A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


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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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Getting into the Poetry Swing


baseball_pitch_132901After a conversation with my good poet-friend, Victorio Reyes at AWP, I’ve decided to get out of my publishing comfort zone. My usual strategy is to spend a lot of time reading and considering literary magazines before I submit, then narrow down to the 10 or so places that I think I have the best chance of getting published. I’ve had pretty good success with this method—6 publications last year when I submitted to 10 or 12, or about a .500 batting average.

Victorio suggested that I take broader approach–apply to the places I would typically rule out or right off for one reason or another. In fact, he follows the Matthew Dickman philosophy of having 50 pieces out there at any given time. This advice seems totally daunting to me because I feel have enough good poems for a chapbook (15-30 pages), but not a full-length collection (at least 48 pages).

 

 

The baseball equivalent of this strategy would be stepping up to the plate and taking a swing. Although, I’m definitely an outcome driven person, this new philosophy on publishing has had a positive effect thus far because it forces me to:

  • find new and different literary magazines where I can submit;
  • go deeper into my poem files to revisit and revise old poems; and
  • write more poems.

I don’t know if this approach will increase my success with publishing, but I’m willing to give it a shot.


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Poet Resolutions 2014


2014Of the six poet resolutions I made last year, I accomplished four:

  • Publish six poems: In 2013, seven poems were published
  • Share my poetry: April and November poems appeared on the blog.
  • Talk to more double life poets: This year I spent time with double-life poets and prose writers, including Tracey Gratch, whose poem I found while reading a scientific article for a work project.
  • Blend double lives more: In addition to listing poems on LinkedIn, I read a few poems during my birthday celebration at work. During the travel for the work project I lead, several people had checked me out and inquired about the MFA.

This year’s resolutions are not too different.

Teach a poetry workshop: This goal was on last year’s list, but I didn’t find the courage or time to do it. This year, the co-organizers of Living Poetry have mapped out a series of poetry workshops, including two workshops on revisions and publishing your work that I volunteered to teach/co-teach.  The LP organizers are good about keeping me on task.

Organize three poetry readings: Last year, I organized two poetry readings for the weekly Science Café at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. The museum has agreed to making this reading an annual event. So now I have to find two other opportunities to organize a reading in 2014.

Six poems published: This goal worked last year, so I’m keeping it on the list. This goal requires me to write and submit, which is always the struggle as a double-life poet.

Spend more time with poets: When my work project picked up steam in July,  I had a more difficult time finding time to spend with poets. Sure I  helped to organize poetrySpark in September and was a featured reader at the West End Poetry Festival in October, but I barely saw poets in the last two months of the year.  So I think spending time with poets at least once a month is a good way to operationalize this goal.

Start a poetry project: I have no idea what this goal means or what it will look like. It may blend my love of science with my love of poetry. It may mean collecting work poems or poems by double-life poets. We’ll see!

What are your poetic goals for 2014? Feel free to share them in a comment.


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Sunday in the Office with Poems


For three straight weeks, I’ve spent Sunday afternoons in a small office on the 4th floor of UNC Davis Library. I’m thankful for this space and for my generous German friend who keeps the key to his faculty study in a place where I can find it. This is why America should maintain the trust of our German allies.

Typically, I spend about 5 or 6 hours there revising some poems, writing blog posts, researching literary magazines and book publishers or a little bit of all of the above. Yesterday’s goal was to assemble the 10-36 pages of poems that could possibly become a chapbook. Last week’s session whittled down the bulk of my writing to 43 pages, which completely covered the limited desk space. Then coffee arrived and chatting ensued, leaving the poems to talk amongst themselves.

Poems need this time to get to know each other, figure out how to arrange themselves, and decide whether to be part of the group. Forty-three pages became 27, including the four that called out to be revised in the middle of the process for a literary journal submission. Some of the poems in the Group of Twenty-Seven may not make the final cut. I see two distinct themes and about eight poems that bridge these ideas but are not wedded to either camp. And so the process continues.

