A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.

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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.



May Days

hs-2011-11-a-xlarge_300I had to rest up after writing all those April poems for the Poem-a-Day Challenge. It took 3-4 days before I could read the poems, and I have to say, I’m quite happy with the result. During the challenge, I can’t spend time with each poem because I’ve got to crank out another one. So having the time to step away and come back to what I’ve written helps me see each poem in a new light. There are quite a few that I want to work with so they can be sent out for publication this summer and fall.

With the true arrival of Spring, I’m getting out more. The NC Museum of Natural Sciences invited the poets back on the last day of April to write poems in response to a science talk about the Hubble Telescope. I also debuted some of the April poems at a Sunday brunch with the girls at the home of my tango friend and photographer, Katia Singletary and  at the Open Mic at Johnny’s Gone Fishing in Carrboro. I resumed my Tuesday poetry dates with the Two Writers Walk Into a Bar reading with Duncan Murrell and Liana Roux. The Murrell piece follows pyrotechnicians (yes, the people who set fireworks), so I can’t wait to go to Davis Library and read it in the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Also, ahead this month—the release of my new chapbook, My Mother’s Child from Hyacinth Girl Press. It’s been an amazing experience working with this small press and I can’t wait to share the details of this journey.


Summer in Review

It’s been a jammed-packed 80 days since I last posted to the blog. It was only after this data guru did the numbers that I realized there was a balance between literary events and non-literary work that kept me busy the whole time.


  • Cave Canem Retreat (June 15-22). My third and final time at this retreat for African-American poetry. We had an awesome lineup of faculty: Chris Abani, Tim Siebles, Patricia Smith, and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon joined the founders, Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady. Not to mention the coolest graduation party ever.
  • Selected Poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. I landed at the RDU airport and drove straight to the book club for this Russian poet.
  • Lead a poetry exercises as part of the Carrboro ArtsCenter Summer Reading kickoff event.

CC class of 2014



  • Picked up a few new books at a book swap.
  • LIT 101. A relatively new open mic at Francesca’s Dessert Café in Durham happens every Third Sunday.
  • Third Thursday Open Mic in Fuquay Varina. I’m only able to attend this event once or twice a year and couldn’t resist participating in the Red Dress contest.
  • Carrboro ArtsCenter sponsored a Maya Angelou tribute reading, where people shared their favorite poems in her memory.

summer books 2014


sparkafterdark 2013

Throughout the summer, I met four times for the poetry one-on-ones with Kelly, submitted to one poetry contest and one anthology, and signed the contract with Hyacinth Girl Press for my chapbook, My Mother’s Child, due in early 2015.

As a double-life poet, all poetic activity takes place on the backdrop of the non-literary career, which kept its own busy schedule:

  • 1 project that I led,
  • 1 project started in June,
  • 1 subcommittee started in September,
  • 19 days of working late,
  • 3 days working on the weekend, and
  • 1 report completed in September but that will be presented in October.

In the interest of transparency, most of the summer was filled with all kinds of activity on the personal side including:

  • 4 parties,
  • 3 weddings,
  • 3 houseguests,
  • 9 milongas,
  • 3 road trips, and
  • my first mammogram


And today, I give a workshop on revision, so I’ll have more to say about that soon!


Winter/Spring Reading List

photo-20I really ought to use my Goodreads account to track the books I am reading, but I often forget to do that. So here’s what I can remember of what I read from November to March:

  • Robert Pinsky, The Sounds of Poetry: The January book club selection.
  • Rosario Ferre, The House on the Lagoon: Suggested reading for the Puerto Rico trip.
  • John Williams, Stoner: One of my favorite Christmas gifts thanks to my favorite German-friend who lets me borrow his office space
  • Nicole Terez Dutton, If One of Us Should Fall: Won the 2011 Cave Canem book prize
  • Mary Ruefle, Cold Pluto: I picked this up at the used bookstore in Chapel Hill then gifted it to another poet-friend.
  • Stephen Dunn, The Insistence of Beauty: The February book club selection. I didn’t get to discuss the book, but it was a great selection.
  • Abraham Lincoln, Selected Poems: Yes, Lincoln wrote poems. It’s a slim volume.
  • Philip Levine, Breath: The March book club selection. I found the craft of the poems most compelling.

I’m also in various stages of the books I picked up from AWP: the latest books from my VCFA advisors—Ralph Angel, Your Moon and Leslie Ullman, Progress on the Subject of Immensity—and the new book by Cave Canem fellow and the new VCFA poetry faculty member, Jamaal May, Hum.

