December 31, 2015

Refreshing Your Journals in the New Year



Like most folks, I have my handful of New Year's Day traditions. I simmer up black-eyed peas with greens for luck. We make a batch of Bloody Marys. I update my address book, write cards, and maybe have a few friends come by. 

I also look around my one-bedroom apartment, in which my writing desk has to double as our dining table, and think, How can I clear out to create space for the new year?

If you're a writer, journal subscriptions are probably part of your world. We buy them to show our support for the editorial aesthetic, or because of an exceptionally fine bit of AWP swag, or because subscribing was built into a context fee. I get a half-dozen literary journals at any time, with slight variations from year to year--Gettysburg Review and Gulf Coast one year, AGNI and Georgia Review the next--plus comp and contributor copies. That's a whole lotta paper that comes marching into my mailbox. 

When to read them all? 

The truth is, most of my favorite journals are too bulky to grab for a Metro ride or stick in a carry-on bag. At the end of a long day, I'm more likely to reach for Real Simple, Washingtonian, or one of the other glossy mags that live on our coffee table. Sunday mornings are reserved for the New York Times. I have two books to read for teaching to students, another on the horizon for book club. I say to myself I want to save that issue for when I can give it the time it deserves. 

So, the stack grows higher. And higher. Eventually, the prospect of reading transmogrifies from "anticipatory pleasure" to "looming guilt trip."

A few years back, I decided enough was enough. Here's my strategy: 

-On or about New Year's Day, I round up all the unread journals in my house from the year before. There's usually at least six, and as many as ten. 

-I give myself permission to leaf through, to skim, rather than reading everything. But when I find something I particularly love--an essay, poem, or short story--I flag it. The goal is to find one piece per issue, two max. Then I use the Contributor's Notes to find an email address for each of the authors. Sometimes this isn't possible, but there is usually an academic or other professional affiliation mentioned. 

-The note! This is the best part. I keep it short and sweet, because I don't really know anything about this person (and vice versa). But I take the time to say I loved your piece, and maybe here's why. I say If you come to DC to read, please let me know. I say, particularly if it isn't someone with a book out yet, Please keep writing. 

Sometimes I never hear back. Sometimes it is exactly what that person needed to hear. Sometimes quick notes turn into real, substantive correspondences. 

The bonus: I can give myself permission to scootch these journals out the door, because I have honored the work. Which makes room for a new year of journals. 

There's much meditation, at this time of year, on how we spend our time. I see a lot of people swearing off the internet, or turning email auto-replies on. But my online silences of the year past (some involuntary, some intentioned, some accidental) have only strengthened my sense of being a writer who thrives on engagement. Thanks for keeping an eye on this space. A flurry of end-of-year emails is just one small way I can give back to a community that offers me so much in return. 

One other thing: Don't forget the jalapeño in the black-eyed peas. 

December 17, 2015

What's Next


2015 was a more complicated year than expected. Everyone in my world was doing the heavy lifting of preserving finances, battling illness, and trying to focus plans for the future. I didn't spend time where or how I thought I would. Some things fell through. 

I refuse to be permanently daunted. I might sleep in a few days more darkened winter mornings than necessary. I might fall off the internets for a month or two.  But my takeaways to 2016 include a happy, healthy kitty (at last!); a collection of poetry bound for paperback; and a busy schedule of spring readings and travel. 

I want to write essays. I am ready to write essays. But first and foremost, I will always be a poet--and I'm so, so grateful to everyone who spent time with Count the Waves this year. That includes the painter who sent me a snapshot of my book sprawling on his Persian rug,  and another of his "inner flamingo" navigating the palm fronds outside his home. 

That includes the incredibly talented cartoonist down in Florida who sends funny, empathetic stories, who has shown me how poetry touches a life shaded in hardship. It has been years since I had a pen-pal. (My last official pen-pal-ship ended badly, when I tried to send her a gift--a hand-wrapped, decorated pencil--which got caught up in the USPS machines and shredded. Took two months for it to bounce back as "DAMAGED." She didn't realize I'd tried to reply and, hurt, fell into silence. I was 12.) That also includes the US Army JAG officer who, because he is used to the strange angles and compressions of writing in code, was drawn to the Traveler's Vade Mecum series. "I am [5450]," led off his note. 


That includes the community of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which has been publishing my poems about Southern culinary traditions in their quarterly journal, GRAVY, which was honored with the 2015 James Beard Foundation Award for Publication of the Year. Our found rhythm includes working with artist Natalie K. Nelson, who has a great sense of humor. Her illustrations illuminate. The downside is that sometimes I worry that the "poetry world" doesn't realize I'm even writing poems. The upside is in October, I went down to Oxford, Mississippi, and read for an audience of restauranteurs, chefs, farmers, food purveyors and lovers. The experience was honestly the highlight of my year, entirely outside of any literati-industrial complex.


