October 26, 2016

A Tale of Two Octobers

"I usually love October," I said, "but this one is really kicking my ass." 

She laughed. "...And it's only the first week of October, right?"

Oh, man. She was right. 

This is a tale of two Octobers. There is an awesome version of this October. I am thrilled to learn I've received an artist fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, which will support work in the coming year. I confirmed that I'll serve as a Distinguished Visiting Writer in tandem with an early 2017 residency in Florida. I got to travel to Michigan and St. Louis for readings.

The trip to Central Michigan University, in particular, was amazing. I had two sets of home-hosts: first in Akron, Ohio, and then in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. I live in a one-bedroom apartment in DC, and I'm conceivably looking at a lifetime of apartments. So the novelty of an actual home is not lost on me, complete with front steps for pumpkins and porches on which to leave your wet umbrella. In Akron, we went out for spicy Thai food and stayed up to watch baseball, the wildcard playoff game; in Mount Pleasant, we home-cooked a dinner of chicken thighs, potatoes, and kale, and stayed up late drinking red wine and discussing regional identity, accents, and the variable "South."
There was a cage of finches living outside office I was using as a guest room, and I quickly came to love the white noise of their chatter. 

Jeffrey Bean (who everyone calls "Bean") is one of those poets who I immediately felt like I'd known forever. He's a passionate and beloved teacher, who trusted me with his undergraduate workshop for an hour-plus seminar on persona poems. The students were utterly on point with their ideas and interpretations. I spent an hour fielding nuanced, researched questions during an interview for a literary magazine. I got to read to a packed library. I read a few new poems. I signed copies of every book I've written; the bookstore sold out of I Was the Jukebox. Afterwards, we went out for cocktails and had some frank talk about poetry politics, conferences, and getting out there in the world. A woman who had attended the reading joined us, quietly picked up the tab for the table, and slipped out before we could even say thank-you.

The cider, coffee, and apples at this farm stand were so good that I stopped off twice. I bought spicy Michigan salsa and corn chips made in Detroit.

This is what I think of as prime October energy. 

But that's only one of two Octobers. In the other October, I got so behind on feedback for my own students that I wrote them letters of apology. In the other October, I've been waking up at 3:30 AM to do a round of emails, then grabbing 2-3 more hours of sleep after my husband leaves for work at 7 AM.  Half the time that then necessitates an afternoon nap. I missed an Arts Club members meeting, because I overslept. I missed an award ceremony, because I overslept.

I put together a 55-page application for a teaching fellowship that create some huge professional and creative opportunities. But if I get it, it would mean living in two places for nine months. So I'm both excited and terrified by the prospect. 

The outlet adjacent to the table I use as a desk has pulled partway out of the wall, so my laptop is perpetually on the edge of running out of battery life. 

I maxed out my entire family's data plan by accidentally leaving my phone's mapping function on during the drive back from Michigan. 

We are six appointments in since August, and our A/C units are still not working. Technicians will be be back on Monday. And this rate, it is now about heating versus cooling.

My husband suggested a Saturday trip to Eastern Market would be a way to lift my spirits. I busted a brand-new tire circling to park the car off Pennsylvania Avenue. 

I thought I'd missed the date of my mom's birthday, so I left her an agonized phone message on her actual birthday. I have not seen her in all of October. I have not seen my best friend in all of October. 

The box of paperback books from my publisher arrived but they mistyped the address so it was delivered across the street. The box was already marked RETURN TO SENDER in black marker, and the woman was resolute. I had to show my ID and beg.

Last night a friend passed along a gag gift, a mug that says "What Deadline?" and it took all my reserve not to burst into tears. 

I'm not cataloguing this because I'm looking for sympathy. (Though maybe empathy? I know your fall is going full-throttle, too.) These overextension moments are all of my own making. By hook or by crook, I will get through the next six weeks. I'm fixating on the handful of ways I'm coming up short versus the ways that (I hope) I'm being a good writer, teacher, and person. 

