February 27, 2012

Road Trip!

No road trip down I-95 is complete without the following:

1) Spotting an inexplicable food-like product.


2) Befriending a creature at South of the Border.

Often, these two can be combined in one stop, though this time the offending "ham" was spotted in North Carolina. Meet Speedy, whose shell is checkered a pleasing shade of Tarheel blue.

Last week I returned to Charleston to read at Monday Night Poetry & Music at the East Bay Meeting House. One of the pleasures of going to Charleston three times in one year is that I can now orient myself rather quickly. My first visit included an agonizing 45-minute slog through the outskirts...and I never even saw the water. This time I'd found a parking spot off East Bay and within minutes, here I was--already dreaming of the oysters I'd order at Pearlz. 

Host Jim Lundy did a great job packing the room, and he lined up charismatic guest emcee Jack Tracey so he could focus on taking pictures, which you'll find here. I was thrilled to see the faces of increasingly familiar friends, including Katrina Murphy, Richard Garcia, and many other members of the Poetry Society of South Carolina, which has to be the most vital and active state poetry society in America. 

...my theory is that anytime the bartender (in this case, Brit Washburn) steps out from behind the bar and reads a great poem, you're in the right place for the night. Also, that is my face on the very nice flyer behind Brit. I will never get used to going to a place and seeing my face plastered all over the walls. It's eerie.

I was home-hosted by a member of the PSSC Board who lives in Bedon's Alley, a historic downtown neighborhood where my father and I went sight-seeing on our last trip. We wondered what the houses looked like inside. Now I know: jaw-dropping.  

From Charleston I traveled to Georgia Southern University--a drive that turned a bit white-knuckled when I realized it would take an hour longer than I had planned for. But I made it, speeding-ticket free, and tumbled headlong into an amazing day of visiting three classes, a craft talk on projecting one's voice on the page, and a reading that drew from each of my books as well as new work. Tack on an interview for their school newspaper and a Thai dinner with two faculty members, and I was beyond beat. 

The GSU students had primarily studied the memoir rather than the poetry, which I always find intimidating. But I was deeply impressed by their sensitivity to the material, their curiosity about the science and cultural history I'd woven in, and their sophisticated questions. It made me want to start another nonfiction book right away. I also welcomed the chance to re-connect with Laura Valeri, my host for the GSU visit and a talented fiction writer I first met at the Sewanee Writer's Conference. This is the surreal backyard marsh view from her living room that I woke up to the next morning...

...where we drank strong coffee and nibbled on fresh-roasted peanuts her husband had made for us. So much of my book tour time is spent being "on," trying to inspire students and be mildly authoritative about navigating the challenges of publishing. But like anyone else I have doubts, failures, worries. It's important to get down off the pedestal--whether it be spent talking about love (mis)adventures at The Blind Tiger in Charleston, or commiserating over genre divides and agent adventures in a Savannah living room. 

Since I'd never been to the city before, I took a few hours to get lost downtown. I called my grandmother as I walked around Forsyth Park, eating blueberries from a bag Laura had packed for me. Savannah is a surreal place, and in many ways older than Charleston; perhaps because the war memorials are as likely to be about the Revolutionary War as the Civil one. But the city is a place for fresh, edgy art, fueled by the presence of SCAD, their students,  and their brand-new art museum, which features a gallery curated by André Leon Talley. 

Oh, I wish my sister could have been there with me! She's the fashionista of the family. 

Going from square to square appealed to me--it didn't take long to feel at home. So I do what one does when feeling at home. I found the nearest rooftop, in the Bohemian Hotel overlooking the river, ordered a Bloody Mary, and read 5o pages of a book. To be happily on a rooftop in February tells you something about Georgia weather. 

Admittedly, it was a looong drive from Savannah to Atlanta. There was some cheek-slapping and hollering to keep myself awake. There was a nap in a Chili's parking lot. But I made it--I got in around 1 AM at The Highland Inn, which is my all-time favorite artist's hostel, given room #333 (3 is my lucky number: good omen!), and told that I might be quick to see Jack--the resident cat--because I was staying next door to his owner. Jack was waiting, all right, and when I opened my door he darted in and made himself at home on the couch. I took that as another good omen. It was nice to have the company as I unpacked.

