Friday, December 18, 2015

A Semester in Review

38º ~ bright sun, the first "chilly" weather of the winter, sweet gum and hackberry leaves all fallen, gathered on the grass and waiting for the rake

Fall 2015, my first semester on the tenure track at the University of Central Arkansas is in the books, and it was a doozy. In no particular order, I list below some of what has occupied me.

* Two sections of Intro to College Writing (Comp I): This was my standard course at PTC for ten years and for the most part my materials transferred well. While my heart really belongs to creative writing, and I probably won't be teaching composition again, it was wonderful to transition to UCA with these bright and energetic students following along to a plan I knew by heart.

* Two sections of Intro to Creative Writing (three genres): Again, I'd taught this course many times at PTC, but with only two genres. I also switched from a Tuesday/Thursday plan to teaching on Monday/Wednesday/Friday. My students were engaged and engaging and quite resilient as I fumbled a bit at the beginning of the semester to get my UCA legs under me. I'll be teaching this course nearly every semester at UCA and I'm looking forward to having the time to really fine-tune my approach.

* Two visiting writers (Dinty W. Moore and Cristina Garcia), both of whom held three events (one public reading, one craft talk, one interview or workshop).

* 24 meetings (one hour minimum) with my colleagues in the Writing Department, the undergraduate Creative Writing Program, and the MFA Program. To be fair to UCA, there's a lot going on and some major changes coming our way that include strategic re-alignment of departments, accreditation reports/visits, and growing the nascent MFA program.

* Three all-day training sessions in August.

* Five mini-training sessions throughout the semester to get up to speed on the UCA systems.

* A half a dozen dinners / receptions / parties involving many colleagues / grad students or just a few.

* Seven readings to support The Alchemy of My Mortal Form (four out of town: Tennessee on two occasions and Illinois on the other two) and one conference presentation (Missouri).

* At least 90 minutes each week (minus the last couple) sharing writing time with one of my also-new colleagues, Jennie Case, who works in both poetry and creative non-fiction. If I publish anything in the next six months, it's because she helped keep my BIC (butt in chair).

* 10 new drafts of poems, of which I think maybe five will survive into full poemhood.

* Five journals accepted poems, most of which were written in 2014 or early 2015.

* Continued editorial work for Heron Tree, One, and Trio House Press.

* Nowhere near enough reading of journals and books of poetry.

* Too many hours to count in physical therapy and doctors' offices as my TMJ progressed to the point of living with daily pain from the beginning of September until Dec. 15th when I got my new precision dental appliances that are working to sort out my joints and muscles. I talk funny, and I drool when doing so, but the bulk of the healing should happen over the break, and then the doc can adjust the daytime appliance so I can talk straight.

* The new 40-minute commute each way (just over double what my drive to PTC was) has also carved a bit more of my time away. But it is an easy drive on the newly expanded I-40.

Lest anyone think this is a list of complaints, let me say that this may have been a challenging semester time wise, mostly due to my out-of-state travel and my medical issues, but it was also an invigorating semester. I feel like I've settled into the UCA culture and am getting a handle on all the nuances and procedures. It will take a few years to gain the institutional knowledge on the level I had at PTC, but I've made a start.

Overall, I'm happy with the way the semester turned out, and I'm beyond satisfied with the work of my students. I've got a list of areas I want to change for next semester, and have lounged around for a few days and gotten my energy back to a level playing field. Sometime between now and the new year, watch for the next blog post, A Semester in Preview, to find out what's in store for Spring 2016 (hint: the blog will be back on a more timely schedule).

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Conway ArtsFest 2015 Reading with Jennie Case, 1 October

82º ~ sunny days, very dry for the past month, a wee chance of showers tomorrow and Tuesday

This week, I will have my first official reading in Conway, AR, as a faculty member of the UCA Writing Department. I'm super excited to be reading at Conway ArtsFest with my colleague, and fellow new faculty member, Jennie Case. Jennie writes in both poetry and prose, largely influenced by place and environmental themes, and she hails from Minnesota. Jennie is also the assistant nonfiction editor over at, so we've had editorial stories and issues to discuss as well. We are aligned on many planes. Knowing the existing faculty at UCA prior to landing the job, I knew I'd been granted an amazing opportunity to work with some excellent folks. Adding Jennie to the group has been the bonus icing beyond my sweet-tooth dreams. I can wait to share the stage with her on Thursday, 10/1, at 7 p.m. at the Faulkner County Library in Conway.

