January 28, 2013

O Kalamazoo

I just woke up from two hours of deep sleep, which took place while curled up in a chair in the middle of Western Michigan University's library. Luckily no one stole my laptop or wrote on my face while I was out. I've hit the travel wall--every Kleenex used in my purse, lymph nodes swollen, craving peanut butter for the sheer energy--and soon, after a visit to a WMU class on "food and culture" that has read Don't Kill the Birthday Girl, I'll be on my way back to North Carolina. But what a wonderful time I have had while here. So I give you: three days in photographs.

Kalamazoo is an ace town for coffeeshops. Here is a glimpse of the 24-hour-open Fourth Coast (which refers to the coast of Lake Michigan, in case you're wondering). After a welcome-to-town lunch with my host, the poet Traci Brimhall, I spent my Friday afternoon here--and got 1,000 words written of an essay I've been mulling over for months. Creativity upon arrival is always a good omen. 

Afterwards my other host, Jon, picked me up for dinner and a trek to Louie's Trophy Grill, which features very large game animals on the walls. We saw three guys and their bartender do a shotski--four shot glasses mounted in a ski for simultaneous drinking. I could have gotten in on the action had there not been sour mix in the shots. Foiled! Afterward a slight mis-Google-directioning landed us in, um,  Galesburg. I got back to Traci's at 1 AM; the poor, brave poet had to stand outside in her socks so I could find their apartment amidst the identical rows of snow-covered buildings.

The next morning Traci, her husband Robert, Jill Osier (the other KBAC reader), and I headed out to South Haven, a beach town about an hour away. On the drive out we saw Christmas tree farms, fields of bare blueberry bushes with bright red branches against the snow, a 20-foot-tall compound bow advertising an archery shop, and the place that sells "The World's Greatest Hamburger," which as you can imagine was quite the temptation. But we pushed on to the Thirsty Perch, which had good hot french fries and this Make-Your-Own Bloody Mary bar. Celery salt, two different varieties of hot sauce, horseradish, thick crisp bacon: we were in heaven. But what followed was even better.

This is what happens at the icy edge of a Great Lake...

...where one watches each splash of a wave freeze as it meets the shore. 

I asked Jill, who lives in Alaska, if this made her feel at home. But she lives in an area that is fairly dry, without a lot of snow fall. Traci and Robert had never been to South Haven in winter before. In other words, we were all agog at the beauty of it. 

By the time we got back to Kalamazoo, we had only an hour to warm up and change for our reading at the Kalamazoo Center for Book Arts. Great crowd--almost 40 people--including some folks I had written to over the years, or known as fellow New Issues poets, or published in Folio, but had never met in person.

Jill read first. Her work is quiet and stunning, offering double-takes of language as a signifier of emotional indeterminacy. This is the lead-off poem to her chapbook Bedful of Nebraskas from sunnyoutside press; it first appeared in a 2005 issue of Poetry:

I did not walk down to the lake today.
Maybe I should have, though if you leave
a pail of rainwater sitting in the yard,
it gives an answer to most things. Emptied,
it's metal asking questions. Your face appears
undisturbed if you approach it carefully.
No one at the lake would have known me.
I don't think you can approach a lake carefully,
or I don't think we ever approach what we mean
to a lake.

During an intermission, copies of our books and broadsides were raffled off to the crowd.  I was anxious to see which poem of mine they had chosen for a broadside. Turned out they had picked "Mercy," the poem that currently closes my third collection. 

I talked about my gratitude to have had New Issues Poetry & Prose take a chance on my first collection--it was great to have both Marianne Swierenga, who was my editor, and current managing editor Kimberly Kolbe in the house. I shared a mix of poems from Theories of Falling, I Was the Jukebox, and new work.  I read "The Hotel Devotion" because Kim, the lovely intern who introduced me, said it was her favorite. 

Afterwards we went to Food Dance, where I ate an amazing Moroccan dish: roasted butternut squash piled high withIsraeli couscous, olives, chickpeas, and almonds. Conversations ran late and included this guess at someone's age: "I figure, between 25 and 65." We marveled at the music mix, which somehow covered the guilty-pleasure spectrum from Verve Pipe to Guns 'N Roses to Tom Petty to Jay-Z.

