February 10, 2015

22 Hours in the Big(ger) City

Sometimes, you just gotta hop on a bus to New York. 

I packed my fur-trimmed hat and gloves; luckily, my more practical-minded husband convinced me to wear flats. My reading on the ride up was the January Poetry (Tarfia Faizullah's "100 Bells" is amazing, as is the "Las Chavas" portfolio, in which Spencer Reese and Richard Blanco workshopped with young Honduran women). 

I managed to limit myself to a bag, laptop, six books to sell, two books to read from, and my purse. So, only somewhat camel-like. A small camel. 

A small, extremely cold camel. Journeying straight to to Fifth Avenue. 

The first time I came to New York City by myself, Poets & Writers put me up in the Library Hotel during my weeklong stay for the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award. So I've always thought of the blocks around the New York Public Library as my home "neighborhood." Now, it's where I go to see my publisher.

Seeing this never fails to make me stop and take a deep breath. The sixth-floor lobby has a collage of forthcoming book covers, and Cate Marvin's Oracle jumped out at me--good to see poetry proudly displayed alongside the "big" (read: money-making) titles.

I conspired with Claire, my publicist over coffee, trying to figure out key angles for Count the Waves. I said hello to Jill and met her new assistant, Angie. Bumped into Steve and Nomi, who tirelessly work the AWP booth every year, and snagged copies of Sandra Lim's The Wilderness and Eavan Boland's The Woman Without a Country. These annual visits aren't absolutely necessary, but they're vital to me: I want to know the faces and voices behind all the emails.

After I'd run out of excuses to stand around gawking at books, I walked a few blocks down to Grand Central Station and grabbed a seat at the counter of the Oyster Bar.

My friend Jeff introduced me to the Oyster Bar in 2009. Time flies! I ordered a Bloody Mary shot, which is what we ordered that day. And a dozen oysters on the half shell for good measure, with crackers pocketed for later...breakfast, to be exact.

Malpeques from Prince Edward Island, Pemaquids from Maine, and "Gigacups" from Washington state, a name that makes me smile (second only to the "Nauti Pilgrims" from Massachusetts). Four of each: two with lemon and vinegar, two with cocktail sauce and a dash of Cholula. A Blue Point Toasted Lager to wash it all down, while I leafed through the January issue of The Sun; "Readers Write" as the best part, per usual. I dog-eared a portfolio of Coney Island photos to leave out for my uncle.

Though my uncle has had the same Central Park West studio my entire life, navigating uptown to his place always makes me anxious. I made sure all five keys to the building worked, dropped my bags, and got right back on the subway. 

I've been to the Bowery Poetry Club twice before. The first time was ten years ago, when I while staying at the White House hostel. I sipped a carrot juice and tried to summon the courage to sign up for the open mic. More recently, I stopped in to see Reverend Jen host an anti-slam, and it was as I remembered: dark and raucous. 

When the Club opened in 2002, Bob Holman threatened to be the first one to ever go broke running a bar in New York. He came pretty close. So they've given it a total makeover, more fitting to a place that now hosts burlesque five nights a week to pay the bills. That's not a terrible thing--I like the blue, and the art deco details. Hell, if you've gotta make something over, might as well really make it over.

reg e. gaines was the co-feature, and good lordy did he bring it. He got right up with the Duo, who were riffing jazz-funk accompaniment for all the readers, and broke out "Please Don't Take My Air Jordans." I knew his name was familiar, but it wasn't until later that I realized this is the guy who was nominated for a Tony for the book to "Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk." I had to follow him. No pressure.

Oh, and also no pressure, Bob Holman was there. At my table! (Or rather, I was at his table.) I can't capture this man's energy, but this is someone who has worked with the St. Mark's Poetry Project, Nuyorican Poets Cafe, BPC, "United States of Poetry," now the Endangered Language Alliance, and so on. You cannot meet him and not be struck by his capacious mind, and his generous heart. Also, he's a big ol' flirt.

It was a lot to take in, especially since I was using this reading to try out a new combination of poems. I think I did okay. If they invite me back, I'll know I did okay. I followed the best rule I know for readings: share one less poem than you want to. It's like Coco Chanel's gospel about removing one accessory before you leave the house.

I love my uncle's apartment. Even if I didn't know he'd been there forever, I would be able to tell with just one look at this cactus. There is always a box of Triscuits on the shelf and Pinnacle vodka in the freezer, chilling alongside two cut-crystal glasses. He has a great eye for calming what could otherwise feel like a crammed-tight space.

