A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


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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.


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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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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. ;)

Swordfighting

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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Cave Canem 2013


Cave Canem Logo

First of all it’s pronounced the Latin way, Ca-VEY CA-nem, which means “Beware of the dog.” The picture of the black dog with a broken chain is a warning that Black poets unleashed will attack the world.

In seven days you write six poems and workshop them with your group of CC fellows. Faculty members rotate in the space daily, so you are exposed to a different way of reading and discussing poems. There is a day-long trip to the City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, faculty readings, fellows reading, and a graduation party.

That’s what Cave Canem does; this is what Cave Canem is–a haven for black poetry. And yes, that’s sort of what the tagline says, but there is no other way to describe it. Every day CC fellows are challenged to “write the hard poem,” that poem you’re afraid to write, that you’ve been avoiding for a while.

This time, I wrote toward the hard poem–starting with an indecisive expression of a sensation of silence within me. I came to CC unsure if I was going to be able to access what I felt inside of me, afraid of the emotional excavation that had to be done to get there. The first poem was me trying to figure what I wanted to do.

So on Day 2, I went far out, to outer space and wrote a poem in the voice of the planet Mars. I see it as a companion piece to “Transit of Venus,” and perhaps, part of a series on the planets and other objects in the universe.

Day 3 I tried to ground myself in a work poem.  Not sure how successful I was, but at least it was a start.

By Day 4, my group’s poetic aesthetic starts to influence me and I begin to lean into the lyric. I used a title in the style of one of my group mates to tackle family issues. So my writing was literally moving closer to home.

Day 5′s poem addressed a matter of the heart, and for Day 6, I think I finally wrote the poem I was meant to write at Cave Canem about feeling the weight of mortality bare down on me because I am single & childless.

And I know I wouldn’t have written that poem if I hadn’t been a Cave Canem, if I hadn’t had the time and space, the love and support of the fabulously mellow women of Group B or the other fellows and faculty as tangible examples of how to risk, fall, and fly!


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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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Memorizing Poems


memorize

Every first Saturday, Living Poetry meets at Panera Bread in Brier Creek for our monthly poetry brunch. I love this event because it combines two things I love most: breakfast and poetry. Reading poems always leads to discussions about craft, what it means to be a poet, the relevance of poetry today, teaching, and whatever non sequiturs Don the Brunch brings up. Before I know it the two hours are up.

In the last year, the event has encouraged attendees to “bring a memorized poem”. And I am always up for THAT type of challenge. I grew up reciting lines in church plays and ready to spout off a bible verse whenever asked, even at the dining room table (Jesus wept). Lately, if I find a poem I love, I memorize it. Learning the lines and the exact order of words brings me closer to the poem—as if I am a mechanic looking under the hood of car, disassembling and reassembling the engine. I know I have to get the poet’s word choice and line breaks right in order to convey the same meaning and feeling to the listener.

To memorize a poem, I often start by writing it by hand, which puts me in the mindset of the poet who penned it. Then I read and repeat the first two lines until I know them well, add two more lines, and repeat the first four lines until I can say the block of words with ease. I find it much easier to memorize poems with stanzas and punctuation than one-sentence poems like my favorite from Jack Gilbert:

The Abandoned Valley

Can you understand being alone

so long you would go out in the middle of the night

and put a bucket into a well

so you could feel something down there

tug at the other end of the rope?

In addition to the Gilbert poem, I’ve memorized three other poems: Ego Tripping (There May Be a Reason Why) by Nikki Giovanni, Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden, and Topography by Sharon Olds. After the poetry brunch, I plan to add three more to my collection:

I love memorizing poems because you can carry them with you at all times—rattling around in my brain, tucked in a corner of my heart.


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Black * Woman * Professional


Manuscript Section 1That’s the title of the poetry manuscript I submitted to a book contest one day before the January 31st deadline. On the one hand, assembling the manuscript was exactly like organizing the creative thesis for my MFA program—printing out every poem, creating piles of poems with a similar theme, ordering the poems in each themed pile, putting the themes in the order they should be read.  That part was easy.

The hard part was changing my mindset from a “hoop-to-jump-through-in-grad-school” to a “poetry-collection-someone-might-read-one-day.” Making that switch meant I had to treat the manuscript as if it were already a published book. These days, many poetry and prose books have sections break up the reading and the poems or chapters that follow. Some are as simple as Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars—One, Two, Three, Four. Others provide more information about the poems or chapters that follow. For example in Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling uses quotes from the Local Administration Manual to give a clue to what to expect in the next set of chapters. Having just finished that book on my Kindle Fire, I looked for something to help me tie the sections and the book together.

Then I remembered the book, Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women Struggle for Professional Identity. I read this book about 10 Our separate waysyears ago, and then again in 2011, in my critical thesis semester. Flipping through it, I realized the chapter titles could organize the themes of my collection, and then, chose quotes from the book that connected to the poems:

  • Fitting In (I feel like a guest in somebody’s house.”)
  • Work Isn’t Everything (The thing that’s on every single black women’s mind is the whole issue of relationships.”)
  • Their Father’s Daughters (My life is different from my mother’s and father’s; theirs was a different time.”)
  • The Racialized Self (I experience myself as being exotic and mysterious to most white people.”)

No matter what happens with the contest, I’m satisfied with how my first poetry collection turned out.


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To Be or Not to Be. . .Separate


The fundamental question for a double-life poet is, “Should I keep poetry separate from my working life?” Wallace Stevens turned down an appointment as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard because he didn’t want to be forced to retire from his job as an executive at The Hartford. William Carlos Williams felt being a doctor and being a poet were “two parts of a whole” and often scribbled poems on the back of prescription pads.

I faced this question while updating my LinkedIn profile. It’s funny how the most innocuous tasks make you rethink your whole raison d’être. Anyway, it’s been almost a year since I graduated from VCFA, but that information wasn’t on the résumé. Neither were my writing and presentation skills mentioned anywhere and none of my recent poetry publications were listed. Isn’t my MFA important to me? I’ve only mentioned it in 10 of the 40+ posts I’ve written for this blog. And don’t I want to use my writing and presentation skills more? Start to blend my double lives more?

And then that ultimate negating phrase popped into my head, “Yes, but”

Yes, but what type of message is that sending?

Yes, but this is a professional website and poetry doesn’t fit.

Yes, but the poetry stuff and work stuff should be separate.

Adding this information was simple – selecting the school, degree, and year from the drop-down menu, typing the words,LinkedIn Profile “writing” and “publication” in the summary section, and copying and pasting the link to my latest publication. I mean, that’s what makes me unique, right? That I like to tell stories with data, that I like to write, that being a poet in a professional world, I wrestle with and simplify complexity, have a more acute sense of empathy, am creative, and can infuse life with beauty and meaning. And just like that, my poetry and non-literary career became one.

I look forward to the day when poetry and my non-literary career can peacefully coexist in my every day world and not just on my LinkedIn résumé.


I’ve blogged about work poems and how work experiences influence my poetic subjects. But a recent article in Harvard Business Review discusses how poetry has a positive influence on the personal and professional development of business professionals by:

  1. Teaching us to wrestle with and simplify complexity.
  2. Helping to develop a more acute sense of empathy.
  3. Developing our creativity.
  4. Teaching us to infuse life with beauty and meaning.

Sounds like lessons we all need to learn.

Read the full article here: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/11/the_benefits_of_poetry_for_pro.html

Special thanks to double life poet, Anna Weaver, for sending me this article.

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