December 09, 2017

Your Community Recognizes [X] Is an Abuser, a Harasser, or Otherwise Compromised. So...What Now?

The Time magazine cover honoring "The Silence Breakers" is a good thing, though it would be a great thing if Tarana Burke was pictured.

Anonymous contributors are crowdsourcing experiences of "sexual harassment in the academy" (across multiple disciplines of study) on a site hosted by Karen Kelsky of "The Professor is In."

People are opening up about experiencing harassment, abuse, or other inappropriate boundary-crossing from people--sometimes powerful, beloved, or both--within their shared communities. In many cases, these experiences had already been expressed, then didn't receive the traction they should have. But some people (not all, but some) are doing a better job of listening now. 

All of this is easy to applaud in the abstract. Then the day comes when this happens in your own community. Now what?

I'm not talking about existing infrastructures for formal response, such as filing Title IX complaints or forcible removals from appointed positions. I'm talking about the larger body of actions we can take, as a community of artists or scholars, to ensure that a vulnerable party feels welcome. A few thoughts based on what I've observed:

-There's a lot of white, heterosexual men of mediocre talent who abuse, harass, or cross boundaries. The dominant power structure has protected them for some time. Unfortunately, you know who else is capable of bad decisions? Women. Writers of color. Gay people. People who are, themselves, survivors of religious or political persecution. People with disability. [X] may be part of a marginalized community too. Resist responding with exaggerated grief at "our loss." Do not imply a victim's decision to come forward is at the cost of a community's diversity or inclusivity (which, to be clear, is offensive on multiple levels). 

- Do not let someone's interaction with [X] define their time in your community. People suppresses complaints because no one wants be known as the "the one who...." The victimhood narrative can be like kudzu, obscuring everything else someone has accomplished. Always pair "we will address your concerns" or "I'm so glad you spoke up" with "now, how can we help promote into the world the talents that brought you to us?" Make it a point, when you cross paths down the road, to cite a shared experience that has nothing to do with [X]. 

-Sustained harassment or abuse often coincides with working closely together, which may be to the exclusion of other mentorship. When the relationship with [X] is severed, so is access to a reference that could speak in great depth to the vulnerable party's work in this period. Foster supplemental dialogue with someone of comparable stature, who can be relied on to provide a compelling reference going forward. Realize that without access to such letters, many hit a dead end in applying for competitive opportunities. 

This list of ideas will grow. I know there's more that we can do. And if you're reading this because you share a community with me personally, and there is something you need help with--professional support or a sympathetic ear--please let me know. 

November 25, 2017

How Much to Reveal or How to Reveal It

Lots going on in these past few months--including a fun conference about food writing in Tampa where I read new poems. I wrote some new poems, too. New poems! I put in final edits on an anthology I've edited, which will be out next year with a university press. Then a trip to Cyprus for an international poetry conference that I'm writing about for a magazine (fingers crossed), which means I can't write about it here. Yet. 

Before I go even one step further, I want to share this from Meg Day, a fantastic poet I got to read with back in April 2015 at the University of South Florida, and who I've been thrilled to call a friend ever since. I'm really excited to share the news that we'll be part of a Split This Rock panel together at the festival in April 2018. Day did a quick interview with 24 Pearl Street for their blog, and this is something she had to say:

MH: In your NEA interview, you mention how ASL is often misunderstood and diminished as a language of charades and how hearing people watching ASL poetry can further enforce that stereotype.  I minored in Hearing and Deafness studies so I’m familiar with this issue. Do you think it’s a matter of needing more interpreters or featuring more ASL poetry in the “literary world” or encouraging ASL as a more common second language?

MD: You mention more interpreters & featuring more ASL poetry in the literary world & encouraging ASL as a more common second language. I say YES-YES to all of this, though let’s make sure we get it right: there are plenty of interpreters, d/Deaf poetry is everywhere in the literary world, & ASL is already the fourth most common language in this country. We don’t need more terps, we need more access to terps & more sociocultural fluency around terps. We don’t need more ASL poetry (this is a lie; please, please more ASL poetry), we need editors who will publish it & do so with the understanding that this is a part of our American literary heritage & our contemporary poetics. In the midst of this Dis/Deaf Uprising—& a really gorgeous boom of dis poetics & dis activism—we’re encountering editors who either want to get crip credit for publishing ableist & audist poems that seek to (ab)use the disabled experience, or editors who want to tokenize & segregate Deaf & disabled poets in special issues. Both are really offensive & foolish ways to front investment in sustainable inclusion, or a comprehensive understanding of American poetics, or even an interest in the inevitable insult of archive. I think if editors got their acts together & the nondisabled poets who are offered stage time at big conference & festival readings insisted, at least, on accessibility—if not the actual inclusion of a disabled poet on the bill—we’d be well on our way to having more interesting & powerful conversations.

