Sunday, August 30, 2015

Draft Process: The Legacy of Our Sister Sleep

89º ~ feels like 92º ~ after a stretch of glorious weather in the low 80s, here we are again rising to the sweat-inducing 90s with high humidity ~ the hummingbirds continue ~ a neighborhood cat slinks through the yard next door, in and out of focus through the fence slats


This week was my first full week of teaching at UCA, so I'm trying to be patient with myself as I adjust to a new schedule. At PTC, I only had one face-to-face class, since all of my Comp I sections were online. At UCA, all four of my classes are face-to-face. This is taking quite a toll on me physically. I feel like I'm always hungry, and by the end of the week, I was physically exhausted (and my back went wonky yesterday). None of this is meant to be complaint. I know my body will adjust and so will my brain. That takes about three weeks for me, given past experiences.

FYI: I prefer teaching face-to-face because I can really get to know each student. Even after years of teaching online, I never mastered getting through to all of them.

Now, I was all set to ignore writing this week, and then I read Stephanie Vanderslice's tribute to Alan Cheuse, who left us far too soon. Stephanie is one of my new colleagues at UCA and I'm looking forward to talking writing and teaching with her as the years unfold. In any case, as I read this tribute to Cheuse, I was struck by his / Stephanie's "gargantuan word count in the sky" idea. This was a reminder to get back to the page, even if I only had 15 - 30 minutes in the mornings.

So, I renewed my effort. Things are a little more complicated this year as I've added some brief yoga stretching and 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation to my morning routine as I struggle with a seriously painful and unrelenting case of TMJ. At this point, I'm getting up at 5:15 (leaving the house at 7:00). It looks like I need to get up at 5:00 to extend my drafting time. All of this piles up at the end of the day to me being ready for bed by 7:00 p.m. Luckily, C. and I are hermits and this is usually not a problem.

But back to today's draft. I fiddled with words and lines each morning, in fits and starts. However, on Wednesday, some lines coalesced. Six lines in fact. On Friday, I added two more. Today, I drafted the full poem, all 14 lines (no it isn't a sonnet). If you had asked me a month ago, I'd have told you that I "don't work that way," that I can't write in bits and pieces and then bring it all together later on. Well, whadda ya know? Look what I just did. Here's the opening of "The Legacy of Our Sister-Sleep"

The moon, Sister, bright disc upon which
we spent our wishes, has reset itself to zero.

The poem goes on to be both memory and current accounting. It seems I'm stuck on addressing "Sister" in my drafts at the moment. Let me say that I actually have two sisters, whom I love and am thankful for; however, this "Sister" in the poems has come to stand more broadly. I do think of my sisters, but I also think of the relationship my mother has with my aunt. I think of women friends I have who have come to be as close to me as sisters. So, the poems broaden out, I hope.

The process of this week does not fit my ideal, but it is a process and it netted one cohesive draft. That deserves a Wahoooooooooooza (and a huge "Thank You" to Stephanie).


Saturday, August 22, 2015

Getting Called Up to the Bigs, Or, Leveling Up

75º ~ at the tail end of a 40-minute thunderstorm, featuring three massive lightning strikes and three flickerings of the electricity, along with lots of cloud-rumbling and sky-flashing


After months of anticipation, and five days of orientations and meetings, the first days of teaching at the University of Central Arkansas arrived for me Thursday and Friday. On Thursday, I had my Introduction to College Writing students. The majority of these students are recent high school graduates, and part of my first day discussion included a comparison / contrast of high school and college.

I've had this conversation with many classes over the years, and the analogy I always use is one from baseball (Go Cubs!). I announce to my classes that the move from high school to college is like being called up from the minor leagues to the majors (also know as the big leagues). For those who aren't into baseball, I extend the discussion to include moving from college ball to the NFL, NBA, WNBA, MLS, NWSL, etc. Finally, for those who aren't into sports but might be into gaming, we talk about leveling up.

We talk about how the freedoms and responsibilities grow with the promotion and how the physical environment changes as well. I address specifically how my role as their professor is different from the role of their high school teacher. I also point out that faculty have a lot of jobs outside the classroom and office hours. This is a shocker for many of them who are used to their teacher being in one room all day.

In the end, my goal is to be crystal clear about my responsibilities and theirs. I promise to come to class with passion & enthusiasm every day, to present them with the material they need to tackle the course skill set, to give clear directions and specific expectations about assignments, to be available to help them as needed, to treat each of them fairly and consistently, and to assess and return their work in a timely manner. I then outline their responsibilities and the fact that students in my classes don't "get" grades; they earn them. This is not the most entertaining day of the semester for the class, but it is crucial to starting off on the right foot.

On Friday, when I switched to my Introduction to Creative Writing students, I didn't have to hit this topic as hard, given that the class is 2000-level course. However, on Friday afternoon, with teaching completed for the day, it struck me that I am experiencing a similar shift in dynamics to that which my first-year students are experiencing.

I, too, have been called up. In my case, I've been called up from a non-tenure track job at a community college** to a tenure track job at a four-year comprehensive university. At heart, the tasks are the same, but everything is "bigger" now, and not just the campus. I'm having to learn a new physical environment, yes, but I'm also learning a new relationship environment as well. I'd been at PTC for 10 years. I was a seasoned veteran with all the confidence and exhaustion that entails. At UCA, I'm a rookie, and I need to navigate a whole new set of people and responsibilities. I need some time to figure out who everybody is and what role they play. I need some time to figure out what is expected, specifically, of me and what role I want to play within my department, my college, and the university as a whole.

