A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


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Poetry Dates


Tuesday nights have become my date night with fellow poet, Kelly Lenox. We hail from the same MFA program, though we finished 5 years apart. It was Kelly who first proposed the idea to met on a regular basis to exchange work. In the past, I participated in critique groups that met either face-to-face or via email on either a weekly or monthly basis. Often the quality of feedback depended on the people who showed up, how much time each person spent with the poem, and whether they were able to articulate something more than their like/dislike of a particular part of the poem.

The idea of a dyad exchange intrigued me because I knew Kelly was a good reader of my work and I enjoyed reading her work. Also trying to get 2 schedules to mesh is way easier than 4 or 5, even if you use Doodle. In the beginning, Kelly and I would either exchange poems for critique or read and discuss a poem that WOWed us. Recently, we added a few poetry-related events like going to NC State to see the inaugural poet Richard Blanco promote his new memoir and going to Two Writers Walk Into a Bar on the second Tuesday of the month to hear local poets and prose writers read their work. We’ve even had time to write from one of the Living Poetry Monday poetry prompts when we didn’t have anything to share.

Richard Blanco on poetry date night


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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
parting
plaiting
twisting it into rainbows
i know the grandmother one had hands
but they were always inside
pockets
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!


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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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My Writing Process Blog Tour


Mordovia-Dizzy Gillespie-2000or2001I feel like all I do on this blog is talk about my writing process, so the opportunity to be a part of a blog tour only seemed natural. I was very happy to get the call to arms from my Cave Canem roommate during my first year, Cynthia Manick. The youngest of the four group of women who met in 2012, Cynthia always leads the charge to submit to contests and journals and magazines and writing conferences by her example. Once again, I am eager to follow in her footsteps because Cynthia’s work tickles your toes like Dizzy’s trumpet carved in gold.

What are you working on?

I’ve got a little less than two weeks until the next Cave Canem retreat, so I’ve been stockpiling ideas on my iPhone. I wrote two of my planet poems  while there, “Transit of Venus” and “To Earth, From Mars,” so it is very likely that another galactic poem will be drawn in by the creative and supportive force that surrounds the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg the earthmarsweek CC arrives.

With the summer hiatus for many literary magazines approaching, I can stop focusing on submissions and start thinking about doing a workshop. My poet friends are interested in revision, so I’ll spend my summer planning how to guide them through the process. Also, I’d like to start a poetry workshop series similar to the one I attended at Duke University in 2009–a brief discussion on craft or process, circling the table for critique, sending everyone home with a new writing assignment–so that means more research and more preparation.

How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

I write what I see and fully acknowledge the lens I have as a single, professional, Black female. I use extended metaphor quite often because I can say two things at the same time: what is on the surface and the message underneath. My friends have described my poems as “beautiful”, “feisty”, and “clever as hell,” which is cool when you consider the source. ;-)

anna-akhmatovaI’ve also been told by Russian/former Soviet Union friends that I write very Russian. I don’t know what that means exactly. It’s usually the poems with an undercurrent of pain and longing and strong imagery that makes them say this.

Why do you write what you do?

Because nobody else is writing it. Because someone else wrote it and it needed to be said again. Because someone else wrote it and it needed a response. Because the poem came through me and I didn’t have a choice. Because it is better on the page than stuck in my head.

How does your writing process work?

I use the “hunk of stone” method I learned from former North Carolina Poet Laureate Cathy Smith Bowers: begin with an abiding image, write a block Study Room in UNC Davis Libraryof text, then look at it until I see the shape of the poem. The distance between these three steps differs with each poem. I’m not in a regular rhythm of writing anymore, so the thoughts come out in drips and drops. Most of the time, I write on the bus commute to or from work in a notebook or in my Notes app if I can’t find a pen. Lately, I’ve been better using Google drive to store snippets of ideas for poems or first drafts until I’m ready to work on them. Writing occurs most often when I am still (on a plane/bus/train, in a meeting, at my work desk, in waiting rooms). Revision almost always happens in the Poet’s Gym aka the faculty study I borrow from a friend at the UNC Davis Library. It is a small space in a corner wing of the building with a sliver of a window where I keep some rations, a few totems, a blanket, and a sweatshirt.

Thanks for reading my post. Next up on the blog tour are two fabulous poets who will post on June 9th:

A. Anupama is a wonderful poet I met during my MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I love her work because she brings her love of yoga, Indian cooking, science, photography, and nature to her poetry. Her blog, seranam, is as much a visual experience as it is a literary one.