Then of course, there are the five books I checked out of the UNC Davis Library last weekend:

  • Maya Angelou, Poems: The April book club selection
  • David Levy, Starry Night: Astronomers and Poets Read the Sky
  • Robert Crawford (Ed.), Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science
  • Diane Ackerman, Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: Includes a lot of science and nature poems
  • Frederick Seidel, The Cosmos Trilogy

If you’re sensing a theme with my current reading list, you may be right. The science poems are screaming for me to make them into a project, so I’m doing a little research while I wait for the poems to show up.

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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.


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


A September to Remember

As the government is shutting down, I am emerging from one of the busiest months for work and poetry. My last post gave a snapshot of my schedule for the first week of September and outlined all the events I had on the calendar. I had planned to take a break from tango classes and didn’t know whether work or poetry would fill that void. Now I know the answer—a little bit of both. Here are some of the highlights:

Blackberry Literary Magazine (Tuesday, September 1, 2013): This month’s issue diverged from the usual theme-related writing to display an eclectic mix of poems and fiction from African American female writers, including two of my Cave Canem poems and a work-related poem, “Sighting: Mother”, “There is a Graveyard in My Belly”, and “Tuesday Morning Rain.”

Tuesday Morning Rain

The VCFA alumni gathering (Friday, September 6, 2013): What a great turnout of prospective students, current students, and alumni at Nantucket Grill in Chapel Hill. It was good to connect and reconnect to VCFA alum and interact with other creatives. The only glitch: the name badges and promotional materials sent from Vermont to my work address didn’t arrive until Tuesday. Obviously, the US Postal Service doesn’t believe poetry and work should mix.

PT's VCFA badge

The Music-Shanks Wedding (Saturday, September 7, 2013): I was honored to be asked to write a poem for the occasion. The couple are filmmakers and the poem used The Wizard of Oz as an extended metaphor for finding love. “And by Good Glinda’s grace you stand today, with your brain, courage, and heart  in tact, those ruby-red slippers ready to click.”

Wedding poem

Poetry book club – ee cummings (Sunday, September 8, 2013): There were only two of us, but we spent the entire two hours reading and discussing selections from The Complete Poems of ee cummings, 1914-1962. We listened to cummings reading his work and winced because his voice was full of the Unitarian minister who raised him rather than the whimsical verse he wrote. This poem is my new favorite poem.

the sky was luminous

poetrySpark’s Spark After Dark Erotic Poetry and Burlesque show (Thursday, September 12, 2013): After a full week of writing a work report, I took the stage with 25 other poets and performers for the event that kicked off SparkCon. The standing-room-only crowd was an eager audience for “some dirty poetry”, and someone handed me a rose when I was done.

Spark after Dark

poetrySpark’s  Poetry on Demand booth (Saturday, September 14, 2013): What do you get when you take 9 poets and sit them in a booth to write poems in 3 minutes for a dollar a piece for over 4 hours? $167 dollars, that’s what! Plus some of the craziest words—triskaidekaphobia, kookaburra, honorificabilitudinitatibus, coprophagia, apotheosis, and smook (invented word for whipped cream). Fortunately, my colleague gave me a normal word as a prompt. Note: the spelling errors are hers, not mine. ;)


Passion: A Salon of Music, Dance, Theater, and Cabaret (Friday, September 20, 2013): After another full week of writing a work report, I stood on different stage, this time for a three-minute “modern dance duet with a tango feel to it.” No one has posted pictures from the event, but we got a good pre-show write up in the Daily Tar Heel.

National Legislative Program Evaluation Society Fall Professional Development Seminar (Sunday, September 22 to Wednesday, September 25, 2013): Over 130 individuals representing over 20 states met in Austin, Texas for the annual meeting of legislative audit and program evaluation staff. And though we would like to believe that the sessions on retaining staff, using graphics, and tracking recommendation results were most memorable, what’s burned in our minds is the image of men kissing giraffes at the Texas Disposal System Exotic Game Ranch.  Even better, I got to dance tango with the Austin community on Saturday and Tuesday and add to my ever-growing collection of college paraphernalia.

Giraffe at "The Dump" Halloween at UT Austin

UNC Davis Library (Sunday, September 29, 2013): After a 60+ hour work week and the Living Poetry organizer’s meeting, I stopped by one of my favorite writing spaces in the Triangle (what I call the Poet’s Gym) to pick up three books by Rachel Wetzsteon, including her posthumous collection, Silver Roses.

Rachel Wetzsteon


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