February 01, 2019

January Tidings

I made black-eyed peas on New Year's day. I'd need every bit of good luck I could get, since the next day held a fourteen-hour hell-drive straight to Tampa, arriving in time to teach with my MFA program's residency. Nothing says "fancy life of a poet" like napping for an hour in front of a South Carolina rest stop. But increasingly, Tampa has become such a dear place to me. I love my students. I love waking up at the Sheraton and looking out along the Riverwalk. Funny how something that began as a source of anxiety--I'd had no previous graduate-level teaching experience before joining faculty--has, five years later, become an anchor and such a valued part of my life. This particular residency, we were fortunate enough for a visit from Meg Day: amazing poet, unforgettable lecturer, friend, kin. 

Seeing Meg connect with Kayla, this term's Outstanding Graduate Student--graduating with a superb essay collection I was fortunate to help with--was all joy. 

From Tampa, on to Naples to visit family. We wandered through the Naples Botanical Garden, then got bug-bit while enjoying dinner courtesy a campground of food trucks set up by the water. Adding a somewhat surreal element, Abby Wambach was chilling nearby with her partner and their dog in a very nice motor-boat. 

If you happen to be making your way from Naples to Miami, you'll be driving through the Everglades and I highly recommend you stop off at Joanie's. They took good care of me, allergies and all, from the lima bean soup to the fresh-grilled grouper atop salsa made that morning and a salad dotted with tiny flowers that had been grown in the cafe's front yard. I also had a moment during a rest stop when a crowd looked at me funny, as I walked along talking on my cell phone. So I turned back and looked--I'd passed right by an alligator. He was too sleepy to notice me. 

In Miami, I had a brief residency at The Betsy. The Writer's Room program is amazing (in return for a reading and a meet-the-artist reception, they give you a place to stay and a $50 / day tab at their restaurants). That said, one has to get past the strangeness of the entire staff knowing who you are and why you're there. SWWIM was kind enough to host our reading, where I finally got to meet Vinegar and Char contributor Elisa Albo. (Have you signed up for SWWIM's daily poem? You should!) I read four books in two days--Jessica Hopper's Night Moves, David Menconi's Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown, Alexander Chee's How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, and Porochista Khakpour's Sick--lounging whenever I could by the Betsy's rooftop pool. I checked into a cat cafe for an hour. And I walked down to the South Pointe Park, a walk that brought me comfort so many days back when I was living in Miami in February 2011, as part of a now-defunct artist residency. I'm working on my next nonfiction book, and this was the perfect setting. But that's all I'll say about that for now. 

Lyn at Square Books sent me a snapshot of the year-end display of bestselling titles in the front window. And look: Vinegar and Char is right there, nestled at #48. I'm grateful because I'm so dang proud of this anthology and, for various reasons, I haven't gotten to celebrate it properly outside Mississippi. But my March 11 reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library--with contributors Atsuro Riley and Sean Hill--will go a ways toward fixing that. 

Thank you, January, from delivering me from the arms of Florida into the embrace of the new: I'm in Ireland. 

I'm settling in as this spring's John Montague International Poetry Fellow for the Munster Literature Centre. That means teaching a workshop over at University College Cork, mentoring a few community folks, and leading a four-day seminar on "Bringing the World to the Poem" (still some spots available) as part of the poetry festival March 20-23. (Sorry to miss you, AWP.) People have been kind enough to make all sorts of tourist suggestions, and I'm sure I'll explore as the weeks go on. For now, I'm just happy to be in one place. 

December 22, 2018

The Hungry Poet: Carrot Salad Edition

This time of year I end up buying ingredients for specific dishes--and then, the leftover odds and ends clutter up my pantry for a while. Rather than letting them wither and go stale, I have to remind myself to make dishes that can incorporate these "leftovers." Soups and stews are great for this. So is carrot salad.

The main ingredients:

-Shredded carrots (originally bought for a stir-fry)
-Chickpeas (originally bought for a curry)
-Golden raisins (originally bought for a cauliflower dish)
-Sliced almonds (originally bought for a salad)

You can set the proportions however you want, but I like 2: 2: 1: 1. Meaning I used 2/3 of a store-bought bag of shredded carrot, a can of chickpeas, about a half-cup of raisins, and about a half-cup of slivered almonds. 