As these first few weeks unfold, I'm going to try and be mindful that the stress I might feel as I set off on this new level mirrors the stress my first-years will be feeling. Hopefully, this will help me be a better professor along the way.

I'm also going to be mindful that my writing is taking a hit at the moment, and that's okay, for now (but only for now). Give me two weeks to work out the kinks in my schedule and I'll be back with my BIC (butt in chair) doing the work of drafting.

**I want to make clear that I don't think those folks working in community colleges are "minor" in any way. I know how much talent they have and how much effort it takes. My analogy extends more to the infrastructure around and outside of the classroom. Also, most community colleges are first-and second-year institutions. At UCA, I'll be teaching upper-level classes in a creative writing major and graduate students in an MFA program. That will be another adjustment.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Poet on the Move: Readings and Conferences, Fall 2015

86º ~ feels like 92º ~ yup, after several glorious days without it, the heavy humidity is back, the sun continues, no rain in sight


Last night, I attended my first-ever "Welcome Back" party for the Arkansas Writers MFA Program, where I am now an Assistant Professor. After two full days (Thursday and Friday) of new faculty orientation on the UCA campus, it was a relief to be able to relax a bit with good people, good food, and good conversation. I'd say it's going to be a wonderful year if last night is any indication.

In the course of the evening, I had a conversation about all my goings-on for the fall. I surprised myself with how many events I have scheduled. Here's the list so far:

Mid-South Book Festival (9/9 - 9/13), Memphis, TN
Where I'll be:
The Well Read Reception, Friday evening, 9/11
Street Fair Reading Tent, Saturday morning (time TBA), 9/12
The Mind as  Broken Mirror (reading/panel), Saturday, 4:00 p.m., 9/12

Conway Artsfest (9/26 - 10/3), Conway, AR
Where I'll be:
UCA Writing Department Reading, Thursday 7:00 p.m., 10/1
I'll be reading with my fellow new faculty Jennie Case (CNF) at the Faulkner County Library.

Hendrix College ShopTalk, 10/8, Conway, AR
Sponsored by the Hendrix-Murphy Foundation
Where I'll be:
The Murphy House, Thursday, 4:00 - 5:30 p.m., 10/8
I'll share the stage with Jo McDougall.

Southern Festival of Books (10/9 - 10/11), Nashville, TN
Where I'll be:
Schedule TBA, but I'll be there Friday night through Sunday.
Look for my reading on a panel of poets on Saturday.

Creative Writing and Innovative Pedagogies (CWIPs) Conference, 10/16 - 10/17, Warrensburg, KS
Sponsored by the Creative Writing Program at the University of Central Missouri
Where I'll be:
Panel: Inspiration: The Benefits of Irrational Thinking, Schedule TBA
Co-panelists: Garry Craig Powell, Lynne Landis, Rose Bunch

Poets in the Parlor at the Vachel Lindsay House, 10/18, Springfield, IL, 
I'll be sharing the mic with Matt Minicucci at 2:00 p.m.
This is a new addition, and my details aren't on the VLH website yet.

Eastern Illinois University, 10/19, Charleston, IL
Hosted by the English Department
Details TBA

Big Rock Reading Series, 11/3, North Little Rock, AR
Sponsored by Pulaski Technical College's Division of Fine Arts and Humanities
I'll be sharing the mic with good poetry-friend Angie Macri at 6:00 p.m.

In feast or famine news, I have 0 events scheduled for Spring 2016 (outside of attending but not presenting at AWP). This could be a good thing, as I might need the spring to recover!


Monday, August 10, 2015

Invest Your Ego Elsewhere

81º ~ feels like 88º ~ one more day of heat advisories with a temp of 102º before the index and then we cool down to the low- to mid- 90s. Ah, summer in the mid-south.


While I've been away from the blog these last two weeks, much poetry work has continued on. I've been revising and polishing, and I did start sending out new submissions. I'd sent out a few in June as well, and as the timing would have it, just as I started to send out new work in August, the rejections from June started rolling in.

Yes, rejections still sting, even when they are "good" rejections as two of these were. Yes, the rejections mean I have to dig a little deeper for the motivation to submit more work to the world. Yes, this is the nature of being a working poet.

All of this recalls to mind some advice I received in the late spring of 1999. Lo those many years ago, I traveled to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to check out the MFA program there. On that visit, I met the amazing poet Alison Pelegrin. As we chatted over drinks, I must have asked her for some advice about entering the program. She turned to me and said, "Invest your ego elsewhere."

What followed from there was a discussion on group dynamics and competitive natures in workshop, but we also talked about writing and publishing in general. The truth is, as it ever was, there will always be someone out there publishing in your "dream" journal when you get rejected, receiving the award you were just sure you would receive, getting the slick 2/2 teaching gig at one of the top 5 grad schools, and etc. Sadly, there will also always be people who need to talk down the work of others in order to feel better about their own writing. This is human nature.