Thanks to Mark Spitzer for making our poster!

In true literary event form, this reading conflicts with at least two other major events in central Arkansas, including the Porter Prize Gala and the fall membership party for the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre. While I'm bummed to miss out on both of those opportunities, I'm thrilled that central Arkansas is now rife with literary goings-on.

I'm also doubly pleased to read with Jennie because we are both negotiating the demands of a tenure-line job and realizing exactly what that means in terms of our own writing time. If you are a long-time reader of this blog, you will remember that PTC was a community college that did not look for publication by its faculty (some CCs do, some don't). I always said that I was thankful to not have that pressure, and now I realize just how much I was thankful. I'm glad I had that space to learn how to balance writing, writing business tasks, teaching, service, and professional development. Now, the workload has been ramped up, though, and I'm struggling to re-adjust.

Enter my thankfulness for Jennie. Early in the semester, we struck a deal to write together for 90 minutes weekly. So far, we are on track, and I confess that if I didn't have a partner to whom I felt responsible, I would have thrown that schedule out after the first week. Instead, I have three new, teeny tiny poem drafts, each about 14 lines long (no sonnets). Now, I'm thinking book #4 may be a book of sister poems (not the angry sisters from two years ago) all in 14 lines. Hmmmmmmm. A glimmer emerges.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

When a Visiting Writer Nails It (Dinty W. Moore Comes to UCA)

77º ~ summer is a-lingering awhile longer, though the calendar signals otherwise

Combining the new tenure-track job and travel for the new book means that this semester is a "fingernail" semester (aka hanging on by one's fingernails), but in all the best ways.

One of those ways occurred this past week when the Department of Writing (and the College of Fine Arts and Communication) hosted Dinty W. Moore as one of UCA's Artists in Residence this semester.

Prior to his visit, I'd read a few of Dinty W. Moore's essays, but not many. Now, I've got another book on my stack to read and a new writer to admire. Moore is a professor at Ohio University, the editor of Brevity, an online journal of brief creative non-fiction, and the author of many books of creative non-fiction, most recently Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, from which he read for us. His essays are poignant and funny at the same time, as Moore is able to look at his own life honestly and poke fun at himself, no matter the subject. Through that humor, he shares the wisdom he has found from contemplating the important people and moments in his past. It was a real joy to hear those essays come alive in the writer's own voice.

The day after Moore's reading, he led two class sessions. The first was a Q&A about CNF for undergraduate students. In this session, Moore used his friendly and funny demeanor to provide a very brief overview of the genre's history, and then took question after question from a packed room. His knowledge, patience, thoroughness, and kindness were all exemplary. Finally, he wrapped up his visit with a more private workshop with graduate students in the Arkansas Writer's MFA Program at UCA.

With two full sections of Introduction to Creative Writing, I asked my students to attend one of Moore's two "open" events. It was an awesome feeling for me to sit in the audience and soak in the words of a great writer, and then to look over and see my undergraduate students doing the same thing. We were all scribbling in our journals like literary chipmunks storing away bits of wit and wisdom. (I did ask them to do a written assignment during Moore's talks, but I do think they seemed to be as fully into capturing Moore's gems as I was.) In class the next day, they exploded with enthusiasm.

I had to laugh because Moore basically repeated many of the basic writing tips I'd already covered in class, but hey, he was the visitor, so his words had a higher impact. (When I shared this observation with Moore right before he left, he confided that the same thing happens to him when another writer comes to his campus.)

