A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


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P is for P-town


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And poetry, and poet-friends old & new. I spent a week at the Fine Arts Work Center for their poetry festival week that featured faculty members Tim Seibles, Natalie Diaz, Brenda Shaughnessy, Robin Coste Lewis, Matthew Olzmann, & Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

I took the Articulating the Image workshop with visual arts-poet Rachel Eliza. I have a deep appreciation for photography’s ability to capture so much in a single shot. As a poet, I’ve spent countless hours and energy attempting to describe an image in my head using  only words, which are sometimes not the best tools. I had hoped the workshop would get me out of my head and able to approach poetry from a different perspective—and the workshop did not disappoint.

We had assignments to take pictures of a certain color, the natural world, and shapes or shadows that helped to focus our eyes and our mind on what is important. We also had to engage with what we saw by writing about the connection to our lives. During class we built a visual canvas of words,  images and objects. Each day we layered our canvases with more words, images, and objects from ourselves as well as from the other class participants. One of my favorite aspects of the class is being free to engage in other people’s canvases by adding questions, colors, and drawings to push their visual poems forward.

 

In addition to the many ideas and activities I brought back, the poetry workshop was a reunion of sorts with poets I knew from Cave Canem, VCFA, and one I had met in the Boston area. I also had the opportunity to meet and listen to great poets around the country and connected with a few local poets.

Such a great weekend. It will be hard to come down from this poetry high.


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A Midsummer’s Night Reading


Since moving to the Boston area, the tango community here has been a constant presence. I remember sampling all the milongas when I first arrived, before settling on the handful that matched my schedule. You can dance here every night of the week, and sometimes, I indulge in dancing multiple nights in a row. After 18 months, I’m happy to say I’ve been embraced by the Boston Tango community, not only as a dancer, but also as a poet.

I first heard of the idea for a reading as the Fourth of July tango picnic by the Charles River. There seemed to be enough tangueros who also wrote poetry or prose for each of us to read for 10 minutes. We had a willing host who offered his backyard and had a deadline: we must have the event before the host’s wife gave birth to their first child. No problem! I dusted off my Living Poetry organizer skills and got to work creating the Facebook event page, inviting friends, gathering reader bios, setting the line up, soliciting  people for snacks and setup/cleanup duty. For me, it felt like the poetrySpark! days minus the poetry-on-demand booth.

My set included two poems from my chapbook, the first tango poem I wrote and published, a tango poem from the 2017 April Poem-a-Day Challenge, and three poems from the poetry cleanse—a good mix of old and new work. We had a great crowd, mostly from the tango community but with a few non-tangueros in the audience. Although the event went way later than planned (as the guy whose bedroom window opened to the backyard reminded us), we all agreed that we needed to have another reading in the fall. I’m looking forward to it!


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The Road Ahead is Filled with #BlackGirlMagic


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August 1st marked seven months of the double life in New England. I’d like to say the place is growing on me, but I’m not there yet. In fact, someone I met recently in an Afro Flow Yoga class told me she didn’t begin to like Boston until she had lived here 7 years. So I have a long way to go.

Admittedly, most of the double life has been focused on the career side. I started a job as a college administrator in January, and in March, my colleague got recruited away to another institution. So I’ve been doing the double the work since mid-April. I’ve spent the summer interviewing candidates for two positions, managing two research assistants, and packing for an office move. I attended a professional conferences in New Orleans in June, went on family vacation to St. Maarten in July, and last week, I attended a retreat in Maine for women in my field.

The retreat was a good respite from being on the work treadmill. Not only was I able to connect with other women at nearby institutions, I also met other women of color in my field. Being around other Black women made me realize how much I missed seeing other Black faces throughout my day. Although I was one of the few black professional staff at my last job, living in the South meant there was a critical mass of people of color on the bus, in the cafeteria, at CVS, etc. During the retreat, I know that my mere presence made them feel more at ease and less isolated because that is how seeing their faces made me feel. I came back from the conference very hopeful about what lies on the horizon.

