A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.


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June 2020: Lucille Speaks


The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010

The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010

My last post was on the day before Memorial Day–the day before the world witnessed George Floyd’s murderbefore their eyes, the day before Christian Cooper posted his video of a white women pretending to be frightened as she called the police to say that a Black man was threatening her when he simply wanted to watch birds in peace, six days after the arrest of the man who shot the video of Ahmaud Arberybeing chased and killed by white men because he was #joggingwhileblack, and 12 days after Breonna Taylor was killed while in her bed whenthe police entered without warning and fired multiple shots into her apartment.

I had been posting poems I read before lunch and before dinner on Facebook and Instagram following the Italian poet’s Franco Arminio’s first of 10 recommended domestic decalogues—ways to spend our time during lockdown. The first poem I posted (3/21), Emily Dickinson’s “My life closed twice before its close“ is part of the anthology The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing edited by Kevin Young. I bought this book on March 7th—the last time I got my nails done before the last social gathering I attended before stay-at-home became a thing. Little did I know how much I was going to need this book three weeks later.

I posted my first Lucille Clifton poem on April 21st—“blessing the boats”—a poem featured in the Academy of American Poets’ selection of “Shelter in Poems.” Their selection of Clifton’s work prompted me to pull out my copy of The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010, a 700+ page volume edited by Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser. Her poems provided comfort during that month of isolation, and after recent events that reminded us that racism is alive and well in America, I found that her poems spoke all of the words we needed to hear and that anyone needed to say. So for the last 2+ months, I’ve let Mama Lucille speak.

BlessingtheBoats

blessing the boats by Lucille Clifton

Yesterday would have been Lucille Clifton’s 84th birthday. I had the honor of meeting her the year before she died at the Furious Flower Poetry Center. I posted the two poems she wrote about turning 70. I think it is only fitting to end this mark this mile of my stay-at-home marathon with her poem, The Last Day (p. 365):

we will find ourselves surrounded
by our kind          all of them now
wearing the eyes they had
only imagined possible
and they will reproach us
with those eyes
in a language more actual
than speech
asking why we allowed this
to happen          asking why
for the love of God
we did this to ourselves
and we will answer
in our feeble voices          because
because          because

 

~from The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 (BOA Editions Ltd, 2012) edited by Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser.

 


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May Days 2020


May and April blended together—mostly because I spent so much time indoors. The weather has improved in the few weeks with more sunny days beckoning me outdoors. I’m not always able to carve out the 30ish minutes to walk around my neighborhood. My workload has picked up as we move into the summer and figure out fall plans.

Poetry has continued to happen in full force in a virtual world. This month I have:

Home-cooked meals have continued with shrimp and grits emerging as my favorite quarantine dish. I ordered my first takeout meal from one of my favorite places to write in my neighborhood. I was glad to be reminded of this place by the high school student newspaper, which has featured local businesses each week.

As my state begins to reopen, I’m looking forward to spending more time walking around town and seeing signs to life as we begin to emerge from our sheltered spaces. Every day feels like a staycation and yet we are “still doing business, just in a different way.”

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National Poetry Month 2020


I’ve spent the entire month of April “at home during a crisis trying to work.” Although it was definitely not the month I envisioned, I managed to stay as busy as I would have been in a typical National Poetry Month. Poetry quickly pivoted from in-person open mics to virtual live poetry readings and pre-recorded readings shown at a specified time and/or made available to watch on demand. I attended and participated in my fair share over these 30 days.

Seized by Wicked Enchantment: A Wanda Coleman Celebration (April 7). This virtual event celebrated the launch of a new selected volume of Coleman’s poetry edited by Terrance Hayes, and readings by Hayes, Mahogany L. Browne, Dorothea Lasky, Rachel McKibbens, Patricia Smith, and host Amber Tamblyn.

Living Poetry Open Mic of the Ether (April 9). My friends from Living Poetry hosted a virtual open mic where I was the featured reader. It was great to see and hear some of my Triangle area poets again.

