A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


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My Poet’s Notebook


Most of my poems were born in a 4.3 X 6 inch Picadilly wire-bound journal I bought for $4.99 in the bargain section of Barnes and Noble. I used to have separate notebooks—one for thoughts, one for dreams, and sometimes a third for my to-do lists—but I’ve consolidated to one notebook for my entire life because everything is connected, isn’t it? I’ve saved over 30 notebooks, going back to 1999, though I didn’t always write in them on a regular basis. And of course, I’d love to say I write daily, but the reality is that I don’t. However, I bring my notebook everywhere, just in case a thought falls out and needs a safe place to land.

My current journal contains sayings of Buddha on every page as well as notes from my Spanish conversation class, three-minute poems, and the poems I need to write but haven’t finished. It’s also the vehicle to carry around photos, letters, and printouts of poems I’ve read at open mic events. A lot of what my notebooks contain may never become poems, they are the filler helping me to write my way to the next idea.

When I was in my MFA program, I came to the page with the expectation that what I was about to write would become a poem. With a packet of 3-5 poems due each month, I felt pressure to make every word count. Working full-time, I felt I couldn’t waste any thought, that every thought must eventually become a poem or else! Fortunately, my 3rd semester adviser, Sascha Feinstein, gave me this advice:

“Consider everything in your notebook to be seeds, and understand, too, that seeds need time to grow.”

Now I approach writing in my notebook as being just that—writing in my notebook. With what I learned about my writing process, I know there are good poems living in those pages even if I have to go back 2 or 3 notebooks to find them. What’s most enjoyable is reading about the events going on in my life around the poems, seeing the context in which each poetic thought grew, and understanding what might have influenced this word or that image.


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iPhone Poetry


Every once in a while I forget my journal or a pen or I don’t have room in that cute purse that goes with the tango dress to fit paper and pen. But I always have my iPhone. Recently, I scrolled through the Notes app and found dozens of poem first drafts, book quotes, as well as lines and phrases that might one day find their way into a poem. I’m sharing a few here:


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Ekphrastic Poetry


For me, art is a constant source of inspiration. I walk through museums and galleries with a petite notebook and matching pen in my back pocket to catch whatever comes to mind. When I look at a work of art—be it a painting, photography, sculpture, or mixed media—I try to imagine myself inside the piece, either as the subject or the person observing the scene. For example, here’s what I wrote in response to this photo of fireworks:

Spark

Photo by Katia Singletary Art and Photography

One hand gropes
in the dark
and finds its match.
Now fingers intertwine
like stacked wood
transferring heat
from pressed palms
to wrapped arms,
pulling closer
and closer.
Then lips touch
and the miracle
of fire burns slow
through hips and toes.
Embers of shared
breath rise until reds,
purples, and golds bloom
and burst into fiery
chrysanthemums.

I like photography because a photo is literally a snapshot of a moment, which goes along with the narrative elements of the poems I write. Former North Carolina Poet Laureate, Cathy Smith Bowers calls this, “shining a light on a moment in time.”

Photo by Manish Ahuja

As a poet, I have complete freedom to choose which moment to feature. The unseen creatures are the focus of this haiku:

The receding tide
leaves sand crabs bare on the shore
Raucous seagulls snack

A good ekphrastic poem should be able to stand by itself—without the requiring artwork to provide the context. At the same time, the poem should complement the artwork, enhance the meaning of the scene beyond what you can experience just by looking at it. Here’s a poem inspired by the well-known painting, The Sleeping Gypsy (read the poem and then visit the painting).

The Sleeping Gypsy

And now she sleeps—
stretched—with her water jug
nearby and the moon standing
guard overhead. I’ve stalked her
wandering scent in the desert heat,
beheld her bedazzling garments
as if a rainbow wrapped its arms
around her dark beauty. The mandolin
silent, but still singing her deep
alto into my jaws, my paws. I long
to be that instrument—what she wants
near, what her arms can hold.

Special thanks to photographers, Manish Ahuja and Katia Singletary, for granting permission to use their work.


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One More Open Mic


Living Poetry is jumping into the Triangle area open mic scene with an Open Mic Workshop at Straw Valley Café. You might remember this is one of my favorite places to write—and now, it will be one of my favorite places to read.

The idea came out of poetrySpark’s Best of the Open Mic contest. Most of the poets had a good stage presence and delivered their poems in the allotted time, but there was one contestant who must have read the longest poem she had ever written. She went well beyond 5 minutes—more than doubled it in fact—and flipped the page not once, but twice during her stage time. This poet went so long, I had time to go to the bathroom and come back to my seat before she even finished. Needless to say, she didn’t win the contest.

