A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


A Poet Organizes Her Books and (Almost) Cries Trying

It’s been quiet on the blog as of late because the career side of the double life has commanded my full attention since the end of August.

First, the big news—I’m relocating to the Boston area and returning to higher education administration. The role involves providing data about student learning and outcomes so that the leadership can make better decisions. This position is similar to one I had at UCLA, except the focus is on undergraduates (and very impressive students at that).

I’m excited about this position for several reasons:
1) I get to return to a college campus—my favorite working environment.
2) The work I do daily has a direct effect on the strategic direction of the institution and the students it serves.
3) I have the opportunity to work with intelligent people who believe in the mission of the institution wholeheartedly.
4) I report to a manager who has made me feel valued and supported as a person and as a professional already.

I report to work in early January, which leaves a small window of time to pack and move. Of course, I started with the books. As a first step, I separated the books into three piles: must carry with me; could go to storage for six months if need be; and needs a new owner.

Identifying the books that needed to be donated was relatively easy. The paperback books went the Prison Books Collective in Carrboro. They accept all kinds of books, even my ethnic and gender studies books from grad school and numerous books on Spanish grammar and vocabulary. I donated the hardcover books to the Durham Public Library, mostly fiction books I had read and enjoyed, but didn’t need to carry with me because they were so large.

For some books, the decision to keep versus donate was a close call. For example, I donated Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True (hardcover) but kept She’s Come Undone (paperback). I found duplicates as well—for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange and The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (hardcover & paperback). Clearly, I love both of these books enough to have bought a second copy at one point. I’ll give them to someone instead of dropping them off in the library donation bin.

FullSizeRender(1)The books I chose to carry with me were no-brainers. Some of these books lived in my bedroom or in my car and not on bookshelves. I left them out because I liked seeing them everyday. A few I had read recently—The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon by Willie Perdomo and The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani; others were classics—The Correct Thing To Do, To Say, To Wear by Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, and The Sweet Flypaper of Life by Roy DeCarava & Langston Hughes.

By default, I needed to pack the rest of the books. I decided to organize them by genre before putting them in boxes, so I could easily unpack the books whenever I got settled. This process in one word: agonizing. I had to touch every single book I owned and fight back the urge to sneak it into the crates for the must-carry books. Some of these books have been on the to-read list for a while, but for each one of those books there is another I remember reading on the DRX bus or for poetry book club. They carry memories of my life in Durham because I bought most of these books during my 9 years here.

For some books, I had the comfort of knowing I had another book by the same author in the crates—Jaki Shelton Green‘s Breath of the Song in the crate; Conjure Blues in the box. What’s worse is that poetry books, in particular, are slim and can slip into the sliver of remaining space in the crate. It’s been hard to keep myself in line with my first mind.

I was so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task and the reality of moving, I wrote this blog post instead of continuing to organize. At least no tears were shed during the process. ;-)


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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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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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April 2015 Poem-a-Day Challenge, Week 2


This year, I’m on vacation during the heart of the PAD challenge. I thought it would be difficult to keep up with writing, but I’m finding that my work routine (wake up at 6 am, shower, dress professionally, commute, interact with my colleagues, etc.) takes more energy than hiking 3-5 miles a day. Late mornings and long drives give the brain time to marinate on the prompt, even if nothing concrete is jotted down. Of course, having WiFi in the middle of nowhere helps.

Here are this week’s poems:

Day 7 – Love/Anti-Love

You were in love with love
even into your eighties, even after
dementia chiseled your wife
down to the unfamiliar.


Day 8 – Dare

swipe left for the ones
with photo after photo
of tattooed pecs
time spent working
the wrong muscle


Day 9 – Work

Except she’s not
no matter how hard
she tries to hide
the girlie parts


Day 10 – How <Blank>

Wait for the wind
to curve your edges


Day 11 – Seasonal

What matter the season
when the furnace of your body
heats my slumber, when you cool
to the touch of my cold soles?


Day 12 – Damage

A bruise is
break down of
cellular walls.



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!


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 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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