Writing Through Lacunae: Generative Erasures, Medieval Multiverses

What follows is a presentation I gave at an academic conference last spring, in a session I organized around the somehow-still-radical-in-2022 idea of professors who work openly across critical/creative, professional/personal, and academic/public divides towards integrated and authentic practices and being. I share it here in hopes it helps others, especially prospective and current graduate students and early career researchers, nontraditional students, and people who are just interested in things I’ve written, think through their own relationships with what they do and who they are, how the one inextricably informs the other, and how figuring out what that looks like and how and why it matters to us can truly engage and lead to meaningful and powerful shifts in our perception of who we are, what we do, and where the value in our work truly lies.

Title page: Writing Through Lacunae: Generative Erasures, Medieval Multiverses, a talk given at the Sewanee Medieval Conference in Spring 2022

This paper occurs at the intersection of medieval and medievalism studies; of me-as-writer, me-as-scholar, and me-as-teacher; that is, at the intersection of my creativity, scholarship, and pedagogy. I have come recently to the conclusion that the effort I’ve expended to keep these parts of myself separate has been an irresponsible response to irresponsible expectations, an effort to work within the strange idea that we must be “scientific and objective” and “eschew identity scholarship” which permeates our field and permits pretense that some (white, male) scholars who “do not engage in identity scholarship” are more valid than other (non white, non male) scholars who ostensibly do. As I’ve written elsewhere, the idea that white men writing about Latinate Christianity, European medieval politics, and the Crusades, are objective and scientific researchers not engaged in personally invested inquiry, but that anyone who brings a visibly (because not white and heteronormatively male) or otherwise transparently subjective persona into their research and teaching is engaged in identity scholarship and thus, suspect in terms of their professional credibility is both absurd and false. And I have come to understand that, in fact, I am at my best both personally and professionally when I do NOT seek to compartmentalize these various aspects of myself but rather, engage them holistically. I came to this realization by chance during a years-ago classroom exercise in examining erasures in Beowulf and lacunae in the Historia Regum Britanniae which has since evolved into a foundational approach to writing, researching, and teaching that has been nothing short of transformational. By actively turning attention to the erasures and lacunae left on, in, and by my subjects of study and using these to help me better understand their contexts, influences, and impact, allowing myself along the way to think and write deeply into them and thus, participate actively in the multiverses they originated, I am continuously learning, re-learning, and helping my students and readers to learn, how to engage with my work, and with myself through that work, in generative and meaningful rather than artificially purposeful ways. That is, I enact a pedagogy of authenticity historically, culturally, and personally responsible not to an OBJECTIVE TRUTH we all know to be fiction masquerading as real, but to the things and people I seek to understand: medieval North Atlantic literatures and cultures, my students, my readers, and myself, in all our individual, local, and global contexts–the real multiverses reflected in our fictional ones.

Section heading page: I “The Nowell codex erasures, textual and psychological trauma, and feminist retellings of Beowulf”

As J.R. Hall demonstrated in a presentation at the Southeastern Medieval Association many years ago, the missing text in the Nowell codex, the sole extant medieval witness of the early English epic Beowulf, is not due to the damage sustained by the manuscript in the famous Ashburnham House fire of 1731, but rather to the effect of an owner of the manuscript’s application of a chemical agent intended to make the fading ink more legible, so it could be traced over and rendered more stable. Unfortunately, the chemical agent as applied erased those portions of the text entirely; the only saving grace in this situation being that the owner ceased his efforts as soon as he noted that unrecoverable damage occurring. These good-faith efforts at preservation resulted in unintended damage–can, in fact, be interpreted as a violent act which left visible trauma upon the object in the form of unrecoverable erasure. 

In turn, this physical erasure visible upon the object of study–the manuscript, itself–leads me into consideration of the subject erasures located within the text preserved in that object–the storyworld of Beowulf, and the real world that produced this epic and the stories embedded within it. Scholars have painstakingly worked to reclaim a significant portion of that world through a variety of approaches: archaeology, anthropology, philology, and comparative literary studies, to name but a few. More recently, interdisciplinary and nontraditional approaches including psychoanalytical, feminist, indigenous, and critical race theory have been applied to the text, and these have been met with skepticism if not downright derision on the part of certain prominent Beowulf scholars; claims of anachronism, reverse-engineering history, and subjectivity/ identity scholarship abound (as though all of these “issues” aren’t embedded in the text itself . . . ) 

images: damaged pages from the Beowulf ms and the notice of the Ashburnham House Fire

Interestingly, in creative efforts at reclamation and engagement of this text and its world(s), such approaches are not only acceptable, but expected and praised, especially if undertaken by men. Tolkien’s fantasy The Hobbit, of course–beloved and hailed as a classic fantasy in its own right, and taught as the core of “Tolkien’s Middle Ages” courses emphasizing his use of medieval source texts as allegory for modern concerns; novelized versions of Beowulf, such as John Gardner’s Grendel or Michael Creighton’s Eaters of the Dead, hailed for their psychological depth and social critique and often taught alongside the original poem (or, as with Grendel, even in its place, for younger readers.)

Images of the covers of The Hobbit, Eaters of the Dead, and Grendel

However, we have our limits regarding translation and adaptation of the poem as a poem. Seamus Heaney’s1999 translation, widely acclaimed in popular view, has been dubbed “Heaneywolf” by the poem’s scholars for its staunch adherence to the poet’s sensibilities and Irish political lens. Roy Liuzza’s translation, on the other hand, is probably the most-taught in today’s classrooms and deservedly so, it’s an excellent translation by a deeply learned and engaged and wonderful scholar of Old English–but it is a translation, and also possesses characteristics and sensibilities of its maker. These, however, are more obfuscated by his position as a man who is also a recognized scholarly expert and not simply a poet. 

Images of the covers of Heaney’s Beowulf and Liuzza’s Beowulf, Second Edition

Meghan Purvis’s award-winning 2013 feminist translation of the poem was essentially ignored by medievalists upon publication and is rarely taught or written about from a critical perspective, Denis Ferhatović’s 2019 chapter in the edited collection Shapes of Early English Poetry a notable exception. The primary charge is that, being in part written through the distillation of certain moments and expansion or insertion of others within the missing words and lines, it is interesting, but not really Beowulf. Yet, scholars have been quick to point out that Beowulf, itself, is also not necessarily or even likely to be the poem as originally composed, a fact that in no way has dimmed our passion and enthusiasm for mining it for everything it can tell us.

Images: cover and sample pages of Purvis’s Beowulf

More recently, Maria Dahvana Headley’s brilliant revisionist translation has met with highly divided critical acclaim: while scholars invested in seeing the field diversify and open up to new perspectives have widely lauded it, the Venn diagram of scholars who treat the poem as a holy relic and scholars who hate her translation is a perfect circle. Where it occurs, criticism of her work typically begins with the first word: she translated HWAET as BRO. This demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of the poem’s gravitas, detractor Beowulf-experts sniff. How could she desecrate the poem that way?

What is the difference, really, between HWAET! and LISTEN! and YO! and BRO! ?

