A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.

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Summer Reading List 2015

IMG_6298August is flying by. My family came to visit in the beginning of the month, and since then, I’ve been busy with cookouts,  meteor showers, and birthday parties on top of the usual schedule of dancing, yoga, and poetry dates. I’m surprised that I even found time to read this summer. And my reading has been all over the place, thanks to recommendations from colleagues and friends.


  • Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng: Borrowed from my colleague, this was the first book I fell in love with this summer. I related to much of the story—the pressure of being the overachiever, the isolation of being a minority—and thoroughly enjoyed the language from beginning to end.
  • Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt: Another borrowed book. Took me back to the 80s with its depiction of AIDS, Reagan, high school, sibling relationships, and New York City.
  • The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani: Ever read a mystery novel that centers on conjoined twins and where most of the main characters are Black? Me neither. That’s one of the reasons I’m enjoying it so much.

Poetry Book Club

  • Citizen by Claudia Rankine: A lyric essay which sparked as much conversation about race as it did about the poems and craft, if not more.
  • Black Zodiac by Charles Wright: A dense mediation which our small group thought inaccessible at first; together we came to appreciate the book, especially the last poem, “Disjecta Membra.”
  • The Gift by Hafiz: Just starting this book for our September meeting.



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Five-Day Poetry Challenge

Old paper grunge background - Challenge yourself

Five-Day Poetry Challenge – DONE!

The 5-day poetry challenge is a popular meme where you post one of your poems (preferably published) to your Facebook timeline then tag another poet to continue the challenge. Last week, I was double-tagged by poets Anna Weaver and Elizabeth Jackson. So in true double-life fashion, I decided to post two poems each day—one of my published poems around 9 am and one of my favorite poems about the working world around 5 pm.

I selected poems from the range of themes I tend to visit and revisit in my work:

  1. Work: “Twenty Questions for Black Professionals” from my chapbook, My Mother’s Child (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2015)
  2. Love & Longing: “The Truth about Fire” published in The Pedestal Magazine in 2012
  3. Planets & the Universe: “To Earth, From Mars” published in Construction Literary Magazine in 2014
  4. Family: “At Night I Dream of Trains” published in the Grief issue of When Women Waken in 2013
  5. Tango: “If I Could Love You Like Tango” published in the anthology, …and love…(Jacar Press, 2011)

For the poems about the working world, I picked two of my favorites that I’ve posted to the blog before as well as a few poems that showed work and workers in a more positive light.

  1. “White, White Collars” by Denis Johnson, from The Incognito Lounge, 1982
  2. “Drone” by Wanda Coleman, from African Sleeping Sickness, 1990
  3. “The Gulf” by Brian Brodeur, from The Missouri Review, Winter 2010
  4. “Coming Closer” by Philip Levine, from What Work Is, 1991
  5. “Domestic Work, 1937” by Natasha Trethewey, from Domestic Work, 1999

Here’s the last stanza from the Trethewey poem that always sticks with me.

She beats time on the rugs,
blows dust from the broom
like dandelion spores, each one
a wish for something better.

If you haven’t been tagged, start your own 5-day poetry challenge. I’d love to hear about it.


14 Words For Love – 2015

This is the third year of what has become a phenomenon—an outpouring of hope, kindness, empathy, or inclusion in 14-word packages. 14 Words For Love is the brainchild of my writ14-wordser-friend Jodi Barnes, who wanted to garner a few hundred poems to hand out to homeless, legislators, taxi drivers and teachers—anyone on Valentine’s Day. Of course, the poets and writers of the world exceeded that call in 2013 and 2014 and continue to show their love 14 words at a time this year.

What has become my 14-word tradition are the poems that begin “to understand love / you must understand <blank>,” a series of poems I started in 2013 where I fill in the blank with an object or concept and then find seven other words that both describe the object and the idea of love. Here’s one from last year:


to understand love / you must understand happiness / pure joy like a child’s / first snow (Image from 14wordsforlove.com)

These poems challenge me to think in metaphor, be concise, and practice concrete imagery. They’re also a great way to help out a friend, connect with others, and use poetry to heal.