# Read the whole interview here #

Q&As are a funny currency in the literary world: so often there's a lack of return on investment, but then occasionally you get something great. A writer-friend connected a number of her writer-friends with her graduate student, to answer questions relevant to an MFA thesis project. I appreciated what her thoughtful questions stirred up. Specifically....

On how much to reveal:

I don’t know how much to reveal, or how to reveal it. That’s a lifelong project for any author. 

What’s funny is that when I read through my body of published writing—poems, freelance essays, memoir—I’m sometimes completely shocked at the naked details of life experience, or of my personal attitudes, that I’ve let float to the surface of a narrative. Sometimes there’s not enough context for anyone but me to recognize the reference, so I suppose that’s a kind of protective instinct. Other times I see how I’ve packaged a real-life anecdote and I’m overwhelmed by how much “more” there was to the actual event as I experienced it. But you don’t need to tell all of the story all of the time. Sometimes restraint is a good idea for the sake of your sanity, relations with friends and family, and the attention of your reader. 

There are essays I’m working on right now that might be something I can’t publish in the foreseeable future, because they trespass into the lives of others too much. But it would be a mistake to not write them for that reason. I’ve got to do the writing first, then decide. That’s endlessly frustrating to someone who is a perfectionist (as I am) and who works best toward external deadlines (as I do), but so be it. 

On the effects of social media on the dynamic of reader and writer: 

The great news is, Writers are real people! They have pets, and meals, and minor shopping frustrations, and major worries about the state of the world. Social media, depending on how they choose to use it, makes all of these nuances of character available to you as their reader. 

The terrible news is, Writers are real people! They have petty disagreements, their food photographs are poorly lit and unappetizing, their childhood friends have extreme political views, and they sometimes quote student mistakes in a way that they probably feel is “healthy venting” but to me is just inexcusable.

There’s a few dozen American emerging poets who all had blogs around the same time, mid-2000s, and we used that space to post substantive mini-essays about our lives and our thoughts on the publishing industry. The comments sections were hopping and largely respectful. I miss those dialogues. More importantly, I miss the way that reading those blogs was integrated with my exposure to the actual poems, since many of us were simultaneously page-neighbors in magazines and journals. 

If you are a reader of someone’s social media only—and I think more of us are in that position than we’d like to admit—do you count yourself as a “reader” of their work?

On identifying as a writer, and the "risk" of vulnerability:

I identify as a poet first, then as a nonfiction writer. Being a poet makes me a better nonfiction writer because I’m trained to recognize or apply framing conceits—ways of looking at things metaphorically—and because I’m particularly open to unconventional structure. Sometimes I’m drawn to explicit narratives, other times to subtle “landscapes” of text; I believe in the power of juxtaposition as well as argument. 

A writer doesn’t exist in a vacuum of aesthetics. I’m also a mix of inheritances that add up to being American, white, middle-class, and somewhat Southern. Fortunately, I was exposed to teachers who challenged me to read well beyond works by those who mirror me culturally. I am allied with those who have disability, in part because of my food allergies (multiple and life-threatening) and in part because every caring human should be allied with those who have disability. I’m frustrated that group, even specific to the literary world, is frequently left out of otherwise progressive advocacy conversations. 

You can’t be vulnerable without taking a risk. I’m not saying that to mock the question, but it’s really hard for me to envision being a poet or memoirist and not being vulnerable, and I’ve never been in denial of the risk associated with that, Maybe there are fiction writers who can feel differently? I’ve always wondered what that might be like, to build a world on the page. Anyway, the risk is worth the reward. I love every aspect of writing and publication: drafting, revision, submission, editorial correspondence, traveling for readings, even the dreaded “marketing.” I really do love the whole process, even when I’m complaining at 2 AM. 

