A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


Poetry Dates

Tuesday nights have become my date night with fellow poet, Kelly Lenox. We hail from the same MFA program, though we finished 5 years apart. It was Kelly who first proposed the idea to met on a regular basis to exchange work. In the past, I participated in critique groups that met either face-to-face or via email on either a weekly or monthly basis. Often the quality of feedback depended on the people who showed up, how much time each person spent with the poem, and whether they were able to articulate something more than their like/dislike of a particular part of the poem.

The idea of a dyad exchange intrigued me because I knew Kelly was a good reader of my work and I enjoyed reading her work. Also trying to get 2 schedules to mesh is way easier than 4 or 5, even if you use Doodle. In the beginning, Kelly and I would either exchange poems for critique or read and discuss a poem that WOWed us. Recently, we added a few poetry-related events like going to NC State to see the inaugural poet Richard Blanco promote his new memoir and going to Two Writers Walk Into a Bar on the second Tuesday of the month to hear local poets and prose writers read their work. We’ve even had time to write from one of the Living Poetry Monday poetry prompts when we didn’t have anything to share.

Richard Blanco on poetry date night


NC Literary Hall of Fame

photo 5

On Sunday, one of my favorite poets was inducted into the NC Literary Hall of Fame–Jaki Shelton Green. I first met Jaki when she was Poet Local for Living Poetry. Back then, she was the first ever Piedmont Laureate, so it was a coup to get her to drive from Mebane to chat with relatively unknown poets on a Sunday afternoon. From that point on, Jaki and I forged a friendship, which I value immensely. Although she has faced the adversity of losing a child to a tragic accident and suffered from an illness that affected the use of her hands, Jaki remains committed to sharing her worldview through poetry. Her poems are a mix of Negro spiritual, ancestral incantation, conscientious objector, and mother wit. Here’s an excerpt of her poem, “i know the grandmother one had hands” that appears in her 2005 collection of new and selected poems, Breath of the Song.

i know the grandmother one had hands
but they were always inside
the hair
twisting it into rainbows
i know the grandmother one had hands
but they were always inside
holding the knots
counting the twisted veins
holding onto herself
lest her hands disappear
into sky
i know the grandmother one had hands
but they were always inside the clouds
poking holes for the
rain to fall.

This year’s other inductees included Betty Adcock, Ronald Bayes, and Shelby Stephenson. Congratulations to NCLHOF Class of 2014!


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.


  • 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



  • 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


sparkafterdark 2013

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


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

Sharing an interview I did with Ian Bodkin of Written in Small Spaces where I talk about  my how I became a poet, my writing process, balancing the wissliterary and non-literary career, and functioning somewhere between Wally (Wallace Stevens) and Willy (William Carlos Williams).



Poet Resolutions 2014

2014Of the six poet resolutions I made last year, I accomplished four:

  • Publish six poems: In 2013, seven poems were published
  • Share my poetry: April and November poems appeared on the blog.
  • Talk to more double life poets: This year I spent time with double-life poets and prose writers, including Tracey Gratch, whose poem I found while reading a scientific article for a work project.
  • Blend double lives more: In addition to listing poems on LinkedIn, I read a few poems during my birthday celebration at work. During the travel for the work project I lead, several people had checked me out and inquired about the MFA.

This year’s resolutions are not too different.

Teach a poetry workshop: This goal was on last year’s list, but I didn’t find the courage or time to do it. This year, the co-organizers of Living Poetry have mapped out a series of poetry workshops, including two workshops on revisions and publishing your work that I volunteered to teach/co-teach.  The LP organizers are good about keeping me on task.

Organize three poetry readings: Last year, I organized two poetry readings for the weekly Science Café at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. The museum has agreed to making this reading an annual event. So now I have to find two other opportunities to organize a reading in 2014.

Six poems published: This goal worked last year, so I’m keeping it on the list. This goal requires me to write and submit, which is always the struggle as a double-life poet.

Spend more time with poets: When my work project picked up steam in July,  I had a more difficult time finding time to spend with poets. Sure I  helped to organize poetrySpark in September and was a featured reader at the West End Poetry Festival in October, but I barely saw poets in the last two months of the year.  So I think spending time with poets at least once a month is a good way to operationalize this goal.