A lot of recipes for Moroccan carrot salad (which this loosely resembles) present this as something to assemble raw. But uncooked carrots, onions, and peppers can be difficult for folks to eat. I prefer to cook it all lightly together, to soften the ingredients.

To start?

Using household staples, this is my base for...well, just about everything.

-Tablespoon of olive oil
-Two shallots, chopped fine
-Spoonful of chopped garlic
-Serrano pepper, sliced thin (can substitute with jalapeño, poblano, etc.)

After that's been sautéing together for a couple of minutes, push your base to the sides of the pot (or pan, or wok), put in the carrots over the burner's main heat, and season. Drizzle in a little extra olive oil if it looks dry. Let that cook on medium for a few minutes, and stir together. Turn the heat to low--at this point, you're not really "cooking" so much as heating things through--put in the chickpeas, season, and warm for another couple of minutes. Finally, stir in the golden raisins (seasoned) and the slivered almonds (toasted). 

Total stovetop time is about ten minutes. Then transfer to your storage / serving bowl. I like to chill or rest everything together for at least an hour afterward, so the flavors can marry, but it's not essential. 

To season?

Years ago, I got in the habit of associating each spice or flavoring agent with a single main ingredient, rather than adding them all at once. I think the palate notices each element more clearly that way. So when I add the carrot, I season them with cumin (maybe about a tablespoon). When I add the chickpeas, I season them with cayenne or paprika (no more than a teaspoon). I plump up the golden raisins with a big splash of red wine vinegar and olive oil, to balance their sweetness.  

To toast the almonds?

Toasting nuts can be maddening. You wait, and wait, and wait; you turn your back on the toaster, and they burn in seconds. Then I learned the trick of toasting nuts in the microwave. (Yes, really.) Spread in a thin layer--I use a handled bowl, uncovered--and take advantage of the microwave's "minute plus" function, tossing and checking each time. Toasting a half-cup took three minutes.

Toasting nuts in the microwave for garnish is an especially good trick for when you're hosting a dinner party, and toaster / oven / stovetop space is in high demand. 

To finish?

I zested a lemon over the mix, then squeezed in about half the juice. Salt and pepper to taste. Fresh herbs would be great here--chopped parsley, mint, cilantro, or basil. But again, the point is to use what you've got handy. I reached for the jar of dried cilantro and stirred in a few generous shakes. 

A big batch will last in the fridge for a few days and can be used any number of ways: 

-Paired with arugula or spinach for a larger salad, perhaps with good canned tuna; 
-warmed and served alongside roasted chicken and rice; 
-layered on top of toast;
...and forked cold out of the fridge, in the middle of the night, by a hungry poet. 

November 26, 2018

Six Posts I Didn't Write & Alex Guarnaschelli

I was going to tell you about being in Oxford, Mississippi, for the annual SFA symposium to launch Vinegar and Char: Verse from the Southern Foodways Alliance. I was going to tell you about how Monique Truong rocks a lecture like no other. I was going to tell you about a meal inspired by the work of Zora Neale Hurston--Tabasco-braised pulled rabbit, collards with pork tails, whole roasted whitefish--courtesy Chef Mashama Bailey of The Grey in Savannah, Georgia. I was going to tell you about being brought to tears by the unexpected kindness of SFA staff conspiring with John Currence & City Grocery restaurant crew to make sure I could try the food being served, amidst the allergy minefield of creative catering for 200+ people. I was going to tell you about getting to read poems alongside Kevin Young, and recording for the Vinegar and Char-themed GRAVY podcast, seeing old haunts and old friends, buying a Blair Hobbs painting, and stealing an extra day to go buy records at The End of All Music

I was going to tell you about "Showrunner," one of my favorite in-class exercises that I've developed for teaching Writers in Print and Person at American University. This small-group project solves two problems at once--how to facilitate discussion of prose when students are midway through the book (in this case, Leslie Pietrzyk's terrific novel Silver Girl), and how to help students experience a variation on the agency of the writing process. We move the novel or nonfiction work to the medium of television and, from there, they pitch me the show they would create: from genre and format--to theme song--to casting, to key scenes, to cliffhangers. I love hearing the excitement in the students' voices as they collaborate and even bicker about the decisions to be made. The only challenge is having to calibrate my knowledge to their era of pop-culture references (having to remember on the fly, for example, how to spell "Cara Delevingne").