Images, cover, first page, and Venn diagram of Headley’s Beowulf

Significantly, Headley also wrote a novel, The Mere Wife, which adapts Beowulf from a feminist perspective, Grendel’s Mother an Iraqi war veteran, and these same critics hated that, too: it’s not Beowulf! It’s too political. We can’t teach that book. (but Tolkien, Gardner, and Creighton are fine, to judge from the number of syllabi which have featured them . . . ?) Another Venn diagram: the perfect circle of those who find Headley’s work “too political” while staunchly defending Tolkien from charges of religious conservatism, classism, and racism in his texts. As a writer myself, I find it deeply troubling that instead of being read and considered on their own merit, with an effort to understand their relationship to Beowulf not as a 1:1 corollary but as an effort to find something that hasn’t been seen or understood within the poem or which the poem has brought to mind for them, these women’s works are continuously held up as “less than”, mere shadows rather than “faithful” modern renditions and “respectful” adaptations of the “original pure text”–something their authors never sought to accomplish. What, precisely, are we expecting them to be faithful and responsible to

Images: cover of Headley’s The Mere Wife and Venn diagram

I think you see where I’m going with this. Scholars of this poem agree that there are unrecoverable elements of both the manuscript-object and the text-subject of Beowulf. Likewise, we agree it is worth continuing to push for answers to the unanswered and unanswerable questions we ask of it. Where we diverge is in the idea of “responsible” approaches to this poem. There is a sense among some that “objectively” we should not do damage to this text through “irresponsible” scholarship. But realistically, what “objective” scholarship has ever been conducted on any medieval text? Who among us, even those who read Old English, has ever once read and understood Beowulf as its original author intended it to be received by its original audience? We know this is impossible and reading never works that way. We each come to this poem from a subject-position and a particular training and methodology. Realistically, the only limitations are those we opt to place upon the text, and ourselves engaging with the text. And realistically, “subjective” damage in the form of “irresponsible” scholarship leading to lasting trauma for this poem and its audience(s) has already been done–just look at the text’s centrality for the alt-right audience that views it as evidence of White Nationalist origins for today’s society–a view wholly developed and codified in the critical scholarly tradition that now and so actively seeks to preserve the poem’s purity as a cultural monument and relic and protect it from those who “don’t understand it”.

Is there not then a possibility that studying the application of a chemical agent to the physical manuscript and its effects upon the object, and studying the application of a theoretical lens and its effects upon the story, and studying the application of a translational approach and its effects upon the poem, and studying the critical historiography of and its effects upon the poem, and studying creative responses and their effects upon the poem, can equally yield important new insights into how we understand Beowulf now, its original presentation and audience, and our own efforts at recovering the unrecoverable on and within this text object? What if, instead of disdaining those who approach it in ways that we find unfamiliar or that we disagree with, we actually put on our critical thinking caps and engage in good faith with their efforts, trying to learn from them, allowing ourselves to be inspired by them? And what if, rather than insisting on some fictive objective truth of Beowulf as a subject of inquiry, as though there is only one true text, on which the last word worth writing has already been written and we can only memorize and regurgitate the work of those critics, we teach our students such an approach, the approach taken by Purvis and Headley and yes, Tolkien and Heaney as well–to be open and attentive to what we don’t and can’t know, and open and attentive to the many ways of knowing available to us; to critically engage with what is there and imaginatively engage with what isn’t, to read the poem aware of their subject position as its reader, and to consider what they could bring into its understanding? What might they teach us, or teach us to ask, that we don’t already know? 

I suspect–quite a lot. I suspect the poem could and should be far less white, male, sexist, and racist. I note that based on their works Gardner, Creighton, Heaney, and Liuzza do not disagree with this conclusion nearly so vehemently as those who hold them up as the poem’s better adapters appear to. And I find as a feminist writer/scholar myself that when my own students have engaged with Toni Morrison’s essay on Grendel’s Mother, Maria Devhana Headley’s representation of Grendel’s Mother in the Mere Wife, and Meghan Purvis’s expansion of the women’s presence in the story, they are far better equipped, and more interested, to engage with Beowulf on its own terms regarding what is and is not present in the poem as object/subject, and, most importantly, why that matters for them as its readers. 

In fact, that is precisely WHY we have the works of Tolkien, Gardner, Creighton, Heaney, Purvis, Headley, countless others, in the first place–these are creative responses to the questions they asked the poem. There are so many more questions that can still be asked, as many questions as there are readers, and for me, those Nowell codex erasures are the way in: directing my students’ attention to the various erasures and gaps, asking them what they think is missing and why, and then simply supporting them in their investigation. The one, extant physical copy of the poem has already yielded countless editions, translations, adaptations, and critical studies; it can produce countless more. While some things are unrecoverable, every new product, whether creative, critical, or hybrid, is a recovery of something by/for someone out of the ruins of the original storyworld, and this is a hopeful act we should embrace and encourage. 

Section heading page: “II Finding (more) time for romance: Historia Regum Britanniae, ArthurTime, and entering the multiverse from wherever you are”

In 1994, Ad Putter published an article in Medium Aevum which has subsequently only been cited 52 times by other scholars but which wholly changed the field and unlocked the convergent creative/critical/pedagogical possibilities of the Arthurian multiverse for at least one medieval/ism/ist – me. In “Finding Time for Romance,” Putter hypothesized that Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “authoritative” History of the Kings of Britain provided an origin site for the medieval romanciers of the Arthurian legend in establishing a chronology for Arthur’s reign. Among the many “historic” deeds in the Arthurian section such as the break with Rome, the ridding of the menace of the Giant of Mont Saint Michel, and the unifying of the North Atlantic world under Arthur’s rule, are two easily-overlooked spans of time: 12 years, and 9 years, respectively. Of these, Geoffrey writes simply: 

Image: quoted passages cited in the paragraph below

“The winter passed and Arthur returned to Britain. He established the whole of his kingdom in a state of lasting peace and then remained there for the next twelve years” (222) and “Nine years passed” (225). Putter argued that because Arthur’s reign was thus fixed chronologically, writers who wanted their work to be taken seriously had to locate plausible space within that reign in which to insert their tales and that, beginning with Wace, they did so within these two spans of uncharted time–that is, that Arthurian romanciers and alternative historians located their Otherworlds and multiverse offerings within these textual lacunae providing uncharted temporalities, exploiting what Jane Gilbert later termed “Arthurtime”–the span of time and space locatable within those empty spaces left by Geoffrey of Monmouth and infinitely customizable by later writers seeking to insert themselves into the Arthurian world. 

Images of website screen captures on “the real King Arthur”

A lot of ink has been spilled seeking to locate “the real historical King Arthur,” to somehow legitimize and claim him as the property of one group of people over another (and again, the Venn diagram between these folks and the Beowulf purists is a perfect circle.) Not only is this not especially interesting, it’s also “historically irresponsible” scholarship because for Geoffrey of Monmouth, it didn’t matter whether Arthur was “real” or not, all that mattered was that he SHOULD be, and so he was entered into the historical record as the son of a fictive king. Arthur is there because he was needed to complete Geoffrey’s history, and what is or should be interesting to scholars and critics is not Arthur’s historicity, which is wholly in doubt if not at this point thoroughly debunked, but HRB’s lasting significance as an origin site for the Arthurian multiverse (though really, the Welsh triads should have that honor.) 

