A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


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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.


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Happy Double Life Anniversary!


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


Potential-and-kinetic-energy

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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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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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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Black * Woman * Professional


Manuscript Section 1That’s the title of the poetry manuscript I submitted to a book contest one day before the January 31st deadline. On the one hand, assembling the manuscript was exactly like organizing the creative thesis for my MFA program—printing out every poem, creating piles of poems with a similar theme, ordering the poems in each themed pile, putting the themes in the order they should be read.  That part was easy.

The hard part was changing my mindset from a “hoop-to-jump-through-in-grad-school” to a “poetry-collection-someone-might-read-one-day.” Making that switch meant I had to treat the manuscript as if it were already a published book. These days, many poetry and prose books have sections break up the reading and the poems or chapters that follow. Some are as simple as Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars—One, Two, Three, Four. Others provide more information about the poems or chapters that follow. For example in Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling uses quotes from the Local Administration Manual to give a clue to what to expect in the next set of chapters. Having just finished that book on my Kindle Fire, I looked for something to help me tie the sections and the book together.

Then I remembered the book, Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women Struggle for Professional Identity. I read this book about 10 Our separate waysyears ago, and then again in 2011, in my critical thesis semester. Flipping through it, I realized the chapter titles could organize the themes of my collection, and then, chose quotes from the book that connected to the poems:

  • Fitting In (I feel like a guest in somebody’s house.”)
  • Work Isn’t Everything (The thing that’s on every single black women’s mind is the whole issue of relationships.”)
  • Their Father’s Daughters (My life is different from my mother’s and father’s; theirs was a different time.”)
  • The Racialized Self (I experience myself as being exotic and mysterious to most white people.”)

No matter what happens with the contest, I’m satisfied with how my first poetry collection turned out.


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The Poetry Stacks


One of my favorite writing spaces in the Triangle also houses an excellent collection of literary magazines—UNC’s Davis Library. The 1st floor periodicals section is a labyrinth of metal shelves surrounded by over-sized chairs in soft yellow, green, and plaid hues. The room is flooded with light from the floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides of the room. Every month or so I walk down an aisle and grab literary journals from their cold homes and carry as many as my arms can hold to a sunny spot by the front window.  (FYI – Such reading is best done with a dark chocolate mocha from Caribou Coffee).

Here is where I was introduced to the work of Adrienne Su, Victoria Chang, and Jan Beatty. Here is where I fell in love with Alberto Ríos’ “A Small Story about the Sky”, which inspired me to write a poem in response, “The Truth about Fire”

You’ve heard the story about the sky––/ how fire burned it black / and kept a little piece of blue. / If only the story were that simple: a fire growing into its power / and then the poor sky consumed/ by all those flames.

“After the First Shot” by Saeed Jones appeared in West Branch Issue 69

I am always surprised to see the work of poets I know.

And I make sure I bring quarters or dollar bills for the photocopier, so I can bring some of my favorites home.

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