I’ll share a few more from this year in the hope you’ll do the same:

I asked the cartographer
to draw a map to where
your heart is buried
This road has sharp bends
and lonely straightaways
but dead ends at your door
I've walked far
and have yet
to find you
but know
you are close
Where can I go to find
all the love I seek?
The mirror, perhaps?
to understand love
you must understand matadors
luring you in
before the final strike

You don’t have to be a poet, writer, or have a creative bone in your body, but you do have only 13 more days to join in!

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Happy Anniversary Living Poetry!

lplogo1One constant event in the month of January has been the Living Poetry anniversary party. Six years ago a poet Angelika Teuber who had moved down south from Philadelphia still hadn’t adjusted to life in the Brier Creek area of Raleigh after a year. So she decided to form a Meetup group around an interest she loved to see if anyone else out there shared her love of poetry. At the same time in a nearby part of the Triangle (Durham), I had an epiphany at the Fall 2008 North Carolina Writer’s Network conference that I wasn’t a mere writer or a failed novelist, that I was indeed a poet. I searched for different classes and groups to join, found Living Poetry, and signed up for the first meeting.

In the beginning, the group met monthly to read poems and talk about poetry. Some people were brave enough to bring their own poetry to share.Soon the group evolved and started to offer a feedback group, Sharing Creativity, where I got a lot of poems workshopped before I got into an MFA program. Somewhere down the line, I became a co-organizer and began to facilitate the monthly critique group. Farther down the line, I started helping out with the Monday Poetry prompts.

Living Poetry has grown since then to over 600 members, the largest group of poets in the Triangle. A lot of poets and lovers of poetry with every intention to find the time and courage to venture out to meet like-minded individuals and the faithful 20 or so who go to at least one event per month. We love the fact that we’ve become the one-stop shop for poetry in the Triangle (still trying to make that our tag-line) by keeping members aware of open mics, contests, publishing opportunities and creating events to socialize and share our work.

Being a part of Living Poetry has kept poetry alive in my life and has connected me to such great poets and poetry lovers. It’s hard to believe six years have gone by and we’re still going strong!


Poet Resolutions 2015

Old typewriter with paperOf the five poet resolutions I made last year, I accomplished four:

  • Teach a poetry workshop: As I suspected, the Living Poetry co-organizers kept me on task. I taught a Revision Toolbox workshop in September.
  • Spend more time with poets: My last post showed that I knocked this resolution out of the park–VCFA Puerto Rico residency, AWP in Seattle, my last Cave Canem retreat, poetrySpark, poetry dates, and the NC Writer’s Network conferences, just to name a few.
  • Start a poetry project: I’m hesitant to even say that I started a project because that would make it real. But I can’t stop thinking about dark matter/dark energy. So far, I’ve written one poem that I consider to be part of the collection. I started one-on-one lessons in physics to help me understand the connections I want to make with outer space and earthly phenomenon.
  • Published 7 poems: The goal was 6, but I was fortunate to have seven poems published in 2014; 5 solicited and 2 as part of an anthology

I made an earnest effort on the other  resolution as well:

  • Organize 1 out of 3 poetry readings: I organized the Science Cafe again in May, but completely forgot about my goal of organizing three.

I’m not feeling particularly ambitious, so I’m sticking with three resolutions for 2015.

Six poems published: I was lucky to publish one poem over of this goal. But I haven’t written much since June, so I’m hoping this resolution will nudge me into the part of the cycle where I’m writing and submitting again.

Write at least three poems for my poetry project: I have a few ideas that need to find their way onto paper and this resolution will help me keep focused on the dark matters project.

Go to a poetry retreat or writer’s residency: I’d like to to find another retreat to have some undivided writing time. My poet friend Cynthia Manick seems to find one every year and keeps track with deadlines on her infamous spreadsheet.

What are your poetic goals for 2015? Feel free to share them in a comment.


Poetry Dates

Tuesday nights have become my date night with fellow poet, Kelly Lenox. We hail from the same MFA program, though we finished 5 years apart. It was Kelly who first proposed the idea to met on a regular basis to exchange work. In the past, I participated in critique groups that met either face-to-face or via email on either a weekly or monthly basis. Often the quality of feedback depended on the people who showed up, how much time each person spent with the poem, and whether they were able to articulate something more than their like/dislike of a particular part of the poem.