Images from medieval Arthurian manuscripts

Anything can happen in Arthurtime and space. Literally anything. The origin stories of the various knights of the Round Table; their journeys and adventures; alternate histories–there’s room in there for anyone and everyone. And they’re all “legitimate” because they occur in the lacunae of Arthur’s reign, in the uncharted and unclaimed spaces: who’s to say what went on there? Absolutely no one, that’s who. Medieval writers got that point from the beginning; certain modern scholars seem to struggle with it. One of the arguments we see over and over again, generally from the same people who get their knickers in a knot over the need to respect and preserve Beowulf as a monument of White Culture, is that you can’t make an Arthurian knight black, or a woman, or trans, or queer, because it’s inaccurate or anachronistic. Oh, you dear sweet summer children–haven’t you heard of Palomedes? Of Silence? Medieval romanciers already covered that ground and plenty more besides. And just take a quick look at Edmund Spenser’s manspreading in Arthurtime and space in the Fairie Queene for queer alternate Arthurian history . . . I’ll wait . . . 

But those are EXCEPTIONS, we sometimes hear. And yet–they are not exceptions. The historiography of the Arthurian legend presents a truly a global enterprise featuring knights, ladies, and adventures from around the world, from its origins through the present day. Objectively, there are hardly any exceptions in material at this point–and that’s important.

Images: covers of Once and Future and Legendborn, and Venn diagram

Recently, modern writers like Cori McCarthy and A.R. Capetta with their queer Arthurian space opera Once and Future, and Tracy Deonn with Legendborn, her truly outstanding black girl magic Arthurian novel, have been hailed and reviled in equal measure for redefining the Arthurian canon–but have they really? To single them out as somehow different, exceptional, or otherwise a rupture in, rather than part of an ongoing development of, the Arthurian multiverse does them, and ourselves, and our students, deep disservice and, in my view, actually serves the purposes of their detractors by insisting there’s a “pure” Arthurian legend and then . . . aberrations. (As I’m sure you have already surmised, the Venn diagram between people who think Tracy Deonn has taken liberties by inserting a black woman protagonist into the Arthurian legend and those who think we should worship at the altar of “pure” Beowulf and King Arthur is, again, a perfect circle.)

What can happen if instead of accepting the Arthurian legend as a fixed enterprise with exceptions and aberrations here and there, we begin with the understanding it is a sprawling, untamable, largely unknowable (because far too vast) multiverse? What if we follow Putter, and everyone before and since Putter writing Arthuriana creatively, into Geoffrey’s lacunae asking not what’s there, but what could be there? What if instead of arguing about “what’s really Arthurian” we help our students ask “what have I not seen yet?” Here, as with Beowulf, we surely would find that this multiverse has space and a place for everyone and that there are plenty more discoveries and explorations and additions and expansions to be made, if we allow for it.

Section heading page: “III The (un)recoverable pasts in the classroom: honoring and rescripting the narratives passed down to us”

I’m almost done, I promise. Just one, final point.

For a long time now, we’ve been gaslighted. We’ve been told only “responsible” and “objective” approaches to scholarship are acceptable. We’ve been conditioned to stay in our lane as scholars–and we didn’t realize that lane was, in fact, a lane custom-built for us or, if we did, we weren’t able to locate a way out of it that would permit us to stay on the road. But do we want to stay on that road, or is it only because we didn’t see another way forward that we agreed to these terms? Is it not, perhaps, because we didn’t know to look in the erasures and lacunae for other possibilities? And can we perhaps make that clearer, sooner, for our own students, equipping them with the most important map of all–the one that charts a course not to where we know to look, but where there isn’t yet anything to see because it’s up to us to discover, recover, and uncover?

Images: cover and representative pages from Arthurian Things

 For most of my adult life, I set aside my creative writing based on medieval source materials because I was conditioned to, counseled that I would not be taken seriously as a scholar if I wrote poetry and fiction rather than or even in addition to critical scholarship. This was an erasure I performed upon myself. I did so in response to critics telling me that personal approaches to my subjects of study were “irresponsible” and I needed to be “objective” in my approach, especially as a teacher of medieval literature. I see many of my colleagues who are scholars of color being told similarly that they must commit erasures to be taken seriously, that “identity scholarship” has no place in “responsible” approaches to the study of medieval subjects. This is, in my informed critical opinion, horseshit. If Tolkien can be appreciated and even lionized for both creative and critical approaches to his source texts, the blending of personal and professional that led to his whole oeuvre of scholarship and story, so can we. And so can our students. But this is only possible if we take the first step of being honest and authentic, of openly acknowledging who we are as readers and interpreters, what we know and don’t know, what is good, bad, and ugly in our field’s history, and what the possibilities are in our writing, scholarship, teaching and learning. By being courageous in facing our own erasures through the study of those in our text-objects, and exploring our own lacunae as we consider what’s going on in the empty spaces between the lines of our text-subjects, we become the best possible guides for our students taking their first steps into these medieval multiverses.

Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems, happened at a crossroad in my life and career. I was dealing with professional burnout. I was struggling to get my critical work past reviewer 2 in journal publications. I was overwhelmed with the demands of a family. And I was in despair over the state of the world following Donald Trump’s election and the subsequent fluorescing of sexist and racist acts in our society. I needed an escape, a way to channel my heightened emotional state into something–anything–not tied to any of my responsibilities or obligations or the concerns I’d begun to harbor that my work was meaningless and worse, useless in the face of world problems. I asked a question: what about me or my work even matters? What’s missing? A niggling voice from deep inside whispered: you used to love to write. That’s missing.

So, I took an MFA in Writing degree, just for myself. My thesis was a modern translation and queering of two fitts from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and it was glorious fun–but I couldn’t publish that or even share it–what would my colleagues in the field think?! So I looked for something else, and settled on a premise so “out there” I was sure no one would hold it against me as a confusion of my personal investment in and critical responsibilities to my subject: What if I look at the Arthurian world through the eyes of its non-human denizens? The collection sprang from the deep well of my reading and study of medieval Arthurian literature and scholarship. It also sprang from everything I was dealing with–work, betrayal, gossip, slander, #MeToo, Imposter syndrome  . . . it was simultaneously the most critically and research-informed creative work, and the most personal and creatively-informed research work, I’ve ever done. And it clearly resonated with readers in meaningful ways, winning the Open Contract Challenge manuscript competition that led to its publication.

I’ve come to realize, through writing and publishing Arthurian Things, and now in speaking about it with classes where it’s being taught by other professors and in public-facing craft talks and readings; as an Army brat who never had one, single home base; as a writer without a “home genre”; as a creative critic and critical creative; as a professor who teaches through hybrid creative and critical approaches to medieval texts; as a person who has committed violent erasure upon herself in pursuit of scholarly respectability and a scholar who has learned to reclaim herself as a person through the study of erasures in texts–that my place and sphere of engagement and influence, personally and professionally, in the classroom and publicly, as writer/scholar/ and, especially, as teacher, really is in the unanswered and unanswerable, unrecovered and unrecoverable, erasures and lacunae–all those empty and blank spaces where opportunity lies just waiting to be discovered. This is how I best honor the texts I love to study, best serve the students I love to study them with, and best serve the readers who enter into them through my creative work.

And you are always welcome to come explore them with me. Thank you.

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“When the Elves Are Gone” Part One now out at World of Myth Magazine

I am beyond delighted to have placed my speculative eco-tale, “When the Elves Are Gone,” with World of Myth Magazine!

