December 22, 2013

To the Poets I Know

This year's display at the Botanic Garden was inspired by the World Fairs of years past. As usual, surreal & lovely; the one Christmas tradition I always make time for in DC. 

I sent a few notes to poet-friends today--to stay on top of my inbox --and realized, for all the casualness of tone, how important certain writers are in my life. You may be one of the people I'm thinking about, even though we're not that close. 

Maybe because I've known you for over a decade, before either of us published.

Maybe because you talk about iambics and power tools with equal enthusiasm. 

Maybe because you answered your phone that time I thought you were still at AWP and let me babble about snarky conference weirdness before gently mentioning you'd already flown home, were in a different time zone, and needed to get some sleep.

Maybe because you advocate for social change, and you aren't afraid to argue, whereas I am non-confrontational to a fault. 

Maybe because you're so confident in your skin that you make me confident in mine. 

Maybe because we always knock it out on the dance floor. 

Maybe because you chose to go back to your hometown.

Maybe because you were really happy for me when I told you I'd won that prize, though I realized later I was accidentally breaking the news you hadn't won that prize. 

Maybe because we share the realities of writing about the medicalized body.

Maybe because you're the most dedicated teacher I know. 

Maybe because you were graceful that time I blanked on your name. 

Maybe because you are a real pain in the ass, but you make things happen.

Maybe because you insisted on buying my book, though you already had a copy, so I could say I sold a book at the reading. And then you let me crash on your couch. 

Maybe because even your promotional announcements are funny. 

Maybe because you don't drink. 

Maybe because you gave me the model, when I so desperately needed one, for valuing attention to my writing over starting a family. 

Maybe because you stole Flat Langston. 

Maybe because it could have been weird between us that one time and it wasn't.

Maybe because you show up at events all over the DC, Virginia and Maryland area even though I know you don't drive, which must means hours on buses and the metro.

Maybe because your poems are so dissonant and brave and musical they make me want to write harder. 

You don't have to be on Facebook. We don't need to meet up for drinks. I don't have to be a "writer to watch" you list when asked to name them in interviews.  

O o o poets. I just like to know you're out there, doing what you do. Thanks for that. 

And Shann Palmer, you will be missed. Her blog, "Shann Palmer Says," has a December 11 poem draft. The next day Shann had a heart attack, and never woke from the coma that followed. I remember giving a reading in Richmond, Virginia, at Fountain Books for Theories of Falling--except the printer hadn't delivered my first copies in time. So I was selling little handmade chapbooks of the collection's highlights, bound with curling ribbon, with a black & white print-out of the cover-to-be. Shann bought one. She was a funny, practical, salty lady--I think if I called her a dame she'd take it as the intended compliment--yet a woman of faith, as well, and song, and a talented poet. 

I am so very ready for 2014.

December 16, 2013

Meet Me in St. Louis (or at Politics & Prose)

I always have so much I want to tell you. 

"In the years leading up to his recent passing, Alabama poet Jake Adam York set out on a journey to elegize the 126 martyrs of the civil rights movement, murdered in the years between 1954 and 1968."

A year ago this past weekend, we lost the phenomenal poet and friend Jake Adam York. I'm so glad that we'll have one more chance to read new work from him--ABIDE will be out in March 2014, thanks to SIU Press and tireless editor Jon Tribble. In the meantime, tide yourself over with this interview in MEAD, and this signature poem, "Grace." 

We miss you, Jake. 


Last week I went to St. Louis for a reading with the Observable Reading Series. The flight out included hours on the runway, as DCA struggled define our relationship to the sleet (status update: it's complicated), the pilot sometimes changing prediction mid-sentence. Finally we took off, and as the air conditioning units cranked up the smell of de-icing chemicals flooded the cabin. The flight attendants gave us bag after bag of trail mix (and in my case, an illicit Dewar's), as what was supposed to be an afternoon flight slid past the dinner hour. I'm not skittish about flying, but I was glad to land.... 

...and to be promptly greeted by Steve Schroeder's cat, Ozymandias (Ozzy for short). Being home-hosted by people with cats may be one of my favorite part of being on the road. Steve is a co-curator of the Observable Series and he has a great new poetry collection out, The Royal Nonesuch. The next morning, I wandered the Missouri Botanic Garden for a bit, had lunch with a fellow poet from UVA days, and checked in at The Cheshire Hotel, which is kind enough to comp rooms for the visiting writers. 