If there is a writer who has meant something to you in the past year, I can't say this loudly enough: reach out to her or him. Let authors know how their work, old or new, touched you. Sometimes such notes can be the lifeline in an otherwise impossible day. 


I had a conversation the other night about that haunting question, "What's next?" We always hear it as judgment, e.g., What you've done so far is not enough. But it really is a vote of confidence. What's next? Everything. One word at a time. 

September 11, 2015

A Report from the Maelstrom

I've been sleeping incredibly odd hours (today's wake up time: 3 AM) and nursing a sick kitty. I'm both ready for fall and deeply terrified by the onset of fall. But I would be remiss if I didn't check in to share this apology, which AWP Executive Director David Fenza extended to professor and writer Laura Mullen. 

An apology is an appropriate, appreciated gesture. An apology is not a a fix-all. There is a lot of work to be done, as has been evidenced by the continuing storm of discussion around the (American) poetry world.

These are some of the most powerful things I have read in the past few weeks….

Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo - "Kate Gale, Red Hen, and What Poetry and Community Mean to Me"

Linda Rodriguez - "Why Taking Issue with Racist, Homophobic, Ableist Stereotypes Does Not Equal Being a Member of ISIS and Other Home Truths"

Brian Spears - "Yellowface in Poetry"

David Mura - "On the Controversy Over A White Poet Submitting as 'Yi-Fen Chou' and Being Chosen By Sherman Alexie for the Best American Poetry Anthology"

Molly Brodak - "How (Not) to Apologize"


I've seen some fatigue in social media, especially in the past week: complaints that poets are spending too much energy on slings and arrows, not enough time on poems. But I don't see why one has to crowd out the other. There are wonderful things going on in the poetry world every day. Chen Chen's chapbook is out. Emilia Phillips published this beautiful, hard poem, "Scar.Tafisha A. Edwards published this beautiful, hard poem, "The Double Blind." Joy Harjo just won the Wallace Stevens Award. Iliana Rocha's Karankawa, the manuscript Joy chose for the 2014 Donald Hall Prize, is out. The new issue of Poetry Northwest is out, and it's a humdinger.

I'm not fatigued. Well, I am, but that's because I'm drinking Red Bull and gazing lovingly at a cat with a flesh wound who seems determined to sleep on the top edge of the couch despite the risk of falling off, and I still have hours of work to do. But in terms of poetry, I refuse to feel anything other than energized and grateful for all the bravery, all the words, all the tussle, and even the moments of necessary discord, as long as they can signify that growth is taking place. And that's on us--to make that change happen, rather than letting it all collapse into blather. 

More soon.

August 25, 2015

Still Standing / Still Standing with Laura Mullen


Thank you to everyone who spoke out last week, when "Chicks Dig Poetry"--first the specific link to the post below, then the entire blog--was flagged (by who I'll never know) as being "abusive" and was blocked from Facebook. All earlier links to CDP on my personal or Author page were compromised as well. For some of us, the scrubbing of links took portions of a larger conversation with it.

This is a reminder of how easily social media's tools to protect can be misused to censor. Initially, I had no recourse beyond submitting generic forms to contest the decision. But an outcry on Twitter got Facebook's attention, and a friend facilitated an in-house request to investigate. The flag was subsequently overturned, and CDP is allowed on Facebook's pages. 

At no time have I had reason to think anyone closely affiliated with the Association of Writers & Writing Programs triggered the block. Staff members went out of their way to express support. It's important to not conflate what happened here, as frustrating as it was, with people's concerns about AWP leadership; by the same token, having this issue "fixed" should not be false comfort when real concerns remain.

I spoke with AWP Executive Director David Fenza for an hour on the afternoon of Wednesday, August 19. I appreciate him taking the time. We are in agreement on some things, and I respect that he has dedicated years to fostering this organization. 

That said, I return to three points:

-Mr. Fenza interpreted sending and favoriting Tweets, as Laura Mullen did using her personal Twitter account, as public actions in her capacity as an academic. 


-He chose to cc this letter to the Department Chair and Vice Chair at Louisiana State University, where Laura Mullen is the Director of Creative Writing.

My concerns related to these points were not dispelled by our conversation. There were internal contradictions in Mr. Fenza's justifications. There are external inconsistencies with the values I hold as a writer and a member of AWP. 