To deal with what it means to be repeatedly rejected and disappointed, Alison's advice has never let me down. Yes, I celebrate my poetry victories and I am proud of every accomplishment I've achieved in writing, but victories and accomplishments can not sustain me and bring me back to the blank page. More importantly, they are fleeting, so there need to be other relationships and activities in my life that offer a more stable emotional reward. For me those include family and friends, my cats, collaging, and teaching. And chocolate, of course, you can never go wrong with good chocolate.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Revision and Preparations

93º ~ feels like 106º ~ the sun unwavering, cicadas and humidity constant


In anticipation of August 1 and the re-opening of submission periods for a good number of journals (although not as many as will open on September 1), I've spent the morning reading over all the poems I've written this summer. I am happy to report that despite my fits and starts, I do have a solid group of drafts that I think will eventually make it as publishable poems. Given my lack of success last summer, this is a relief.

However, it's been a long time since I've made a regular habit of submitting work, and I have to say, I'm nervous and hesitant. Already, I've received a few rejections of poems written last year, even a few where poems were solicited by editors. I bear those editors no ill will. The poems in Alchemy, the ones that have appeared most recently in journals, bear little resemblance to what I had on hand to send those editors. I'm sure they wondered about the shift in voice, subject matter, and style. I wondered, too. I was lost.

Now that I've found a way to continue working in that baroque colloquial syntax and diction, but to move on from the sickly speaker's voice, I think I might be more on the right track. I think. I'm waiting to hear back from another poet-friend-peer on a handful of poems, and this morning I went about my usual revision routine. It looks like this.

I open my folder of drafts (printed copies of the latest versions). I begin to read each poem out loud, pausing between poems to clear some head space and try to get a new and separate look at each. If after one read-through of the poem I still have confidence in it as a complete piece, I re-read, out loud, for clunky lines, for cliches, for any place I can trim and cut. I make these changes on the computer and print out a new draft. If the poem then seems ready to meet the world, I move it to a new folder that will be waiting for me on Saturday to make new submissions.

[I find it interesting that with the work I'm doing now, work that is more autobiographical, more familial, my biggest fear is in being the wrong kind of sentimental. I never wondered this when working in the sickly speaker's voice, and now I find myself having to navigate that old problem once again. Le sigh.]

In the process described above, there is also a chance a poem will continue to founder. The doubt may still be too strong and the whole refusing to coalesce. In these cases, I simply leave the draft alone after one re-reading. Often, I simply need more time and distance from the piece to understand what it needs. Sometimes, the poem will never make it out of this stage. I've learned to live with this and recognize that the time and effort were not wasted, as I believe:

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." ~ Beckett from Westward Ho.

Monday, July 27, 2015

What I'm Reading: Citizen by Claudia Rankine

95º ~ feels like 105º ~ cicadas buzz-humming every day now in the sun


Much has already been written about Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric. For those unfamiliar, this is a hybrid collection that blurs the line between lyric essay and prose poetry, and includes some stunning visual art as well. (Here's an example of the poetry.) The subject of the book is race and what it means for Rankine to be a black woman existing in the world today. The essays and poems in these pages work hard to expose what subtle institutional racism looks like from the recipients' viewpoint, and when not doing that, they tackle head-on racial confrontations in our recent headlines. Combined, the book is a powerful wallop.

I knew most of this before I opened the cover, so I'm not entirely unsurprised by the weight I'm feeling now. Over and over, as I read Rankine's straight-forward, even blunt, lines, I asked myself: how can one human (or many) treat another this way? And especially, what pushes a person to physically harm another?

I read Rankine's book and I empathized with her speaker and with the recipients of hate at the heart of her work. And then I wondered: how can we teach this empathy to everyone? What will it take to make people really see each other as precious and alive? At the heart of it, that image of being erased, of being unseen, is the image that stuck with me. Don't you have to erase someone, to distance yourself from that person, in order to do harm? So, how do we make each other see?



As I read, I also couldn't help but contemplate the book's design. I have so many questions for Rankine and John Lucas, who designed the book for Graywolf Press. The cover itself is striking (art by David Hammons: In the Hood, 1993), but I was a bit taken aback by the interior as well. The pages of the book are heavy, 80# matte coated and slicker than regular page weight, even though matte. I understand that the visual art reproduced in the book called for heavier paper and other design considerations, but I was surprised that the press could afford to use that paper throughout the book. It certainly gives the book a stronger "hand feel." I began to wonder if this weight was consciously planned. A weighty object for weighty subjects.

On a completely side note, I was sad to see the use of a sans serif font for the interior. I know this is the digital age, but I have a really hard time with blocks of text in Arial and the like. The font in Citizen is quite large, so I didn't have a hard time reading the actual words; I did have a hard time tracking line to line. I suppose this simply makes me a member of the "older generation." I do wonder if Lucas meant to link the physical text to the digital world where more and more people do their reading.

All of this is to say that if you haven't yet had a chance to read Citizen, I hope you do so soon. In all my questioning, I am confident that the beginning of an answer can be found in reading each other's work and attempting to see the world, to feel the world, from another's body.




Thursday, July 23, 2015

Draft Process: I am No Cordelia (Darn It, Shakespeare! I Just Wrote Another Sonnet)

88º ~ feels like 100º ~ 50% chance of pop-up thunderstorms, yesterday the rain missed us by less than five miles ~ we wallow


Those of you that follow my work know that I'm no formalist. Sure, I love sound and pattern, and I use a lot of slant rhyme with healthy doses of alliteration, assonance, and consonance thrown in for good measure, but I am loathe to count lines or otherwise restrain myself. So, what's a poet to do when suddenly the drafts start coming out in form? Well, blame Shakespeare, of course.