The Group of Twenty-Seven


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The Power of a One-Day Writing Retreat


You get in your car with the mini-tote bag from the Strand stuffed with your wallet, cosmetic everything bag, your poet’s notebook, and lunchcedargrove—sesame salad, a Granny Smith apple, boiled eggs, and those addictive dark chocolate covered açai berry & pomegranate seed snack packs. You drive 25.7 miles from the heart of your urban life, passing a pasture of feeding cows, fields with odd-shaped and dilapidated houses, and a community store selling produce most likely picked down the road. Aside from the construction on Highway 86 that causes a patient backup of cars needing to continue down the only open lane, there isn’t much excitement in Cedar Grove—a perfect place for a one-day writing retreat.

Eleven writers wind their way down a gravel road on an old tobacco farm to get to the wooden cottage at the far edge of the property. For some, this time—9:30 AM to 4:00 PM on a Saturday—is the only time they have to dedicate to writing. You get three prompts to help you go where the writing takes you. And the writing takes you to the magical and the ordinary: grandfathers in spirit and vulture form, stuffed armadillos, the history that a hammock sees, a collection of boxes under a bed (not to be confused with clutter), your high school journal, your father’s journal, fancy dresses next to men in tuxes, inside the mind of teenager, and Botox.

You leave with a sense of accomplishment and community, and a strong desire to keep the writing going.


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Poet Heal Thyself


Wounded-heart-with-bandage

A research study of older adults in New Zealand demonstrated the power of writing in the healing process. The study assigned two groups to write about their lives. The first group was asked to write about a traumatic event, how they felt about it at the time, and to share thoughts and emotions they had never expressed. The second group wrote about their plans for the next day with no mentions of their feelings. The researchers took small biopsies of their skin and photographed the wounds to see how they were healing. After 11 days, the 76% of the people that hard written about their feelings had fully healed compared to only 42% in the other group.

This study completely fascinated me because it provided credible evidence of writing as a way to heal physical wounds. I know from personal experience that writing can heal emotional wounds. I started writing in late 2004, about a year after my father’s death in a car accident and the end of a 10-year relationship. Reading a book of poetry by Edna St Vincent Millay triggered the outpouring of emotions that I had kept to myself. Many studies have shown the benefits of writing for physical and emotional well-being. In fact, a recent article reported that Pierce Brosnan–Remington Steele and James Bond–is writing poetry to cope with the grief of his daughter’s death. However, writing about pain and grief doesn’t make you a poet; only when you aim to share that experience with others can your writing benefit the greater good. As James Baldwin once said, “your suffering means something only to the extent that people can attach their suffering to yours.”

In his craft talk at Cave Canem, Chris Abani posited, “all writing comes from an existential wound.” In his mind, wounds are not to be confused with suffering—to have a wound is not the same as being wounded. Abani believes that recognizing a wound is the key to opening up everything. The narrative of the wound becomes the story we’re telling—it is the driving force behind why we write. As poets, writing from a wounded place can bring more than self-healing. When our writing speaks from that existential wound, we can connect to others in a deeper way and be the catalyst for healing ourselves as well as our readers.


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14 Words, One Love


For the last week, I’ve been supporting my fellow double-life poet, Jodi Barnes, in her effort to collect 1,400 14-word love poems to distribute on Valentine’s Day. The first day, I wrote one poem, but since then I’ve written no less than three poems each day and as many as six! The 14-word challenge has been a great way to build up to a daily writing practice, strengthen the mind-paper connection, and focus on crafting concrete imagery.

I’ve written a series of poems, “to understand love / you must understand <blank>,” 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 are some examples:

to understand lovegenes

you must understand genes

their endless patterns

uniting, splicing, reforming, reborn

to understand lovedogs

you must understand dogs

waiting by doors, tails wagging

in anticipation

to understand love

you must understand rings

encircling delicate fingerssaturn_false

and all of Saturn

to understand love

you must understand teatea

slow sips of honey

warming your hands

I haven’t counted them yet, but I have three typed pages of the “to understand love” series, and about six 14-word free form poems. Every evening I come home eager to prepare the next day’s patch of poems, and every morning I wake up excited to post what I’ve written and watch the number count creep closer to the goal. Most importantly, I am having fun while supporting a worthwhile effort to spread love throughout the Triangle.

Try your hand at a 14-word love poem by leaving a comment.

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