This fall, I look forward to moving into a new office at work as well as my new apartment closer to the city (more on that soon). There are a few literary things I’m excited about as well:

Receiving my signed copy of Cynthia Manick’s Blue Hallelujahs (Black Lawrence Press, 2016). Cynthia was my roommate at my first and last Cave Canem retreats. This is her debut full-length collection and I’m psyched to read it! If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you might remember Cynthia as the person who invited me to the My Writing Process Blog Tour in 2014.

The resurgence of Black Lioness Press. The press promotes the literary & artistic work of people of color, and in particularly women, and I serve as one of the Associate Editors. The press is the brainchild of Mahtem Shiferraw, a VCFA alumna and I serve as one of the Associate Editors along with Tsitsi Jaji, whom I met right before I left NC. In September 2016, we start accepting submissions for poetry/short fiction and an anthology entitled, Anthem for the Black Body. We’re still in fundraising mode, so there’s time to get in on the ground floor to support this effort.

Participating in Women Who Submit. WWS encourages and empowers women writers to send their work to literary journals. Later this year, I hope to start a Boston area chapter of Women Who Submit. This group lists among their leadership team my fellow Cave Canem alumnae, Ashaki Jackson & Alyss Dixon, and VCFA alumna, Laura Warrell.

And I look forward to going back to Afro Flow Yoga. I attended my first class on Sunday and connected with alumnae of the college where I work. The instructor is a former Alvin Ailey dancer and her husband provides the musical accompaniment throughout the 90-minute class. There’s only more weekend of classes in the area before they go on hiatus in late August/early September. I can’t wait!


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Poet Interviews


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I promise a longer post on my adjustment to the Boston area. In the meantime, check me out on Andrea Blythe’s Poet Spotlight. It was an interview an introvert could love – questions posted to a Google doc that I could answer on my phone wherever I was: at the airport, sitting on the couch trying to think of a poem for the daily challenge, at the nail salon.

And in case you’ve missed it, here’s the interview conducted by Elizabeth Zertuche, a writer I met at VONA last summer.

Enjoy!


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Five-Day Poetry Challenge


Old paper grunge background - Challenge yourself

Five-Day Poetry Challenge – DONE!

The 5-day poetry challenge is a popular meme where you post one of your poems (preferably published) to your Facebook timeline then tag another poet to continue the challenge. Last week, I was double-tagged by poets Anna Weaver and Elizabeth Jackson. So in true double-life fashion, I decided to post two poems each day—one of my published poems around 9 am and one of my favorite poems about the working world around 5 pm.

I selected poems from the range of themes I tend to visit and revisit in my work:

  1. Work: “Twenty Questions for Black Professionals” from my chapbook, My Mother’s Child (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2015)
  2. Love & Longing: “The Truth about Fire” published in The Pedestal Magazine in 2012
  3. Planets & the Universe: “To Earth, From Mars” published in Construction Literary Magazine in 2014
  4. Family: “At Night I Dream of Trains” published in the Grief issue of When Women Waken in 2013
  5. Tango: “If I Could Love You Like Tango” published in the anthology, …and love…(Jacar Press, 2011)

For the poems about the working world, I picked two of my favorites that I’ve posted to the blog before as well as a few poems that showed work and workers in a more positive light.

  1. “White, White Collars” by Denis Johnson, from The Incognito Lounge, 1982
  2. “Drone” by Wanda Coleman, from African Sleeping Sickness, 1990
  3. “The Gulf” by Brian Brodeur, from The Missouri Review, Winter 2010
  4. “Coming Closer” by Philip Levine, from What Work Is, 1991
  5. “Domestic Work, 1937” by Natasha Trethewey, from Domestic Work, 1999

Here’s the last stanza from the Trethewey poem that always sticks with me.

She beats time on the rugs,
blows dust from the broom
like dandelion spores, each one
a wish for something better.

If you haven’t been tagged, start your own 5-day poetry challenge. I’d love to hear about it.


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VONA @ Miami 2015


vonalogoIt’s taken me almost a month to recover from the VONA workshop in Miami from June 28 – July 4, 2015. VONA (Voices of Our Nations Arts) is the only multi-genre workshop for writers of color. This year was the first time the workshop was held at the University of Miami. Previously, the VONA workshops had taken place in the Bay Area.

