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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April 2014 Poem-a-Day Challenge, The End


typewriter with paper and "the end" typed

 

Finally! Although, I say it never gets easier to do these challenges, but in some way, my process has been refined. I am really happy that I wasn’t up past midnight working on poems or tucked away in some corner at a milonga scribbling down my ideas. I made a point to finish a poem on most days before 9 PM, and definitely before going out for the evening. Often, I had to go with my first mind, follow a path, and make it work, which meant opening up channels within to let the prompts trigger experiences, emotions, observations, memories that I used to create poetry. Here is the last of what my first mind brought.

Day 28 (Prompt: Settling)

Pour yourself—pure and cool—
into a glass jar filled with the simple
sand of me at the floor.

Day 29 (Prompt: Realism/Magical)

Caladenia, the spider orchid, crawls

down the stalk, bit by bit, lands on the soft

moss of her clay pot.

Day 30 (Prompt: Calling It a Day)

At the happy hour, I’m still suited up

in dress and heels while the office men

have put their neckties and jackets

at ease and lowered their beers to half-glass.


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April 2014 Poem-a-Day Challenge, Week 4


2009 CalendarAs they say in the South, we are getting down to the short rows! It’s hard to believe 27 days are behind us. The lesson this week was going with my first mind. Most of the poems stemmed from the first idea that popped in my head. I might have started down different paths in writing, but the end product reflected the thing or image that sparked the poem. For example, the word monster (Day 27) always makes me think of Godzilla. I actually wrote more of a political commentary on recent events with basketball owners and Cold War bullies, but the strongest part of the poem led me to trim back to the original idea. Here are the results of those first sparks.

Day 21 (Prompt: Back to basics)

Females must not be ragged,

unkempt, or extreme,

but may be fastened,

pinned, plain, and limited.

Day 22 (Prompt: Optimistic/Pessimistic)

My eyes stay

with her slim brown

body awash in white

mimicking the movements

of tides

Day 23 (Prompt: Location)

My happy place is on that balcony

in Old San Juan where I sit

with postcards stacked

on one knee

Day 24 (Prompt: Tell it to the <blank>)

But don’t think she’ll keep

your secret. She’ll torture

your hypothalamus all night

Day 25 (Prompt: The last straw)

Does the scarecrow cry

out to heaven when he feels

the last slit of straw

slip from his side?

Day 26 (Prompt: Water)

I stand below the nozzle’s rush,

feel jet blasts of drops flow

down my back like a hot avalanche

Day 27 (Prompt: Monster)

Today’s monster no

longer destroys whole

cities with fiery breath

and colossal feet.


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April 2014 Poem-a-Day Challenge, Week 3


stamp_with_green_earthIt’s always good to get past the halfway point in the month. The end is near, and yet, I know the poems must keep coming. Some days I surprise myself–like the rhyme in Day 17. Other days, I go back to the photographs I have stored in my poetic memory. Several poems this week seemed to run out of my mind onto the page. Thank goodness I keep pen and pad in the car and in my purse, and sticky notes on my office desk when the words start to form. Often it feels like clouds gathering above on the verge of a downpour. Here is what the poem storms brought this week.

Day 14 (Prompt: If I Were <Blank>)

I’d still be black

but this time

desired

Day 15 (Prompt: Love/Anti-Love)

The heat of your breath

warms my skin and every

feign, flutter, fantasy stands

arm hair on end.

Day 16 (Prompt: Elegy)

On a throwback Thursday, I see a photo

of you dressed in 70’s cool–wide-legged

jeans and Kojak shades–standing in a park

with a stoic lean like that tower in Piza.

Day 17 (Prompt: Pop culture)

You’ll never see me move it round, wave

my big round mound fast, slow, up

and down like a flag to raise your salute.

Day 18 (Prompt: Weather)

The freeze will come overnight,

trap you below the thick,

clear surface for the longest

winter on record

Day 19 (Prompt: Color)

I inhale the sweet

sting of citrus

then strip skin

in one long peel.

Day 20 (Prompt: Family)

It was my father’s foresight

to insist on a family photo,

the photographer’s instinct

to seat him at center


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April 2014 Poem-a-Day Challenge, Week 2


aprilWeek 2 is a mix of themes and topics that are familiar and new experiences and observations gathered each day. Already I sense a common thread connecting the poems this year–transition. This week, there are fewer poet-as-narrator poems and more poems from the poet-as-observer perspective. These PAD challenges give me an opportunity to observe the how of my creative process:

  • how images, incidents, and feelings take root throughout the day and I can’t shake them until they are on the page
  • how poems start in multiple directions and then I have to work different threads simultaneously until one of them comes to an end
  • how sometimes I’m not sure if I pulled the right thread
  • how some themes require a return at a later date when I’m not in get-the-poem-out-and-go-to-bed mode
  • how some days I just need to get the poem out and go to bed
  • how I seem to be writing the same poem over and over again

And always it’s an interesting ride to see where each prompt takes me.

