A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


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Poetry Dates


Tuesday nights have become my date night with fellow poet, Kelly Lenox. We hail from the same MFA program, though we finished 5 years apart. It was Kelly who first proposed the idea to met on a regular basis to exchange work. In the past, I participated in critique groups that met either face-to-face or via email on either a weekly or monthly basis. Often the quality of feedback depended on the people who showed up, how much time each person spent with the poem, and whether they were able to articulate something more than their like/dislike of a particular part of the poem.

The idea of a dyad exchange intrigued me because I knew Kelly was a good reader of my work and I enjoyed reading her work. Also trying to get 2 schedules to mesh is way easier than 4 or 5, even if you use Doodle. In the beginning, Kelly and I would either exchange poems for critique or read and discuss a poem that WOWed us. Recently, we added a few poetry-related events like going to NC State to see the inaugural poet Richard Blanco promote his new memoir and going to Two Writers Walk Into a Bar on the second Tuesday of the month to hear local poets and prose writers read their work. We’ve even had time to write from one of the Living Poetry Monday poetry prompts when we didn’t have anything to share.

Richard Blanco on poetry date night


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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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The Meaning of May


Historic-Gdn-04842-WH-ws

 

And a bird overhead sang Follow,
  And a bird to the right sang Here;
And the arch of the leaves was hollow,
  And the meaning of May was clear.

 

It’s been almost a month since the last post. The April 2014 Poem-a-Day Challenge left me very weary from writing poems – and in fact – from reading a lot of poetry. My first order of business was to bury myself in a novel, Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li. Also, I finally got around to reading books that have been on my shelf for quite some time: Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson and The Best American Short Stories 2006. Don’t get me wrong, I did write some poems that were commissioned for a birthday. I wrote five poems, sent four, the person liked two, and I printed one poem as the gift.

For me, May went by in one big fog. I spent most nights curled up on the couch, watching TV shows on Hulu or movies on Netflix. I didn’t have the energy to be creative or do much of anything else (my poor house). After so much output in April with writing poems and attending poetry events, the introvert in me needed an equal amount of solitude and sloth to balance everything out. The funny thing about not doing much is that life and creativity keep moving, even when the only thing I wanted to do was take a nap. For example, four poems from the April PAD Challenge found homes; one will appear in the upcoming “Knowing” issue of When Women Waken and the others will be featured in a future Come Closer post at Luna Luna Magazine. On May 1st, I granted Outrider Press permission to publish two poems in the next TallGrass Writers Guild anthology, “The Mountain.”

The stanza from Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poem, “An Interlude” stood out because the meaning of May was clearly this: even when it looks like I’m doing nothing, something is still happening.

 


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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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