Hey poets, be good literary citizens. No more excuses.

With AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) and National Poetry Month just around the corner, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a working poet. I’ve got a couple of projects in the works for the month of April (updates to come soon) but I keep coming back to a piece of advice I’m always giving my students, which is that poetry doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Poetry is about the poet but it’s also about the community where the poet lives and works.

Admittedly, the idea of community is constantly evolving. Your community can be your workplace, the local bookstore or coffee shop you frequent or your local library. However, community can also mean something much bigger, especially in the wake  Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I’ve blogged about my love affair with social media and the poetry world. This love centers around the fact that Facebook and Twitter allow me to connect with poets that I’ve never met. I can start conversations and tell them I admire their work and support their projects. By giving my support, I am helping to build a stronger community and I think community and support are two things all poets need.

So, how do you become a good literary citizen? Well, here are some things I’ve put into practice this past year.

1. Join a writing group. This can be a group that meets online or the library or the local coffee shop. This past year myself and several of my colleagues started a group and we meet once a month. There are two poets, two fiction writers and one nonfiction writer. We get together on Thursday night with snacks and drinks and drafts and talk writing for several hours. Three (and soon to be four) out of the five have small children. All five of us teach full course loads at our local community college. We’re all overextended but we make time once a month to convene, critique and support each other. Why? Because we love the work.

2. Participate in projects. If a poet sends out a call for volunteers for a poetry centered event in your area, consider signing up. If an future MFA graduate is looking for “feedback from working poets” in the form of a five minute survey, take the survey. If someone needs to find poems about food, motherhood, maple trees or stamp collecting and you know of some poems in those areas, share your knowledge. I’m going to participate in two projects during the month of April that I found out about through other poets. It’s fun. It’s inspiring. It’s the cool thing to do.

3. Buy books/chapbooks. Yes, money is tight. Yes, none of us have enough of it. I know. However, there are so many wonderful poetry collections in the world right now and they deserve your dollars. Also, chapbooks are seriously overlooked when it comes to supporting poets and the presses that publish them. For example, one of my favorite presses, Dancing Girl, sells their chapbooks for $7. $7! This is amazing! I just bought four the other morning. I also recently purchased from Sundress. Buy books. Buy chapbooks. Share poems with your friends, your students and your family. Get poetry out into the world.

4. Share the love. This is where social media is especially awesome. If you read a poem and it knocks you out, let that poet know. Send a message on Twitter or Facebook or through email. Share links to poems or reviews of poetry collections on your social media pages. Be friendly. Be kind. Be generous.

5. Submit, share, submit. Get your poems out into the literary sphere and then when the rejections start rolling in (because they will), share those experiences. By all means, share your successes as well. Hell, go up to the roof and scream about those acceptances, but also share the failures. Why? Because the “mysterious” world of publishing poetry in journals isn’t as mysterious when poets start talking about their process. Share open submission calls, talk about journals you love/admire and share results.

Time is scarce. Money is hard to come by. Exhaustion is inevitable. However, if we, the poets, don’t take the time and energy to invest in other poets, we’re not doing our part. It isn’t enough just to write poems. We have to actively engage in the space where they live. So go forth poets, and be good literary citizens. I know you can do it.

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Absent Voices: The Responsibility of the Poet

It is not uncommon for people to use social media as a call to arms, especially when looking for a forum that will reach a large amount of people in a short time with little effort. We’ve seen this with the ice bucket challenge as it floods (pun intended) Facebook. In the wake of Ferguson, both my Facebook and Twitter feeds were full of articles, blogs and updates. As is also the case with social media, it is difficult to read and process every piece of information that shows up on each platform, but there was one tweet in a sea of language that caught my eye. I don’t remember who posted it and I don’t remember exactly what the phrasing entailed, but to paraphrase, the author was basically asking, in light of Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown, “Where the hell are the poets? Why are they not speaking out?”

This isn’t a new question and I’m not the first to think/blog/address the question either. I can’t speak for all the poets but I can speak for myself and I have a couple of thoughts.