Wednesday Night Poetry (April 22). This event has been held every Wednesday since 1989 and has moved to a pre-recorded format posted to their Facebook page during the pandemic. The Earth Day reading featured Naomi Shihab Nye, Jane Hirshfield, and current U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo.

Wellesley Books Reading (April 23). I participated in a poetry reading featuring Wellesley faculty that invited me to read with them last year, Lynne Viti (emerita) and Heather Bryant, as well as assistant professor of English, Tavi Gonzalez. This event was originally scheduled for in-person, but migrated to Zoom. The virtual format allowed members of my family to listen in.

In addition to these events, I continued in the tradition of posting photos of poems during National Poetry Month. This time, I posted my own published poems. I was very happy to have 30 published poems to share. I also read “won’t you celebrate with me” by Lucille Clifton for the Boston Athenaeum’s celebration of poetry.

On the double life front, I participated in a panel with our Posse II students and attended an online discussion of anti-Asian discrimination during COVID-19. The campus has adjusted to #thatZoomlife. I have 3-4 video conferences per day. Sitting in front of the camera for extended periods of time is exhausting and has made me rely on my reading glasses more.

Looking ahead to May, I anticipate a month pretty much like April—days spend indoors, evenings spent online. The sun and warmer weather will be welcomed companions on the next leg of this pandemic journey.


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November 2019 Recap


November rivaled October in its schedule. I took five flights, drove over 900 miles, had two executive coaching calls, saw two movies, presented at a professional conference, and went to my first Celtics game of the season. November stretched the double life to the point where there was an event or activity almost every day of the month.

November 2019 calendar on Nov 13th - Wizards at Celtics

November 2019

Week 1: November began on a Friday. I started that day with an executive coaching call and ended it with a flight from BOS to SJC to attend the wedding of a good friend’s daughter. By the time I drove from the San Jose airport to the hotel in Palo Alto, I had been awake for over 18 hours. I spent less than 36 hours on the ground and still managed to see a former student research assistant and a former colleague in addition to the attending the wedding reception. When I returned on Sunday evening, I went home for a quick bite to eat, and then, tossed my business suitcase in the car and drove down to Newport, RI. I spent the beginning of the week at the North East Association of Institutional Research (NEAIR) annual conference. I was a first-time attendee and presented in one of first panels on Monday morning. Needless to say, I was so relieved that all the logistics worked out. The rest of the week was pretty tame—aqua jogging class, dinner + music, and nails.

Week 2: This week as bookended by the poetry/personal life and the professional life. At the beginning of the week, I had brunch with a group of friends in Cambridge, took the T to meet a poet-friend at Boston Public Library to exchange work, and had dinner with another friend. I ended up visiting the same restaurant thrice–twice for dinner and once for after work drinks. Wednesday was the Wizards vs. Celtics, my first game of the season. The Celtics were on an eight-game winning streak having only lost the opener to the 76ers. This game was no different. Even at that stage in the season, the C’s had better chemistry with Kemba than with Kyrie (Sigh. I miss basketball). Friday evening and all-day Saturday, I participated as a member of a search committee for a high-level position on campus. Yes, you read that right. And I still managed to attend my favorite Boston-area milonga and a meetup event that weekend.

Week 3: Compared to the first two weeks of the month, this week was quite tame. I started off the week with brunch at the home of my good friends and their 2-year-old (Sigh. I miss brunch too). Monday was the Blacksmith House Poetry Series featuring a poet I met locally, Rage Hezekiah, and Jill McDonough. I had recently heard McDonough’s poem, “Cindy Comes to Hear Me Read” on an episode of The Slowdown (an excellent weekday poetry podcast from former PLOTUS Tracy K. Smith). It was the only week in November I had my Skype poetry date. I also had my second executive coaching call, which is part of the professional development program I’m participating in this academic year. The program features a small cohort of individuals who report to senior leadership. Although I know everyone in the group, I hadn’t had the opportunity to interact to this degree and understand the challenges they have been facing. When I first came to campus, all of the direct reports to senior staff met on a monthly basis, but that group dissolved. Participating in this program reminds me of how much I miss the opportunity to interact with my peers at work. The week ended with another type of loss—UCLA’s sixth loss of the season to our crosstown rivals, USC. The Bruins #BeatSC every year I attended UCLA, but of course, that was back in the 90s.

