A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


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Sunday in the Office with Poems


For three straight weeks, I’ve spent Sunday afternoons in a small office on the 4th floor of UNC Davis Library. I’m thankful for this space and for my generous German friend who keeps the key to his faculty study in a place where I can find it. This is why America should maintain the trust of our German allies.

Typically, I spend about 5 or 6 hours there revising some poems, writing blog posts, researching literary magazines and book publishers or a little bit of all of the above. Yesterday’s goal was to assemble the 10-36 pages of poems that could possibly become a chapbook. Last week’s session whittled down the bulk of my writing to 43 pages, which completely covered the limited desk space. Then coffee arrived and chatting ensued, leaving the poems to talk amongst themselves.

Poems need this time to get to know each other, figure out how to arrange themselves, and decide whether to be part of the group. Forty-three pages became 27, including the four that called out to be revised in the middle of the process for a literary journal submission. Some of the poems in the Group of Twenty-Seven may not make the final cut. I see two distinct themes and about eight poems that bridge these ideas but are not wedded to either camp. And so the process continues.

The Group of Twenty-Seven


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Back to Business


opensignThe end of the government shutdown coincided with the end of writing a report for work. Now I have more time to turn my attention back to the business of poetry. Like any job—double life or otherwise—some tasks  you love and other tasks you tolerate as necessary evils. For me, submitting work to literary magazines and contests is  on the necessary evil side of things. It’s a lot of work for little (if any) reward and the process is never-ending:

  • Search for places to publish
  • Read published work to get a sense of how my work fits
  • Read and re-read submission guidelines
  • Print out potential poems to submit
  • Read, revise, and tweak selected poems
  • Order selected poems
  • Re-re-read submission guidelines
  • Prepare submission packet (cover letter/bio and poems)
  • Submit packet (and payment, if required)
  • Hope and pray

Last year, I focused on getting individual poems published and was successful. I’m still working that angle and adding chapbook contests to the mix. I have quite a few poems, but not all of them are ready for prime time. So selecting 10-30 of my better poems for a chapbook seems less daunting. Here are the chapbook contests on the horizon:

  1. Sunken Garden Chapbook Poetry Prize (10/31): co-sponsored by Tupelo press; 20-36 pages judged by Mark Doty 
  2. Coal Hill Review (11/1): co-sponsored by Autumn House Press; 10-15 pages judged by Michael Simms
  3. Minerva Rising Chapbook Contest (12/1): themed contest, “Daring to be the Woman that I Am;” 12-15 pages judged by Rosemary Daniell 
  4. Imaginary Friend Chapbook Contest (12/15): open to anyone who doesn’t identify as a straight, white male; 12-20 pages judged by Shane McCrae, Ching-In Chen, Margaret Bashaar, Noel Pabillo Mariano, and Ayshia Stephenson


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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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Poems Every Day


Conversation with my friend, J, in her kitchen on Wednesday night:

JH: How many poems do you read a day?

PT: Only two. Writer’s Almanac and the daily poem from Poets.org. I read those on my phone.

JH: That’s it?

PT: Oh wait! I changed my email settings for the Library of Congress Poetry 180 project. I used to get the weekly digest, but I get those poems every day. Or whenever the government sends them out.

J continues potting her winter bulbs.

PT:  Well, it does depend on the day. The American Life in Poetry poem comes on Mondays. And then on Wednesday, there’s the Linebreak poem. This week’s poem was great. Let me read it to you:

PT reads “The Centurion Divulges More

PT:  Oh yeah, I’ve got the Poetry Daily app on my phone. They post a new poem everyday, but sometimes I don’t remember to check and end up reading a week’s worth of poems on the bus.

JH: Is that it?

PT: Well, there’s always whatever poetry book I’m reading now.


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Finding a Home for Your Poems


A good friend once told me, “Dating is all about getting the at-bats.” The same can be said about publishing poems. Part of my struggle is the time it takes to sift through my VCFA manuscript and the poems I’ve written since graduating in January to figure out which poems I still feel good about sending, which ones still needs revision, and which ones make me shake my head (What was I thinking when I wrote that?!).

Last month, I posted about my first time sending out publications, and now, I am gearing up for a second round. My pool of poems is limited by the submissions that are pending and whether the lit mag accepts simultaneous submission. So far, I’ve heard news only about 2 out of the 5 submission – a “nice rejection” (try again) and an acceptance 1 out of the 3 poems I sent (yay!)