Good lordy. Apparently, in its prior incarnation this hotel was used for some of the cheesier scenes of Up in the Air. Also the pub lounge, Fox & Hounds, has been a long-favored dive bar for locals. But now the whole complex (which includes three separate restaurants) is refurbished and, while retaining just the right degree of tweed and embroidery and "old world" kitsch, The Cheshire absolutely glows with welcome. I spent hours camped out in front of the lobby's wood-burning fireplace. I stayed in the Robert Herrick Room, gathering rosebuds. Next time maybe I can snag the Ian Fleming Suite, which has a door that opens straight out onto the pool deck. The Cheshire joins The Highland Inn in Atlanta, and The Algonquin in Manhattan, of places where I'd like to be the writer-in-residence for a month, taking in the strangeness of hotel life.  

My co-reader was Paul Legault, author of several books including The Emily Dickinson Reader, which I bought that night; seemed appropriate on the occasion of Dickinson's 183rd birthday (she was born December 10, 1830). Published by McSweeney's, The EDR is one of the most physically handsome books I've ever held, with a center-aligned presentation of Legault's "English-to-English translations" for each of ED's 1,789 poems, as catalogued in the R.W. Franklin edition. The style and font add heft to a series of stichics that might otherwise be monotonous to the eye, and a gold ribbon is at the ready for you to hold your place; the collection invites a browsing pace. Periodically, we're greeted by a re-interpretation of the one iconic Dickinson portrait. The book closes with two indexes--one thematic and one of Dickinson's original first lines, which might be the only way some readers will recognize their canonical favorites. 

ED's poem, "Hope is the thing with feathers-- / That perches in the soul--"


Hope is kind of like birds. 
In that I don't have any.

...and so on. Don't read it in anticipation of any one "translation," because you'll probably find that singular instance a little easy or glib; that the index does not alphabetize Dickinson's first lines might be an implicit, wise discouragement of such behavior. Do read The EDR for the conversation across the whole, the wax and wane of surrealism punctuated with sentiment. Legault has a dry humor--this showed in his reading at Llywelyn's Pub, full of small asides and swallowed punchlines--that becomes a wet humor whenever any of the following topics arise: zombies, sex, sex with zombies, and Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, Dickinson's sister-in-law, e.g. "Everything's better when you're naked. Take Sue, for example." (1361)

At first, I had mixed feelings about the use of "Sue," who is the object of this Emily's fiercest desires; it's a bit strategic, a way to give Legault's book narrative cohesion and dramatic arc as it hopscotches across a lifetime of poems. Occasionally, Sue feels like a fallback for dealing with ED's less inspiring poems. Somehow the rather unmemorable "Behold this little Bane-- / The Boon of all alive--" translates to "Love is a bitch named Susan Gilbert Dickinson." (1464) Bury the lede, why dontcha. Some folks may un-questioningly absorb their affair as portrayed here as a bit of newfound trivia concerning the "real" ED's biography. Ack. 

But is that so different from framing her life in terms of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, or the Master, or any of the other ways scholars struggle to capture such a willfully elusive, reclusive spirit? Is it any more presumptive than pasting Dickinson's verse into a greeting card? No, I'd argue--and in fact this treatment, though perverse, carries more reverence. Legault engages us in talking about a poet he loves, and he has a wonderful sensibility for phrasing truth claims in a skeptic's landscape. The reader in me smiles at such non sequiturs such as "Light is a communist." (506). Later, "I'm a bad driver because I enjoy leaving things to chance." (1283). 

The premise for The Emily Dickinson Reader is deeply clever, and I enjoyed it so much I read the whole damn thing in two sittings. Honestly, I'm a little jealous of Paul Legault for writing it--that best, strangest kind of author-to-author compliment.


Have you gotten your hands on The Incredible Sestina Anthology yet?  

Two magazines with my favorite trim size--32 Poems and Cave Wall--both have new issues hot off the presses. 

