Monday, February 20, 2017

Writing Time = Revising Time = Cutting the Fat

60º ~ headed up to the mid-70s, this is winter now in the mid-south, climate change is real, everything is budding out of time


My goal for writing time in January and February was to complete my revisions of the poems in the 20 x 20: A Self-Exphrasis project and prepare all of the files for submission. I am so close to crossing this off my list I could spit.

All of the poems have been revised, and all feel strong to me now, ready for sending out. There is no revision to be made on the collages, but I have to perform some PDF-making to get things in a format suitable for sending out, and there is where I'm stymied today. I have two, only two, collages that must be rescanned. In the process of making the PDFs, I discovered that two of the scans are truncated. This is a problem with collages because most scanners are supposed to be "smart" and detect the image to be scanned. Imagine a snapshot or a full-page document. My collages, which feature lots of negative space, tend to freak out the scanners and get them all confused about where the edges are supposed to be. For these last two collages, I wasn't diligent enough in my proofing, and must rescan. In order to get the best image quality, and because the collages are larger than my home scanner, I use the flatbed scanner at work, which means waiting until tomorrow to finish this project. Sigh.

In terms of revising poems, today I was practicing what I preach, in at least one case. I confess that the poems left for revision today were the difficult ones, the ones where I knew something was off, but I couldn't put my finger on it. In particular, a poem titled "Skull" has been giving me fits since I wrote it. The collage kept outweighing the poem because the poem was still weak. For this project in particular, there can be no weak poems (not that I would want a weak poem out in the world, anyway).

Last week, in my undergraduate forms of poetry class, we talked about various revision techniques, and one of them was "cut the fat." Somehow, I chanced on that exercise as I was wrestling with "Skull." In this exercise, the poet cuts all of the words in the poem except nouns and verbs. (Hint: It's best to do a "Save As" and mess with the poem in another file.) Then, the poet "rebuilds" the infrastructure of the poem, putting back only the absolutely necessary adjectives, articles, prepositions, conjunctions, etc. It turns out, this is exactly what the second stanza of this poem needed. Stanza 1 held up to the cutting, but through this exercise I was able to trim and then rebuild stanza 2, and voilà.

This all means that on Friday, during writing time, I can start drafting again, and leave some time for sending these new hybrids out into the world. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Read / View Three Pieces from 20 x 20: A Self-Exphrasis

47º ~ after a gloom-filled, rain-filled day yesterday, the sun is out and the temps are rising


AWP was a whirlwind as always, and I was thrilled to see so many of "my people," yet sad to have missed seeing so many more. I launched AWP this year by doing an off-site reading for Tupelo Quarterly, at a bakeshop no less where all the goodies were free! Wahooooooza.

Tupelo Quarterly is the first journal to publish my new hybrid works, the self-exphrastic poems I've written about here often in the past year.  Without further ado, I urge you to click over and view "Braided Calculations," "Precautionary Measures," and "Work Sheet for Family Debts."

Ideally, one would have the poem next to the collage, but I'm still struggling with the presentation. (TQ presents the hybrid as I submitted it to them.) My suggestion to read / view these pieces would be to scroll to the collage for a glimpse, then scroll up to the corresponding poem for a good read through, then go back to the collage for a closer look. You may have to enlarge the screen for the poem and minimize the screen for the collage. I am learning as I go, per the usual.

As a preview, here's an image from "Precautionary Measures" and the opening lines.


The girl born in drought
                                       learned early
the flammable wisp of hem
                        and dangled bow.


Please read the rest and then browse all throughout the fabulousness that is Tupelo Quarterly 11. With all thanks to Kristina Marie Darling for her outstanding work, and thanks to all the rest of the staff as well.

Monday, January 30, 2017

AWP 2017: The C. D. Wright Women Writers Conference and Me

57º ~ super sun, light breezes, nothing winter-like these days


In 10 days, a bazillion writers, okay, 10,000+ writers will descend on Washington, D.C. for the annual Associate of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference. We will be swarming through the D.C. convention center and nearby hotels, attending craft and pedagogy panels, participating in discussions of the most pressing topics of the current literary landscape (diversity & inclusion, financial support, activism, and more), and listening to readings, readings, readings. We will learn from one another and celebrate one another. We will experience all of the feels and have to take time outs from one another. We will exhaust ourselves but return home recharged.

~~~~~

By and large, I will be donning my Director of the C. D. Wright Women Writers Conference hat for much of my time in D.C. Come by the University of Central Arkansas Booth, #569, and get your SWAG. We've got STICKERS! We've got MAGNETS! We've got DONOR FORMS! (wink. nudge.)


AWP Booth 569

We will share the booth with the Arkansas Writers MFA Program at the University of Central Arkansas and with Arkana, our new national literary magazine. Please come by and meet our wonderful grad students and our faculty. If you teach undergrads interested in an MFA, you need to know about our programs in publishing and pedagogy. If you're looking for new places to submit, you need to check out Arkana!

BONUS: There will be a poetree, a tree decorated with lines of poetry written by YOU.
BONUS: There will be a capsule vending machine dispensing line of poetry to you.

~~~~~

This year, I have two off-site readings for anyone interested in hearing my most recent work.

