A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


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.


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.


Black * Woman * Professional

Manuscript Section 1That’s the title of the poetry manuscript I submitted to a book contest one day before the January 31st deadline. On the one hand, assembling the manuscript was exactly like organizing the creative thesis for my MFA program—printing out every poem, creating piles of poems with a similar theme, ordering the poems in each themed pile, putting the themes in the order they should be read.  That part was easy.

The hard part was changing my mindset from a “hoop-to-jump-through-in-grad-school” to a “poetry-collection-someone-might-read-one-day.” Making that switch meant I had to treat the manuscript as if it were already a published book. These days, many poetry and prose books have sections break up the reading and the poems or chapters that follow. Some are as simple as Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars—One, Two, Three, Four. Others provide more information about the poems or chapters that follow. For example in Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling uses quotes from the Local Administration Manual to give a clue to what to expect in the next set of chapters. Having just finished that book on my Kindle Fire, I looked for something to help me tie the sections and the book together.

Then I remembered the book, Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women Struggle for Professional Identity. I read this book about 10 Our separate waysyears ago, and then again in 2011, in my critical thesis semester. Flipping through it, I realized the chapter titles could organize the themes of my collection, and then, chose quotes from the book that connected to the poems:

  • Fitting In (I feel like a guest in somebody’s house.”)
  • Work Isn’t Everything (The thing that’s on every single black women’s mind is the whole issue of relationships.”)
  • Their Father’s Daughters (My life is different from my mother’s and father’s; theirs was a different time.”)
  • The Racialized Self (I experience myself as being exotic and mysterious to most white people.”)

No matter what happens with the contest, I’m satisfied with how my first poetry collection turned out.