My most recent post mentioned my re-reading of King Lear, and this morning, I spent some time with my BIC (butt in chair), re-reading the quotes I'd copied out. Yes, I already underlined and otherwise added new annotations to the text, but I also kept a running list of quotes on scratch paper, given that the Riverside doesn't lend itself to easy use, what with its great heft.

In Act IV, scene ii, Albany asks of Goneril and Regan (Lear's two oldest daughters), "Tigers, not daughters, what have you perform'd?" This line became the beginning of my draft today, although altered. The title of the draft was easy, given what should be my natural place (Cordelia) is far from the truth. So:

I am No Cordelia

Tigers, not daughters, what we have perform'd
is this. Our father was no Lear, no proud king

So, the draft kind of just fell out of me after that, and I let it all come out in handwriting in my journal. Starting with a Shakespearean line, I shouldn't be surprised that the lines came out in five and six stresses, but I promise I wasn't consciously thinking of this. Imagine my surprise when I went to the computer and typed up the draft and it was not only 14 lines long but also ended with a rhyming couplet. Ack!

I should clarify that the draft is in no way a perfect Shakespearean sonnet. It lacks a clean rhyme scheme, and I haven't scanned each line to work out the iambic pentameter (oooo, shudder). So now I have to decide if the draft requires this. It is definitely a poem of allusion, so, will the reader expect it to fall into that "proper" sonnet form?

Any thoughts on the subject are welcome.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Re-reading King Lear, Layers of Marginalia

91º ~ feels like 103º ~ heat advisories from now 'til Christmas by the feel of it


The other day, C. came inside and found me with my gigantic Riverside Shakespeare sprawled across my lap and asked, "What's that?"

I answered and added, "I'm reading King Lear." 

"For school?" he asked.

"No," I answered and mumbled something about my own reference, feeling slightly embarrassed and unable to explain that the play might offer insight into some of the new poems I'm writing, or not. The truth is, once I started re-reading it, interested in the opening scene of the division of the estate, I ended up needing to read it all. Sucked in, again.



This is probably the third or fourth time I've read King Lear. The first would have been when I acquired my Riverside as an undergraduate at the College of St. Benedict / St. John's University. The price tag is long since gone, and I've lugged the weighted thing across the country and back several times, but it's always been worth the price. I read the play again as a graduate student in Dr. Candido's class at the University of Arkansas, and now again in my mid-40s. Somewhere in between those student days, I must have read it again because I can detect distinct layers in my annotations. I love that I have layers of marginalia that record not only key themes and passages, but also who I was as a reader each time I came to the play. Also, given that I've never been a snap reader of Shakespeare's language, the marginal comments have eased each subsequent reading, allowing me to sink more fully into the text.

And this is why I'll always advocate for annotation, which at the moment also means printed text, given the limitations of the technology to date (yes, I've tried most of the electronic annotation programs and found them wanting).

As for why this play at this time, that peer reader I mentioned in my most recent post brought up King Lear in reference to my draft. It's an easy leap to make as Lear has three daughters, and I am one of three sisters (no brothers, though our mother is alive and well contrary to Queen Lear, long dead). My recent poems are touching on my father's Alzheimer's and the onset of dementia (Lear's madness), as well as my relationship with my sisters.

So, I was reading the play again and it brought up some interesting thoughts on empathy and how we look for ourselves in literature, but often only in the best characters. I am the youngest child, by rights that would make me Cordelia, the loyal, steadfast daughter; alas, that is in fact my oldest sister who lives next door to my parents and helps in the caregiving every single day. There's also the fact that my father is no Lear. He amassed no estate and there is no quibbling over who will inherit his non-existent wealth, but still I read trying to figure out what the play could offer me.

For the most part, I found myself reading the passages of Lear's madness much more carefully and deeply. There's no surprise there, as my entire family now ripples with the effects of my father's Alzheimer's. I copied out several dozen quotes from the play with the idea that they might inform new drafts, and this works well with my focus on the colloquial baroque. This is not to mean that I want to imitate Shakespearean language per se, but there are phrases that have come down to us as part of our colloquial language that still echo the richness of a more complicated syntax, and sometimes the most authentic thing to say is:

"Break, heart, I prithee break!" (V.iii. 313).


Friday, July 17, 2015

The Importance of Peer Readers

93º ~ Feels like 104º ~ stay inside weather for the foreseeable future, even running errands between air-conditioned buildings is exhausting ~ cicadas are singing again


This week, a good poetry friends reached out to ask if I'd look at a draft of a poem and offered to look at one of mine in return. Perfect timing! I've been racking up poem drafts pretty regularly for the month of July, and many of them are through the first awkward revision stages and can stand on their own. However, I lack all confidence in the work, so it was great to do a poem exchange.

In the past, for many of the poems I published prior to The Alchemy of My Mortal Form, I had peer readers provide feedback at some stage of drafting. This feedback took the form of both global and local comments. By that I mean, I asked my peers to let me know their general impression of how the poem was working, what message it was giving, but I also looked for and received marginal notes on places that might need tightening, words that clunked, form that sagged, etc.

