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!


Monday, August 1, 2016

Project Complete: The Benefit of a Deadline

87º feels like 99º ~ the soupy air continues unabated with enough thunderstorms interspersed to keep the grass green, the birds fed, and the squirrels happy, all progresses apace


Today, I've completed my summer project: Self-Ekphrasis 20 x 20. Since May 15th, I've created 20 new collages and 20 new poem drafts. Wahooooooooooooooza!

Here, I'd like to praise the deadline in all its boring glory. And, in this case, the deadline was imposed by an outside force. I'm grateful to the University of Central Arkansas's University Research Council for supporting my creative works (yes, they have creative works written into the language alongside "research" projects) with a summer stipend. This is not something I'll be able to receive very often, but I was lucky enough to receive one my first summer as an assistant professor. Along with this stipend, though, comes the writing of the final report, which must be turned in to the URC soon, so I've had a very real deadline with a very real product associated with it to keep me on track.

Knowing that I was accountable for my progress certainly helped me maintain my motivation over these long, sweltering summer days when I've mostly wanted to sleep and watch Cubs baseball. In a larger sense, I was motivated as well to keep my BIC (Butt In Chair) because now my ability to publish matters to my career in a new way. At the community college where I worked previously, faculty were not evaluated on research and publication. I got lots of emotional support for being a working poet alongside being a college instructor, but the two were not tied together. In this new position at a four-year university, publication is not only expected, it is required in my quest for tenure.

Yes, many days, I write because I'm moved to do so, and when I don't write I get grouchy and unbearable. However, the same can be said for exercise and eating well. Sometimes, it helps to have the extra boost of a deadline, of an outside force holding one's self accountable. In the past, I've used poet-friends to set deadlines of exchanged work, or I've put submission deadlines on my calendar from journals and presses that I admire. And, yes, sometimes, I am able to set my own deadlines (one poem per day for two weeks straight, for example) and see them through.

It's not a very sexy idea about writing, but it is what works for me, especially when I'm struggling. And, at the beginning of this stretch, I was struggling to get the words out of my head/body and onto the page/screen. For these last handful of poems based on the collages, the lines flowed with that old familiar ease, reminding me that "yes, I am a poet." I won't lie; it felt good.

My next step for the project will be to work on revising the poems and beginning to send them out to journals that seem receptive to publishing art next to words. This might mean a lot of online journals b/c printing color art on paper is expensive, and I don't think the collages will work in black and white. As I've been reflecting on the project for the final report, the idea of revision popped up. It takes me 3 - 4 hours to create each collage, a time shortened by the fact that I spend hours while I'm watching baseball and Law & Order reruns cutting up images and storing them by category. During the time I spend creating the collage, I'm working through the revision process as I go, selecting images from my hoards, shifting them around on the page, discarding some and choosing others, sometimes making additional adjustments with my scissors, fragmenting an image even more. Once I get out the glue stick, the process is, by and large, finished. I know I could go back and add images or paste over ones I've chosen originally, but I don't. This is very different from poetry, where the revision process, for me, really can't begin until the poems have had time to stew and I've had time to gain some distance from the originating spark. Also, when I revise the poems, I'll definitely be cutting words and adding words, playing with the images in new ways.

There's no grand conclusion about this revision observation. I simply find it fascinating how the two separate art forms are so close together and yet so far apart.

I'll leave you with a few details from some of the collages I've worked on lately, and I'll let you know when and where you can see and read the completed works.





Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Work Behind the Reward

87º feels like 100º ~ dewpoint 78º ~ SCUBA weather to be sure, days and days of it with pop-up thunderstorms dancing around us in the afternoons and evenings and only occasionally providing any rain, any cooling temps ~ in other words "it's a wet heat" that sucks at the lungs


Most of you know that last week the Porter Fund Literary Prize committee announced that I would receive the 2016 prize. This blog is not meant as a continued brag of that success but as an unveiling of what went into that success.