This time, I’m using these sites to identify literary magazines:

  • Duotrope – has a submissions manager to help track the results of your submissions, lists new, defunct, and resurrected literary magazines, and allows writers to search for a good match
  • New Pages – maintains the “Big List of Literary Magazines” with reviews of each publication as well as links to their websites

Browsing through each site is a bit overwhelming, but I find comfort in knowing there are so many possibilities out there. It gives me hope that each poem will find the right home. Now if only dating worked the same way. ;)


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Low-Residency MFA Programs


Three years ago this week, I heard the term “low-residency MFA program” during a lunch conversation with Cathy Smith Bowers, my workshop leader at the NC Writer’s Network Squire Summer Residency Workshop. My double life poet-friend, Joan McLean, asked Cathy to tell us more about the low-res program where she was faculty, Queens University of Charlotte. I called myself just listening to the conversation, but the more she talked about the structure of the program, the more curious I got. On the drive from Swannanoa to Durham, I decided to follow her advice and look into the low-res programs in the South––including Warren Wilson, the workshop’s host campus––and apply.

So how did I wind up in Vermont? Well, first I have to start with how VCFA got on my list. A simple Google search (“low residency MFA south”)  turned up the programs at Spaulding University in Kentucky and Converse College in South Carolina. The other programs on my list were the  two programs I had just discovered: Warren Wilson and Queens University of Charlotte. But as I reviewed the rankings on Atlantic Monthly and read what current students said about their programs on the MFA blog, Vermont College of Fine Arts started to emerge. The faculty and residency schedule looked good to me, and the length of the program, number of residency days, overall cost, and application requirements were comparable to its southern low-res counterparts. But most importantly, I was excited about the opportunity to study translation as well as the summer residency option in Slovenia. So VCFA got on the list, but I considered it a pie-in-the-sky program. Of course, when I got the welcome-to-the-program phone call from Director, Louise Crowley, going to VCFA became my reality.

And what a wonderful reality it turned out to be! In two years, I completed four semesters of creative work and five residencies–– four in Montpelier and the inaugural winter residency in Puerto Rico in 2011. During that time I wrote and revised over 60 poems, wrote a critical thesis on the poetics of work, assembled a collection of poems as part of my creative thesis, “Oddball”, and presented a lecture that inspired this blog, “A Poet’s Double Life.” The program made me get serious about my poetry career. This dedicated time improved the quality of my poetry because I received individualized feedback on my work from a well-regarded poet. Participating in the residency workshops gave me the skills to read and critique poems. Having a personalized study plan exposed me to different poets, poetic styles, and issues of craft and helped me learn that reading is the number one way to bring issues of craft to life and inspire my own work. But what I cherish the most about the program are the lifelong connections with my fellow students, people who love poetry and writing as much as I do, and who as a group, are an indispensable part of my life as a poet.

If you’re thinking about a low-residency or traditional MFA program, you should definitely do your own research to find the program that is right for you. Poets and Writers magazine has ranked MFA programs in 2011 and 2012 and the Association of Writers & Writing Programs has a graduate program database.

Let me know your thoughts about low-residency MFA programs by leaving a comment.


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Poetry on the Go!


Being a poet with a non-literary career means I don’t always have time to keep up with the latest poetry happenings. I need to know what’s buried in the state budget bill as much as I need to know how to craft a sestina. And even though poetry books are slim enough to fit into my favorite purse, I can’t carry the seven books I’m currently reading at the same time, not to mention the novel and classic craft book on diagramming sentences I just bought (more on my summer reading list in another post).Poetry iPhone Apps

That’s why a smartphone is a double life poet’s best friend. I have three mobile apps that let me access poems anytime:

  1. Poetry Daily: Sends a new contemporary poem each day, provides info on the author and links to the book or literary magazine that published the poem
  2. Poetry App from Poetry Foundation: Allows poetry lovers to browse poems by mood, subject, poet, and in the online audio archive
  3. Poem Flow: Daily poem with a visual component

In addition, I have Dictionary.com and a rhyming app on standby in case I get a flash of inspiration while riding the bus. A recent article on Make Use Of.com lists other must-have-apps for poets.

If you’re a self-proclaimed Luddite like several of my poet-friends, don’t worry! The apps I mentioned can be accessed online or sent to directly to your inbox. In fact, several websites have daily or weekly newsletters with useful information for poets. My favorites are Writer’s Almanac by Garrison Keillor, which features a daily poem and interesting facts in literary history, and About.com Poetry, where you can sign up to receive weekly poetry news or 30 poems for 30 days.

Also, two poetry organizations feature information and insight into the poetry world.

  1. Academy of American Poets fosters appreciation of contemporary poetry and has resources for poets at all stages on their website, Poets.org. You can sign up to have the poem-a-day or one of their 5 newsletters sent to your inbox, including  opportunities for community involvement.
  2. The Poetry Foundation publishes the literary magazine, Poetry, and offers many resources and awards to poets. Scrolling to the bottom of the website will give you several options to keep your inbox or favorite RSS Feed reader filled with poetry, including an audio poem of the day.

I also subscribe to poetry podcasts via iTunes and listen to them on my daily commute on the DRX bus or in the car.

  • Poetry Off-the-Shelf (weekly)
  • Poem Talk (monthly)
  • Living Poetry podcast (occasional)
  • PoemCast (archive)

Let me hear about how you take poetry on the go by leaving a comment!

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