A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


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Dear Husband: A Manuscript


Plate of french toast and fried egg in the foreground; open laptop in the background with cup of Earl Grey tea and teapot

My favorite poet’s brunch at my favorite Sunday brunch spot, Rifrullo Café

Yesterday, I attended the Colrain One-Day Informational Retreat on the poetry manuscript. The workshop leaders, Fred Marchant and Joan Houlihan, touched on all the topics they cover in their four-day retreats. Each participant brought a packet of six poems they thought represented their manuscript. Fred and Joan guided the discussion of the packet by asking us: Is the voice consistent? Do the poems feel like they represent the manuscript in style and tone? Throughout the day, we considered the emotional content holding the poems together and whether the chronology of the poems supported or detracted from the overall feeling the manuscript established for the reader. The latter third of the day, we discussed the specifics of creating a manuscript: length (15-30 pages for a chapbook; typically 60-70 pages for a full-length collection); finding publications and contests for manuscripts and individual poems; and establishing your presence in the poetry world. At the end, we did an exercise where we searched for good titles within our poems, and closed the day by reading some of our work.

The specific feedback for my poems made me feel good about the progress I’ve made since I took Kwoya Maples‘ advice to create a document and title it “manuscript.” The manuscript’s working title, “Dear Husband,” is a series of poems with the same title. I thought I needed to keep the set together, but Joan & Fred suggested that I use each “Dear Husband” poem as a structural device, and possibly as section dividers that provide the reader with emotional markers throughout the manuscript. This advice is probably going to be easier said than done. It did get me to think differently about the themes each “Dear Husband” poem addressed and the other poems that could amplify that theme. Overall, the workshop made me realize I needed to be more intentional about the order of poems, their themes, the variations on that theme, and taking opportunities to swerve and surprise the reader.

I’m about a third of the way to a full-length collection, and after this workshop, I feel more confident about where it is going. There’s a lot more writing ahead and a lot more brunches needed to support the work.


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February is Time to Flourish


 

My first blog post of 2019 comes two almost months after my last post. I’ve cut the time in between posts by 66% this year. It’s Day 41 and I’m already winning!

It’s also been 3 years, 1 month, 1 week, and 2 days since I moved to the Boston area. The passage of this time has never quite affected me as much as it did this morning when I activated my new HSA card. The friendly automated voice told me that the company issues a new card every three years. Who knew WageWorks was counting too?!

Now that the reaccreditation visit is four weeks away, I’ve directed my energy toward my manuscript. I’m fortunate enough to work at a college where I can audit a course with a Pulitzer Prize-winning and National Book Award-winning poet and that his course meets late afternoons once a week. I’ll have to come to work early and/or stay late in order to make up the time, but it’s a small sacrifice for the opportunity to learn and contribute to a community of poets on a weekly basis. I had a poem workshopped in the second class. I wasn’t quite sure about getting feedback from students—any of whom could be my child had I made different life choices. However, they had thoughtful suggestions and helped me to see how my poem resonated with their experiences.

As if taking a class on campus isn’t cool enough, I’ve been invited to submit a poem for MBTA’s Poetry on the T and to read with Lynne Viti on BlogTalk Radio’s Quintessential Listening program (check out this episode with writing faculty member, Heather Bryant).    These opportunities certainly make me feel like 2019 is indeed my year to flourish. Flourish is the one word I have chosen to embody this year, an idea inspired by this post by a friend on the OneWord365 website. I’m looking forward to what the other 324 days will bring.

 


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April in NOLA


Last weekend, I met the Margaret Bashaar, editor and founder of Hyacinth Girl Press the micro-press that published my chapbook. It was the first time we had met in person and she had heard me read the poems from the chapbook. Margaret submitted a proposal for a panel reading from various HGP titles at the New Orleans Poetry Festival. I told her if the panel got accepted, I would “make it work.” In actuality, it was harder to find a flight for a decent price and reserve accommodations than it was to take time off from work.