Start a poetry project: I have no idea what this goal means or what it will look like. It may blend my love of science with my love of poetry. It may mean collecting work poems or poems by double-life poets. We’ll see!

What are your poetic goals for 2014? Feel free to share them in a comment.

Poetry in Plain Sight

1 Comment

Winston-Salem Writers started a cool program this year where they put poetry on display in stores throughout the downtown area. My poem, “Something Missing,” was selected as one of four poems featured for the month of May. This poem has special significance to me because I wrote it on my birthday last year (April 12th) as part of the April Poem-a-Day Challenge and it is a poem about my father, a subject I have a hard time writing about. Here’s a link to the video of me reading this poem and two other poems, “Work Husband” and “Hold That Hot Potato.”


In Service to Poetry

living poetry leaf_2I’ve been a member of the Living Poetry Meetup group since December 22, 2008—7 days after the group was started—and a co-organizer for almost 3 years. During that time, I’ve organized discussions with local poets, facilitated the poetry book club and critique group, recorded several podcasts, sent out poetry prompts every Monday morning, and volunteered for poetrySpark. At times, my Living Poetry responsibilities have been hard work and have taken time away from my own writing, but those times were minimal, and even secondary, to the pleasure of meeting new poets, hearing old, new, and new-to-me poems, and discussing our craft.

But I never thought of it as a service to others—until yesterday. At Living Poetry’s 4th Anniversary Party, double-life poet, Anna Weaver (who took the bronze in our Best of Living Poetry 2012 contest) thanked the Living Poetry organizers for all that we do for poetry in the Triangle. Someone else chimed in and called Living Poetry, “A one-stop shop for poetry in the Triangle” (which should become our new tagline). I must admit, it was a little overwhelming to be thanked for promoting, developing, and supporting poetry—something that I absolutely love to do. I guess if you’re doing something you love, it doesn’t seem like a burden.

And while I’m on the subject of thanking people who act in service to poetry, I’d like to give special thanks to my co-organizers, Bartholomew Barker, Tara Lynne Groth, and Angelika Teuber, who make  it fun and cool to be a poet!


Year in Review 2012

2012 YIR

I’m taking a page from the playbook of my poet-friend and blogging guru, Tara Lynne Groth of WriteNaked, and doing the hip thing: a post what I learned and accomplished this year.

What I learned is simple: Write! Write! Write! Submit! Submit! Submit! ‘Nuff said.

Now—on to the month-by-month highlights of 2012

January: Graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts with my MFA in Writing.

February:  Participated in peer review with fellow VCFA alum. Made 2nd presentation for the job.

March: Worked like crazy. Not much else. 😦

April: Wrote 30 poems for April Poem-A-Day Challenge. Turned 40!

May: Attended Raleigh Review writing workshop with Dorianne Laux and Joe Millar. Made 3rd presentation for the job.

June: Attended 17th Cave Canem Retreat.

July: Launched this blog, Poet’s Double Life.

August: Attended a professional conference in Chicago, wrote poems, and took tons of photos.

September: poetrySpark! “Professional Disagreement” published in Mused: BellaOnline Literary Review.

October: Worked like crazy and got an “exceptional” annual performance rating. Attended a new open mic.

November: 29 poems for November Poem-A-Day Challenge. Five years at the job!

December: Three April poems published in the Best of Fuquay-Varina Reading Series anthology. “The Truth About Fire” accepted in Pedestal Magazine’s December 2012 edition.

I’m still working on my New Year’s resolutions for an upcoming post!


Critique Groups

When I first started writing, I shared poems with a few friends who appreciated the written word. After they read it and said it was good, I added the poem to the rest of my collection on my hard drive.  I was writing for myself, to express the feelings and memories that silenced my tongue. When I declared myself a poet, I somehow realized I had a duty to share what I wrote. But more than that, I wanted to make my poems better–though at the time I had no idea what that meant.