But, man. October is kicking my ass. I thought, "Remember when there was a bunch of poet-bloggers, and we all had these spaces in which we confessed the downs as well as celebrating the ups?" And I kind of miss that, so here I am. 

September 29, 2016

Student, Meet Author! (On Assigning Q&As)

I learned a lot, as a student, from reaching out to authors. While at UVA I worked on the staff of 3.7, a literary magazine that regularly interviewed artists and musicians; our big "get" had been Ray Bradbury. As a sci-fi / fantasy lit fan, I waited for two hours in line in order to interview Orson Scott Card upon the publication of EnchantmentI soon realized Card was a touch eccentric, after he referred to James Joyce as the "Pied Piper of 20th Century Literature." (Later in life, I realized he was worse than eccentric, he was bigoted.) He was also super excited, in a hush-hush way, about the potential casting of Ender in the movie version: the "unknown" talent of Jake Lloyd, who was about to debut in the role of a young Anakin Skywalker. Though the Q&A did not go where I expected it to, I learned from the experience. 

When I sat down with the poet Henry Taylor at Michael's on the corner in Charlottesville, our meandering interview--which touched on everything from clerihews and sonnets, to cancer, to his own mentorship by George Garrett--turned out to be a path that led me to American University for graduate school. I still have the tapes of that session. We ordered sandwiches and french fries and stayed in that booth for three hours; he insisted picking up the check.

Once at AU, I used an editorship at Folio to interview one of my teachers from UVA days, Gregory Orr. We had hoped to meet in person, but couldn't get the schedule to work. He had been ill--he was running a literal fever when he replied, he explained--after what had to have been a night of writing. As I opened my email and parsed through the dense, freeform blocks of texts, I saw the stirrings of what would become Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved. Of all the people I've studied with, I probably refer to Greg's body of theory toward craft the most. In part, my loyalty was born of that experience of reading through his raw, unedited replies to my questions. 

By which I mean to say: The season of students emailing for Q&As is upon us. I love hearing from students who have been asked to read my poetry or nonfiction for a course. I'm happy to answer questions via email (or, depending on the context, a Skype session with the whole class). This is a big honor and has, on occasion, created long-lasting correspondences. 

  • Awesome thing, pt. 1: In this age of social media, and given the number of authors who also teach and therefore have public / academic email addresses, it is more possible than ever for students to directly interact with contemporary writers. 
  • Awesome thing, pt. 2: Students get a lot out of it. Books go from being static, sometimes resistant texts to organic expressions of a personality at work. Hearing the "back stories" behind poems, in particular, can illuminate what previously intimidated. 
  • Awesome thing, pt. 3: Writers love hearing that our work is being studied, and that reading our work has sparked curiosity about the creative process. 

That said...I've seen what I can only describe as Q&A fatigue among the writers I know. Email is a big part of that. You're swimming in email. We are, too. What I LOVE about using email as the medium for author Q&As is that it counteracts the privilege embedded in needing physical access to an author. What I struggle with is that it can make a precious opportunity seem casual or worse yet, perfunctory. No one dreams of being someone else's homework. So please make sure your students go into this process fully prepared, and that they respect the author's time and voluntary role in this exchange. That means....
  • Students should include an introduction that gives their full name, grade, the academic institution they're affiliated with, and the assigning teacher or professor's name. Specify what work by the author has been read.
  • Consider requiring students to quote from 1-2 interviews that the author has already done, as part of the narrative of their assignment. This emphasis on research is an important part of journalism (and would be key if the student should take up a career in freelance profiles or interviews). This step also encourages the student to come up with fresh questions versus ones that are general and familiar.
  • Remind your students that it takes a lot more time to answer a question than to ask one. I'd rather get a half-dozen questions that I can answer in full, thoughtfully, versus a dozen that have me scrambling for time. If the student's best expression of enthusiasm is asking a plethora of questions (that's a real thing, I get it), invite the author to only reply to those questions that inspire an equally passionate answer.
  • Be sure your students give the author at least a week to respond, and that they state both their "in-house" deadline and the official / external deadline for the assignment. Students are often primed toward last-minute emails and 48-hour turnarounds; those of us they are reaching out to may not be, even if we want to help. This information should be in the original query, not in a follow-up.
Also: be sure the student writes a thank-you note (er, email). It's weird that has to be stipulated, but it does.  