The Porter Fund Literary Prize is a prize to support Arkansas writers. Like many awards for a body work rather than for an individual piece or book, there is no application process. That's what I want to talk about here, recognition / prizes given by organizations that don't take applications. Here, I think of the Whiting Awards as an example at the national level, although there are many others. If you are like me, when these types of awards are announced, be they local, regional, or national, you experience a twinge of jealousy and a "why not me?" moment. All perfectly natural. However, this is also frustrating because it appears that the author has no way of putting her work before the selection committee. So how do these things work?

Most non-application awards take nominations, either from within an organization or by soliciting suggestions from established writers, editors, agents, etc. So how does one go about being nominated, let alone winning?

First, as writers our primary focus must be on crafting the best writing we can. We may disagree with a selection committee's decision because we don't like another writer's work or we don't like that writer's personal behavior, but let's face it; for the most part, those who receive recognition have been putting in time at the desk. So, first, focus on the writing (which is a whole other blog post).

Next, if you are a writer who yearns for recognition, I'm afraid there is more to it than just producing the text. You also have to be a solid literary citizen. By this I mean that you have to be invested in the community of writers. Yes, every once in a while a hermit writer receives great accolades, but if you look at the winners' lists of most awards like these (those that do not take applications), you will see a list of names of people who are engaged in the conversation of writing. They may have a highly visible online presence on social media or they may write a popular blog (or for a larger online conglomerate). They may publish essays and interviews in Poets & Writers, The Writer's Chronicle, and other "industry" journals. They may run a reading series, edit a journal, or work for an indie publisher as well as publishing in their genre(s). In other words, when the selection committee is casting about for nominations, those people who are active literary citizens are most likely to come to mind.

And let's be clear, just because a nominator knows you and your work does not make it a schmoozy / slimy nomination. If you are an active writer in today's interconnected world, you are going to know other writers. You are going to know editors and publishers and agents. It's only when you play on those relationships, when you offer "you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours" that you cross the line to slimy. Check your own inner voice and you'll probably be okay. (Reality check: there will always be nepotism and a good ol' boys network. We can only be responsible for our own actions and try to be aware if we are participating in such behavior so we can change it.)

The fact is you won't be nominated if your work isn't already being read and talked about. Yes, there are many gatekeepers, and the deck is stacked against women and people of color, not to mention stacked against those of us who don't live in a major metropolitan area with a thriving literary scene (gatekeepers are yet another blog post entirely). So, what are you going to do about it? Here are some of the things I've done.

I've been persistent and stubborn and managed to publish widely in journals and with three full-length collections. Let me tell you, my rejection rates are above average, but I keep revising, I keep working on my poems / manuscripts, and I keep submitting. Sweat equity.

I've engaged with writers in my local community. I've made it a point to reach out to writers I learn about who live close by. In some cases, I've made good friends who are now part of my regular life. In other cases, I've made connections that have made me comfortable interacting at local readings and book festivals. In most of these cases, I've read wonderful books written at desks not all that far from my own.

I've found my comfort level in how I participate in the larger literary conversation. I started this blog and found my first online writing friends and colleagues. Then, though I was hesitant, I joined Facebook, where I enjoy a thriving sense of community with other writers, and even some close friendships. I'm not so deeply in love with Twitter, but I've figured out where I want to use it and how to do it. I attend AWP each year, not because I'm trying to collect "connections" like notches in my belt, but because I receive a huge emotional boost of support from getting to see so many of my virtual writing friends in real life. I've been an editor for several online journals, and I've read manuscripts for two of my publishers. I started a reading series at my previous institution, and I am active in nominating writers to appear at the established series at my new university. Finally, when offered the chance to help form a new writing conference for women, I jumped on board. Yes, all of this is time consuming, sometimes stressful, and for little or no pay (mostly no pay), but it also fills me up and gratifies me.

I've made a conscious effort to champion writers I admire, whether I know them or not. I've made a conscious effort to read widely and diversely to combat the gatekeepers. When I read a poem that blows me away, I Tweet/Facebook post about it. Often, I send private messages to a poet when I've read something that strikes me as extraordinary. Most importantly, I buy books of poetry, so many books of poetry that I don't have time to read them all. (Note: it's only recently, 10 years out of grad school, that I could afford to buy so many. In early years, I still bought what I could and I used the InterLibrary Loan system at the library all the time.) To me, part of this is a natural urge to be connected to the world of writers, but the other part is this: I don't feel comfortable sharing my own good news because I was raised to think that this was conceited bragging, and Midwesterners don't brag. To do so might call the wrath of hailstorms, floods, and drought down on our crops. So, when I do post about a success or share the news in other ways, I can silence my grandfather's haunting chastisement because I know that I'm also celebrating with other writers when their turn comes.