This long-ish short tale (it clocks in at a little over 7,000 words in total) has a long and sad tale of its own. It began as a writing prompt that took on a life of its own and moved into the double-digits in word count. Along the way, I found a narrative shape I liked that was nothing like the one I started with, but that let me experiment with making a story that was also intentionally and self-consciously a multi-dimensional think-piece about climate change, politics, genre, tropes, and readership and race in fantasy. It was then pruned into a shorter, polished final version and sent in for an anthology call, where it was promptly accepted within a week, with glowing praise from the editor–a paid anthology! Hurrah! My first industry fiction sale!

Then, Covid happened and the anthology folded. No publication. (This, sadly, is not unusual even without a pandemic blowing things up–never count your stories until they’re actually in print.)

Thus began a two-year odyssey of submitting it to pretty much every speculative pro-market for fiction for which it met submissions guidelines for length, and a lot of non-pro markets, both literary and speculative. I knew it was a weird little bird from the beginning, because it was designed that way–I never billed it as a traditional short story, because it’s just not. I wrote, in my cover letters, variations of, “This is a speculative story in every sense of the term–a fantasy tale, told in elevated literary style, as a featureless protagonist first-person/second-person hybrid monologue that doubles as a philosophical treatise on isolationist politics in a fictional world undergoing devastating climate change.”

Throughout this submission process, I kept getting feedback like, “I love the voice and second person is hard to pull off well, this is excellent in that regard, but it’s too long”; “There’s no story, it’s just a first-person POV monologue description of an abandoned city”; “It’s really well written and I love the voice, but I wanted more action”; “The writing’s good but story’s too academic”; “I couldn’t connect because nothing was really happening, you don’t get into the actual story of what happened to the elves until page 9 or so”; “This could use some dialogue to break it up”; “The description of the city is rich and we’re immersed in a fascinating world, but we never get to see the speaker, the author should include some description of the characters” …

Which, if you read the thing, you will see is not especially good feedback for this particular story, because taking this advice, for this tale, would turn it into something else entirely. Which is neither a bad nor a good thing, it just wasn’t my vision for this narrative.

I made my husband listen to me read it to him, and I made him read it, himself, to make sure I wasn’t just being precious about the thing. Honest feedback, I insisted, because you know what I was going for–did I miss the mark here? “No, it’s really good,” he said, “But I think you should try to turn it into a graphic novel! It would be an amazing atmospheric graphic novel.”

Well . . . okay, I agree with him, I think it could be a fabulous graphic novel–only, that would mean stripping the story into a script, and I wanted the story to be out there in the world in THIS form, at least at first.

So, at last, I broke it into 3 parts (because it’s much too long for the venue) and sent it to Stephanie J. Bardy, who snapped it right up for World of Myth. Hurrah! Even more hurrah–it’s the Featured Story this month! Double-hurrah!

And THIS is what it means when people tell you to “find your readers.” Your weird little darlings can and will find a home and readership somewhere, if you persevere.

I also wanted to share this story for fellow writers still relatively new to submitting and publishing, because it’s a good example of reframing your thinking about what constitutes “success” in submitting our work. The reality is that I submitted this story and it was accepted for a paid publication outlet on the first submission–that is the very definition of a successful submission. That the outlet folded and the story was subsequently unable to find a home for two years, then found one in an unpaid market, does not diminish that success. Sometimes (really, very often!) it is the market, not you or your story! Keep going and believe in your work.

Anyway–you can read the first part of this story in the August issue of World of Myth, out now! http://www.theworldofmyth.com/

(And if you know any atmospheric artists looking for a project, let them know that yes, I would like to turn this into a graphic novel once all three parts have published!)

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essay, memoir, poetry, flash: un peu de tout from me to you

Coming out at the other end of the academic teaching year, a summer course, and a bout of Covid, I am (finally and gratefully!) emerging from the accumulated mental fog and physical exhaustion. I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like to be in 2022, until this past week when I’ve been able to re-establish something like a regular routine, but I have been writing semi-steadily, and there are things out there for you to read that were written by me and published by very nice folks alongside the work of many other wonderful writers, if you are interested. As usual, they span multiple genres and forms. I’m never going to be “Melissa, who writes X.” I’m always going to be “Melissa, who writes across the alphabet unapologetically and with great zest and vim and verve and joy.” This makes it almost impossible to “brand” me for the modern publishing landscape, but we might go with the lovely French saying “Melissa, she writes un peu de tout“–a little of everything.

Many scholars who write creatively, and writers who produce scholarship, and writers who write across genres and forms, keep these things distinct, either publishing across several noms de plume, or using one name for scholarly work and another for creative work, or maintaining different digital and social media spaces for their scholarship and their creative work, or not discussing them together, or only publishing in an area or two they’ve become known for. There are a lot of valid and wise reasons for taking one or more of these approaches, but I don’t, and won’t. You could view this as a failure to be serious and create a personal brand as a scholar (I don’t), or you could view this as a failure to be serious and create a personal brand as a writer (I don’t), or you could view this as a success in writing what I need and want to write and trusting whatever I’ve written will find its readership (I do). If you’re here for the scholarship, you’ll find it. If you’re here for the poetry, you’ll find it. If you’re here for the personal anecdotes and slice-of-life stuff, you’ll find it. If you’re here for craft essays, you’ll find it. If you’re here for pedagogical things, you’ll find it. If you’re here for flash stories, you’ll find it. If you’re here for speculative and weird things, I’ve got you covered! In short, if you have read something I’ve written and are looking for more of that, whatever that is for you as a reader of my writing, you will find more of what you are looking for. And hey–as long as you’re here, why not try something you ordinarily might not read, if it’s something I also write in addition to something I’ve written that you already know you like? You never know . . . maybe you hate scholarly essays and think academic writing is boring, but you love my weird poems, so you check out a scholarly essay I’ve written and I sway you into appreciating scholarship as an art form? Or, maybe you only read realistic “literary” fiction, but go ahead and check out a few of my poems and get hooked on speculative poetry!

Or, maybe not. But at least you have the option of trying, because I’ll keep writing un peu de tout.

So, without further ado, here is a roundup of recent things I’ve written across several genres and forms; I hope you find something or even several somethings here that you enjoy, but if not there will be more coming soon!

First up, a work of scholarship I’m proud of and really loved working on, published in a new collection of essays on female friendship in the Middle Ages out this month from Ohio University Press’s New Medieval Cultures series. My essay in this collection, “Female Friendship in Late-Medieval English Literature: Cultural Translation in Chaucer, Gower, and Malory,” examines alterations these three writers made to their continental source materials, arguing that their changes to the representation of women in their stories both render women more positive agents and mirror the networks of patronage and influence developed through women’s relationships, specifically women’s friendships with one another, in their own time. The far more negative tone of the earlier continental writers of women, together with the absence of such representation of women’s relationships in the earlier versions of these stories and its incorporation across several English writers’ work, points to a clear shift in the representation of women in late-medieval English literature. I am deeply grateful to the volume editors, Karma Lockrie and Usha Vishnuvajjala, for including my essay in this excellent collection, and definitely recommend the whole volume to anyone interested in historical women’s studies, medieval women, and medieval literature and culture. Also, you should absolutely judge this book by its cover because it is gorgeous:

Here’s the link to the press webpage for this book: https://ohiostatepress.org/books/titles/9780814215159.html

