Saturday, June 25, 2016

Should I Stay, or Should I Go?

92º feels like 98º  summer

I would love to continue to blog but I feel stymied. Is there anything you'd like to know that hasn't already been covered elsewhere?

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Draft Process for "Lesson Seventeen" ~ Once Again, the Only Way Through is Through

87º feels like 96º ~ grass creeping higher as a result of thunderstorms and rain, no incentive to mow in liquid air, four robin chicks on the front porch continue to flourish

A few weeks ago, I described my summer writing project of collaging and then writing self-ekphrastic poems. I've been creating collages without difficulty since then. I'm working on 9" x 12" Bristol paper, both on the vertical and horizontal. The idea being that I might publish the poems alongside the collages and I'm aiming for consistency of materials / size. I'm also not using any 3-D elements on the collages.

As I said, the collages have been non-stressful in terms of creation. I set out to work with the images on a purely instinctual basis, not trying to create any narrative, not going into a piece with a pre-set idea or mood. I sift through my large image drawers and grab onto the first few items that catch my eye. Then, I bang them together on the blank page and see what's what. Mostly, I'm able to stick with instinct. Once or twice, I've had to throw an image back and search again. Once the large images are in place, I move on to filling out the piece, again trying to go with my gut and always on alert for when I reach for the easy cliché. 

Now, as for the writing, well, that has not been such an easy, gut-level thing. I have stuttered and started for days. I've gazed and gazed at the images I've created and forced some really bad lines into my journal. Today, I approached the process again with the same results, and I started to get that niggle of a voice, that whisper, "This is a disaster. You have no more poems to write. Why did you think this would work?" etc. 

I stopped. I stopped for what I thought was the day, figuring I'd collage again and try the writing later. 

But then, I thought, "Maybe I just need a clearer prompt. Maybe I need to read a prompt on writing ekphrastic poems." Even as I thought this, I knew that I knew what an ekphrastic poem was and I knew what the prompt would say; after all, I've assigned the very thing to my students. Still, I Googled. I got this brief essay from the Academy of American Poets and read:

"And modern ekphrastic poems have generally shrugged off antiquity’s obsession with elaborate description, and instead have tried to interpret, inhabit, confront, and speak to their subjects."

Yes, yes, yes. Of course I knew all of this, but something about reading those four verbs "interpret, inhabit, confront, and speak to" gave me just enough of a jolt to hear a line coming through about the collage I'd just been staring at for 45 minutes. And then another line. And another.

Once again, the only way through was through. The only way to a draft was to keep my BIC (Butt In Chair) long enough to find my way through the doubt and the bad lines. I may have to relearn this every time I get to a period of silence, but perhaps I'm moving more quickly through the lesson these days.

Today's draft happens to be titled "Lesson Seventeen: Girl and Fox Consider the Nature of Time" ("Lesson Seventeen" is a scrap collaged at the bottom) and begins:

A girl gazes down a ruler's length.
A fox gazes up, noses a human scent.

I don't want to publish the complete collage now, but here's a little glimpse into a detail of the collage titled the same as the poem. This is 3.5 " x 5" from the upper right corner.

One of my goals for this project is to discover new source material for my poetry via these images. I'm hoping that letting my instinct guide me will reveal repeated images and new obsessions. Here's to the work and to the hope, in equal measure. 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

On Poetry & Practicality

91º feels like 97º ~ not yet 10:30 a.m., needless to say we've entered SCUBA weather again, meaning to breathe outside is to breathe in liquid air and to wish for a SCUBA tank and respirator ~ on the plus side, the robins have 4 chicks in the nest on our front porch and we have taken to walking the long way round the house to avoid startling the adults away from feeding the wee ones

This morning, I finally had time to read "Why are so Many Poets also Artists?" a feature from yesterday's Literary Hub. In this interview-essay, Maggie Millner offers insight from a handful of poet-artists in their own words. As I've become more and more engrossed in collage, I am more and more interested/concerned/curious about how my visual work influences/detracts from/explodes my writing, so this gathering of voices was a must-read.

Cruising through the piece, nodding my head in affirmation, I came to Paige Taggart's contribution. A poet and jeweler, Taggart states, "The most practical thing is not to be an artist at all. The idea of practicality feels tied to capitalism. I don't like being practical and most practical people bore me because they make all their life decisions based on a certain set of principles that ties into 'the system.'" Then Taggart ties practicality to the patriarchy.

This brief passage brought me up short and lit a fire under all my insecurities as a poet and artist. I felt my non-hip, middle age severely, and my imposter syndrome kicked in full force.

Here is the key question: Are being creative and being practical mutually exclusive? (And the mirrors to that question: Have I been kidding myself this whole time? Am I too practical to be an artist? Must an artist live an impractical life on the outside in order to create?)

I mean, come on. I drive a 10-year old Honda Civic that still gets 35 - 40 mpg highway and 25 - 30 mpg in town because I keep diligent track of its maintenance (and routinely do the math on gas milage).