I was going to tell you about going to North Carolina for the West End Poetry Festival--where the Carrboro Poets Council partners with the town to produce four days of reading upon reading upon reading, inclusive of all styles and topics. (A 12-person council that hangs out in someone's living room once a month, and is trusted and given the resources to organize. Wouldn't it be amazing if we could so easily facilitate the DC government's relationship to poetry and the arts? Ahem.) I got to talk about poetry of food, I got to hear Ruth Awad, the Chief of Police volunteered to be on-site monitor so we could drink wine in the Century Center, and signs that would usually direct traffic instead directed "Slow Down for Poetry."  I was going to tell you about helping someone write an ode to barbecue, and watching that same gentleman (husband to our hosting Poets Council member) run the toy trains in the garage-loft where we'd been staying. I was going to tell you about buying hatch chiles and okra from the Farmer's Market. 

I was going to tell you about getting the best brunch of my recent memory at Crook's Corner on our way out of town. The one thing I was really hoping to have was black-eyed peas, and they delivered. With a side of bacon. Chef Bill Smith, who I'd met at the SFA symposium in Oxford, "saw" I was in the dining room courtesy of Twitter and, from afar, sent out a spicy sorbet. (Yes, that's what I meant to write--a spicy sorbet. He is generous enough to publicize the recipe, which you can find here: water, sugar, OJ, zest, and Red Hots. Legit.)

I was going to tell you that I then headed to Delaware's Seashore State Park, and for three nights shacked up in a cabin by the Indian River with Leslie, workshopping with eleven poets while she workshopped with eleven prose writers. The boats harbored in the marina rocked and squealed. We had morning seminars on topics such as working from autobiography, giving a good reading, and radical revision. We finished with an open mic. The students gave us each a brown paper bag full of thank-you notes. I was going to tell you that I made time for walking on the beach barefoot. 

I was going to tell you that I drove straight from Delaware to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where I spent a very rainy but wonderful day and a half at Dickinson College. The last time I was in Carlisle was years ago, when my father was at the War College. My primary host was Adrienne Su, who I would choose to have lunches with every week--smart, funny, kind, and ridiculously talented at wielding the traditions of poetry. People like Adrienne are why people opt for jobs with colleagues. There was a cat in residence at the roadside farm en route, where I bought fresh cider and purple cauliflower and local mushrooms, and a cat in residence at Whistestop Bookshop. For good measure, I bought a copy of Doris Lessing's On Cats.  I also encountered no less than five horses (with Amish buggies) on the roads of rural Pennsylvania, but I couldn't stop the car to get a proper photograph. 

After my last classroom visit, I should have gotten on the road to drive home. But instead I improvised a two-hour detour into The ClothesVine. After eight years of being on the road more than I'd ever imagined, my wardrobe is tired. And too damn tight. I'm banishing a certain size pants. I'm investing in huge, soft sweaters. 

I wish I didn't feel insecure about that. I wish each new expenditure didn't feel like paying tax on lack of discipline. I have traveled thousands on thousands of miles since 2010. I've tested out myself as a teacher. I've written a books, with another in the hands of the editor right now, and edited an anthology. Am I going to romanticize back when the menu consisted of orange juice, twelve almonds, a banana, five Triscuits, another five Triscuits, spinach, tomatoes, one whole avocado, and maybe french fries, if craving something hot?