Wednesday, Feb. 8, 5 p.m. - 7 p.m.
Tupelo Quarterly Off-site Reading
Buttercream Bakeshop, 1250 9th St. NW

Poetry and bakery goods. Nom Nom!
Kathryn Nuernberger, Karla Kelsey, Ashley M. Jones, Sebastian Matthews, Jesse Lee Kercheval, Virginia Konchan, Sandy Longhorn, Stephanie Schlaifer, Martin Ott, Jennifer Givhan

~~~~~

Gold Wake Press and Trio House Press AWP Reading
The Big Hunt, 1345 Connecticut Ave NW

My THP family puts on a good show, and I hear tell that GWP isn't so bad either.
Matt Mauch, Kyle Flak, Iris Jahmal Dunkle, Nick Courtright, Sandy Longhorn, David Wojciechowski, Joe Osterhaus, Adam Crittenden, Tara Betts, Kelly Magee, Steven Riel, Kyle McCord

~~~~~

If you're attending, please stop by and say hi, even if we've never met in person, and even if saying "hi!" requires calling on extraordinary powers to break out of an introverted cocoon. I promise you'll be well met b/c I've been in that exact same cocoon, and probably will be when we meet.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Poetry Revision, A Story of Minutiae

42º, feels like 36º ~ the weekend saw temperatures in the mid-seventies, a return to cooler days is not unwelcome, even the birds' chirpings seem crisper


Today, I am spending my writing time in revision, again. The self-ekphrastic project seems driven to be "finished" or at least to be put into a shape ready for individual submissions. I have paused to recount this anecdote of revision.

There's an old joke among poets about spending a whole day revising. The punch line is, "yeah, I kept putting a comma in and then taking it out."

This is what revision looks like when I'm working on a poem that feels very strong, but not quite "there." Today, I was working on a poem of 21 lines, a lyric narrative, free verse. The first 20 lines really sang as I read them out loud. No clunkiness, no extra verbiage holding me up. And then, as I read the draft aloud over and over, I would get to the last line and it all fell apart. The line landed with a thud.

I realized that the poem needed a return glance at the opening image. Not a repetition, but a reference, a reminder of one of the central ideas of the poem that had gotten lost. So, I scratched line 21 and rewrote, ending up with 22 lines. I read and re-read the poem aloud. It was better, but still not quite right at the end.

I tinkered. I changed one word that led me to change the last line entirely. Then, I kept focusing on the first 3 words of the last line. I fretted. I used the thesaurus in search of a better word, a better verb to lead off the line. It was excruciating. After 15 or 20 minutes fumbling on that one word, I wanted to quit, to think, "I'll come back to this one later," but something kept my BIC (butt in chair) and my focus on that last line. With another read-through, perhaps my fifteenth of the morning, I finally realized that it was the last 4 words of the line that were the problem. With that knowledge, the solution came easily, and the last line fell into place.

With that falling into place comes a huge sense of satisfaction. To know when a poem has found its way to completion is two parts instinct and one part craft knowledge. My only regret for the time spent in revision is that it doesn't really burn any calories. It's all mind work with little body work to show for it. Alas.

All of this is to say that when someone asks how long it take to write a poem, I have no clear answer. There's a good chance I'll return to this draft in a few days time and realize some minor changes will need to be made. This is the minutiae of poetry revision; this is the work I love.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Self-Ekphrasis = New Approach to Revision

60º ~ after days of gray & drizzle, the sun makes a valiant effort to break through ~ to the west some success, to the south the gray is winning


This morning, during my scheduled writing time, I decided to focus on revising and preparing more of the collage/poem combos from my self-ekphrasis project. Because my goal was on having some pieces ready for submission, I flipped through the portfolio of the work, and stopped whenever I read a poem that felt strong. Remember, I read the poems out loud as I assess for revision.

The new approach to revision with this project is that I also have the collage to consider. First, I read the poems without giving the collages much attention. Of course, I got a glance of them and that brought back memories of the images, but my instinct was to read each poem out loud and get a sense for the poem alone. Also, reading out loud is crucial to my revision process no matter the work, even prose. Speaking the text is the only way I can figure out if the words, syntax, punctuation, etc. are the best choices for a particular piece. It's the only way I can assess lineation, pace, and sound elements in poems, especially.

In this new project, though, revision also means considering the collage beside the poem. My goal is to publish them side-by-side, although not every journal will be able to do that. As I approached revision this morning, two things struck me.

1) The collages resist revision. Yes, I could go back to my image bank and glue over parts of the pages (I collage by hand with cut out images and glue), but I have no desire to do so. These pieces experience so much active revision during the process of creation that at this stage they are whole, "finished." Poetry is never this way for me. Even after a poem has been published, I may tinker with small changes to get it closer and closer to that elusive "ideal" poem I'm always chasing.

2) I had to consider how strictly I wanted the poems to be informed by the collages and how much room there was for conversation rather than strict translation of the images. In the original project, I created the collages first and tried to repress the instinct to think about the eventual poems as I was moving images around on the page. In re-reading the poems in consideration with the images, the Type A part of me really tried to pull toward a more strict translation, which the poet part of me resisted. I had wanted the poems to be in conversation with the collages, and that's what I strove for in this set of revisions.

