National Poetry Month 2017

So I didn’t write 30 poems for National Poetry Month this year. I wrote about 20 and I’m thrilled. As my officemate said to me yesterday morning, that’s more poems than you wrote last April, right? Exactly.

So now I have a  ton of work to revise, which is super because I haven’t send much work out into the world in the last year or so. I’m very much a fits and starts poet. I always have been and probably always will be. I don’t have designated writing times. I don’t have one specific place where I write. I don’t have a specific journal. I have about three journals going right now. This doesn’t include all of the notes I have on my phone. I definitely have a process, but it’s messy and constantly changing and it suits me just fine.

Could I be more prolific if I had a steady routine? Maybe. I used to worry about my routine. I used to worry about whether I was writing “small poems” that anyone would read. I used to worry that I had nothing to say. I used to worry that my point of view wasn’t fresh or sexy or whatever.

I used to worry about my poetry a lot. I still do in the quiet hours of the morning when I wake up at 4 AM and can’t turn my brain off, but then I remember that ultimately, for me, poetry is a selfish exercise. I write poems as way to process the world. Ultimately I keep writing and reading poetry because I want to get better at channeling the human experience into words. That’s what we (poets) are all trying to do, and I think many of us, are trying to do it with love and with great care. We’re not perfect. I’m certainly not, but perfection isn’t really the point anyway, or at least it has never been in my world.

I like the drafts I wrote for National Poetry Month and I was pleased to share some of the prompts with my students during the month of April. Yesterday, during one of my portfolio conferences, a student brought a draft of a poem she wrote from one of our shared prompts. We chatted about it for around 15 minutes and ultimately she decided to include it in her portfolio even though she thinks she’s “terrible at poetry.”

Special shout out to Two Sylvias Press for providing excellent prompts and just being awesome overall.

Also, to all my poet/writer friends, I’m involved in a brand new venture: The Indianapolis Review and we are currently open for submissions of poetry and original artwork. Please check out our website and send us some work. We’d love to read it!

 

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National Poetry Month: Days 2-4

The last time I did a poem a day for National Poetry month, I solicited prompts from people. It was part of Tupelo’s 30/30 project, so folks made donations and I wrote poems. I churned through the prompts that came in, but for probably about half the month, I found myself writing without a prompt.

It’s not that I need prompts. The one thing I’ve yet to have trouble with in my poetry life is finding a subject. Whether or not I write successful or interesting poems about those subjects is something else entirely, but I can usually find something that’s knocking around in my brain.

What I’ve discovered so far this time around (and it is early days yet) is I like writing from prompts. I also like the advice that came with one of the prompts from Two Sylvia’s Press, which is to set a timer. Whatever you have after you timer goes off, that’s the first draft of your poem.

I’m a full time faculty member at a community college where I teach five classes. I’m lucky in the respect that only one of those classes is comp, but I still spend a crazy amount of time reading and commenting on student work (can I get a hell yeah from my fellow teachers?), so finding time to write is always a struggle. It’s true that if I get an idea I might let it roll around in my head for a bit before I try to put it down on paper, but if I can just get a draft down in a 10-15 minutes, at least I have something tangible to work with in revision.

This is all to say that I took a fifteen minute break from grading this afternoon and wrote my poem for today. It’s not a perfect draft by any stretch of the imagination, but as I often tell my students, it doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to exist.

Subjects covered in my poems for days 2-4: mobile therapists, mental health apps, siblings, lemons, class discrepancies, trapper keepers, shells, cracks in plaster ceilings, dolls and trips to the mall.

 

Poetry Summer Reading List Book #5: The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison

Book: The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison 
Poet: Maggie Smith
Publisher/Date: Tupelo Press, 2015
Why I bought the book: I read Maggie Smith’s poem “The Fortune Teller to the Woodsman” back in January. I don’t remember how I found my way to the poem, but I loved it immediately and started following her on Twitter. In following her I realized her second book, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, was coming out shortly  (including “The Fortune Teller to the Woodsman).  All of this  coincided with AWP,  so it was perfect timing to meet Maggie and buy her book. Have I mentioned I love the internet?