There has been one thing that everyone who I spoke to because of an AWP affiliation seemed to agree on: the Executive Director acted in error. But there has been no public acknowledgement, even in a statement that mentions me by name. As of checking in with Laura Mullen last night, there has been no private apology either. 


I understand the need for off-the-record conversation, especially when people are gathering facts. But when the gap between what is said behind the scenes and what is said on the record grows too significant, everyone's credibility is damaged. If we let the silence stand, then we send the message that this is all okay. 

This is not okay. 

In the life of any organization, members will have questions, criticisms, even flat-out complaints. Sometimes the most inconvenient ideas yield the most growth. We have to be free to voice dissent without fear of disproportionate recrimination. Our latitude to speak, and our ability to object, should be regardless of our individual rank or stature. If there are not appropriate protocols in place to ensure that, there should be. 

Laura Mullen deserves an apology. 

August 15, 2015

In Praise of Transparency & In Support of Laura Mullen



(Above: today's view from my living room window, the Capitol on the far left.)


Once a month, I update this blog. Three times a month, I consider suspending it. Not because I haven't loved the space--and I appreciate those of you who check in for new posts--but because much of my freelancing energies competes for the same stories, interests, and time that were originally central to "Chicks Dig Poetry." Still, this blog persists, part diary & part travelogue. And in part because news comes along, from time to time, that needs a space to be addressed beyond Twitter and Facebook

For the past few years, there has been increased scrutiny toward the annual AWP Conference. In part, this is a positive testament to the conference's influence (it's a fun, productive time for many, and for many, participation is an important part of their career path) and popularity (15K attendees in 2015). In part, this level of discernment is a reflection of critical attention to gender and racial diversity, and other identity politics such as disability, on the literary landscape--most easily evidenced by the annual VIDA Count. After AWP determined the accepted panels for the 2016 Conference in Los Angeles, a technical glitch caused applicants to be able to prematurely view their status (or some telling variation of it). So understandably, perhaps they were on the defensive when the official outcomes were announced.

Like many, I shared this list via social media. Some of the literary community called for a breakdown of who was "accepted" (if affiliation with a panel acceptance equals "acceptance") broken down to race and gender, with an eye toward ratio of application versus acceptance. In example, Laura Mullen's RT to my Tweet~


I am embarrassed to admit, I didn't reply. Not because it wasn't a legitimate question, but because that was a day I was largely offline, and once back online I didn't have the answer, and it wasn't my answer to give. But Mullen had also taken her query to the audience of @awpwriter (AWP's handle) and Twitter as a whole, as is her right~


And, here's what happened:

David Fenza, the Executive Director of AWP for the last 20 years, wrote her a scolding letter. As if she was an obstreperous schoolgirl. And he cc-ed the Chair and Associate Chair of the English Department at Louisiana State University, where Mullen is employed--though her Tweets were from a personal account with no LSU affiliation.

Laura Mullen shares the letter in its entirety on her blog, "afteriwas dead," but let me single out two particularly combative phrases amidst what is otherwise a lot of boilerplate in descriptive praise of AWP's activities:

First, the opening~

We would hope that the director of a member AWP program would support our association rather than cast aspersions upon it via twitter, as you have done. 

Then, this~

We are sorry if proposals your cared about deeply were rejected. Most of the submissions were rejected, including those with many of today's most prominent authors; but it’s unfair to suggest, as you have, that AWP discriminates against women and other groups when the subcommittee has helped to build an extremely diverse program.

Okay, let's clarify:

Requesting additional information is not casting aspersions.
Requesting additional information is not suggesting discrimination. 

As it happens, Laura Mullen is an accomplished author and an established teacher; she is the recipient of multiple Louisiana Board of Regents ATLAS grants and MacDowell Colony fellowships, as well as being a 1988 NEA fellow, a National Poetry Series winner, and a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. 

What if she had been a young voice, a tenure-track hire fighting for security at LSU? 

The fact that David Fenza--an academic who presumably grasps such subtleties--would take such a malicious intimidation tact is deeply inappropriate. 

Just to make clear: I think it might be logistically infeasible (I deleted the word "unfair" here, which is not logical) for AWP to be expected to retroactively gather and provide this information on the racial / gender breakdown of accepted versus rejected panelists for the 2016 conference. In this, Laura Mullen and I disagree. But I think it is completely within her rights to request the information. 

Her request draws attention to a critical opportunity. Because applicants have to draft and submit a bio, meaning there must be a degree of active engagement, AWP can add an optional gender and race survey (ideally with the option of selecting multiple "race" categories, since the signifier is flawed). Already, this would have an advantage over VIDA's struggle to document publication statistically based on--at least, initially--byline alone. 