Once I had the poem "set," I had to prepare a PDF file for submission. I've been ironing out this process since August, and I think I finally got all the wrinkles out. I am self-taught in all things computer, but wish I had much more knowledge of graphic design programs. For however many minutes I devoted to true revision, I spent twice that many getting the two files (poem and collage) merged, with much time figuring out how I wanted to present the collages, which are built on white paper. I ended up using the border function in Word to create a mini-frame for the images, which make the digital version of the collages much more pleasing to the eye.

All of this is to say that during today's writing time, I revised 6 poems and created 6 collage/poem PDFs ready for submission. Now, I must investigate where to send.

For those waiting to see some of this work for real, 4 pieces have been accepted. Three will be available from Tupelo Quarterly on February 15. Stay tuned!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Drafting Notes: Bad Debt Villanelle

54º ~ the whole world is cloaked in white mist and rain that comes and goes ~ some would call it a dismal day, but it serves well the quiet work of writing and reading


As I've written about scheduling what I value recently, and as I didn't do this last semester, I've added Monday and Friday morning writing time to my calendars, both digital and hard copy. And even though today is technically a day off from my teaching work, I still honored my schedule. I opened my journal and jotted down a few diary-like items just to get my pen moving and to get some excess baggage out of my brain. Then, I randomly selected a book from my shelf (Some Ether by Nick Flynn) and read a half-dozen poems. I like to read before writing as a way to switch from my linear, daily brain to my circular, imaginative brain. Following my long-standing process, I then went back and "stole" words from each poem and made a word bank in my journal.

Here's the weird thing. I didn't use any of the words in today's poem, and I wrote in form; I wrote a freakin' villanelle. No one could be more surprised that I am at this moment. Here's what I think happened. Two of the word bank words sparked and reminded me of my father. Then, I remembered the theme of debt rising up out of my self-ekphrasis project from last summer. And then, a line rose for me: "what debt I owe my father." Suddenly, the form of the villanelle suggested itself as I knew I wanted that line to repeat in a variety of ways. I also "blame" this instinct to write in form on the fact that I'm teaching both an undergraduate and a graduate section of forms of poetry this semester.

For those who don't know a villanelle is a 19-line poem in 5 tercets and a closing quatrain. Lines 1 and 3 repeat at the end of alternating stanzas and then as the last two lines in the poem. Most practitioners of the form today allow some variation in the lines, although in the tradition (descended from French folk songs) the repetition was exact. My number one favorite villanelle is Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art," for those who would like to read a masterpiece in this form.

As I drafted, I couldn't believe I was doing so, but I scratched out rhyming words at the top of the page in the journal. Between the repetition of lines 1 and 3, and the repetitions of end-sounds, I had to think a lot about the structure as I was writing. This means that there were moments when I really wanted to say something, but the idea wouldn't fit the constraints set out before me. I had to find a way to bend and twist inside the language and the form to get to the heart of the matter. In the past, this would have frustrated me to no end, but today, it seemed more like play.

With the draft in hand, the real problem is this: how do I know if it is any good? Of course, I know when I read an outstanding villanelle and I know what excites me in poetry. The trick will be letting the draft rest for a bit and then coming back to it with fresh eyes. Right now, I'm just so pleased with myself for following the form that I can't get any clarity on the poem as a whole. Nevertheless, I scheduled what I value, and that feels pretty good.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

We Schedule What We Value, Part II

66º ~ whooshing winds dominate, gray skies, spitty rain on and off for days, three days ago pipes were freezing all over Little Rock, such is winter in the mid-south


I continue to mull over the idea of scheduling and value. Here's my new "problem." I value a whole heck of a lot of things. In no particular order, here are many of them.


  • Chuck and George the cat.
  • My family in the area and in the distance.
  • My writing & revising time.
  • My poetry business time.
  • My collage time.
  • My friends in the area, in the distance, and online.
  • My students & my teaching.
  • My service to the literary community.
  • My service to the literary community and my university as the Director of the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference.
  • My professional development as a professor.
  • My "chilling" time with Law & Order and Midsomer Murders and puzzles on the iPad (aka my go-to self-care time).
  • My contribution as an engaged citizen with my local, regional, and national communities.
  • My blogging time.


I began by numbering this list and then realized the whole point of this post is that the ranking of these items is ever-shifting. Every day, I have to re-assess what gets my full attention when, and I have to re-learn that it is okay to not give my full attention to every single item on the list at all times. The attempt to do so nearly led to a physical and mental breakdown in mid-December.

In the past week, I have been swamped with syllabi and panicking about conference prep and AWP being sooooooo soon. I have had to practice my meditation techniques and be very focused about considering what I value. If I do not give my students perfection, you know what? They are still going to learn basketloads from me and my classes. I have to learn to do my best but reign in my perfectionist streak so that a single syllabus doesn't take me three days to complete. I've also been better about managing texts and emails in terms of not responding the moment something comes in, because, you know what? I'm not a doctor or a diplomat managing life-threatening situations. Usually, if I get control of my perfectionist monster, I realize that responding even several hours later won't cause any kind of crisis. Having just turned 46, it's stunning that I'm still learning and re-learning how to be in this world, but I love the journey.

