A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


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From April to August 2019


Fraser Park Trail in Colorado - view of the mountains and pond from the bridge

Fraser Park Trail in Colorado

I’ve had a busy summer. In true double-life fashion, there was as much going professionally as poetically, though the scales probably tilted more to the poetry side. Summer at a college is mostly quiet, time to focus on a few projects, and of course, attend conferences. Summer in New England is fabulous. The warm weather came in late May and the heatwave started in July (the hottest July in record in Boston). Now that it is August, I can feel the wind cool down, the sun dial itself back, and the heartbeat of my Boston life pick up the pace. The marathon of the 2019–20 academic year is about to start.

Before the memory of summer fades, I wanted to share some highlights:

APRIL

The last two poems from the 2019 Poem-a-Day—”Naturalization” by Jenny Xie & “How to Triumph Like a Girl” by Ada Limón—and a photo of the Gateway Arch that I visited while attending a professional conference in St. Louis.

 

MAY

Highlights include a Mother’s Day visit by mom & sister, a Boston Harbor cruise, and the Marvin Gaye stamps from USPS (released on April 3, 2019). In the photo below, my mom is standing in front of the state capitol building in Rhode Island, knocking that state off of her list.

 

JUNE

June was a month filled with double-life events. First up, a drive up to Montpelier, Vermont to celebrate the release of “Five Midnights” by my fabulous VCFA sister, Ann Dávila Cardinal. Then I spent two weeks in Cambridge at the Harvard Institute for Management & Leadership in Education. I learned a lot from the smart & funny crew in Group #1, saw some really cool maps at Harvard’s Map collection, and got this nifty certificate. And of course, another shot of Boston Harbor during a sunset cruise.

 

JULY

In July, I’m able to enjoy my summer Fridays. I found a new place to write at the Boston Athenaeum, a private library across from the MA state capitol building. My favorite spot to write so far is the 5th floor terrace. Once it gets cooler, I’ll have to explore other parts of the building. I also saw Mark Doty read at the Longfellow House & was inspired to buy a new hat. At the end of the month, I saw some really cool Porsches at a car show at Wachusett Mountain.

 

AUGUST

I spent a lot of time this summer writing and critiquing poems. In August, I went out to Colorado to work on my manuscript. The long weekend in the mountains was really a check-in to see which poems can coalesce into a coherent collection. I’m about two-thirds of the way, so there’s definitely more writing at Boston Athenaeum in the near future. I’m so grateful to my VONA 2015 Jellyfish, June Inuzuka, for lending me her cabin  for the weekend, a wonderful space to write & relax (see hot tub photo below).

 


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April 2019 Poem-a-Day, Week 4


Writing nook at the Moonrise hotel in St. Louis

The double life is in full effect. In addition to preparing two presentations for board meetings, I also facilitated two workshops for high school students for MassPoetry‘s Student Day of Poetry and participated in a pop-up poetry reading during the Community Day of Poetry. Right now, I am in St. Louis for a professional conference, and later this week, I will host an open mic during the faculty-staff pub night.

Here are the poems for Week 4, featuring several Cave Canem fellows & faculty:

Day 22: “Frederick Douglass” by Robert Hayden

Day 23: “Ode to the Flute” by Ross Gay

Day 24: “Poem for Amadou Diallo” by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon

Day 25: “Hysterical Strength” by Nicole Sealey

Day 26: “Muscadine” by Mary Moore Easter

Day 27: “Vacation” by Rita Dove

Day 28: “Poet of an Ordinary Heartbreak” by Chris Abani

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April 2019 Poem-a-Day, Week 3


This week was short and busy. In Massachusetts, it was April vacation week. My colleague took time off while school was out, which means I was “home alone” at work. It also meant that there wasn’t as much traffic on the drive to campus every day. I spent most of the week lamenting how much farther along Spring was in Durham compared to Boston. By the end of the week, the trees in Boston started waking up. Next weekend, I’m heading to St. Louis for a professional conference. The weather is so nice there that I’ll have to break out my open-toed sandals.

The highlights of this week include a celebratory dinner in honor of getting into a summer institute program at Harvard and hearing my VONA faculty, Willie Perdomo, read from his new collection, The Crazy Bunch.

Here are the poems from Week 3

Day 16: “That’s My Heart Right There” by Willie Perdomo

Day 17: “Don’t Go Into the Library” by Alberto Ríos

Day 18: “You Thought I Was That Type” by Anna Akhmatova

Day 19: “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke

Day 20: “A poem from a father to his youngest son” by Timothy TB

Day 21: “Twenty-Year Marriage” by Ai

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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.