Finally, I've made it a practice to say "thank you" on every level, whenever it is appropriate. This world of writing is so often thankless and so often done for passion and love rather than fame or money. Saying "thank you" is the least we can do.

I'm not saying that doing what I've done ensured that I won the Porter Prize, and I'm not saying that if you copy me you will be recognized for your hard work. I am saying that putting your head down and doing the work of both writing and being involved with other writers in some way, shape, or form, gives you a fighting chance of receiving some recognition for your words.

Thank you for reading and for your support. As always, I'll be here with my BIC and my faith that doing the work is what matters.


Sunday, July 17, 2016

Reaching for Joy in Times like These

92º feels like 101º ~ the world here is all sun, blue skies, small breezes, and heat heat heat, the neighborhood full of sounds of saws as folks continue to clean up after Thursday night's severe winds


This past two weeks have proven, again (as if we needed more proof), that we live in dangerous and difficult days. I've spent a lot of time thinking, thinking about what makes someone reach for hate and violence, and I've done a lot of reading, especially reading reactions from writers of color about race relations in the U.S., which led to more thinking, this time about my own white, upper-middle-class privilege and what is required of me to make positive change in this world.

Hard on the heels of police violence and domestic terror, came news from Nice, a beautiful city I was lucky to visit once upon a time. So many stories of people reaching for hate and violence. So many deaths that it all begins to feel unbearable and all I want to do is sleep and eat junk food and watch endless loops of Law & Order and Midsomer Murders because in those shows, I find an outlet for my own sense of injustice (even when Jack McCoy loses), but also because I know that these are stories, fictions that reflect the part of humanity that reaches for hatred and violence, but still fictions (MM especially, where the "bad guy" always gets caught). When I'm watching, I don't have to confront the real-life human stories being played out (and often exploited) on today's media outlets.

And so I come again to this question: how can I, in my privilege, continue to reach for joy in light of these terrible tragedies?

For me, this question is complicated by the fact that "to reach for joy" for me means to be a poet. Aside from family and friends, the thing that most fulfills me in this world is writing poetry, but who needs more poems of place and a white woman untangling how gender shapes and defines her, how she resists and embraces womanhood? And who needs to know my publications and accomplishments, which also bring me joy? And more importantly, what right do I have to pursue my joy when there are so many others without that right or with obstacles at every path?

Answering these questions is touch and go here. Some days I succumb to turning away from the world (one of my many privileges) and allow the small waves of mini-depression to win. Some days, like today, I approach the desk and draft a poem or create a collage, and I find joy in that. Some days, I take up a book from my never-ending supply of "to-read" material and I lose myself in the viewpoint of another, engaging in empathy with writers similar to me and as dissimilar as can be. And I know in my heart that this is "winning" against the terror forces. I know in my head that continuing to reach for joy and continuing to engage in the world is the right step forward, but sometimes knowing that and acting on that are two very different things. Sometimes I lose.

I will say that I'm thankful that I have this summer self-ekphrastic project going and that this project requires a Summary Report (official, official) to be turned in to the University Research Council at UCA, which graciously supported me with a summer stipend in support of creating these collages and writing these poems (privilege!). I fear that if I didn't have a firm deadline that I would have abandoned this project in favor of turning away and letting myself be borne on the drift of an unencumbered summer (uhm...even more privilege!).

Finally, I'll say that for me the word "privilege" in this context is closely tied to heavy feelings of guilt. Here the Midwestern curse of my birth follows me, telling me that no matter how much I do to be a better citizen in this world, no matter how many students and readers I reach, extending the work of empathy & citizenship, it will never be enough, especially in light of what the world suffers.

So, here's to the days when we manage to reach for joy, when we are able to celebrate our accomplishments, while always holding the knowledge in our hearts about the hurts of the world, and always trying to shine a light where terror, in all its forms, attempts to reign.