Two crew rowing on the Charles River from the Boston University Bridge

BU Bridge scene

Week 4: This week did not start with brunch. Instead, I went a writing retreat at GrubStreet sponsored by Boston Writers of Color. These monthly retreats provide space for writers of color to write and submit their work…kind of like Four Chairs and a Bench, but with 10 times as many people coming in and out during the day. I also managed to see the movie “Harriet” on the same day. The rest of capped off the week with a brief, but spectacular Thanksgiving trip to Durham. I saw ten different friends in 48 hours, including two Thanksgiving dinners, a Thanksgiving dessert, a Black Friday brunch, a pizza making party, and coffee at the RDU airport Starbucks before my flight back. Somewhere in there I had a really good slice sweet potato pie and saw the movie “Queen & Slim” with my movie buddy, Jim.


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October 2019 Recap


In my last post, I decided to recap each month between September 2019 and April 2020 with a separate post instead of summarizing everything in one post. October was the best month of 2019, which is why I didn’t want to distill everything down to a paragraph.

I did so much. Just look at this photo of October 21–24th on my calendar. And that’s only five days!

Calendar events Sun Oct 20 Financial District Walking Tour; Mon Oct 21 Aqua Jogging, Purple Rain Lecture & Movie; Tue Oct 22 Women Leaders Tango Class; Wed Oct 23 Eye Exam; Thu Oct 24 Women of Color in Academic Panel

Third week of October 2019

Week 1: October started off with a business trip to Lebanon to be part of an interim evaluation team for an accredited institution in Beirut. Everything about this trip was great—flying business class on Air France, the other members of my team, the hospitality of the host institution, the food, people, and history of Lebanon, and the rooftop pool at my hotel. The only downside of the trip was learning my limits with regard to dairy. Air France business class meals are curated by Michelin-starred chefs and feature yogurt-cheese-cheese-cream-butter-butter-butter-cheese-cheese + Chateauneuf de Pape. Since that trip, I’ve had to watch my dairy intake.

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Week 2: Started off with a college holiday and fall break, which gave me time to regroup from the jetlag of my Lebanon trip. Back then, I was also taking a tango class for experienced women leaders in Cambridge. I started leading in the summer with a couple that teaches at MIT. Being a leader, you have to manage multiple tasks at the same time—be aware of my axis, have an idea of what I want to do, be aware of my follower’s axis, understand the follower’s balance and skill level, communicate what I want the follower to do, lead that step, and then, react to the step the follower takes. All of this activity is happening while I am listening to and interpreting the music and navigating around other couples on the dance floor. And somewhere along the way, I want to make this a pleasurable experience for both of us. No wonder I’ve danced tango since November 2007 and I hadn’t seriously tried leading until 2019. The other highlight of the week was attending a lecture by Eve Ewing the scholar-poet-comic book writer-activist. I had bought her collection “Electric Arches” based on the cover photo, before I knew anything about her. It was great to hear about her research uncovering the effects of racism and inequality on Chicago Public Schools and get my book signed. I rounded out the week with brunch at what had become my favorite local spots and a planning meeting for the next Art Salon (more about the event when I get to January).

Slide from Eve Ewing lecture-50% schools closed by Chicago Public School; 90% of close schools were majority Black; 88% of students are African American; 1 in 4 schools with majority Black students and Black teachers were closed

Eve Ewing–Facts!

