A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


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Planetary Influences


Transit of Venus June 5, 2012, NASA/Goddard/SDO

Transit of Venus June 5, 2012, NASA/Goddard/SDO

One of the first poems in my chapbook that was published was “Transit of Venus,” which was inspired by the 2012 event that will not happen again until 2117. What I saw with my own eyes (black drop / crossing / the sun / dipping down / curving around / up again) is now visible in some amazing pictures from a joint project between NASA and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. I consider the Venus poem the first in a series of poems about the planets I intend to write. Last year, Construction Magazine publishedTo Earth, From Mars,” the second planetary poem, and I wrote “Pluto, My Brother” at my last Cave Canem retreat (back in my day there were 9 planets). My poetry-date partner, Kelly, says the Pluto poem is ready to send out, so I’ll be spending some time this weekend in the Poet’s Gym (aka UNC Davis Library) figuring out where it should land.

Photograph via Flickr by bluedharma

Photograph via Flickr by bluedharma

I love writing about the planets and other objects in the universe. They are like our distant relatives: made of the same stuff but existing in a different era. Poetry offers a unique way to consider the beauty and individuality of each body as well as explore the myths and folklore we project onto each globe. I’ve also written  poems about the spacecraft we’ve sent to explore other objects in our universe. My biggest challenge is *getting the science right* inside the poem. Often, the scientific terms are not accessible or pleasant-sounding to the average reader. It’s my job to make the connection between science and metaphor so that we can understand each planet on its own merit as well as how it relates to our own lives.

Tonight, I will get another opportunity to write about Pluto at the Science Cafe at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. The talk will feature some of the stunning images taken of our dear *dwarf* planet from the New Horizons probe. I can’t wait to see what these new images inspire.

NASA Instagram photo of Pluto from New Horizons

NASA Instagram photo of Pluto from New Horizons


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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!


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Year in Review 2014


yearinreview2014

If I had to pick a word to describe this year it would be Cycle. In 2013, I spent a lot of time focused on writing and sending out publications, which culminated in 7 published poems. This year, I fell into a poetry funk after June and didn’t write much. What surprised me was that I wasn’t too worried about not writing. After finishing my MFA, I was so concerned about not writing at the same level I did when I was in graduate school. But I quickly realized that creating 4-5 poems a month was a ridiculous writing schedule and settled into a more reasonable writing rhythm. The thing with rhythm is that it can change. And it should change to make things interesting.

Even though my writing slowed down, I still managed to keep poetry a part of my life. Toward the end of the year, I made a conscious effort to go back to the basics—poetry events, workshops, and open mics—because I always get inspired when I am around other poets and hear their work.  This year’s highlights reveal much more poetry in my life than I thought had been there.

January: Returned to Puerto Rico for the 4th VCFA residency as the Graduate Coordinator. Living Poetry‘s 5th anniversary party. Interview with Ian Bodkin’s Written in Small Spaces.

February: Wrote more poems for 14 words of love. Guest Poetry Editor for When Women Waken’s Power Issue. Moderated the panel, “Uncovering Hip-Hop Poetry” at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) in Seattle.

March: First time I attended the Poet’s Café @ Gather in Cary.

April: Wrote 30 poems for the April 2014 Poem-a-Day Challenge. Coordinated three poetry events at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences during Earth Month, including a Poetry on Demand booth and poetry based on a Science Talk.

May: Organized the third Poetry Scope event featuring poetry about science. Wrote a commissioned poem for a birthday, Camellia. Three poems featured in Luna Luna Magazine.

June: Attended 19th Cave Canem retreat, my third and last time.  Wrote at the Poetry on Demand booth at the Chatham Farmer’s Market.

July: First poetry date with Kelly Lenox. Conducted a 10-minute poetry workshop to kick off the Summertime Reading Series at the Carrboro ArtsCenter. First time I attended the LIT 101 open mic at Francesca’s Dessert Café in Durham. Published in When Women Waken’s Knowing Issue.

August: Attended the informal tribute to Maya Angelou at the Carrboro ArtsCenter. Signed the contract with Hyacinth Girl Press to publish my chapbook, My Mother’s Child.

September: First poet to read at this year’s Spark After Dark during poetrySpark! Led a poetry workshop, Revision Toolbox. First time I attended Two Writers Walk Into a Bar, a reading series featuring poetry and prose writers.

October: Attended the NC Literary Hall of Fame induction and the West End Poetry Festival. Saw the Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco at NC State. Guest Poetry Editor for When Women Waken’s Delight Issue.

November: Emceed the tribute to Maya Angelou sponsored by the Friends of the Orange County Public Library, Friends of the Carrboro Public Library, the Friends of Chapel Hill Public Library, and the Friends of The ArtsCenter of Carrboro. Attended the North Carolina Writer’s Network conference in Charlotte.

December: Wrote a poem for friend’s graduation.


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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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