Day 7 (Prompt: Self-Portrait)

seated and upright

black stockinged feet

freed from black-heeled boots

dangled toes cozy up

to the heater’s warm hum

Day 8 (Prompt: Violent/Peaceful)

I overhear him tell you

he told you up front

that he lived with his mother

and worked at the college

but didn’t have a degree.

Day 9 (Prompt: Shelter)

The tour of her fiancé’s house ends

in the room filled with what’s familiar and hers–

what I will name the piano room,

what used to be the living room

of the house where our friendship grew.

Day 10 (Prompt: Future)

The climate will change as the clouds

swollen with the megapixels of our digital

lives can no longer hold everything apart.

Day 11 (Prompt: Statement)

Spring Has Arrived

And so has he to the same park bench

where he unfurls the morning paper

and feigns to read

Day 12 (Prompt: City)

You strive ever upward with a million

anonymous stories stacked between

the gravel and glass of high

rises stretched down Broadway.

Day 13 (Prompt: Animal)

She likes her dogs the way

she likes her men–large and long-

haired, happy to be at her feet.

 


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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.


Sharing an interview I did with Ian Bodkin of Written in Small Spaces where I talk about  my how I became a poet, my writing process, balancing the wissliterary and non-literary career, and functioning somewhere between Wally (Wallace Stevens) and Willy (William Carlos Williams).

http://writteninsmallspaces.com/2014/01/18/episode-16-the-hunk-of-stone-with-pamela-l-taylorand-erica-wright-disguises-her-weaponry/


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Year in Review 2013


year2013

The biggest lesson of this year was Balance. The non-literary career demanded a lot of my time and attention this year and trying to maintain the boundary between my work and personal lives became more challenging. This year’s highlights reflects more accomplishments of both sides of the double life:

January: Attended the 3rd VCFA residency in Puerto Rico as grad assistant. Living Poetry‘s 4th anniversary party. Organized the 1st Poetry Scope event at NC Museum of Natural Sciences.

February: Wrote over 20 poems for 14 words of love. Transitioned to new role at work.

March: Attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs in Boston. Won second place in Carolina Woman’s magazine for “Transit of Venus.”

April: Wrote 30 poems for the April 2013 Poem-a-Day Challenge. Wrote 1st commissioned poem for an auction to support Relay for Life  with two of my favorite Triangle-area poets, Anna Weaver and Tara Lynne Groth.

May: “Something Missing” selected for Poetry in Plain Sight by Winston-Salem Writers. Started 1st project as a lead at work.

June: Attended 18th Cave Canem retreat.

July: Traveled to Greensboro, Winston-Salem, & Asheville for work.

August: Wrote four poems during one-day writing retreat with Written Word. Organized the 2nd Poetry Scope event at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences.

September: poetrySpark! Wrote my second commissioned poem for a wedding. Attended professional conference in Austin. Three poems published in Blackberry. Attended the first VCFA alumni gathering in North Carolina.

October: Completed draft of work report. Featured poet in Music and Poetry session of the West End Poetry Festival.

November: Wrote 30 poems for the November 2013 Poem-a-Day Challenge. Six years at job. Wrote my 3rd commissioned poem for an 86th birthday. Attended a one-day poetry workshop at the Raleigh Review.

December: Two poems published in the When Women Waken issue on grief. Received news coverage for work report.


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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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Back to Business


opensignThe end of the government shutdown coincided with the end of writing a report for work. Now I have more time to turn my attention back to the business of poetry. Like any job—double life or otherwise—some tasks  you love and other tasks you tolerate as necessary evils. For me, submitting work to literary magazines and contests is  on the necessary evil side of things. It’s a lot of work for little (if any) reward and the process is never-ending:

  • Search for places to publish
  • Read published work to get a sense of how my work fits
  • Read and re-read submission guidelines
  • Print out potential poems to submit
  • Read, revise, and tweak selected poems
  • Order selected poems
  • Re-re-read submission guidelines
  • Prepare submission packet (cover letter/bio and poems)
  • Submit packet (and payment, if required)
  • Hope and pray

Last year, I focused on getting individual poems published and was successful. I’m still working that angle and adding chapbook contests to the mix. I have quite a few poems, but not all of them are ready for prime time. So selecting 10-30 of my better poems for a chapbook seems less daunting. Here are the chapbook contests on the horizon:

  1. Sunken Garden Chapbook Poetry Prize (10/31): co-sponsored by Tupelo press; 20-36 pages judged by Mark Doty 
  2. Coal Hill Review (11/1): co-sponsored by Autumn House Press; 10-15 pages judged by Michael Simms
  3. Minerva Rising Chapbook Contest (12/1): themed contest, “Daring to be the Woman that I Am;” 12-15 pages judged by Rosemary Daniell 
  4. Imaginary Friend Chapbook Contest (12/15): open to anyone who doesn’t identify as a straight, white male; 12-20 pages judged by Shane McCrae, Ching-In Chen, Margaret Bashaar, Noel Pabillo Mariano, and Ayshia Stephenson
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