Also, on a high note, I set aside schoolwork all together on Sunday and managed to write a poem and create a collage. These two pieces are unique because they are not intended for publication. I wrote/created them in response to a handwritten poem a poet-friend sent in December. I think that poem may have a wider audience, but there was a line in it that haunted me and propelled me into writing a response. Once I'd written the response poem, I also new that I wanted to send this poet-friend a collage that responded to my poem. I had a great time doing both and it was invigorating to send them off on Monday, knowing that was their sole mission in the world. (True confession: I did take quick snaps of both on my phone, but otherwise, they are not recorded on my computer for any kind of revision or submission.)

I've never embraced the word-of-the-year tactic of framing a resolution, but this semester at least, I'm embracing the word "balance." (Please feel free to imagine me as a giant, pink elephant trying to balance on a tiny, purple ball, but remember that my hair is my best feature, so image that glistening and graceful.) We'll see how it goes.


Friday, January 6, 2017

3373: Illustrated Narrative Workshop...Syllabus Managed

21º ~ feels like 9º ~ about an inch of snow on the ground, schools around the area are closed, freezing air to continue through the weekend


This morning, I set out to continue my work on syllabi for the upcoming semester. We start classes on Thursday, so today's "snow day" is just another work-from-home day for me. As I got settled into work mode, I did remember my last post and the fact that "we schedule what we value." In that spirit, I spent about an hour revising a couple of the poems from the self-exphrasis project before moving on to the first of three syllabi.

Today, I finished off the syllabus for Illustrated Narrative Workshop. This is an undergraduate class that follows the Forms of Illustrated Narrative course I taught this past fall. My brain must have grown at least three sizes from teaching that forms class, as much of the material was so new to me. We covered writing for comics/graphic novels, writing for video games, and creating hybrid 2D/3D projects. I'm so thankful that I had a group of awesome students with whom to navigate the mostly unfamiliar terrain. (Of course, I've engaged in all of these as a "reader," and I have my collage background for the hybrid section, but I had to learn how to teach about the writing side of things.)

With the fall's steep learning curve summited, I set off now on the next challenge, re-focusing the material and class on a workshop. In the forms class, we focus on exposure to many different examples and small projects for micro-workshops. In the workshop class, the projects grow in breadth and depth and our examination of samples is more exacting.

Here's our reading list:
· Abrams, JJ and Doug Dorst. S. New York: Mulholland, 2013.
· Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. New York: Mariner, 2007.
· Bryant, Robert Denton and Keith Giglio. Slay the Dragon: Writing Great Video Games. Studio City: M Wiese, 2015.
· Krysa, Danielle. Collage: Contemporary Artists Hunt and Gather, Cut and Paste, Mash Up and Transform. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2014.
· Madden, Matt. 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style. New York: Chamberlain, 2005.
· Moore, Alan. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 2014. 

In this class, students will write a script for a comic or chapter of a graphic novel/memoir. This will entail a script for 16 - 22 pages of panels. A thumbnail appendix is encouraged but not required. Those who want to explore creating their own art as well may turn in 1 - 4 complete graphic pages. After the workshop on these scripts, we will dive into writing for video games and students will be writing 16 - 20-page game concept documents. Finally, after video game workshop, we will move on to the 2D/3D unit. Here, we will work with collage (2D or 3D) as well as creating 3D art objects that convey a narrative, including ergodic texts. ["Ergodic" = either hypertext or print text with "extra" material that must be read to complete the narrative...think Griffin and Sabine...check out S. by Abrams and Dorst.]

16 weeks? I think we're gonna need a bigger semester. 

 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

We Schedule What We Value

33º ~ bright sun, an "Arctic front" descended overnight and will remain for the rest of the week, the sparrows and other yard birds seem indifferent, the hardwood trees with their bare branches stand


My desk tends to be a sprawling mess of ephemera, books, and life's odds & ends. The other day, I unearthed a somewhat ancient Post-it with "we schedule what we value" scrawled across it. I remember sticking it to the tin box that holds my pens a few years back as a way to remind myself that writing time will only materialize if I schedule it. Given that this past fall, I overextended myself three times over and did very little writing, I'm glad to have re-discovered this prompt.

Spring classes start at UCA in a week, and I've got lots of prep work to do, not to mention heavy revising on my mid-tenure review package, which is due in early February. As a result of my overextension last semester, I spent much of the last two weeks sleeping, reading "for fun" (a weird phrase b/c even when I'm reading for classes I consider it fun), and watching endless episodes of Midsomer Murders while cutting up magazine pages or doing jigsaw puzzles on my iPad (best app ever for a puzzle-lover who also happens to be a cat-lover). Happily, a few weeks of resting seems to have worked and my energy levels have returned to normal. I look forward to preparing for the new semester and seem to have ideas for each of my classes bubbling over.

Yet, I must still work toward balance. When I got to my desk this morning, my thoughts happened to be on one of my classes, and I almost tore haphazardly into working more on that class' syllabus. But then, I noticed the newly uncovered Post-it, which reminded me to "schedule" time for my own work. In this case, I had a submission I needed to get done. I'd gathered the poems back before the holidays and then done nothing with them. With my much-needed nudge to remember what I value, I took care of the submission first. Now, I can sink into the many hours of working on the syllabus knowing that I also placed value on my own work alongside my teaching work.