The next morning we went by the downtown Water Street Coffee en route to dropping Jill off at the train station. I stayed to get work done, enjoying one of the most delicate cups of coffee I have ever savored--a gently ground pour-over whose surface swirled--while reading through a batch of submissions for a sestina contest. Then I couldn't resist the allure of returning to Food Dance, across the street. 

The music was still addictive; this time, an even peppier mix that included Stevie Wonder and Culture Club. I sat at the bar, ordered a Bloody Mary with Absolut Peppar, house-made vegetable juice and a pickled asparagus garnish, and settled in to read. Not that a searing account of contemporary war isn't a good way to spend a Sunday morning, but after the first 100 pages I decided to change it up. 

I convinced the waitress to let me try all three of the Sandra-friendly housemade breads--sourdough, multigrain, and a stellar hot-from-oven rosemary and potato bread, all of which I slathered with thick blueberry-blackberry jam. My neighbors at the bar, overhearing me introduce myself as an out-of-towner, struck up conversation. The guy to my right was on his way out of town, moving to Cincinatti to serve a one-year fellowship as a team doctor to the Reds. He said of the guy to my left, "You've come to the right place; he's the mayor of Kalamazoo." It took several jokes and 20 minutes of conversation later to figure out he was, in fact, the actual mayor.

Me and Mayor Bobby Hopewell. An incredibly nice guy who, in addition to his civic service, works in hospital administration. On his way out, he told the Food Dance folks he wanted to pick up my check. Kalamazoo, you rock. 

Bobby said my mission of coffeeshop surveyance would not be complete without a visit to the Black Owl, so that is where I went to finish Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds. This is a small but very cool new venue, with a steampunk aesthetic and six different methods of making their coffee. There are plans to add a bar angle; I bet it flourishes.

To walk off all the calories from my morning's indulgences I headed down to the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, which offers quite a bargain of entertainment for $5 admission. An exhibit of Ansel Adams photography had just opened over the weekend. An unexpected highlight was "Stoked: Five Artists of Fire and Clay," which focuses on the legacy of the Saint John's University Pottery studio, now in its thirtieth year, anchored by the influence of artist in residence Richard Bresnahan. My favorite work was by his youngest apprentice (and the only woman) Anne Meyer.

No Kalamazoo experience is complete without a round at the Eccentric Cafe of Bell's Brewery, for which Jon met up with me. Bell's has quite a friendly, boisterous scene; I bet it's a great place for live music. I ordered a flight of six samplers and decided my favorite was Harvest Ale, a pale ale brewed with Michigan-sourced barley and hops. My dinner was the veritable bucket o'peanuts they scooped me for $1.60.

By the time we left Bell's the snow was coming down. We made a quick pit stop at the aptly named Beer and Skittles; I picked up one last Michigan beer, New Holland's "The Poet" Oatmeal Stout. Jon dropped me off at Water Street's Oakland location--where chairs are luxurious and KBAC broadsides are on display--to head home with Marianne, where we spent a few hours talking before deep sleep (part one; "deep sleep, part two" took place at the aforementioned library, where Marianne now works). 

I met Marianne on my first night of my first visit to Virginia Center for Creative Arts, way back in 2005. We had no way of knowing that she'd be my editor at New Issues, much less that eight years later we'd be in her living room. One thing I've learned about traveling is that everyone has their favorite cities and towns; places where you'll take any excuse to go back for a visit. Kalamazoo, welcome to my list. I'll see you again.

January 23, 2013

Rabbit Holes

"tuff turf" is from Minneapolis artist Brock Davis's collection "2012 iPhone photos," favorites taken over the past year. Lots of wonderful images to be found. 

Amidst teaching classes and finalizing my poetry manuscript (!), on Friday I'll fly to Michigan for a Saturday night reading at the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center with Jill Osier. They have designed a broadside of one of my poems--but I don't know which poem. Since it'll be on the snowy side, my sightseeing plans are modest: a series of coffeeshops, the local art museum, and Bell's brewery. Then on Wednesday, February 6, I will trek up to Charlottesville for a reading with the VQR folks. It will take place at OpenGrounds, an interdisciplinary space that didn't even exist when I was at UVA. 

