A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.

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Poems for King Pluto

Pluto's Frozen Heart. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Pluto’s Frozen Heart. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to write a poem in honor of the King of the Dwarf Planets—Pluto—as part of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences weekly Science Café talks. NASA Ambassador Shawn Bayle provided background about Pluto and the New Horizons mission that has been transmitting stunning images of the ninth rock from the Sun.

This event was the third time the museum had invited Living Poetry members to craft poems inspired by a science talk:

Pluto's Poetesses. Credits: Erin Osborn & Alice Osborn

Pluto’s Poetesses. Credits: Erin Osborn & Alice Osborn

I don’t think it was accidental that old King Pluto had four ladies scribing in his honor. He’s got that effect on women—ask Proserpina (aka Greek’s Persephone) and his largest moon, Charon, which is gravitationally locked in sync with Pluto’s orbit so that the two celestial bodies always face each other. Some other facts about Pluto and the New Horizons mission gathered from the talk and mentioned in the poems:

  • discovered by mistake by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 in search for Planet X presumed to exist beyond Neptune
  • first object identified in the Kuiper Belt
  • New Horizons took 9 years to get to Pluto; the gravitational boost from Jupiter reduced the time to get to Pluto by 5 years.
  • scientists discovered two of Pluto’s moons—Styx & Kerberos—after the New Horizons spacecraft launched in 2006

I enjoy writing planetary poems already but especially at these events because I can hear similar threads in each poem while noting each poet’s unique voice. I’ll share an expert from my poem here, “New Horizons Meets Planet X,” but be sure to watch the entire talk on YouTube (poets start about an hour into the video).

Feed me your data in bits
and bytes as we shimmy
in front of Neptune to soak

up the sun. I don’t see any rings
around you, so maybe we can
make a new moon or two.





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Planetary Influences

Transit of Venus June 5, 2012, NASA/Goddard/SDO

Transit of Venus June 5, 2012, NASA/Goddard/SDO

One of the first poems in my chapbook that was published was “Transit of Venus,” which was inspired by the 2012 event that will not happen again until 2117. What I saw with my own eyes (black drop / crossing / the sun / dipping down / curving around / up again) is now visible in some amazing pictures from a joint project between NASA and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. I consider the Venus poem the first in a series of poems about the planets I intend to write. Last year, Construction Magazine publishedTo Earth, From Mars,” the second planetary poem, and I wrote “Pluto, My Brother” at my last Cave Canem retreat (back in my day there were 9 planets). My poetry-date partner, Kelly, says the Pluto poem is ready to send out, so I’ll be spending some time this weekend in the Poet’s Gym (aka UNC Davis Library) figuring out where it should land.

Photograph via Flickr by bluedharma

Photograph via Flickr by bluedharma

I love writing about the planets and other objects in the universe. They are like our distant relatives: made of the same stuff but existing in a different era. Poetry offers a unique way to consider the beauty and individuality of each body as well as explore the myths and folklore we project onto each globe. I’ve also written  poems about the spacecraft we’ve sent to explore other objects in our universe. My biggest challenge is *getting the science right* inside the poem. Often, the scientific terms are not accessible or pleasant-sounding to the average reader. It’s my job to make the connection between science and metaphor so that we can understand each planet on its own merit as well as how it relates to our own lives.

Tonight, I will get another opportunity to write about Pluto at the Science Cafe at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. The talk will feature some of the stunning images taken of our dear *dwarf* planet from the New Horizons probe. I can’t wait to see what these new images inspire.

NASA Instagram photo of Pluto from New Horizons

NASA Instagram photo of Pluto from New Horizons


May Days

hs-2011-11-a-xlarge_300I had to rest up after writing all those April poems for the Poem-a-Day Challenge. It took 3-4 days before I could read the poems, and I have to say, I’m quite happy with the result. During the challenge, I can’t spend time with each poem because I’ve got to crank out another one. So having the time to step away and come back to what I’ve written helps me see each poem in a new light. There are quite a few that I want to work with so they can be sent out for publication this summer and fall.

With the true arrival of Spring, I’m getting out more. The NC Museum of Natural Sciences invited the poets back on the last day of April to write poems in response to a science talk about the Hubble Telescope. I also debuted some of the April poems at a Sunday brunch with the girls at the home of my tango friend and photographer, Katia Singletary and  at the Open Mic at Johnny’s Gone Fishing in Carrboro. I resumed my Tuesday poetry dates with the Two Writers Walk Into a Bar reading with Duncan Murrell and Liana Roux. The Murrell piece follows pyrotechnicians (yes, the people who set fireworks), so I can’t wait to go to Davis Library and read it in the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Also, ahead this month—the release of my new chapbook, My Mother’s Child from Hyacinth Girl Press. It’s been an amazing experience working with this small press and I can’t wait to share the details of this journey.


14 Words For Love – 2015

This is the third year of what has become a phenomenon—an outpouring of hope, kindness, empathy, or inclusion in 14-word packages. 14 Words For Love is the brainchild of my writ14-wordser-friend Jodi Barnes, who wanted to garner a few hundred poems to hand out to homeless, legislators, taxi drivers and teachers—anyone on Valentine’s Day. Of course, the poets and writers of the world exceeded that call in 2013 and 2014 and continue to show their love 14 words at a time this year.