Just to make clear: AWP does a wonderful job, with a very small staff, serving an extraordinarily large constituency with a plethora of needs. They are often asked to perform duties above and beyond what they were trained for, or are compensated for. I admire wonderful AWP Board and Committee Members like Oliver de la Paz, Ira Sukrungruang, and Anna Leahy. I have attended the last decade's worth of conferences, including getting food poisoning at the Austin conference hotel. The Writer's Chronicle is a really valuable resource. I judged an award for AWP earlier this year. I am scheduled to take part on an AWP panel in 2016, on "Furious and Burning Duende." 

And I think this is a profoundly bad thing that needs to be made right. 

Fenza formally identified himself as the Executive Director of AWP in his email signature. Is this what AWP wants to stand behind? Bullying of those who dare raise concerns about diversity? 

Because, if not, he owes Laura Mullen an apology--with a cc to her colleagues. 

Since it would be disingenuous to raise such a strong objection without direct contact, I am (simultaneous to this blog post) sending an email to David Fenza with a cc to Christian Teresi (Director of Conferences), Bonnie Culver (Board of Trustees Chair), Robin Reagler and Oliver de la Paz (Board of Trustees Vice Chairs).

July 16, 2015

Travels

Last week, I did a quartet of readings for Count the Waves in Virginia and North Carolina. The thing about working at home is that you almost never take a "day off." But on the road for a reading, you can explore a new town's shops, restaurants, and people, and still feel like you're putting in a day's work. It is work. You gotta be on time, have book stock in hand, give a good reading, and be ready to answer any question. 

But it's a lucky kind of work, and makes up for many days spent stressing over bills and freelance deadlines. Being a writer is a way to explore the world. 

Whenever I get back from one of these trips, my mind is brimming with ideas. Then someone asks "How was it?" and I never know where to start or what to say. I take snapshots, whenever and wherever I can, as a way of shaping the story.

In other words: Hi Mom! This is for you. 



First stop: Richmond, Virginia, home to Plan 9. They opened as a used record shop back in 1981, and it's lovely to see the focus come back to vinyl--they celebrated their "33⅓ birthday" this year. Since Champneys couldn't come with me, I went album hunting on his behalf. The haul: Darol Anger's Fiddlistics, Flatt and Scruggs covering Bob Dylan, and "Cajun Swamp Music Live: The Clifton Chenier Band."


World of Mirth in Carytown is one of the best children's stores in the country--with a focus on handcrafted, environmentally responsible, and just plain joyous toys. There is a sad story behind the shop: WoM was the vision of Kathryn Harvey, who was tragically murdered, along with her musician husband and their two daughters, during a 2006 New Year's Day home invasion. That crime spree shook the community; if you've ever heard "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife," from the Drive-By Truckers' album Brighter Than Creation's Dark, it is about the Harvey family. But the dream lives on, and thrives. You can find every variety of creature, costume, puppet, or brightly colored goo. I'm a first-time aunt, so I went to town. (Let's hope Rhoda-Jane likes the sippy cups made to look like Ramen cups and Sriracha bottles.) 

The moment the register finished ringing, I dashed down the block to Chop Suey.


My reading companions were Simeon Berry & Cecily Iddings, en route to The So and So Series in Raleigh. We were greeted by the bear hug of Ward Tefft, the man behind the bookstore. Simeon read from two new collections; Cecily shared a long poem from Everyone Here, out from Octopus Books, one of my favorite indie publishers. 



There were local friends in the audience, folks from the Blackbird community, an old UVA workshop buddy, and Kent Ippolito, husband to the late great poet Claudia Emerson. When I shared the title poem from the book, the sestina "Let Me Count the Waves," I mentioned that she had seen the very first draft (we were both at the Sewanee Writers' Conference at the time). 

Afterwards, all three poets signed books under the watchful eye of WonTon, House Supercat. We headed to dinner across the street, at The Daily. 

…and later, thanks to poet-Goddess Emilia Phillips and her partner Jeremy, there was pinball. And wine. And more pinball. 
The next morning, I ventured on to Chapel Hill by way of Durham, where I hit another record shop. I also shamelessly offered to sign a copy of Count the Waves when I found it on the shelf at The Regulator, and I bought Jim Fusilli's 33 1/3 guide to Pet Sounds.