I'll lead a discussion at Politics & Prose, "Inside The Best American Poetry 2013," from 1-3 PM on Thursday, January 16. Advance registration is required; could be a fun holiday gift to a poet in the family, paired with a copy of BAP 2013 and/or Denise Duhamel's Blowout, both of which we'll reference. Much of the session will be spent on real-time, close reading of some of the year's best poems (according to BAP) in terms of craft and theme. We'll also have a fun, frank discussion of how "best of" collections come to exist, how they're curated, and what a guest editor's aesthetic adds to the mix.

November 19, 2013

Heart Land

I've enjoyed hunkering down in Iowa for these weeks. Teaching at Cornell College has been a revelation--the focus on creative nonfiction, with an emphasis on incorporating science on technology, has been a great change of pace. Some thoughts....

1) Meeting with students five days a week permits no room for procrastination. Each week takes on its own thematic shape and pace. The 10-11 AM "workshop hour," in which I divided my 15 students into groups of 3 and 4 for the sake of informal conversation, was both my single best decision (in terms of getting to know my students) and the worst decision (in terms of conserving my own work time).

2) I am still not a morning person.

3) This generation of students doesn't use email much. They don't send a confirming reply unless you explicitly request it, so it can feel like you're shouting into the void. On the upside, I was glad they so readily left behind their laptops in coming to class.

4) Lecturing on five books, a dozen articles, and the craft of nonfiction is a lot for one month. I used cards with abstract keyword prompts (e.g., for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: gender, class, race, identity) to guide discussion. Being a teacher requires an extraordinary vocabulary, one which you can and will flub from time to time, and then you must decide: do I correct myself in front of my students?

5) I still haven't figured out how to balance the needs of the students who get lost in class-wide silences, and the ones who use those silences to shape their answers. 

6) No matter how sophisticated your class, arts and crafts are a good thing. Every time I can work erasures onto a syllabus, I do, thanks in large part to Mary Ruefle's great craft essay. This time around, we're using outdated science textbooks courtesy of Cornell College's library to shape creative texts from "uncreative" sources. 

7) Never give back graded work at the beginning of class; always wait until the end. 

8) Students are comfortable reading beyond their level in an academic field, as long as they are regularly assured that it's okay to not "get" everything. I was delighted by how many gravitated to Leonard Susskind's The Black Hole War, opting to read it in its entirety, which I suspect is in part because he is so generous on this point. 

9) Strange that we ask students to spend four years offering up informal opinions--"Did you like it?"--and close analysis on the page, without offering practical experience with the intersection of the two: the 1,200-word book review. That's a real-world writing skill. We talked about what reviews are meant to do, reading examples from the New York Times Book Review and The American Scholar, and they wrote their own. 

10) You never know which readings students will love, and which will elicit a "Meh." You never know which personal details to share, or which questions to answer only with editing. You never know who dreams, deep down, of being a poet. 

Back in my own undergraduate days at the University of Virginia, I realize that I had no idea how hard it was to run a class. In recalling the things we harped on--spotting typos, expecting a 100% correct answer to every question, sulking when someone returned graded papers later than expected--I'm embarrassed. And newly grateful. 

Most nights I come home to Collin House and daze out with an infinite supply of SVU episodes. But I made it to Iowa City to see Hailey read from her new book, SWOOP, at Prairie Lights, and afterwards we sat by the fireplace at Sanctuary. In Cedar Rapids, I walked the Czech Village, then camped out at the NewBo Market to watch a juggler and snack on fresh falafel. On a tip from the gentleman who specialized in Eggenberg glass, I drove to Solon and found an oasis of entrepreneurship. The Salt Fork Kitchen is on one side of the street, with a bloody mary bar stocked with house-picked onions and four different pepper sauces. On the other side of the street, Big Grove Brewery sells six varieties of in-house beer--I recommend their seasonal IPA, the Redheaded Stranger--and serves dishes like this elaborate roasted cauliflower, with curry sauce and coppa ham. (That morning, the chef had also carved a duck from a whole pear, which then roamed the length of the bar. Not for sale.) These two places, staffed by enthusiastic 20- and 3o-somethings, have only been open a matter of months. I hope they thrive.

I came to Iowa with no expectations. I leave thinking I could live here.

