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.