A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


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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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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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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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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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14 Words, One Love


For the last week, I’ve been supporting my fellow double-life poet, Jodi Barnes, in her effort to collect 1,400 14-word love poems to distribute on Valentine’s Day. The first day, I wrote one poem, but since then I’ve written no less than three poems each day and as many as six! The 14-word challenge has been a great way to build up to a daily writing practice, strengthen the mind-paper connection, and focus on crafting concrete imagery.

I’ve written a series of poems, “to understand love / you must understand <blank>,” 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 are some examples:

to understand lovegenes

you must understand genes

their endless patterns

uniting, splicing, reforming, reborn

to understand lovedogs

you must understand dogs

waiting by doors, tails wagging

in anticipation

to understand love

you must understand rings

encircling delicate fingerssaturn_false

and all of Saturn

to understand love

you must understand teatea

slow sips of honey

warming your hands

I haven’t counted them yet, but I have three typed pages of the “to understand love” series, and about six 14-word free form poems. Every evening I come home eager to prepare the next day’s patch of poems, and every morning I wake up excited to post what I’ve written and watch the number count creep closer to the goal. Most importantly, I am having fun while supporting a worthwhile effort to spread love throughout the Triangle.

Try your hand at a 14-word love poem by leaving a comment.


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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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