After years of college and grad school requiring some student loans and credit card debt, I spent the first decade of my working life paying it all down to 0.

I buy basic clothes that I wear for years and years, and I don't wear make up. Some of this has to do with feminist principles (if men can succeed without being prettified, why can't I?), but mostly, I'd rather not spend time trying to figure it all out, as I'm not naturally gifted at or interested in fashion and style.

The list could go on and on, but it will always add up to this: I am a practical person. I've worn this badge with pride and connected it to my Midwestern background as the daughter of the children of farmers. I've listed "efficient," "organized," and "able to meet a deadline" as positive traits when applying for jobs. And now, I'm re-evaluating it all.

Let me say here that I'm thankful for Taggart's words for giving me a chance to look again at the idea of practicality in the artistic life. I can see why she ties this descriptor to the patriarchy and "the system," but I resist the idea that practicality must be tied to capitalism and "the man."

I confess that my practicality might hinder me from taking my wildest leaps, and that worries me greatly; however, having grown up in a working-class family of unstable finances, my relationship to financial security is probably more conservative than some (others who have grown up in this situation lean the other each their own). I know that I've done my best work as a poet as I've matured financially and have been able to put "paycheck-to-paycheck" behind me. I understand that for others, living a more precarious economic life isn't as stressful, but for me that unease is a block to creativity, not a sustainer of it.

I also see a clear benefit from my practical nature when working on sending my poems out into the world. Being organized comes naturally to me and makes me happy (when I'm most stressed I love to clean my file cabinet drawers and send loads of paper through the shredder to recycling). This skill set has helped me keep track of submissions and publications, and I think it helps me persevere after rejection as well.

In the end, I am probably a person who would bore Taggart; however, I'll make a claim here that my practical nature serves my art. I'm not going to be the one to downsize and put all my belongings in storage so I can go on a life-changing trek; I'm not going to be the one to leave my academic job and open a bookstore/art space; I'm not going to be the one to take the massive, visible leap. But, I'll feel secure enough physically and mentally to take those risks on the page.

Still, I'll keep Taggart's words in mind when my inner-voice reaches too quickly for practicality, especially during the great incubation period of inspiration.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Keeping On Keeping On (The Submission Slog Song)

74º ~ a morning of drizzle with the sun now trying to break through a heavy layer of white clouds, all is humid and soggy

Getting back into the swing of my writing life in earnest means getting back into the swing of submitting poems to journals for possible publication. While poetry receives the least attention and the least compensation from readers and editors across the board, there is a perk. We usually have tons of "pieces" to submit. A novelist may work on a book for years before getting to the process of finding an agent and publisher. A short story writer or essayist can only send one piece at a time to a journal or magazine. Not so the poet. Yes, we labor over our one- to two-page poems for hours, days, months, years, etc., but we build up a stockpile of work and we are able to submit 3 - 5 poems at a go.

Yay, us!

Well, a subdued yay, anyway because the flipside is thickening one's skin to a slew of rejections.

After being out of the habit of regularly submitting, I have quite the stockpile of unpublished poems. I've spent the last week or so combing through those poems and making final polishing tweaks. After polishing, I grouped the poems into batches of 3 - 5. Then, once the piles were ready to go, I had to go back to my time-worn Excel spreadsheet of journals and start looking for places to send the poems. No matter how much research I've done in the past, I still have to do more. That journal that has always read in the summer? Nope, they're taking this year off. That lit mag that used to refuse simultaneous submissions? Nope, now they take 'em, meaning I have to shift my stacks. And onward the process goes.

*This process only works because I've spent years being a reader of lit mags and learning which journals might be receptive to my style. There are no short cuts, not even submission-bombing all the currently open markets listed in Duotrope, which takes even more time, and I don't believe yields greater results.

After much work, I have submitted mini-manuscripts to 14 journals in the last week. Most of the packets were 4 poems each.

Here's a new observation for me about the process.

I have to be bright-eyed and energetic (read: first thing I do for the day) or the doubt seeps in through the slog of preparing files and I decide the poems aren't ready. It's a hard balancing act. I want to be as careful as I can to send poems that are "ready," but I started to notice that the later I went in the day, the more poems were labeled "not ready." Looking at them the next morning, I had a new confidence.

Now, only time will tell if the confidence is well placed. Such is the poet's life.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Directing the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference

81º ~ a day of hazy heat with pop-up thunderstorms probable, thick white overcast, birds & squirrels abound

In late January this year, I was invited to attend a meeting about the possibility of creating an annual women writers conference at UCA. You can read about that meeting and the creation of the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference on the homepage of our website. After that initial meeting, we began gathering twice a month to lay the foundation for our first conference, which we scheduled for November 3 - 4, 2017. At some point along the way, I leaned in and requested the position of "director," knowing that someone had to hold all the threads, knowing that most of my colleagues had been at UCA long enough to have major initiatives of their own going, and knowing that directing a project like this is often a part of one's tenure package. Yes, having the title "Director" is prestigious, but that prestige will have to be earned through a lot of woman hours behind the scenes. I know this.

