September 28, 2009

Carrots, Tomatoes, and Narwhals

I've missed you guys.

On Thursday I was in New York for, among other things, the Best American Poetry 2009 launch reading at the New School. (Credit Bill Hayward for this dramatic photo of Mark Doty, reading.) I was particularly caught off guard--and delighted by--poems from Mark Bibbins, Susan Blackwell Ramsay, Mitch Sisskind, and Craig Morgan Teicher. I finally got to meet Martha Silano, who gets my eternal admiration for letting out a wildcat scream on stage (in context, kinda). I was sorry David Wagoner couldn't be there, because I think he's put together one of the best editions of BAP in years.

At the after-party I met Molly Peacock and fawned like a gradeschooler. What else could I do? This woman was saying smart, inspiring things about form at a time when I was considering chucking my scansion skills out the window, frustrated that in the post-grad world I could find no sympathetic voice. She saved that part of the poet in me.

Still in star-struck mode, I told John Ashbery that I'd heard him give a great reading at Washington's Folger Poetry Series not too long ago. "You seduced every woman in the room," I said, "and half the men."

"I did not know that," he said, seeming unperturbed by the revelation.

Just in case you were wondering, if you ever need to take the 3 AM regional train home do NOT assume you can hang out at Penn Station beforehand. Sketch, as we'd say in college. Seriously sketch. There were three drunk men in my car; too loud to let me sleep, too aggressive for me to be visibly awake. But it was worth the trip.

Friday I was in Baltimore to see a recitation of Edgar Allen Poe's "Berenice" staged at, suitably enough (given the speaker's session with his love's pearly whites), the National Museum of Dentistry. It was a persuasive and focused performance, though it would have been even better if it could have been staged in the authentic Surgical Theater instead of the lobby. They clearly meant for it to be kid-friendly, complete with refreshments in the form of licorice mustaches and gummi worms. Who am I to turn down a good worm?

As a bonus, an upstairs exhibit upstairs featured narwhals, including an authentic tusk (i.e. tooth). As an extra bonus, I got into B'more in time to stop off at the Book Festival and catch Kiki Petrosino (a friend from UVA days) read in support of the debut of Fort Red Border from Sarabande Books. Her first collection's title is, yes, an anagram of "Robert Redford."

After "Berenice" my friend and I found our way to the Owl Bar at the Belvedere hotel. Although it's been slightly adulterated by a pizza oven and some flatscreened TVs, this ground-level bar's speakeasy roots are clearly visible, complete with two prominent owl statues whose yellow eyes would have, in the day, flashed to alert patrons of incoming police. The brick work was lovely--rich geometric patterns in not only rouge, but navy and green--alternating with vintage stained glass windows. We drank Dalmore. All was right in the world.

Saturday should have been my day of rest. Instead I took an unexpected daytrip to Beltsville, MD, to rescue my digital camera from the clutches of FedEx Home Delivery. A one-hour errand that took three times as long, in the rain, reducing me to tears, and only barely (by the grace of an employee working after hours) turned out to be a success. We will not speak of it again.


I eased the tension of Saturday with a night of cooking...and so I segue to this gratuitous recipe. The easiest thing ever, and--I love this--I got it off a TV show. A note to Alton Brown: whoever claims that this generation of "food programming" has stunted our cooking skills has clearly never seen "Good Eats." I salute you.

Ginger-Glazed Carrots (recipe adapted for maximum convenience)

1 lb. bag of "baby" carrots
1 teaspoon olive oil
Heavy pinch of salt
1 cup ginger ale (Seagrams-quality is fine)
1/2 teaspoon chili powder

In a 12 inch sauce pan over medium heat, combine the carrots, oil, salt, and ginger ale. Cover and bring to a simmer. Once simmering, remove the lid, stir, and reduce heat to low. Cover again and cook for 5 minutes. Remove the lid, add chili powder and increase heat to high. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the ginger ale is reduced to a glaze, approximately 5 minutes. Serve immediately--but they taste good cold, as well.

...this recipe is particularly handy because carrots are one of those perpetually stocked items (in my fridge) that sometimes go to waste. If a bag is on the cusp of going unused, this is a saving grace. I've tried cooked-carrot recipes before, usually with maple syrup or honey, and they always felt too "candied." This variation preserves the vegetable value, adding a tinge of sweetness and spice.