After Moore's visit, I turned my attention to Comp I, as I'm now hip deep in grading essay 1. And now that I've gotten my thoughts about Moore's visit down on the page, I need to turn back to that grading. For anyone worried, I've developed fairly strong fingernails over the last four weeks.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Mid-South Book Festival Recap

87º ~ but with the low dew points, it only feels like 87º ~ bright sun, strong cooling breezes gusting

This past weekend, I was in Memphis for the second Mid-South Book Festival. Last year, in its debut the festival hosted 50 authors and saw 3,000 visitors; this year the scorecard leaped upwards with 80 authors and over 5,000 visitors. Speaking as one of the authors from this year's event, I can testify that the folks from Literacy Mid-South had it all going on!

The festival began on Wednesday with an all day summit on literacy efforts from grassroots to national organizations. While I couldn't make that event with my teaching schedule, from what I hear the summit sold out and presented motivated educators with great opportunities to network and learn together.

I joined in on Friday for another sold out event: The Well Read Reception, held at The Playhouse on the Square in Midtown. This was a social outing where authors mingled with readers, got an advance chance to buy books, and feasted on some tasty noms. I had a great time re-connecting with the folks of the Impossible Language Reading Series (where I read in April...or was it May?) and meeting new writers I can't wait to read.

On Saturday, the festival shut down a section of Cooper Ave. in Memphis and the book fair spread out into the street. Luckily, we only needed the tents to shelter from the sun. At the book fair, I got to spend some time with two of my favorite Little Rock poets: Bryan Borland and Seth Pennington of Sibling Rivalry Press. They graciously allowed me to chill out from time to time behind their table.

I also had the chance to read not once, but twice. In the morning, I took the mic out on the street for the Street Fair Reading Tent. The wind was strong but the mic was stronger. I spent quite a bit of time hanging out on the street listening to folks share their work with the audience and the wind. Then, at the end of the day, I had the good fortune to read on a panel. In both cases, the sickly speaker got a warm welcome, and I'm thankful to everyone who helped organize to get me there!

On Sunday, I had to leave town to get home and take care of school work; however, the festival continued on for the day with writing workshops for both adults and children.

The long and the short of it is this: If you are anywhere near the mid-south, or can manage to get to Memphis next fall when year three comes around, you should check out this festival. It gets a big Wahoooooooza from me.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Draft Process: The Legacy of Our Sister Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Getting Called Up to the Bigs, Or, Leveling Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Poet on the Move: Readings and Conferences, Fall 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 10, 2015

Invest Your Ego Elsewhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Revision and Preparations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 27, 2015

What I'm Reading: Citizen by Claudia Rankine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 23, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

I am No Cordelia

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

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

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

Any thoughts on the subject are welcome.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Re-reading King Lear, Layers of Marginalia

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

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

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

"For school?" he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Importance of Peer Readers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 11, 2015

What a Teaching Writer Does When She isn't Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time...

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Reading Aloud While Drafting: Just Do It

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until the next session...

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then....

Monday, July 6, 2015

Draft Process Notes: I Refer Myself to the Judicious Reader

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until the next session...

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

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Draft Process: The Tonnage of a Toxic Secret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until the next session...

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Draft Process: To Live in a Far Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Live in a Far Country

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

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

to dig...

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

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

Until the next session...

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Draft Process: And Did the Country Grieve

79º ~ the thunder, lightning, and rain rolled through last night, taking away our heavy heat and leaving a three-day respite (predicted) ~ one confirmed baby robin in the nest, waiting to see if others will grow large enough to be seen above the rim

Dear reader, as you know I've embarked on my key writing time, and I have to say that it's been a rough week. But, I knew it would be. These muscles are long out of shape. So, I've been at the desk each morning, going through my routine and doing lots of "At this moment..." writing. You may recognize this as my BIC method (Butt-In-Chair).

I've also been thinking a lot about my fall classes while I've been going about the rest of my days. This dovetailed with my cutting up of magazines for my collage work. Sometime in May, I started pulling out pages of text from the magazines/newspapers/books that I was cutting up. (In the past, pages of text were not important and I simply recycled them.) I've got a box that is about 9" x 11" and about 8" tall, where I collect these pages of text, all with the idea of using them for student exercises, as places to gather words without context.

Given that I've been struggling to come up with drafts, I thought I'd give it a try myself today, perhaps spurred on by my recent discovery of two copies of Wine Enthusiast from a decade ago. In the back of these magazines, there are pages and pages of ranked wines with descriptions, and oh, the descriptions are divine...if you skip the abstractions.