For some, I suppose, it is easy to prioritize what is valued; for some, it is easy to shift from task to task. For me, for some reason, if I have a time-consuming task from my teaching life, once I've spent several hours working on it, even after taking a break, I have a hard time shifting back to my creative work, even the "business" side of the creative. Also, I have to remind myself, now, that my ability to write poems and place them in journals is part of my teaching job. After over a decade of this not being the case, the shift in ideology is happening slowly.

And so, I move, as ever, in fits & starts toward a new year and a new semester, trying to practice self-compassion and balance. As a person who embraced life-long learning at a young age, I am not discouraged by this way of building a life; I am ever hopeful.


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Self-Reflection 2016

46º ~ lightweight gray skies, calm air, the world moves into 2017 in stillness and quiet


I'm one of those lucky people who has a birthday within a week of New Year's Day, which means my personal annual reflection coincides nicely with the calendar's call for reflection, and I get the proverbial two-for-one. Now, as a consequence of growing up steeped in the Midwestern work ethic, I like to be efficient and get things done quickly, so this delights me to no end.

In 2016, I:

~ stopped teaching first-year writing altogether and moved to teaching creative writing full-time. This has been a dream of mine since I finished grad school in 2003, so it was a pretty thrilling teaching year. I've now taught Intro to CW (for the zillionth time), but also graduate-level poetry workshop, mixed undergrad and graduate-level topics classes in persona poetry and ecopoetics, and undergraduate form & theory classes in poetry and illustrated narrative (encompasses writing for comics/graphic novels as well as writing for video games and creating fine art pieces that blend words and images). As far as differences from teaching comp, the students have actually chosen to take these courses and the number of pieces of writing I respond to may be fewer, but those comments take just as long, and I've got even more prep to do. It was a busy year, and I was thankful, as always, that I am able to take the summer off to recharge

~ completed a book-length project: 20 x 20: A Self-Exphrasis. In the summer, I created 20 collages, attempting to create the collages without thinking about the poems I would write from them, attempting to shut off my thinking brain and let my eyes and hands choose images and placements that might reflect any new poetic obsessions. Then, I wrote the 20 poems in conversation with, in response to, or inspired by those collages. I'm excited to be revising the poems now (and hint, hint, I already have 3 of the pairs forthcoming in February for you all to read/view).

~ became the Director of the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference. Oh my, from an informational meeting in February 2016 to today, we have begun paving the way for what I know is going to be a fabulous, annual conference. FYI: we are seeking proposals from women and non-binary writers in ANY field or genre (not just the poets, although, you know the poets are welcome, welcome, welcome!). In this activity, I'm thankful for my colleagues on the Executive Committee and the community members who have joined our Board of Directors.

~ attended The Home School in Hudson, NY. This week-long workshop took me way outside my comfort zone as it is run by poets farther along the cutting edge of current poetry, poets who experiment with typography and hybrid forms, poets who descend from the LANGUAGE poets and the New York School of poets. It was an amazing and exhausting week.

~ went to AWP, as always. This time, it was fun to have a few grad students along to see the conference through their eyes. I was still fulfilling my commitment to Trio House Press, so I spent much time at their table helping promote "our" books. I'm so thankful to THP for teaching me how to exercise my long-atrophied book promotion muscles. At AWP Los Angeles, I also took in several key panels to help with the illustrated narrative class I was teaching, and I'm soooooo appreciative of those panelists.

~ was a reader for Trio House Press during its open reading period and for the contests. This has been a great learning opportunity as I suss out my own process for screening, and as I work with the other readers and editors at THP. I also continued to read for One (an online poetry journal from Jacar Press) and Heron Tree (an online poetry journal I helped create); however, because of all my various other commitments, I had to step back from both of these projects by the end of the summer. I was very sad to stop reading and contributing, but the decision was for the best.

~ celebrated with C. as we have been married 10 years. Here is a man who understands me better than I sometimes understand myself, and he was so patient this past fall when I bit off more than I could chew and was often away from home. He mourned with me as we had to let Gracie (our snuggly, green-eyed cat) go, and he laughs with me as we continue to love the antics of George (our skinny, LOUD, needy-baby-greedy-baby tabby).

Thank you to anyone still reading this blog for making the journey with me. Your comments are always appreciated, and I am sending you all strength & grace for the new year.

Coming up in 2017, I have a very different schedule for the spring semester and hope to make blogging a bi-weekly affair. I'm no longer the unrealistic youth I once was, so I won't claim to blogging daily. :)

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Austin Kleon's Advice to Artists that They should Marry Well

62º ~ 48 hours ago it was in the teens, I love the mid-south!


Breaks from teaching have always been a time for me to catch up on my reading, and this year's winter hiatus is no different. Last night I zoomed through Austin Kleon's Steal Like an Artist. This is a book that one of my colleagues at UCA uses a lot and has been on my reading list for over a year.