I'm confident in helping create and lead this conference in large part because of the fabulous colleagues with whom I work, especially the Executive Committee: Nan Snow, Terry Wright, Dr. Gayle Seymour, Jennifer Deering, and Dr. Stephanie Vanderslice. From the beginning, our committee has done a great job of task-sharing, communicating, and working toward a common goal. It is a delight and a privilege to be called the director of this group of people.

Building a conference is about details large and small, and everyone on our committee has brought vital experience to the table. We picked our locations and dates first and secured those. It may seem early to anyone who has never done this before, but key rooms and buildings on a campus go quickly, let me assure you. We also had to choose our name, and we are ever thankful to Forrest Gander for allowing us to honor the late C.D. Wright in this way. Now we are working on getting the word out, fundraising, naming our Board of Directors, and creating our media kit. In the fall, we will work on logistics and put together our call for proposals, which will go out November 3, 2016.

While our Mission & Vision Statement page offers a good idea of what we are aiming for, I want to re-iterate here that this conference is for women writers of all genres, styles, fields, and experience levels. We want to bring together academics, professionals, & writers-at-large -- poets, novelists & short story writers, young adult & children's lit authors, dramatists, journalists, bloggers, technical writers, advertising & marketing writers, scientific writers, and more.

If you are a woman and you write, we want to provide a space for you to discuss your work and to build a community with other women of words.

After announcing the conference about a month ago and releasing our first newsletter a few weeks ago, I've received numerous emails of enthusiasm and support. Most people ask, "how can I help?" For anyone interested, here's how to get involved.

1. Like us on Facebook and/or follow us on Twitter.
2. Sign up for our newsletter on the website (scroll down) and be the first to know about our call for proposals and registration details.
3. Share the news with your writer friends. Feel free to share this post, our newsletter, or any of our social media posts.
4. Make a financial donation if you are able. Founding Members (those who donate before our first conference) will receive a special gift and recognition at each conference. While we are hosted at UCA with most of the staffing hours covered by our contracts and we may receive a small amount of money from the College of Fine Arts and Communication, budgets are tight in academia. Initiatives such as ours must rely first and foremost on fundraising and registration fees. Your contribution will be used to support our ability to offer scholarships to women without the means to attend the conference on their own, to create an emerging women writers prize, and to help us spread the word through advertising and the creation of a media kit.

As ever, I am thankful for the opportunities and the responsibilities that have come my way as a literary citizen, and I am looking forward to hosting many of you at UCA in late 2017!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Home School and a Summer Poetry Project: Self-Ekphrasis

86º ~ dew point at 70º ~ getting swampy out there, mixed bag of clouds and sun, strong breezes, storms to the north and grass in need of mowing

Summer 2016: The Grand Adventure Awaits

In August, I will have the privilege of attending The Home School in Hudson, New York. No, I'm not going to be learning how to home school my non-existent children. The Home School is a week-long poetry workshop held in Hudson, NY, in August and in other locations in January, most recently in Miami. For a solid week, I will be studying with five of the following faculty members, although I haven't received my specific assignment yet.

Cynthia Cruz
Adam Fitzgerald
Douglas Kearney
Myung Mi Kim
Harryette Mullen
Dorothea Lasky
Geoffrey G. O'Brien
Ann Lauterbach
Rebecca Wolff
Kate Durbin
John Ashbery

At the start, I will be assigned to a workshop group, and that group will stay together for the entire week, with a new faculty member each day. Each evening, there will be readings by core and visiting faculty.

Uhm...somebody wake me up; I still don't quite believe this is happening.

I first heard about The Home School about a year ago, and I was drawn to it for its promise of bringing together an eclectic group of poets and artists to explore poetry's place alongside and among other arts. As many of you know, I also work in collage, so this workshop is a perfect fit. I must also say that this group doesn't pay lip service to being inclusive; it lives and breathes diversity, something I cherish and attempt to actively cultivate.

Needless to say, I am thrilled to be taking this journey, in part because I am still searching for whatever is coming next for my poetry. In fact, thinking about The Home School's focus on ekphrasis has led me to my Summer Poetry Project: Self-Exphrasis.

For the first time in my life, I've got a plan. In other words, I'm not simply sitting and writing and discovering. Instead, I'm going to sit, collage, write, and discover. My plan is to create at least 20 collages and at least 20 corresponding poems. Instead of approaching ekphrastic poems by looking at the art of others, I am going to look at art of my own. Instead of making collages inspired by poems, I'm going to make poems inspired by collages. While I've often felt that my writing and my collaging informed each other, I've never taken it to this level of direct involvement.

My hope is that by sifting through my huge backlog of clipped images and letting myself be drawn by instinct, without forethought, to certain groupings I will discover a new poetic obsession.

