A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.

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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.

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VONA @ Miami 2015

vonalogoIt’s taken me almost a month to recover from the VONA workshop in Miami from June 28 – July 4, 2015. VONA (Voices of Our Nations Arts) is the only multi-genre workshop for writers of color. This year was the first time the workshop was held at the University of Miami. Previously, the VONA workshops had taken place in the Bay Area.

VONA workshops occur over two weeks; I attended the Week 2 poetry workshop with Willie Perdomo, whose most recent 11647246_10155790169525271_417854073_npoetry collection, The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon, was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award (Poetry). Other writers attended workshops for fiction with Evelina Galang, memoir with Andrew X. Pham, travel writing with Faith Adiele, speculative fiction with Tananarive Due, LGBTQ writers with Achy Obejas, and the residency group with Chris Abani.

For me, the VONA experience was a fusion of VCFA and Cave Canem: there were old poems to IMG_6173workshop; new poems written every day; amazing faculty readings; inspiring student readings; and a culminating dance party. Of course, nothing compares to the beautiful U of M campus, complete with the lush orange flowers of the royal poinciana trees, free-roaming duck and ibis families, sudden thunderstorms, and crocodile warning signs.

What makes VONA a unique experience is the opportunity to interact with other writers of color. Although we spent most of the time in our workshop groups through lunch, there was ample time to hang out in11411900_130970943903971_6529621702020454391_o the VONA lounge to chat with writers from other genres about their lives back home or watch them work on collages. For me, the highlight of  VONA was the group presentation from the speculative fiction writers whose worm holes trips misplaced them in all the other genres until they found their way home.

Nothing about my time at VONA Miami would have been possible without my lovely suitemates—Elizabeth Zertuche (Apex, NC), Yesenia Flores Diaz  (Maryland), and Dipti Singh (Bombay)—and my awesome poetry 11709272_705508246242186_6326447500570548388_nfamilia—Rebecca Brown (Chicago), Tomás Nieto (San Diego), Peter Noble (New Haven), Bobina Vander Laan (Richmond), Fatimah Ashgar, June Inuzuka (Denver), Michelle Moncayo (New Jersey), Charles Snyder (Long Beach/Bay Area, CA), Bianca Garcia (Miami), and Sarah Serrano (Brooklyn). Livelong connections!

VONA encouraged writers to form affinity groups to stay connected once we returned home. In addition to my roommate, I met other writers from NC as well as from the I-85 corridor (Richmond and Atlanta). Last Wednesday, the VONA NC branch met in Durham at Dulce Café. We commiserated about our slow recovery from the VONA immersion and our attempts to get back into the habit of writing now that we were fully back in our normal

VONA NC members: me, Cantrice Penn, and Elizabeth Zertuche

VONA NC members: me, Cantrice Penn, and Elizabeth Zertuche

lives. At the end, we promised to meet again in August at my house to write together and keep our VONA-flow going.


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Poems for King Pluto

Pluto's Frozen Heart. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Pluto’s Frozen Heart. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to write a poem in honor of the King of the Dwarf Planets—Pluto—as part of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences weekly Science Café talks. NASA Ambassador Shawn Bayle provided background about Pluto and the New Horizons mission that has been transmitting stunning images of the ninth rock from the Sun.

This event was the third time the museum had invited Living Poetry members to craft poems inspired by a science talk:

Pluto's Poetesses. Credits: Erin Osborn & Alice Osborn

Pluto’s Poetesses. Credits: Erin Osborn & Alice Osborn

I don’t think it was accidental that old King Pluto had four ladies scribing in his honor. He’s got that effect on women—ask Proserpina (aka Greek’s Persephone) and his largest moon, Charon, which is gravitationally locked in sync with Pluto’s orbit so that the two celestial bodies always face each other. Some other facts about Pluto and the New Horizons mission gathered from the talk and mentioned in the poems:

  • discovered by mistake by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 in search for Planet X presumed to exist beyond Neptune
  • first object identified in the Kuiper Belt
  • New Horizons took 9 years to get to Pluto; the gravitational boost from Jupiter reduced the time to get to Pluto by 5 years.
  • scientists discovered two of Pluto’s moons—Styx & Kerberos—after the New Horizons spacecraft launched in 2006

I enjoy writing planetary poems already but especially at these events because I can hear similar threads in each poem while noting each poet’s unique voice. I’ll share an expert from my poem here, “New Horizons Meets Planet X,” but be sure to watch the entire talk on YouTube (poets start about an hour into the video).

Feed me your data in bits
and bytes as we shimmy
in front of Neptune to soak

up the sun. I don’t see any rings
around you, so maybe we can
make a new moon or two.





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The Busy Double Life

BUSY word on blue cubes

I can’t believe it’s been almost two months since I posted to the blog. The double life has been busy on both fronts. The non-literary work has consisted of starting a new project, being pulled on to side project, pitching in to help on another project, and closing out an old project. You know, the usual.

