A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


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Summer Book List 2016


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The best thing about working at a college is the library privileges. I can borrow books for 6 months and renew them for another 6 months. I recently had to do that for The Black Unicorn by Audre Lorde. I checked out the book in February and have been savoring it. I also misplaced the book a couple of times, so that added to the delay in finishing it. I’m reading this book as well as Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón. I normally don’t read two poetry books simultaneously, but this collection was a National Book Award Finalist.

I’ve read quite a bit this summer, most likely because I had long airplanes rides when I went to New Orleans and St. Maarten. Here they are in order of when I finished them:


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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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Year in Review 2015


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This year was truly a double-life year. The first half of the year focused on getting the chapbook out into the world. The second half of the year focused on getting a new job and moving to Massachusetts. One realization: big changes in one side of the double life means the other side has to take a backseat. Once the job opportunity showed up, I got busy with preparing my applications and for two interviews as well as saying a very long goodbye to the city of Durham. Admittedly, I started the year in a bit of a writing funk. Fortunately, the weekly poetry dates with Kelly and the monthly poetry book club buoyed the poetry career while I focused on landing that job. This year’s highlights reveal how I was able to keep my toes in the poetry world.

January: Celebrated Living Poetry‘s 6th anniversary party.

February: Wrote poems for 14 Words of Love.

March: Appointed to Durham’s Public Art Committee.

April: Wrote 30 poems for the April 2015 Poem-a-Day Challenge. Organized poets writing at a Science talk and wrote a poem about the Hubble Telescope at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences.

May: Made the final revisions for the chapbook.

June: Chapbook launch and party for My Mother’s Child published by Hyacinth Girl Press.

July: Attended VONA retreat in Miami for writers of color and made so many more wonderful writer friends. Organized a second event and wrote a poem for King Pluto at the Science Talk on at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. Took the Five-Day Poetry Challenge.

August: Not much writing but I did attend the poetry book club for Charles Wright. Read a poem at the 2015 Gospel Expo fundraiser for Johnson C. Smith University.

September: Read at Two Writers Walk Into a Bar one year after attending the event for the first time. Interviewed by Scott Fynboe for the SAFTACast.

October: Attended the West End Poetry Festival.

November: Started sorting and organizing my books for the big move!

December: Made my final poetic appearance before moving to Massachusetts at Living Poetry’s Holiday Chocolate Open Mic. My Mother’s Child chosen as one of Sundress Authors’ Picks for Best Reads of 2015.

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A Poet Organizes Her Books and (Almost) Cries Trying


It’s been quiet on the blog as of late because the career side of the double life has commanded my full attention since the end of August.

First, the big news—I’m relocating to the Boston area and returning to higher education administration. The role involves providing data about student learning and outcomes so that the leadership can make better decisions. This position is similar to one I had at UCLA, except the focus is on undergraduates (and very impressive students at that).

I’m excited about this position for several reasons:
1) I get to return to a college campus—my favorite working environment.
2) The work I do daily has a direct effect on the strategic direction of the institution and the students it serves.
3) I have the opportunity to work with intelligent people who believe in the mission of the institution wholeheartedly.
4) I report to a manager who has made me feel valued and supported as a person and as a professional already.

I report to work in early January, which leaves a small window of time to pack and move. Of course, I started with the books. As a first step, I separated the books into three piles: must carry with me; could go to storage for six months if need be; and needs a new owner.

Identifying the books that needed to be donated was relatively easy. The paperback books went the Prison Books Collective in Carrboro. They accept all kinds of books, even my ethnic and gender studies books from grad school and numerous books on Spanish grammar and vocabulary. I donated the hardcover books to the Durham Public Library, mostly fiction books I had read and enjoyed, but didn’t need to carry with me because they were so large.

For some books, the decision to keep versus donate was a close call. For example, I donated Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True (hardcover) but kept She’s Come Undone (paperback). I found duplicates as well—for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange and The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (hardcover & paperback). Clearly, I love both of these books enough to have bought a second copy at one point. I’ll give them to someone instead of dropping them off in the library donation bin.

FullSizeRender(1)The books I chose to carry with me were no-brainers. Some of these books lived in my bedroom or in my car and not on bookshelves. I left them out because I liked seeing them everyday. A few I had read recently—The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon by Willie Perdomo and The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani; others were classics—The Correct Thing To Do, To Say, To Wear by Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, and The Sweet Flypaper of Life by Roy DeCarava & Langston Hughes.

By default, I needed to pack the rest of the books. I decided to organize them by genre before putting them in boxes, so I could easily unpack the books whenever I got settled. This process in one word: agonizing. I had to touch every single book I owned and fight back the urge to sneak it into the crates for the must-carry books. Some of these books have been on the to-read list for a while, but for each one of those books there is another I remember reading on the DRX bus or for poetry book club. They carry memories of my life in Durham because I bought most of these books during my 9 years here.

