A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


NC Literary Hall of Fame

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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
twisting it into rainbows
i know the grandmother one had hands
but they were always inside
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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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.


Summer Reading List

Tearing a page from my fellow Living Poetry co-organizer and blogger extraordinaire, Tara Lynne, here are the books I’m reading this summer:

Books on my summer reading list include “Life on Mars” by Tracy K. Smith and all three poetry collections of Richard Blanco.

  1. The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry (edited Rita Dove) – Yes TPAoTCAP is a mouthful, but it is chock full of poems and poets from a cross-section of society.
  2. Three books by double life poet, Richard BlancoCity of a Hundred Fires (1998) Directions to the Beach of the Dead (2005), and Looking for the Gulf Motel (2012). I’m hoping to land an interview with him for the blog.
  3. Life on Mars (2011) by Tracy K. Smith  – Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Smith is also Cave Canem alumna.
  4. Radial Symmetry (2011) by double life poet, Katherine Larson. Larson won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition in 2010.
  5. Where I Must Go (2009) by Angela Jackson – or as we call her at Cave Canem, “Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty!” This book was the poet-playwright’s first novel and received a great review in the NY Times!
  6. Practical Grammar In Which Words, Phrases, and Sentences Are Classified According to Their Offices; And Their Various Relations to One Another (2012) by Stephen W. Clark. A recent NY Times article mentioned this book in relation to diagramming sentences.
  7. The Undertaker’s Daughter (2012) by Toi Derricotte  – The latest collection of poems by this Cave Canem co-founder.


I’m also planning to borrow Audre Lorde’s biomythography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (2011), from someone in my Goodreads circle!  What books do you have on your list? Let me know by leaving a comment.