For the reading, I selected poems from the chapbook that I do not normally read— “Peaches and Pound Cake,” “Why I Stopped Mentoring White Women,” “There’s a Graveyard in My Belly,” and “Transit of Venus”—in addition to the one poem I love to read, “Twenty Questions for Black Professionals,” which was, thankfully, the poem my editor wanted to hear. I also read three new poems I’ve written in the past year that have received the polishing after they’ve been through the weekly critiques over Skype. Although I was on the ground less than 48 hours, I got a chance to meet and hear some great poets, take in the street art on St. Roch Avenue, eat beignets at Café du Monde, have a Bloody Mary & gumbo at Stanley, and visit Marie LaVeau’s House of Voodoo before heading back to the airport.

This week’s poems were a combination of poets I wanted to make sure I included and poems that jumped off the page (or the screen) when I was reading them.

Day 23: The Abandoned Valley by Jack Gilbert 

Day 24: The White Ones by Langston Hughes

Day 25: from Citizen, VI [My brothers are notorious] by Claudia Rankine

Day 26: Facing It by Yusef Komunyakaa

Day 27: The Summer Day by Mary Oliver

Day 28: One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

Day 29: Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note by Amiri Baraka 

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End of Summer Rush


Last Monday, the student leaders arrived on campus, signaling the slippery slope to the start of the semester. Knowing that my summer was officially coming to an end, I headed off to NYC with my mom & sister to see a Broadway show and the sights. Even though I’m a native New Yorker, there’s still something special about the skyscrapers that make the city what it is.
Empire State Building

I’m also rushing to cram in as much poetry as I possibly can. I finished an online workshop with Ada Limón, where I wrote three new poems and one revision. She provided prompts with sample poems to inspire us. We had to post our poems by Monday and comment on everyone else’s poem by Sunday night. It was tough to keep the momentum after a full week of poetry in Provincetown. My brain spent more time focused on the semester ahead. Poetic thoughts mostly occurred in the moments before fully waking up or falling asleep, which doesn’t help when you need to write them down. All in all, I’m glad I took the time to participate and now have some material to mold in the fall.

 


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P is for P-town


PoeT

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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Summer in New England


BOS harbor

In Boston, Spring felt like it arrived on June 7th, a mere two-weeks before the official start of summer. We had so much rain and unseasonably cool temperatures. I’m glad I didn’t put my lightest down coat in storage. Now that the warm weather has decided to stick around for a while, it’s time to plan ahead for summer in New England.

I started the month of June with a staycation where I breakfasted my way around the neighborhood. Brookline has a lot of shops and restaurants that I usually whiz by during my morning walks. Staying at home meant I could take longer walks that ended in delicious meals. Like this one from Eagles Deli (0.07 miles from my apartment).

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Staycation also meant I could pop into various boutiques and see a movie in the middle of the day at Coolidge Corner Theatre. I took my journal with me everywhere to work on the poetry cleanse poems while I was eating, waiting, or on the Green Line.

At work, Summer Fridays started on Friday! We work Mondays throughThursdays, 8 am to 5 pm and take Fridays off. I plan to use my Summer Fridays to focus on the creative life that had been neglected as the Spring semester winded down. You’ve already seen evidence of that from the last post. I also took the opportunity to update the News from the Corner Office and About the Poet pages on the website. I’ll also use my Fridays to apply for residencies, and maybe, get back to submitting my work.

This summer, I’ve signed up for two poetry workshops at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown: a four-week online workshop with Ada Limón; and an in-person workshop with Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Only while writing this post did I realize the two workshops overlap. I guess that means more intense poems. Fortunately, the in-person workshop meets from 9 am until noon and the online class is asynchronous.

In addition, I will continue my role as facilitator for the Dudley Poetry Club. In January, took over this role from Brionne Janae, a fellow Cave Canem alumna. The group met weekly during the Spring and decided to continue meeting once a month this summer. I love the diverse faces and voices of this group. The workshop has really helped me transition to Boston.

Although not nailed down, my summer plans include a NYC trip and a visit to Maine, both 3.5-hour drives in opposite directions. That’s East Coast living, y’all!


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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!