So, today, I tried something new, inspired first by the wine descriptions. Instead of just gathering words, I gathered three- to five-word phrases. I think I've shied away from phrases before as a way of avoiding copying too closely the original. However, as part of my new "assignment," I told myself I could only gather five phrases from each excerpt, and I would use five excerpts from vastly different sources. Thus, my first use of a phrase bank rather than a word bank.

Today I used:
Wine Enthusiast descriptions of wine
a page from a National Geo. article on photography in the mountains as scientific instrument (or some such...I'm not reading for content)
a page from an Oxford American essay about a deteriorating house and music
two newspaper articles, one on some political scandal and one on the drought in Texas

With great fervor, I scanned the pages, working best when I disrupted the regular left-to-right, up-down reading by starting lower left and letting my eye skim the page, backwardsish. A sample of what I collected:

agile on the tongue
the wild Greek hymn
accept secret donations
documenting the shifting landscape
curved blades jut out
first whiffs discover
the house collapsed

In the meantime, prior to this, I'd scribbled "And did the drowning boy pray?" in my journal. This is a line from the short story "The Onion" by Jeffrey Ihlenfeldt in Quiddity 7.2, which I'd been reading at the start of my desk time. I liked the way the form of the question could result in so many answers beyond yes or no. I wondered if I could use it in a poem.

And then, I heard "And did the country grieve?" in my head. Of course, with all of the turmoil in our country lately around racially-motivated violence, the events in Charleston have been right at the front of my brain. As soon as I had the question, I wrote it down and it became the title. The draft begins:

The shifting landscape stilled
in the surge of a wild hymn
sprung from throats more used
to dry conditions. Ancient words,

Right away as I drafted, I saw the need to manipulate the phrases I'd captured and re-work them for the poem, but it was a great spark to get me started. And while the draft doesn't mention Charleston or other recent events by name, it does attempt to get at my emotions surrounding such tragedies. I had no idea when I sat down today, that I'd come up with this draft. This, this is the joy of writing for me, the discovery.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

At this moment...: A Way of Diving In

90º ~ dewpoint 73º ~ looking forward to a cold front forecasted for later this week ~ watered front and back early this morning, all the birds enjoyed

I did, indeed, spend yesterday afternoon at the collage table, getting the new journal ready to go. For those interested in such things, I seem to need blank pages so my undisciplined script doesn't look quite so much of a disaster. Also, when I'm working on wordbanks and such, I don't like to be controlled by lines. I use an unlined Moleskine with craft paper covers.

This morning, after shower and with coffee, OJ, and breakfast "cookie," I shoveled all the extraneous bits from my desk, turned on some instrumental music, and opened the new journal. I cracked the wee spine. I flattened the book open to the first, clean page. I sat with feet flat on the floor and took three meditation breaths to clear my mind. Then. Writing on the horizontal, I began with "At this moment... ."

"At this moment..." is one of the most helpful prompts from Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones. At least, it is the most helpful to me at this time and place in my writing. When I was a much younger writer, "I remember..." was the most helpful prompt of Goldberg's for me.

Knowing that the blank page can intimidate, I simply began recording what my senses perceived "at this moment." In a brief time, I'd filled two pages, and my writing had drifted into more imaginative spaces. While I did not draft a poem today, I returned to the practice of drifting, which will lead, I know, to drafting soon. Until I get in the groove, though, I'll be relying on "at this moment... ."

Without pushing it, I closed the journal and turned to another of my summer 2015 goals: submitting poems. While I don't have much to show for 2013 and 2014 in terms of poems written, I do have a dozen that might be publishable. I polished up four of those and bundled them off to a few journals. Those submitting muscles were pretty out of practice and the whole thing seemed exhausting. I confess that since I finished with the sickly speaker, I feel no ability to judge the poems written in her aftermath. By this I mean that with the poems in The Alchemy of My Mortal Form, I had a strong sense of each one being "ready" for the outside world, not only ready but "worthy." With these disparate 2013-2014 poems, I feel like an unsteady foal once again. I have no idea if their subjects will touch any readers, although I feel okay about their craft, so out they go. The submitting experience should tell whether they are of interest to others or not.

