A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


Sharing an interview I did with Ian Bodkin of Written in Small Spaces where I talk about  my how I became a poet, my writing process, balancing the wissliterary and non-literary career, and functioning somewhere between Wally (Wallace Stevens) and Willy (William Carlos Williams).

http://writteninsmallspaces.com/2014/01/18/episode-16-the-hunk-of-stone-with-pamela-l-taylorand-erica-wright-disguises-her-weaponry/


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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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March: In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lion


march-lion1March was a busy time for me—this post is only the 4th one I had time to write this month. I did manage to blog about the most important things that happened in March: AWP and the six women writers that inspire my work.

But this month brought a lot of transition at work—moving into a new role where I lead projects and manage people. I am also spearheading a process to compile ideas for the next 15 projects we will complete over the next two years. I am no longer behind the scenes, but rather, have become a point-person to answer questions from my colleagues and do special projects for my boss, including being the staff support to the big bosses. We are also interviewing for four positions, so I spent a lot of time combing through 50+ applications packets to narrow down the few who might be my future colleagues.

I didn’t worry about writing in March because I knew I would need all that inspiration for April’s Poem-a-Day Challenge. But I did attend three open mics, including a new event at Matthew’s Chocolates in Hillsborough. With little emphasis on writing, I decided to focus on reading a novel—The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht was chockfull of imagery and rich language, and had an intricate story line. I was so enamored by this book, I posted quotes as my Facebook status and convinced five other people to read it. I finished up Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Selected Poems by Sharon Olds, and Final Poems by Rabindranath Tagore and checked out several from my favorite library:

Of course with all that reading material for inspiration, two poems found their way out, “Childless” and “Bicycle.” Today and tomorrow, I’ll be working to edit these and other poems for March 31st submission deadlines and preparing my manuscript, Black.Woman.Professional, for submission to the Cave Canem  first-book award contest.

And I got word that my science poem, “Transit of Venus,” won second place in the Carolina Woman Writing Contest! Suddenly, I’m feeling a little Helen Reddy: I am woman. Hear me roar!


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My Half Dozen


Sou’wester recently accepted one of my November Poem-A-Day poems for it’s upcoming issue featuring women writers. As part of the issue, they have asked all contributors to list “Her Half Dozen”, the six women writers who have influenced their writing the most.ednavincentmillay_purple_1 After sleeping on it (and being awakened at 3 AM with the list fully formed), I decided to share the women writers who have influenced my writing the most:

Edna St. Vincent Millay (February 22, 1892 – October 19, 1950): The Selected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay was the first book of poetry I ever owned. It was a gift from someone I was trying to get to know and who was trying to get to know me. Her poem, “The Interim,” about the death of her husband, inspired me to write my first poem as a way of voicing the grief and loss I had suffered in 2003.

agathachristieAgatha Christie (September 15, 1890 – January 12 1976): The British crime writer is the only prose writer on my list. Agatha Christie inspired my love for reading. Growing up, I devoured every Agatha Christie book I could get my hands on, and started reading other British female mystery writers like P.D. James and Martha Grimes after learning their writing was influenced by Christie. Her stories piqued my interest human behavior because I wanted to understand what drives a perfectly normal person to kill another.

Rita Dove (August 28, 1952): Her laurels speak for themselves: appointed the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993–1995; became the secondritadove African American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1987; served as Poet Laureate of Virginia from 2004–2006; and edited The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, published in 2011. And she’s an avid ballroom dancer! Needless to say, Dove is my poetry role model.

kay-ryan2Kay Ryan (September 21, 1945): Ryan was appointed the 16th U.S. Poet Laureate in 2008. After reading her collection, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, I stopped feeling bad about myself for writing short poems. I love how Ryan can bend a sentence to her poetic will.

Nikky Finney (born Lynn Carol Finney on August 26, 1957): Nikky Finney was one of those poets I had heard about but had never read—even after she won thfinney3e 2011 National Book Award for her collection, Head Off & Split. Last June at the Cave Canem retreat, I had the fortune of not only meeting her, hearing her read, and seeing her interview Nikki Giovanni, one of the women who influenced her as a writer, but also learning from her how to weave the personal, local, and historical together in a poem.

Leslie Ullman (April 28, 1947): Leslie was my creative thesis advisor for my last semester at VCFA. After working with men for the first three semesters, I felt I needed a woman’s touch to help me give birth to the collection of poems for my thesis (Fun Fact: Leslie leslie_ullmanwrote a poem titled, “Midwife”). When I was completely stressed out trying to finish the thesis and juggle work responsibilities, Leslie advised me to stop doing what was stressing me out—even if that meant I had to stop writing, which it did. Her calm and grace were exactly what I needed in a moment of panic.

Who are the women writers who influence and inspire your work?


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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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After “One Love”


Last week on Valentine’s Day, over 2,200 14-word poems were handed out throughout the Triangle as part of the 14 Words, One Love event. I wrote over 40 poems in less than two weeks—and was ecstatic to learn we had surpassed our original goal by 800 poems!

And then I hit the wall. Runners often talk about the runner’s high—that rush of adrenalin that keeps them going during a marathon. The 14-word event definitely fed all the good poetic energy and reading and commenting on other people’s poems increased that positive vibe. That energy stayed with me throughout Valentine’s Day when I handed out poems to my office colleagues, distributed poems at an off-site meeting, and made special home deliveries to a few of my friends. But afterwards, I felt rung out like a worn rag. I couldn’t think about picking up a pen, let alone convincing my mind to conjure up an image to bring to life on the page.