I was remiss in not posting a link to an interview I did the other week with Russell Bittner, over at Long Story Short. One excerpt, which provides the backstory to my poem "Cherry Tomatoes":

"SB: As I mention sometimes at readings, this poem originated with a prompt from the poet Dana Roeser during her Jenny McKean Moore Workshop at George Washington University. She had covered the table with objects from the natural world—shells, rocks, dried flowers, fruit—and asked each student to take up an object as the subject of an ode. Since I tend to be a little rebellious when it comes to prompts; what I wrote was the anti-ode of “Cherry Tomatoes.”

In first approaching the draft, I simply fixated on the bilious properties of tomatoes: the way they go bad, their squishiness even when good, the liminality of being both fruit and vegetable. On a craft level, I wanted to see if I could use enjambment to recreate the momentum of biting into a tomato—the eruption—and also, explore how many different metaphors the object could occupy without overcrowding the poem. (Pablo Neruda had a really good eye for such balances.) The disposable container became a coffin; the guts, “blood of a perfect household”; each globe, a skinned sunset.

But as I started to think about how I came by those impressions, and about how so often eating habits and biases are inherited traditions, the domestic drama came into focus. For so many families, food becomes a meeting ground (or, for some families, a battleground). “Cherry Tomatoes” felt like the right lead-off to the first section of Theories of Falling, which focuses on childhood and utilizes a fair amount of autobiographical material."

You can find the whole thing here. Thanks, Russell!

September 23, 2009

Asked & Answered

Are you in the area tomorrow? If so, head over to the Fall for the Book to hear poets Paula Bohince and Brian Teare at 3 PM (M&T Bank Tent, Outside the Johnson Center). Teare will read from Sight Map and Bohince will read from Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods.

I was so, so thrilled to have a chance to interview Paula for the "First Person Plural" blog of the Writer's Center. You can find the full interview here; I'll include part of our conversation below, in which Paula talks about mentorship received from Galway Kinnell.

SB: I'm struck by the depth and complexity of your first collection, Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods. What are some of your key influences--professors, beloved books--and how are they reflected in these poems?

PB: "Thank you, Sandra, for saying that. I’ve been lucky to have had a number of incredible professors, including Philip Levine, Sharon Olds, Marie Ponsot, Mark Doty, Lynn Emanuel, and Agha Shahid Ali. I think, for brevity’s sake, I’ll concentrate on Galway Kinnell, who was my MFA thesis advisor at NYU and whose presence might be most evident in the book, both by his books and his teaching.

During my last semester of graduate school, Galway and I would meet weekly in a coffee shop near school. We’d go over my poems line by line, side by side, and talk about word choice, about simplicity, about creating a musical line, about thoughtful description. I remember making a lazy description of a snake moving through grass, and he said very gently, “You know, poets have been trying for centuries to describe the way that a snake moves.” And we were both quiet for a minute. That moment felt very humbling and generous to me. He made me want to go more slowly, to be more thoughtful. In the book, I describe a snake in “The Gospel According to Paul,” and I thought about Galway when writing it. After those meetings, after school ended, I wanted to begin fresh. The only poems in the book that began in graduate school are “Trespass” and “First Day of the Hunt.”

I learned so, so much from Galway and his kindness toward me and my work, from his time and attention given to my rough poems. I thought of him often during the writing of this book and continue to do so, especially during revision when I have those WWGD questions. Wondering what he’d find necessary or obfuscating. How he would respond to a particular music. I feel such kinship, via his poems, with his vision of the natural world. I always return to his books when I’m feeling lost, when I need to be grounded in the qualities that I want my poems to have."

Hark Ye Herald Angels...

This just in & awesome: Ted Scheinman, one of my a capella "Romeos," emerges from the ether to respond to Sunday's XX File over at the new incarnation of the Washington City Paper's Arts Beat blog.

September 20, 2009

XX Filing

From the Sunday, September 20 edition of "XX Files" in the Washington Post Magazine...

A melody rose above Dupont Circle's Friday-night revelry: "See-ya-HAHM-ba koo-ka nyeh-ne kwen-kos . . ." I grinned, recognizing the lyrics to "Siyahamba." Most of the girls at the party had met in high school choir; we'd bonded over heartbreaks caused by earnest tenors and curly-haired basses. I scanned the street for the culprits.

