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. 

September 19, 2018

Still Digging After All These Years

On Friday (September 14), I was gathered with a whole lot of DC-area folks at the downtown arena to hear Paul Simon's "Homeward Bound" farewell tour. He was great. The opening reworking of "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover" had a haphazard rhythm that had me a little worried, but it turned out to just be a huge spread of musicians--including a self-contained chamber group, yMusic--getting used to the stage and to each other. Their collaboration on a reworking of "Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War," which is on the new In the Blue Light album, was a highlight, as was all the Graceland material. Simon's vocals were by turns jaunty and weightless. We were on the floor, and it took real effort to train my eyes on the actual person versus the projected scene (compare the concert pic tableau on the left, above, to the detail of the actual Paul Simon below). 

In high school, I listened to "American Tune" over and over again--hitting the rewind button on my Walkman--but I never expected to hear Paul Simon sing it live. When he began, "Many's the time I've been mistaken, / and many times confused..." we had already been on our feet for the encore, and with eyes closed I didn't realize everyone around us had sat down. My husband had to tug on the back of my shirt. I'd be tempted to use a line from that song as an epigraph--for this very poetry collection in hand--but Stephen King got there first; he quotes "American Tune" at a section break in The Stand. 

All of which is to say that a month has passed since the last post. I'm weaning myself off daily listenings to the Hamilton soundtrack (which we saw on August 9; this was a good summer for tickets). I've left VCCA to return to our sweet little two-bedroom and the kitty, who is scowling at me lovingly as I type this. Whisky has discovered the glories of shredded chicken, and now expects to be fed a packet of it each morning and evening, which is going turn into an expensive habit. But given that only a couple of years ago I was agonizing over the very real possibility that she'd starve to death, I'll take it. 

Looming, humid skies and Flo-influenced rain have mostly kept the lid on any dramatic transition to autumn. But I'm working with U of Tampa MFA students on their thesis projects, and I've introduced American University undergrads to the first two of the six authors they'll get to meet this fall. Tonight we'll talk about Fatimah Ashgar's work in tandem with her visit to AU. So I suppose it's officially back-to-school time. I bought new pens (Pilot G2, .38 "fine" point). I changed out umbrellas. 

I'll miss out on going back to high school, though; my 20-year reunion for TJHSST is in October, but I'll be down in Oxford, Mississippi to launch Vinegar and Char: Verse from the Southern Foodways Alliance. That's a fair trade--the symposium is chock-full of amazing programming, and I'm so excited for this book to come into the world--but I'm sorry to miss seeing folks. Two decades out is when you kind of forget whatever boundary lines existed before. You're just happy to see anyone and everyone in their current incarnations. 

Early this morning, I was thinking about how the utility of blogging has changed a little bit since we first began this process. If I want to tell you about my upcoming reading with Emily Jungmin Yoon and Lindsay Bernal (this Saturday! East City Book Shop, 9/22, 5 PM) or share my excitement about receiving a 2018 "Best of the Net" nomination from Split This Rock for "Customer Service Is," I'll probably use other forms of social media to do so. If I want to blunder my way through a draft of a poem or essay, I'll keep it offline to preserve the publishing options. So this space becomes a space for...what, exactly? But this blog can host thoughts that fill larger spaces than 200-odd characters or a link + hashtag, for sure. Maybe open-ended grist for discussion, like Iggy Pop (circa 1980) telling Tom Snyder about the difference between "Dionysian" and "Apollonian" art. I got to this snippet via thinking about Paul Simon--who a commenter argued was of the "Apollonian" school. I suspect I am too, though I'd like to think I'm capable of raising a little hell on stage now and again. 

August 19, 2018

Back to VCCA

I'm happy to hide out at Virginia Center for Creative Arts in these waning days of summer. The first thing I noticed upon arrival was how green it smells--I love DC, but you don't get layers of flower, grass, and pine, nor so many butterflies. A frog that lurks outside my studio. There's a magnificent spider that I'm pretty sure is a brown widow, not a black one. I'm staying clear just in case. 