November 06, 2013

News from Iowa

Since I've last posted here, I've been to New York City's Center for Book Arts, where I got to meet my chapbook for the first time and read in a line-up that included judges Sharon Dolin, Harryette Mullen, and the finalists. Before the reading, the poets stood around signing their books and broadsides; we ate family-style, a delivery of lamb and mushrooms and arugula salad from a place a few blocks away. The next morning, my family wandered through MOMA for a few hours--particularly loving the Dorothea Rockburne exhibit and Gerard Richter's "October 18, 1977" series. 

A week later, I headed down to Richmond for the inaugural presentation of Art in Writing: The Mary Lynn Kotz Award, which is cosponsored by the Library of Virginia and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.  Mary Lynn is a longtime mentor and friend. The winner was Orhan Pamuk, for The Innocence of Objects--and to everyone's delight the Nobel laureate flew in to accept in person. 

That Tuesday, I set out for the long drive that would bring me way of a Nashville book club, a reunion with cousins, a beer at Doe's Eat Place in Paducah, Kentucky (which turned out to be run--and bartended--by the grandson of the original Doe's owners in Greenville, Mississippi), an abandoned plan to stay at the unexpectedly sketchy hotels out by the St. Louis airport, a 1 AM drive onwards to Hannibal, Missouri, a morning tour of Mark Twain's hometown, and a Friday afternoon arrival in Mount Vernon, from which I have since journeyed out to explore greater Iowa. Or, at least, Iowa City (Prairie Lights!) and Davenport. 

Wonderful. And exhausting. Here are a few snapshots from the long drive, and beyond.
Whenever leaving town on I-81 West, I stop at River City Grill in Radford. Every time, I sit at the bar and order beer, ribs, and green beans. They know me as a traveling poet. 

After stopping off in Harriman, TN, for the night, I saw the sign for "Ozone Falls Natural Area." I couldn't resist, and soon found myself traipsing (barefoot, since heels would have been more dangerous) to the top of a waterfall.

I'd show you the view straight down, but it was too scary to hold my phone out over it.

The rocks were laced with water and my feet were very, very chilly. But worth it.
Although I do not endorse smoking, I wholeheartedly endorse puffing out clouds of powdered sugar from a bubblegum cigarette, should you happen to find a pack being sold in a gas station outside of Harriman, TN.
When I got to Nashville my first stop was Parnassus, Ann Patchett's bookstore. It is in bourgeoise strip mall, but so what? Great energy, brimming with amazing books, and the friendly staff helped me pick out a quartet for the children of my hosts.

When I got to my friend's place, there were wild kittens in the driveway. Oh, I know I do not have a pet-friendly life. But in my heart, I wanted to sweep them into the car and name them Salt and Pepper.
Did I mention my friend has an amazingly purple house? Her book club was welcoming and engaged, and the conversation sparked by having scientists and scholars in the mix. Plus, she made Sandra-friendly cupcakes for everyone.
The next morning I bought a hat, from a shop where the owner's mother had made it.
Paducah--a scrappy little railroad town. I wish I could show you the Paducah Bridge, which takes Interstate 24 over the Ohio River to Metropolis, Illinois; the bridge is blue, and beautiful, and it rattles your car in its fist. But I had my hands full driving. 

After the St. Louis debacle (in which I bounced fruitlessly from airport hotel to airport hotel), I drove on to Hannibal, Missouri, for a room that advertised a jacuzzi. here it is. Keep in mind, this isn't in the bathroom--it is right next to the bed. That's a Kräftig Lager by the William K Busch Brewing Company, another gas station find.

The American Queen riverboat was loading passengers as I arrived in Hannibal.
Call me sentimental, but Mark Twain was one of the authors I loved most as a young writer, so it meant a lot to see where he grew up--from J.M. Clemens' Justice of the Peace Office, to the house of the girl who inspired Becky Thatcher, to the childhood home of Sam himself. Having walked those wooden floors, I'm pretty sure it's the house that is crooked, not my camera. Note the fence.