Hopes and plans. I take them with the proverbial grain of salt.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

What I Learned During a Year of Leveling Up

76 º ~ gauzy sun, true spring temperatures finally arriving, privet blooms moving from white to brown on the way to seed

As most of you know, but for those who don't, after over a decade of teaching at a community college, I "leveled up" to a tenure-track job teaching creative writing to undergrads and graduate students at the University of Central Arkansas in August of 2015. Please note, I mean "leveling up" only in terms of now having different tasks and responsibilities. I do not mean that there is anything "less than" about teaching at the community college level. It has its own challenges and rewards.

That being said, this first academic year at a new level has been demanding, mostly in the best ways possible. At the community college, I taught Comp I and Intro to Creative Writing, almost exclusively. There are community colleges out there with broader ranges of creative writing classes; mine was not one of them, for the most part. This meant that, after 10 plus years, I knew the class material down in my muscles and bones, so I spent most of my time interacting with students. The biggest "shock" of this past year has been the shift to teaching many different creative writing classes and looking forward at the many different classes I'll be teaching in the future. This translates to hours and hours of prep time outside of the classroom as I attempt to organize and absorb all new materials. Of course, I'm well versed (hee hee) in poetry and in the rigors of creative writing in general; however, I've never had the time to get specific about transmitting my knowledge and experiences to others.

While conquering new class material has been the big challenge, it reminds me that I'm so thankful to all of my students and colleagues from the past. Spending my formative years as a college professor in the composition classroom taught me valuable lessons in classroom management that have served me well in my new environment. Those years taught me who I wanted to be as I interacted with students and colleagues. They gave me the chance to create and improve my professor persona. As one of my grad students put it last month, "You have a shtick; all good professors have a shtick."

Aside from the workload that stretches my mind and my stamina, there is one other big difference that I'm just now noting. I have a new relationship to my students. At the community college, we experienced "swirl and churn" in our student body. While I might have a few students follow me from Comp I to Comp II (when I taught it) or from Comp I to Intro to CW, these were rare exceptions. Mostly, I knew a student for one semester, often I knew a student intensely given the nature of writing classes, and then that student would swirl and churn away, either to other core classes or to transfer to a different institution. Now, I am in a program with a strong undergraduate major/minor in creative writing (that's stand-alone cw, not as part of an English major with emphasis) and I am part of the Arkansas Writer's MFA Program.

What this means is that I now have the opportunity to see a writer's work progress over several years rather than over several months. And while I've only just begun forming relationships with my students, there is a deeper level of engagement on my part, as I'm investing in longer-term goals with each writer. Again, this is not to say that deep levels of engagement don't go on at the community college level or in the first-year writing classroom. It means, that was not my strength in those classrooms.

Finally, I'll wrap up by saying that this year has been exhausting and sometimes frustrating, challenging and mind-expanding. It has been the most rewarding year of my teaching life and the worst year for my writing life (a whole other blog post). I am looking forward to gaining more sure-footedness in the coming year and to working toward a goal of more balance between teaching, writing, and homelife.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

From 60 to Zero

71º ~ bright sun, a few high lazy sheets of white, the cool/wet spring means all the trees are leafed and the privets blooming an allergy-inducing white, a mourning dove nest in the tree outside my window

At the beginning of the fall semester, things go from zero to 60 in the blink of an eye, in nothing flat, in the "name your cliche for speed." While there may be slight variations in intensity, things pretty much stay at 60 through spring graduation (with a slight lull at winter break just long enough to regain a bit of sleep). Now, I'm in that shifting period, trying to downgrade from 60 to zero. Zero is my creative sweet spot. Zero means long swathes of time uninterrupted when my mind can roam, when the words can tumble together, striking and sparking new images, new lines.

You would think that after a decade of not teaching in the summers, I'd have figured out how to make this transition smoothly. This is not the case. Every year, I am stunned by the amount of time it takes me to slow. Every year, I am faced again with finding the balance between "me" time and socializing with friends. Every year, I have to battle the desire to simply sit and stare at the TV for days and days.

Let me say that I am not against "down time." I'm all for taking a break and watching Law & Order reruns or the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory. I'm especially all for reading the latest J.D. Robb books in the In Death series. However, my personality  is one that will quickly turn watching one episode or reading for an hour into a binge that lasts four days. Even now, I'm resisting clicking on Season 2 of Frankie and Grace on Netflix because I can so quickly tumble down that rabbit hole. In other words, at 45, I still struggle to find my balance.

Side note: I didn't learn to ride a bike until first grade b/c physical balance eludes me as much as emotional balance seems to most days.

So, here is my goal: to practice balance.

Practical subgoals:

  • to write daily
  • to blog regularly...whether I've lost you all, dear readers, or not, you keep me balanced when I tell myself you are out there and reading me
  • to continue to meditate daily
  • to be kind to myself when I fail

Upcoming blog posts:

  • What I learned from my first year at UCA
  • The C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference
  • Reading full-length manuscripts for a contest
  • Self-Ekphrastic Poetry: or, my summer project
  • Reports on my progress

Until then.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Re-living AWP16

56º ~ spring has sprung, all the pollen abounds, all the leaves are greening

Re-living AWP16

This year for AWP, I was lucky charmed.