There's been a lot of "po-world" conversations buzzing around the internets in the past month, from Robert Pinsky's announcement that Slate will no longer publish poems; to Richard Blanco's inauguration day poem (and, dare I say, his Huffington Post essay that probably won even more hearts in the writing community); to the laughable inauguration poem authored by James Franco, which becomes less funny when you realize he has a contract for a collection with Graywolf, an opportunity so many poets work their whole lives toward; to the headlines determined to frame Sharon Olds' T.S. Eliot prize in the context of her divorce; to this ridiculous blogpost by Washington Post staffer Alexandra Petri, which was immediately smacked down by Coldfront's John Deming and others. 

I never know how far to go with these discussions, especially in the strange space of social media. The problem with Facebook is that people (myself included) go on too long; the problem with Twitter is that we have to keep comments so short. What I do know is that if I get physical flashbacks to the days of my college debating society--sweating, nausea, loss of circulation in a foot too long folded under me--that's a bad sign. Besides, so much of it is momentary, passing. This is not the month that poetry will live or die in contemporary culture. Poetry is a coelacanth, lurking and ancient. Yet it's also the sparrow; everywhere, accessible. Poetry can take care of itself.

That said, the moments that have interested me have not been Poets vs. The Philistine World, but Writers Disagreeing With Writers. The latter is getting lost amidst the bluster of the former. I was surprised to see a respected editor say on Facebook that Sharon Olds is a particular case who has earned having a heavy biographical reading applied to her work because she lacks attention to craft. I disagree. And I would love to have a deeper discussion of that, looking at exemplar poems from the perspective of line break and figurative language. 

I was surprised when poets said that the "fiscal pressures" that led to Slate's editorial decision (though I doubt that is the real, sole reason) should be allayed by having poetry editors volunteer their time, and poets forgo contributor fees. That is categorically bad precedent to set. No magazine that pays should be encouraged to think of poetry as a mode that isn't "real work" and needn't be compensated in a manner comparable to other genres. Even if that means venues wither along the way because their ROI isn't judged sufficient. But there are poets I respect who would disagree with me. And that's the conversation I'd like to have, in real time and space. Not on Twitter.

AWP in Boston is coming up in March. Most attendees joke about the fact that the hotel bar and the offsites are as much the destination of the in-conference events. It's because the discussions we are craving most can't be pitched months in advance. They lace together news and gossip, personal experience and bias. I'm game to go down the rabbit hole with y'all in discussing these issues, and others. But only if we can hold hands along the way, and drink from the same bottle of potion. You can't hold hands online. As for the potion--well, that's why I carry a flask to AWP. 

January 16, 2013

Life Among the Bears

I am halfway through my second week at Lenoir-Rhyne University, whose mascot is the Bears. Our poetry workshop kicked off with looking at some of my favorite contemporary poems, such as Meg Kearney's "Creed" (anaphora and other rhetorical ordering principles) and Natasha Trethewey's "Mississippi" (explaining the ghazal form). We looked at Henry Taylor's "Artichoke":


"If poetry did not exist, would you
have had the wit to invent it?" 
-Howard Nemerov

He had studied in private years ago 
the way to eat these things, and was prepared 
when she set the clipped green globe before him. 
He only wondered (as he always did 
when he plucked from the base the first thick leaf, 
dipped it into the sauce and caught her eye
as he deftly set the velvet curve against 
the inside edges of his lower teeth
and drew the tender pulp towards his tongue
while she made some predictable remark
about the sensuality of this act
then sheared away the spines and ate the heart)
what mind, what hunger, first saw this as food.

-H.T. (from The Flying Change)

...They immediately fixated on that parenthetical phrase, of course, and the way it changes the tone of the scene. I asked if they'd ever seen a similar move in a poem. Then I showed them how it echoes something John Keats did two hundred years earlier:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is–
I hold it towards you.

-J.K. (1795-1821)

That's what I love about teaching, those little a-ha moments.

This week I came on strong with the craft vocabulary. I admit, John Hollander isn't the friendliest voice for beginning students. (He's like Waldorf and Statler combined, if Waldorf and Statler insisted on bickering in iambic pentameter.) But I'm a big believer that workshoppers are always talking about things in loosey-goosey terms when there are wonderful words--caesura, assonance, spondee, stichic, chiasmus--designed to articulate our aesthetic impressions. If I can inspire even one student out of fourteen to adopt the vocabulary of form in talking about free verse, to understand that the two modes exist on a continuum, I'll be thrilled. 