This little book is packed full on motivational imperatives with awesome examples of illustrated narrative in the form of erasures and Kleon's own drawings. While there was nothing new for me in the book, I think it would be highly beneficial to anyone at the beginning of their journey as a writer or artist, with one caveat.

I can shout and cheer along with Kleon for 148 of the roughly 150 pages in this book, but there are two pages that made me steaming angry, angrier than I've been in a long time about a book of motivational inspiration. In the section titled, "Be Boring," Kleon gives great advice about staying out of debt and off drugs, about cultivating stability and a professional attitude, and then he ruins it with these two words, "Marry Well," and a quote from Tom Waits.

The "Marry Well" pages are all about how an artist needs to surround himself (and I'm using the male gendered pronoun for a very specific reason) with people who will serve the purpose of being "a maid, a cook, a motivational speaker, a mother, and an editor--all at once" (133). I almost threw the book across the room when I then read Waits' quote: "She rescued me. I'd be playing in a steak house right now if it wasn't for her. I wouldn't even be playing in a steak house. I'd be cooking in a steak house." (Waits on his wife and collaborator, Kathleen Brennan (133).) Let me stipulate that Kleon makes a point of "marriage" as life partners, friends, professional colleagues, etc.

Without spelling it out, both Waits and Kleon are buying into the supreme male privilege of being taken care of by a woman. It is infuriating. It is infuriating because even in today's "advanced" culture, study after study proves that in binary relationships most men do not contribute as much to taking care of the home as women do, and, in general, most men do not cultivate their nurturing qualities to the same extent as women do. (Friends, I'm talking big picture statistics here, not about any individual, male or female or non-binary.)

So where does that leave women and non-binary artists?

In an old interview with Lucille Clifton that I can no longer find, she was once asked what male poets have that female poets don't. Her answer, "wives." Of course men publish and succeed at higher rates than women; they have more time and energy and often more support, if cultural studies are to be believed.

I do think that Kleon and Waits are trying to pay tribute to the extra burden their partners bear, but my question is this: why must their partners bear this extra burden? Why can't the artist get up from the desk or recording studio and help clean the house, cook the supper, and provide nurturing to those who need it? Why aren't we asking the artist to be responsible for negotiating a truly fair partnership where creativity can happen but does not excuse the artist from their full participation in some of the less wildly exciting tasks in life?


Sunday, September 18, 2016

Radical Revision: Verbs

78º ~ big storms a-comin' with some much-needed rain, skies laden with gray, one cricket cricketing


I am still running around, juggling as fast as I can, and these days my response to friends and family alike tends to be "sorry, I have no minutes left." Yet, as I said before, I'm also happier than I've ever been, and all of the "work" taking up those minutes is work to which I said "yes!"

Still, I know the blog is here waiting, so today I want to share one of the most successful revision exercises for poetry that I did with my intro to creative writing students. After explaining how it works in class, I'll provide an adaption for those working from home.

Most of us learn early that verbs can make or break a piece of writing. The proper verb, with just the right zing or slouch elevates ordinary writing to extraordinary. However, it's one thing to learn this and another to be able to overcome the inertia of ordinary writing, pluck those verbs out of our minds, and translate them to the page.

With this in mind, I thought up a way to demonstrate this to my students by way of a bit of MadLib. Students come to class with typed up rough drafts of a set of poems. Before we begin the revision, I ask them to open their journals and write a list of the most creative verbs they can think of. I give them a few to prompt them: squish, catapult, lounge, etc. Then, I prompt them to think as outside the box as possible. After about a minute, we go around the room and each student provides one verb from their list while I create a catalog on the board. Going around the room twice provides 40 verbs, plus whatever each student has on their private list.

Next, I ask the students to pick one of their rough drafts at random. Then, they have to underline all of the verbs (in any form or tense), including the "to be" verb (the biggest culprit of inert writing).

Then, to spice things up and get really radical, they have to pass their draft two or three to the left or right (far enough to get it out of their direct line of sight). As this passing is happening, I make a huge point that students should NOT read the poem that arrives in front of them. Instead, they are to mark out every underlined verb and write in one of our "creative" verbs from the board or from their own list.

With the substitutions made, we pass the poems back to the original writer who then reads and checks to see if any of the changes will work. Of course, 90% of the new verbs won't make sense, but a few will, and, more importantly, the student will be shaken enough to re-see the poem via the verb choices. (As a side benefit, the class tends to laugh and bond over some of the more outrageous suggestions.)

Here are a few of the changes that worked in our class recently.

Original line: "The way I look at you is a curse."
Revised line with one of the verbs changed:  "The way I look at you blossoms a curse."
Original line: "Whispers fade."
Revised line: "Whispers levitate."
Original line: "The car came to life."
Revised line: "The car fumbled to life."

By and large, most students were able to change several verbs in the draft to "up the ante" on the action and on the readers' interest levels. As beginners at revision, this is a huge lesson in the power of re-casting lines and images, and it is one that hasn't failed me yet in making an obvious impact.

After class, I contemplated how I could do this at home, alone. Creating the verb list is easy, as is identifying the verbs in a draft. However, without a partner, there needs to be a way to randomize the verbs and really distance one's writer self from the original draft. Perhaps the simplest way would be to number the verbs in the original draft and then create a numbered list of random "creative" verbs to substitute. For distance, I'd recommend waiting at least a day before making the substitutions so there is less affinity with the original.