In an age where we can log into our computers and phones and let people know what we ate for breakfast, how long we were at the gym and how long our commute takes, it seems ridiculous, insulting that we cannot use the same platforms to express how we feel about the events that take place in our society. But this access to constant “updates” and “input” also infuses us with an expectation of immediate reaction. We want to hear what you think right now. Now. Now. Now.

At the time that I read the initial tweet, calling out the poets, I thought well, I have seen some poets speak out on Twitter and FB but had yet to see a poem in response. A physical, tangible artifact written to record all of the feelings that the country was feeling at the time. In the weeks since, I’ve come across a few specific poetic responses (I’m sure there are others): “not an elegy for Mike Brown” by Danez Smith & this young poet’s response

To be clear, I don’t have a problem with question of “Where the hell are the poets?” I think it’s a good question. I feel that poets main responsibility in their writing is to record the world and in that recording to transcribe it, transform it into something new. I believe it is a poet’s responsibility to give voice to the compassion and rage and fear and joy all of the feelings that fall somewhere in between. It is a poet’s responsibility to provide a voice for the voiceless. There is something about hearing language that is far more visceral and tangible than just reading an account online.

However, as is evident by the poetry that has begun to weave its way through cyberspace in the past few weeks, I think the question has been answered: The poets are here. They are listening. They are speaking. They are writing.

So I’m Planning A Chapbook

I have this group of poems that I wrote during my pursuit of my MA and then my MFA that I’ve been sending out religiously for the past few years. This past fall/spring must have been my time because after many polite and encouraging rejection letters, I finally managed to find many of these poems homes in a series of lovely journals. This gave me a boost of confidence but it also got me thinking about what to do next (beside write more poems, duh). This group of poems totals between 20-25 and comes to about 20-25 pages. This isn’t enough for a full length book but I feel the weight of having this finished work and wanting to get it out there into the world, so I’m thinking it’s time for a chapbook.

I’ve researched chapbooks and I think it is a good fit for this particular group of poems for the following reasons:

1. The length is right in line with what most contests/publishers are looking for

2. This group of poems definitely has a theme running through it

3. From what I understand, you can publish poems in a chapbook and then if later you want to include these poems in larger piece of work (a book) that’s fine.*

4. There are some really excellent publishers/contests for chapbooks out there in the world

*If this isn’t true, please let me know. I can’t find anything that says otherwise, but I could be wrong.

So I’ve begun working on this manuscript and researching possible places to send it. There are some absolutely gorgeous chapbooks out in the world, and it makes me excited for the possibilities.

Reading Recommendations

I read a lot during the academic year. I read the assigned reading my creative writing and world lit classes read. I read essays, poems, short stories and plays that my students write. I read and comment and read and comment and read and comment some more. This is all to say that I don’t read much outside of my classes during the months of September through April. I do read individual poems that pop in my inbox or online and I may read a handful of short stories. If I’m really lucky, I may get in a novel or two over winter and/or spring break, but that’s about it. Most of the brain I have left after reading and commenting, I try to reserve for writing and revising my poems. Sometimes there isn’t much brain even for that task.

But guess what? It’s summer!

photo (2)

This means that I’ve been reading voraciously for the past few weeks and it’s like a breath of fresh air. While I am teaching summer school, it doesn’t start until June 9th and my summer classes are usually much smaller, which means the whole reading and commenting machine is far less consuming.

So what have I been reading?

 

A Life in Men by Gina Frangello

This is a brilliant book. I was hooked after the first chapter and by page 50 I was saying things like this to my husband, “You will not believe what has happened in this book! And I’m only on page 50!” Then I would proceed to outline the entire plot thus far complete with color commentary from yours truly. His reaction was underwhelming, but you should read this book. From the opening:

Pretend I’m not already dead. That isn’t important anyway. It’s just that, from here, I can see everything. There we are, see? Or should I say, There they are? Two girls sitting at a cafe off Taxi Square, eating anchovies lined up in a small puddle of oil on a white plate.