"Hey! Hey there!" I shouted. They looked up: college Romeos in shaggy haircuts. What makes a capella boys so crush-worthy? Maybe that there's no dub, no remix, just the vulnerability of naked voices. I felt like Juliet, a teenager leaning from her balcony. "Want to come up and sing?"

"Uh," Dave said, "What are you doing?"

...To read the rest, click here.

September 18, 2009


In pool, you use english to control the speed and impact of the cue ball after making control with the object ball (a.k.a. target); you control spin by hitting it to one or the other side of center. You also learn tricks--essentially, applied geometry--to line up your bank shots. When I was very young, my father taught me these techniques using the same language that my grandfather had used to teach him some many years before.

And I was good. I was short, I didn't always follow through, and I hadn't decided between and an under-index or over-thumb grip. But I was pretty damn good. Enough so that my uncle made a sawed-off cue stick (appropriate to my height) and carved "Sandy B." into the handle.

Somewhere in my early 20s, I lost it. Maybe it's just that everyone else got better, and I had plateaued. But I have a more spcific diagnosis: I started overthinking. I took too long on my shots, and was too afraid to fail. I'd lost faith in my instincts. I chose postures that were sexy, as I leaned over the table, versus effective.

Our teenage years are a time of constant improvisation. We are at the whim of our seemingly cruel parents, the looming demands of college and careers, fickle friends, hormonal love. Sometime in our twenties we reach a point of control and think this is adulthood. We have a paycheck. We use recipes. We make time to work out.

Then, sometime in your late twenties or early thirties, you take a risk. Maybe it's having a kid. Maybe it's moving in with someone, or quitting a job you tolerate but don't love. And everything goes...haywire. Your place gets dirty. A bill goes unpaid. You answer a friend in a way that's quick and rude--honest, sure, but quick and rude. You think am I regressing?


This week, a juggernaut: class at the Corcoran, reading at the Arts Club, article due to the Washington Post. Things that could go wrong did go wrong. I had to be curt. Cars broke down. People flaked out. I bridged with my thumb, and when that didn't work, I steadied with my index, and when that didn't work I (so to speak) employed my middle finger. I may still be waiting to learn how very wrong some things went. But I'm here, I'm fed, I'm clothed, I just discovered my book has been reviewed by Sarah Vap--a poet I really admire, and therefore a particular thrill. Thank you, Hayden's Ferry Review.

Tonight, a poetry reading. Tomorrow, horse races.

Maybe I'm reclaiming my english. Maybe it's okay to not always make the perfect shot; maybe it's okay to take the slop sometimes. Just sink it in the damned pocket and move on.

September 15, 2009

Where I'll Be

UPDATE: A bit of very good news from the Poetry Foundation...

Wednesday, September 16 - 7 PM:

Arts Club of Washington, 2017 I Street NW, DC. (Farragut West Metro, Orange/Blue line)

The Arts Club hosts Jean Valentine and Dave Smith for a celebration of the influential Southern poet Eleanor Ross Taylor, in conjunction with the release of Taylor’s Captive Voices: New and Selected Poems, 1960-2008. Valentine is the current State Poet of New York; Smith is the author of 20 books of poetry and prose. Both will read selections from Taylor’s work as well as their own. Open to the public; reception and booksigning to follow.


September 10, 2009

"My Own Private Tailhook"

Okay, I just finished reading what may be the most callous and obnoxious article I've read in a mainstream magazine this year, courtesy of Marie Claire and essayist Lea Goldman. A sample "witticism":

Thankfully, I married a guy who can't keep his hands off my, ahem, generous curves; walking around him naked invites relentless poking and prodding—my own private Tailhook.

(No, I'm not a regular MC reader--I followed Jezebel's lead.)

The Jezebel commentary focuses on the actual validity of criticizing women's locker-room hygiene. Since I don't frequent them, I don't have a take on that. What interests me is how this article got so off track. Writing humor ain't easy, and Goldman's only 32: she's not a seasoned writer. I wonder if there's a decent personal essay here--on boundary issues in the locker room--that got buried under some tonal missteps, when she was trying to get a laugh and made the joke too broad, or the judgment too harsh.