I had the wonderful opportunity to contribute a memoir piece to Past Ten, a project in which writers revisit a day ten years ago; my return to “May 22, 2012,” an emotional memory for me, appeared, appropriately, on May 22 and can be read online here: https://www.past-ten.com/single-post/melissa-ridley-elmes?fbclid=IwAR2HLNlPUKmakM5xJhOpo3fXShQSNAyAfMDncPGFUSPfCDRZfLKNKfci7XI

Several of my poems have landed in wonderful venues over the past few months! I was invited by one of the editors at the “Listen to Her” project at the University of North Florida to contribute two poems, “A Sensorial” and “What the Old Woman Knows.” The project promotes the creativity and individuality of women, and you can check my poems and the overall project site out here: https://lieberman.domains.unf.edu/s22/a-sensorial-what-the-old-woman-knows-by-melissa-ridley-elmes/?fbclid=IwAR0cByrmuGFdtPA3Kh8ljZGojO3Lk36T3vZfXQ6pfv4sv-Pkcd28qwxpPVQ

“Every Light a Threshold,” a poem contemplating the worlds we can visit in changing lights through the blinds of an apartment window, was published in Haven Speculative Magazine‘s issue 4, and you can check out the magazine here: https://www.havenspec.com/issue-four and purchase it here: https://ko-fi.com/s/f371bb536b

“Dragons and Drams,” an apocalyptic poem featuring two of my favorite things, dragons and whiskey, was published at Liquid Imagination and can be accessed both in written form and as an audio file here:

And “Drown Skin Girl,” a selkie poem, appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Illumen. You can find it for purchase here: https://www.hiraethsffh.com/product-page/illumen-winter-2022-edited-by-tyree-campbell

Finally, “Settled, Unsettled,” a flash story featuring a storm and a conversation between a husband and wife, found a home at “Story in 100 Words” this past March and can be read online here: http://entropy2.com/blogs/100words/2022/03/07/settled-unsettled/?fbclid=IwAR21bbVir17ELvYW4pWiWw94WgHd4TiLYgJfFhojM8h67DHDNYvCjnE-EwY

Happy reading!

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“Weird Literature,” Third Graders, and Me-Now

Here’s a little story. When I was in third grade, we moved from Hawaii, where my father was stationed at Pearl Harbor, to Williamsburg, Virginia, in the middle of the academic year. I was put in Ms. Riddick’s class. Already established as a community, they had all sorts of little rituals and routines that I didn’t know, like a class song they sang every day after the pledge of allegiance (the ending of which, sung at the top of enthusiastic 9-year old voices, was “we’re the cream of the crop / and we rise to the top / we’re Miss Riddick’s CLA-a-ASS!”) There was always extra emphasis on that last “ass” and it wasn’t until much later I realized that my classmates relished being able to say a BAD WORD in class, hehehe. That’s literally the only part of the song I think I ever actually knew, because she didn’t teach me the song, I was just expected to figure it out and sing along. I wasn’t especially invested in it, so I sang that part to be seen participating, and never bothered to learn the rest.

Ms. Riddick was not thrilled to have me added to her class because it was already full and because in Hawaii, we had not yet done the times tables and in Williamsburg, they had, so I meant extra work for her across the board [spoiler: she gave me flash cards and left me to it. I still occasionally struggle to recall some of the times table to this day.] Whatever, I’m not a mathematician (though I respect those who are tremendously) and there are calculators.

BUT, like all good if overworked elementary school teachers, Ms. Riddick had a shelf of books we were allowed to access if we finished our seatwork early, and I was GREAT at efficiently completing seatwork because that shelf of books was an excellent motivator. And on that shelf, which was not carefully curated so as to preserve strange ideas of young people’s innocence as readers (beyond the reasonable exclusion of adult novels) but included pretty much whatever was donated or obtained as lot boxes of paperbacks purchased at rummage sales, she had a lot of pulp fiction things, like GRAPHIC NOVEL GHOST STORIES and HORROR STORY COLLECTIONS and SCIENCE FICTION STORIES with spectral ghosts and werewolves with dripping fangs and lurid aliens and such on the covers. These were genres which to that point in my young life I had never seen or had access to. And I was truly obsessed with those books because they were nothing like anything I had encountered before. And also, probably, because my mother wouldn’t approve of them and so it felt vaguely subversive and thrilling to read these things that were well beyond my comfort zone in the safety of the classroom, where I wouldn’t be questioned about it, so I could just enjoy them. Meanwhile, at home I was introduced to The Hobbit, a fantasy book my mother did love and enjoy, and the one that (as I’m sure it has done for countless other literary kids!) kickstarted my lifelong love of dragons.

That year, strongly influenced by those books, I wrote my first* “novel”–The Fuzzy Wuzzies: to my mind at the time, a major work of outstanding children’s science fiction featuring mop-like alien beings with antennae and giant feet they either waddled or bounced like rabbits on, who crash landed on Earth and had to start a new village in this strange new world. I still have that little book, handwritten and hand-illustrated. It was essentially “the Smurfs” meet a nine-year old’s idea of aliens, with some Hobbit thrown in for good measure (I did not tiptoe across the line to the horror side of things, just put them in great peril as they crash-landed, because I was nine and cried when I witnessed someone stepping on a bug; horror was something I could read, but maybe not write, myself, just yet.)

My book impressed my mother tremendously, and also my teacher, or maybe my guidance counselor–I don’t remember the hows of it, but I wound up being nominated to participate in a Young Author’s Conference, which was a one-day event where we got to “network” with a lot of other K-8 writers and attend some workshops. I have no memory of the conference itself because I was a deeply socially awkward kid and I think looking back that the whole thing just overwhelmed me entirely. But I do remember being delighted that someone liked my book enough to decide I was a Young Author. And it did send me down the path of speculative writing which I continue to happily wander today.

Behold: A Fuzzy Wuzzy

Nine-year old me would be thrilled to know that she would eventually grow up to publish her writing in those kinds of pulpy venues she discovered on Ms. Riddick’s shelves. I sincerely hope that somewhere, another young author reads something I’ve written and dreams of doing that one day.

Me-now is deeply grateful for Ms. Riddick. Never underestimate the power of those classroom libraries to inspire, influence, and help young readers find their place. Thank you, Ms. Riddick, wherever you are. Truly, thank you to all the Ms. Riddicks of the world who opt not to censor young people’s reading choices, but rather make a wide range of materials available to them, trusting them to find what they want and need to read. The importance of that freedom to read beyond one’s ordinary boundaries in those formative years is so incalculable.


*technically it was more like my third novel, but the first two were done in pictures because I couldn’t write words yet, and the third was a complete rip-off of Bambi called Zandi and every bit as bad as you think it probably was.


Anyhow–Spectral Realms 17, featuring two of my speculative poems and a lot of other, really wonderful writers’ wonderful work, is now available for purchase if you like weird literature.