On confidence and gender politics in writing:

Usually, rational confidence is grounded in the surety that you’re presenting information that is both correct and shaped well. Extra confidence—what we’d call charisma or bravado—is grounded in the knowledge that when you’re presenting is particularly insightful or novel. I’d resist gendering any of these criteria. I take pride in the fact that I’m not afraid to stake truth claims in my work. 

That said, I’ve always been a confident speaker. I played P.T. Barnum in the elementary school play one year, and then I was cast as Shakespeare’s Puck the next year. So does varying confidence affect my writing? Not so much. But I can set aside my particular instincts and sympathize with someone who has had a different base of experience, one which causes them inhibition or insecurity on the page. I’ve found that important to being a good teacher, because I’ve encountered amazing students who just needed help presenting their ideas with confidence. 

On being a feminist: 

Like a lot of American women of my generation, I had a long period in my youth when I took for granted the accomplishments of feminism. Sure, I noticed the ways in which “girl” and “boy” modes were differentiated and reinforced along stereotypical tracks (I was steered toward pink, versus blue; encouraged to play “nurse,” as opposed to “doctor"). But no one ever tried to restrict my movements, education, or creative output based on my gender. Birth control was an option. Abortion was an option. Hell, I could vote—I could open up a line of credit—I had no idea how relatively “new” these opportunities were. 

I wanted to be evaluated strictly in terms of merit, and so I resisted affiliating as a feminist or even simply as a “woman” writer, fearing those labels would somehow compromise the measure of my worth. I thought that to be taken seriously by the powers that be, which I now realize I’d equated implicitly to male powers, I’d have to suppress my identity as a woman. I’m not proud of my earlier solipsism; I just acknowledge it to provide contrast and perspective. I was also willfully ignoring some pretty crass and sexist behaviors coming my way, which at the time I thought showed my grit. 

I became a feminist when I recognized that my determination to “make it on my own” was a fallacy that ignored what those before me had sacrificed. I became a feminist because I started to see women I cared for slip through the cracks, failing to receive the support and nurturing they needed to succeed in art or academia or business, simultaneous to the pressure they felt to be caregivers. I became a feminist because I realized that the ways in which I diverged from what I thought of as “typical” feminist rhetoric or life experience made me more useful to the conversation, not less. 

How does this manifest? I hope in taking the time to help and mentor women in particular (and I use “women” here in an inclusive, non-binary sense; anyone who self-identifies that way), often in the form of gently pushing women to not internalize minor failures as global rejections or signs that they’re not "meant" to do something. I try to both listen for and correct, in real time, gendered assumptions in speech by myself and those around me. I read work by women, I teach their work to others, and I foreground them when asked to curate something. We set the examples for the next generation. If that means the students of tomorrow take it for granted that a syllabus features at least 50% literary works by women, then I’ve done my job. 

On the lure of the personal and "intellectual" vs. "emotional" writing:

Writing the personal is a natural extension of my entry into writing through poetry, which is so often driven by the intimate impulse; we get the term “lyric,” in part, from that centering on the I / eye. Illustrating experience is what makes reading powerful, so I’m not looking to separate the emotional from the intellectual. (An economist or sociologist might disagree with me; I admit that there are a few realms where the personal story can be misleading, but I’m speaking primarily about creative writing.)

What I’ll say, from a craft perspective, is that I admire personal writing that incorporates outside research from science and history. The essay collections and memoirs I love best interweave cultural history. Eula Biss, Margo Jefferson, Carmen Maria Machado, and Elena Passarello are all particularly good at this. Readers enjoy feeling like the journey is one of learning as well as understanding. Or at least, I do.

September 12, 2017

Dear IOTA Club and Cafe~

Dear IOTA, I know exactly how to get to you--Route 50 to 10th, then the sneaky cut across Danville Street. 

Dear IOTA, I've spent a lot of time balanced on the black-cushioned barstool, scribbling, over a concrete floor layered in slate blue and flecks of goldenrod. 

Dear IOTA, you were the only place I ordered Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale. 

Dear IOTA, a petite woman with red hair used to recite brief, rhymed poems in a thick Irish brogue to close every Sunday Poetry Series. I can't remember her name, but I can picture her face. 

Dear IOTA, you're where I got to know the glory of Fatslug.

Dear IOTA, your cover charge was always on point, never too much.

Dear IOTA, in 2005, I could figure out someone pretty fast by asking their favorite spot on Wilson: IOTA, Galaxy Hut, or Whitlow's.

