A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


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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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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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May Days


hs-2011-11-a-xlarge_300I had to rest up after writing all those April poems for the Poem-a-Day Challenge. It took 3-4 days before I could read the poems, and I have to say, I’m quite happy with the result. During the challenge, I can’t spend time with each poem because I’ve got to crank out another one. So having the time to step away and come back to what I’ve written helps me see each poem in a new light. There are quite a few that I want to work with so they can be sent out for publication this summer and fall.

With the true arrival of Spring, I’m getting out more. The NC Museum of Natural Sciences invited the poets back on the last day of April to write poems in response to a science talk about the Hubble Telescope. I also debuted some of the April poems at a Sunday brunch with the girls at the home of my tango friend and photographer, Katia Singletary and  at the Open Mic at Johnny’s Gone Fishing in Carrboro. I resumed my Tuesday poetry dates with the Two Writers Walk Into a Bar reading with Duncan Murrell and Liana Roux. The Murrell piece follows pyrotechnicians (yes, the people who set fireworks), so I can’t wait to go to Davis Library and read it in the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Also, ahead this month—the release of my new chapbook, My Mother’s Child from Hyacinth Girl Press. It’s been an amazing experience working with this small press and I can’t wait to share the details of this journey.


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Summer in Review


It’s been a jammed-packed 80 days since I last posted to the blog. It was only after this data guru did the numbers that I realized there was a balance between literary events and non-literary work that kept me busy the whole time.

June

  • Cave Canem Retreat (June 15-22). My third and final time at this retreat for African-American poetry. We had an awesome lineup of faculty: Chris Abani, Tim Siebles, Patricia Smith, and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon joined the founders, Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady. Not to mention the coolest graduation party ever.
  • Selected Poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. I landed at the RDU airport and drove straight to the book club for this Russian poet.
  • Lead a poetry exercises as part of the Carrboro ArtsCenter Summer Reading kickoff event.

CC class of 2014

July

August

  • Picked up a few new books at a book swap.
  • LIT 101. A relatively new open mic at Francesca’s Dessert Café in Durham happens every Third Sunday.
  • Third Thursday Open Mic in Fuquay Varina. I’m only able to attend this event once or twice a year and couldn’t resist participating in the Red Dress contest.
  • Carrboro ArtsCenter sponsored a Maya Angelou tribute reading, where people shared their favorite poems in her memory.

summer books 2014

September

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Throughout the summer, I met four times for the poetry one-on-ones with Kelly, submitted to one poetry contest and one anthology, and signed the contract with Hyacinth Girl Press for my chapbook, My Mother’s Child, due in early 2015.

As a double-life poet, all poetic activity takes place on the backdrop of the non-literary career, which kept its own busy schedule:

  • 1 project that I led,
  • 1 project started in June,
  • 1 subcommittee started in September,
  • 19 days of working late,
  • 3 days working on the weekend, and
  • 1 report completed in September but that will be presented in October.

In the interest of transparency, most of the summer was filled with all kinds of activity on the personal side including:

  • 4 parties,
  • 3 weddings,
  • 3 houseguests,
  • 9 milongas,
  • 3 road trips, and
  • my first mammogram

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And today, I give a workshop on revision, so I’ll have more to say about that soon!


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Winter/Spring Reading List


photo-20I really ought to use my Goodreads account to track the books I am reading, but I often forget to do that. So here’s what I can remember of what I read from November to March:

  • Robert Pinsky, The Sounds of Poetry: The January book club selection.
  • Rosario Ferre, The House on the Lagoon: Suggested reading for the Puerto Rico trip.
  • John Williams, Stoner: One of my favorite Christmas gifts thanks to my favorite German-friend who lets me borrow his office space
  • Nicole Terez Dutton, If One of Us Should Fall: Won the 2011 Cave Canem book prize
  • Mary Ruefle, Cold Pluto: I picked this up at the used bookstore in Chapel Hill then gifted it to another poet-friend.
  • Stephen Dunn, The Insistence of Beauty: The February book club selection. I didn’t get to discuss the book, but it was a great selection.
  • Abraham Lincoln, Selected Poems: Yes, Lincoln wrote poems. It’s a slim volume.
  • Philip Levine, Breath: The March book club selection. I found the craft of the poems most compelling.