The Gorgeously Weird Cover for Spectral Realms 17

You can purchase it here: https://www.hippocampuspress.com/journals/spectral-realms/spectral-realms-no.-17

And here’s the Table of Contents for this issue:



Slouching toward Yuggoth / Richard L. Tierney

To Richard L. Tierney: In Memoriam / Leigh Blackmore

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters: An Extended Surveil / Carl E. Reed

A Promise for Today / Maxwell I. Gold

La Gata / Lori R. Lopez

Footsteps in the Night / Ngo Binh Anh Khoa

The Golden Age / Charles Lovecraft

I Met a Girl in a Cemetery / John Shirley

I See Too Much: A Clairvoyant’s Complaint / Frank Coffman

House / Rebecca Fraser

Malice Must Dwell within Your Heart / Darrell Schweitzer

The Nachzehrer / Scott J. Couturier

The Path of Grey / Adam Bolivar

Semblance / David Barker

A Creature of the Twilight / Wade German

Cometfall / DJ Tyrer

Candy Corn Caresses / Ashley Dioses

The Garden of Night / Andrew White

Death Confession: A Golden Shovel / LindaAnn LoSchiavo

Communion / Manuel Pérez-Campos

The Witch’s Tree / Jay Hardy

Last Soldier on the Beach / Jay Sturner

The Black Goat / Linn Donlon

Knowing the Dragon / Geoffrey Reiter

Battle against the Dark Lord / Jordan Zuniga

Spider / Don Webb

Antiquarian Research / David C. Kopaska-Merkel

A Little Song of Death / Carl E. Reed

The Court of Azathoth / Ngo Binh Anh Khoa

Destiny / David Schembri

A Song of Two Deaths / Ian Futter

Flower of Evil / Manuel Arenas

Nordic Instinct / Charles Lovecraft

The Lady in the Wood / Geoffrey Reiter

In the Beginning / Melissa Ridley Elmes

In Her Defence / Claire Smith

By What Right Do You Call Yourself Patience? / Thomas Goff

Incubus / Scott J. Couturier

Heolstor / Adam Bolivar

Cast / Ron L. Johnson II

Phantasms / Wade German

The Seeker’s Lament / Frank Coffman

A Crime of Passion / G. O. Clark

On the Fantasque Ballet Premiere of Afternoon of a Faun / Manuel Pérez-Campos

Yethwood / Oliver Smith

Whalesong / DJ Tyrer

Dusk / Andrew White

Nativity / David Barker

Blindsight / Lori R. Lopez

Bold Voyager / Darrell Schweitzer

The Daemon Lord / Chad Hensley

Eye of Sapphire, Eye of Emerald / Kurt Newton

Survive against the Swarm / Jordan Zuniga

Elizabeth Siddal Rossetti, Cemetery Superstar / LindaAnn LoSchiavo

Blackburn’s Bloom / Manuel Arenas

Essential Guide to the Land of Dream / David C. Kopaska-Merkel

Watch and Wait / Margaret Curtis

The Ghosts’ Autumnal Fair / Ngo Binh Anh Khoa

Churchyard Passacaglia / Thomas Goff

Fat Man and Yellow-Eyes: A Ghoulish Tale / Carl E. Reed

On Reading Poe / Josh Maybrook

Cats Which Walk in Dreams / Linn Donlon

How the World Ends / Melissa Ridley Elmes

When Cyber Things Return / Maxwell I. Gold

Zeohyr’s Allure / Scott J. Couturier

The Squire of Sweven / Adam Bolivar

Whispers from a Crematory Skull / Manuel Pérez-Campos

Unrepaired / DJ Tyrer

Of the Swordsman of Words and Worlds: Eldritchard / Charles Lovecraft

Classic Reprints

Funeral of a Vampire / Lilith Lorraine

Vampire / Bertrande Harry Snell


R. H. Barlow and the Activist Poets: How Did They Meet? / Marcos Legaria

Notes on Contributors

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Some (What For Me Constitutes) Big News For Arthurian Things

Hello All!

Things have been humming away here at Casa Chaos. The Spring academic term concluded, our eldest child is graduating from high school later this evening, our younger child is auditioning for her dance company this afternoon, Korra the Corgi is in her second round of agility classes, DH just bought a (new to us) car, I’m currently on week 3 of 4 teaching an online summer course, and then I will be turning my attention to a minor surgery and recovery and (I sincerely hope!) a good month or so of dedicated writing and research towards several projects both academic and literary in nature. A lot has been going on, and I hope to offer a more complete update, especially on All Things Writing and Some Things Scholarly, sometime soon. Meanwhile, I did want to just share a couple of recent writing good news items:

My poem “Every Light a Threshold” was published in Haven Speculative Magazine. The Magazine’s webpage is here: https://www.havenspec.com/ and you can buy the issue with my poem in it, alongside several very good stories and other poems, here: https://ko-fi.com/s/f371bb536b

I’m deeply honored to be able to share that my poem “Riding Down a Dream,” originally published in Star*Line 44.4 last Fall (https://www.sfpoetry.com/sl/issues/starline44.4.html) has been nominated for the Dwarf Star award for short speculative poetry, and will be included in the 2022 Dwarf Star Anthology. This is a Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association award for individual speculative poems of 1–10 lines in length.You can read more about the Dwarf Star awards here: https://www.sfpoetry.com/dwarfstars.html

And finally, what for me constitutes Big News: Arthurian Things, A Collection of Poems, my first full-length book of poetry, published in 2020 by Dark Myth Publications, has been nominated for a 2022 Elgin Award by the international Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association.

The Elgin Awards, named for SFPA founder Suzette Haden Elgin, are presented annually for books published in the preceding two years in two categories, Chapbook and Book. Chapbooks are collections that contain 10-39 pages of poetry and books contain 40 or more pages of poetry. E-books are eligible, as well as print. Only members can nominate books, and they may not nominate their own books. This year’s Elgin Awards Chair is Jordan Hirsch. you can read about Jordan and her work here: https://jordanrhirsch.wordpress.com/

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association was established in 1978 and has an international membership representing over 19 nations and cultures including United States, Italy, Canada, Brazil, United Kingdom, Ireland, Romania, Poland, Denmark, Germany, France, Spain, Israel, South Africa, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, the Hmong, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association publishes two journals: Star*Line and Eye to the Telescope. It oversees three major literary awards for poetry: The Rhyslings, the Dwarf Stars, and the Elgin Awards.

I have to admit I am absolutely thrilled that my work has been nominated for two of the three SFPA awards this year, especially as I’ve read so many of my co-nominees in both categories, and they are extraordinary!

Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems, by Melissa Ridley Elmes, illustrations and cover design by Anna Elmes, published by Dark Myth Publications, 2020

Here, I want to take a moment to give a major (unsolicited) shout-out and plug to my publisher, David K. Montoya, and his publishing company, Dark Myth Publications. This is a small, independent press that has been doing some great work in speculative literary and genre publishing for many years “under the radar” as it were. I’ve now published both Arthurian Things and a short story, “Dr. Watson and the Werewolf,” in their Full Moon and Howlin’ werewolf anthology, and my experience as a writer working with David’s company has been excellent. The benefits to working with Dark Myth Publications are that Dave works to make YOUR vision of your book happen, you retain creative control start to finish, he doesn’t impose mandatory publishing fees, editing fees, or other extra expense on his writers, and the process from manuscript to product is streamlined and as hassle- and anxiety-inducing- free as he can make it. Unlike with the large traditional publishing houses, there’s no 2-3 year queue of products being released, resulting in a long wait between when your book is ready to go to press and when it does go to press. And he helps promote the book, although you do need to do your share of that as well.

