March 16, 2018

An Open Letter to the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities

Dear Director Espinoza, Commissioners and DCCAH Staff

In the wake of the passing of our long tenured and highly respected Poet Laureate Dolores Kendrick, many in the poetry and writing community have wondered about the process by which her successor will be selected.

The Washington Post’s assessment of Kendrick, that she was “little known outside of Washington and the classrooms of Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire” belies both her legacy and the stature of the Washington, D.C. literary community. The significance of Washington, D.C. as an incubator and champion of poetry’s power is rooted in a deep history of publishing, performing, archiving and engagement, and its stature has grown considerably during the years of Ms. Kendrick’s term as Poet Laureate.

This dynamic and diverse D.C. poetry community (represented by the undersigned) that next Poet Laureate will inherit would like to know who is overseeing the selection process for that individual and what community outreach has or will be done as a part of that process. The current nomination and selection process does not appear to be publicly articulated. We ask, in the interest of transparency, that it be made public. And if there is a panel to be formed, we strongly advocate that a significant portion of the panel, if not half of the members, be selected from the D.C. poetry community—fully utilizing the existing wealth of knowledge regarding the District’s poetry history. In addition, many believe it would be worthwhile to reconsider the nature of the appointment (tenure, expectations and accessible resources) to assure that it effectively and fairly represents the dynamism and inclusivity of our community and the District at large.

So many of the poets in this community are organizers and activists, and thus we know that more important than institutions or titles is the community’s buy-in and support of initiatives. We thank the D.C. government for keeping the position of Poet Laureate active, and—in our gratitude—we would like to make available our insights and plethora of experiences to assure that the nation’s capital has one of America’s most vibrant Poet Laureateships.

Please contact professor Kyle Dargan of American University for further discussion of how to facilitate future dialogue with D.C. poetry community members on this matter.


Kyle G. Dargan, Ward 7
DCCAH Individual Artist Fellow
Associate Professor of Literature
Asst. Director of Creative Writing
American University

Silvana Straw, Ward 3
DCCAH Larry Neal Award winner & Individual Artist Fellow

Sandra Beasley, Ward 6
Literary Programming Coordinator, Arts Club of Washington
Three-time DCCAH Individual Artist Fellow

Topher Kandik, Washington, D.C.
SEED Public Charter School
2016 D.C. Teacher of the Year

Kim Roberts, Ward 4
DCCAH Individual Artist Fellow
Founder & Editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly
Editor Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC

Dan Vera, Ward 5
Board Co-chair, Split This Rock Foundation

Regie Cabico, Ward 1
Poet Educator, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Susan Scheid, Washington, D.C.
Board Co-chair, Split This Rock Foundation

Melanie Henderson, Ward 5
Poet & Founding Member of Tidal Basin Press
4th Generation Washingtonian

Natalie Illum, Ward 1
Founding board member, mothertongue
2013 Beltway Grand Slam Champion

Margaux Delotte-Bennett, Ward 5
2010 Larry Neal Poetry Finalist

Jonathan B. Tucker, Ward 5
DCCAH grantee and fellowship artist
Poet, Teaching Artist, Arts Organizer

Alicia Gregory, Ward 1
Poet & Arts Administrator

Myra Sklarew, Bethesda, MD
Emerita Faculty & MFA Program Founder
American University

Derrick Weston Brown
Adjunct Professor of English Prince George's Community College
Inaugural Poet-In-Residence of Busboys and Poets (2005-2015)

Reginald Dwayne Betts, New Haven, CT
Former educator at Hart Middle School and Ballou Senior High School

Carolyn Forché, Bethesda, MD
Professor, Georgetown University

Sunil Freeman, Chevy Chase, MD
Former Assistant Director, The Writer’s Center

Bridget Warren, University Park, MD
Longtime owner of Vertigo Books and literary programmer

Abdul Ali
Lecturer, Department of English
Howard University

Alan King, Bowie, MD
Former Teacher at Duke Ellington School of the Arts

Heather Davis, Front Royal, VA
Poet and returning D.C. resident

March 01, 2018


Readers may have picked up on this before, but my inbox is my to-do list. I rarely have more that twelve emails in it at a time because, yes, I avoid the unlucky thirteen. If I agree to do something for you (or with you) that requires two or three to-do simultaneous emails, I get cagey really fast because you're probably pushing me over my inbox limit. 

