A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.

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When a Poet Doesn’t Write


I haven’t written a poem or even thought about writing a poem since May 3rd. I knew I needed to take a break after the poem-a-day challenge in April, but I didn’t plan on stopping this long. The curious thing is that I don’t feel guilty about it. I’m not beating myself over the head with the notion that I should be writing. There’s no pang in my stomach when I bring a purse too small to hold my poet’s notebook. My scientist-friends tell me that this period of non-writing is simply a time for storing up potential energy that will soon be converted into kinetic energy.

A similar pause in my poetry happened in February after writing over 40 poems for the “One Love” event. Like then, I have been biding my time by reading while waiting for the muse to make time for me in her busy schedule. This month, I’ve read:

1) The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Gatsby tells the story of the balance between wealth and excess and hope and self-deception and how we can go overboard on either side. I wanted to re-read the book before the movie came out, and at 180 pages, it only took 4 days.

2) The New Black by Evie Shockley – I saw Evie Shockley at AWP moderating a panel “Post Black? Culture, Craft, and Race in Verse,” which examined race in poetry. I had heard of Evie Shockley, but never read her work until now.

3) The Selected Essays of Denise Levertov – I picked up this book from UNC Davis by mistake. I thought it was her selected poems collection. But it had been a long time since I immersed myself in poetic craft book and the book has one of my favorite essays, “On the Function of the Line,” so I decided to hold onto it for a little bit longer. Plus I’ll use it to prepare for the upcoming podcast on Black Mountain Poets.

4) The Really Short Poems of A.R. Ammons – This book by a North Carolina poet is the June selection for the Living Poetry book club. I could probably finish it in a one-hour sitting, but lately, I’ve been filling those hours with naps instead. There’s always the bus!

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Memorizing Poems


Every first Saturday, Living Poetry meets at Panera Bread in Brier Creek for our monthly poetry brunch. I love this event because it combines two things I love most: breakfast and poetry. Reading poems always leads to discussions about craft, what it means to be a poet, the relevance of poetry today, teaching, and whatever non sequiturs Don the Brunch brings up. Before I know it the two hours are up.

In the last year, the event has encouraged attendees to “bring a memorized poem”. And I am always up for THAT type of challenge. I grew up reciting lines in church plays and ready to spout off a bible verse whenever asked, even at the dining room table (Jesus wept). Lately, if I find a poem I love, I memorize it. Learning the lines and the exact order of words brings me closer to the poem—as if I am a mechanic looking under the hood of car, disassembling and reassembling the engine. I know I have to get the poet’s word choice and line breaks right in order to convey the same meaning and feeling to the listener.

To memorize a poem, I often start by writing it by hand, which puts me in the mindset of the poet who penned it. Then I read and repeat the first two lines until I know them well, add two more lines, and repeat the first four lines until I can say the block of words with ease. I find it much easier to memorize poems with stanzas and punctuation than one-sentence poems like my favorite from Jack Gilbert:

The Abandoned Valley

Can you understand being alone

so long you would go out in the middle of the night

and put a bucket into a well

so you could feel something down there

tug at the other end of the rope?

In addition to the Gilbert poem, I’ve memorized three other poems: Ego Tripping (There May Be a Reason Why) by Nikki Giovanni, Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden, and Topography by Sharon Olds. After the poetry brunch, I plan to add three more to my collection:

I love memorizing poems because you can carry them with you at all times—rattling around in my brain, tucked in a corner of my heart.

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The Poetry Stacks

One of my favorite writing spaces in the Triangle also houses an excellent collection of literary magazines—UNC’s Davis Library. The 1st floor periodicals section is a labyrinth of metal shelves surrounded by over-sized chairs in soft yellow, green, and plaid hues. The room is flooded with light from the floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides of the room. Every month or so I walk down an aisle and grab literary journals from their cold homes and carry as many as my arms can hold to a sunny spot by the front window.  (FYI – Such reading is best done with a dark chocolate mocha from Caribou Coffee).