The Living Poetry Sharing Creativity workshop was the first time I had ever had my poems read by strangers. I found it helpful to hear my poem read in someone else’s voice, understand the places where the reader was confused or moved, and consider other possible directions to take the poem. After I finished my MFA, I found myself looking for a group to help me review and revise poems I wanted to send out for publication. At first, I joined a group that exchanged poems on a weekly basis via email, but found it difficult to keep up with the pace. Also without seeing the poet’s reaction, it was difficult to gauge whether the feedback I had provided was helpful. Fortunately some of my female poet-friends formed a face-to-face group that meets monthly and know I feel I have a safe place to test drive my poems.

Here are a few observations that I think make critique groups work:

Having structure for sharing feedback: A common structure for feedback starts with reading the poem twice, by someone other than the poet and then by the poet herself. Participants provide positive and negative feedback to the poet, trying not to repeat what someone else has said. Most of the time, the poet remains silent until all feedback is shared. Then the poet is allowed to ask questions or react to the feedback. Whereas our monthly group doesn’t follow this structure exactly, we’ve all been in enough workshops to know the usual process and that helps moves things along.

Working with poets whose work you like and whose feedback you trust: Most of the women in my monthly group have known or known of each other for years through poetry events in the Triangle. I’ve read or heard their work and always look forward to seeing what they are working on.

Commit to meeting on a regular basis: My monthly critique group is full of busy women who are balancing custody arrangements, teenager activities, business travel, and long-distance relationships along with everything else in our lives. But we manage to work around everyone’s schedule to find dates and time that work (Doodle helps!)

Sharing more than poems: A critique group is a place for us to connect as poets, share our successes and challenges, be supported by people who have responded to the same call.

Let me hear about your experiences with critique groups by leaving a comment.


Low-Residency MFA Programs

Three years ago this week, I heard the term “low-residency MFA program” during a lunch conversation with Cathy Smith Bowers, my workshop leader at the NC Writer’s Network Squire Summer Residency Workshop. My double life poet-friend, Joan McLean, asked Cathy to tell us more about the low-res program where she was faculty, Queens University of Charlotte. I called myself just listening to the conversation, but the more she talked about the structure of the program, the more curious I got. On the drive from Swannanoa to Durham, I decided to follow her advice and look into the low-res programs in the South––including Warren Wilson, the workshop’s host campus––and apply.

So how did I wind up in Vermont? Well, first I have to start with how VCFA got on my list. A simple Google search (“low residency MFA south”)  turned up the programs at Spaulding University in Kentucky and Converse College in South Carolina. The other programs on my list were the  two programs I had just discovered: Warren Wilson and Queens University of Charlotte. But as I reviewed the rankings on Atlantic Monthly and read what current students said about their programs on the MFA blog, Vermont College of Fine Arts started to emerge. The faculty and residency schedule looked good to me, and the length of the program, number of residency days, overall cost, and application requirements were comparable to its southern low-res counterparts. But most importantly, I was excited about the opportunity to study translation as well as the summer residency option in Slovenia. So VCFA got on the list, but I considered it a pie-in-the-sky program. Of course, when I got the welcome-to-the-program phone call from Director, Louise Crowley, going to VCFA became my reality.

And what a wonderful reality it turned out to be! In two years, I completed four semesters of creative work and five residencies–– four in Montpelier and the inaugural winter residency in Puerto Rico in 2011. During that time I wrote and revised over 60 poems, wrote a critical thesis on the poetics of work, assembled a collection of poems as part of my creative thesis, “Oddball”, and presented a lecture that inspired this blog, “A Poet’s Double Life.” The program made me get serious about my poetry career. This dedicated time improved the quality of my poetry because I received individualized feedback on my work from a well-regarded poet. Participating in the residency workshops gave me the skills to read and critique poems. Having a personalized study plan exposed me to different poets, poetic styles, and issues of craft and helped me learn that reading is the number one way to bring issues of craft to life and inspire my own work. But what I cherish the most about the program are the lifelong connections with my fellow students, people who love poetry and writing as much as I do, and who as a group, are an indispensable part of my life as a poet.

If you’re thinking about a low-residency or traditional MFA program, you should definitely do your own research to find the program that is right for you. Poets and Writers magazine has ranked MFA programs in 2011 and 2012 and the Association of Writers & Writing Programs has a graduate program database.

Let me know your thoughts about low-residency MFA programs by leaving a comment.