What has become my 14-word tradition are the poems that begin “to understand love / you must understand <blank>,” a series of poems I started in 2013 where I fill in the blank with an object or concept and then find seven other words that both describe the object and the idea of love. Here’s one from last year:


to understand love / you must understand happiness / pure joy like a child’s / first snow (Image from 14wordsforlove.com)

These poems challenge me to think in metaphor, be concise, and practice concrete imagery. They’re also a great way to help out a friend, connect with others, and use poetry to heal.

I’ll share a few more from this year in the hope you’ll do the same:

I asked the cartographer
to draw a map to where
your heart is buried
This road has sharp bends
and lonely straightaways
but dead ends at your door
I've walked far
and have yet
to find you
but know
you are close
Where can I go to find
all the love I seek?
The mirror, perhaps?
to understand love
you must understand matadors
luring you in
before the final strike

You don’t have to be a poet, writer, or have a creative bone in your body, but you do have only 13 more days to join in!


Year in Review 2014


If I had to pick a word to describe this year it would be Cycle. In 2013, I spent a lot of time focused on writing and sending out publications, which culminated in 7 published poems. This year, I fell into a poetry funk after June and didn’t write much. What surprised me was that I wasn’t too worried about not writing. After finishing my MFA, I was so concerned about not writing at the same level I did when I was in graduate school. But I quickly realized that creating 4-5 poems a month was a ridiculous writing schedule and settled into a more reasonable writing rhythm. The thing with rhythm is that it can change. And it should change to make things interesting.

Even though my writing slowed down, I still managed to keep poetry a part of my life. Toward the end of the year, I made a conscious effort to go back to the basics—poetry events, workshops, and open mics—because I always get inspired when I am around other poets and hear their work.  This year’s highlights reveal much more poetry in my life than I thought had been there.

January: Returned to Puerto Rico for the 4th VCFA residency as the Graduate Coordinator. Living Poetry‘s 5th anniversary party. Interview with Ian Bodkin’s Written in Small Spaces.

February: Wrote more poems for 14 words of love. Guest Poetry Editor for When Women Waken’s Power Issue. Moderated the panel, “Uncovering Hip-Hop Poetry” at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) in Seattle.

March: First time I attended the Poet’s Café @ Gather in Cary.

April: Wrote 30 poems for the April 2014 Poem-a-Day Challenge. Coordinated three poetry events at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences during Earth Month, including a Poetry on Demand booth and poetry based on a Science Talk.

May: Organized the third Poetry Scope event featuring poetry about science. Wrote a commissioned poem for a birthday, Camellia. Three poems featured in Luna Luna Magazine.

June: Attended 19th Cave Canem retreat, my third and last time.  Wrote at the Poetry on Demand booth at the Chatham Farmer’s Market.

July: First poetry date with Kelly Lenox. Conducted a 10-minute poetry workshop to kick off the Summertime Reading Series at the Carrboro ArtsCenter. First time I attended the LIT 101 open mic at Francesca’s Dessert Café in Durham. Published in When Women Waken’s Knowing Issue.

August: Attended the informal tribute to Maya Angelou at the Carrboro ArtsCenter. Signed the contract with Hyacinth Girl Press to publish my chapbook, My Mother’s Child.

September: First poet to read at this year’s Spark After Dark during poetrySpark! Led a poetry workshop, Revision Toolbox. First time I attended Two Writers Walk Into a Bar, a reading series featuring poetry and prose writers.

October: Attended the NC Literary Hall of Fame induction and the West End Poetry Festival. Saw the Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco at NC State. Guest Poetry Editor for When Women Waken’s Delight Issue.

November: Emceed the tribute to Maya Angelou sponsored by the Friends of the Orange County Public Library, Friends of the Carrboro Public Library, the Friends of Chapel Hill Public Library, and the Friends of The ArtsCenter of Carrboro. Attended the North Carolina Writer’s Network conference in Charlotte.

December: Wrote a poem for friend’s graduation.


NC Literary Hall of Fame

photo 5

On Sunday, one of my favorite poets was inducted into the NC Literary Hall of Fame–Jaki Shelton Green. I first met Jaki when she was Poet Local for Living Poetry. Back then, she was the first ever Piedmont Laureate, so it was a coup to get her to drive from Mebane to chat with relatively unknown poets on a Sunday afternoon. From that point on, Jaki and I forged a friendship, which I value immensely. Although she has faced the adversity of losing a child to a tragic accident and suffered from an illness that affected the use of her hands, Jaki remains committed to sharing her worldview through poetry. Her poems are a mix of Negro spiritual, ancestral incantation, conscientious objector, and mother wit. Here’s an excerpt of her poem, “i know the grandmother one had hands” that appears in her 2005 collection of new and selected poems, Breath of the Song.

i know the grandmother one had hands
but they were always inside
the hair
twisting it into rainbows
i know the grandmother one had hands
but they were always inside
holding the knots
counting the twisted veins
holding onto herself
lest her hands disappear
into sky
i know the grandmother one had hands
but they were always inside the clouds
poking holes for the
rain to fall.

This year’s other inductees included Betty Adcock, Ronald Bayes, and Shelby Stephenson. Congratulations to NCLHOF Class of 2014!


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!


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