Until the next free minute...

Monday, September 5, 2016

Dream Job: Year Two

94º ~ feels like 106º ~ after several easy days, the humidity returned today and we are back to swamp weather ~ with enough rain so far this summer, the grass remains green, the birds, squirrels, chipmunks, etc. remain fat and happy


NB: What follows should in no way be read as complaint. I'm still wildly in love with my dream job.

Classes at UCA began on 8/18, while I was away in Hudson, NY attending the Home School. Luckily, I had two great colleagues who agreed to meet my classes on Thursday and Friday so I could take advantage of the opportunity to study with such amazing people, both faculty and students.

I returned to Arkansas thinking I'd done enough prep work before I'd left to handle the start of the semester. I couldn't have been more wrong. Yes, I had my syllabi and my initial assignments set up, but the reality of still being new to my dream job hadn't quite sunk in.

Last year, I wrote some about "leveling up," moving from a 10-year career at a community college to a tenure-track job at the University of Central Arkansas. This move means that many of the courses I'm teaching now, I'm teaching for the first time. At the community college, I could only teach first- and second-year courses, and that meant first-year writing, intro to creative writing, world literature, and every once in a while, forms of poetry.

At UCA, the only creative writing course that I am repeating from my cc time is Intro to Creative Writing. Because of a difference in structure, the Forms of Poetry class at UCA is a bit different from the one I taught at PTC. Also, at UCA, as of last spring, I no longer teach any first-year writing. The result of this is that I find myself with four different classes, three of which have all new preps. Here's my schedule.

Introduction to Creative Writing (covering 4 genres...and oh, I changed the book this semester).

Forms of Poetry, a 3000-level course that incorporates theory and workshop.

Forms of Illustrated Narrative, a 3000-level course looking at a multitude of media that incorporate text and visuals from comics and graphic novels/memoir to collage and body-mapping to digital modes and writing for video games to 3-D installations. This course incorporates theory and workshop.

Special Topics: Ecopoetics, a 4000- and 5000-level course (8 grad students, 7 undergrads) that explores the latest theory in ecopoetics and asks students to write and workshop in the genre.

Aside from the actual class time, prepping new classes means reading more than the students, taking a stab at the pacing for the entire semester and then breaking that down into what needs to be covered in each class period, creating class notes, making assignments and then once those assignments come in providing feedback. Yes, I did some of this during the summer, but not enough. Lesson learned.

Along with content management, I have to keep records of attendance and fulfill other university requirements in a timely fashion. I'm also the type of professor who encourages my students to email me with their questions, and I maintain on online classroom of resources for each class to help bridge any gaps that might form between what I covered in class and what the students have to do outside of class.

Besides teaching, now that I'm in my second year at UCA, there is a full-on expectation of all of the out-of-class work that tenure-track faculty do. I sit on multiple committees, and, as many of you know, my big task in particular is to direct the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference. I also attend conferences and on-campus professional development in order to stay on top of current pedagogies. In the meantime, I'm also trying to write, revise, and submit in order to keep my publications coming on a regular basis.

In other words, dear reader, my cup runneth over.

As I noted at the start, please do not read any of this as complaint. I'm still completely thrilled by my position at UCA. In fact, I'm happier than I've ever been in my teaching life. I'm also more challenged than I've ever been. I know that in a few years all of this hard work will pay off when I get to teach a repeat of these courses, and I'll be able to revise and fine-tune all that I'm trying now.

In the meantime, I hope to pop back into the blog more regularly and am resolved to find a way to do so.

Until the next installment.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Update from The Home School, Hudson, NY

73º that feels like 73º ~ Oh, Hudson, you charmer, you. It might rain much of the day, but I don't give a flip. I can breathe like it's fall in Arkansas.


As for my status: MIND. BLOWN.

As I stated in my last post, I came here to study with poets who write outside my comfort zone. And I was anxious about how I would be received by my fellow classmates. All that anxiety went "poof" almost from the beginning.

In part, I have the heat and humidity to thank. I arrived to a Hudson that was steeped in a southern heat wave. I entered our workshop space self-conscious of my sweaty self. Then, I really looked around. Lo and behold, we were ALL sweaty. Yay for bonding through weather-induced sweat. I also had a slight "up" in that I'd been conditioned to the weather pattern for the last month and a half. In any case, after getting up at 3:00 a.m., taking 2 planes, and a delayed train, I arrived at our space so bedraggled and exhausted that I couldn't be anxious. I was just glad to be where I was supposed to be, relatively on time.

Yesterday began with a drawing lesson from New York artist Tara Greer. Her approach is not skills based. So we did not work on lines and tone and shading. Instead, we just drew. Tara is about mindfulness and paying attention. She defines drawing as translating the senses onto the page. First, we drew broccoli from memory. Then, we each got a little floret and drew from sight. Then, the mind blower, we had to close our eyes and feel the broccoli and draw. Amazing results (mine looked nothing like the actual broccoli but captured it's feel pretty well, I thought). Then, we had to either smell it or eat it and draw that. Oh, and we hung all of our different versions on the walls. So there were 50 broccolis for each category of sense. We talked a lot about perception and seeing, and all of it fit so well with what I've read from writers talking about writing and other artists talking about their arts, and it synced perfectly with my current mindfulness meditation practice. We get to do this every day for the whole week! I have soooooooo many notes to bring back from this.