Dear IOTA, that Erin McKeown show was amazing. 

Dear IOTA, I remember when your two halves were separated by the round bar, and sometimes it got weirdly complicated to meet up with a friend. 

Dear IOTA, I had a crush on one of your bartenders and used to bring my MFA homework around on slow nights to keep him company.

Dear IOTA, he played guitar at the Wednesday Open Mic and that cured my crush. 

Dear IOTA, you know how to cook a salmon fillet. 

Dear IOTA, the clip-on light for your music stand is absurdly bright. 

Dear IOTA, my family got used to spending Mother's Day with you, because Miles kept putting me on the May reading schedule.

Dear IOTA, I must have had a dozen conversations with Steve, and he was always too modest to mention he was the co-owner.

Dear IOTA, glass blocks will never go out of style, nor hippie paintings on brick of a smiling sun, leaping fish, and flowering vine. 

Dear IOTA, you used the visible I-bar along the ceiling to store CDs: brilliant.

Dear IOTA, when the mailman came to the door at night--he got the apartment number off my mail--to invite me out for a "date," I still dared step outside a half-hour later. Because I was heading to IOTA and I wasn't going to miss it for that creep. 

Dear IOTA, that Rose Polenzani show was amazing. 

Dear IOTA, there's never a more sensible place to store extra chairs than in the eaves over the exit. 

Dear IOTA, may your soundboard be ever protected by concrete blocks painted black. 

Dear IOTA, I was little thrown off the first year you draped Christmas lights all above the stage, but they've grown on me. 

Dear IOTA, no book I wrote was real until I read from it on your stage. 

Dear IOTA, I remember when you served your french fries on oval plates piled absurdly high, each plank the full length of a potato. 

Dear IOTA, for a time you made the terrible decision to serve french fries in mugs.

Dear IOTA, the batter was still crisp, the pepper sharp. You make the best french fries in the world. 

Dear IOTA, Clarendon developers will spend hundred of thousands of dollars trying to recreate the very thing that they crowded out.

Dear IOTA, your name is about to become a shibboleth.

Dear IOTA, on Sunday someone got up and read a poem for Charlottesville, and then another person, because you're where we take the drafts trying make sense of things.

Dear IOTA, you're the only place my voice still shakes as I step up to the mic. 

~September 10, 2017



September 08, 2017

Small Pleasures: Paprika Edition

Sometimes I use this blog for serious things. Sometimes I don't. 
& with that in mind, here's my latest experiment in cooking....



Potatoes (small bag, Yukon golds, skin-on)
Chickpeas (1 can)
Onion (1 small onion, yellow or white)
Garlic (1 head, whole cloves)
Fresno Chilis (2, thin-sliced, minimal seeds)

Capers (~3 tablespoons)
Kalamata Olives (~20 sliced)
Anchovies (~8 chopped)*
Fresh tomatoes (~1/2 cup, diced)
Lemon (1 whole lemon, juiced)
Parsley (1/2 bunch, Italian flat-leaf)

Paprika (regular, smoked, hot; your choice)
Olive oil
Vinegar (sherry, balsamic, port; your choice)

*Optional, for vegetarians


Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Cover two baking trays in aluminum foil. 

Use a large mixing bowl to combine potatoes (quartered), chickpeas (drained and rinsed), onion (chopped), and garlic (whole cloves). 

Lightly coat all with olive oil, salt, and paprika.

Spread onto baking sheets in a single layer. Set timer for ~15 minutes.

Cut and combine olives, anchovies, tomatoes; add capers and lemon juice. 

At 15-minute mark, turn potatoes and chickpeas and stir in olive-caper mixture, conserving any leftover "juice." Set timer for ~10 minutes.

Rinse, dry, and chop parsley. 

At timer's ring (total cook time ~40 minutes), remove baking sheets from the oven. Add finishing twists of pepper and a sprinkle of parsley over all; I also added some Hungarian (hot) paprika. Add a bit of vinegar to the "juice" to make a dressing.

This dish works hot, room temperature, or cold. 

I cook to soothe my nerves.

August 28, 2017

The Horizon

"So, are you working on a book?"

My father spent the question to be casual, mid-inning of a baseball game, but my pulse quickened all the same. Of course I'm working on a book. I'm working at least two books, and maybe three.