I got to fly out to LA with my new friend and colleague, Jennie Case. We are often so busy with work that we don’t have time to just sit with a cup of coffee and have a roaming conversation. While we didn’t talk the whole way to LA, we did have lots of time to let the talking topics wander here and there. What a great way to start the journey.

On the flight, I did find time to read the Spring 2016 issueof North American Review (thank you for being a slim-line mag, not taking up too much room in the backpack). Of note to me were the following poems: Mark Wagenaar’s “Denton Nocturne: Sciomancy,” Raphael Dagold’s “Born of What,” Christine Larusso’s “In order to crack the egg…,” and Scott Lawrence-Richards, an Iowa poet with whom I wasn’t familiar (the horror!). Of course, the best moment was turning the page and finding “Most Accidents Occur at Home” by friend and fabulous writer-woman, Molly Spencer.

I spent several enjoyable hours on Thursday and Friday staffing the Trio House Press table. Much thanks to editors Tayve Neese, Terry Lucas, and Dorinda Wegener for making me feel welcome. THP is a collective, so serving at the table fulfilled part of my contract for publishing The Alchemy of My Mortal Form with them; however, I have to say it was not any kind of imposition. I loved getting to talk with poets wandering the bookfair, and I loved having the chance to talk about my book along with the books of my pressmates. If you stopped by the table, you’ll know that THP has a proactive approach to the bookfair, with someone standing in front of the table most of the time, engaging passers-by. Also, if you have a poetry manuscript ready to go, remember that our two contests accept submissions until April 30th.

When not at the table, I did get to several key panels spread out over the conference. The one that rocked my world the most was “The Poetry of Comics” with Erica Trabold, Bianca Stone, Gabrielle Bates, Alexander Rothman, and Catherine Bresner.  Another awesome panel was on multimodal workshops with Raul Paima, Nick White, Silas Hansen, and Sonya Huber. Great information on using infographics, memes, podcasts, comics, Google maps, and more to engage the narrative skills in our students.

I also attending “Drawing Outside the Lines” with Lydia Conklin, Leslie, Salas, Nathan Holic, and Jarrod Rosello. Even more great information for my upcoming courses on the illustrated narrative, and I drew my first comic! I have gathered so many resources for this course that will be new to me. I have piles and piles to read and more books to order when I get home. Full up with ideas!

Thursday night meant a reunion with my University of Arkansas MFA best buddy, the poet Tara Bray, whose second book, Mothers of Small Fright, is just outfrom LSU Press. I consumed this book on the plane home. Do yourself a favor and order a copy today. Tara and I were able to fit in lots of catching up time in between events, as we roomed together, and that was one of the best gifts of this conference.

Friday night meant enjoying supper with great poet-friend Sally Rosen Kindred, who appeared on her first panel at AWP this year. Way to go, Sally! After supper, I was lucky enough to attend a reception and meet some of the key folks in AWP and in the new Creative Writing Studies Organization. It was way past my bedtime, but I’m happy I went and thankful for the new friends.

Saturday meant some open time and a more leisurely morning. It also meant me leaving my credit card at the hotel coffee shop and not realizing it until noon when I tried to buy lunch at the conference center. Much panic ensued. I sprinted back to the hotel, tore my room apart, and then saw the flashing light on the room phone. Hotel security had the card, and I was only 15 minutes late to the next panel because of the detour. Thanking the stars for good Samaritans!

I seem to be developing a trend that I need to have my final supper at AWP alone, my brain overflowing with words and images and people and hugs and emotions and “all the things.” I may look lonely to the outside viewer, but I promise that I’m perfectly content.

AWP is equal parts inspiration and exhaustion. This year was my 10th AWP, and I finally feel like I might understand a bit of how my own personality fits with this monumental filling up and overflowing, how to take care of myself and how to balance all the many options. So thanks to all the folks I saw in LA, I missed you to all those not able to attend, and looking forward to DC next year!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

AWP 2016: Where I'll Be

54º ~ bright sunshine, spring breezes, trees bursting into leaf-time

AWP 2016 Los Angeles is upon us. This year, a lot of my time will be spent in the bookfair or attending panels meant to help me prepare for fall classes. I don't have any readings, panels, or offsites, and for that, I'm actually grateful this year.

If you'll be at the conference and want to catch up, here's where you'll find me.

The University of Central Arkansas table is #955. I don't have scheduled time there but will most likely be there on and off when not occupied elsewhere.