In the words of Dar Williams: Iowa, Iowa, I, Iowa

My house! Oh, not just mine: there's four of us from the Cornell College faculty living here, just yards from the President's House on campus. It is incredibly warm inside, which I'd probably be that much more grateful for in another month. For now, I have to carry an oscillating fan with me from room to room.
New neighbor, always grazing by the front door.'s a little more of the campus. Takes about 15 minutes to walk end-to-end.
...might be my imagination, but squirrels are a lot bigger & tawnier than in DC.
Mount Vernon's Lincoln Wine Bar is where I had my first restaurant pizza. Ever. For a woman allergic to dairy, eggs, and a zillion other things, this is no small feat. They call it "The Goodness"--red sauce, anchovies, basil--with extra chilies. Chef Matt is a funny, friendly guy who set my allergy fears at ease when his menu declared a traditional dough recipe (right down to flour sourced from "Naples, Italy, Caputo 00"). Aaron, who makes the dough, and I talked about George Saunders during his break.
I'm not eating out much, though--there's nothing like paying $2 a bag for peppers, that goes straight to the farmer while you're standing in her barn, to inspire home cooking.
At Abbe Hills Farm, a cat oversees all important transactions. I sautéed those green beans for dinner last night, and they were amazing.
There's a lot of quirky personalities that coexist in the Main Street community center, which everyone still calls "the old middle school." The farmer's market moves to their gym in the winters. Ruth Ipsan-Brown keeps a shop there year-round with her small sculptures, all hand-crafted from natural and found materials. The whimsy of her work reminds me of the annual Christmas display at the U.S. Botanical Gardens.
Some day, I'll be in the place where declaring "I bought chairs" means a new dining room set. But for now, I prefer these guys, Ruth's work. which have taken up residence on the fireplace mantle at Cornell College.
A little weekend stir-craziness took me to Davenport, one of the Quad cities, for a performance of the horror stage-play Ghost Brothers of Darkland County (Stephen King, John Mellencamp, and T. Bone Burnett). I got to town early to check out the Figge Museum, which cuts quite the silhouette along the waterfront.
The museum has Grant Woods's eyeglasses, and the brooch he bought for his mother that made a cameo in American Gothic. Now that I'm in Iowa, I appreciate his work. (Let it be said, Figge knows how to play to local interests. There was a whole exhibit devoted to the artwork and ad design of the John Deere tractor company.)
There was a temporary "Day of the Dead" exhibit  of statues throughout the museum that made for some wonderful, deeply weird juxtapositions.
Before the show, I walked out on the skybridge to look down the Mississippi River. 

Sometimes this life moves too fast for me. Photographs are a way of slowing it down. Since I sat down to cobble together this note to you, the passing trains have sounded their long howl five times. Class meets in just a few hours, and I have essays to mark up first. There are other things to tell you, but they can wait. 

Traveling can change you--by diluting your sense of self, or by concentrating it. Here's what I know: I love being in front of a crowd, whether for a class or reading, but fixate on errors they probably don't even notice. I'm always on the lookout for small creatures. I eat too many potatoes. I like wearing hats in winter. I have not gotten enough sleep. This life is frazzled right now, but it is deeply & utterly mine. How could I have guessed this is what it might mean, when I declared two decades ago I wanted to be a writer? 

Somehow, it all adds up to a life that I have to assume is what I was meant to do, and how I was meant to do it. This week, I got the news that I won a FY2014 Individual Artist Fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. $10,000, my lord. The money comes when I needed it most. The universe smiles and says, Carry on.

October 08, 2013

5 AM Thoughts, North Carolina (& Back Again)

*Before I forget: I am hosting a kickass fiction event at the Arts Club of Washington this Wednesday (October 9; full description here) with novelists Mary Kay Zuravleff and Lisa Gorman, and journalist Judith Warner. Please come if you're in DC! And if you're in New York, perhaps I'll see you at the Center for Book Arts reading this Friday (October 11). It'll be my first chance to hold this brand-new chapbook... 

A confession: I was going to to write here about Miley Cyrus and the anguish-porn of talented twenty-something girls. (The ambiguity of "of," because that is something both put upon them and championed within.) I took screen caps from the "Wrecking Ball" video and everything. But that story is moving too fast. Anything I write today might be contradicted tomorrow. I'm keeping an eye on it. 