VONA workshops occur over two weeks; I attended the Week 2 poetry workshop with Willie Perdomo, whose most recent 11647246_10155790169525271_417854073_npoetry collection, The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon, was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award (Poetry). Other writers attended workshops for fiction with Evelina Galang, memoir with Andrew X. Pham, travel writing with Faith Adiele, speculative fiction with Tananarive Due, LGBTQ writers with Achy Obejas, and the residency group with Chris Abani.

For me, the VONA experience was a fusion of VCFA and Cave Canem: there were old poems to IMG_6173workshop; new poems written every day; amazing faculty readings; inspiring student readings; and a culminating dance party. Of course, nothing compares to the beautiful U of M campus, complete with the lush orange flowers of the royal poinciana trees, free-roaming duck and ibis families, sudden thunderstorms, and crocodile warning signs.

What makes VONA a unique experience is the opportunity to interact with other writers of color. Although we spent most of the time in our workshop groups through lunch, there was ample time to hang out in11411900_130970943903971_6529621702020454391_o the VONA lounge to chat with writers from other genres about their lives back home or watch them work on collages. For me, the highlight of  VONA was the group presentation from the speculative fiction writers whose worm holes trips misplaced them in all the other genres until they found their way home.

Nothing about my time at VONA Miami would have been possible without my lovely suitemates—Elizabeth Zertuche (Apex, NC), Yesenia Flores Diaz  (Maryland), and Dipti Singh (Bombay)—and my awesome poetry 11709272_705508246242186_6326447500570548388_nfamilia—Rebecca Brown (Chicago), Tomás Nieto (San Diego), Peter Noble (New Haven), Bobina Vander Laan (Richmond), Fatimah Ashgar, June Inuzuka (Denver), Michelle Moncayo (New Jersey), Charles Snyder (Long Beach/Bay Area, CA), Bianca Garcia (Miami), and Sarah Serrano (Brooklyn). Livelong connections!

VONA encouraged writers to form affinity groups to stay connected once we returned home. In addition to my roommate, I met other writers from NC as well as from the I-85 corridor (Richmond and Atlanta). Last Wednesday, the VONA NC branch met in Durham at Dulce Café. We commiserated about our slow recovery from the VONA immersion and our attempts to get back into the habit of writing now that we were fully back in our normal

VONA NC members: me, Cantrice Penn, and Elizabeth Zertuche

VONA NC members: me, Cantrice Penn, and Elizabeth Zertuche

lives. At the end, we promised to meet again in August at my house to write together and keep our VONA-flow going.

 


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Poems for King Pluto


Pluto's Frozen Heart. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Pluto’s Frozen Heart. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to write a poem in honor of the King of the Dwarf Planets—Pluto—as part of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences weekly Science Café talks. NASA Ambassador Shawn Bayle provided background about Pluto and the New Horizons mission that has been transmitting stunning images of the ninth rock from the Sun.

This event was the third time the museum had invited Living Poetry members to craft poems inspired by a science talk:

Pluto's Poetesses. Credits: Erin Osborn & Alice Osborn

Pluto’s Poetesses. Credits: Erin Osborn & Alice Osborn

I don’t think it was accidental that old King Pluto had four ladies scribing in his honor. He’s got that effect on women—ask Proserpina (aka Greek’s Persephone) and his largest moon, Charon, which is gravitationally locked in sync with Pluto’s orbit so that the two celestial bodies always face each other. Some other facts about Pluto and the New Horizons mission gathered from the talk and mentioned in the poems:

  • discovered by mistake by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 in search for Planet X presumed to exist beyond Neptune
  • first object identified in the Kuiper Belt
  • New Horizons took 9 years to get to Pluto; the gravitational boost from Jupiter reduced the time to get to Pluto by 5 years.
  • scientists discovered two of Pluto’s moons—Styx & Kerberos—after the New Horizons spacecraft launched in 2006

I enjoy writing planetary poems already but especially at these events because I can hear similar threads in each poem while noting each poet’s unique voice. I’ll share an expert from my poem here, “New Horizons Meets Planet X,” but be sure to watch the entire talk on YouTube (poets start about an hour into the video).

Feed me your data in bits
and bytes as we shimmy
in front of Neptune to soak

up the sun. I don’t see any rings
around you, so maybe we can
make a new moon or two.