The Alchemy of My Mortal Form will be available at table #1204
Blood Almanac a few copies will be available at table #625
The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths available from me directly

Thursday, 3/31
9:00 a.m. - 11:00 a.m. staffing the Trio House Press table #1204

11:00 a.m. LUNCH on-site

12:00 noon attending a panel

3:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m. signing miniatures and all 3 books at the Gazing Grain Press (George Mason) table #708

Friday, 4/1
9 a.m.  - 11:00 a.m. staffing the Trio House Press table #1204

11:00 a.m. LUNCH on-site

12:00 noon - 2:00 p.m. staffing the Trio House Press table #1204

3:00 p.m. attending a panel

4:30 p.m. attending a panel

Saturday, 4/2
9:00 a.m. - 12:00 noon: bookfair

12:00 noon - 6:00 p.m. attending panels (an ambitious undertaking, but there are four consecutive panels in which I'm interested...y'all know the odds of me making it to them all)

I hope to see as many of you as possible in LA and will send back reports for those skipping the crazy this year.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Reading & Teaching Poetry = Gathering Encyclopedic Knowledge of the World

45º ~ more bright sun, temps on their way up to "spring-like" for the rest of the week, no "winter precipitation" in sight ~ apologies to my eastern US friends currently under the blanket of ice & snow

I've learned a lot in my life by reading prose: novels, short stories, essays, memoirs, book-length CNF (especially memorable: The Hot Zone, which taught me all about Ebola back in the 90s). In these works, I immerse myself in new ideas and experiences I will never have myself but can expand my empathy (oh giant heart getting bigger every day). So, props to prose allowing depth.

But, there is poetry for breadth, empathy again, yes, but also breadth. In particular, I mean reading the individual poem in a lit mag, anthology, or as a teacher working with a student. When reading a bunch of individual poems by individual poets, I'm given one small window (concision) into an idea, emotion, or topic. The immersion might happen on many re-readings of the poem, but given how many poems there are to read and how short this life is, I'm more apt to keep moving through the anthology or journal at hand, gathering many, many experiences in a short time-frame. Also, when I'm reading poetry, I am much more likely to stop and turn to the dictionary, perhaps because in prose I'll allow the context to suggest meaning, and I'll move on to stick with the pace of reading full pages (depth). In poetry, the context often isn't enough, and because each word carries much more weight in a poem (compression), I find myself needing the full definition. So, I expand my vocabulary, and often my knowledge of some topic new to me.

Yet, in reading poems for students, poems that are still in the messy middle of their making, I must gather huge swaths of information I might not have at the ready. This week, I'm working with students on poems about: Jorge Luis Borges, the spotlight effect, a handmaiden attending Cleopatra at her death, Blind Willie Johnson, the Norse myth of Ragnarok, colonialism in Jamaica, basic human anatomy, cleaning out the gutters, and more, more, more. For each of these, to be the best help to my students, I have to have some basic understanding of their subjects in order to provide feedback on where the poems are working and where they are not. I confess, Wikipedia is becoming a familiar page in my Chrome history.

I confess, too, that I love my job, even as I find myself fighting for every minute to read and respond, even as my own writing time suffers. I know that all of this vast knowledge will pay off in the quiet days of summer when I have that time to come back to the blank page, filled up with images and words that have tossed & turned together for months and are only then ready to tumble out onto the page.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Finally Getting My Submission On

40º ~ bright, clear sunshine, the kind of clear that only seems to happen in the coldest months

I've spent the day with my B-I-C (butt in chair), thanks in part to a helpful spouse who brought me lunch, and now my energy wanes and my stomach grumbles. Still, I have been too absent from this space, so I'll push through (and know that a smoothie will be my reward!).

The first two hours of my chair-time today were spent reading, contemplating, and critiquing student poems for my graduate poetry workshop. Their work fairly sparkles on the page and today it inspired me to stay in the chair and continue on with my own work of revising and submitting. Happily, I drafted two new poems in the last three weeks via writing with my students in several classes.

While I knew I wanted to work on submissions again today (I sent out two non-simultaneous submission packets earlier in the week), I also knew that I needed some time to re-familiarize myself with the poems that are floating around in various stages of dress and undress.

I began by flipping through my "ready to go, but not out there" stack. Lo and behold, I found more tinkering revisions. These are not sweeping, but with distance comes clarity, clarity regarding where the lines might be muddied or bogged down. After a few nips and tucks, I felt confident again in the stack as a whole. Therefore, I turned to my "drafts" stack and began reading out loud, slowly. I listened for which drafts felt the most whole, the most "ready," and those I set to one side. Knowing my goal of submissions, I put the other more unfinished drafts away for another day. That kind of revision takes its own session. Again, I proceeded through the stack, making slight tweaks or significant whacks, adding in a line or two, as well. Eventually, I found two more poems that needed more work than I had space for today and set those aside as well.

Finally, I flipped through my "ready to go" stack, now a bit heftier, and found four poems that "worked" as a mini-manuscript. I know not everyone does this, but I find more confidence in submitting when my little bundles hold together either thematically or in form. Having my list of targeted magazines that I compiled earlier in the week, I went to work, this time sending one packet out to simultaneous journals.