Thursday, July 14, 2016

Draft Process: When Instinct Rules the Hand

79º ~ a massive storm cell shuffled by within a few miles of us and we got nothing but some strong winds and dark skies (yes, I feel punished and left out)


First, I want to share a full collage. Today, I got to start a new journal, which means a few days ago, I collaged a new cover. Here it is, a bit spare compared to most of my others.



The draft process is really unchanged in terms of working with the collages directly; however, since this is a planned project, I've noticed something new today about the connections within the drafts. I've never actually set out to write a series of poems in a project like this. While Alchemy is a project book, that came about on its own and surprised me each day that another poem arrived in the series. As I started this self-ekphrastic project last month, I wondered if the poems would be organic, would they be "forced" by the images. I still wonder this, but am learning to live in the wonder and not worry about it too much.

Today, I spent my time with the images, made my selection, and then sat and looked at it, turning to my journal to scrawl out whatever lines jumped out at me from the looking. And, here's the interesting thing: line breaks and form.

The first two poems I wrote based on collages are left aligned. One is in couplets and the other in stanzas of varying length. Then, I began using varied indention instead of left-aligned stanzas (think Charles Wright although mine never seem to sprawl all the way across the page). I've been using that broken form with lots of white space for pacing for the last six drafts. So today, as I began on the 9th new draft, I started trying to make the lines that were coming into my head fit that form. It was a habit, and perhaps a reflection of the fragmented nature of collage. Also, the way I do collage is not really in the tradition of either filling "all" the space on the page or using just a few fragments to make a bold statement. I'm more clutter with negative space throughout (negative space in collage = indention and white space in the poem?). But back to the draft. Only when I turned to the computer did I realize that this draft needed to be left aligned.

What I find interesting is that while I'm often working out loud even as I handwrite the beginning lines, it isn't until I get those lines onto the screen that the full impact of the form comes through. It's only when I see the lines in black and white (and continue to read out loud in fits and starts, no longer embarrassed from hearing my own voice and my own poetic missteps) that I know the form of the poem (that is when working in free verse, as I usually do).

Today's poem, "When Instinct Rules the Hand" begins:

With her back turned to harbor
and hearth, the girl born crossing
thresholds has taken a thread to time

I really wanted words like "turned" and "crossing" and "thread" to be spread across the page, but the poem didn't work that way. This draft is about a girl taking control and determining her own direction, so the more musing, chaotic sprawl didn't work. As I'm always telling my students: form marries content (sometimes whether we want it to or not).

As always, I'm not revealing the complete collage for the day's draft, just as I don't provide the full draft of the poem. Here's a detail, though.

4" x 4.5" detail

Today's count: 17 collages; 9 drafts. Getting closer!



Sunday, July 10, 2016

Process Notes: When the Border is a River Changing Course

85º feels like 94º ~ believe it or not, this is a "cool spell" to be replaced in coming days by 100+ ~ a good rain yesterday staved off the need to water ~ our yard is small, our water supply plentiful


With today's draft, I now have 15 collages and 7 drafts. Last week, I wrote about a "girl born at the edge / of a copper-colored river" but didn't have time to do process notes.

"Didn't have time to..." is a bit misleading as it is summer and I'm not teaching. However, I have spent a good deal of time in the past week working as the director of the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference (with a post to come soon on that). When not collaging, writing, or directing, I'm watching Cubs baseball. All y'all need to send up some good Cubbie vibes as we slumped over the last two weeks and are definitely limping into the All-Star break.

But, to poetry. Today, the "girl" grew up into the "woman born of wheat / and the brown thrasher's wing." Here's a problem. The bird in the collage is suggestive of a brown thrasher, but is probably a brown thrush. Still, I need it to be a thrasher for the sound and the rhythm, and for the implied verb, so a thrasher it is. I hope that if this project ever sees the light of day in publication that all my birding friends will forgive me.