Hard to believe that all this happened in less than a day. I don't know that I could ever live here. New York wears me down. The cold is just a little harsher than DC, the streets a little dirtier, the people a little gruffer. But it's a deeply exciting city in its new-ness and its old-ness, in its layers. And I leave as I always do--achy, and grateful. 

January 26, 2015

Seasoning the Pan

"We were just a couple of short-order cooks
who kept trying to pass themselves off as poets."
~Charles Simic

Juan Sanchez Cortan, "Still Life With Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber," 1602-1603
In 2006, I attended a benefit dinner where Charles Simic was the guest of honor. Comparing notes with someone afterwards, we both noted that the man seemed preternaturally occupied by food: what could be on the menu, what was on the menu, and when the plates were going to be served. The observation might have been petty, had Simic's fixation not been so thoroughly entertaining. Of course, the symbolism of a metaphor paled in comparison to the ripe flesh of melon. Why talk about styles of line break, when one could be weighing the comparative geometries of pasta?

Little did we know, it was all part of a larger plan: 

"We started a new poetry movement that we hoped would make us famous. Every other poet was starting one forty years ago, so we thought, Why not us? Ours was to be called Gastronomic Poetry. Both Mark and I had noticed at poetry readings that whenever food was mentioned in a poem—and that didn’t happen very often—blissful smiles would break out on the faces of people in the audience. Thus, we reasoned, in a country where most people hate poetry and everyone is eating and snacking constantly, poems ought to mention food more frequently." 

If those in the poetry community weren't already missing Mark Strand, Simic's tribute to his friend, "Living Gorgeously," posted on January 24 at the New York Review of Books, would render us bereft all over again. You can read the full text here. 

Jan Davidszoon de Heem, "Still Life with Fruit and Ham," 1648-49
Simic assures us that it wasn't all prosciutto and pinot noir. "We talked about how writing a poem is no different from taking out a frying pan and concocting a dish out of the ingredients available in the house," he says. "[H]ow in poetry, as in cooking, it’s all a matter of subtle little touches that come from long experience or are the result of sudden inspiration." This is exactly right--there are things we know to do, on the page, using instincts that cannot be created through anything other than time. 

This is one of the absurdities embedded into teaching creative writing to graduate students. We can explain technical skills; we can edit or proof individual drafts; we can grant a degree; but we can't instill "long experience." We can sell you the wok, but only you can season the pan. 

I am just back from an eight-day residency at the University of Tampa. Every trip down there becomes a little more fun, as I get a little better organized. Every trip enriches my understanding of what I can do for these students. So far I attend everything that I can, which is my way of making it feel less like a job and more like a literary conference. 

Whenever possible, I bridge from the program-wide craft seminars to the close readings I lead with students in workshop. (I meet with my five students for two hours a day, eight days straight, to both talk craft and look at their drafts.) The frustration of surrendering a syllabus to the whim of other peoples' seminars is that I can't plan in advance. The gratifying thing is that I turn our attention to texts that aren't fully safe or familiar; I'm jolted from my teaching go-tos. One faculty member's discussion of vocabulary and word choice led to looking at this nimble, challenging poem by Harryette Mullen:


as horses as for
as purple as we go
as heartbeat as if
as silverware as it were
as onion as I can
as cherries as feared
as combustion as want
as dog collar as expected
as oboes as anyone
as umbrella as catch can
as penmanship as it gets
as narcosis as could be
as hit parade as all that
as icebox as far as I know
as fax machine as one can imagine
as cyclones as hoped
as dictionary as you like
as shadow as promised
as drinking fountain as well
as grassfire as myself
as mirror as is
as never as this

~Harryette Mullin, from Sleeping with the Dictionary (2002) 

A poem like this is like cumin. It doesn't have to be your favorite taste, but you should be able to parse it out with your tongue. When you let it stew, the flavor intensifies. (If you're struggling to read it, take a step back. Enjoy the title's sly play on "Wipe that smile off your face," and consider the respective connotations of "simile" and "aphasia." Try reading each line as two syntactical halves, rather than one whole.)

Other readings I shared that I had never used before included Patricia Smith's "Prologue--and Then She Owns You" from Blood Dazzler, Mary Karr's "Obscenity Prayer," "Andrew Hudgins's "Air View of an Industrial Scene," Thomas Sayers Ellis's "Atomic Bride," excerpts from Maggie Nelson's Bluets, excerpts from Tarfia Faizullah's Seam, several of Mathias Svalina's "Creation Myths," "I Can't Swim" by Heather Christle, a section from Erin Belieu's "In the Red Dress I wear to Your Funeral," and Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess." 