So, for writers in speculative genres (fantasy, science fiction, horror, magical realism, etc.) who have a strong command of editing and proofreading their own manuscripts, are comfortable promoting their own work, and are leery of or not confident in self-publishing, Dark Myth Publications is a great indie press option for a traditional publishing experience. And, if you are unsure of the quality of products released by small independent presses–well, Dark Myth Publications has now produced an Elgin-award nominated book of speculative poetry, and as the author of that book, I have to say I never imagined my first book of poetry could or would be nominated for a major award in its genre. David Montoya is in the business of making writers’ dreams come true. You can learn more about Dark Myth Publications here: https://www.darkmythpublications.com/

You can check out the other books they’ve published here: https://www.mythmart.com/

And you can purchase Arthurian Things here: https://www.mythmart.com/product-page/arthurian-things-a-collection-of-poems

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A Professional Milestone

Six years ago to the day, I became the first person in my family to earn a PhD, (alongside my Academic Wonder Twin Matt Carter, First of His Name. ❤ )

This week, I received notification that my bid for promotion-in-rank was approved, and I am now Associate Professor of English.

To put this in context for those not well-versed with academia, 1.2% of the population of the United States earns a PhD. Between 10-30% of people who earn a PhD go on to obtain a full-time faculty position. Assistant Professors are promoted to Associate at a rate of between 10-50%, and (in 2007) 22% of full-time faculty were at the Associate level. Within these levels, women make up 50% of Assistant Professors and 45% of Associate Professors (in 2020). So, to put it mildly, the odds are really never in your favor. Getting to Associate in a full-time position is a true gauntlet run.

My university doesn’t have a tenure system so it’s still annual contracts going forward, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to teach, research, write, and publish in a full-time faculty appointment, I’m grateful for the visible signal of respect for my professional accomplishments that comes with this title change, and especially, I’m grateful for the wonderful colleagues I get to work alongside and who wrote letters of support on my behalf. And I’m looking forward to figuring out the shape of this next stage in my career.

In the face of the huge and terrifying shifts in women’s agency and autonomy and breakdown in trust in our governing and legislating bodies that we are staring down in this nation, this event seems such a small thing in comparison. But it is, personally and professionally, a very large thing for me.

Thanks to everyone who had a hand in it. No one ever gets to this point alone.

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A Brace of (Virtual) Presentations This Week: Celtic Studies and Poetry!

Hello there! Just a quick pitch for two upcoming events this week in which I am delighted to be participating:

First, on Tuesday, April 19, from 3-4 p.m. CST, a roundtable on “Teaching Celtic Languages Without a Celtic Program” sponsored by the Celtic Studies Association of North America and featuring Georgia Henley (St Anselm College), Joey McMullen (Indiana University), Joshua Pontillo (Indiana University), Sebastian Rider-Bezerra (SUNY New Paltz) and Joshua Byron Smith (University of Arkansas), (and me).

And second, on Friday, April 22 at 6 p.m. CST, a virtual poetry reading organized by Alix Pham and sponsored by the Will and Ariel Durant Branch Library to celebrate National Poetry Month:

You can register for the event for free here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/national-poetry-month-series-i-am-america-registration-300920209447?aff=ebdsoporgprofile&fbclid=IwAR3b5K4glhM3ibMsBDynpwvchTymyb3_VHjANO-8Wu_igX3FciMgIK5LVeg

I hope you are able to join us if these events interest you!

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A few brief updates: teaching, publications, a reading, and a corgi in the snow!

Hello All! January was one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it months. We’re back in session for the spring term, and I’m teaching some of my favorite things–History of the English Language, the Medieval Literature seminar, the senior capstone in English, and a new general education seminar, “Viking lit” that features the Old Norse Icelandic sagas and eddas. Since my “Viking lit” class is a new prep, this has meant a lot of extra work (good work! The kind I got into this business for in the first place!): reading, prepping lecture notes, finding resources and developing new activities for my students to help them engage with these texts and understand something of their historical and cultural contexts. And of course while the other classes are all repeats in my course rotation, I still spend a not-inconsiderable amount of time revising and updating them. I am sure there are people out there who are faster and more efficient at course prep than I am, but I enjoy it too much to race through it (and anyhow, my anxiety won’t let me; I have to feel certain I’m doing the very best I can by my students for each class session planned, each assignment developed, which means a lot of thinking through possible intended and unintended outcomes before settling on any given approach or assessment tool). Of course, that also means I have, constantly, the “how can there only be 24-hours-in-a-day?!” problem. I’m probably spending about 25-30 hours weekly just reading and pulling together lecture and discussion notes across my four courses and putting together the assignments and discussion boards and quizzes in Canvas. That’s aside from actually teaching, meetings, and email (Reader, I’ll level with you: I don’t love email.) And that’s all before we start thinking about how much time it takes to assess and assign grades to things (let’s not start thinking about grading. I’ll do that later, so you don’t have to.) The upside of all of this is that my students are so clearly appreciative of my efforts on their behalf and really seem to be engaging on a personal level with the readings and subject matter and with one another in discussion, and that’s a delight. I want them to have a good experience–I mean, I always want my students to have a good experience, but it seems especially important they do now, after so many disruptions and difficulties in their academic trajectories throughout this pandemic. I want each of them to walk away with something they loved about their work this term.

While most of January has been filled with teaching, I do have a couple of new publications to share with you! My poem “Never Was a Princess Girl” (yes, the title’s a shout-out to Tori Amos!) appeared in Star*Line 45.1. I published a personal favorite of my poems, “Winter Thesaurus,” in Gyroscope Review 22.1. And S.T. Yoshi graciously accepted three of my poems, “Mukkelevi,” “Date Night,” and “Starfall,” for Spectral Realms 16, also published in January. Here is a link to Star*Line‘s webpage; here is a link to Gyroscope Review‘s webpage, and here is a link to Spectral Realms‘ webpage, for those who would like to visit these publications and have a look around.

Also, I’m thrilled to be participating in two Science Fiction/Fantasy Poetry Writers’ Association panels at Capricon 42. Together with some of my fellow poets I’ll be reading selected published and unpublished works in the first panel on Friday night, and then talking about the creative process and where we get our ideas from on Saturday night. Both sessions are virtual, and virtual registration is free, so if you’ve got some spare time on Friday or Saturday night this week and want to pop in to her some speculative poetry, you’re very welcome! Here is a link to the Capricon webpage, for those who are interested in learning more about this event.

Photo of a screenshot showing the Capricon schedule with the two sessions I am participating in listed.
My schedule for Capricon 42

Finally, it’s snowing here in our little corner of the world! Those who know me know I absolutely adore snow–in my view, there are few things in life better than a glorious several-hours tramp through the snow, followed by a giant cup of tea and a book. Utter bliss. However, this morning I learned two things about Korra, our corgi: 1. Korra Does Not Approve of mommy rubbing Musher’s Secret protective ointment on her paws; 2. Until we get out in snow up to her chest, at which point her disapproval transfers wholly to that white stuff. It looks like I will be taking that snowy hike as a solo venture this afternoon! Here is a photo for you of a cute but deeply disapproving corgi in the snow:

Photo of a red-coated corgi standing in snow up to her chest. She is shown from the side looking at the camera. She is wearing the look of corgi disapproval.
It’s a “no” from her: Korra disapproves of snow up to her chest

Happy Thursday to you all!