The idea of a dyad exchange intrigued me because I knew Kelly was a good reader of my work and I enjoyed reading her work. Also trying to get 2 schedules to mesh is way easier than 4 or 5, even if you use Doodle. In the beginning, Kelly and I would either exchange poems for critique or read and discuss a poem that WOWed us. Recently, we added a few poetry-related events like going to NC State to see the inaugural poet Richard Blanco promote his new memoir and going to Two Writers Walk Into a Bar on the second Tuesday of the month to hear local poets and prose writers read their work. We’ve even had time to write from one of the Living Poetry Monday poetry prompts when we didn’t have anything to share.

Richard Blanco on poetry date night


My Writing Process Blog Tour

Mordovia-Dizzy Gillespie-2000or2001I feel like all I do on this blog is talk about my writing process, so the opportunity to be a part of a blog tour only seemed natural. I was very happy to get the call to arms from my Cave Canem roommate during my first year, Cynthia Manick. The youngest of the four group of women who met in 2012, Cynthia always leads the charge to submit to contests and journals and magazines and writing conferences by her example. Once again, I am eager to follow in her footsteps because Cynthia’s work tickles your toes like Dizzy’s trumpet carved in gold.

What are you working on?

I’ve got a little less than two weeks until the next Cave Canem retreat, so I’ve been stockpiling ideas on my iPhone. I wrote two of my planet poems  while there, “Transit of Venus” and “To Earth, From Mars,” so it is very likely that another galactic poem will be drawn in by the creative and supportive force that surrounds the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg the earthmarsweek CC arrives.

With the summer hiatus for many literary magazines approaching, I can stop focusing on submissions and start thinking about doing a workshop. My poet friends are interested in revision, so I’ll spend my summer planning how to guide them through the process. Also, I’d like to start a poetry workshop series similar to the one I attended at Duke University in 2009–a brief discussion on craft or process, circling the table for critique, sending everyone home with a new writing assignment–so that means more research and more preparation.

How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

I write what I see and fully acknowledge the lens I have as a single, professional, Black female. I use extended metaphor quite often because I can say two things at the same time: what is on the surface and the message underneath. My friends have described my poems as “beautiful”, “feisty”, and “clever as hell,” which is cool when you consider the source. ;-)

anna-akhmatovaI’ve also been told by Russian/former Soviet Union friends that I write very Russian. I don’t know what that means exactly. It’s usually the poems with an undercurrent of pain and longing and strong imagery that makes them say this.

Why do you write what you do?

Because nobody else is writing it. Because someone else wrote it and it needed to be said again. Because someone else wrote it and it needed a response. Because the poem came through me and I didn’t have a choice. Because it is better on the page than stuck in my head.

How does your writing process work?

I use the “hunk of stone” method I learned from former North Carolina Poet Laureate Cathy Smith Bowers: begin with an abiding image, write a block Study Room in UNC Davis Libraryof text, then look at it until I see the shape of the poem. The distance between these three steps differs with each poem. I’m not in a regular rhythm of writing anymore, so the thoughts come out in drips and drops. Most of the time, I write on the bus commute to or from work in a notebook or in my Notes app if I can’t find a pen. Lately, I’ve been better using Google drive to store snippets of ideas for poems or first drafts until I’m ready to work on them. Writing occurs most often when I am still (on a plane/bus/train, in a meeting, at my work desk, in waiting rooms). Revision almost always happens in the Poet’s Gym aka the faculty study I borrow from a friend at the UNC Davis Library. It is a small space in a corner wing of the building with a sliver of a window where I keep some rations, a few totems, a blanket, and a sweatshirt.

Thanks for reading my post. Next up on the blog tour are two fabulous poets who will post on June 9th:

A. Anupama is a wonderful poet I met during my MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I love her work because she brings her love of yoga, Indian cooking, science, photography, and nature to her poetry. Her blog, seranam, is as much a visual experience as it is a literary one.

Elizabeth Fields is a Cave Canem fellow who has been teaching abroad for the past year. I’ve been following her stumbles and successes in navigating a life in an unfamiliar, ancient, and astonishing land at A Poet’s Year in China.


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