In essence, my process has not changed significantly over the years, although now I do much more record keeping online, and I no longer have a separate manilla folder for each poem, as I no longer need to print out so many furious versions. Still, submitting takes time and quiet, just as writing does, and it takes a willingness to root out the weak spots, the wonky lines, the cliches slinking through the middle stanzas. I'm fortunate to have had such time and such quiet today.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Leveling Up, Again

67º ~ Gray-clouded skies, a wind that gusts and cuts, a yard full of sweet gum balls knocked loose & waiting for the rake

Last August, I posted about my transition into a tenure-track teaching gig at a 4-year university after teaching at the community college-level for a decade. I made analogies to being called up to the Bigs (the Major League of baseball) and to leveling up in video games. Now, a few weeks into my second semester at the University of Central Arkansas and now teaching for its Arkansas Writer's MFA Program for the first time, I'm experiencing another moment of transition.

This leap is all about poetry, almost all the time. For the first time in my teaching career, all of my classes are in creative writing, which means for the first time in my teaching career, I am not teaching composition. I do miss the first-year students and working with them to find their voices, but I confess, my heart is definitely most invested in & most nourished by teaching creative writing.

Synapses are firing at all hours and my brain is about to leap out of my skull with energy for words, poetry, and engaging my students. Most startling, I'm reading poetry with a new sense of urgency, a renewed pleasure and delight. This is a direct result of having a community of people at my disposal (luckiest person on earth!), a community that shares my interests and concerns. This is not to dismiss my community of poetry on the internet, but there is something more concentrated about a group of people coming together face-to-face at scheduled intervals, having read the same material, to muck about with words in an attempt to create art. Along the way, we get to read fabulous poets and writers who engage us, enlighten us, frustrate us, delight us, and toss us into a state of questioning. We learn! We grow! We fill ourselves up to overflowing!

*I do mean "we," as I mentioned earlier that the classes are much more interesting when I get to pose my questions alongside my students' questions, and we all set about figuring things out together.

The downside, if there is one, is that I have two courses that are nearly "new preps" for me. While I have bits and pieces of useful teaching materials for both classes, they tend to be scattered, and I have to sit down prior to each class and spend hours getting organized. While it might not look like it to my students, I do try to think about the overall semester goals and how each class day might get us closer to those goals. I try to be as organized as possible about it; however, teaching is organic not programatic. As each class period unfolds, there must be room for the previously unknown question, the unanticipated tangent, the unplanned spontaneity of a discussion spinning off into new territory, and the first semester of teaching a class means there's going to be a bit more chaos than in a class I've taught time and time again (i.e. Intro to Creative Writing, where the issue can be re-invigorating a syllabus perhaps grown too stiff over the semesters).

All of this is to say that I am basking in the sun of the next level and hoping that I'm doing my students and my colleagues justice. I have dropped the ball a bit on writing, revising, and submitting, so that is going into my calendar for next week at a higher priority, and I'm hopeful that we've now established a bit of rhythm in the semester that will allow for a new "to-do" item.

Until then, "I have promises to keep" and poems to read before I sleep and poems to read before I sleep.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Stumbling on Treasure

63 ~ some serious January sun and warmth in advance of a sinking cold front headed our way for the long weekend

Beware: We are about to "go round by Laura's house" to get to the point of today's post.

Today, I ventured to the SoMa (the South Main St.) District in Little Rock to find South Main Creative, an arts, vintage, antiques shop where individuals rent space within a single building and form a collective selling space. I went to South Main Creative to see what clothing they had from Blue Swallow Clothing Company, having seen and fallen in love with a handmade duster jacket owned by a friend.

The Blue Swallow clothing is just inside the door at South Main Creative, but before I even saw it, I got distracted by a small selection of old books and pulled out New Educational Music Course: First Reader from Ginn and Company Publishers, 1906. It's full of music and lyrics and I knew I'd buy it to use for collages. Turning to the clothing, the selection was limited, as all items are handmade, and I didn't find exactly what I wanted, so I'll have to keep checking back as the stock gets updated regularly.

However, all was not lost. I wandered farther into the shop and stumbled on a booth with lots of books on design and art. I crouched down and a large cloth-bound, red book struck my eye as the word "Vesalius" called out. It was The Illustrations from the Works of Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, a reprint from 1950. Once upon a time, a few years back, I wrote a poem inspired by the drawings of Andreas Vesalius, "On the Fabric of the Human Body Book I: Chapter 19: On the Bones of the Thorax" and looked at the images of this ground-breaking anatomist online. The poem appeared online at The Dirty Napkin, which has since gone defunct. I'll post the poem after the images, as the poem has not appeared in a collection yet. But back to that large red book. I actually spoke out loud and said, "Vesalius! No way!" and grabbed it up. Next to it was An Atlas of Anatomy for Artists from 1957. In my collage, I'm addicted to anatomy illustrations, so that went into the pile as well.

And my dilemma is this: Will I be able to cut up the Vesalius? I'm betting I will, but I might have to photocopy the best of the pages and frame the originals.