What I admire about this collection: I really admire the way that way The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison works as a collection of poems. I like the way Maggie uses apologues throughout the book to tie poems and ideas together. I wasn’t familiar with the term “apologue” before reading this book, so it was fascinating to learn about them while reading these beaunnamedutiful poems.

I also really respond to the content of this collection. I love folk tales and fairy tales and I use them a lot in my intro creative writing class as prompts. Often I ask my students to reimagine a fairy tale; to make it their own or to reveal a new angle on a story that an audience might already have read. I like how the poems in The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison feel fresh and new but also personal. There’s a careful, thoughtful poignancy in many of these poems. Each time you read one of these poems, something new pops up. It’s a brilliant read.

Favorite lines: “It is blacker there than in the gut. From far off, her life/rings like a thrown voice. Let it not be a fable for others” (3). “It’s an installation: Wrens pinned like brooches/to the trees, singing, their eyes like glass beads” (5). “Listen/as bird songs repeat, records skipping:/ Ohio, Ohio, Ohio. Each persistent melody chips away at the air, shaving/the sky into tissue-thin curls that float/down like leaves” (9). “Ultimately, all revisions of her life collapse into one…” (28). “Swans floated like votives” and ” feathers like wicks” (30).

Favorite poems: “The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison,” “Last Night on Earth,” “First Son,” “The Shepherd’s Horn” & “Ohio.”

Links: While reading A Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, I was reminded of other poems about folk/fairy tales that I’ve used in my classes before. Two that came to mind were “Gretel in Darkness” by Louise Gluck and “Cinderella” by Anne Sexton.

Previous: A Sweeter Water by Sara Henning

Next: The Last Two Seconds by Mary Jo Bang 

Poetry Summer Reading List Book #2: Confluence

Book: Confluence 

Poet: Sandra Marchetti

Publisher/Date: Sundress Publications, 2015

Why I bought the book: I became familiar with Sandy’s work through a FB group I’m part of and then was lucky enough to meet her at AWP. I attended the panel she was a member of and then was able to meet her face to face while she was signing books at the book fair. Sandy is a lovely person and an intelligent, talented poet. She also has a beautiful voice. If you get a chance to hear her read her work, you should definitely check it out.

What I admire about this collection: For me, reading Confluence, feels like slipping into a beautiful, loved piece of clothing. These poems are carefully crafted artifacts that examine memory, emotion and experience through a unique lens but at the same time there is something wonderfully familiar about the way that the poems come together. The pbookoems that take on domestic tasks like washing the dishes or eating lunch or walking through a room are some of my favorites in the collection because while they are interesting and lyrical and new in language and line, they are also subjects that I relate to and write about. In other words, reading this book was like finding my tribe. It’s similar to how I felt when I read Elizabeth Bishop for the first time. Incidentally, the epigraph for Confluence is from Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses.”

I also love the recurring imagery & themes of birds, water, light and skin; love, identity, landscape and memory.

Favorite lines: “We rub eyes until/we’ve made owls/of each other:/under the lurching/fur of eyebrows,/of blue and green/of our slight glows,/flicks out and open” (20).  “Curved like nautilus shells,/milk-white with golden ribbing,/our spines slope to the sink;/we bow over the warmed water” (51).

Favorite poems: “Blue-Black,” “Skyward,” “Music,” “Hollow,” “Saints,” “Pilgrims,” “Fissures” & “Walk Through.”

Links: When I read the epigraph for Confluence, I was a reminded of a line from another Bishop poem, “Sandpiper” that I used as an epigraph for my poem “Snail Shell.” The line reads “The world is a mist. And then the world is/ minute and vast and clear.” The poems in Confluence bring a clarity to the subjects they examine. They allow the reader to fully immerse themselves in the experience, so you finish the poem feeling like you’ve unearthed a treasure that you can slip in your pocket and carry with you.