 

Week 3: I celebrated my three-year friend-iversary by going on a walking tour in the Financial District. I met my dear friend in October 2016 and were the only single people on a tour. I’ve been so grateful for her presence in my life, especially when I was working so hard preparing for accreditation. Another highlight of the week was seeing Purple Rain at Coolidge Corner Theatre. While it was great to relive Prince’s music & life, watching the movie at this age made me realize that movie is much better in nostalgia. But it was a great experience to see people of all ages, races, ethnicities, backgrounds, identities, and orientations celebrate an artist who meant so much to them. As the first photo of this post showed, I took an eye exam on October 23rd. I was fortunate to visit the optometrist who came to campus, a young woman with the loveliest Tennessee accent. I hadn’t been to the eye doctor since my Lasik surgery in 2009, and now, I’m at the age where I need to use reading glasses (+1.00 for now). In fact, I stopped writing this post to find my reading glasses because I need to wear them if I’m working in front of a screen a lot. I rounded out the week by participating in a Women of Color in Academia Panel on campus followed by drinks with a co-worker, my aqua jogging deep-water aerobics class, and tea with my accreditation work-husband at Athan’s Bakery.

Week 4: Definitely a double-life week. Sunday was another edition of Four Chairs & a Bench, and then, I headed to Kingston to catch up with a college friend. She invited me to to talk poetry with her AP English class. The class was reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets From the Portuguese,” which I had on my bookshelf. It was great to chat with the class about their lives, their interests, and the next step of their journeys. I took the commuter rail back to South Station, my first time riding the commuter rail in the Boston metro area. So happy that I had the app to purchase the ticket back to the city. I drove to campus in time to briefly meet with a job candidate. The week and month ended with the MLK Memorial Lecture featuring Jabari Asim the author-poet-playwright-writing professor. I couldn’t stay for the whole event, but what I managed to hear was inspiring and necessary. Some quotes:

  • Some of us didn’t have many books, but we had plenty of stories.
  • Participating in the process of literary creation is always done with our ancestors looking over our shoulders.
  • For those first Black writers, each letter they made into parchment was a nail in slavery’s coffin.
  • Sometimes we strut to reassure ourselves we belong.
Jabari Asim at a lecturn

Jabari Asim MLK Lecture


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April 2019 Poem-a-Day, Week 1


Happy National Poetry Month!

I hosted another Four Chairs & a Bench, finishing up two revisions and a submission. Check out the photo of the spread!

FACB 201904JPG

Snacks for Four Chairs and a Bench

In keeping with last year’s tradition, I am posting a poem that I love every day to Instagram (@ptpoet). Here are the first seven poems:

Day 1: “the lesson of the falling leaves by Lucille Clifton

Day 2: “Psalm 150” by Jericho Brown

Day 3: “Insomnia” by Elizabeth Bishop

Day 4: “The Garden” by Jacques Prévert

Day 5: “Sonnet 28” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning 

Day 6: “Thirsting” by Alicia Ostriker

Day 7: “Topography” by Sharon Olds

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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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May-pril then June


Since I’ve started working at a college, I’ve noticed that April & May become one long month. It’s the mad rush after Spring Break to get in those last one or two meetings of the academic year before students and (most) faculty leave for the summer. May-pril is the reason I could not commit to writing poems every day for National Poetry Month, but instead posted photos of 30 poems I loved. Here’s the Day 30 poem, From Space to Time by Carolyn Rodgers.

day 30 from space to time

“From Space to Time” by Carolyn Rodgers

In May-pril, the work life requires all of my time and attention. This year is a little more intense because I’m trying to leave room for writing and poetry events while keeping up with the NBA playoffs (#CUsRise ☘️). Last weekend, I went to the 10th annual MassPoetry Festival where I attended readings by Cave Canem executive director, Nicole Sealey (see her poem on Day 16) and fellows Lillian Yvonne Bertram, Curtis Crisler, Chanda Feldman, Brionne Janae, and Kamilah Aisha Moon. On Sunday, I caught the tail end of the panel about building community through the poetry cleanse and participated in a panel with fellow VCFA alums—Victorio Reyes Asili, Greg Hill,  Lauren Banks-Killelea, and KT Landon—to share our experiences at a low-residency MFA programs with people trying to figure out if such a program was right for them.

I look forward to June and the return of Summer Fridays. I plan to use that time to write (and do errands and restart my yoga routine and eat at my favorite breakfast places in walking distance). Until then, I’m going to try to enjoy the Spring weather as we countdown to commencement on the 1st.

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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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