There's a shop in Durham that carries Effie's Heart, a California label. I would live out of Effie's closet if I could (the actual designer is named Kimo Frazzitta). Dresses with sleeves! Skirts with pockets! You can never go wrong with pockets. This was my splurge purchase, but it has a practical side: since I'm teaching in an actual classroom this fall (American University), I will have to put on actual clothing. 

By 5 PM I had made my way to the strip mall in Chapel Hill that houses Flyleaf Books. I was intrigued by the restaurant next door, Lucha Tigre. 



The kitchen has a crazy premise of Mexican-Asian fusion, but it sent out the best posole I've had since visiting Santa Fe. With a side of wok-seared bok choy. And a jalapeño margarita. While I ate, I browsed one of three back copies of The Sun that I'd brought down with me. Though I'd read it before, I came across David Hernandez's poem "We Would Never Sleep."  (Pause. Go read this poem, please. This post will wait.)

Afterwards I slipped next door to meet the series hosts. I balanced out my bloodstream with a lemonade, and an espresso, and we headed into Flyleaf. I knew the face behind the register: Jake Fussell, formerly of Oxford. Second shock: Travis Smith, also a friend from Oxford days, also on staff. Their faces made me feel welcome and very nostalgic for Square Books. I can't wait to be back in Mississippi on August 20


I've known Dan Albergotti for years, always admiring his work, but we'd never read together before. The selections from Millennial Teeth were dark, but stunning and timely; it's an helluva collection. One of the poems he read, "Holy Night," won a Pushcart Prize this past spring. 


We had a substantial Open Mic peppered with tributes to James Tate. It's striking to realize how many readers'  lives he touched. The originals were one poem, one page. I particularly liked the chutzpah of Liz--a new transplant from Chicago--who delivered her poem despite having broken off a tooth in the hour before. Ouch. She read a persona poem dealing with domestic violence, re-claiming the absence as dramatic gesture. 

Weird coincidence: I'd lost my own fake tooth in the hour before. It fell irretrievably through gap in the plastic casing of my car and will now forever, creepily, ride along on these road trips. Luckily, I'm due to get the permanent on Tuesday, bringing my expensive and yearlong "damn you, baby tooth" saga to an end. 

Not glamorous to share that, but a poet's days aren't all pinball and shopping. 

Afterwards, I got to chat with folks including Abigail Browning, the founding force behind Tate Street. How did I not know she was in Chapel Hill? I visited with her at AWP, where I talked about my love for Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How Do I Love Thee?" for their Favorite Poem Project, an offshoot of Robert Pinsky's initiative. 


Being home-hosted is strange and lovely. You're thrust into the intimacies of a life--you see inside the fridge, you hear kids playing through the wall, and on this particular night, you arrive right as someone's grandmother has passed away. But one thing I admire in so many writers is their resilient flexibility, our recognition that life is nothing but juxtapositions and we grab at what we can--in this case, a conversation over a glass of water, before she headed to the airport to fly home to her family. 

My host suggested I check out Open Eye Cafe in nearby Carrboro. Intriguing little town, with crops and flowers in every yard. I browsed my way through Fifth Season Gardening and almost bought an air plant. (Tillandsia is pretty much the full extent of my gardening; we already have one, named Sangria.) The store had a generous section devoted to growing your own hops. I hit another record store, got a snack, finished another issue of The Sun. 



On the way to Greensboro, I made notes toward a new book idea. Vague, I know. Sorry; that's all I'm going to say about it for now. 

My host in Greensboro was Rhett Iseman Trull, editor of Cave Wall, her husband Jeff, and their young daughter. I've been a reader of Cave Wall since the earliest issues, and they published selections from both I Was the Jukebox and Count the Waves. I'd brought little Audrey a stuffed fox from World of Mirth, inadvertently channeling the mascot of Scuppernong Books



Dan and I had promised each other that we'd change up our sets. I learned a lot from hearing him read two nights in a row. Friday brought out his more playful poems, the ones that use rhetorical structures to riff on relationship dynamics. 


Here we are--Jeff, Rhett, Dan--friendships that, before I know it, will have spanned a decade. One person missing: Terry Kennedy. He's up in the mountains, writing in his cabin. We texted a questioning, "Where the hell are ya?" photo to his cell. Then I discovered he'd left a gift certificate for me at the register, with the invitation to have a Gibb's Hundred on him. Dammit! People that nice take all the fun out of being mean. 

We headed to the Gibb's Hundred tap room and Yes, Terry, the Pale Ale was amazing. 