I was met with glassy stares by the time we got to ottava rimaThey're antsy to turn to their own poems.  "I gotta give you vegetables first," I said, "before the cotton candy and funnel cake." At one point, I chanted the "Pat-a-cake" nursery rhyme (to demonstrate accentual meter), and I seriously considered tap-dancing in anapestic tetrameter. In for a penny, in for a pound. 

Hickory has its charms. My welcoming party included some fun, quirky conversations; never again, when buying chairs, will I settle for less eight-way hand-tied upholstery. (The things you learn in a furniture town.) I am exploring a spectrum of North Carolina beers. UMI, the Japanese restaurant, continues to amaze me--my new favorite dish is the vegetable nimono, which includes thick slices of gobo (mountain carrot) and lotus root simmered in a dashi broth. 

The roads are bizarrely tricky. In addition to quadrants (NE, NW, etc) there are numbered streets, numbered avenues, and numbered "Avenue Place"-s, often all three intersecting within feet of each other. There is Lenoir-Rhyne Boulevard, which seems like a convenient main road--up until the intersection where Lenoir-Rhyne's campus is within sight-line, at which point it refuses to let you enter and veers off to the right instead. Bears must have excellent senses of direction but I, mere poet, get lost and turn around and get lost again. Luckily I'm used to it. I am, after all, also a DC girl.

January 04, 2013

My Heart is Full

My heart is full.

I don't mean my heart is a playpen of puppies. My heart is full like a saturated cloud chamber in which the slightest particle shift causes precipitation. So much good and bad has been happening that I don't know how to hold it all. If you've noticed my online quiet--and it extends another week or so--you know the cause. 

I was in Mississippi when I learned about the passing of Jake Adam York. 36 hours earlier I had been having a spirited conversation about local real estate in the Faulkner/Falkner House kitchen with Jake's brother Joe, and Joe's beautiful & pregnant wife Kathryn (now a proud mama of a gorgeous little girl). I spent the night in between sleeping on the floor of a borrowed living room in Water Valley, rain falling in torrential sheets over the tin roof. The man I love had put a ring on my finger and I said Yes, all over again. Then I said This house is not our house, is it? 

It wasn't, much as we'd wanted it to be. So we went out and found the finest crab legs and corn you can get cooked in a gas station. We hunkered down and made best of it. The diamonds got juicy with king crab juice and spice boil. A storm came and went. And the next night, when we went out for the fancy dinner befitting an engagement, I was selfish enough to check Facebook on my phone, and there was news of Jake. 

A moment of grace for a barbecue poet. 
A proper obituary. 
A couple of joyous fools in earnest conversation for Southern Spaces. 
His amazing poems.

We'd traded emails not that long ago, on the occasion of his reading in Jackson one night, mine the next--two ships, passing. We promised a drink for next time. There was always such a promise. That man was determined to teach even a diehard scotch lover like myself to enjoy bourbon. We split the difference with rye.

First time we traded missives was spring of 2010, after I'd been asked to follow in his footsteps as Ole Miss Summer Poet in Residence in Oxford, a town and summer than changed my life. Jake warned of bees living in the Grisham House mailbox. He praised Jack Pendarvis. His solemn advice was, "And since I did it last year you have to roast a hog or some other large animal at the conclusion of your residency."

He was writing some of the bravest poems of any of us, poems than confronted and embraced American history in equal measure. If the world were a James Bond villain, its gift would be the cruelty of juxtaposition. There's a newborn who doesn't even know the uncle she's missing. 

I woke from a nap on January 1 and thought, 8:09 PM? Too late to call. But I called anyway--to wish the woman who has mentored me, who has done so much to shape the author I am today, a Happy New Year. Only to find out she'd fallen down a flight of concrete stairs the day before. Her husband answered her cell phone. Somehow she was awake, voice odd from the hospital's oxygen, and we spoke. She was determined to offer her house as our wedding palace. She spent all today in surgery. 

I am praying. I never pray. I listen over and over to the interview that Maurice Sendak did with NPR shortly before his death. Don't even get me started on "The Lives They Loved," which pulls me down the slope of tears every time I even try to read it. My heart is full. I go over Jason Crane's 2012 round-up (of which I was honored to play a small part) and I love the honesty there. It is the eve of my move down to Hickory, and I am as tense as a bird that hasn't yet figured out it has wings. For all the celebrations going on in my life--and they are many--there is also the the knowledge of loss and change. 

So much happens in a year, to break our hearts and mend them, to break them again and make them ever stronger.