I’m on page 245 and I’m completely enraptured with the characters.

 

 Tree Language by Marion McCready

I blogged about Marion McCready’s poems in an earlier post. I’ve been waiting for her book, Tree Language, since I read her poems in Poetry. This collection is beautifully lyric but also brooding and dark. I like poems that reimagine what we may typically see as beautiful and transfer those objects into something sinister. One of my favorite poems in the book, “Daffodil horns”, accomplishes this task:

star-splayed

mouths from the yellow bellies

of starfish   flat and helpless

mouths   unshuttable though mute

unstoppable   culled from our garden

these lampshade-and-bulb trespasses

periscope from the bottom of a foreign vase

though we listen   we do not hear

though we see     we do not understand

and the daffodils    they spread like cancer

 

Motherland Fatherland Homosexuals by Patricia Lockwood

I found Patricia Lockwood’s blog several years ago when I was working on a blog project for my MFA. This was before her first book and well before the publication of her poems in Poetry and The New Yorker. She’s blown up on the literary scene as of late with profiles in prestigious magazines and I believe someone called her “Poet laureate of the twitterverse.” I think it’s excellent. I liked her when I first stumbled across her blog and I like her now in her most recent poetry collection. Admittedly, Lockwood probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s probably just because she makes people feel stupid. She’s brilliant. She’s shocking. She pushes her audience. Hard. And isn’t that one of the reasons to read poetry? My favorite poem in this book is “List of Cross Dressing Soldiers:”

Someone thought long and hard how to best/make my brother blend into the sand. He came/back and he was heaped up himself like a dune,/he was twice the size of me, his sight glittered/deeper in the family head, he hid among himself,/and slid, and stormed, and looked the same as the next one, and was hot gold and some-/where else. 

photo 2

 

The Way Out by Lisa Sewell

I just started this collection and have not finished reading it yet, but the poems wound me. They’re carefully rendered in their composition and at the same time they are so raw in emotion. The opening poem, “Chorale,” I read three times:

 

Clearly I’m the volitional subject and though not violent

I am haunted. The lost, the never felts and unhinged voices

sing through me these insomniac nights of my own exile,

 

not theirs, like streaks that bank the rocks

and dirt slopes of disappointment. I thought was day

and every continuous week free, meant precious,

 

worth guarding. I’ve imagined their sleep, weight

on mattresses in rooms that don’t’ exist and who would protect,

who aid and abet them—but never the texture of their hair

 

or skin, eye color, limb. Their songs, like chalk

along asphalt, mark the boundaries of inclusion, the games

I won’t play, redrawing the line I stepped over one morning

 

one July. Blame the selfish gene, the animal planet

I was born to, the twist in my nature that stilled

each voice, and kept them in check, coveted, leashed,

 

a muffled chorus that accompanies me

along these bland vistas. Imagine, If I had freed

just one and let it carry across the water or alight

 

among the hawthorn’s strict branches. Imagine gestation

an then I’m someone’s mother, loved, hated or ignored.

If I have been mistaken, giving up life and more life

 

to safeguard mine, this humming din,

this ghost song of my own and another’s making

must be the all I have left.

 

In writing this post, I’m aware that all of these authors are female, which I didn’t plan but so it goes. I would encourage everyone to check out all four of these writers. They’re all very different from one another in style and subject but they’re also very talented and they offer up a unique view of the world, which is what good writing should attempt to do.

 

 

A Writer’s Workspace: Where Do You Work?

There’s a recent trend in the literary blogosphere toward examining the workspace of writers. I wrote this piece in response to a project CutBank started on their blog called “The Woodshop.”  I submitted but no dice, so I thought I’d post it here. Take a look at the other workspaces on CutBank’s site. Interesting stuff.

Where do you do your work?

I work in the large closet of my guest bedroom. It has a sloped ceiling, white walls, and bare wood floors painted black. All the paint in the room is chipped. The previous owners used this closet as a play area for their two young daughters, so there are remnants of wax crayon on the walls. They also installed a large piece of particleboard that shelved toys and a small TV. This board now serves as my desk.