A writer has to keep her eyes on the page in front of her: the drafting. But we also have to keep our eyes on the horizon: the applications, the submissions, the arrangements. I've been working really hard editing an anthology that has neither official announcement or cover art yet. I've been setting up commitments in tandem with a 2018 visiting writer gig that has no press release yet. I've selected poems to be translated into Greek, for a festival where the participants' names are not yet on the webpage; afraid at every turn that the current political climate would curtail funding. 

This was the summer that I finally set up a professional filing system for my records as a teacher, which I began doing--in a serious, sustained sense--in 2014. 

This was the summer that I purged my closet of items designed for my body as it was and delighted in buying some new clothes for my body as it is. I made those purchases in Charlottesville on the Downtown Mall, on a Tuesday. On the Saturday later, a racist someone crashed a car through that same intersection and willfully killed a protestor advocating for a better version of this country. 

This was the summer where I kept wanting to make glib or celebratory postings on social media. But every time I checked the news I thought "Maybe when things aren't so fraught." There are things so much more important than this.

That said: I'm here. You're here. Thanks for being here. 

May 23, 2017

Talking About "Good Bones"

As any poet who has experience this will tell you, having a poem catch on--to go viral, to be replicated and shared even among those who don't usually consider themselves to be readers of poetry--is a strange feeling. For Maggie Smith, it's fair to say that the effect has been tectonic in scale. 

Her poem, "Good Bones" (originally published in the journal Waxwing), has been shared on Twitter by numerous celebrities; translated into multiple languages; interpreted in music and dance; used as a plot device on the television show Madam Secretary; and recited by Meryl Streep in front of a crowd at New York's Lincoln Center. Public Radio International named it "the official poem of 2016," estimating it to have been read by a million people. Her poem was made into a limited edition broadside (seen left; you can purchase it here). Her forthcoming book, previously titled Weep Up, has been retitled Good Bones (cover art below; you'll be able to purchase it from Tupelo Press this September)

I read the poem the day it was published, via an editor's Facebook link. Poets shared it, as poets do. But within the day, all kinds of people were sharing, tagged with comments mourning the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. (Another poem that resonated was "At Pegasus," by Terrance Hayes.) Sharing surged after British politician Jo Cox was killed, and again after America's presidential elections. Last night, as news spread about the bombing at pop star's concert in Manchester, "Good Bones" began making the rounds. The bittersweet side of this poem's success is that it's not a harbinger of happy times. Smith's words are embraced by those looking for comfort in the wake of disorder or outright tragedy. 

This is the kind of poem you spontaneously bring in to share with students on a numb and gloomy day. Or perhaps this is the kind of poem a student brings in and says, "I want to write about this." In the classroom, there will be a real temptation for any discussion of "Good Bones" be entirely thematic in focus. This is a poem about salvage, someone might say. This is a poem about hope. But to praise a poem on entirely topical terms is to miss out on Smith's precise craft. 

With that in mind, here's what I'd like to talk about, when I read "Good Bones":

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.

The first line--neatly endstopped--establishes a first-person speaker, identifies the speaker as a parent, and adds urgency by conveying its information in present tense. The poem presents a familiar truism ("Life is short"), but then personalizes the banality by framing it as a secret to be kept. The reader becomes complicit in the ruse. 

Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. 

If you pair the first clause (in line 2) and the final one (all of line 5), this sentence mirrors the opener--with the subtle shift into future tense, creating a pledge on top of line 1's claim. What interests me is how the speaker's character is developed substantially in the middle clauses, identifying with an impulse toward pleasure. At first, the comma proposes that "delicious" and "ill-advised" are in contrast to one another; in the refrain, the voice admits that the ways are delicious precisely because they are ill-advised. The speaker's choices made outside of being a parent is yet another secret to be kept from the kids. 

                                                 The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.

Secret #3, kiddos: life is short, yes; we're not in the best of all possible worlds, either. 

The first enjambment teases us by briefly teetering toward optimism (the "at least" in "The world is at least...") before a reality of pessimism sets in (the completing "...fifty percent terrible"). The usage of a numerical figure moves us to thinking about studies, statistics, and the march of infographics signature to contemporary reporting. The second enjambment splits "estimate" from its modifier of "conservative," leaving that word dangling in the eye of the reader. One's mind might go to the modern dichotomy of American politics (liberal vs. conservative), though the motive could simply be conserving the median length of line. 

For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. 

