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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Summer Reading List 2015

IMG_6298August is flying by. My family came to visit in the beginning of the month, and since then, I’ve been busy with cookouts,  meteor showers, and birthday parties on top of the usual schedule of dancing, yoga, and poetry dates. I’m surprised that I even found time to read this summer. And my reading has been all over the place, thanks to recommendations from colleagues and friends.


  • Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng: Borrowed from my colleague, this was the first book I fell in love with this summer. I related to much of the story—the pressure of being the overachiever, the isolation of being a minority—and thoroughly enjoyed the language from beginning to end.
  • Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt: Another borrowed book. Took me back to the 80s with its depiction of AIDS, Reagan, high school, sibling relationships, and New York City.
  • The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani: Ever read a mystery novel that centers on conjoined twins and where most of the main characters are Black? Me neither. That’s one of the reasons I’m enjoying it so much.

Poetry Book Club

  • Citizen by Claudia Rankine: A lyric essay which sparked as much conversation about race as it did about the poems and craft, if not more.
  • Black Zodiac by Charles Wright: A dense mediation which our small group thought inaccessible at first; together we came to appreciate the book, especially the last poem, “Disjecta Membra.”
  • The Gift by Hafiz: Just starting this book for our September meeting.



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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.


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


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.


Happy Double Life Anniversary!


It’s been a year since Poet’s Double Life joined the blogosphere. A few quick stats (because that IS what I do): 95 posts over 3,000 views from over 20 countries! I’ve posted mostly about how I maintain the creative side while having a full-time career in the non-literary world. For me, it boils down to the three R’s:

1) Reading: Keeping the brain fed with other good writing is the primary way  I maintain my creative side. I’ve had several posts on the books that have found their way off the library shelves and into my hands.  I’m currently reading two books that came highly recommended: a young adult sci-fi novel, Ender’s Game, and a poetry collection by Carolyn Rodgers, How I Got Ovah. Reading helps me maintain inspiration, even when I have trouble writing.

2) (W)riting/Revision:  These two R’s go hand-in-hand. Having several writing spaces in the Triangle helps me find the necessary solitude to get my ideas on paper. Though I often carry my poet’s notebook, having an iPhone handy is another way I jot down ideas that come to me. Writing challenges and prompt, such as the November and April poem-a-day challenges push me to produce on a daily basis and have resulted in plenty of clay to shape into better poems. Critique groups also help improve my work by letting me understand how trusted readers hear my work.

3) Reach: I am true to myself as a poet when I am getting my poems out in the world. I attend at least one open mic in the Triangle each month to read poems and connect to other writers. This past year,I’ve taken the plunge into publication by submitting my work to various contests and literary journals and have been happy with the results (see Transit of Venus, Poetry in Plain Sight,  to name a few).

Thanks for taking time to follow my double life adventures. I appreciate your comments and support.

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When a Poet Doesn’t Write


I haven’t written a poem or even thought about writing a poem since May 3rd. I knew I needed to take a break after the poem-a-day challenge in April, but I didn’t plan on stopping this long. The curious thing is that I don’t feel guilty about it. I’m not beating myself over the head with the notion that I should be writing. There’s no pang in my stomach when I bring a purse too small to hold my poet’s notebook. My scientist-friends tell me that this period of non-writing is simply a time for storing up potential energy that will soon be converted into kinetic energy.

A similar pause in my poetry happened in February after writing over 40 poems for the “One Love” event. Like then, I have been biding my time by reading while waiting for the muse to make time for me in her busy schedule. This month, I’ve read:

1) The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Gatsby tells the story of the balance between wealth and excess and hope and self-deception and how we can go overboard on either side. I wanted to re-read the book before the movie came out, and at 180 pages, it only took 4 days.

2) The New Black by Evie Shockley – I saw Evie Shockley at AWP moderating a panel “Post Black? Culture, Craft, and Race in Verse,” which examined race in poetry. I had heard of Evie Shockley, but never read her work until now.

3) The Selected Essays of Denise Levertov – I picked up this book from UNC Davis by mistake. I thought it was her selected poems collection. But it had been a long time since I immersed myself in poetic craft book and the book has one of my favorite essays, “On the Function of the Line,” so I decided to hold onto it for a little bit longer. Plus I’ll use it to prepare for the upcoming podcast on Black Mountain Poets.

4) The Really Short Poems of A.R. Ammons – This book by a North Carolina poet is the June selection for the Living Poetry book club. I could probably finish it in a one-hour sitting, but lately, I’ve been filling those hours with naps instead. There’s always the bus!


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