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New Year’s Thoughts

It’s already 2022 in some parts of the world; here, it is still 2021 and I’ve just heard that Betty White died, after (on my part) a long day of difficult revision work on an essay that as of midnight tonight will be overdue, following a night of terrible insomnia, and on the heels of a rejection earlier today for a piece I submitted at the beginning of the year–and if that’s not pretty much a 2021 retrospective in a nutshell, I don’t know what would be. Striving, struggling, surviving, and then being kicked in the teeth by bad news after bad news. It’s really been a hell of a year, hasn’t it? And we thought we’d seen the worst of it …

We have certainly been living in interesting times.

I don’t know about y’all, but after the past few years I am tired of living in interesting times. I would like for times to be a lot more boring in 2022. Though paradoxically, even though it’s been such a beast of a year, I wouldn’t want not to have had 2021; there’s honestly been a lot of magic alongside the mayhem.

The worst of it, of course, were the deaths of friends and colleagues. I’d hear about them via text, a Facebook post, a phone call, an email. I didn’t go to the last several conferences because of the pandemic. And now they’re gone, and I’ll never see them at a conference again. People who just sent me an email about a project we were collaborating on, or hit “like” on a photo I shared on social media, and they’ll never interact with me again, they’re now mere ghosts in my inbox, on my timeline. Zoom meetings for mutual support with my mutual friends, toasting our loved and lost ones, sharing stories about them–why didn’t we just Zoom for no reason, if in-person interactions weren’t possible and I’ve missed these people so these past few years? In 2022, I plan to do so. I don’t want to receive another notification that someone I have thought of with wistful fondness has died and I didn’t tell them I was thinking of them with wistful fondness.

The best moments, by contrast, were moments shared with loved ones both together and apart, in the same space and virtually. The appreciation I’ve learned to feel for these moments and conversations, and how much I have come to treasure time spent with others. I’ve spent a lot of my adult life as an introvert and a working mother actively carving out alone time and quiet space for thinking, writing, doing, and being, with greater or lesser success, and when the success has been lesser, with no little frustration and impatience. I am finding that the intensity with which I pursue this goal has diminished, that my efforts at an iron grip on protecting “me” time have lessened, and throughout this past year I’ve begun to understand that life has rhythms I can either rail against or lean into. I’ve come to understand that railing against it is the surest way to losing my temper and becoming angry with people whose sole crime is wanting to spend time with me, and leaning into it brings many unexpectedly wonderful moments of connection. I’ve come to understand that this means that when I am feeling especially alone and disconnected, it’s on me, it’s coming from choices I’ve made, because people I love and like who love and like me back are right there, waiting for me to make time for them. And sometimes I can’t do that, sometimes the isolation and solitude are necessary, but it doesn’t mean they’re not there. I’m not alone. That’s a precious lesson that could not come at a better time as I step from 2021 into 2022 with a full slate of projects-in-progress.

My youngest daughter was able to perform her band concert and her winter dance recital in person with my husband and eldest child and myself in attendance. My eldest child has been working on their college applications. Next year will look very different for us with one kid out of the nest and the other moving into high school. I wouldn’t want to have missed the conversations, snuggles, and activities we shared throughout 2021, simply also to miss the awful bits.

And I wrote a lot of things and published some of them in really nice venues, and I drew a lot of things, and I read and watched a lot of interesting and excellent things, and I wouldn’t want not to have done all of that throughout 2021, simply also to miss the awful bits.

And I saw some amazing and heart-stoppingly, breath-catchingly beautiful things, like this late December sunset on top of the mountain where my parents-in-law live:

I wouldn’t want to not have seen this simply to miss the awful bits, either.

And we celebrated one full year of waking up every morning to this beautiful creature’s happy face, and giving her scritches and snuggles, and going on long walks, and watching her grow in confidence and skill through all her obedience classes:

I wouldn’t want not to have had last year with Korra in it simply to miss the awful bits, either.

In reality, what 2021 has taught me most is that life is precious and fragile, that human beings are capable of the greatest self-delusions and most incredible dreams, capable of being wholly thoughtful and wholly thoughtless and wholly careful and wholly careless, and plenty in-between, besides; and that there are definitely, absolutely, terrible things and terrible people in this world, but there are also definitely, absolutely wonderful things and wonderful people. And that when we dwell more on one or the other of those ends of the spectrum, we find ourselves wearing blinders that can be very dangerous to us, personally, and to those we love. So, in 2022, I plan to make it a point to celebrate the wonderful things, and to look directly without turning away at the terrible things, and hopefully to learn to arrive at some balanced place where I can handle grief and loss better for also actively acknowledging happiness and abundance at least as much as the rest. And I’d like to notice and appreciate more the everyday ordinariness of life, and not just the extreme highs and lows. I imagine I might be inching closer to understanding the happy medium of Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time. I hope so. I’d like to.

My wish for you in 2022 is that you, too, remember you are not alone, that you are able to be kind to others and receive kindness from others in return, and that you find pleasure and satisfaction in the ordinary as well as wonder at the extraordinary. I hope 2022 is easier on all of us; and that if it isn’t, we are able to manage things well enough; and that if we can’t manage things well enough, someone will be there to help us through, and we will be there for them in return. I hope we thrive; but if we can only merely survive, then let’s do that; and if we can only just barely get out of bed and make it through the day then we’ll do that, and be proud of whatever we can be proud of and avoid as much as possible coming down too hard on ourselves for things we can’t quite manage. And I wish you 365 glorious sunrises and sunsets, and 365 days filled with people and creatures and things you love, and 365 nights full of stars to wish upon.

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Microfiction “Crossing the Threshold” up at A Story in 100 Words

Hello World, and hope you’re doing well. I’m writing to you today from the confines of what professors sometimes jokingly, sometimes despairingly call “grading jail,” that period of time between the end of the academic semester and the due date for final grades to be posted during which we are assessing and grading final projects, exams, and late assignments. It’s an interesting point in each term because it seems like that wall of things to grade is never, ever going to go away no matter how much time you devote to it, and yet you also know that sometime between start of marking and 5 p.m. the Monday after finals, it always does. There is both comfort and terror in that knowing: this grading will never get done! it has to get done! I can’t do it! I have to do it! How though? Oh, wait . . . okay, got it, last one, great. All done. It’s like a once-a-semester personal psychic roller coaster for one.

I was cheered this week as I began undertaking this important but also lonely and difficult and mentally taxing work of grading a few hundred things in the space of a few days by news that my little ghost story–and I do mean “little,” as it’s a micro-story clocking in at 100 words, exactly–has found a home. If you have five minutes or so and like ghost stories, I invite you to check out “Crossing the Threshold” at A Story in 100 Words: http://entropy2.com/blogs/100words/2021/12/06/crossing-the-threshold/?fbclid=IwAR0nDkXkBdX4Ap_JTUsMoAce3Z9cDJ7ZOKN-UVShWvgApym8h3otku2nxAo

While you’re there, check out some of the other tiny stories, many of which surprise and delight and make you reflect on things, as good stories do. I love the tagline for the website: “Literature in tiny bursts.” I love the image of it, as when I think of “tiny bursts” it’s usually in association with a delicious bite of something tasty, or a flash of brightness as in fireworks; the idea of tiny bursts of flavorful, colorful words truly appeals to me. Delightful.

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