Oh, and I came down really hard on the art of shaping a critical thesis. Because I'm a stickler for that, and I have three poets who must write a 25-page paper by the end of the term. Poet Donald Morrill gave an eloquent, distilled explanation of all that the literary essay can do; if you want inspiration to experiment, he is your man. I am the potatoes to his vodka. I wanna see your outline. 

Every residency includes three gatherings according to genre. For the Genre Workshops we riffed on the theme of Contemporary Ambition. I opened things up by working with the assigned reading from Stephen Burt's Close Calls with Nonsense, sharing his essays about "The Elliptical Poets" and "How to Read Very New Poetry." (If I'd had time, I would have passed out his sestina, "Six Kinds of Noodles.") Then it was my turn to be in the audience, listening to Steve Kistulentz explain what makes  Ultra-talk a bright, necessary part of today's poetics. In the closing session, Alan Michael Parker elegantly explained how to read  both "Thrteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," by Wallace Stevens, and Vasko Popa's "Little Box" sequence. 

Even on AMP's most fevered and flu-ish day (he actually flew home right after), I would pay good money to hear my colleague talk about poetry. I wasn't familiar with Popa's work. When I looked him up later, I was not surprised to find this appreciation from Charles Simic: "Encountering in Popa an exotic blend of avant-garde poetry and popular folklore, the foreign reader tends to think that this is what all poets from that part of the world must be like. In fact, no other Serbian poet sounds like Popa. He was both the product of his time and place and the inventor of his own world."

I'm offering notes on all of this here because I believe there is some mystery about what a "low-residency" MFA looks like, and I think it's important that we devote as much time to the mentorship of critical minds as we do to mending poems on the page. In an ideal world, immediately on the heels of being exposed to all these ideas, I would go hide away at a residency. I felt like that kid in The Far Side cartoon, "Can I be excused? My brain is full."  

One pleasure of teaching in Florida twice a year is the proximity to St. Petersburg, specifically The Dali Museum. Visit for the building alone--a phenomenal new space, all glass and concrete, with a rich backstory of the collection's assembly by Dali's devoted patrons A. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse.  One of my favorite Salvador Dali paintings is a quiet still life from when he was only 22, determined to demonstrate his mastery of Old World technique in the style of Vermeer.  

Salvador Dali, "Basket of Bread," 1926
Later in life, Dali would paint bread charged with the energy of eros and thanatos. But sometimes a bread basket is just a bread basket. For a while now I have been working on poems that celebrate flavor and sustenance--a good way to turn from the focus of Count the Waves, which pays more attention to the heart than the belly. The next round will be in Gravy, the journal of the Southern Foodways Alliance, this spring.

January 06, 2015


I have certain beloved New Year traditions, all centering on sloth. 

Ideally, December 31 involves a good movie, new pajamas, and maybe the snap-pop of a single party cracker; January 1 involves a spicy Bloody Mary (horseradish is key), updating my address book as I write holiday cards to friends, and browsing the unread literary journals accumulated in the previous year. But the reality of teaching in a low-residency graduate program is that early January is your gathering time. Which means my post-holiday is now fraught with student emails and seminar prep. 

Which means: all-nighters. 

Which means: snacks. 

My personal indulgence is tinned, smoked oysters, locating me somewhere aesthetically between Walt Whitman and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Not a bad place to be. 

Wasabi peas run a close second. 

The classic Triscuit / raw almond combo is a distant third.

Salmon roe stirred into rice and sprinkled with sesame seeds is good, but pricey. Anything sweet is too distracting, whether coconut sorbet or teriyaki seaweed. Folks mention popcorn as a favorite, and I can recognize the caloric motivation (volume without guilt), but there's no idea in something that leaves grease on the fingertips. I take this very seriously! There's an art to tactical snacking. 

The above illustration by Wendy MacNaughton appeared in a 2011 New York Times Book Review as "Snacks of the Great Scribblers." I was reminded of it by Leslie Pietrzyk, a fellow low-res teacher, DC-area writer, and blogger. Check out "Works-in-Progress," if you have not already--her latest post is a great discussion of strategies for revision. Leslie also edits Redux ("Work worth a second run"), an online literary journal devoted to posting things that originally appeared in print only. 

2015 holds the promise of all kinds of adventures. For now, just gotta keep working. So this is my quick, reasonably happy, utterly salty hello in the New Year. More to come.