For some books, I had the comfort of knowing I had another book by the same author in the crates—Jaki Shelton Green‘s Breath of the Song in the crate; Conjure Blues in the box. What’s worse is that poetry books, in particular, are slim and can slip into the sliver of remaining space in the crate. It’s been hard to keep myself in line with my first mind.

I was so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task and the reality of moving, I wrote this blog post instead of continuing to organize. At least no tears were shed during the process.😉

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Summer Reading List 2015


IMG_6298August is flying by. My family came to visit in the beginning of the month, and since then, I’ve been busy with cookouts,  meteor showers, and birthday parties on top of the usual schedule of dancing, yoga, and poetry dates. I’m surprised that I even found time to read this summer. And my reading has been all over the place, thanks to recommendations from colleagues and friends.

Fiction

  • Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng: Borrowed from my colleague, this was the first book I fell in love with this summer. I related to much of the story—the pressure of being the overachiever, the isolation of being a minority—and thoroughly enjoyed the language from beginning to end.
  • Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt: Another borrowed book. Took me back to the 80s with its depiction of AIDS, Reagan, high school, sibling relationships, and New York City.
  • The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani: Ever read a mystery novel that centers on conjoined twins and where most of the main characters are Black? Me neither. That’s one of the reasons I’m enjoying it so much.

Poetry Book Club

  • Citizen by Claudia Rankine: A lyric essay which sparked as much conversation about race as it did about the poems and craft, if not more.
  • Black Zodiac by Charles Wright: A dense mediation which our small group thought inaccessible at first; together we came to appreciate the book, especially the last poem, “Disjecta Membra.”
  • The Gift by Hafiz: Just starting this book for our September meeting.

History/Non-Fiction

 


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Five-Day Poetry Challenge


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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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My Mother’s Child: A Chapbook


11402606_10206120537869576_2450195489782527196_oMy chapbook is finally here, My Mother’s Child published by Hyacinth Girl Press. In my last post, I promised to share the details of this amazing journey.  Although some of these poems were written almost four years ago and about 10 months elapsed from signing the publication contract to publication date, it’s really felt like a serendipitous labor of love.

  1. The Poems. I can trace the origins of some of these poems back to 2011 in my second semester at VCFA. I wrote other poems at two Cave Canem retreats, in response to a visual prompt at my weekly writing group, Written Word, and a workshop through the Raleigh Review. I know many of these poems started as hunks of stone scribbled in my notebooks while commuting on the DRX bus and were later revised during my times at UNC Davis Library (aka The Poet’s Gym). Six poems were previously published; five in 2013 and one in an anthology published in 2014.
  2. The Chapbook. Assembling chapbook is different than putting 3-5 poems together for a journal submission or workshop application packet. The poems have to speak to each other and belong together. After a year of submitting to contests for full-length collections and getting nowhere, I changed my strategy. When I sat down to look at all the poems, they seemed to separate themselves into two groups with a few bridge poems. Depending on the chapbook contest guidelines, I included more or fewer poems. I probably had 3 or 4 different configurations.
  3. The Contest. I entered My Mother’s Child into the Imaginary Friend Press chapbook contest in 2013. I liked this contest because it was specifically for anyone who did NOT identify as a heteronormative white male. Although I was a finalist for this contest, one of the judges, Margaret Bashaar, asked to publish the chapbook through her small press, Hyacinth Girl Press. This could not have happened if I didn’t enter contests and submit my work.
  4. The Cover Art. This amazing sketch was done by a local artist, Jolmar Millar (4th photo). I met Jolmar at a tribute event for Maya Angelou I emceed in November 2014. When Margaret gently nudged me about cover art, it took a while before I thought of Jolmar. And then when she came to mind, I didn’t have her email address. I emailed a mutual contact for Jolmar’s email address and the email went to spam. Then about a month later we were connected.
  5. The Publication Process. This process is no joke, and being a newbie, I didn’t know what to expect. There comes a point where you have to let go. Having a wonderful publisher and layout person helps. I still don’t think I caught everything, so don’t be too hard on me if you find something.

Here’s an excerpt from a poem that started out as an image I couldn’t get out of my head while driving to a poetry-on-demand event at Cloer Family Vineyard in April 2012. The first draft was written at Cave Canem in June 2012.

What makes sense disappears
under straw hats,
this bizarre America,
where they pay
to return to rural
roots my people fled—
that second Exodus
to auto plants, steel mills,
city-hard streets—
so I wouldn’t
have to stand in sweat
tasting the dry,
salted past
on my tongue.– Stuff White People Like #132: Picking Their Own Fruit, from My Mother’s Child – See more at: http://hyacinthgirlpress.com/yearfive/mymotherschild.html#sthash.q08uIMgj.dpuf