Until tomorrow's moment...

Monday, June 22, 2015

Kicking Off the 2015 Stay-at-Home Summer Writing Residency

84º (feels like 93º), dewpoint 76º ~ and so the season of breath-catching heat & humidity begins, all is richly greened after our wet, cool spring ~ the robins act & don't act as if they are in the midst of getting a second clutch to hatch, perhaps the sitting is unnecessary as the air temp is plenty warm, perhaps

The past three weeks have been slam-packed with busy-ness. The first week of June I ended up being seated as an alternate juror on a difficult trial involving domestic battery. The victim was in her 60s and the perpetrator was in his 50s, a sickening reminder that domestic violence can occur at any age, really.

Directly after that, I headed out on the road for a visit up home to see friends and family, and to attend the North American Review 200, a conference celebrating that magazine's bicentennial. How lucky was I to have the conference in my family's "backyard"?  I attended poetry readings that blew my mind and several sessions on CW pedagogy that provided pages and pages of notes for fall teaching and beyond.

On both sides of the conference, I spent time with folks I see too infrequently, and most of those visits involved getting to play with gaggles of children, ages 12 and under. Intense, exhausting, and so much fun.

Once home, C. and I made a quick trip down to see his folks for the Father's Day weekend, and now my calendar is clear from here until the first weeks of August (barring any trials, as my jury duty is from May - August). So, this post serves as my notice. I shall now embark on my favorite summer ritual (and the reason I don't teach in the summer). I will get up between 7 and 7:30 and after a shower & breakfast, I will post my "WRITING" sign on my office door. C. is wonderful about giving me space, time, and quiet, so I will spend some hours each morning in contemplation, and hopefully, eventually, in drafting and revision.

This blog will serve as my sounding board on how this business of capturing words to give voice to a chaotic, often heart-breaking, world progresses.

But first: I finished off my latest journal while I was in Iowa, so today, I will collage the cover of my next set of blank pages. Until tomorrow....

Monday, June 1, 2015

On Calling Up a New Obsession

69º ~ finally three days in the forecast without rain ~ survival rate of robins: 1 of 3, Saturday we watched the one learn to forage and to fly

Yesterday, in desperation, I posted this to Facebook:

Poet in search of an obsession. Please list non-poetry subjects for possible immersion.

Yes, I was willing to crowdsource. I thought I'd get a few new, interesting ideas; instead, I got a deluge. From the invention of zero to Samurai Jack, episode 7; card tricks to time travel; trilobites to Middle English Dream Visions, I was not disappointed.

Some folks offered subjects for research, while others offered activities to do, and I remembered that action is also a form of immersion.

This morning, I spent some time re-writing the answers as a handwritten list. I'm a huge believer in the difference between handwriting and typing, in the idea that by handwriting we must slow down (if only a fraction) and this allows more "space" in our thinking. As I copied out each new entry, I paid attention to what seemed to spark more enthusiasm in me, and for those entries there is a star, perhaps a coming back.

From time to time on my Facebook post, someone would respond by questioning whether an obsession could be crowdsourced. In fact, I don't really believe it can. I don't think one can be told to obsess about subject A, B, or C. Instead, I found the list more like a card catalogue through which I could flip. In fact, I remember one writing prompt from my past that called for the writer to go to the library, pull the Library of Congress Subject Headings books off the shelf, and randomly select a topic to "research" in hopes of finding a poem there. This Facebook list seems to be something of that sort.

Ultimately, I may be overthinking it all. Regardless, my butt is in the chair and I am engaging in the process. My faith rests in these actions.

Friday, May 29, 2015

What I'm Reading: "The Question of Originality" from Nine Gates by Jane Hirshfield

79º ~ in an early summer pattern of looming humidity and days that heat themselves into thunderstorms ~ two rescued robin chicks nearing fledgling status, thriving, a win for human intervention with cruel nature

Dear Reader, I confess I have been in a state of suppressed anxiety regarding writing. Each May this pattern repeats itself, and so I should learn to "let it be," and yet, each year I succumb. By this I mean that after the spring semester (I do not teach summers), I become enthused by the idea of "writing time" and I make clumsy efforts at drafting. I tend to scribble in my journal in fits and starts until I become a wee bit despondent, believing that I've "lost that loving feeling" of being able to write anything that resembles a poem.