After drawing (and spilling lukewarm coffee straight into my lap...thank the stars for green linen pants that air dried....even if I smelled of coffee for much of the day), I had my first workshop. The Home School is doing something new this session. While our workshop group stays the same, we rotate faculty. Yesterday, I had Douglas Kearney, and we workshopped Neo Benshi (or live film narration) poems. In this form, one composes a poem, lyric essay, or new dialogue to a clip of any type of video. The sound can be muted or at any level of volume at any point. I composed my poem, "Tethered to a Fool," to the scene from Field of Dreams where Costner plows under the corn. Because, you know, you can take the girl out of northeast Iowa, but you can't take northeast Iowa out of the girl. Doug was amazing at putting us at ease and reminding us we were not performing some finished piece but we were workshopping. He uses a great approach for commenting, beginning with "signs of life" (the parts that are really working) and ending with "challenges" (self-explanatory). He also described "contrasting views." So, when one participant disagrees with another, she simply states her contrasting view and then we move on. We don't belabor a point or "argue" to win. It is the poet-being-workshopped's job to hear the different views and make her own decision about revision. (Oh, yeah, I'm bringing these terms back with me for my workshops. They encapsulate how I've tried to run workshop, but they do so in a much more direct way.)

Shout out to group "Antithesis" for being amazing cold readers. The comments were all spot on and super helpful. Everyone was bringing the full-on A game.

Today, we are studying with Myung Mi-Kim, and we sent in a recent poem for workshop. I chose one of my self-ekphrastic pieces b/c I'm interested to see how it will be met without the image next to it. I'm trying to decide if the two are symbiotic or can be viewed separately.

Oh, and every day at 4:00 there is a reading/talk or a student reading. Every day at 7:30 there's a faculty reading.

Mind. Blown. Fuses firing all over the place. Happy overload.

~~~~~

Amidst this all, some painful news of the passing of one of my best friends' father, a kind and funny man who was much a part of my childhood. So, I've been reciting Dickinson all morning. I leave you with her.

After great pain, a formal feeling comes – 
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs – 
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’ 
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’? 

The Feet, mechanical, go round – 
A Wooden way 
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought – 
Regardless grown, 
A Quartz contentment, like a stone – 

This is the Hour of Lead – 
Remembered, if outlived, 
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow – 
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Discomforted on Purpose

94º feels like 108º ~ excessive heat warnings are getting old ~ from the window looking outward all is glorious and greenwelcoming, but one crack of the door reveals a mesh of swampy air waiting to envelope any body that steps over the threshold


On Sunday, I'll be up way before the birds to catch a 5:30 a.m. flight as the first leg of three that will take me to Hudson, NY. I'll be spending a week at The Home School (formerly The Ashbery Home School), where I will be a student again. Not only will I be a student again, but also, I'll be a student of poets whose work is quite a distance from my own on the poetic spectrum. I'll be presenting poems in workshop with nine other students, and our workshop will have five different leaders, some of whom have already sent assignments. My group's workshop leaders are: Douglas Kearney, Myung Mi Kim, Dorothea Lasky, Harryette Mullen, and Geoffrey G. O'Brien.

Let's pause while I experience yet another wave of anxiety.

Why the anxiety? Anxiety because I'm stepping way outside my poetic nest. It's been 13 years since I've been a formal student, and I've enjoyed some great successes in establishing my own voice and publishing both individual poems and full-length collections. I am proud of all that I've accomplished; however, I also believe that learning from those whose aesthetics differ from our own can be crucial in our development. I believe that diversity is good in eco-systems, in communities, and in my own reading and writing.

Lest anyone worry; my anxiety is no surprise to me, and I am embracing it. In terms of my poetic heredity, I came up on the confessional poets and the nature poets of the 1970s - 1990s. Then, while I was earning my MFA at the University of Arkansas, I was steeped in Southern narrative poetry, and the influence of Miller Williams and Davis McCombs can still be seen in my work, even as I've stretched into the lyric as much as the narrative.

I chose to apply for The Home School precisely because it is different from what I've experienced in the past. Yes, I've read poems and books by the workshop leaders and the other faculty; and yes, I've admired them. However, I haven't tried to emulate them or to purposefully learn from their work.  I also chose The Home School for its emphasis on hybrid works and collaborations between poetry and any number of art forms. Already, one assignment has me writing in collaboration with film, and I'll be taking daily drawing lessons while I'm in New York.

If you are still wondering why I'm anxious about this trip, I'll say this. For me, it doesn't matter how many successes I've had in the past or that I'm an assistant professor "in real life." To be a student in workshop means to dare to expose your new work to others, sometimes strangers, and to risk receiving their judgment rather than their constructive criticism. I'm glad I'll have the chance to experience this sensation again, as I probably need to remember exactly how much discomfort my students feel on the first day of workshop, if only to empathize with them more fully.

Here's to embracing the discomfort!