This brings me to Alex Guarnaschelli. Nothing particularly epic, except the realization that I find it tremendously soothing to watch talented female chefs like Guarnaschelli (or Amanda Freitag, pictured here as her competitor on "Next Iron Chef") do their thing. There's a centering here. There's palpable bad-ass-ery. If there is a distillation of my 2019 goals, it's to be found somewhere in this generous, stylish confidence.

I'm going to tell you that new red shoes were a gift worth giving to myself.

I'm going to tell you that even though chefs took great care of me while on the road, it feels good to cook from scratch again. 

I am also going to tell you that cooking is complicated by the revelation that my ten-year-old cat has a new proclivity for jumping on countertops. 

Pableaux Johnson took my photo in Oxford. I look a little older than the girl in the upper-right of this blog design. But I think I look a little more accomplished, too. 

October 07, 2018

Holding Space

English artist Rachel Whiteread uses plaster, rubber, and resin to cast spaces we take for granted--doors and bathtubs; the inside of hot water bottles; the undersides of chairs; the cardboard spools for toilet paper. She was the first woman to win the Turner Prize, in 1993, after casting a whole house that had been scheduled for demolition. Although I've recognized her work at various museums over the years, the exhibit at the National Gallery of Art provides a whole new level of breadth and context. If you come to DC between now and January 2019, be sure and visit. 

I've been waking up with my jaw already clenched, too many days in a row, in dread of each day's news. Sometimes fantastic things happen--the MacArthur "genius" grant recipients for this year include Natalie Diaz and Kelly Link--and sometimes someone shows me a video of a basket of baby sloths or a baby flamingo taking its first steps, and sometimes it's just enough to be in the same space as a friend, laughing. Sometimes solace lasts for the length of a poem. But all is a bulwark against the sense that our checks and balances no longer operate as they should. Perhaps they never did. The calls of "Remember on November 6!" ring a bit hollow when you're a resident of Washington, D.C.--almost 700,000 of us, and not one seat in the Senate. Imagine how differently the last few weeks might have gone, had we had voting representation.

Teju Cole visited American University this past week. My undergraduate students for "Writers in Print and Person" read Blind Spotphotographs juxtaposed with flash nonfiction texts. The book is physically gorgeous as an artifact and gave us means to discuss Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, "studium" and "punctum." Barthes developed this vocabulary to talk primarily about portraiture; in moving the approach to landscape photography, which Cole does--and largely devoid of people's faces--I'd argue that the explicit text teases a "punctum" to the surface that would otherwise stay invisible, but inherent to the impulse of the photographer. His lecture did the thing great art does, selfishly, which was that it made me want to hole up and think and write. 

Photographs had already been on my mind the weekend before, when my sister and I drove to Kinmundy, Illinois, for my grandmother's memorial service. We went to Evergreen Cemetery, walked through one of my grandfather's childhood homes, had lunch at the Methodist church, and looked through the historical society's archives of photographs and newspapers. We stayed in Salem, the closest nearby town with a hotel. The Pruetts are prevalent in the history of Kinmundy's thriving days, though my grandmother, seems important to note, was a Kepley by birth. We took a couple of hours to drive to nearby Louisville, searching out the cemetery where her parents were buried. However many years ago, it was probably my grandmother's hand that tipped the American flag within the framing of her father's mausoleum plot. Widowed early, remarried, my great-grandmother (and namesake) was laid to rest with her family, the Farrells. We left the last of the morning's red roses with their graves. Since the high school's homecoming weekend had crowded most of the restaurants that night, we went to the parking-lot Denny's for dinner. I ordered a bourbon-chicken-vegetable skillet thing and watched a table of teenage girls fuss with their corsages and sparkly dresses. 

The photograph I want is the one I don't have: a shot from behind of my mother, sitting in line with her brother and sister, facing the arrangement of my grandmother's ashes prior to the beginning of the service, and beyond them the cornfields that line the cemetery. We sat two rows behind and I thought I should capture this moment, these three siblings, but then I wasn't sure about camera etiquette at a funeral. Family sat down in the row between us and the moment was gone. I captured the moment after instead, as my aunt stood to face us and speak. Maybe Roland Barthes would say that the true punctum is in this second image, this motion, imperfect as it may be.