However, no matter the stress of the journal, I'm always reading. Reading in itself can present a another type of stress as I've got loads and loads of new books, along with older books still waiting to be read. I have long believed that sometimes we aren't ready for a book, no matter how much we are determined to either enjoy it or learn from it. Later, the book will find us when we are ready, and usually when we've forgotten the book entirely. Such is the long-winded introduction to my reading today.

I've had Jane Hirschfield's Nine Gates for years, and I've read and learned much from a few of the nine included essays, but only a few. In fact, until this morning, the book was free of marginalia (evidence that I've truly read a book). This book surfaced as I spent a bit of time in the past two weeks thinking about my new job in the fall. For some of my teaching load, I'll have the opportunity to teach more advanced creative writing and poetry students at the University of Central Arkansas, offering me time for deeper discussions about writing/poetry, so I've been pulling books that might prove useful off the shelves.

But, back to this morning. I flitted. I flapped. I wrote a really crappy draft of something I can't even call a poem. I started a load of laundry. I turned to my stack of books and grabbed up the Hirschfield, flipping through the book, and pausing for just a moment to enjoy the smell and the feel of the pages falling from my left thumb as I held the back cover in my right hand. Without even thinking about it, I started reading when the book fell open to the second essay "The Question of Originality." Shazam. This essay touches on my struggle to return to the page, as it explores what it means to try and create an "original" piece of art, in this case, a poem.

Hirschfield begins (and returns to many times) the idea of the physical body as being itself original. She opens the essay with this question: "how does a poet enfold into language the singularity that marks each living creature and object of the world and also those works of art we most admire?" (uhm, oh that's easy, right? no sweat, hah!) So while this is an essay about attempting to write original work, it also touches on the idea of inspiration and what fills up the well (or the compost heap) from which writers draw. Perfect.

In discussing obstacles to originality, Hirschfield mentions "the fear of self-revelation," talking about how much a writer risks because society tells us to be polite and kind and to embrace the white lie rather than telling the truth. However, the best works of art tell the truth (if slantly). The risk we take in putting our thoughts/imaginations on the page is that of failing to please others, failing to fit in, failing to protect our loved ones from the truth, and a "failure more minor: boredom, triviality, confusion. Risking seeing that we are lesser beings than we had hoped." Oh, god, that last one is a killer. Yet to create something new, we must risk, we must dig for the truth. According to Hirschfield, in order to find this truth, this inspiration, we must embrace a self-imposed solitude, as well as a self-imposed awareness and interaction with the world.

Here, I realized how difficult it has been for me to truly embrace solitude when I've come to the desk each morning. To embrace solitude means to turn away from the computer and the smart phone, and, for me at least, to turn off the music (even instrumental music). I am one easily distracted by the buzzing of the clothes dryer, by the insistent mewling of the hungry cat, by the coffee gone cold at my elbow in need of a zap in the microwave. Time and time again, though, I refocused on the page (keeping a running list by my right hand of "to-do" items as they popped into my head in an attempt to distract me). This work of shutting out the world and focusing on the page brought the reward of Hirschfield's thinking, revelations & questions.

In describing the work of apprenticing one's self to the page, Hirschfield describes the practice "that muscles the tongue with words as a dancer's barre work muscles her legs and back with movement." Yowza! I want to have a "muscled tongue"!!

Some other gems:
"Originality can be hunted. Concentration's deep attentiveness; permeability to accident; persistence; curiosity; a wide vocabulary of outer and inner worlds -- these are just a few of the ways. Playfulness and rebelliousness help."

"Learning to trust the possible and to accept what arises, to welcome surprise and the ways of the Trickster, not to censor too quickly -- all are lessons necessary for a writer."

"Attentiveness may appear to be empty and passive, to be nothing at all, yet under its gaze, everything flowers."

"Originality lives at the crossroads, at the point where world and self open to each other in transparence in the night rain."