Because this is my fourth time here, it's easier to slip into a rhythm: I enjoy being social at breakfast or at lunch but not both. I knew to bring my own orange juice, my own blanket, and a bottle of scotch. I'm trying to spend only an hour a day on email, isolated to the leather couch in the living room. I've got a stack of books and lit mags to devour, and W8 has a comfy reclining chair. I'm happy to see a number of friends listed as past occupants. 

The first night I arrived (9 PM, after stopping off for dinner in Charlottesville), everything was absolutely dead quiet. I worried I'd be the only night-owl. Turned out everyone was just over at the Amherst County Fair, the first time they've had one here in over forty years. The next night, we adventured to the lake on Sweet Briar's campus to see a fellow's installation art (a prototype); another fellow read a story he'd written while here, and a third opened up her studio for an impromptu look at her paintings. 

This, I thought. I've missed this. Although I've traveled quite a bit for poetry since I was last at VCCA, there's nothing like being here. Then, last night, I headed over to the fair. 

I wish I could say this time is all about recharging creative energy. I have over 1,500 pages to evaluate (literally) of work not mine, some of which requires line edits. Yet this is also my chance to push-pin the pages of the fourth collection to the walls, and live amongst them. There's a distinct type of edit that gets done when I look at pages casually, skipping around, and compare adjacent shapes of poems. I catch redundancies of phrase I did not see before. 

I'm still deciding three sections or four, and which poem will close the manuscript. But my resolve holds: this book is a book. I'm excited to tell you more about it soon. 

August 06, 2018


I wrote a book this past week. Okay, to be precise, I finished it--what felt like a somewhat Herculean act of confronting every "TK" page in the collection (is it weird that I can sense, rhythmically, where poems will need to land? perhaps that is another discussion). I put the rest of my life on hold. I edited a handful. I rescued a poem from the abandoned archives via some drastic edits, wrote a prose-poem based on a field trip into the city, wrote a long one after a day's worth of immersive research, then wrote another short one, a kind of early-morning grace note. 

This doesn't mean that much, in the overall scheme of things. Now I second-guess myself. Now I send to a few trusted readers to second-guess for me. Three sections, fifteen poems per section, 68 pages total; all of this is negotiable, of course, though it's comforting to find measures equal to Count the Waves and I Was the Jukebox, my previous two collections. I'll want to place a few more poems in journals, and I'll need to draft a precis--a 1-2 paragraph introduction that distill's the book's thematic focus and makes a case for why people might want to read it. 

At the end of the month, I'm fortunate enough to head to Virginia Center for Creative Arts, push-pin pages to the walls, and live within the book's geometries. The time will feel stolen--departing the morning after my workshop for The Writer's Center ends, returning to DC the day before my American University class begins, and with University of Tampa work on my desk while I'm down there. But I'm going to make the best of things: hacking away on the page, reading voraciously, sleeping at odd hours, talking with other artists in the muck, wolfing down food without having to worry about the dishes (!), poeting. All that before I even think of sending to my editor in September. Who, in all honesty, might reject it. 

This book's arcs are particularly interesting to me. I knew I'd be engaging history in the American sense, but I hadn't anticipated the significant passages of personal time within the text. I wrote my own poems about Southern food traditions, not knowing I would get to edit Vinegar and Char: Verse from the Southern Foodways Alliance. I have poems that celebrate being constantly on the road, but I also have poems that embrace hunkering down in Washington, D.C. I wrote poems that reference a grandmother in her life, then in elegy. I've included two golden shovels--both of substantial length, because I use the entirety of a Gwendolyn Brooks text--substantially different in tone, because I've witnessed a conversation evolving around what a "golden shovel" is defined as, and how it is used. 

Am I writing poems with the political awareness I had in 2015? 2016? 2017? No. That awareness is always changing. So I think about an interlinear conversation between neighboring poems, between past and present. Usually I prioritize magazine placement, and I found a wonderful, generous showcase in Waxwing (with a few others queued up), but a third of these pages haven't been published and it might stay that way; they need context.  They make me nervous. They should.

Still: I wrote a book. If there's poets out there who get deals in advance--with the comfort of meeting the deadline as a makeshift victory--I don't know them. My bank account was at $5.27 earlier this week, after rent and health insurance and groceries, and poetry probably won't change that. We venture forward based only on our inner drive, our treasured absurdity. I wrote the book I needed to write.