Previous: Octopus Game by Nicky Beer

Next: Streaming by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke

Poetry Summer Reading List Book #1: The Octopus Game

Book: The Octopus Game

Poet: Nicky Beer

Publisher/Date: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2015

Why I bought the book: I met Nicky Beer while I was working on my MFA at Murray State University. In fact, if I remember correctly, I think she shared a poem or two from this manuscript during one of the residencies I attended toward the end of my degree. Nicky is brilliant and kind and she was also at AWP this year, so I got to see her again, which was delightful.

What I admire about this collection: There is so much to admire in Octopus Game, but I think what I like best about all of these poems is they way Nicky uses language to craft thick, layered images that feel like paintings. When I read these poems I feel like I’m reading art. The poems are ornate, weighty and beautiful. I’m not ashamed to say that I had to look up many words while reading these poems. Just a sample: polygot, mesalliance, chromaphores, epicenes, penury, labella, petioles, diastoles, cicatrix & guywires. So I should also thank Nicky for inadvertently making me smarter. I also appreciate that while Nicky’s poetry is meticulously executed and extremely intelligent, it is also accessible and humorous. It may seem somewhaunnamedt limited, but when I read poetry collections I often wonder if there are poems I could share with my students and these are poems they would love to read.

Favorite lines: “Today, love will be like starlight:/when it arrives, whatever it comes from will have already collapsed,” “Black Hole Itinerary” & “A poem like being born/behind a dead bird’s heart,/eating your way into the light,” Oblation.”

I could just list the entire book, but that’s silly, so just take my word for it and buy it so you can immerse yourself in all the gorgeousness.

Favorite poems: ” Octopus Vulgaris,” “Boys in Dresses,”Pescados De Pesadillas,”Nature Film, Directed by Martin Scorsese,” & “Harvard Med Field Trip.”

Again, I loved the whole book. See above.

Links: When I read Octopus Game I was reminded of the poem “Cephalata” by Anna George Meeks in her chapbook Engraved. I’m also a big fan of nature documentaries. I have been since I was five years old sitting on my grandfather’s lap and watching Nature on PBS. Recently, I’ve revisited two of my favorite nature documentary series Life & Planet Earth, and while reading Octopus Game I was reminded of this clip:

As a new mother, I’d also mention watching this clip while feeding a screaming newborn gives it a whole new meaning.

Next: Confluence by Sandra Marchetti

Poetry Books: A Summer Reading List

I came back from AWP with a massive amount of poetry collections. When it comes to books, I have poor impulse control (understatement of the year) but there were a lot of poets at AWP that “I knew” either through previous interactions (MA, MFA, readings, etc.) or who “I met” through Twitter, FB and Binders, so again, I had to buy their books and get them signed. I had to.

My intentions after returning from AWP were good. I would finish out the spring semester and then bury myself in the lovely pile of books that I stacked on my dining room table. Guess what? It’s June 17th and the pile is still there. Untouched. The major reason for this literary neglect is that I thought I had a solid three weeks of reading time from the end of the spring term, May 11th, to June 4th when my son, Cameron, was supposed to be born.

Let me reiterate: his due date was June 4th. When did he show up? May 16th.

So, yeah.

Anyway. I’ve found that mornings, after Cam eats and goes back to sleep, are prime time for poem drafting/ revising/reading, so I am finally prepared to tackle that stack of books that is taunting me from across the room. I’ll be posting about each book (I’m hoping to average a book/chapbook a week) because I know that most of the time I come to poetry collections through recommendations from other poets.

Stay tuned.

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30/30 Debrief

The month of April was full of excellent poetry projects and I was lucky enough to participate in several of them including Tupelo Press’s 30/30 Project. I wrote a poem every day for the month of April and it was a positive and enlightening experience on a number of levels.