"If we demand change too insistently -- in art, or in the self -- something grows stubborn and digs in its heels."

Poetry poses "again and again a question that cannot be answered except with our whole being -- body, speech, and mind. What is the nature of this moment? poetry asks, and we have no rest until the question is answered."

And so, I will return to the desk with renewed attentiveness and a restored belief in whatever's coming next.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What I'm Reading: Seam by Tarfia Faizullah

67º ~ overcast, slight breezes ~ two massive wind storms blew through in the past 48 hours ~ lost one robin chick, put the remaining two back in the nest (scraggly, down-covered) and they are both thriving

A few posts back, I asked some questions about poetry of witness. On Saturday, I took Seam by Tarfia Faizullah out of my AWP box and started to read. From the first poem, I realized that this book would provide not only beautiful poetry, but some answers to my questions as well.

Seam was the 2013 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry - First Book Award winner and came out last year. I'm glad I held off buying it online and waited for AWP, as I happened to bump into Tarfia Faizullah at the Crab Orchard table and was able to have her sign my copy.

I had read a few of these poem in journals prior to the book coming out, but I didn't know that the entire book was an exploration of the 1971 civil war that resulted in East Pakistan becoming the independent nation of Bangladesh. In the book, Faizullah, born in the US to Bangladeshi parents who had immigrated in 1978, takes on as her main subject the lives of the "Birangona," the over 200,000 Bangladeshi women raped by Pakistani soldiers (often kidnapped and held captive to be repeatedly raped and otherwise abused over the course of the war). In the book, Faizullah sets herself up as the "interviewer" and talks about traveling to Bangladesh as an adult to research the war through which her parents and grandparents had lived.

In thinking about my questions of poetry as witness, here is what I noticed, in no particular order:

~ Faizullah has a direct connection to the horrors she explores (is this direct connection necessary?)
~These do not appear to be persona poems, but autobiographical journeys. The "I" here seems to "be" Faizullah, at least in relation to the information provided in her author's note.
~ Faizullah does not preach or provide answers; instead, she questions and makes herself vulnerable to the answers.

In terms of the book, there are layers of tension here. The tension of a first-generation American returning to the homeland of her parents. The tension of the war and its atrocities, particularly against women. The tension between generations as Faizullah references herself, her mother, and her grandmother. The tension between genders, as the women who suffered through the war were then celebrated by the Bangladeshi government but ostracized by their own family, friends, and communities. All of these tensions are expressed through a wonderful repetition of key images throughout the book:

seams (as in what holds us together, as in a vein of something precious and hidden, as in what has the potential to be ripped open and exposed)
twining (a way of binding hair, the wrapping of a sari around the body, a sense of connection to family or to the land)
green (lushness, tropical, fecund, humid, omnipresent)

Here are a few excerpts to give you a sense of Faizullah's amazing gift of imagery and the line.

from "Reading Willa Cather in Bangladesh":

Each map I have seen
of this country obscures:
each blue line, each emerald

inch of land cannot claim
such cloudy veins, these
long porous seams between

us still irrepressible--

(I hope you stopped and read that passage out loud. Not only are the images revelatory, but also the sounds.)

from "Interviewer's Note" part i:

You walk past white high-rises 
... .                             Past smoke
helixing from an untended fire.
Past another clothesline heavy
with saris: for hours they 
will lift into the wind, hollow
of any bruised or broken body.

And, finally, here is the beginning of "Interviewer's Note" part v:

But wasn't it the neat narrative
you wanted? 

This question smacked me right between the eyes in terms of a poetry of witness. We want to create a "neat narrative" out of pain and suffering. We want to create art out of something hellish and terrifying, but that "neatness" is always suspect, always pulled against and apart by the seam underneath, the seam that makes us ask time and time again: how could one human being do that to another?

And so, I'm thankful once again, that I've come across the right book at the right time, and I'm thankful to have these poems, these beautiful, gut-punching poems.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

What I'm Reading: Dear Mark by Martin Rock

58º ~ a bizarre cold front spreads quite a chill for late May ~ windows open, seated with blankets

One of the best things about attending AWP each year (the annual conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs) is the "chance encounter," when a writer who knows a writer you know and are talking to joins the conversation and your circle of friends widens.