Also: I'm going to devote a post to this in the future, but for now I want to share the news that I've joined the faculty of the University of Tampa's low-residency MFA program (which, thankfully, I can do from D.C.). I'm taking the leap because my experiences at the Writer's Center and elsewhere have been deeply rewarding--but there's such a great opportunity to develop a philosophy of craft that works best with a serious, longterm commitment from students. If you're interested in hearing more, and would even consider enrolling in the program, feel free to email me. We will not talk about Miley Cyrus, I promise. Unless you specifically request it. 

The other week, we drove down to Raleigh, NC, for the annual International Bluegrass Music Association award show. It was a stunning three days of music. Tony Rice was inducted into the Hall of Fame, which was important for all kinds of reasons to be elaborated on at a later date. I attended a live WAMU recording, which gave me a bit of hometown pride. I got to hear Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen; congrats to Mike Munford, their banjoist, for his IBMA award. If you're ever looking for a great night out in Raleigh, next door to The Pour House Music Hall is Bida Manda, an authentic Laotian restaurant. We managed to snag the last two seats at the bar for dinner one night and I had the Mee Ka Tee, a pork belly & rice noodle soup, which was just as indulgent as you would imagine. 

We trekked over to Durham, which I'd never visited before. The Scrap Exchange is an amazing nonprofit "creative reuse center," a warehouse space filled with wallpaper remnants, plastic bits, feathers, discarded TVs and radios, boxes, yarns--all the quality junk that can inspire an artist, priced to be bought with the coins out of your pocket. Later, along Duke's college corner, my love shopped for records and I shopped for dresses; we both found something that suited us, then headed to Geer Street Garden for dinner, and from there to a friend's art opening in Chapel Hill. I'm hoping to get back to do a reading at The Regulator Bookshop with Count the Waves. While there I bought a copy of Scott McClanahan's Crapalachia: A Biography of Place, and when I introduced myself to the bookseller he turned out to be the son of author John Dufresne. The day just had that kind of serendipity to it. 

Our last afternoon in town we explored the North Carolina Museum of Art. Wow. Though I loved Hickory, this was the more revelatory trip in terms of North Carolina's contemporary, edgier sensibilities.

Every nook was an opportunity for sculpture; we almost missed the Rodin garden.

Inside the museum, there were intriguing works by everyone from Joseph Cornell to Kehinde Wiley. The sculpture Tar Baby vs. Saint Sebastian, by Michael Richard, would have been mesmerizing by any standard in its tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen. But the image--cast from the artist's body--is especially haunting knowing that he was killed while in his New York studio, located on the 92nd floor of World Trade Center's Tower One, on September 11, 2001.

Beyond the museum is a sprawling park, which houses many more large-scale artworks. There was a nice mix of seclusion and open expanse. We hunkered down in Chris Drury's "Cloud Champber for the Trees and Sky." Vollis Simpson's "Wind Machine" was a-spin. I'm not going to wax poetic. I'm just going to let you gawk over my shoulder at Thomas Syre's "Gyre."

We made it back to DC and promptly collapsed into sore throats and grumpy unpacking. We rallied enough for this past weekend's (e)merge art fair, at the Capitol Skyline Hotel--right by the Nats baseball stadium--which belongs to the Rubell family. On Sunday we armed ourselves with bloody marys, and set to wandering. In the lobby Andrew Wodzianski was enacting a "Self Portrait as Jack Torrance," typing All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy over and over on a manual typewriter. Setting a different tone, the lovely Holly Bass was conducting an "Art Baptism" out by the pool, under a wind-whipped canopy, complete with community music.

A half-dozen followers stepped up to announce their artistic ambitions, and to invoke the names (privately, as scribbled on a slip of paper) of three people who sustain their spiritual selves.  Then Holly baptized them in the Skyline's pool. It felt like I was back in Miami for a minute, in the best of ways. I felt refreshed. I sang loud.

Things are a little frantic in Sandra-land right now. So this is the last you'll hear from me on the blog for a couple of weeks, until I'm in IOWA. Iowa! Where I'll live all November thanks to Cornell College, teaching creative nonfiction and, y'know, frolicking in corn fields. But maybe I'll see you, in DC or New York City? Until then~