Elizabeth Fields is a Cave Canem fellow who has been teaching abroad for the past year. I’ve been following her stumbles and successes in navigating a life in an unfamiliar, ancient, and astonishing land at A Poet’s Year in China.


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The Meaning of May


Historic-Gdn-04842-WH-ws

 

And a bird overhead sang Follow,
  And a bird to the right sang Here;
And the arch of the leaves was hollow,
  And the meaning of May was clear.

 

It’s been almost a month since the last post. The April 2014 Poem-a-Day Challenge left me very weary from writing poems – and in fact – from reading a lot of poetry. My first order of business was to bury myself in a novel, Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li. Also, I finally got around to reading books that have been on my shelf for quite some time: Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson and The Best American Short Stories 2006. Don’t get me wrong, I did write some poems that were commissioned for a birthday. I wrote five poems, sent four, the person liked two, and I printed one poem as the gift.

For me, May went by in one big fog. I spent most nights curled up on the couch, watching TV shows on Hulu or movies on Netflix. I didn’t have the energy to be creative or do much of anything else (my poor house). After so much output in April with writing poems and attending poetry events, the introvert in me needed an equal amount of solitude and sloth to balance everything out. The funny thing about not doing much is that life and creativity keep moving, even when the only thing I wanted to do was take a nap. For example, four poems from the April PAD Challenge found homes; one will appear in the upcoming “Knowing” issue of When Women Waken and the others will be featured in a future Come Closer post at Luna Luna Magazine. On May 1st, I granted Outrider Press permission to publish two poems in the next TallGrass Writers Guild anthology, “The Mountain.”

The stanza from Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poem, “An Interlude” stood out because the meaning of May was clearly this: even when it looks like I’m doing nothing, something is still happening.

 


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April 2014 Poem-a-Day Challenge, The End


typewriter with paper and "the end" typed

 

Finally! Although, I say it never gets easier to do these challenges, but in some way, my process has been refined. I am really happy that I wasn’t up past midnight working on poems or tucked away in some corner at a milonga scribbling down my ideas. I made a point to finish a poem on most days before 9 PM, and definitely before going out for the evening. Often, I had to go with my first mind, follow a path, and make it work, which meant opening up channels within to let the prompts trigger experiences, emotions, observations, memories that I used to create poetry. Here is the last of what my first mind brought.

Day 28 (Prompt: Settling)

Pour yourself—pure and cool—
into a glass jar filled with the simple
sand of me at the floor.

Day 29 (Prompt: Realism/Magical)

Caladenia, the spider orchid, crawls

down the stalk, bit by bit, lands on the soft

moss of her clay pot.

Day 30 (Prompt: Calling It a Day)

At the happy hour, I’m still suited up

in dress and heels while the office men

have put their neckties and jackets

at ease and lowered their beers to half-glass.


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April 2014 Poem-a-Day Challenge, Week 4


2009 CalendarAs they say in the South, we are getting down to the short rows! It’s hard to believe 27 days are behind us. The lesson this week was going with my first mind. Most of the poems stemmed from the first idea that popped in my head. I might have started down different paths in writing, but the end product reflected the thing or image that sparked the poem. For example, the word monster (Day 27) always makes me think of Godzilla. I actually wrote more of a political commentary on recent events with basketball owners and Cold War bullies, but the strongest part of the poem led me to trim back to the original idea. Here are the results of those first sparks.

Day 21 (Prompt: Back to basics)

Females must not be ragged,

unkempt, or extreme,

but may be fastened,

pinned, plain, and limited.

Day 22 (Prompt: Optimistic/Pessimistic)

My eyes stay

with her slim brown

body awash in white

mimicking the movements

of tides

Day 23 (Prompt: Location)

My happy place is on that balcony

in Old San Juan where I sit

with postcards stacked

on one knee

Day 24 (Prompt: Tell it to the <blank>)

But don’t think she’ll keep

your secret. She’ll torture

your hypothalamus all night

Day 25 (Prompt: The last straw)

Does the scarecrow cry

out to heaven when he feels

the last slit of straw

slip from his side?

Day 26 (Prompt: Water)

I stand below the nozzle’s rush,

feel jet blasts of drops flow

down my back like a hot avalanche

Day 27 (Prompt: Monster)

Today’s monster no

longer destroys whole

cities with fiery breath

and colossal feet.

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