If you're going to assert a "terrible" state, you have to provide evidence, harnessed here through anaphora. The image of line 8 is straightforward: for every bird, symbolic of nature, man makes a gesture attacking nature. This is the ecological balance of of today's world. Note that this line is also endstopped, free of commas or other intermediate grammars, which anchors the poem's syntactic momentum. 

Lines 9-10 raise the stakes to human life. The previous sentence is the first to omit mention of the speaker's children. In this sentence, that awareness returns in the distillation of a "loved child" and, in symmetry, one subjected to violence--violence driven home by the hard consonance of "broken," "sunk," and "lake." In another poet's hands, this equation-making could become expository and prosaic; Smith smartly relies on the comma after "For every loved child," creating a midline caesura that fills with dread for the reader. 

                              Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. 

The diction relaxes a bit here ("half" instead of "fifty percent"), as the speaker reflects on the accumulated realizations of the first ten lines. We return to the refrain of "though I keep this from my children," but the power and authority located in the decision has been diluted. This is also the first occurrence of "you," though we don't pay too much attention to the word choice because of its colloquial stance.  

                                                                    I am trying
to sell them the world. 

Ignorance is not enough to protect them. Isolation is impossible. So what the speaker must do, instead, is attempt to promote engagement. The metaphor of "sell" takes the risk of moving us to the realm of commerce (raising questions of sincerity). Rather than dodging these connotations, Smith doubles down on the conceit of real estate. 

                                           Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: 

How strange and wonderful, in a fraught landscape, to encounter the humor of these lines. "Decent" is the perfect choice, implying good but also good-at-one's-job, which in this case is the task of closing the deal. There is a perverse, lively internal music between "realtor" and "real shithole," and the crassness of the latter term cuts through potential sentimentality. "Good bones" is an appealingly familiar term of real estate (there is an HGTV show called Good Bones) that summons thoughts of the body. 

Note that there are two deft conflations executed in this sentence. The first conflation--activated by the verb choice of "chirps"--is between the realtor and the bird of line 8. The impact of this is that we're encouraged to favor this character, regarding the realtor as ally rather than predator. The second conflation is between the "them" (the children of the previous sentence) and the "you" who is now taking the tour. 

                                   This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

This second conflation is significant because in these final lines, a facade drops. Though this is positioned as dialogue in-scene, these sentences break the fourth wall of the poem. We may argue that we're trying to sell the world to our children--that may be a useful external priority--but the truth is that we're trying to sell it to ourselves as well. The "you" becomes invitational and encompassing of the reader. 

Note, too, how the seemingly declarative repetition of "beautiful" is undercut by the modal verb choices. This is about what "could be," not what is. The penultimate line's enjambment leads into the affirmation-seeking "...right?" 

The irony of framing this as a text of comfort is that what appeals about "Good Bones" is its indeterminacy, the liminal space it occupies between hope and despair. That's what rewards multiple re-readings. That's what makes us trust the poem. 

Why am I sharing a text that you've probably read in at least a dozen other places? Because I'd like for you to see it with fresh eyes. Because I want Smith to be credited with more than "Right place, right time, right emotion." I'd like for you to see what I see--phrasing that sticks to your ribs not just because of its politics, but because of its construction. Form enacts content, I say to my students. This poem can be used to explore how to take on a big idea and ground it in bright, specific language and technical decisions on the page.  

Through all this attention, Smith seems to have maintained her generous spirit and a sense of humility. In an interview with Ohio State University (where she is an alumna of their MFA program), she said: “This poem feels less like mine than any other poem I’ve written. It belongs to others. I live in this nest in Ohio and my poem is flying to people and places I will never see. It has a bigger job to do.”

Thank you, Maggie Smith.

March 24, 2017

From the Hermitage Artist Retreat

I am on my penultimate day of five weeks at the Hermitage Artist Retreat in Manasota Key. The house that is the heart of the Hermitage space is over a century old; if you stand in the right spot you can see the Gulf out of one window, and the bay out of  another. I've overlapped with a drummer, a novelist, a composer, a photographer, a clarinetist, two playwrights, and a visual artist who is working on a memoir. 

Residencies are a chance to flex your wingspan. No one is pressuring you to get dressed, eat, or sleep at a certain hour. You might go a week without driving a car. The point isn't to take a break from working; the point is to privilege work you care about, that might live beyond you as art. If you're like me, you sit down with a piece of paper and literally reinvent what a day can look like.