For a handful of poems in Alchemy I received this kind of feedback as well; however, after a certain point, the sickly speaker was so strong in my head, and each poem so connected the one to the other that I fell out of the habit of sharing the work with early readers. In fact, I didn't send the manuscript of the book to anyone before I started submitting it to presses. I was simply that confident in the whole of it.

Alas, since I finished that book, I've gone back to square one and feel like a beginner again. I see what I've drafted; I can identify the poetic elements that are working, but I am all staggering, weak-kneed foal when thinking about sharing any of these poems.

So, when I shared this recent work, I asked my friend to simply tell me what she got from what I'd written and to throw up a flare if the poem seemed too sentimental, as I'm back to writing more autobiographically rather than with a clear & separate persona. When I received her feedback last night, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. She got it. [The key is to make sure your peer readers are skilled at offering feedback without simply blowing kisses back at you.]

All of this is to say that no matter how much experience I have, no matter how much success, hanging on to a sense of confidence is difficult for me without peer readers. So thank you to my friends who have served in this capacity. I'm grateful.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

What a Teaching Writer Does When She isn't Writing

94º ~ feels like 105º ~ in official Heat Advisory mode now, and as much as I love being warm, even I have the A/C going today with a dewpoint of 75º...swampy


As a young writer and then a grad student, I had no idea of all the ways being a teaching writer would expand my world and my community. Sure, I knew about conferences. Sure, I knew that most books had blurbs on the back cover. Sure, I knew that writers formed friendships across geographic areas and exchanged letters or emails (yes, in my early grad school days, personal email was just becoming the norm and we all had dial-up accounts that took FOREVER to load). However, as I was struggling to simply embrace the craft of writing poetry, I rarely thought about what my working life would look like once I secured a teaching position.

In order to lift the veil a bit for future writers, here's a hodgepodge or what I've been up to while also putting in drafting time.


** Editorial work
I serve as a co-editor for Heron Tree, an online poetry journal, publishing one poem a week with a collected annual print edition. At Heron Tree, we are three people, all sharing in the tasks of running the journal. Until last week, we were reading submissions from our Jan 1 - May 1 submission period and holding weekly editorial meetings to select poems for publication.

My year-round work with Heron Tree is in PR/social media. I post on our Facebook page twice a week to help promote each newly published poem, and I work with outlets like New Pages and the CRWROPPS-listserv to promote our reading periods.

This week, I fulfilled another role. We publish our print edition in the early fall, collecting poems published on a roughly academic year calendar (2014 - 2015 this go-round). I spent a few days reading and re-reading all of the poems that will make up our third edition, and I "ordered" the poems into a rough draft. Next week, we three editors will meet to iron out what will become our latest print annual.

** Blurbing
In the past few weeks, I've been working on a blurb. Whenever I'm able, I try to say "yes" when asked to blurb a collection, perhaps out of a sense of paying it forward for all those who blurbed my work. When setting out to write a few sentences that will capture the essence of a collection, I read the work twice. On the first round, I read the book, cover to cover, rather quickly, only stopping to jot down big-picture themes. Next, and after at least a day has passed, I read much more slowly, often over several days, sinking into each poem with an eye for lines that stand out as representative of the larger themes. I dog ear these poems, and when I'm finished with the second read, I turn to writing the blurb, where I incorporate the themes with specific quotes to support my claims. Finally, I send the draft to the poet and ask for any revision suggestions. I'm serious. I don't ever want to misrepresent a collection or fail to capture a theme the poet thought necessary for future readers. I'm also fully aware that the press might cut my blurb at any time. This is life.

Being asked to write a blurb is an honor, and a gift, as I get to read a book well before its publication date. This most recent work has been with John McCarthy's Ghost County, slated for publication by Midwestern Gothic Press in 2016.  Y'all can just add this title to your "to-read" list now, FYI.

** Conference follow-up
In June, I attended the North American Review Bicentennial Conference at the University of Northern Iowa. That conference was two and a half days of non-stop poetry & writing extravaganza. I attended several remarkable panels on creative writing pedagogy, as well as getting to hear some wonderful readings. While in attendance, I was my normal, frantic note-taker self, filling up page after page of my journal.

Finally, today, I went through all of those notes and collected the pedagogy suggestions and exercises into one Word document that I can email to myself at school. I followed up with emails to a few presenters, asking for more information or simply continuing the conversation (oh, the joys of email's convenience). I took any writing inspirations and re-wrote them in my current journal, as the one from the conference was full in June. I also took the time to look up specific poems and essays suggested by presenters / readers. Now I see that I need to do this more promptly following such a great event, as a few of my notes had lost their meaning in the month's expanse since I'd jotted them down.

** Post-publication award for my new book
On tap for my next non-drafting work is to review a list of post-publication award opportunities for The Alchemy of My Mortal Form. Trio House has already made certain selections and we've worked out who will do what to get the book submitted. However, I love to make an Excel spreadsheet any time I can (it must be the accounting genes I get from my mom and my sister), and I want to be sure I haven't missed a golden opportunity. Note: Trio House has been wonderful and supportive about getting the book out to these awards, but I also know that a small press has a limit on the number of copies and the award fees it can allocate to any given title. I'm happy to pick up the extras for important possibilities.