I knew the poetry side was going to get busy this time of the year. January through May is the time when the reading period for most literary magazines and journals are open. So during February and March, I submitted and looking for places to submit. Also, I had a planned trip to Seattle for the AWP Conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs). This is the largest conference for writers in the US. I went for the first time last year to Boston, and this year, moderated the panel, Uncovering Hip Hop Poetry. I was fortunate to be on the panel with some phenomenal poets who were also Cave Canem fellows: Tara Betts, Adrian Matejka, and Roger Reeves. The panel was the brainchild of my VCFA poet-friend, Victorio Reyes. It was an amazing experience even when the lights inexplicably turned off.

AWP has become more like homecoming—seeing people I knew from VCFA and Cave Canem, going to off-site readings, having breakfastphoto-19, lunch, or dinner to catch up. Of course, the best part is walking the exhibitor aisles to learn about new literary magazines and journals, getting books signed by your favorite authors (mostly VCFA faculty for me this time), and have important conversations about what type of poet I want to be. AWP definitely fulfills one of my 2014 Poet Resolutions to spend more time with poets. It also made me realize how much I miss my prose peeps too.

February was also a time for planning. The NC Museum of Sciences is hosting Earth Month in April, which of course is the same month we poets celebrate National Poetry Month. The activities start off with a poetry workshop I will lead and culminate with the third Poetry Scope readings of poems about science. That’s two more 2014 Poet Resolutions right there!

Looks like there are more busy months ahead.

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).


Poetry in Plain Sight

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Winston-Salem Writers started a cool program this year where they put poetry on display in stores throughout the downtown area. My poem, “Something Missing,” was selected as one of four poems featured for the month of May. This poem has special significance to me because I wrote it on my birthday last year (April 12th) as part of the April Poem-a-Day Challenge and it is a poem about my father, a subject I have a hard time writing about. Here’s a link to the video of me reading this poem and two other poems, “Work Husband” and “Hold That Hot Potato.”


Lessons from a Writer’s Conference Virgin

I returned Saturday evening from my first professional conference as a writer. Along with 11,000 other poets and writers, I went to Boston to attend the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference March 6-9, 2013. Because of my double-life responsibilities, I knew I couldn’t stay the whole time. So I made the most of Thursday and Friday at the AWP conference, which was more than enough time to be immersed in the atmosphere and move my poetry career forward.

Talk to AWP veterans: Patrick Ross, double-life creative non-fiction writer and soon-to-be-VCFA, alum, has attended the conference five years in a row! His pre-AWP post on his blog, The Artist’s Road, about recommended that attendees ask themselves three questions:

  1. What is it I most want to get out of this year’s AWP?
  2. What is the one thing I absolutely cannot miss?
  3. What is one area in which I want to grow as a writer?

For me the answers were: 1) ideas of how I could contribute to AWP as part of my professional development, 2) Cave Canem on-site and off-site readings, and 3) teaching and supporting other poets. These answers  guided the panels and readings I attended and increased my satisfaction with the two days I spent in Boston.

Read the panel descriptions: The  112-page AWP conference program could not be carried around with any modicum of grace. I relied a lot on the 20-page conference planner to decide where to be, but often, the title didn’t match the description. For example, I thought the “Engaging with Science: Poetry and Fiction” panel would give me practical ways to collaborate with science organizations, but it ended up being a reading of science-related work. Interesting, but I wasn’t going to learn anything new. Also, the panel descriptions list the participants, which is a great way to meet your favorite poets and get your books signed.

Bring your own books to be signed: If my Wednesday night flight had not been cancelled, I would not have thought to bring some of my own books with me. As a result, I got my copy of Native Guard signed by the author, Natasha Trethewey, the current US Poet Laureate. If I had read the panel descriptions before I got to Boston, I would have known to bring my Tracy K. Smith and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon books. I did bring my Yusef Komunyakaa book, but was too shy to approach him for a signature. Next time, I won’t be (at least I hope not).

Find a home base: For me, it was booth 314 in Exhibit Hall A, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Here I exchanged the University of Tampa lanyard to one that promoted my MFA program, picked up my “Ask Me About VCFA” button, and had all the maple syrup candy I wanted. If I stood in place for five minutes, some VCFA student, alumni, or faculty member would inevitably wander by, followed by kisses and hugs and discussions about writing.

Have your business cards handy at all times: The one mistake I made was leaving my poet calling cards in the hotel after 6 PM. For some reason, I thought I was off-duty after dinner.  I’ve learned that there are more opportunities to network after the panel discussions end. The AWP conference has scheduled readings that end at 10 PM and after-hours gatherings until midnight. My VCFA poet-friend, Victorio Reyes, asked me to be his +1 for the by-invitation only VIP Reception on Friday night. Not only did I get to stand 10 feet away from the Inaugural Poet, Richard Blanco, I met AWP President, Judith Baumel, and had a lively discussion with one of the new board members, David Rothman, about how I could contribute to AWP! Even though I left my cards I the hotel, I made sure to send follow-up emails and Facebook and LinkedIn invitations to people I met at the reception—lessons I learned from my non-literary career.


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