First, 30/30 reaffirmed something I already knew: I like prompts. I liked prompts when I was an undergraduate enrolled in my first poetry workshop, I continued to like them through my MA & MFA programs and when I give my students prompts in class, I write with them. The prompt can be fairly specific and structure (write a sonnet about spaghetti) or it can pretty loose (write a poem about your mother) but I find the chance to explore different subjects and forms liberating, so when certain patrons requested poems about certain topics for 30/30, I didn’t feel locked in or limited. It was liberating.

I also discovered that a structured routine can work for me for a short period of time. For example, writing everyday over the course of several months or a year wouldn’t work for me. I’m the type of poet who needs to let things marinate, so I’m more likely to draft or free write a few times a week and then let those ideas sit and return to them in the following weeks. However, in terms of generating drafts to revise, forcing myself to write a poem everyday  and falling into a pattern in order to complete that task was useful. I did most of my writing in the evenings and after I got into a groove, I really looked forward to coming home and spending those hours writing. Regardless of how the poem turned out, the routine was good for me.

Third, I definitely have subjects that I return to again and again. I also find certain subjects “easier.” For example, poems about relationships (mothe11074360_10153129576130791_6587523387526103526_nrs & daughters; fathers & sons; friends; lovers) come a bit more naturally to me as do poems that concern the natural world (birds, butterflies, plants, landscapes, etc). Poems that are more political in nature or a more abstract are much harder for me to enter. What was great about 30/30 was that I was given the opportunity to write all kinds of poems, which forced me to stretch.

Moving outside of my comfort zone also made me realize that I’m not bothered if a poem fails. I don’t see it as a waste of time. This is something I tell my students all the time. The act of writing is never a waste of time, even if you only write one word or line or phrase that you like out of an entire page of scribbling. I wrote drafts for 30/30 that I liked and that I’m looking forward to revising over the coming months. I also wrote drafts where I’ll probably scrap the entire poem save a line or two or I may just abandon it all together. And you know what? It’s all good.

Fifth, there’s a greater audience for poetry than I think a lot of poets realize. Part of the 30/30 process is fundraising and I’ll admit, I was nervous in terms of meeting my goal (even though it was modest) but I was pleasantly surprised to find an abundance of support for poetry and project in general. Co-workers, friends, family and acquaintances all requested poems and/or made donations. Not only did I meet my goal, but I exceeded it. Poetry dead? I think not.

Finally, I’m a big proponent of supporting poets in whatever way I can. I wrote about good literary citizenship in a previous post and I think that 30/30 promotes that idea in spades. Not only did I get to meet and write with the poets that joined me in the month of April, but I was also able to attend the meet and greet in Minneapolis during AWP. There’s a group for 30/30 alumni on Facebook and it’s wonderful to see so many poets supporting one another in a variety of endeavors.

Admittedly, by the time May 1st rolled around I was exhausted. This was partially due to writing a poem a day and the fact that it was the end of the semester and I was staring down five classes worth of grading. I was also pregnant, so some might say I was crazy to even take the project on, but I thought it was perfect timing. I figured I’d have tons of work to revise this summer and get ready to send out for the fall, which is exactly what I had when the month was up.

I’d encourage any poet to try out 30/30 whether it’s through a venue like Tupelo Press’s project or simply something you do with a writing group or on your own.

Tupelo Press 30/30 Project: Poem #30

My thirtieth poem for 30/30, “Elegy” is live. For more information about Tupelo Press, 30/30 & donations and incentives, please see my previous post or visit the project blog. Thank you to everyone who supported my efforts during the month of April. I really enjoyed this project and I’m glad I decided to participate. I’ll be writing a debrief post of sorts in the next few weeks, but for now, enjoy the last round of poems and the last day of National Poetry Month. Don’t forget today is “Poem in Your Pocket” Day.

Cheers!

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Joey Mendoza as featured in the NPR piece “Are Dairy Farmers A Dying Breed?” July 24, 2009