A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


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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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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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Poetry Scope: Another Success!


dp-globeLast Thursday, Living Poetry organized another evening of science through the lens of poetry for the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. The first event occurred in January and I posted about how the idea was born on the DRX bus ride from Durham to Raleigh.

Given my lessons learned from the first event, I decided to organize the second time around a little differently:

  • Broadened the “Call for Poems”: The first time  was a LP members only event so this time I posted the call for science-related poems to NC Writer’s Network and the NC Poetry Society. Two of the poets selected learned about the event from these sources.
  • Let the poets explain the connection to science: Adding this requirement to the submission helped me select a range of science topics, which (as I learned from last time) is what the museum folks like. This time the poems covered  cancer, cicadas, matter/anti-matter, thermodynamics, and Nikola Tesla.
  • Relished in my organizer role: Last time, I organized the event and read a poem, which meant I couldn’t relax or take pictures. This time I made a conscious decision not to submit. My work for the evening ended once the recording started. I was able to eat, drink wine, ask questions, and enjoy the poetry. Definitely doing that again.

The result of these changes was another successful event! Here is the video of the livestream and photos of the poets:

  • Anna Weaver
  • Claudette Cohen
  • Angie Kirby
  • Cherryl Cooley
  • Lisa Zerkle

 


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Transit of Venus


Back in January I read my poem, “Transit of Venus,” as part of Poetry Scope, an event hosted by the NC Museum of Natural Sciences that featured  science-related poems. I submitted this poem to the Carolina Woman Magazine‘s Mighty Pens writing contest and won second place! The poem is featured in the magazine’s June issue:

photo-3

And here’s the second place prize, courtesy of Margo Froehlich of Brooke & Birdie Interior Design:

photo-4


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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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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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In Service to Poetry


living poetry leaf_2I’ve been a member of the Living Poetry Meetup group since December 22, 2008—7 days after the group was started—and a co-organizer for almost 3 years. During that time, I’ve organized discussions with local poets, facilitated the poetry book club and critique group, recorded several podcasts, sent out poetry prompts every Monday morning, and volunteered for poetrySpark. At times, my Living Poetry responsibilities have been hard work and have taken time away from my own writing, but those times were minimal, and even secondary, to the pleasure of meeting new poets, hearing old, new, and new-to-me poems, and discussing our craft.

But I never thought of it as a service to others—until yesterday. At Living Poetry’s 4th Anniversary Party, double-life poet, Anna Weaver (who took the bronze in our Best of Living Poetry 2012 contest) thanked the Living Poetry organizers for all that we do for poetry in the Triangle. Someone else chimed in and called Living Poetry, “A one-stop shop for poetry in the Triangle” (which should become our new tagline). I must admit, it was a little overwhelming to be thanked for promoting, developing, and supporting poetry—something that I absolutely love to do. I guess if you’re doing something you love, it doesn’t seem like a burden.

And while I’m on the subject of thanking people who act in service to poetry, I’d like to give special thanks to my co-organizers, Bartholomew Barker, Tara Lynne Groth, and Angelika Teuber, who make  it fun and cool to be a poet!


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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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One More Open Mic


Living Poetry is jumping into the Triangle area open mic scene with an Open Mic Workshop at Straw Valley Café. You might remember this is one of my favorite places to write—and now, it will be one of my favorite places to read.

The idea came out of poetrySpark’s Best of the Open Mic contest. Most of the poets had a good stage presence and delivered their poems in the allotted time, but there was one contestant who must have read the longest poem she had ever written. She went well beyond 5 minutes—more than doubled it in fact—and flipped the page not once, but twice during her stage time. This poet went so long, I had time to go to the bathroom and come back to my seat before she even finished. Needless to say, she didn’t win the contest.

If you’re a “page poet,” getting up to read in front of an audience may feel like torture. I know many good poets who rarely give public readings. In fact, the Featured Reader event was the first time three of the six poets selected by the judges had read their poems in front of an audience.  If you are not an experienced reader, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Pick a poem with audience appeal: That poem about your root canal may not be as interesting to others as it is to you (unless it is hilarious). Believe it or not, an open mic is a form of entertainment. People attend because they enjoy hearing poetry. Sometimes a poem that reads well on the page doesn’t translate well to the ear. That doesn’t mean you have to read fluff or avoid tear-jerker poems. Just be aware of which poems resonate with others.
  2. Know your poem: Read your poem before you step up to the microphone. Read it again. And then when you’re done—read it one more time. This step is particularly important if you are debuting a poem to see how people respond. You don’t have to memorize it (though the audience will be thoroughly impressed if you do), but the poem should be familiar enough so you can read it without stumbling over the words.
  3. Time your reading: Most open mic events have a time limit for each poet to read. Five minutes is enough time to read 2-3 poems (up to 25 lines each) and give the audience a little backstory for each poem. Having a good sense of how long your reading will take should help you feel more relaxed when you are on stage.
  4. Perform your poem (a little): Try to match your delivery to the poem. Be animated in your voice and use hand gestures if the poem is funny or lively. Be subdued if the poem deals with a difficult situation. Always, it is important for you to speak clearly and enunciate each word. The ear is not as forgiving as the eye and needs a little more time to process. Also, pay attention to your own punctuation—use commas, periods, and stanza breaks to pause, make eye contact, and of course, breathe.

Hopefully, you will overcome your fears of reading in public and join us for this event. If you don’t make it tonight, there are other open mic events on the horizon.

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