What do you keep on your desk?

A framed photograph of Elizabeth Bishop sits on my desk. She is my touchstone, and I often pull out her collected works when I am stuck on a poem. I also have an apothecary jar full of “found” objects. My husband calls it my “curiosity jar” and its contents are comprised of seedpods, various bird feathers, stones, leaves and a sun-bleached jaw bone of some unidentified animal found discarded by the side of the road. There is a wireless printer, a ceramic vase full of gel pens and Black Warrior pencils, and often a glass jar full of whatever flowers I’ve collected from my garden. Right now? Zinnias.

What’s your view like?

Directly above my desk, I see nothing but an empty, white, sloping wall. However, to the right there is a small latched window and while I work, I keep that window open, no matter the season. I like the fresh air.

What do you eat/drink while working?

I prefer hot drinks while writing. Even in summer, there is hot tea or coffee in my cup. If it is tea, it always something fruity: lemon, peach, pomegranate or blueberry. I steep the tea bag for several minutes watching the water turn pink, green or deep purple. If it is coffee, it is brewed from my favorite beans from the local food co-op.

Do you have any superstitions about your writing?

I always write out my first drafts by hand. I like the physical motion of writing. There is something familiar and comforting in the action. I am also slightly wary of technology.

Share a recent line/sentence written in this space.

In a letter I wrote to Virginia Woolf after re-reading A Room of One’s Own: “Love even in despair. You taught me that.”

What I’m Reading

This quote from Stephen King came across my Twitter feed the other day, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” I’ve seen this quote many times and it got me to thinking about what I am currently reading. Recently I’ve tried to let go of my habit of finishing one book before starting another. While this is a good habit in the respect that it keeps me specifically focused on one text, it also limits the amount of books I  can read during the course of a semester or even a year. While it can be confusing to read several books at one time, I tend to have a wide variety of tastes in terms of books, so it isn’t proving to be a problem at the moment. Mr. King would be happy with the fact that out of the four books I’m reading right now, his work occupies two slots:


1. 11/22/63, Stephen King
2. Dr. Sleep, Stephen King
3. The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri
4. Fire to Fire: New & Selected Poems, Mark Doty 

In addition to these four, I also have Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward lined up and ready to go. These books are in addition to the articles and blog posts I read on the internet and the copies of The New Yorker & The Atlantic that come in the mail. Admittedly, I’m currently involved in a complicated relationship with my subscription to The New Yorker. I love the articles but at the end of the month, I usually find myself buried in issues and I hate when that happens. 

I know it is important to read work that interests you, work that you love and work that you don’t love because you learn from all three. In addition to trying to read multiple books at the same time, I’m also trying to get over the fact that if I start a book and don’t like it, I don’t necessarily have to finish it.  This happens often with book club selections that I’m less than enthralled with, but then I feel obligated to finish because we will eventually discuss the book in a group setting. I continue to feel this way, despite the fact that many of the people in said book club don’t ever finish the book, so I should probably get over it.

I do run into the problem of reading for “leisure” during the academic year. It isn’t a lack desire, but more an issue of stamina. I teach writing courses, which means I spend a lot of time reading the essays, poems, stories, plays and research papers of my students. It is interesting work but it is also labor intensive. Sometimes I just don’t have the brain power to pick up a novel or poetry collection after an afternoon of reading composition essays, but I also think I know what Mr. King would say to that complaint: “Suck it up.” 

I’m trying. 

Creative Writing Exercises: Teaching from Image

In addition to my regular course load at my community college, I am a faculty advisor for our student run creative writing group, The Blank Page. I started the group when I was still an adjunct and students approached me looking for another venue in which they could share and improve upon their own work.

At today’s meeting I brought a series of images that I discovered via a link on the Paris Review’s Facebook page. The link contained images of haunted houses from Corrine Botz’s photography exhibition. Botz writes on her blog:

Haunted Houses provides a unique way of understanding our relationship to the spaces we inhabit, and reflects romantic and dystopian notions of the domestic realm. The notion of hauntedness activates and highlights the home, revealing the hidden narratives and possibilities of everyday life.

