A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


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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.

June

  • 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

July

August

  • 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

September

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

charleston

And today, I give a workshop on revision, so I’ll have more to say about that soon!


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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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What I Like About Winter 2014


photo-18

I’m finally back and settled into the family double life after spending 12 days in Puerto Rico. The first two days were pure relaxation at a resort hotel, but the remaining 10 days were filled with preparation and activities or the fourth VCFA Winter Residency. I’ve been to the island thrice for this residency, as one of the pioneering students in 2011, as a graduate assistant in 2013, and this time as the residency’s coordinator.

I tell you: being a coordinator is a big responsibility even if everything goes as well as it did for me this year. I had to think 1-2 days ahead to figure out what students needed to know this morning, that afternoon, later in the evening, and before they left. Every time we were all in a room or at a table together was my opportunity to make announcements or remind everyone of what was coming next and how they needed to prepare. It was a strange thing being on the delivery end of all those announcements. I am in awe of those at VCFA who must do this all the time and try to herd 10 times as many people.

Of course we had our bumps in the road—no graduate assistant, someone got lost on their way to a workshop, the whole group taking a non-existent shortcut to El Morro, a rained out sunset on the roof, someone who had trouble sleeping, and someone else getting locked in their villa, the tire pressure indicator mysteriously lit up on the way to the airport, the computer tablet that almost got left behind—but the group and I made it through. I found the lost student. We made it to El Morro after a beautiful walk on El Paseo. The sleepless student got Ambien from another student. Someone made the half-mile sprint down the hill to unlock the door. The tire pressure indicator went off as mysteriously came one. I mailed the tablet to the student who left it behind.

I love the intimacy of this residency because I get the opportunity discover a side of the students I don’t have the time or space to learn in at the regular residency. Within our midst we had a prison guard, a high school chess player, an only child living in Sweden, the owner of too many coffee cups, a retired psychotherapist, a karate student, a dancer, a camp counselor, someone allergic to b.s., a school bus driver, a poet who had never heard of a prompt until age 47, a recipient of a liver transplant, and the father of a ‘Brady Bunch’ six.

My third time in Puerto Rico was definite the charm, mostly because of the wonderful group of students, faculty and alumni who brought their open minds, adventurous spirits, writing talents, and complete selves on the trip.

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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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Poet Beyond Work


securedownloadUnlike my favorite superhero, Spider-Man, I don’t hide my poet identity in the workplace. My colleagues have witnessed my transformation from just writing to writing poems to being enrolled in an MFA program for poetry to being a published poet. I have written several poems based on my experiences as a Black female professional and have started getting a few of the work-related poems published. So I’m ok with being a poet in the office.

Lately though, the word has gotten out beyond the safety of the cubicle walls. My LinkedIn profile and office website list the MFA in Writing degree next to the PhD. And now that I’ve transitioned to being a team lead, people outside of the office are interested in discovering my credentials. I can tell that people whom I interview have read my bio when they ask, “How did you go from being a statistician to poetry?

I’m guilty of spreading the word too. At the beginning of the project I mentioned to the agency that I was going out of town. Curious they asked where I was vacationing and in the interest of full disclosure I told them I told them I was going to a poetry retreat. Since then they have asked how it went and if there were poems they could read. I sent them a few links to what I have online, but it felt weird for people that I only know through my job to know about my poetry. I don’t hide it but I’m not used to being a poet and everybody knowing it. I think I need to get used to it.


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The Power of a One-Day Writing Retreat


You get in your car with the mini-tote bag from the Strand stuffed with your wallet, cosmetic everything bag, your poet’s notebook, and lunchcedargrove—sesame salad, a Granny Smith apple, boiled eggs, and those addictive dark chocolate covered açai berry & pomegranate seed snack packs. You drive 25.7 miles from the heart of your urban life, passing a pasture of feeding cows, fields with odd-shaped and dilapidated houses, and a community store selling produce most likely picked down the road. Aside from the construction on Highway 86 that causes a patient backup of cars needing to continue down the only open lane, there isn’t much excitement in Cedar Grove—a perfect place for a one-day writing retreat.

Eleven writers wind their way down a gravel road on an old tobacco farm to get to the wooden cottage at the far edge of the property. For some, this time—9:30 AM to 4:00 PM on a Saturday—is the only time they have to dedicate to writing. You get three prompts to help you go where the writing takes you. And the writing takes you to the magical and the ordinary: grandfathers in spirit and vulture form, stuffed armadillos, the history that a hammock sees, a collection of boxes under a bed (not to be confused with clutter), your high school journal, your father’s journal, fancy dresses next to men in tuxes, inside the mind of teenager, and Botox.

You leave with a sense of accomplishment and community, and a strong desire to keep the writing going.


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Cave Canem 2013


Cave Canem Logo

First of all it’s pronounced the Latin way, Ca-VEY CA-nem, which means “Beware of the dog.” The picture of the black dog with a broken chain is a warning that Black poets unleashed will attack the world.

In seven days you write six poems and workshop them with your group of CC fellows. Faculty members rotate in the space daily, so you are exposed to a different way of reading and discussing poems. There is a day-long trip to the City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, faculty readings, fellows reading, and a graduation party.

That’s what Cave Canem does; this is what Cave Canem is–a haven for black poetry. And yes, that’s sort of what the tagline says, but there is no other way to describe it. Every day CC fellows are challenged to “write the hard poem,” that poem you’re afraid to write, that you’ve been avoiding for a while.

This time, I wrote toward the hard poem–starting with an indecisive expression of a sensation of silence within me. I came to CC unsure if I was going to be able to access what I felt inside of me, afraid of the emotional excavation that had to be done to get there. The first poem was me trying to figure what I wanted to do.

So on Day 2, I went far out, to outer space and wrote a poem in the voice of the planet Mars. I see it as a companion piece to “Transit of Venus,” and perhaps, part of a series on the planets and other objects in the universe.

Day 3 I tried to ground myself in a work poem.  Not sure how successful I was, but at least it was a start.

By Day 4, my group’s poetic aesthetic starts to influence me and I begin to lean into the lyric. I used a title in the style of one of my group mates to tackle family issues. So my writing was literally moving closer to home.

Day 5’s poem addressed a matter of the heart, and for Day 6, I think I finally wrote the poem I was meant to write at Cave Canem about feeling the weight of mortality bare down on me because I am single & childless.

And I know I wouldn’t have written that poem if I hadn’t been a Cave Canem, if I hadn’t had the time and space, the love and support of the fabulously mellow women of Group B or the other fellows and faculty as tangible examples of how to risk, fall, and fly!

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