Thank you, anyone who sees this and puts it in action with their students. If you want to come a knockin' on my door, I will welcome the conversation.

September 26, 2016

Report from the National Book Festival

Last Wednesday, when the Politics & Prose cashier slipped a National Book Festival bookmark in between the pages of my purchase (a paperback copy of Howard Norman's I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place), I blurted out: "I'm going to be there."

She was kind enough to tilt her head and say, "I thought your name sounded familiar."

When Rob Casper of the Library of Congress called back in early August, I was standing in a New Jersey kitchen. We had gone up to help my brother-in-law's family move in, and I had taken on cooking duties for the weekend. The reception was echo-ey, faint. I shook the water off a cutting board before making my way to the porch, where I could make out Rob's voice more clearly. A slot had unexpectedly opened up on the "Poetry and Prose" stage for September 24. Did I want to read?

Yes. Yes. 

It's funny how we can hear something, and carry on our half of the conversation, without hearing the idea behind the words. My inner pragmatic piped up: you're local. You're an easy add in terms of the budget. This was an NEA-sponsored stage, and I hold a 2015 Fellowship. I have a new-ish book out. I ascribed being asked to an intersection of conveniences, a series of checkboxes I happened to fill. I was happy to say Yes. I forgot to say to myself, Hey, this is once-in-a-lifetime. Or You earned this. 

Then the bookmark moment. Then my mom emailing everyone in the family, You are in the Book World section of the Post! And it all started to feel really, really real. 

Waiting to be admitted to the Friday night shindig at the Library of Congress, I watched a man come up the steps behind us. I recognized him by his eyebrows. "That's Salman Rushdie," I muttered softly to my husband. 

"Well, we're probably in the right line, then," he replied.

The guard waved his wand suspiciously up and down Hervé Tullet's torso while the tall, wiry-haired children's author turned in a slow circle. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was, literally, a head above every other person in the room. The bartender searched for a fresh ginger beer to top off a waiting line of Moscow Mules while Geraldine Brooks waited patiently for her drink, resplendent in a navy crinolined dress. Joyce Carol Oates darted around, tiny and sparrow-like, wearing a black hat with a wide brim. 

Newly appointed Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden got a hearty round of Woooo from the crowd. The speakers included Edwidge Danticat, James Gleick, and Marilynne Robinson. I've been in the Library of Congress's Jefferson Building for a dozen receptions, but never anything quite like this. There were stations for shrimp and grits, mini-tacos with five different salsa, peking duck rolls and pork buns. I was allergic to all of it, but happy to get another Moscow Mule with a red-and-white striped straw. A few members of the catering staff had been recruited to re-enact the gondola pose from this year's NBF poster for a tableau set up in the middle of the room. 

The next morning, my husband and I left an hour early to trek all of five stops north on the Green Line; that's how nervous I was to not miss Stephen King. Trying to get oriented at the Convention Center, any doubts we had about which door was for the Authors / VIPs was assuaged when the black SUV carrying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's team pulled up. I met Karen, in her periwinkle volunteer t-shirt, who I knew would help us get into the ticketed auditorium. I did a double-take when I realized that the entirety of her volunteer work, for the day, was "handling" me. The bonus, she pointed out, was that it meant she got a seat for Stephen King as well. 

We were second row, dead center. I know he does talks all the time, all over the country, but Stephen King felt present. He showed us his iPad, the remarks he'd drafted for the occasion. Between anecdotes about his modest beginnings (having five people show up for the first Carrie signing), his pride in raising a family of authors, and a dollop of political commentary (he compared Trump's speechifying to "a piano falling down a flight of stairs"), he hewed to the topic of fostering not just literary enthusiasm, but literacy. His philanthropy in Maine is apparently sprawling--he was receiving an award for it--but he found himself hesitant, he said, to talk about something he'd always regarded as needing to be a private act.

