December 31, 2016

Cultivating Space in 2017


Our apartment has gotten messy over this past year. 

The mess is for all the right reasons. The cat's perching corner is crowded with holiday cards from our friends and family. My husband has gotten music and more music. I've gotten books and more books. For the first time, I have teaching files--notes, lecture, handouts--of substance and value. Instead of slim little volumes of poetry, I keep ordering big fat anthologies of essays. The stovetop is coated in a sheen of olive-oil grease, because we cook more days than not. I've learned to cook salmon on this stove. I've made many soups from scratch (and a few from Soupergirl). One of my Tampa colleagues came through town and we had a three-course meal, seated at my grandmother's newly inherited dining table, drinking bourbon late into the night. My grandfather's eye chart, from his days as a naval doctor, is framed and hung on the wall. I've hosted poets for workshop here. My book club meets here. The cat has torn the couch's every edge to shreds, which seems to give her all measures of joy. We have a tray of delicate shells out, harvested from the beaches of Sanibel Island in November and then Kauai in December. 



We always have a vase of fresh flowers by the kitchen sink. We have an air plant named Sangria that lives, persistently and in flagrant defiance of our travels. My in-laws sent us a bowl, which joins the collection of other ceramics in shades of moss and mint and dusk. My husband got two new jackets. I got a hat. We both bought shoes. 





We get the Sunday New York Times and the New Yorker and New York and Oxford American and Gluten-Free and More and Washingtonian and Poetry and American Poetry Review and another handful of literary journals, and we hesitate to send any of it out the door unread. Most of the time, we really do read most of it....eventually. (If you want a reminder of what I'll be doing New Year's Day, here it is.)



In other words, this is a mess of luxury, and I am grateful for that. But gosh, it's a mess. So I've bought ten new hangers--sturdy wooden ones--as an incentive to tackle these closets, and I'm going to dig out my battered copy of Apartment Therapy: The Eight-Step Home Cure from under the bed. I actually used to visit the "Apartment Therapy" website daily, when I had a desk job. We even lived in a building, The Ontario, that has been featured in several (check out our onetime neighbor Scott's place). But eventually the emphasis on "cures" that seemed premised on a large budget and specifically, home ownership--the bold paint colors, the built-in shelves, the wall-anchored lighting--made visits more depressing than inspiring. The toughest thing about city life, for all if its rewards an day particular love of being in Southwest, is wondering if I'll have to give up ever having that room of one's own that all writers (and yes, perhaps particularly, women writers) crave. The last time I undertook this kind of measured, serious consideration of getting an apartment in order, we moved only three months later. So part of moving forward is valuing the process, and not fixating on the results as permanent or even long-lasting.

I celebrate clutter because I come from a family that loves knickknacks, collections, souvenirs. We still trade stocking shipped to overflowing each Christmas. We use items as a way of safeguarding memory and showing consideration for one another. My mother's pantry still has a stockpile of Sandra-friendly foods, free of my allergens, that she always keep on hand in duplicate in case they were ever discontinued. 


Yet I celebrate spaces that are bared, minimal, cleared. I crave them. Having every available space stuffed to the gills--even when a room is quirky, cleverly decorated, squared away neatly--makes me sad in some way I can't fully articulate. I'll try: I believe that unless your household showcases at least some empty spaces, you're not showing the universe that there is an room for new things to come into your life. An empty bowl or shelf is not a barren space so much as waiting opportunity. 


2016 was not a year of questions, not answers; what answers we did receive were, as a larger culture, pretty hard to absorb. I'm not prioritizing the decluttering of a home as a bulwark to avoid the much tougher challenges of supporting my communities, advocating for those who face oppression from even our very own government, and pushing for change. But I'm saying that we all need to tend our gardens, if we want the crops to thrive. Sometimes that means hunkering down in the soil (or in our case, the jute dust and cat hair) and getting to work. There's no way around it. 


But with that work, I create space. Into that space, I keep writing. See you in 2017.





December 06, 2016

Brand-new Paperback and...Videopoems!

As a teenager, I played SimCity. Obsessively. I went to a high school for science and technology. I used to look for any excuse to design a flyer; I built my own website (and have rebuilt it three times over). In other words, there is a part of me that relishes hours spent quietly tinkering in front a computer screen. The first time I made videopoems, I did so as a way of burning off creative energy--nervousness, really-- while I waited for I Was the Jukebox to come into the world. 