During the day I got lost at the High Museum of Art. Their "Picasso to Warhol" exhibit was a bit of a letdown--though the works are amazing, they are drawn entirely from MOMA, making it a bit redundant for anyone who has spent a lot of time in New York City. I wasn't head over heels for "The Art of Golf" either But all was redeemed by the stunning and naturally-lit upper floor of contemporary art (including a room of Gerhard Richter's work and a large Anselm Kiefer starscape that I'd never seen, even in my restrospective book of his work), the Bill Traylor exhibit tucked away on the ground floor, and the clever corkscrew design of the Stent Family Wing that tours one through different centuries of art.

Charis Books is a fabulous bookstore with a rich history of supporting feminists and women writers. Staffer Elizabeth Anderson is the best kind of bookseller, gracious and serious about handselling the titles and authors that impress her. Though our crowd wasn't huge (it didn't help that Matthew Harvey was reading at Emory the same night, oof), I was thrilled to have an all-star crew of Atlanta writers attend. Memoirist Jessica Handler and I went out for dinner beforehand; poets Collin Kelley and Julie Bloemeke joined me for a beer at the Brewmaster's Pub after. Both times the conversation was a perfect combination of shop talk and real life. And laughter--a LOT of laughter.

The next morning, as I should have been hustling toward that 12-hour drive home, I instead returned to wander Charis's neighborhood, Little Five Points. Whoa. You cannot think you know Atlanta until you know this place. I loved it, from the eccentric boutique The Junkman's Daughter (where pirate costumes and everyday corsets hang interchangeably on the racks), to the vinyl stores Wax n' Facts and Criminal Records, to the plethora of drafts (and glassware!) at The Porter Beer Bar, where I had delicious deconstructed adobo pork tacos. All packed in just a few dense blocks around the intersection of Moreland, Masfield, and Euclid. I've got to go back. 

But sadly...I can't go back just yet. For now, I must pack my bags for AWP in Chicago, then a reading in Urbana on my way back home. Always, the next drive is waiting. 

This week my poem "The Old Riddle" went up over at Site 95, an intriguing project curated by Meaghan Kent that combines visual arts and writing from up and down the East coast, with related on-site installations in New York, Miami, and elsewhere. (Site "95" = I-95, eh?) The poem is from the third collection I am working on now--a manuscript that deals with romantic love--and it definitely captures some of my experiences in the last few years. But it doesn't reflect my today. Today, my heart is full. 

February 15, 2012


Like many MFA programs, my time at American University gathered together word lovers & English majors with a somewhat amorphous vision of what it actually meant to be a "writer." So one of the great pleasures of growing older is seeing the varied paths that my classmates (and in particular, a group of women with whom I shared many a birthday and brunch) have gone forward and taken in the world. One became a media specialist for the National Endowment for the Arts; one just took a job assisting in the direction of a university institute of ESL & American Studies; one has found happiness in freelancing and motherhood; one is a government worker by day, a renowned slam poet by night. 

Meaghan Mountford has taken one of the bravest paths by bringing her smart, funny voice to a genre so often riddled with banality: cookbooks, specifically baking books. Drawing upon years of experience as designer and manager at Bundles of Cookies in Bethesda, in 2007 Meaghan published Cookie Sensations: Creative Designs for Every Occasion. Her creations have been featured everywhere from Brides, to The Washington Post, to The New York Times, to umpteen thousand websites; her cookies were a finalist for favorite favors on "The Today Show Throws a Wedding." At her own Las Vegas wedding, each of our tables were adorned with individually wrapped, handmade, and incredibly detailed cookies depicting everything from a splay of playing cards to Elvis himself. 

This month marks the publication of Sugarlicious, her second collection of recipes. You can watch the adorable trailer here (1,300 views already! and I can't get that sweetly chipper banjo song out of my head!). There are also a number of giveaways, chats, etc. going on around the web that you can find details on here

When my copy arrived in the mail this week, I first took this glamorshot with my Valentine tulips--appreciating the great deal of care that Harlequin took with the production values. What a physically gorgeous book, and perfect page weight, too: heavy enough to stay flat when you open it. But I opened my copy with a touch of trepidation. As an allergy girl--totally unable to work with milk or eggs in my kitchen--would I be able to relate to these concepts? Or would it be a bittersweet survey of all I could never experience firsthand? 