Here is where I was introduced to the work of Adrienne Su, Victoria Chang, and Jan Beatty. Here is where I fell in love with Alberto Ríos’ “A Small Story about the Sky”, which inspired me to write a poem in response, “The Truth about Fire”

You’ve heard the story about the sky––/ how fire burned it black / and kept a little piece of blue. / If only the story were that simple: a fire growing into its power / and then the poor sky consumed/ by all those flames.

“After the First Shot” by Saeed Jones appeared in West Branch Issue 69

I am always surprised to see the work of poets I know.

And I make sure I bring quarters or dollar bills for the photocopier, so I can bring some of my favorites home.


A Few of My Favorite Work Poems

My last post featured a recently published poem about real-life work experience. As a double-life poet I often am influenced by what I hear, see, and feel during the work day. At times I am able to lend a poetic voice to the white collar bureaucratic office environment that occupies 8+ hour chunks of my weekdays. However, there are times when what I write about work just sounds like I’m  venting without really elevating  the topic to the universal. When I have trouble finding the poetic in the mundane, I turn to some of my favorite work poems to inspire me.

Philip Levine “What Work Is“: Levine’s award-winning collection of the same name pays homage to factory workers. The title poem is the quintessential work poem about the loneliness and powerlessness felt by a day laborer that just expands to include the unspoken love for his brother.

“How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek?”

Where much of Levine’s work poems focus on blue collar stiffs, poems in the collection, For a Living: Poetry of Work, features poems about white collar jobs. Two of my favorite poems in this anthology are Denis Johnson’s sonnet “White, White Collars

“We work in this building and we are hideous
in the fluorescent light, you know our clothes
woke up this morning and swallowed us like jewels,
and ride up and down the elevators, filled with us”

and Wanda Coleman’s lament about life as a medical billing clerk, “Drone

“i am a clerk
i am a medical billing clerk
i sit her all day and type
the same type of things all day long
insurance claim forms
for people who suffer chronic renal failure”

Lastly, Jan Beatty’s “My Father Teaches Me to Dream.” The final lines say it all.

“There’s no handouts in this life.
All this other stuff you’re looking for—
it ain’t there.
Work is work”

Ok I realize most of these poems don’t portray work in the best light, so I promise I’ll post some feel good work poems soon. If you know of any, feel free to leave a comment!


Summer Reading List

Tearing a page from my fellow Living Poetry co-organizer and blogger extraordinaire, Tara Lynne, here are the books I’m reading this summer:

Books on my summer reading list include “Life on Mars” by Tracy K. Smith and all three poetry collections of Richard Blanco.

  1. The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry (edited Rita Dove) – Yes TPAoTCAP is a mouthful, but it is chock full of poems and poets from a cross-section of society.
  2. Three books by double life poet, Richard BlancoCity of a Hundred Fires (1998) Directions to the Beach of the Dead (2005), and Looking for the Gulf Motel (2012). I’m hoping to land an interview with him for the blog.
  3. Life on Mars (2011) by Tracy K. Smith  – Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Smith is also Cave Canem alumna.
  4. Radial Symmetry (2011) by double life poet, Katherine Larson. Larson won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition in 2010.
  5. Where I Must Go (2009) by Angela Jackson – or as we call her at Cave Canem, “Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty!” This book was the poet-playwright’s first novel and received a great review in the NY Times!
  6. Practical Grammar In Which Words, Phrases, and Sentences Are Classified According to Their Offices; And Their Various Relations to One Another (2012) by Stephen W. Clark. A recent NY Times article mentioned this book in relation to diagramming sentences.
  7. The Undertaker’s Daughter (2012) by Toi Derricotte  – The latest collection of poems by this Cave Canem co-founder.


I’m also planning to borrow Audre Lorde’s biomythography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (2011), from someone in my Goodreads circle!  What books do you have on your list? Let me know by leaving a comment.