After doubling back to Scuppernong the next day for lunch and to buy Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station--which I started reading while gnawing on my salmon "bacon" BLT, with squash salad and pickled green tomatoes--I headed Pittsboro. My soundtrack for the drive was Jake's new album ("Jake Xerxes Fussell"), traditionals, and I think PopMatters got it right: "Even with all the history built into these songs and this record, Fussell still emerges as a fresh and vital new voice, as a singer, a musician and a torch bearer for every true sound he’s come across to now." 

I wasn't sure what to expect in Fearrington Village. I found cows. 


Specifically, Belted Galloway cows. Goats. A donkey. And McIntyre's Books. 



When you have three readings with big crowds, three days in a row, it is the will of the gods that you will have all of three people at the fourth reading. 

But what people! A student from the University of Tampa's low-residency MFA program drove into town from his temporary home of Chatham, Virginia. The other two were strangers to me, a young couple visiting Fearrington Village from Norfolk in celebration of their anniversary. I gave an abbreviated reading and then we talked, eventually winding around to a potent coincidence: the woman had studied poetry at Mary Washington with Claudia Emerson. Claudia, whom Gordon, my UT student, is writing a 25-page essay about. Claudia, who I'd already been thinking about since Richmond, the very first one to lay eyes on what became this collection's title poem. 

Thanks to the generosity of the crowd, I somehow sold four books, meaning one more book than audience members. I call that a successful reading. 


I lingered on my way out. I had a long drive home to DC ahead, with a stop off in Richmond to sign Emilia's copy of Count the Waves and to pick up take-out ribs from Fat Dragon.  This will probably be the closest I get to a vacation this summer. It didn't help my tan one bit. But it helped my heart. 

June 04, 2015

A Book Is Born


…and a kitty has landed.

On Sunday, we brought home Whisky (a name her foster parents wisely adapted from the original name, "Whizzer"). This sweet Tortie was brought to a shelter after her owner for the first eight years of her life passed away. Whisky is a Hemingway cat, polydactyl on all four paws, meaning I'm going to have to figure out how to clip 22 claws every six weeks. She's worth it. 

On Monday, Count the Waves was officially released into the world. 

When I first drafted "The Wake" at Virginia Center for Creative Arts back in 2005, inspired by the Venetian prints of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, it felt like The Little Poem That Could. John Poch awarded it the Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize from Passages North, which was a breakthrough for me. The $1K prize came at a critical time, and helped me convince my family that writing could be a career as well as a creative outlet. Yet I knew the poem didn't fit in with the searing biographical material of Theories of Falling or the funny, freewheeling poems that would become I Was the Jukebox. I resisted shoehorning it into either book, and told myself, "the right manuscript will come along to hold this." 

It would take a decade of life experiences--some thrilling, some fraught--several heartbreaks, and thousands of miles of travel in order to create that manuscript. 

It wasn't until 2013, when I was living for a semester on the campus at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina, and began working on another multi-part poem, "The Circus," this one based in artwork by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, that "The Wake" found its counterweight. Then a series inspired by The Traveler's Vade Mecum won the 2013 Center for Book Arts Chapbook Prize, thanks to Harryette Mullen and Sharon Dolin. Shuffling and re-shuffling the pages, I began to understand how these disparate elements were strangely necessary to one another. 

The "waves" of the title--a mishearing of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways"--refers to the Adriatic Sea coursing under the Ponte di Rialto, to the generations of women writers and feminists that have come before me, to the oceans we put between us, to the currents off the shore of Kauai, to the iterative energy of a sestina's endwords. Thanks in particular to my patient preliminary readers Maureen Thorson, Kyle Dargan, Hailey Leithauser, and John Casteen. They watched me wrestle with how to, as one poet put it, "braid a series of series." 

Count the Waves ultimately embraces its pairings, such as "The Wake" and "The Circus," but isn't afraid to displace them slightly, which is why "Fidelity (II)" comes before "Fidelity (I)." If there's one thematic through-line, it is the journeys we take toward pairing with each other. And how we dis-place ourselves along the way. 

If you like my work, if you believe in my voice, please support this book. Here's how:

  • Buy it from your local independent bookstore OR from one that ships across the country, like Elliott Bay Book Company
  • Catch me at one of the launch readings at Politics & Prose in DC (Sunday, June 5, with Kyle Dargan), or at BookCourt in Brooklyn (Friday, June 12, with Rosie Schaap), or at one of the later events listed on my revamped website, SandraBeasley.com
  • Don't see anything near you? Invite me to come to your town. If it's within six hours of driving distance and there's a couch to crash on, I'm in.
  • Ask a library to order the book. WorldCat tells me that this title is only on the shelves at four libraries--whereas I Was the Jukebox is on the shelves at 201 libraries, and Don't Kill the Birthday Girl is on the shelves at 560. 
  • Assign poems from the book to your students! I'm happy to answer questions about process over email, or Skype with your class.
  • If you're reading Count the Waves, let people know. Want a review copy? Just ask. I'm available for interviews for online, print, or radio. 
Publishing a poetry collection is not unlike giving your heart to a cat. You buy the healthiest food, the softest bed, the trendy water bowl with circulator. Everyone offers all kinds of advice. You put forward your affection, and you wait. Sometimes you're rewarded with attention, purring even. Other times you get a diffident stare.  You sigh, because you're learning that there is only so much you can control in this life. Tomorrow is another day. 