I need not have worried. Anyone with a flair for design can appreciate Sugarlicious, which will develop in even the most timid baker an accessible and modular set of skills--melting coatings, shaping and coloring fondant, drawing with edible-ink pens--that can then be combined into any number of vibrant creations. One of Meaghan's niches is her innovation with using marshmallows as a focal point; she takes sweets that were once useful for nothing more than the garnish on a gingerbread house and turns them into canvasses for villages, zombies, and "kabobs." Here is the layout telling you how to make the latter:

...while I realize you might need to squint to see it, note that she shows you how to draw each one of those fruit and veggie designs. Swift, funky cartooning is an art; having labored over many a step-by-step guide to drafting horses and bunnies way back when, I appreciate how difficult it is to create a formula for an recognizable, iconic shape. Marshmallows were one of my favorite (read: only) treats as a kind--no egg, no dairy, just sugar and gelatin--but they were a bland afterthought to the other kids, who obsessed over decorating cookies and cupcakes I could not touch. I'd have loved a party where the entertainment was making marshmallow kabobs! A new generation of allergic kids can take advantage of Meaghan's insight and handy instructions. 

The book's attention to detail is a pleasure throughout, as are the vibrant photographs. While the designs are whimsical (garden gnomes partying down with pink flamingoes? Yes please~), Sugarlicious is organized in a practical manner that features articulated lists of "supplies" and "techniques" for each recipe, section dividers such as "Holidays & Seasons," a glossary of ingredients and tools, and a thorough index. Showing she hasn't lost her touch since Vegas, Meaghan is particularly good at designing desserts that double as table decorations. Why pay for flowers if you can have a centerpiece that is 10x as unique...and edible at the end of the night? Or, in the case of the layout below, you can use treats in lieu of place cards. It's a heck of a lot more appealing than a few Jordan almonds scattered around a tent-card lettered with pseudo-calligraphy.

Meaghan Mountford is an incredible writer, with a curious eye and unfailing energy. You can find evidence of that at the two blogs she simultaneously maintains, The Decorated Cookie & Edible Crafts. She's also an MFA-er savvy to the larger world of publishing, as this blog post detailing her road to a book deal attests. Harlequin and the cooking world are lucky to have her; you'd be lucky to have this book. Sugarlicious makes me want to get my hands messy--with flour, sugar, food coloring--and for a perfectionist neatnik like me that's a true compliment. This is the kind of book that guarantees an amazing Saturday afternoon. 

February 03, 2012

Trust Your Eye: On Ordering Poetry

One of the pleasures of my recent stay at Virginia Center for Creative Arts was the chance to spread out the pages of my manuscript-in-progress. This is something I've been able to do with each of my poetry collections, first on the walls of my studio at the Millay Colony and then on the floor of my apartment in DC. But I live in a much smaller apartment now, so this was my first chance to look at Count the Waves in this way. In the snapshot above, the far left is the end of the first section, curving upwards in a confident curl (that one feels most complete); then a cluster of colored push-pins marks the initiation of the second section, shaped like the symbol for long division; the third section, in the lower right, is pretty amoebalike at this stage. 

I've helped many friends and students order their collections over the past five years, and one thing I always say is Trust your eye. What I mean is that reading is not just an intellectual experience, but a physical one. Some poems are more tiring to read than others--even if their richness is worth the effort.  Though it is often smart to group poems according to voice or motif, make sure there is some variety of form on the page to keep the reader's energy level up. It's the same common sense as alternating moves in a work-out. You need to look at poems en masse, as shapes. Is the quatrain growing monotonous? Scan to make sure you haven't ended on the same word or syntactic trick three times in a row, even if it is a justified ending each time in & of itself. 

A few nights I purposefully slept in the bed VCCA provided in my studio so I could wake, bleary-eyed and slightly disoriented, to look at pages on the wall without awareness of individual texts. In this way I noticed my dominant line lengths and stanza structures, and saw places where I could resist those modes in meaningful ways. I found sequences that felt too "light" or too "heavy." I realized I couldn't have two "valentine" sestinas side by side, no matter how well they matched thematically. 

