A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.

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The Poetry Stacks

One of my favorite writing spaces in the Triangle also houses an excellent collection of literary magazines—UNC’s Davis Library. The 1st floor periodicals section is a labyrinth of metal shelves surrounded by over-sized chairs in soft yellow, green, and plaid hues. The room is flooded with light from the floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides of the room. Every month or so I walk down an aisle and grab literary journals from their cold homes and carry as many as my arms can hold to a sunny spot by the front window.  (FYI – Such reading is best done with a dark chocolate mocha from Caribou Coffee).

Here is where I was introduced to the work of Adrienne Su, Victoria Chang, and Jan Beatty. Here is where I fell in love with Alberto Ríos’ “A Small Story about the Sky”, which inspired me to write a poem in response, “The Truth about Fire”

You’ve heard the story about the sky––/ how fire burned it black / and kept a little piece of blue. / If only the story were that simple: a fire growing into its power / and then the poor sky consumed/ by all those flames.

“After the First Shot” by Saeed Jones appeared in West Branch Issue 69

I am always surprised to see the work of poets I know.

And I make sure I bring quarters or dollar bills for the photocopier, so I can bring some of my favorites home.

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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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What I’m Reading Now

A summer reading list was way too ambitious for me. I finished the Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry last week for the November book club. I did manage to read a few of the other books on the list: Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (Audre Lorde), City of a Hundred Fires (Richard Blanco), and Life on Mars (Tracy K. Smith). I started Toi Derricotte’s Undertaker’s Daughter, but quickly learned that it is not the kind of poetry book I can read in a sitting or two. Each poem packs a punch. I’m still waiting for the smelling salts to revive me. In the meantime, I devoured This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz, which wasn’t even on the original list, which I read on my Kindle, which I will probably read again before the year is over.

Instead of making a list, I’m just going to share what I’ve been reading lately.

Thrall by Natasha Trethewey: Many of the poems are based on paintings or photographs (and you know how much I love ekphrastic poetry). We’re reading it for the December book club. I’ve got the “Poet Laureate of the United States” hardcover edition.

Circle and Salvinia Molesta by Victoria Chang: Found one of her poems while searching through the new literary magazine issues in the stacks. Picked up her books – ‘nuff said. Well actually, I’ll say this: “I’ve never told her I have a hidden talent / for loving men with only three chambers / in the heart, his salted lips / iron aftertaste of an imagined kiss.” (from “Holiday Parties”)

One for the Money: The Sentence as Poetic Form edited by Gary Young and Christopher Buckley: This book is an anthology of sentence poems as well as a manual of how to write them. Here’s one of my attempts

Longing is like this

Peeling off gloves
pressing flesh against
winter bare trees
trying to feel
for life
beneath cold skin

The Stories of Vladmir Nabokov & Nabakov’s Dozen: Nabokov’s imagery and attention to detail are making me swoon. A poet can’t help but be inspired by sentences like this: “I can see her now, in her black sealskin coat with a big, flat muff and gray fur-trimmed boots, walking on her slender legs, as if on stilts, along a very slippery sidewalk; or in a dark, high-necked dress, sitting on a blue divan, her face heavily powdered after much crying.”

Let me know what you’re reading by leaving a comment.


Critique Groups

When I first started writing, I shared poems with a few friends who appreciated the written word. After they read it and said it was good, I added the poem to the rest of my collection on my hard drive.  I was writing for myself, to express the feelings and memories that silenced my tongue. When I declared myself a poet, I somehow realized I had a duty to share what I wrote. But more than that, I wanted to make my poems better–though at the time I had no idea what that meant.

The Living Poetry Sharing Creativity workshop was the first time I had ever had my poems read by strangers. I found it helpful to hear my poem read in someone else’s voice, understand the places where the reader was confused or moved, and consider other possible directions to take the poem. After I finished my MFA, I found myself looking for a group to help me review and revise poems I wanted to send out for publication. At first, I joined a group that exchanged poems on a weekly basis via email, but found it difficult to keep up with the pace. Also without seeing the poet’s reaction, it was difficult to gauge whether the feedback I had provided was helpful. Fortunately some of my female poet-friends formed a face-to-face group that meets monthly and know I feel I have a safe place to test drive my poems.

Here are a few observations that I think make critique groups work:

Having structure for sharing feedback: A common structure for feedback starts with reading the poem twice, by someone other than the poet and then by the poet herself. Participants provide positive and negative feedback to the poet, trying not to repeat what someone else has said. Most of the time, the poet remains silent until all feedback is shared. Then the poet is allowed to ask questions or react to the feedback. Whereas our monthly group doesn’t follow this structure exactly, we’ve all been in enough workshops to know the usual process and that helps moves things along.

Working with poets whose work you like and whose feedback you trust: Most of the women in my monthly group have known or known of each other for years through poetry events in the Triangle. I’ve read or heard their work and always look forward to seeing what they are working on.

Commit to meeting on a regular basis: My monthly critique group is full of busy women who are balancing custody arrangements, teenager activities, business travel, and long-distance relationships along with everything else in our lives. But we manage to work around everyone’s schedule to find dates and time that work (Doodle helps!)

Sharing more than poems: A critique group is a place for us to connect as poets, share our successes and challenges, be supported by people who have responded to the same call.

Let me hear about your experiences with critique groups by leaving a comment.


When Life Happens

It’s been almost two weeks since I’ve posted on the blog, two weeks since Hurricane Sandy devastated the part of New York City where I grew up – The Rockaway Peninsula. Like many others in the Rockaways, my family did not evacuate this time. Last year they took shelter in Brooklyn after heeding the warnings about Hurricane Irene, who didn’t do much damage to the boroughs, opting to spread her flooding elsewhere. But as we all know now, Sandy was no Irene.

After waiting it out for 5 days and hoping the electricity and heat would return, my family found a hotel in Manhattan to spend the first weekend—a welcome respite from the disorder and cold. But as the Sunday checkout was approaching, the worry about where they would go to be safe and warm returned. By Tuesday things were settled, my mother and sister had voted, and they found a place to say in Brooklyn for the immediate future.

The situation in the Rockaways is still this: no power, no heat, no subway service. And by the look of this photo of the Broad Channel station—the stop that connects the Rockaways to the rest of Queens—it doesn’t look like the situation will change any time soon.

I couldn’t do much from North Carolina, but I did manage to check my mother’s AOL account and respond to the people who were concerned about her. I kept my phone beside me at all times in case someone managed to send out a text update before battery life expired. I followed Bob Hardt’s blog on NY1.com, an account of the Rockaway’s slow recovery.

In the midst of this I did write poetry—started the November Poem a Day challenge in fact—but that was all the writing my mind could handle. This week at work, I started writing sections of a report, which forced my brain to fire up neurons in Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, and started me thinking I needed to get back to this blog.  So here I am!