What I notice, when I look at this list of work is how much a part of a community I've become. Some of this work might not pertain to folks who don't teach, but most of it centers on being an active poet in the publishing world. No, none of these activities are required to be a writer; however, for me, all of these activities help me. They help me become a better writer, of course, but they also help me become a better reader. In the end, though, they mostly help me feel not so alone, given that most of my drafting work happens in solitary focus on the page, which can drain my energy stores.

I hope this helps shed some light on what I do with my "poetry time" even when I'm not drafting. (And I've just realized that there isn't anything listed here about the collections I've been reading lately...but that's a whole other post entirely.)

Until next time...

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Reading Aloud While Drafting: Just Do It

83º ~ feels like 91º ~ a looming brown-gray sky, yet the storms hover northward, gusts torment the trees from time to time, breaking out of gentle breezes


Today, rather than give a detailed account of my drafting process, I want to talk about the importance of reading aloud during drafting. I've said it before, and I'll say it again; poetry is oral / aural. In the best case, we would hear each poem via the poet's own voice, either in person or on a recording. The next best case is to read poems aloud as we encounter them on our own. In the worst case, when we read poems silently, we still should "hear" them in our heads, which means a slight difference from reading prose to ourselves. After all, the poet has taken pains to represent how a poem should sound based on word choice, line breaks, stanza breaks, and other typographical choices.

In terms of my own work, I always begin with pen and paper (my journal), jotting down in a rush the first lines that suggest themselves to me. At this stage, I'm not usually focused on sound yet; instead, I'm letting the poem find its center and coalesce. (And, of course, after all these years of reading and writing poems, I've absorbed ideas of sound that find their way to the page unconsciously.) Once the poem has gathered weight, I move to the computer and the drafting process begins to look much more like conscious craft. Here, I begin to read and re-read aloud as I add lines, shift clauses around, play with white space, etc. Often, I'm still searching for the poem's destination at this stage. In this way, the poem grows into its own body and takes on its sonic charge.

Here are two examples of how reading aloud played a part in today's draft.

In my journal, the draft contained the phrase "hides in the shadowed alleys." Once I moved to the computer and started reading aloud, I kept saying "hides in the shadowed valley." After the third time of getting frustrated because I thought I was reading it "wrong," I realized that, no, in fact the poem needed "shadowed valley" not "shadowed alley."

Later, I had written "a dozen bright-plumaged birds," and a similar stumbling kept occurring. In this case, it was caused by there being too many syllables in that phrase, even though I wasn't working on a formal poem. (In other words, meter still matters in free verse.) So, I eventually had a light bulb moment as a result of my tongue getting twisted and revised this to "a dozen bright-plumed birds."

Until the next session...

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

On Leaving a Community College Faculty for a That of a Four-Year Institution

83º ~ feels like 91º ~ the swampy days are back, from inside looking out, though, all appears beautiful


While I did draft a poem today (a sonnet, egads!), there was nothing very remarkable about the process, which followed the standard of the previous two drafts. Instead of recording the blow-by-blow account of today's poem, I'd like to address, more specifically, my recent change in jobs. Several readers have expressed an interest in the interview process and my shift from community college to a four-year institution where I'll be teaching undergraduate creative writing majors along with graduate students pursuing an MFA.

The first thing one might need to know about the situation is this: C. and I are fairly well-tied to central Arkansas. We've talked about my going on the job market over the years, but we have a great life here and have not been inclined to disrupt it. Central Arkansas features many institutions of higher learning, so I've mostly kept my eye within this range.

From January of 2005 until May of 2015, I taught at Pulaski Technical College (North Little Rock, AR), with a 5/5 load that always included a heavy emphasis on composition. (In the last four years, my teaching load was reassigned to 4/4 because of my work with the Big Rock Reading Series.) I did have the opportunity to teach introductory creative writing classes, usually one per semester in my later years at PTC. I had incredible support from my dean and my colleagues in the English Department, which allowed me to make the job the best possible fit for my writing life; however, my writing life was not required for my teaching position at PTC.

In August of this year, I'll join the faculty of the Department of Writing and the Arkansas Writers MFA Program at the University of Central Arkansas (Conway, AR) as an assistant professor. I'll be in a tenure-track line for the first time, 12 years after receiving my MFA. The teaching load is 4/4, and I will have some college writing courses. UCA has a thriving BA in creative writing, as well as the new three-year MFA program (begun in the fall of 2012), so I will have plenty of opportunities to teach creative writing classes. I'm pumped to begin a new portion of my teaching life at UCA and to do so with outstanding colleagues.

In terms of landing the job, I followed the same process as everyone else on the market. I saw the call for applications in early fall 2014. I spent five weekends, working six- to ten-hours each weekend, putting together my application packet. My CV was a mess; I hadn't written a letter of interest in years; and my teaching philosophy was a decade out of date. I was thrilled, then, when I received an offer for a phone interview.

True story: I bombed the phone interview. Landed flat of my face. For the first time in my life, I blanked during an interview. I'm not saying I don't have the knowledge or the experience; I'm saying that I couldn't formulate a coherent thought to save my life. In hindsight, I realize that this might have been because I wanted the job too much, and it was most definitely because I didn't seek help in preparing for the phone interview. Being a decade out of grad school, and having not been actively looking for a job, I was unprepared for the set of questions, and I was unprepared to organize my own thoughts on the fly.