That’s probably why it has taken two weeks to get back in the blog saddle. I had to re-group, feed the space that opened up after the “one love” was gone. So I turned to poetry books: first, to Rabindranath Tagore’s Final Poems, and then, to Sharon OldsSelected Poems. I spent time memorizing one of my favorite poems by Olds, “Topography,” which is now the fourth poem I know by heart (more on that later). Monday’s visual prompt for Living Poetry ended the drought.71752_518868581492385_1203357513_n

Danish “Heart Book”

Closed, it is a question
mark missing the finality
of the dot that holds
its fragile curve in place,
half of what it could be.

Opened, a great yearning
lives in the curlicue of each letter,
yellowed pages burdened by the black
ink of a centuries-old plea: for misery
to end and turn into good.

After that, two other poems I had jotted down in my journal and on my iPhone finally started to take shape on the page. Now I feel like I’m back on track.


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How Poetry Events Happen


Tonight, I will read my poem “Transit of Venus” at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences as part of the weekly Science Café Talks. The actual planning for this event started in November, but the forces that brought everything together started way before that.

responsibilitytoaweLet’s go back in time to July 2011, the beginning of my last semester in my MFA program, when I was developing a lecture on poets with non-literary careers. I knew about Wallace Stevens and William Carolos Williams and was told about Wendell Berry. My list of poets was heavy on the testosterone side, so I decided to Google search for female poets I could include. I came across Rebecca Elson—an astronomer and a poet—found her collection, A Responsibility to Awe, at UNC Davis Library, and was reading it on the DRX (Durham-to-Raleigh Express) bus one morning. Back then, I preferred to sit in the back of the bus on the driver’s side. Next to me sat another regular DRX rider, a science professor at NC State, who leaned over and asked me about the book I was reading. Once I told him that the author was a astronomer, the conversation took off from there (he was a physicist).

Fast forward to June 2012—the transit of Venus viewing event at the Natural Resource Center, the newest addition to thetransitofvenus Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh. I watched this historic phenomenon of the planet Venus crossing between the Earth and the Sun with tons of other people donning protective glasses on the rooftop of the adjacent parking lot, knowing none of us would be alive see the next occurrence in 2117. Two weeks later—the last day of Cave Canem retreat—I wrote a poem about it.

Fast forward again to November 2012—the morning wait for the DRX bus. I see my physics professor friend, who tells me that the Museum of Natural Sciences staff sent out a call for topics for their weekly Science Café talks and that he suggested a reading on poetry and science—Would I be interested? Well, of course! I’m only the co-organizer of one of the greatest poetry groups in the Triangle (I didn’t say that exactly, but it was close).  And the Living Poetry members did not disappoint. I sent out the call for science-related poems on the 13th, and two weeks later, I had over 50 poems in my inbox. I selected 10 for the museum staff to review and they chose five for the reading.

Bringing it home to today—January 24, 2013 at 7PM, Poetry Scope, an evening of science through the lens of poetry.


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Inaugural Poem: “One Today” by Richard Blanco


"Of, By, For" ~ Photo by Jean Christian

“Of, By, For” ~ Photo by Jean Christian Rostagni

Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem, “One Today,” chronicled a day in the life of average Americans, which for many of us center around our jobs. The poem heralds those who “clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives,” as well as people like Blanco’s Cuban immigrant father who hands were worn from “cutting sugarcane so my brother and I could have books and shoes.” The poem intermingled Blanco’s personal experience with the typical American experience, subtly making the point that the demographics of our nation have become more diverse. The last stanza of “One Today” carried the theme of Obama’s inaugural address that “Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.”

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.

Bravo, Poet Blanco!

The full text of the poem can be found here.


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Why I Prefer the Double Life


Another double-life poet sent me an article about the day jobs of writers, using T.S Eliot as an example. Eliot worked as a bank clerk for Lloyds Bank in London, and as the blogger puts it, “he was really good at his day job.” The blogger goes on to admit that as a writer with a day job himself, he’d rather imagine that every writer is making a killing off of writing instead of needing to have a day job.

This, of course, got me to thinking: “Would I rather make a living from poetry or live the double life?” I can’t answer this question without considering the fact that the primary way I could make a living from poetry was if I taught at a university. I could have gotten an academic job after I got my PhD in 1998, but decided that life was not for me. After I got my MFA, I get the same question. I have the same answer: “Hell no!”

So then, what makes me want to continue to have a non-literary career, one that by its very nature of using my analytical mind, takes my mental energy away from something I love to do? Because I still get something good from my day job, things I can’t get with poetry alone:

1) Affords my current lifestyle: Yes, the money, health insurance, and retirement benefits are very important to me. I’m very thankful to have a job where I can afford the poetic life—writing retreats, workshops and conferences, submission fees for poetry contests, and all those books!

certificate_achievement_award2) Satisfies my need for praise: There’s no pat on the back or “atta girl” every time I finish a poem. And getting rejection letters after 9 out of 10 publication submissions is the norm. As a poet, the most praise I could hope for is imagining that someone will read my poem and smile or pause with hand over heart or whatever one does when one reads a good poem. In the meantime, my non-literary career comes with professional recognition awards, annual performance evaluations, staff meetings where we applaud each other for doing a good job on presenting a report, and more often, verbal and written expressions of gratitude for completing a task while the project is still going on!

3) Allows me to interact with colleagues: Writing poetry (or anything else for that matter) is such a solitary venture. Sure you can gather a group of friendly poets once a month for a critique group or book club discussion, but the work of poetry happens when you’re alone with the page. The words show up, but sometimes, they are not very good. And that muse who is supposed to contribute the inspiration can be a very flaky co-worker—showing up late or not at all, making you do all the work and stepping in at the last minute to take all the credit. My real colleagues are not like that at all. We work on teams and pitch in to get a project done. I like working in an office where we can bounce ideas off each other, find a sympathetic ear to vent our frustrations, and crack ourselves up around the break room table.

Not to mention the endless poem ideas that emerge from the whole experience!

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