If there were magical literary catnip that I could sprinkle over these pages, I would. But all I can do is trust the poems--and you. I hope you enjoy Count the Waves.


May 05, 2015

Leaving the Aviary


I turn 35 today. Slipping out the back door of our building in workout shorts and sneakers, I was weighed down with one thing: a copy of Count the Waves, which I had signed for my old boss, mentor, and now friend. She lives on the other side of the National Zoo. When I used to make mail runs for her, I would stop off by the cheetah enclosure en route to the post office. I fired up my iPod to a random album: Old 97's "Fight Songs." 

I thought it was a random music choice. But as I paced up the paved hill toward elephants, I remembered the many months I walked through the zoo in the afternoons, pumping my arms to distract from the larger confusions of my life. The life I had dismantled, moving into my little studio; the life I tried to live in Mississippi from afar; the life I wanted to share with someone who was pulling away from me. I should have suspected when he gave me the Old 97's album that February of 2011. Cue the opening lyrics to the closing track, "Valentine":

Heartbreak, old friend, goodbye it's me again
Of late, I've had some thought of movin' in
Of all the many ways a man will lose his home
Well, there ain't none better than the girl who's movin' on

The National Zoo is not the finest or fanciest of institutions. Today, the sloth bear exhibit was bordered with caution tape, and I could not find one working water fountain. But I have always been loyal to this zoo, the way one is loyal to that slightly funky, odorous coffee-shop with the chipped mugs and diffident staff. 


The 8.5 ounces of a book was not the only thing weighing me down. Now that these poems are in the real world, I have to explain them. I recorded a radio interview yesterday, and at a few key moments I panicked, Can I create a narrative that honors what the book captures, without exploiting it? 

On so many days, the aviary--open until 4:30 PM in winter, 5:45 PM in summer--has been my refuge. After it was closed, I'd wind past the other bird enclosures. The opening poem features a flamingo. The closing poem features a peacock. 


I found a wonderful man. I married him. I'm grateful for every moment that has led me here, even the painful ones. I dropped the book off at my friend's place and kept walking, across the Ellington Bridge and back towards what has been home. Tomorrow, we hope to sign a lease on a new place down by the waterfront, in a different quadrant of the city. For the first time in ten years, I will have to find a new refuge. Maybe these next few weeks are not about constructing the perfect, gilded cage. Maybe it is about setting these poems free to fly. 

April 06, 2015

Spotted: Count the Waves in American Poet!

April is always 30 days of crazy, and not just because of National Poetry Month. It's the month taxes are due; the month students panic about the final projects looming ahead; the month when warming temperatures inspire a smile--that quickly turns into a sneeze, a sniffle, then a wheeze, as all my pollen allergies kick in. 

This year, April includes the lovely madness that is the AWP Conference. If you're going to be in Minneapolis, please consider joining us at the Best New Poets 10th Anniversary Reading on Friday morning. I'm also excited to take part in Tate Street's extension of the Favorite Poem Project, part of the initiative launched by Robert Pinsky during his tenure as Poet Laureate. I'll be talking about Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)."

Browning's sonnet--or rather, a purposeful mishearing of it--gives Count the Waves its title, and the opening line serves the book's epigraph. With June 1 publication on the horizon, I'm trying not to fixate on the fact that a handful of Advanced Review Copies are out in the world. My poems are in the hands of some powerful writers and editors, who might like them (or not), who might take them on for review (or not). Will the Traveler's Vade Mecum series make enough sense? Are the acrobatics of a sestina too irksome? Did I get the order of those last five poems right?