Here, then, are my treasures and an old poem at the end.

On the Fabric of the Human Body
Book I: Chapter 19: On the Bones of the Thorax

Vesalius broke the spell, unyoked Eve from Adam
at the Cemetery of the Innocents, later dissected

the bodies of executed convicts, and excavated
the dark intercostals, spaces where muscles and arteries

mask all our bad blood.  The Fabrica emerged,
a new view of what sustains, braces, and attaches

the body.  The true, false, and floating ribs provide
an elastic, protective cage around our hearts, our lungs,

and certain nerves, delicate as the tentacles
of the sea nettle jellyfish.  In one drawing, the rib cage

splayed by an arched back could be played
like a musical instrument if someone had fingers

graceful enough for the tapping.  A rasping sound
escapes from mechanical ventilation, the respirator

forcing the expansion and contraction, the movement
of the chest that reassures the bedside watcher.  Vesalius

predicted it.  Ventilation depends on the ribs expanding
and contracting; surviving depends on keeping the cage intact. 

Shipwrecked at 50, Vesalius sweated out his final days
knowing all of this:  The heart inside the ribs is a magnet

for whatever swings a clotted fist, and a cracked rib provides
a pain that radiates with every breath, a pulsing flame

steady as the blazing sword outside of Eden.
We cannot choose not to breathe.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Teaching Persona Poetry: Our Big Questions & First Set of Prompts

66º ~ and all the sun

This semester, I'm teaching a topics class on the persona poem, and as I mentioned in a previous post I'm approaching the semester by offering my big-picture questions about persona poetry to the class and gathering theirs as well. In a minute, I'll share that list, as we've now completed three class periods and are moving into the deeper waters of working toward answers. I'll also share the first set of writing prompts I created based on today's reading, which centered on historical personae. But first, I thought I'd share a clip from the syllabus.

**HUGE Shout-out to the students in this class, who are rocking it so far!

Instructor’s Description:

An elective for Creative Writing majors and minors, as well as MFA graduate students, this course will explore the contemporary use of persona as a poetic device. Reading largely from A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry, edited by Oliver de la Paz and Stacey Lynn Brown (Akron, 2012), students will delve into the many ways poets use persona today, whether tapping historical and literary allusions, playing with popular culture references, raising political awareness, or branching into the unknown with characters created out of whole cloth. Students will read to discover how masking one’s personal identity offers new opportunities of expression and the class will discuss the risks and responsibilities of the form. Along with readings from the anthology, each student will select a poet working in persona from the last two decades and make a presentation to the class on that poets’ work.

Key to the course, students will be expected to experiment in the form itself by writing their own persona poetry for workshop. Students will draft poems from prompts and free writes, working both inside and outside of class, with instructor mentoring and peer response. At the end of the semester, the class will form their own chapbook anthology of student persona poems.

*The most successful students in this course are enthusiastic, curious, and open-minded.

Our Big Questions

Why did the poet choose persona?

How much can we know about where the poet blends with the character?

Is there any danger in the poet straying from fact, presenting misinformation or otherwise slanting the poem?

What is the poet’s responsibility to TRUTH?

What is the range of distance between the poet and the persona? How do the decisions about distance made by the poet help or hinder EMPATHY?

What is the poet’s responsibility to the persona?

Does it always have to be in 1st person?

Can you really extricate the poet from the persona?

To what degree when using persona does the poet manipulate the audience?

What can a writer do to better put themselves in their character’s shoes?

The subject can be a person or a thing…can it be an abstraction?

What benefits are there for the audience by not viewing the persona as the poet?

What benefits are there for the poet by writing in persona?

Stay in your lane: To what level is writing about other cultures / experiences appropriate?

When writing a poem, the poet might ask “is it necessary?” where the “it” could be genre, form, persona, etc.

Does it matter if we know the poet is from a different ethnicity, gender, geographic region, etc. from the persona?

What is political about the poem? Is the political view of the persona accepted or rejected by society (or some segment of society)?

How much common knowledge (or not so common) does the audience have to know in order to “get” the poem?

How much does the audience have to research to “get” the poem?

How much does the poet owe to any known historical truth about a persona or an event?


Google phrases like “old photographs” “Arkansas historical society” “old family photos” and click on “Images.” If you have a specific time period in mind, you can also search “photographs 1920s Paris” or the like and find something more specific. Pick a person in one of the images and create a poem from their point of view. Incorporate research about the place and time if necessary.

Write a dream/nightmare of an historical persona that incorporates some artifact from that time period.

Take a well-known historical event and retell the account from the point of view of a minor character/participant. How would the telling change from this person’s point of view?

Read the writing (preferably diaries and letters) of an historical figure. Tell about a minor moment in that figure’s life and incorporate some of their own language.

Research an occupation that no longer exists and write about that job from the worker’s point of view.

Write from the point of view of one of your ancestors based on family stories you’ve heard.