In late March, I was surprised to receive an on-campus interview offer. This time, I did seek help / coaching to prepare me for my on-campus interview, which included a presentation on how my writing life influences my teaching life and vice versa. Here I reached out and relied on good friends with years of teaching experience, and one who had recently landed her own tenure-track job and offered great up-to-date insights.

At the end of a very long day of interviewing, presenting, and generally being "on," I knew I'd done well, and by that I mean I knew I'd shown my true abilities as a writer and a teacher, unlike in the phone interview. However, I had no idea how the decision would go.

Here, it might be important to address the fact that, yes, I knew the faculty at UCA prior to applying for the job. The literary community in central Arkansas is vibrant, but relatively small, so of course, we mostly know each other. The folks at UCA had hosted me for several readings in the past. I'd hosted several folks from UCA for readings at PTC. However, I can honestly say that I was not / am not close bosom buddies with any member of the writing faculty. My friendships with them will certainly grow as we work together, but I don't think I was any kind of shoe-in because of those connections.

Needless to say, when the call from the department chair finally did come with the job offer, I pretty much leapt out of my skin with joy. My path to a tenure-track line at a four-year institution is not the traditional one, and I am grateful for the 10 years of teaching at PTC. Many of my students there taught me about grit and determination. They taught me about perseverance in the face of the gravest obstacles, and they taught me that people are capable of immense change. They also taught me how to teach to the student, not to the group and not "to the test." For these reasons, I'm thankful for my time at PTC.

All that I learned about teaching and being an active member of a college community in the past decade came into play when landing this new job. During my on-campus interview, I had concrete examples of both successes and failures from the classroom, and I could demonstrate how I addressed those failed moments when they did occur. I could show my contributions to the college with actual accomplishments and real feedback from colleagues and administrators. Now, I'm building on what I learned at PTC as I begin to craft my new syllabi and learn about the culture of my new department, college, and university. I'm nervous about "leveling up" and about entering the publish or perish paradigm, but mostly, I'm just filled with joy and absolute awe that I have earned this opportunity. I'll definitely add more insights once the academic year arrives and classes get underway. (I can hardly wait!)

Until then....



Monday, July 6, 2015

Draft Process Notes: I Refer Myself to the Judicious Reader

77º ~ gray-whitish skies, some stirring breezes, a chance for a storm in the next 24 hours, and then a dry spell predicted, all is green & healthy through the view out my window


Today's desk time repeated much as yesterday's, combining inspiration from Lucie Brock-Broido (this time words gathered from "Rampion" in The Master Letters) and from the language in The Art of Simpling (written in 1656). I began my time at the desk thinking about anaphora, that use of repeated words or phrases at the beginning of clauses that causes some poems to sing, but also to echo the high church use of litanies. The church I was raised in didn't use a litany, but when I went to the College of St. Benedict, I did attend several masses each year, and I always loved the music of the litany and the communal response.

But that's a bit of a diversion. What I mean to say is that I was holding in my head the idea of the anaphora and the idea of the colloquial baroque* as I started my desk time today. Before starting to gather words from Brock-Broido, I read from The Art of Simpling, which brings out a lot of King James syntax. I skipped the "quoteths" and "fadeth away" phrases, but copied out some phrases that felt imbued with energy, such as the phrase that became the title of the poem. Another one of my jottings, "This is mine own gloss," became my starting point. Here is how the draft begins:

This, then, is mine own Gloss for the peculiar remedy, rumored
among the inelegants, the delegates
                                                          of the cellar and the glass-black fields.

Again, I seem to be writing about the body stricken by illness, and I worry a bit about separating my new voice from the voice of the sickly speaker in The Alchemy of My Mortal Form. However, this draft surprised me as it also became an exploration in class issues, in particular my guilt over having risen to the intellectual class and separated myself from my more working-class family members.

Also, while the use of anaphora is not present until the closing stanza, it is there. I drafted that stanza with the specific intent to use the repetition. This is not something I've had to "plan" this way in the past. It seems to go against my idea of letting the poem lead me to where it needs to go; however, since I was really working with an idea of form, I think focusing on the repeated phrase ("that I might now...") helped me in my discovery. Revision time will tell.

Until the next session...

*The "colloquial baroque" is a phrase coined by Lisa Russ Spaar to get at the blending of dictions in contemporary poetry, of moving between Latinate phrases and conversational ones. Practitioners that I think of when using the term are: Lucie Brock-Broido, Mary Ann Samyn, Emily Rosko, and Spaar herself...plus plenty of others.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Draft Process: The Tonnage of a Toxic Secret

77º ~ hazy skies, but sunlight filters through ~ sad news: we lost the one robin chick from the second clutch to Friday's storms, must destroy the nest and the nesting place as too fragile for the nurturing


Even when I'm not at the desk, my mind is often on writing these days, and I've been mulling over why I might be in such a "stuck" mode. Sometime in the last two days, I realized that I miss the voice of the sickly speaker. I miss the voice but not the persona, if that makes sense. In other words, I want to get back to that "colloquial baroque" inspired by Emily Dickinson, Lucie Brock-Broido, Mary Ann Samyn, and Lisa Russ Spaar to name just a few.

Today, I relied on another tactic in drafting that rarely lets me down. I went back to a poet whose work I not only love but also find challenging. Lucie Brock-Broido's poems in The Master Letters never cease to amaze me, and even though I've read them all many times over, when I return I feel like I'm reading the book for the first time again. That's the kind of power I want laced through the body of my poems as well.