Though there's really nothing defensible about a description that includes "nipples the size of salami slices." Sigh.

The commenter response reminds me, a little bit, of the disgust expressed in response to this article by Rachel Beckman, from last year's Washington Post Magazine Wedding Issue, about her efforts to encourage her boyfriend to propose. In trying self-deprecate and play herself off as the buffoon, the author came off as a shrew.

I've been there. Sometimes I've reviewed a first draft of an XX Files column and thought Jeez, that girl sounds high-strung. Never a good sign when you ARE that girl.

But here's why there's no excuse: that's what second drafts are for. And third drafts. And editors. Sure, maybe the writer is still learning the ropes--but what's Marie Claire's excuse?

Act Like You Can't Tell Who Made This

Why is it that when I have the most things to report...I fall off the blogging beam? For that matter, the best parties are the ones of which I have the fewest photographs.


Tomorrow I'll travel to New York and meet with my editor at Crown before the Boog City reading. It'll be a chance to get feedback on the first portion of the nonfiction book--correcting the course, if needed, before I stray too far from the balance of memoir and journalism that is demanded by the topic of food allergies. Receiving feedback in person can be great when it's in expansive, elastic terms. It's excruciating in terms of line edits. Why didn't we realize that back in the days of MFA workshop, and curb our feedback accordingly? Seems so clear in hindsight.


Remember my misguided efforts to track down a certain Pulitzer-winning author in her Queens apartment? Well, the profile is finally out in Columns, the Alumni Magazine of the University of Washington, which is pretty damn exciting--my first cover story. An excerpt:

"Forget the farmhouse with its wide veranda. Forget the fields of corn so often used to evoke Iowa City, where Marilynne Robinson spends most of each year as a fiction professor at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Picture instead an apartment complex in Queens, complete with mesh security gate, the cheerfully bedraggled bushes of a community courtyard, and four flights of narrow stairs.

For a few months, Robinson, '68, '77, is calling this place home—not as a Pulitzer Prize-winning author but as a grandmother, temporarily relocated to New York to spend all the time she can with her first grandchild. "A girl," she says happily. Joseph, one of Robinson's two sons, lives just a few floors away. Her walk-up apartment has the endearing sparseness of a grad student's pad: one overflowing bookshelf with volumes crammed in sideways (Junot Diaz, Ernest Hemingway, The Swan); a rice paper screen draped in white Christmas lights; an oil-and-photo collage, provenance unknown, salvaged from an antique store.

A square of bare floor marks where the breakfast nook's table and chair should be. She admits this has been on her mind. She's losing out on the opportunity to sit and gaze out at the galley kitchen's view of … well, actually, a view of the neighbors' exhaust vents. "Oh," she says, 'but the morning light is lovely.'"

You can find the rest here.


Good news for two worthy poets: Oliver de la Paz and Louise Mathias!


Clinging to summer? An awesome recipe for watermelon salsa:


2 cups chopped watermelon (seeds removed)
3/4 cup chopped Walla Walla Sweet Onion (any white onion will do)
3/4 cup canned black beans, rinsed and drained
1/4 cup chopped seeded jalapeno chilies
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt

Stir together all ingredients in bowl, Refrigerate, covered, at least 1 hour to blend flavors before serving.

...I thought the idea of cold, wet fruit in salsa would be...well, a little gross. I got over it, and ended up eating a huge portion. Highly recommended: using a can of Trader Joe's Cuban-style black beans (which blends in a bit of cumin and garlic), and serving with TJ's Corn Chip Dippers. That store owes me an endorsement fee.


Jean Valentine interviews Kate Greenstreet (courtesy Bookslut) Kate earned her place in the rockstar "promoting your first book" hall o' fame when the rumor spread that she'd mortgaged her house to support an extensive reading tour for case sensitive. I don't know if that's the exact truth, but if so it was a worthy investment: the woman gives a great reading. This interview coincides with Ahsahta's release of her second book, The Last 4 Things.

It's particularly welcome to see her in conversation with Jean Valentine, who I'll host at the Arts Club of Washington next week:

Wednesday, September 16 - 7 PM

The Arts Club hosts Jean Valentine and Dave Smith for a celebration of the influential Southern poet Eleanor Ross Taylor, in conjunction with the release of Taylor’s Captive Voices: New and Selected Poems, 1960-2008. Valentine is the current State Poet of New York; Smith is the author of 20 books of poetry and prose. Both will read selections from Taylor’s work as well as their own. Open to the public, with a reception and booksigning to follow.