I had never worked in iMovie before, so I made a few rookie errors. For example, you'll find two different versions of my video for "Vocation" on YouTube (one ideal for blog display, one widescreen), which means I accidentally split my hit count. My image resolution is not quite up to snuff, and the audio is tinny at times. But I'll never forget the first time I watched as a high-school teacher cued up the video for "I Don't Fear Death" while students took their seats, and realized This is a way in.

Not every student dives into a poem based on the words alone. Some get frustrated when they're reading to themselves and get to a word they can't pronounce. Some need the stimulation of images, the pacing of music. Some immediately turn their thoughts about how they'd illustrate one of their poems and, frankly, how it would be way better than what you've done. I'll take it. I'll take anything that gets them engaged. 

In one week--on December 13--the paperback edition of Count the Waves makes its debut in the world. I feel so fortunate to have a hardback run as part of working with W. W. Norton. But the truth is, the affordable paperback is what makes it onto a syllabus and into a classroom. I love these poems, and as I've written about here before, I feel strongly that the best way to ensure a poem's survival is to teach it to the next generation of readers and writers. So, what can I do for this book? 

I can remind people that there are six sestinas, including the title poem, with varying degrees of play in their endwords and lineation, which makes the collection a great way to consider the tradition and flexibility of that form. 

I can be available to Skype with your students (I am!) or do Q&A over email (I am!).

I can point out that Count the Waves is in dialogue with the new anthology The Traveler's Vade Mecum, edited by Helen Klein Ross. The long story short is that my engagement with the series began in response to her solicitation. I just happened to keep writing TVM poems, ultimately two dozen in all. 

So if students were to go back to the original 1853 compendium by A.C. Baldwin (the complete text of which can be found online), pick a phrase, and write a "Traveler's Vade Mecum" poem of their own, they'd be conversing not only with me but with Frank Bidart, Billy Collins, Huang Fan, Denise Duhamel, Hailey Leithauser, Dan Vera, Ann Fisher-Wirth, and a bunch of others. 

I can keep paying it forward--promoting the new and forthcoming books I love by others--because I believe that to give to a community is to get a community.


And I can make videopoems. 

Returning to the realms of iMovie, I found that there were many more ways to tweak and enhance the performance. Fingers crossed that makes for better videos, though I'll let you be the judge. Exporting to YouTube or Vimeo is significantly easier; "processing," which used to take hours, now takes minutes.


Istockphoto.com was boughtby Getty, which is a bummer because the pricing is much more aggressive, and some of the quirkier contributions have been pared from the collection. On the other hand, the quality control is much better. I just had to get clever about making my purchases as efficient as possible, and looking elsewhere for free images. I also took advantage of some neat new transition effects embedded into iMovie. 


Kevin MacLeod is still my personal hero when it comes to offering royalty-free music. But his Incompetech can be a little maddening to navigate. I was thrilled to see that he has upgraded to taking part in a spiffier website, Free Music Archive, which offers an incredible variety of options categorized by genre and searchable in terms of length. 


I keep my videos short, under two minutes, but that's just a personal preference. Also, I feel strongly that the best results come when you can find a piece of music whose length genuinely matches your voiceover, versus cropping something down. There's a magic to how the crescendos and shifts in pacing--of an artwork created independently of your poem--can accent the turns in the text. (Somewhere in there lies a theory of the organic volta.)


I still do a lot of fussing. I still worry they're not perfect. But here they are. Note that the screenshots are just that; the active links to YouTube are below each image. 














Video poetry has a spectrum of aesthetics. Other examples that you might enjoy...

Jason got me excited about making videopoems again, including commiserating on how to source images and introducing me to Unsplash.com.
Check out his other video, "Twilight."

For many of us, Kate is the original inspiration point. I love the intimacy of these. 

The doubling format of text and audio allows McCabe to enact the translation process.

The illustrations for this are fluid and wonderful. This deserves a LOT more views.

This is another tribute to the power of original art created for a video.

In this case, the custom-composed music is particularly compelling.

Did you know there were prizes for videopoems? This one won the O'Bheal International Poetry Film Competition at IndieCork Festival, Ireland, 2016.

Sometimes simple is best: the poet addressing the camera, sharing a bit of cultural context or a story behind the poem. A perfect option if you're working with an iPhone.

...And sometimes, a poem can represent the contributions of an entire community.

Using the hashtag #BlackPoetsSpeakOut returns a number of powerful recorded readings.

The creation of the poem's text, "letterpress in salt," becomes the activating image.

This is technically the record of a live production that included performance of Baroque music; it shows how powerful layering multiple levels of sensory information can be.