If you’re a “page poet,” getting up to read in front of an audience may feel like torture. I know many good poets who rarely give public readings. In fact, the Featured Reader event was the first time three of the six poets selected by the judges had read their poems in front of an audience.  If you are not an experienced reader, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Pick a poem with audience appeal: That poem about your root canal may not be as interesting to others as it is to you (unless it is hilarious). Believe it or not, an open mic is a form of entertainment. People attend because they enjoy hearing poetry. Sometimes a poem that reads well on the page doesn’t translate well to the ear. That doesn’t mean you have to read fluff or avoid tear-jerker poems. Just be aware of which poems resonate with others.
  2. Know your poem: Read your poem before you step up to the microphone. Read it again. And then when you’re done—read it one more time. This step is particularly important if you are debuting a poem to see how people respond. You don’t have to memorize it (though the audience will be thoroughly impressed if you do), but the poem should be familiar enough so you can read it without stumbling over the words.
  3. Time your reading: Most open mic events have a time limit for each poet to read. Five minutes is enough time to read 2-3 poems (up to 25 lines each) and give the audience a little backstory for each poem. Having a good sense of how long your reading will take should help you feel more relaxed when you are on stage.
  4. Perform your poem (a little): Try to match your delivery to the poem. Be animated in your voice and use hand gestures if the poem is funny or lively. Be subdued if the poem deals with a difficult situation. Always, it is important for you to speak clearly and enunciate each word. The ear is not as forgiving as the eye and needs a little more time to process. Also, pay attention to your own punctuation—use commas, periods, and stanza breaks to pause, make eye contact, and of course, breathe.

Hopefully, you will overcome your fears of reading in public and join us for this event. If you don’t make it tonight, there are other open mic events on the horizon.


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Chair Emeritus: Wallace Stevens


Wallace Stevens (October 2, 1879 – August 2, 1955) failed at his attempts to become a writer, and then a lawyer, and ended up working for an insurance company in New York. In 1916, he relocated to Hartford, Connecticut and joined the Hartford Accident and Life Indemnity Company where he stayed until the end of his career. Throughout those 39 years at The Hartford, Stevens published nine poetry collections, including Collected Poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1955.

Wallace Stevens tried to maintain a definite line between poetry and business. He composed many poems on long walks, and then, arriving at the office at 8:15 AM, gave them to his secretary, Miss Flynn, to type. Other than Miss Flynn, very few of his colleagues at The Hartford knew of his poetic endeavors and his success outside of surety bonds claims. Stevens equally protective his non-literary career, turning down Harvard’s invitation to serve as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry, partly because he feared it would force his retirement from Hartford. Although he liked to keep his lives separate, Stevens felt:

“It gives a man character as a poet to have a daily contact with a job. I doubt whether I’ve lost a thing by leading an exceedingly regular and disciplined life.”

Of all the double life poets I’ve discovered, I’ve always felt my life most resembles Wallace Stevens. He achieved great success and respect in his non-literary career as an expert in surety bonds. Although Stevens did not write about work, his poems were influenced by his business trips to Key West:

She sang beyond the genius of the sea

The water never formed to mind or voice,

Like a body wholly body, fluttering

Its empty sleeves

The demands of a full-time job no doubt diminished the amount of poetry he produced, and his comfortable lifestyle probably put less pressure on him to continuously publish—and yet, he didn’t let work get in the way of pursuing his passion for poetry. If Wally managed to live the double life, then so can I.

Chair Emeritus is a monthly feature highlighting famous poets who have lived or are living the double life.


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Three Minute Poet


A few weeks ago, I ran into Jan Parker sitting at a crowded bar right before the Erotic Poetry and Burlesque show started. After exchanging the usual long time no sees and you’re looking mighty fine tonights, Jan cut to the chase and asked the question I dread the most, “Are you writing?” Most people ask how is my writing, and I can satisfy their curiosity with a simple, “Fine.” If pressed for more specifics, I can always rattle off my litany of poem ideas to fend them off. But this was another writer asking me the question, and more importantly, Jan Parker, who has a finely tuned BS meter. So I told her the awful truth, “No, not really,” then gave her the run-down of my September–poetrySpark (of course) and the weeks of planning before the event, the upcoming football trip to Charlotte, and the wraparound weekend in Myrtle Beach with mom and then to Atlanta for a professional conference. And I did not fail to mention my day job and the 8 projects pulling me in exactly that many directions.

Jan held up a finger then dismissed my excuses with the shake of her salt and pepper mid-length bob, “You only need three minutes a day.”

“Three minutes?” I repeated incredulously. Three minutes is about how long it takes to write a poem on demand. Even I could do that. And maybe that would make me feel less guilty about not finding the 15 minutes in my day to write (as a former MFA advisor once suggested) or being able to get up earlier than the crack of dawn like Mary Oliver.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have not written for three minutes every day, but there has been at least one time each week when I’ve found time to put pen to page. Here are a few good lines:

September 18th: We used to believe that pluck and determination could shatter glass faster than our silent screams of protest

September 24th: The hall is dark, save a strip of light on the floor. When my eyes focus, my ears hear the music of laughter and clinking glass

September 29th: The ocean talks in his sleep at night in rhythmic murmurs

I’ve even used the three minute time to write poems in response to the Monday Poetry Prompt I send out each week to the Living Poetry Meetup Group

Visual prompt (9/24): From here the earth looks like the globe on your father’s mantle–perfectly round and unmovable

Borrowed lines (10/1): And the kiss that drained all of the bitter cynic from my blood

 

These poems and lines are not “finished”, but the three-minutes-a-day mantra keeps the creative juices flowing and helps to maintain the proper balance in the double life.

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