Hearing King speak has been a bucket-list goal. His imagery, his sense of both the poetic and perverse, was a foundational inspiration for me. I devoured his books. Nightmares and Dreamscapes is still kept handy on the shelf in my bedroom. 

I brought less expectations to hearing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, simply because I know less about him, but I'd been intrigued since reading Jay Caspian Kang's substantive profile of him for the New York Times Magazine a year ago. He was wonderful: poised, erudite, frank in his approach to racial iniquity ("The only equal opportunity employer for desperate people is crime"), grounded in his faith. Anyone who gets a question about the tradition of the detective story, admires Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and then self-corrects mid-sentence to also credit Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" gets my loyalty. A child asked him whether he prefers being an author or a basketball player. Easy answer, he said--at this point, he's in no shape for the court. I'm glad we've signed him up for Team Author. 

After a hurried lunch of dumplings, I met up with Karen, who walked me down to the signing floor. I wasn't expecting a line--Count the Waves has been out for over a year, with the paperback on the horizon in December. But the dozen or so people I talked with included students from the Writer's Center and American University, two young aspiring poets, the owner of a bookstore up in western Massachusetts who had trekked down for this festival, a heretofore virtual Facebook friend, and a random nice guy who'd found himself in a neighboring line next to my husband. Not to mention the woman who runs a local poetry-book club, which I promptly invited myself to come visit. I'm counting each handshake or hug as an individual victory. 

Our last program of the day was spur-of-the-moment--Michael Cunningham and Yuko Shimizu, with my friend and Washington Post Magazine editor David Rowell moderating. Shimizu designed this year's NBF poster, and the two collaborated on Cunningham's reworking of fable and myth, A Wild Swan and Other Tales; a hypnotizing slideshow of illustrations cycled on a screen to the side of the stage. The conversation was lively, and for a writer married to an artist, it was the perfect date-night note to end on. (To be precise, the "date night" then extended to mezcal cocktails, guacamole, and ceviche at Espita Mezcaleria, two blocks up 9th Street.)

Two small regrets: I couldn't get away to visit the folks selling books for Politics & Prose. And I didn't speak to Congressman John Lewis, though I was thrilled to sit at an adjacent table in the author's lounge for a while. He emanated a stately calm and--on a weekend that featured the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture--a distinct, if slightly exhausted, joy. Being adjacent was enough. 

I read right before Michael Cunningham and Yuko Shimizu. I was touched by the presence of familiar people in the crowd--Rob from LOC, Amy Stolls of the NEA, former students, friends from MFA days and from local literary organizations, fellow DC poets, many of whom have heard me read before and who had so many fancier options of places to be in that moment. I hope I remembered to thank all of them. I thanked Karen. I thanked my husband. I thanked the woman holding up the timecards. I did not thank Siri, who at one point attempted to chime in on the reading. I thanked the ASL translator who dealt with signing "word splooge" on the fly. 

Though I walked up to the podium with I Was the Jukebox in hand, three poems marked, I decided not to read from that collection. I've been fortunate that book has had such long legs. It's usually a relief to reach for poems that are funny and conversational. But the poems from Count the Waves, as difficult and more somber as they may be, are what got me an NEA grant. You gotta dance with the one who brung you. I read new poems, including a sestina, a sonnet, and my contribution to Still Life with Poem (I held the anthology up to the crowd's eye). I took questions. I got to mention Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, e.e. cummings, Sylvia Plath, and Sandra Cisneros. I got to talk about the fallacy of form "versus" free verse in poetry. Karen saved the day by getting these snapshots, which my mother had made me promise someone would take. 

I remember the National Book Festival of a decade ago, back when it was still on the National Mall: standing at the edge of tents in years past, trying to stay out of the mud. Waiting in long lines to meet the authors. I can't believe I got to be one of them.