The example in the link is "The Giraffes at the Lincoln Park Zoo," by Anna Leahy

The example in the link is "Wonder Woman Dreams of the Amazon" by Jeannine Hall Gailey


Motionpoems, the Minneapolis nonprofit founded by poet Todd Boss, creates high-quality short films by working with outside production teams. In recent years they have taken to collaborating with another organization  (such as Cave Canem, or VIDA) for a "season" of videos at a time. A few favorites:








The best singular index of what is out there can be found at Moving Poems, which Dave Bonta and a team of collaborators has put years of work into developing, maintaining, and updating. The alphabetical roster of poets with videopoems is particularly great if you're shaping a syllabus and you want to incorporate visual elements. You can suggest additions to the archive (yourself or someone else) here.

In other words, there's a lot of people out there who can talk to your students about making videopoems. But if you end up sharing my work with them, let me know! I'd be happy to talk through my thoughts on the process.

There are also writers who have created ongoing series of video-essays that integrate audio and film elements, are variations on "intermedia," or document staged and performance art, all as a substantial component of their artistic work--Jillian Weise's side persona as Tipsy Sullivan, Kenzie Allen, and Karrie Higgins all come to mind--as well as the Southern Spaces "Poets in Place" series, which documents poets reading their work in settings that inspired them. Those writers deserve their own discussion for another day, but check out the links in the meantime. 

November 29, 2016

Variations on Self-Care

When I saw the advertisement for a "soup subscription," I thought Yes! Soup. This is the right time of year for that. After the elections, a local poet-friend sent a note to all in which our need to gather, vex, and rally was entirely summed up in the statement: "I want to make soup for you." We gathered together at her place on a Friday night, drinking wine and eating eggplant soup; and when the eggplant soup was gone, she made lentils. 

So I signed up--happy to support a local businessNot until yesterday did I realize this is a soup cleanse. Twenty containers, cued sequentially right down to time of day. 


Not gonna happen. But the good new is, soup! Fresh, handmade, vegan, meticulously labeled. Well, except for that one container...which by process of elimination contains either 1) Brazilian Black Bean, or 2) an elaborate assassination attempt. 

Option #2 would be a waste of the side of rice I cooked in shallots and garlic.

Writers are a vocal group on social media, and I've seen many pronouncements in which radio silence is equated to "self-care." On one hand, you have to get the oxygen mask on yourself before you can help those around you. On the other hand, taking care of yourself can't be your excuse to opt out of painful dialogues. You're doing nothing to complicate your privilege if you think of worrying as something you can put aside for a day, versus having it be an involuntary part of your existence. A lot of people are eyeballing panicky white liberals and thinking, Oh, now you're upset?

Soup. Sleep. A vase of $5 tulips that stand ramrod straight one day, and swerve like drunkards the next. 43-minute workouts whenever I can (which is exactly the length of one Chopped episode.) Petting my cat in the morning, when she curls up beside my pillow and stares out the window. The cranes are erecting a building in the adjacent lot, one beam at a time. They're the strangest birds she has ever seen. 

I read the manuscript for a neighbor's brilliant nonfiction book, which will be published in 2017. I renewed my Politics & Prose membership. I subscribed for another year to three different literary journals. In defiance of all practical logistics, I will be hosting thirty women writers for lunch at the Arts Club of Washington this Friday. I worked for few days straight on a soon-to-be-revealed creative project in celebration of Count the Waves' paperback release on December 13.

I made a few donations. I made a few phone calls. But there is so much more to do. I can do so much more. All of these gestures of self-care are important, but the truth is that I feel strongest--no, I am strongest--when acting out of concern for others rather than myself. 

I've never been very good at half-measures. I'm a perfectionist, drawn to dramatic outcomes and absolutes. If I have three hours' worth of work to do, I'll wait until I've got three hours free. That means letting a lot of free hours go to waste in the meantime, rather than logically doing an hour here and an hour there until the work is done. 

But that's not how advocacy gains a foothold. You show up, even when no one is there to witness it. You chip away. You pester. You celebrate the two steps forward even as you're taking one step back. You don't aim to be perfect, you aim to be present. 

Much of the past few years, for me, has been about articulating the particular political and social concerns I have in the world. (Not that "liberty and justice for all" isn't a good start, but you have to get specific.) If I want to look back on this life with any kind of pride, I have to shelve my distaste for half-measures for the privilege it is, and center advocacy part of my daily practice. 

At the very least, I have the time to spare that it would have taken to make soup.