3.5" x 6" detail
As I drafted, I was struck by the parallel between the collages and my usual word banks. Instead of having a collection of words rattling around on the page, I have images, but, unlike a word bank, there is a method to the images; they are not random, as I mean for the collages to also stand alone as art. However, as I scratched lines into my journal, I kept turning my head slightly back to the collage to let the images guide the poem's unfolding, in the same way I flip back to my word bank as a poem emerges.

In reading over today's draft, I was struck by its narrative nature. Don't get me wrong, it's a lyric narrative to be sure. I doubt anyone or anything could wring the lyric out of me, but there is definitely a "character" at the heart of the poem (the woman) and there is a clear setting and implied conflict.

So, I read over the other 6 drafts, and the lyric narrative is alive and well in each. There are two poems that do not feature girls or women, instead feature a part of the skeleton. But that piece of the skeleton takes on the role of the "character."

When I set out to do this project, I wanted the collages to guide the poems, and I wanted to create the collages on instinct and not on planned images. Now, however, with 15 collages of 20 done, and with only 2 that don't feature a girl or woman figure at the heart, I wonder how to remain in instinct as I create the last 5. Perhaps that is not possible, since I started drafting poems before I finished all 20 collages. This is a summer project and I wouldn't have had time to collage all 20 first and still draft 20 poems with the kind of time for mulling and ruminating that is required.

And that is an important note. It takes me 3 - 4 hours to create a 9" x 12" collage (not counting the hours and hours I spend clipping images), and I'm mulling and ruminating the entire time as I try out different images on the blank page. Then, on each day that there is drafting time, I flip through my portfolio and study each collage again. Those that aren't selected for the day's draft, continue to float around in my brain even when I'm not at the desk, so I'm mulling and ruminating, creating fodder for the next writing session. I do not believe that I could create a collage in the morning and draft a poem from it in the afternoon. The part of me that is able to generate poems, needs to sit and ponder.

And that's what this writing life is all about, giving our obsessions time and room to germinate, ready for the next writing session.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Process Notes: To Live in a House of Grief

83º ~ a brief respite from the heavy humidity, time enough to have mown the yard yesterday so the view is tidy, the sky nothing but blue all the way up


For those who have said the process notes help.

My summer goal is 20 collages and 20 drafts of ekphrastic poems based on those collages. The count stands at 12 collages completed and and 5 drafts written. I continue to struggle with letting go and trusting that the process will work, even though it is the letting go that works every time.

The collages are 9" x 12" and collected now in official-looking portfolio to protect them. When I sit down for BIC time (BIC = butt in chair), I flip through the portfolio and try to let intuition guide me in choosing a piece for the day. This is a bit difficult because I made each piece, so each has already spoken to me in some way (the disadvantage of self-ekphrasis). However, eventually, I choose and pull a collage from the portfolio. The size makes it easy for me to sit with the art, to run my fingers over the surface (the benefit of self-ekphrasis), to hold the image very close or prop it farther away. I sit in silence. I observe. I absorb.

And then, hopefully, a line strikes me.

Today's first 2 lines are:

A girl born reaching
                                 insists

3" x 5" detail

This is my fifth draft in the project and the second one in a row that uses one of the human images in the collage as subject (the earlier one I wrote process notes for did as well). These human images happen to all be girls. Three out of five drafts with "the girl" or some variation at the center. So now, because what would we be without our worries, I'm worried that I'm simply re-covering territory I already covered in The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths. However, there is little of the prairie in these, little of the agriculture that marks that book. So, maybe...maybe it will be okay.

I set myself this project because I wanted to discover, again, my obsessions, and I wanted to come at that discovery aslant (via images). It may turn out that my obsessions are what they have always been: what it means to view the world through female eyes and live in the world in a female body & mind. What if I'm a one-obsession poet? I do not want to be the kind of writer/artist who simply re-creates the same work over and over. I want to stretch and grow, and yet, I write/create what is in me to write/create.

For now, I will repeat to myself for as long as it takes: trust the process, trust the process, trust the process.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Should I Stay, or Should I Go?

92º feels like 98º  summer


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


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, June 11, 2016

On Poetry & Practicality

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, June 3, 2016

Keeping On Keeping On (The Submission Slog Song)

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


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

Yay, us!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, May 30, 2016

Directing the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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