Later in the day and after a few cups of coffee, I continued to work in a way unique to this bulletin-board display style. I could flip up the latest draft to look at the previous days' drafts layered beneath it. When I pulled a poem out of sequence the empty rectangle that remained pushed me to interrogate what was needed to fill the hole--what question I had not yet asked of myself or of the collection. Sometimes I would pin up a page blank except for a title, then scribble & riff until something caught hold. (One night I had a visitor whose gaze became distracted; I soon realize he'd spied a blue-ink scrawl of "astral spunk.")

By the time I left VCCA, I had written six new poems in three weeks. But just as importantly  I committed to a whole new sequence in the third section, to balance a sequence in the first. I realized my closing poem was not really my closing poem, if only because it is ekphrasis and I don't want to share my ending with Whistler's drawings. I pulled a poem that had been discarded back in to open the second section, realizing that what I had worried to be its weakness--direct language, short lines--is the perfect parry before the winding, punny poem that will follow it. I love it when a poem you had a private affection for suddenly reclaims a home; it's like finding a $20 bill squinched into an old coat pocket.

A book isn't a project. A book isn't a pet. A book a lover, and you have to get to know it on all levels--mind, body, and soul. I'm glad to find out we're ready to live together. 

This post is featured over at the SheWrites blog, where I served as a guest editor this week. Check out the wonderful posts contributed by my fellow writers:

Laura Susanne Yochelson - "Enjoying the Process"
Bernadette Geyer - "What? It's Possible to Keep Writing After a Kid?"
Jeannine Hall Gailey - "How I Became a Poet, Or, Why I Write About Superheroines"
Eugenia Kim - "Romance of the Writing Life and Where the Writing Happens"
Lisa Fay Coutley - "Sentimentality Be Damned: On Gratitude"

February 01, 2012

VCCA (Off I Go)

Oh, sun! Damn you. You might as well rise. 

At my last VCCA dinner, I looked over and saw a table of entirely new folks, unfamiliar faces all having the same conversation I had three weeks ago--Where are you from? What are you working on?--and I thought, It's time to go. The totally superfluous helping of cauliflower drenched in Sriracha sauce while everyone else got dessert? Pairing another glass of zinfandel with a mug of full-strength coffee? Also signs that it's time to go. One of the things I've learned about myself is that I'm really good at being away from home for about three weeks. But if I'm gone for four weeks or more, something gets broken. 

Then we had a Fellows reading that illuminated two women I've been sharing tables with for days. One poet I now want to talk to about formal poetry, Anna Akhmatova, South Carolina. One nonfictioneer I want to talk to about biography, Africa, self-doubt. These will not be conversations I get to have. We sat in the living room after their reading, laughing and talking, but I wanted more. I wanted a colder day so we could use the fireplace one last time.  I can't be going already!

It is easy to be glib about friendships you make at art colonies. A photographer and I were joking about it on our walk back to the main house. "I wish he were younger..." he said of a third resident, "...but I already know why it wouldn't work." Another artist I overheard say "Let me get your email, so we can do that thing where we never get around to actually writing each other." You go from 0 to 60 MPH in terms of confession, intimacy, irritation. For so many of us, at home our work is both the thing we love best about ourselves and the thing most isolating. Here, the latter half of that drops away. The problem with getting to know people at their best is that their worst, when discovered, comes as a much harsher shock. And I of all people know that. 

Still I delight. I open the studio door at 4 AM to find hearts chalked in lieu of a doormat, and I delight. This is not a place to bother keeping your guard up. 

I got the writing done. Poems, prose, even something that paid. That gives me comfort as I ponder packing bags (did I really need this many skirts and sweaters?) and pulling push-pins out of the wall. Count the Waves is coming together. I refined sestinas, rescued a poem from banishment, embraced my animalia, committed to a new sequence, gave a reading that left me feeling hopeful. This third poetry manuscript is harder than the last but maybe it is richer, too, pleasures hidden a little under the surface. I just have to provide enough glimmer to tempt a reader to do the digging. 

See you on the flipside, friends.