grad school story! I have another less happy grad school story that I’m still shopping.) I also wove in the Manchu class I took as a Ph.D. student. But most importantly, “A Burden of Transmuting Metal” is a portal fantasy that pays homage most explicitly to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

So last November I’m drafting this story about portals in college towns in rural Iowa, and one day I walk onto campus and see this:

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It was uncanny.

Almost one year later, the story is published, and the empty doorway is still on campus.

New Story: Mijara’s Freedom

My short story “Mijara’s Freedom” came out last Friday in The Future Fire, an online magazine of social-political and progressive speculative fiction. You can read my story here. Like “Yet A Youth,” “Mijara’s Freedom” actually originally appeared in print in slightly different form in a school literary magazine. In this case, it was the 2008 issue of Images, the literary and art magazine of Edina High School. So this story is pretty old! Also, it was titled “Parvana’s Freedom” then.

Pieces in The Future Fire are illustrated, and I feel so lucky to have beautiful artwork by Cécile Matthey accompanying my story. I haven’t seen my characters brought visually to life since the cover reveals for Sparkers and Wildings, so it was pretty magical. In fact, the way the artist imagined the protagonists was quite different from how I pictured them, but I love her rendering.

I wrote this story more than twelve years ago, so its origins are rather hazy now. But the action takes place against a backdrop of wildfires, and I seem to recall taking visual inspiration from a photo I saw in the newspaper. This fall, of course, devastating wildfires in the West are in the news again, and so “Mijara’s Freedom” might hit a certain way, although it is not a story about climate change.

Reprint: Lómr in Daikaijuzine

I’m pleased to announce that my short story “Lómr,” originally published in Cicada in 2018, has been reprinted in Daikaijuzine, an online magazine whose third release, Rodan (I don’t really know anything about kaiju), went live on Monday. You can read the reprint here. I’m excited to read the rest of the pieces in this issue.

“Lómr” was my first professional short story sale, and I’m still very fond of it. Cicada is also now sadly defunct, so I’m happy “Lómr” has found a new home on the web. Also, this is my first reprint! Well, if you don’t count “Yet a Youth.”

I expect to have some more short stories out this fall, so stay tuned!

The Boundary Waters 2020

My family spent last week in the Boundary Waters. It was my seventh (!) trip, fifteen years after my first, and my family’s fifth trip together. The last time we went was in 2016, when we canoed and camped on Isabella Lake. This year, we returned to Seagull Outfitters at the end of the Gunflint Trail, where we’d gone in 2015.

We drove up on Monday, stopping in Duluth to pick up sandwiches for lunch from Northern Waters Smokehaus. We used to plan our Boundary Waters drives around meals at the New Scenic Café on Old Highway 61, but with the pandemic, things are a little different. The New Scenic Café is closed, and we ordered our sandwiches ahead and picked them up from a table under a tent on Northern Waters’ deck. My bagel with smoked salmon and scallion cream cheese was scrumptious.

We reached Seagull Outfitters on Sea Gull Lake early in the evening. We were spending the night in the bunkhouse. At the outfitters, we heard there was a bear active on the western edge of the lake; four campsites on the adjacent Alpine Lake had been closed, and we were advised to avoid the western side of Sea Gull. The bear wasn’t afraid of people, which is bad news for everyone, bear included. (Also, there were possibly multiple bears?) This was a bit concerning. I’ve never seen a bear in the Boundary Waters, and while it’d be cool to see one from a distance, I have no desire to encounter a bear that isn’t deterred by human noise.

The next morning, one of the owners of the outfitters told us she’d avoid Sea Gull Lake altogether because of all of the bears and go north to Saganaga Lake instead. This would require a 38-rod portage at the outset, but just paddling after that. So we decided to do it and not spend four nights wondering if bears were approaching our campsite.

We left on Tuesday morning and returned to Seagull Outfitters on Saturday. In many ways, it was an ideal Boundary Waters trip. It only rained once, the last night we camped, and it didn’t start till after we’d gone to bed and stopped before we got up. (Of course, between the thunder and lightning and somewhat leaky tent fly, we didn’t sleep all that much, but still!) The bugs were remarkably tolerable; I didn’t put on bug spray once, even if in the evenings around the campfire the mosquitoes buzzing around my ears were a little bothersome. We had one particularly windy paddle, but I still got my canoe back to our campsite landing spot without the waves driving us into the rocks. I brought several extra layers I never wore because it didn’t get as cold as I’d expected. Saganaga allows motorboats, and some of the surrounding area is built up, with cabins, so it felt a little bit less like the wilderness than on past trips, but it was still beautiful. From our campsite, it was just trees, rocks, sky, and water as far as the eye could see.

