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.