Occasionally an email crosses over from being a "to-do" to being a "ghost." A haunting. Every day I see it, and every day I wonder why I haven't responded to it yet. Typically there is just the one. 

Up until December of 2017, my ghost email had the subject line "My mother died, I am writing poems," and the email dated back to July 2015.

What type of jerk doesn't reply to that email, I ask you? Or rather, I asked myself. At least once a week. For a year and a half. 

Then I'm in a meeting, and a colleague mentions she has been in ongoing correspondence with the author of this email. Who happens to be a famous and influential author, someone you admire greatly. Everyone gushes. 

What type of idiot doesn't reply to that email, I ask you? Or rather, I asked myself. 

The first time we met, we didn't meet. He give the opening remarks at a ceremony where I later got...third place. He had to rush out to catch a plane before the results were mentioned, so he probably doesn't know I'm a bronze talent and nothing more. 

The second time we met, it was after a friend emailed to say he'd featured a sestina of mine on his website. I was delighted to introduce myself at the tail-end of an AWP panel and hear him say to others. "She's a great poet!" This will be a highlight of my conference. Later, in an email, he will admit he was stoned on Valium at that point due to a pre-existing injury.

I am trying to figure out why I spent hours, hours, reading and re-reading the concerns about Sherman Alexie this past week. Why I feel so soul-hollowed. Why I picked a fight with my husband last night (this probably isn't Alexie's fault; it has been a crap week).

In revisiting this email, I re-read emails we'd exchanged. Mostly his one-liners proportioned to my nervous, highly edited three paragraphs. How are the poems coming? Once, a snapshot of a stanza of mine and the comment that I'd "murdered" him. Once, the challenge regarding my photo: "You look way too happy. Need more suffering poet." (That was funny. I laughed.) Me, joking in return, sometimes with an edge, but never too explicit; that's how these games are played. 

Because I'm searching for his name, another email comes up: the request to reprint my comments on one of his poems in an anthology. I say Yes, because I am a huge fan. For the single most difficult course of my MFA education, I wrote a final exam annotating "The Business of Fancydancing." I got an A in that class. 

I finish this dive into the archives and I'm a little confused. When prompted with his poem, and actually his two elegies--an email one day, then another the next--why did I freeze up? Why didn't I just send him a damn poem in return? Why didn't I at least send condolences?

There is something you aren't finding, I think. I do the deeper dive, and that's when they come up, emails from the first email address in 2012 before the two other email addresses (his account has been compromised, he explains), the ones from Father Arnold. "You are an awesome poet. This is a very short fan letter," he says. It seems true! Maybe it is true. He pays attention to my work line by line. 

The new draft he shares is ostensibly about spectacles, pictured as bare legs intertwined in a bed. The second "quick poem" he shares is a couplet about adult love. His phrase. He says he's working with his shrink to understand the concept. Because I am fancy-dancing, I send a text in return--a poem already written, one about my future husband--and he replies gracefully. Then he goes silent for a while.  

When the surfaced with poems about loss, I couldn't reply. Because on some level I wondered if this was a kind of grooming. Because I knew that no matter how ably I rose to the challenge, at first, sooner or later I'd give something away that I did not want to give. Because I'd be trying to impress him. Because I am a huge fan. 

Sometimes the cloak is praise.

Sometimes the cloak is humor.

Sometimes the cloak is grief.

Sometimes the person doesn't even realize he (not always a he) is cloaking intent. 