Just such an encounter took place at the Hilton bar in Minneapolis this past April as I was having drinks with my poet-friend Traci Brimhall. Her friend, Martin Rock showed up and introductions were made. Later, in the book fair, I ran into Martin at the Gulf Coast table, as he is currently pursuing at PhD at the University of Houston, home of Gulf Coast. In our conversation, I learned about Martin's chapbook, Dear Mark, published in 2013 by Brooklyn Arts Press. Happily, I made my way to the BAP table and purchased a copy.

This chapbook finds its inspiration in the paintings of Mark Rothko, and each poem is titled after one painting. In addition to the title, each poem is preceded by a line drawing of the "blocks" included in said painting. Everything is black and white, so these outlines simply serve as reference points.

I have to say that I have little experience with ekphrastic poetry, finding it quite difficult to use a piece of art (created by someone else) as inspiration. When I've tried, I've mostly ended up with poems that "report" the elements of the piece of art. Not so with Martin Rock's poems in this book. I read the first 3/4 of the book away from the computer, and thus away from looking at the original Rothko images. The poems all held up. As an experiment, I read the last 1/4 of the book with each painting up on my screen as I read the poems. This was interesting, as I could often see the gate into the poem provided by the painting, but once I was into the poem, I only glanced back at the image on the screen now and again.

What impressed me most about these poems is the incredible attention to line breaks. The poems are all free verse and employ many different strategies in stanza breaks and justification. The form of each poem is organic and one can sense how each form mirrors the content of the individual poem. And then there are the line breaks. Here are just a few examples of line breaks that took the top of my head off.

First, from the opening poem and opening lines of "No. 5 / No. 22, 1949":

In the mustard sky
                    clouds have gathered
       inside a box

of Plexiglas.

OK, look at that again. We read the first two lines and think "a description of the sky, weird color, but a sky." Then, as we move into line 3, with no end-stop to prevent us falling into the phrase "inside a box," we get the surprise that the sky is not the actual sky, but an artificial one. The enjambment between lines 2 and 3 is crucial to the artifice that will permeate the rest of the book.

This happens again in "No. 61, Rust & Blue, 1953," only this time, Martin uses run-ons to enhance the enjambed lines and heighten the sense of ideas merging.

Down the path, a barn has left its lights on.
       We're lying on the red clay & it is cold
against my cheeks & eyes the barn
        atomic in the distance. Families are huddled
in partitions underground I fear
        we're one of them.

Now, usually when I see "wonky" syntax like this, I get easily frustrated by a poet taking unnecessary shortcuts. But, in Martin's case, these run-ons are integral to the meaning evoked by the poem (there is a sense of dangerous science & technology, a sense of a dangerous future waiting throughout the book). Look at the opening line. It is a straight-forward sentence. There is order in the world (even as we understand this is a moment of dis-order, because of the note about the lights). Then, we read through lines 2 & 3, getting that the cold clay is touching the speaker's face, but then this is blurred with the barn, seen at a distance and appearing "atomic" as it is illuminated in the dark. The barn is dangerous. This is reinforced by the underground bunker idea and the run-on in line 5. There are slightly different meanings, depending on where one reads the run-on.

Families are huddled in partitions underground, I fear.
We're one of them.

Families are huddled in partitions underground. I fear
we're one of them.

This muddled syntax heightens the reader's sense of fear and danger, even though it only takes us a moment to understand the meaning of the lines.

And I'll leave you with the opening of "No. 43, Mauve, 1960."

Forbearance is no longer a word
                     than is ascoliasm, in which medieval
      children beat each other to tatters.

This kind of break causes me to stop and write "wow" in the margin. If we read only the first line, we get the idea that "forbearance" is no more. Then, as we continue to read, we realize "no longer" has a different meaning all together. So cool. Of course, as you read the rest of the poem you realize that the whole poem is about patience & restraint versus wildness. And all of this suggested by an abstract painting built of blocks of color. So cool.

And I would probably not have learned of this book, without that "chance encounter" at AWP in April. So very cool.