Botz went about taking photographs and collecting oral recitations of the ghost stories that go along with some of the photographs. You can listen to the stories here. The photographs are gorgeous and the stories are very interesting. I was even more intrigued by this project when I learned that one of the locations and stories took place in Girard, PA which is about ten minutes from Fairview, PA where my parents still live. This is the photograph from Girard:

“Farmhouse, Girard, Pennsylvania” from the series Haunted Houses, 2010

Anyway. When I looked through the pictures, I thought they would make great prompts for my Blank Page students, so this afternoon we spent about half an hour free writing over selected images from Botz’s project. After we had finished writing, we debriefed a bit and the student response seemed positive. The general consensus seemed to be that the images provided specific details that the students could latch onto and use as a starting place for a poem or piece of prose. I’ve done this exercise for units on character, setting and story and I think Botz’s photographs are perfect inspirations for writers.

Also received word last night that three of my poems will be appearing in Rust + Moth.

A Letter to Virginia Woolf

Dear Ms. Woolf,

I have a room of my own and it is crowded. Crowded with books, furniture, pictures, pencils and paper. My room is full of ideas. I guard my room closely, carefully. I fill it with peonies, poetry and photographs. My room is small: an old closet in my old house. Chipped paint on the walls and a bare, warped wooden floor. A sloped ceiling and a small latched window. I sit in my room and read. And listen. And think. And write. My shelves are full of women: Bishop, Moore, Dove and Hull. You. I open them, breathe them in, admire their genius. They are alive. Waiting.

But my room is lonely, as I’m sure you always knew. I cannot stay here forever, alone crafting, scratching out words beneath your watchful gaze. The silence presses down. Hard. At times, I am not worthy of this room. At times I am not worthy of the women that line my shelves.

At times, I am ashamed.

I am ashamed of my lack of focus. I am ashamed of the time spent away from my room. Ashamed of what I cannot write. Ashamed that I cannot write. But I am trying.

And at last, your final note, your last note to Leonard before you walked into the river, pockets full of stones, always brings me to tears. Love even in despair. You taught me that.

_________________________________________________________________________________

Virginia Woolf’s final note to her husband before her suicide on March 28, 1941:

Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I cannot even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is that I owe you all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that–everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling you life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.

A clip from the 2002 film The Hours based off of the 1998 novel of the same name by Michael Cunningham.

A Room of One’s Own

A long winter it was here in Indiana. A very long winter but now it is May. My peonies are blooming and I am on break until June 5th. The spring semester ended last Tuesday, and I spent the following days decompressing and organizing. Today, I took an hour and cleaned off my desk and made my workspace workable (it looked liked a paper factory threw up in here before) and then I decided I wanted to blog. And read. And write.

I wanted to.

As is evidenced by my blog, a hefty stack of New Yorkers, a long que on my Kindle Fire and my empty writing journals, I have not wanted to do any of these things since about February. For shame, but there’s not point in dwelling on the past.

Onward.

After I spent some time cleaning up my little office area, I went outside, cut some peonies, returned to my office and read the first two chapters of A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. I’ve read this book before, but it’s been awhile and I picked up a used copy at a yard sale last year, so I figured I’d dive right in. I like Woolf. I like her wit and her honesty. Brutal honesty. I like how she remarks, after being snubbed by two different men while visiting Oxbridge:

It is a curious fact that novelists have a way of making us believe that luncheon parties are invariably memorable for something very witty that was said. or something very wise that was done. But they seldom spare a word for what was eaten. 

I also love her beautifully descriptive images:

It was the time between the lights when colours undergo their intensification and purples and golds burn in windowpanes like the beat of an excitable heart. 

But most of all I admire her for passages like this:

Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of a man at twice its natural size. Without that power probably the earth would still be swamp and jungle. 

So here’s to a summer of reading, gardens, yoga, fresh food and words.

My own little room.