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.

 


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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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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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My Mother’s Child: A Chapbook


11402606_10206120537869576_2450195489782527196_oMy chapbook is finally here, My Mother’s Child published by Hyacinth Girl Press. In my last post, I promised to share the details of this amazing journey.  Although some of these poems were written almost four years ago and about 10 months elapsed from signing the publication contract to publication date, it’s really felt like a serendipitous labor of love.

  1. The Poems. I can trace the origins of some of these poems back to 2011 in my second semester at VCFA. I wrote other poems at two Cave Canem retreats, in response to a visual prompt at my weekly writing group, Written Word, and a workshop through the Raleigh Review. I know many of these poems started as hunks of stone scribbled in my notebooks while commuting on the DRX bus and were later revised during my times at UNC Davis Library (aka The Poet’s Gym). Six poems were previously published; five in 2013 and one in an anthology published in 2014.
  2. The Chapbook. Assembling chapbook is different than putting 3-5 poems together for a journal submission or workshop application packet. The poems have to speak to each other and belong together. After a year of submitting to contests for full-length collections and getting nowhere, I changed my strategy. When I sat down to look at all the poems, they seemed to separate themselves into two groups with a few bridge poems. Depending on the chapbook contest guidelines, I included more or fewer poems. I probably had 3 or 4 different configurations.
  3. The Contest. I entered My Mother’s Child into the Imaginary Friend Press chapbook contest in 2013. I liked this contest because it was specifically for anyone who did NOT identify as a heteronormative white male. Although I was a finalist for this contest, one of the judges, Margaret Bashaar, asked to publish the chapbook through her small press, Hyacinth Girl Press. This could not have happened if I didn’t enter contests and submit my work.
  4. The Cover Art. This amazing sketch was done by a local artist, Jolmar Millar (4th photo). I met Jolmar at a tribute event for Maya Angelou I emceed in November 2014. When Margaret gently nudged me about cover art, it took a while before I thought of Jolmar. And then when she came to mind, I didn’t have her email address. I emailed a mutual contact for Jolmar’s email address and the email went to spam. Then about a month later we were connected.
  5. The Publication Process. This process is no joke, and being a newbie, I didn’t know what to expect. There comes a point where you have to let go. Having a wonderful publisher and layout person helps. I still don’t think I caught everything, so don’t be too hard on me if you find something.

Here’s an excerpt from a poem that started out as an image I couldn’t get out of my head while driving to a poetry-on-demand event at Cloer Family Vineyard in April 2012. The first draft was written at Cave Canem in June 2012.

What makes sense disappears
under straw hats,
this bizarre America,
where they pay
to return to rural
roots my people fled—
that second Exodus
to auto plants, steel mills,
city-hard streets—
so I wouldn’t
have to stand in sweat
tasting the dry,
salted past
on my tongue.– Stuff White People Like #132: Picking Their Own Fruit, from My Mother’s Child – See more at: http://hyacinthgirlpress.com/yearfive/mymotherschild.html#sthash.q08uIMgj.dpuf


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April 2015 Poem-a-Day Challenge, The End


2009 CalendarAs much as I love National Poetry Month, I always get to the point where I am DONE with writing poems. Unfortunately, I run of energy before April runs out of days. This year, I was mentally finished writing on April 25th, so I’m just happy to get all these poems done.

 

Day 27 – Looking Back

Red rocks reek of a time before
this river raged, when ocean waves kept the peace
with their rhythmic sway and the fish sang
lullabies through gaping mouths.

 

Day 28 – Matter/Anti-Matter

Apply heat to cause a burn,
a balling up into a rock-sized fist
of dust to be broken apart at will.

 

Day 29 – What Nobody Knows

She hadn’t moved away nor fallen
madly deeply for the Italian guy
from the housewarming party.

 

Day 30 – Bury the <Blank>

Seven years to get here, four more
to get the hang of the place
and bask in its bright orange glow.


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April 2015 Poem-a-Day Challenge, Week 4


ПечатьAs we say in the South, It’s getting down to the short rows! I’m at the point in the poem-a-day challenge where I don’t remember the poem I wrote yesterday because I’m so focused on finishing today’s poem and resting up before tomorrow’s prompt is posted. When my friends comment on poems I’ve written earlier in the month, I sometimes don’t remember writing it. The challenge keeps me in the moment of writing without the attachment that what I write has got to be good, finished, publishable, inspiring, <insert any other adjective here>. Which I guess, is part of the point.

Day 20 – My <Blank>

My eyes open before the early bird’s song
as if starting this job on the first day. After seven years,
I know the rhythm of this place like a child’s favorite lullaby,
can fall back in line like a soldier on his fourth tour.

 

Day 21 – What You Are (Not)

Born of the Atlantic
but I am nothing
like my mother.

 

Day 22 – Nature

The days grow long, my patience grows thin
The work you do to emerge from the ground is hidden

 

Day 23 – Historic

We call you by your first name as if we grew up
side by side on those red cushioned pews
in your daddy’s church

 

Day 24 – Moment

In the end, she did nothing
even though this was the time
she’d promised to do different.

 

Day 25 –  Across the Sea

A woman waiting
Her sister dying
Bleeding from eyes
Ears and nose.

 

Day 26 – Shakespearean Words

Courtship:
a frugal compromise
to end Lonely’s reign


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April 2015 Poem-a-Day Challenge, Week 3


inkwell pen paper old backgroundBeyond the halfway point of the challenge, I can’t remember the details of any particular poem; my only focus is finishing before midnight and looking ahead to the next prompt. Having time away from the double life this week has given my brain time to play with the prompts, even though I write most of the poems in the hour or so before going to bed. On the road, I used a combination of the Notes app on my iPhone, the Notes app on my laptop, and Google Docs to compose and fine tune poems. Seeing a poem on a small screen versus big screen and on the yellow background of Notes versus the white background of Docs makes a difference in the finishing process, especially when deciding on line and stanza breaks. Inevitably, I still find a missing comma, extra word, or spelling error when I copy and paste to the other places where I’ve been posting this year.

Day 13 – Confession

I sit four rows back, among the literati
where I can see and be seen, and later claim
I was there where *insert poet who thinks
she’s better than me* received the award.

Day 14 – Honest/Dishonest

I’m okay
I’m just going to have one more
Tomorrow will be better
It doesn’t matter

Day 15 – Pick an adjective

At noon, shadow slips underfoot
to follow without being seen.
Body thinks she’s walking alone—
a woman in need of no other.

Day 16 – Science

You were the pocket-protector cutie
with the pocked skin and taped-up glasses
checking hall passes during 5th period.

Day 17 – Swing
The two miles you walked on the trail
from where you started with your friend is the warmup
to this moment, a slow rocking back and forth,
sometimes in sync, sometimes out

Day 18 – Pick two vowels

Dark is
black air spinning
its myriad stars
in all affairs.

Day 19 – Authority

blue shirt and a badge
pushing bags
through the x-ray

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