We’d originally expected to stay on Sea Gull Lake, so portaging hadn’t been part of the plan. But the 38-rod portage through the U.S. Forest Service’s Trail’s End campground was actually one we’d walked back in 2015, on the day we left Sea Gull Lake. We’d explored the falls and gotten a family photo taken in front of the rock face at the southern end of the portage. This time, of course, we actually had to portage our canoes and gear, and though the trail wasn’t very long, it was steep in places, with many rocks and tree roots. Just north of the portage, there were some rapids, and since we were going downstream, we managed to shoot them. (On the way back was a different story, but I’m proud to say we got our canoe up the rapids first, after making “only” two mistakes.) After the rapids, we reached Gull Lake, and from there we paddled north through some narrow channels to Saganaga.

Saganaga Lake straddles the Minnesota-Ontario border, so half the lake is in Canada. In other words, we spent this trip at the very edge of the U.S. And we made two day excursions pretty much to Canada. On our first full day in the Boundary Waters, we decided to canoe to the point marked Canadian Customs on our map. We were camping on the southern end of Loon Island (a lovely campsite), so we paddled up past Munker Island, Voyageurs Island, the Blueberry Islands, and Horseshoe Island, till we could see Canada. (It looked exactly like our side, except that in Canada there were houses on the lake.) Then we spotted a white building with signs around it, and as we got closer, we confirmed that this was the customs checkpoint. There was a small wooden dock with a No Trespassing/Passage Interdit sign at the end, a bilingual notice about everyone having to report for border inspection, and around a slight bend, a big sign proclaiming Canada! But the whole place was deserted. We could’ve just gone ashore, but we did not.

The next day, we paddled farther, to Saganaga Falls, which turned out to be rather small (kind of like the falls we’d portaged around to get from Sea Gull Lake to Gull Lake). There was a portage here, but we just left our canoes out of the way on shore and walked the trail to go see the falls. We were on the American side, but the other side of the stream was Canada, and we could see a green sign that said La Verendrye Boundary. (Later I learned that this is named for Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye, which is kind of a mouthful.) We watched a party of three men and a boy canoe up from the north (where we’d come from too) to the rocks on the Canadian side and start fishing. One of them actually caught two fish, a very little one and a rather small one, both of which he released. As we were leaving in our canoes later, there was a group in a motorboat that caught a decent-sized fish in a net.

I felt I had particularly good luck taking photos of wildlife this trip, and it was my first time using my phone instead of a digital camera. This made it harder to get good pictures of distant bald eagles or loons, but the amphibians and butterflies were pretty cooperative. The sunsets seemed less spectacular than average (perhaps because the weather was better than average?), but the stargazing got better every night until the night it rained, and we saw the Milky Way and a few shooting stars.

If you didn’t know, I published a short story set largely in the Boundary Waters a couple of years ago. It’s entitled “Lómr” and appeared in Cicada, and you can read it here.

Writers@Grinnell

After I blogged about a number of the fall Writers@Grinnell events, Dean Bakopoulos of the English Department invited me to do my own Writers@Grinnell event. It took place last month in the Mears Cottage Living Room. I was quite surprised–pleasantly so!–by the turnout. There were so many people that some of them had to sit on the floor behind the sofa where I was seated. There were a lot of students, most of whom I didn’t know (I did have one former student and one current student in attendance). There were some of my fellow speculative fiction reading group members. And there were some English Department faculty.

Hosting me was Paula V. Smith, also of the English Department. She gave me a lovely introduction and then revealed (to the audience and to me) that she had a surprise gift for me. It was a copy of Small CraftWarnings Vol. 1 No. 2, which she and her best friend had co-edited in 1981. Jonathan Franzen was also on staff at the time. Small Craft Warnings is one of Swarthmore College’s literary magazines; when I was there, I served on the editorial board for three years. The issue Paula gave me was one of the first under the magazine’s new name. I was delighted to receive it. The issue consists of poetry and photography, and a number of the poems are translations, from Chinese, Spanish, and French.

I spoke briefly about how Sparkers and Wildings came to be (the long journey for Sparkers and the much quicker crafting of Wildings), and then I took questions. They were all interesting! A couple had to do with my approach to writing specifically for middle grade readers: whether I thought about my audience or how I’d had to revise my books to make them suited to young readers (the political machinations can only be so twisty!). Someone asked about how to balance exposition and action when you have a lot of worldbuilding to do. Somehow the subject of what I’m writing next came up, so I gave away a couple of details about the project I hope will be my next book. My current student asked me about the languages in my fantasy worlds, and I explained that there were no full-fledged conlangs behind the languages in Sparkers and Wildings. But the language in my next book actually has a sketched-out grammar and a deeper vocabulary beyond what little makes it onto the page. Paula asked me about the names in Sparkers and Wildings, a topic I’ve thought about and get asked about relatively often.

Afterwards, I signed a few books, breaking out Isabelle’s stamp again, and chatted with a few students. One of them asked me about story ideas and length. That is, how do you generate enough stuff for a whole novel but not so much that it becomes too much? I wasn’t sure how to answer at first because I always write too long and then embark on epic word-cutting sessions. I’m not very good at writing short stories that are actually short. But upon reflection, I think it’s best, at least when drafting, to let a story grow to the length it wants to be, even if it’s awkward. Novellas exist! Then you can always revise, fleshing out bare bones or carving away excess until you have the story you intended.