I came down to Florida to work on my next nonfiction book. I came down here with an idea. But it was the long beach walks that gave me a title, solidified the outline, and fueled the drafting of opening chapters. The funny thing about an "idea" for nonfiction is that it's like an egg; perfect in concept. But you have to expose the inherent fragilities in your idea in order to overcome them. Here, the egg has been cracked. The real work begins.

Because I'm in the midst of writing nonfiction, I've been feasting on nonfiction. These are the books I read or re-read while I was here...

  • On Looking: Essays, by Lia Purport
  • Tell Me If You're Lying: Essays, by Sarah Sweeney
  • Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, edited by Joy Castro
  • All Grown Up: A Novel, by Jami Attenberg
  • Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953, by Elizabeth Winder
  • I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, by Howard Norman
  • Self-Portrait with Dogwood, by Christopher Merrill
  • This is Running for Your Life: Essays, by Michelle Orange
  • Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System, by Sonya Huber
  • Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, by Sarah Manguso
  • The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood, by Richard Blanco
  • Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere But Here, by Angela Palm

In particular, I've been thinking a lot about the variegated ways one can construct longform creative nonfiction. Several of these books very delicately tread the line between essays and memoir. One factor is the brevity or lyricism of the chapters at hand; another is the decision to recycle key narrative moments or factual contexts from one essay to the next.

In addition to book-work, I served as the Annette Dignam Writer in Residence to the State Colleges of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota (SCF). I took over seven classes taught by four different professors, and I gave a reading. My final event was spending an hour with the "Swampscribes" (the creative writing club), talking about persona poetry. 

On one hand, using exercises and readings I've used before is key to making this a privilege rather than a burden. On the other hand, I like being spurred to create new lessons, and I came up with one on public speaking that I will use going forward. We talked about eye contact, projection, and defining your "batter's box"; we looked at how to annotate a text for emphasis, interpretation, and dramatic pause. 

Though this wasn't a literature course, I wanted to bring poetry to the table. So I de-lineated and made anonymous poems by William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lucille Clifton, in order to give us "raw texts" for discussion (revealing, only at the end, their actual forms and authors), During a partnering exercise, I got to circulate and listen to the music of four students--four corners of the classroom--each simultaneously delivering Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

SCF has graduated 47,000 students in the sixty+ years it has been open. They have four campuses and the Venice campus is cozy and bright, with a nature preserve at the edge. Each day I took ten minutes to walk the perimeter, listening to birds and looking for alligators. They were to be found--and one time, a little too close to my toes for comfort. 

Back at home, there has been snow falling on bewildered cherry blossoms. Here, we had a tornado on a Monday night, which took out power to the lower half of the island; many afternoons get windy. But my sun-loving heart has been lightened by being here. I've taken over two hundred photos. I'll share a few with you here. 

The first night, you do a lot of standing around and gawking
View from my writing desk at the Hermitage House
Dolphins accompanied us on our bayside boat ride
Collaborative art: Amanda Marchand's Lumen Project
Resident Andy Biskin on clarinet 
An hour's worth of hunting for shark teeth
Trespassing pelican outside the Whitney House
An unusually moody sunset
Expedition to the Ringling Circus Museum
A detail of the "Howard Bros Circus" model...
...modeled on the Ringling Bros Circus...
...which Howard C. Tibbals spent his life completing
Into the "Pathless Woods"
Ghost of the girl who just ran through

Another girl running through
Central silence, and then out again
Courtyard of the Ringing Museum of Art
Michelangelo's David: Sarasota edition
Scotch with two rocks, please
Field trip to the Selby Botanic Gardens
I need more bromeliads in my life
Marc Chagall-inspired stained glass throughout

Orchids, orchids everywhere
Thursday afternoon in March
Thursday afternoon in March--just ten minutes later

Time to go home. But I'll be dreaming about this place for months to come.

DC folks, see you soon! I'll be hosting a National Poetry Month celebration at the Arts Club of Washington on Tuesday, April 4--with two featured readers, Claudia Cortese and Francisco Aragon, plus an open mic. Angela Maria Spring will be on hand to talk about Duende District, a new bookstore initiative that will emphasize multicultural literary community.  7 PM start time, doors opening at 6:30 PM for the open mic sign-ups; free and open to the public. Full details are on the Facebook event page