Sometimes (s)he/they doesn't realize what the intent will turn out to be. Sometimes a person is genuine, and yet a charmer, and an abuser, and yet a survivor of abuse, and a valuable poet, and yet an oppressor of poets, all in one. We contain multitudes. 

I hope people step forward with their stories, if the right choice for them, because it can be unburdening to be heard by your community. We are listening, we are here. We cannot allow the mourning of those who have "failed" us, who have lost our good faith, to obscure what was really lost: the words of talents who felt violated, suppressed, and threatened by the energy of someone more powerful than them. 

My story is not a trauma narrative. I am not claiming that space. This is just what I happen to have to say.

February 14, 2018

Evolution of a Valentine

Today, a student walked into my office at Wichita State University and wanted to talk about sestinas. Yes, please! We got to this place from her interest in poems that channeled crime, noir, and sustained narrative, which had led me to suggest Jim and Dave Defeat the Masked Man, by David Lehman and James Cummins.

The sestina was a new form to her. She had looked up the basics of the history and patterning of end words. From there, we talked about organic modes to which the sestina might lend itself--poems of fixation, of worrying--and looked at a few favorite examples. 

Since she seemed a bit nervous about the process, I offered to show her some drafting notes from way back when. I first scanned these to appear in Issue Two of Pelorus Press, a nifty resource for anyone interested in tracking the art of literary editing. 

First, scribblings during a long road trip to visit Sarah Lawrence. (The future founding editors of Pelorus were in that class, which belonged to Jeffrey McDaniel.)

I was reaching for words with some syntactical flexibility--"saw," for example, or "time" / "thyme"--but otherwise I wasn't committed to an idea. At some point I flipped the page over and tried to distill my options. 

Out of this play, one image had arisen: a martini with one of those inexpensive cocktail swords. Did that mean this poem would be set in a bar? Not necessarily, but I was in the setting of a bar when I picked up my drafting a few hours later. 
Always a little painful for me to read through the roughest of rough drafts, since many of the phrasings veer toward emotional and placeholder language ("AKA me"). But at least the wheels are turning. In particular, I was weighing whether the speaker would directly address the object of his desire. I had realized that if I wanted to use "act," the speaker needed to have an actual act of some kind. 
For me, the litmus test is those first two stanzas. If I can place the end words first voluntarily, then as directed by the form--if I justify the reflexive moment, transitioning between stanzas 1 and 2--I get excited. Here a conversational mode facilitates the required echo of "time." I still haven't figured out the central conflict: yes, his job might be a deterrent to dates. Yes, there might be humor in tracking how a child trains to become a sword-swallower. But what's the real-time risk going to be?
I've moved from lined notepad to trusty template--a document that lives on my desktop for when I'm playing with the scaffolding of this form. The child's prop has changed from chopstick to butter-knife. Although committed to POV, I'm still trying to decide tense. The toughest part of the sestina looms, stanzas 4/5. This is where you have to change it up; the sestina is a marathon, not a sprint. 
After a lifetime of avoiding bloodshed, the speaker now craves this sign of vulnerability that is embedded in love. Stanza 5 re-harnesses the power of endstops. That elusive "oil," which proved unwieldy as an endword, gets a chance to appear. (Only after I spend an afternoon researching the art of sword-swallowing, and discover that the camellia oil on the blade is borrowed from samurais.) "Saw," the first word I scribbled before this was even sure it could be a poem, is also where I get to land. I've probably read the poem aloud twenty of thirty times at this point, as part of the revision process.  

What interests me about the form is the push-pull between the control you have (choosing end words) and the control you surrender (the narrative spun out by those end words). This poem is one of six sestinas that appears in Count the Waves. I ultimately obscure the stanza breaks, because I want it to read like a dramatic monologue. That version can be found here. I'm glad to look back and be reminded of how I found my way from draft to draft. I'm grateful that a poet walked out of my office ready to tackle her own sestina. Though I am 1,253 miles away from my husband, that's all the valentine I need.