New Story: Yet a Youth

My short story “Yet a Youth” came out on Monday in Issue 80 of Youth Imagination. You can read it here! This story actually originally appeared in almost identical form in the Spring 2010 issue of Small Craft Warnings, Swarthmore College’s oldest literary magazine (of which I was also an editor). So this story is at least ten years old! I’m still fond of it, though.

“Yet a Youth” is one of the rare stories I’ve written that has no elements of fantasy. Maybe I could even say it’s not speculative fiction, except that I hesitate to categorize it as historical fiction because it isn’t set in a real time and place. Maybe this setting could have existed or did exist somewhere in the United States of the 19th century, but I didn’t actually research it. So it might be alternative history. It’s also a little bit unusual for me because the protagonist and POV character is a boy. Most of my main characters are girls.

The inspiration for this story came from a verse in the book of Judges. There was a time about a decade ago when I decided to read the King James Bible straight through from Genesis onward, and I stumbled upon some verses that particularly struck me. I guess this was one of them. I didn’t want to name my main character Jether, though.

Fun fact: I entered “Yet a Youth” in Swarthmore’s William Plumer Potter short story competition, which was judged that year by Wesley Stace/John Wesley Harding (who recorded a rendition of the shape note tune “Columbus”). While I did not win or even place, the judge gave public comments on all the entries, and he described “Yet a Youth” as Gothic.

2019 in Review

2019 was also a big year, though I did not travel as far as in 2018. On Twitter (which I have now joined), I’ve seen people reflecting on the whole decade since we’re about to enter the new 20s (how weird–I think “the 20s” still evokes flappers and Prohibition to me, though the pull of the 20th century feels weaker than for “the 60s,” say). It hadn’t occurred to me to look back on the decade till I started seeing those tweets. I don’t think I much noticed the dawn of the last decade; I was just trundling along in college. But if I look back on this past decade, most of the major accomplishments of my life were achieved in it: I got an agent, I graduated from college, I published two novels, I got a Ph.D…. One can, of course, debate the merits of cataloging one’s life in terms of material accomplishments. Anyway, let me zoom back in on 2019 and recall the highlights, non-chronologically:

2020, here I come!

Danez Smith@Grinnell

One of the perks of being at Grinnell is getting to experience Writers@Grinnell, the English department’s visiting author series. The first visitor this year was the Minnesotan poet Danez Smith. I’m often not much of a poetry person (whatever that means), though occasionally I’ll stumble upon a poem that really resonates with me (see Gina Myers’ “Memorial”), but I was interested in Smith’s visit because 1) they’re from Minnesota and 2) their next poetry collection, coming out next spring from Graywolf Press, is about friendship.

Another new professor told me she was going to the afternoon roundtable, so I decided to go too, though I wasn’t sure what to expect (I was hardly going to participate in a craft discussion about poetry!). It turned out to be a Q & A with mostly students (as it should be). Now, going in, I thought I’d never heard of Danez Smith before, but as they opened the roundtable by reading one of their poems, I was suddenly certain that they had written a poem I’d discovered a few years ago and loved. It was about being in California and missing the Minnesota cold (and something deeper). Later I checked, and I was right (but I’d been certain); the poem is “I’m Going Back to Minnesota Where Sadness Makes Sense.”

Smith kept reading, and the poem mentioned Hague St., and I started because when I lived in St. Paul I lived on Hague Ave., and Smith was from St. Paul. Was it…?

After reading one more poem (with audience participation), Smith fielded questions from students. The following are some bits of answers I liked best or found most intriguing (filtered through my memory):

  • Joy is hard to make special. So maybe this is why there’s less writing about happiness?
  • You should write about the things you think you’re avoiding because good writing is dangerous.
  • At the same time, while you find your voice in the place that scares you, you also find it in the spaces where you feel safety, love, and intimacy.
  • Your best work should surprise you.
  • Poetry is about being immortal, not inaccessible. (That is, poetry shouldn’t be abstruse work produced by members of a small elite for one another.)
  • They said they were excited for their next book, Homie, because it was going to force people to ask them about their friends (among other things).

In the evening, I went to Smith’s reading in the auditorium at Hotel Grinnell. It was very well attended, and this being a small town and a small college, I recognized all sorts of people I’d met in the less-than-a-month I’ve been here. They came from all manner of departments too. (I think this reading encapsulated exactly what I meant when I tried to express what appealed to me about small liberal arts colleges to faculty search committees!)

The reading was lively, powerful, alternately raucous and still, and Smith had no trouble engaging us all. Among the most memorable poems was “my president,” about all the people they would be proud and happy to call their president (celebrities, family members, and so on). Sometimes I felt like Smith was not talking to me, that I was on the outside looking in, because I’m not black, but this felt right in a way, because not everything we say is for everyone.

The most moving moment of the night, for me, was the reading of the last poem. Smith said they’d posted on social media asking people to give them a very brief description of when they knew their best friend was their best friend. I believe the responses fed into the poem, which is entitled “acknowledgments.” It was funny and beautiful and poignant, and I loved it.