Today, I opened The Master Letters to "For the Lustrum," and started doing a random word bank. In the meantime, I've also been taken with the Doctrine of Signatures and ways plants have been used as medicine from ancient times to today. From that, I ordered a photocopy of a text called The Art of Simpling by W. Coles ("simpling" was another word for the knowledge of plants and their medicinal uses in 16th and 17th century England). So, I added some words from the first few chapters of this book to Brock-Broido's.

Before I started word-gathering, I also happened to glance at "Toxic Gumbo" in The Master Letters. This poem isn't great for word-gathering if I'm just going to use one poem because it is relatively short. However, in glancing over it again, I remembered/saw again that it is a single sentence in the form of a question with many clauses. It spans seven couplets, or 14 lines. I've often seen the exercise of "write a poem that is one single sentence but is more than four lines long" or some such. So, after I had my word bank and phrases had begun to suggest themselves, I flipped back to "Toxic Gumbo" to see how it began. It starts: "Am I to be a patient / Saved by the grave experiment..." So, I took the structure as my starting point. My title also comes from Brock-Broido's, in a way. The draft begins:

Am I to be cursed with a curdled tongue
for the length of this luminous season,

(Can you tell I'm fixated on breaking out of this writing drought?) And wouldn't you know it, but my poem comes in at seven couplets as well, even though I discarded the book after getting the draft started. I did use many combinations from my word bank. I also read and re-read the draft aloud as I went, after the initial rush of lines. Of note, I did more revision of the first draft than normal, as I noticed that I "cheated" by using several comma splices toward the end of my draft rather than sticking to the syntax I wanted to model. For some reason, I was averse to a poem having more than one question mark, especially to having three question marks in the last five to six lines. So, I spent some time re-working the syntax, leading to a few new discoveries in the last two couplets.

Bodily, I feel a settled sense when a draft has come together and offers some hope for becoming a full-fledged poem. I'm happy to feel such today.

Until the next session...

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Draft Process: To Live in a Far Country

85º ~ dew point & heat indices climbing back, "feels like" 92º ~ adult robins are feeding one chick, the second clutch not nearly as prolific as the first, the sun is out in force, thunderstorms splatter the map by evenings these days, a lucky few receive the rain


Dear reader, I am thrumming with a new exercise and the draft that it produced. And here's the story:

Yesterday, I got the news that I could go to UCA and get my ID, receive my keys, and see my office. Whee. And so, I made the drive that will become my daily commute, roughly 40 minutes each way, with 30 of those minutes spent on the interstate. As I've been planning for this job transition, I've been thinking about podcasts for that commute and recently I subscribed to Transatlantic Poetry on Air. This is an amazing web-based reading series that I first heard about through one of the hosts: the poet Robert Peake. While I haven't managed to log in to any of the "live" readings, I was delighted to learn that the podcasts were now available and supported by iTunes. (Check them out!!)

So, yesterday, I hit the road and then remembered the podcasts (this detail is important). Since I hadn't chosen which episode to listen to before I started driving, I just went with whatever episode my finger hit, given that I was going 65 mph. Lesson learned! Still, this random choice sparked poetry, so no complaints.

I hit on the episode featuring Agi Mishol and Marie Howe. I knew of Howe, of course, but Agi Mishol was new to me. It turns out she is an Israeli poet writing in Hebrew, and she read in Hebrew for the broadcast. Her poems are translated into English, though, and in the "live" broadcast those translations were on the screen. I'm kind of thrilled that I didn't have access to the English. Instead, I let the Hebrew of Agi Mishol's reading wash over me in the car.

And then it happened. I started doing homophonic translations as I caught familiar sounds. (I have often done homophonic translations myself and with students using written texts. For those unfamiliar, a homophonic translation is when you don't try to actually translate a text [from a language you don't know at all...should be completely foreign to you] but instead look for suggested words in your language of origin.) I heard "let me" and "start" and "vault of names," which sent me scrambling for my journal and pen. Another lesson learned: I need to get one of those dash-mounted note pads as I didn't want to stop the podcast to use the voice memo function on my phone. I jotted down some quick lines and then went about the rest of my day (listening to NPR on the return trip as it was time for All Things Considered).

Today, when I got to my desk time, I knew I wanted to go back and re-listen to Agi Mishol with a concentrated focus on using homophonic translation to produce a full poem. And it was a success. Such a success that I plan to do this with my poetry students this fall!  Wahoooza.

So here's the beginning of my draft today. The title is taken and tweaked from something Agi Mishol said in English about "living in a far community" as she tried to describe the small town she lives in.

To Live in a Far Country

Let me start here on this small plot
of red dirt baked hard by drought.  *

The map I clutch marks this spot
The Vault of Forbidden Names, begs me

to dig...

*The red dirt is courtesy of Arkansas. They are expanding I-40 between Little Rock and Conway, so I was bathed in the dust of that red dirt for part of my journey as the scrapers scraped and the dump trucks dumped.

The draft goes on and sort of becomes a local myth/fable/story for a group of people I made up out of thin air and Agi Mishol's beautiful Hebrew sounds. Now I plan to read the translations and listen to the Marie Howe portion of the episode.

Until the next session...