I'm trying not to fixate on it, but I'm failing. So it is an incredible gift to see my book given an advance mention in the summer issue of American Poets (the handsome pub of the Academy of American Poets). Here's the item:


COUNT THE WAVES
by Sandra Beasley
(W.W. Norton, June 2015)

Sandra Beasley's third collection negotiates a tense interplay between intimacy and distance, the gloss of fable and the coarser edges of lived experience: "What the parable does not tell you / is that this woman collects porcelain cats….This man knows they are tacky. Still, when the one / that had belonged to her great-aunt fell / and broke, he held her as she wept … // The parable does not care about such things." Ostensibly conversational in tone, Beasley's lines are crisp and propulsive with verbs, as they examine beauty in a new way: "No one // ever praises the ass of the peacock, grin of quills that does the heavy lifting." Such whimsical turns belie a spiritual devotion and the overall effect is suggestive of an illuminated manuscript: "The seams of our gold world weaken … Steady the hand that dares mend a sky." Beasley's poems also examine the notion of sacrifice, and look beyond easy or pleasing endings.

#

So much of this review gets at the heart of what the book is about; I particularly love the idea of an "illumined manuscript." Deep breath. It's foolish to be in a hurry for the finished book to arrive, because there is so much to be done between now and then. I've got a tour to plan, and a website to redesign. But my heart's a racin' towards June 1. 

March 18, 2015

Four By Two


I have been to California exactly twice. The first time was for a road trip with my dad that began in San Diego and ventured up Route 1 for four days. We rented a yellow Mustang, which we drove with the top down whenever possible ("I like it when you let your hair whip into knots"). I insisted we visit the Beverly Wilshire hotel, but was disappointed when it looked nothing like the scenes from Pretty Woman. Every restaurant we sat down in, I ordered the sashimi salad. 

In 2007, I flew out again for a two-day work trip that was memorable for three things: the plush bathrobe at the Omni, blooming bougainvillea everywhere, and hearing poems read in the voice of Dr. Spock, a.k.a. Leonard Nimoy. 

In a lifetime in which I am constantly grateful for travel, I know better than to complain. But I would really like to spend more time in the Golden State. In the meantime, I'm thrilled when someone sends me a snapshot of my book on the shelves of City Lights, or mentions spotting my work on a UC-Irvine professor's desk. It's a reminder: poems are not bound to their authors. They get around without our help. 

When Kurt Lipschutz (who publishes as klipschutz) sent me an email with the subject line "greetings from san francisco, and…" I knew that, however random it was, it was going to be good. Turned out to be great: an opportunity to be featured in Four by Two, which he called a "mini-mag quarterly"--low-fi, high-concept--published in hand-numbered editions. No submissions process; poets are selected through a combination of shared interest, referral, and lightning strike. The print run of the first issue was 150 copies. They have now doubled that to 300, and counting. 

As the name hints, each issue consists of four poems by two contributors. Want a year's worth, by mail, sent in a spiffy bespoke envelope? Just $20. 

When the three previous issues arrived, I gasped. You can see by the picture above--these things are gorgeous. I was grateful for a chance to group some poems by theme, without having to worry about previous publication. We decided to bring together two from I Was the Jukebox, and two from Count the Waves, for a portfolio of love (and love lost, and love disrupted) that we named "Arrhythmias." More emails. Proofing.

Then, lo and behold, the box arrived….



I knew that Kurt's collaborator, Jeremy Gaulke, would create art specific to each layout. But I couldn't have dreamed he would come up with an image that takes its cue from "Parable," in which one's worries "take his insides as their oyster; / coating themselves in juice--first gastric, / then nacreous--growing layer upon layer." 



If you could see this up close, you'd note how the heart is a properly organic organ, complete with the labeling of superior vena carta and the pulmonary artery. 

This kind of project is designed for eccentric makers and passionate readers; it is not a strategy to harvest media buzz. Kurt has a lot of other irons in the fire, including his ongoing songwriting with Chuck Prophet. Still, Zouch magazine has noticed, first with a review and more recently via an interview with Jeremy for their "Spatial Relations" series, and I suspect more press is on the horizon. 

Most poets are swamped with journals that accumulate, untouched, into a source of guilt. But Four by Two is a breath of fresh air; something you can unfold, read/enjoy/puzzle over, pin to your bulletin board for a week, and then move on. If you want in, subscribe here. One of the issues in this next season will feature the work of Sarah Hannah, a personal favorite who we lost far too soon--including, I hear, a never-before-published poem. 

This last month has been a blur of work, more work, stressing over buying our home, a flu, five days of teaching poetry to 10th graders, and now a cold. I hope, if I ever get out to San Francisco (maybe for Count the Waves? maybe?), that I get to shake klipschutz's hand and thank him for reminding me how far a poem can travel--even when its author is hunkered down, sniffling and sipping her umpteenth bowl of collard soup. Though for what it is worth, if you're going to binge on soup, collard soup is the way to go.