Arts Club of Washington, 2017 I Street NW, DC. (Farragut West Metro, Orange/Blue line)


Listening to Kanye West as I write this. In case you were wondering.

September 05, 2009

Coming to New York Next Friday...

...and if you look really closely, you'll find my face on the poster!

Check out the Festival issue of Boog City (including full event schedule) here.

September 03, 2009

TMI and a Good Breast/Thigh Combo

Do poets who blog as poets taint their work for the reader? To paraphrase, is it a mistake to blog where you eat?

Poet Darren Morris worries that the answer is Yes.

"I went out for a steak dinner the other night. The waiter brought the slab just as I ordered it, and as he watched me prepare to take my first bite, he slid across the table a picture of the cow from which the steak had come, under which were printed all the fascinating details of the heifer’s last week on earth. How might it have affected my enjoyment of the meal, a thing no longer my own, to feel now that it was given unto me, even sacrificially, by another mammal with a name and a full personality? Did the beast’s last vacation to a Wyoming spa, its anger at and subsequent inclusion of personal threats by wolves, or its issues regarding the misnamed “pigskin” production industry psychologically influence my perception of its flavor? Perhaps. But to what degree?—I remain uncertain...."

Head on over to the Hayden's Ferry Review blog to check out his post--"The Taint of Celebrity: Thoughts on Poets who Blog." He's taking a bolder stance than you usually see in Contributor Spotlights. Always a good thing. And it's an issue I've thought about myself.

The editors were kind enough to invite me to post a response, which went up this morning. Here's a snippet from "Eternal Sunshine of the Cluttered Mind: A Poet-Blogger Responds":

"I enjoyed Darren Morris’s post on 'The Taint of Celebrity.' It raised some savvy points and appropriately skewered some bad habits among poet-bloggers, myself included. The parallel to viral marketing is uncomfortable but not unfair. I gravitate to C. Dale Young’s monthly Caption Contest for the same reasons that I’m amused by Burger King’s Subservient Chicken: it’s free, it’s fun, it’s fast, and the masterminds know the value of a good breast/thigh combo...."

Follow the link above to read the entire essay.

September 02, 2009

Apply for this! (VSC/Rona Jaffe Fellowship)

VSC was one of my first writing colony experiences, and I loved it! The only downside was the expense--and this ameliorates that issue. So if you have the requisite chromosomes and you're at the right point in your career, apply.

Fellowship for Emerging Women Writers

The Vermont Studio Center is pleased to announce the continuation of The Rona Jaffe Foundation/Vermont Studio Center Fellowship. Now in its second year, this fellowship is intended to support the month-long residency of an emergent woman writer who will be a first-time resident at VSC. The fellowship covers full VSC residency fee and offers an additional stipend of $1,250 to help cover expenses associated with taking the residency, including but not limited to travel, rent, childcare or to replace lost income.

For the purposes of this Fellowship, emergent writers are defined as those who are as yet unpublished, or have begun publishing in literary journals, or who are just completing their first book. (Women writers who have published a standard trade edition of their work do not qualify for this fellowship.) All eligible writers of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction who are citizens or permanent residents of the U.S. will be considered for this Fellowship, which pays tribute to the memory of celebrated author Rona Jaffe.

The application deadline for The Rona Jaffe Foundation/Vermont Studio Center Fellowship is 10/1/09. To apply, download and fill out the Vermont Studio Center’s regular application form, check the “I am applying for a Special Fellowship Award” box on the first page, and write Rona Jaffe Fellowship on the “Award Name” line. Follow the application instructions and be sure all materials are RECEIVED at VSC by October 1, 2009. Details are here.

The winner of the first Rona Jaffe Foundation/Vermont Studio Center Fellowship was Rose Nash, of Wolcott, Vermont, who spent the month of June 2009 at the Studio Center. Rose received her B.A. and M.A. from Middlebury College. After graduating, she taught on a kibbutz in Israel for two years and then took a position teaching middle and high school English in Vermont. She is currently a writing specialist in the Learning Resource Center at Johnson State College. She is working on her first novel.