I’m also in various stages of the books I picked up from AWP: the latest books from my VCFA advisors—Ralph Angel, Your Moon and Leslie Ullman, Progress on the Subject of Immensity—and the new book by Cave Canem fellow and the new VCFA poetry faculty member, Jamaal May, Hum.

Then of course, there are the five books I checked out of the UNC Davis Library last weekend:

  • Maya Angelou, Poems: The April book club selection
  • David Levy, Starry Night: Astronomers and Poets Read the Sky
  • Robert Crawford (Ed.), Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science
  • Diane Ackerman, Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: Includes a lot of science and nature poems
  • Frederick Seidel, The Cosmos Trilogy

If you’re sensing a theme with my current reading list, you may be right. The science poems are screaming for me to make them into a project, so I’m doing a little research while I wait for the poems to show up.


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The Busy Double Life


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I can’t believe it’s been almost two months since I posted to the blog. The double life has been busy on both fronts. The non-literary work has consisted of starting a new project, being pulled on to side project, pitching in to help on another project, and closing out an old project. You know, the usual.

I knew the poetry side was going to get busy this time of the year. January through May is the time when the reading period for most literary magazines and journals are open. So during February and March, I submitted and looking for places to submit. Also, I had a planned trip to Seattle for the AWP Conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs). This is the largest conference for writers in the US. I went for the first time last year to Boston, and this year, moderated the panel, Uncovering Hip Hop Poetry. I was fortunate to be on the panel with some phenomenal poets who were also Cave Canem fellows: Tara Betts, Adrian Matejka, and Roger Reeves. The panel was the brainchild of my VCFA poet-friend, Victorio Reyes. It was an amazing experience even when the lights inexplicably turned off.

AWP has become more like homecoming—seeing people I knew from VCFA and Cave Canem, going to off-site readings, having breakfastphoto-19, lunch, or dinner to catch up. Of course, the best part is walking the exhibitor aisles to learn about new literary magazines and journals, getting books signed by your favorite authors (mostly VCFA faculty for me this time), and have important conversations about what type of poet I want to be. AWP definitely fulfills one of my 2014 Poet Resolutions to spend more time with poets. It also made me realize how much I miss my prose peeps too.

February was also a time for planning. The NC Museum of Sciences is hosting Earth Month in April, which of course is the same month we poets celebrate National Poetry Month. The activities start off with a poetry workshop I will lead and culminate with the third Poetry Scope readings of poems about science. That’s two more 2014 Poet Resolutions right there!

Looks like there are more busy months ahead.


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Back to Business


opensignThe end of the government shutdown coincided with the end of writing a report for work. Now I have more time to turn my attention back to the business of poetry. Like any job—double life or otherwise—some tasks  you love and other tasks you tolerate as necessary evils. For me, submitting work to literary magazines and contests is  on the necessary evil side of things. It’s a lot of work for little (if any) reward and the process is never-ending:

  • Search for places to publish
  • Read published work to get a sense of how my work fits
  • Read and re-read submission guidelines
  • Print out potential poems to submit
  • Read, revise, and tweak selected poems
  • Order selected poems
  • Re-re-read submission guidelines
  • Prepare submission packet (cover letter/bio and poems)
  • Submit packet (and payment, if required)
  • Hope and pray

Last year, I focused on getting individual poems published and was successful. I’m still working that angle and adding chapbook contests to the mix. I have quite a few poems, but not all of them are ready for prime time. So selecting 10-30 of my better poems for a chapbook seems less daunting. Here are the chapbook contests on the horizon:

  1. Sunken Garden Chapbook Poetry Prize (10/31): co-sponsored by Tupelo press; 20-36 pages judged by Mark Doty 
  2. Coal Hill Review (11/1): co-sponsored by Autumn House Press; 10-15 pages judged by Michael Simms
  3. Minerva Rising Chapbook Contest (12/1): themed contest, “Daring to be the Woman that I Am;” 12-15 pages judged by Rosemary Daniell 
  4. Imaginary Friend Chapbook Contest (12/15): open to anyone who doesn’t identify as a straight, white male; 12-20 pages judged by Shane McCrae, Ching-In Chen, Margaret Bashaar, Noel Pabillo Mariano, and Ayshia Stephenson