October 07, 2018

Holding Space

English artist Rachel Whiteread uses plaster, rubber, and resin to cast spaces we take for granted--doors and bathtubs; the inside of hot water bottles; the undersides of chairs; the cardboard spools for toilet paper. She was the first woman to win the Turner Prize, in 1993, after casting a whole house that had been scheduled for demolition. Although I've recognized her work at various museums over the years, the exhibit at the National Gallery of Art provides a whole new level of breadth and context. If you come to DC between now and January 2019, be sure and visit. 

I've been waking up with my jaw already clenched, too many days in a row, in dread of each day's news. Sometimes fantastic things happen--the MacArthur "genius" grant recipients for this year include Natalie Diaz and Kelly Link--and sometimes someone shows me a video of a basket of baby sloths or a baby flamingo taking its first steps, and sometimes it's just enough to be in the same space as a friend, laughing. Sometimes solace lasts for the length of a poem. But all is a bulwark against the sense that our checks and balances no longer operate as they should. Perhaps they never did. The calls of "Remember on November 6!" ring a bit hollow when you're a resident of Washington, D.C.--almost 700,000 of us, and not one seat in the Senate. Imagine how differently the last few weeks might have gone, had we had voting representation.

Teju Cole visited American University this past week. My undergraduate students for "Writers in Print and Person" read Blind Spotphotographs juxtaposed with flash nonfiction texts. The book is physically gorgeous as an artifact and gave us means to discuss Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, "studium" and "punctum." Barthes developed this vocabulary to talk primarily about portraiture; in moving the approach to landscape photography, which Cole does--and largely devoid of people's faces--I'd argue that the explicit text teases a "punctum" to the surface that would otherwise stay invisible, but inherent to the impulse of the photographer. His lecture did the thing great art does, selfishly, which was that it made me want to hole up and think and write. 

Photographs had already been on my mind the weekend before, when my sister and I drove to Kinmundy, Illinois, for my grandmother's memorial service. We went to Evergreen Cemetery, walked through one of my grandfather's childhood homes, had lunch at the Methodist church, and looked through the historical society's archives of photographs and newspapers. We stayed in Salem, the closest nearby town with a hotel. The Pruetts are prevalent in the history of Kinmundy's thriving days, though my grandmother, seems important to note, was a Kepley by birth. We took a couple of hours to drive to nearby Louisville, searching out the cemetery where her parents were buried. However many years ago, it was probably my grandmother's hand that tipped the American flag within the framing of her father's mausoleum plot. Widowed early, remarried, my great-grandmother (and namesake) was laid to rest with her family, the Farrells. We left the last of the morning's red roses with their graves. Since the high school's homecoming weekend had crowded most of the restaurants that night, we went to the parking-lot Denny's for dinner. I ordered a bourbon-chicken-vegetable skillet thing and watched a table of teenage girls fuss with their corsages and sparkly dresses. 

The photograph I want is the one I don't have: a shot from behind of my mother, sitting in line with her brother and sister, facing the arrangement of my grandmother's ashes prior to the beginning of the service, and beyond them the cornfields that line the cemetery. We sat two rows behind and I thought I should capture this moment, these three siblings, but then I wasn't sure about camera etiquette at a funeral. Family sat down in the row between us and the moment was gone. I captured the moment after instead, as my aunt stood to face us and speak. Maybe Roland Barthes would say that the true punctum is in this second image, this motion, imperfect as it may be. 

September 19, 2018

Still Digging After All These Years

On Friday (September 14), I was gathered with a whole lot of DC-area folks at the downtown arena to hear Paul Simon's "Homeward Bound" farewell tour. He was great. The opening reworking of "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover" had a haphazard rhythm that had me a little worried, but it turned out to just be a huge spread of musicians--including a self-contained chamber group, yMusic--getting used to the stage and to each other. Their collaboration on a reworking of "Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War," which is on the new In the Blue Light album, was a highlight, as was all the Graceland material. Simon's vocals were by turns jaunty and weightless. We were on the floor, and it took real effort to train my eyes on the actual person versus the projected scene (compare the concert pic tableau on the left, above, to the detail of the actual Paul Simon below). 

In high school, I listened to "American Tune" over and over again--hitting the rewind button on my Walkman--but I never expected to hear Paul Simon sing it live. When he began, "Many's the time I've been mistaken, / and many times confused..." we had already been on our feet for the encore, and with eyes closed I didn't realize everyone around us had sat down. My husband had to tug on the back of my shirt. I'd be tempted to use a line from that song as an epigraph--for this very poetry collection in hand--but Stephen King got there first; he quotes "American Tune" at a section break in The Stand. 

All of which is to say that a month has passed since the last post. I'm weaning myself off daily listenings to the Hamilton soundtrack (which we saw on August 9; this was a good summer for tickets). I've left VCCA to return to our sweet little two-bedroom and the kitty, who is scowling at me lovingly as I type this. Whisky has discovered the glories of shredded chicken, and now expects to be fed a packet of it each morning and evening, which is going turn into an expensive habit. But given that only a couple of years ago I was agonizing over the very real possibility that she'd starve to death, I'll take it. 

Looming, humid skies and Flo-influenced rain have mostly kept the lid on any dramatic transition to autumn. But I'm working with U of Tampa MFA students on their thesis projects, and I've introduced American University undergrads to the first two of the six authors they'll get to meet this fall. Tonight we'll talk about Fatimah Ashgar's work in tandem with her visit to AU. So I suppose it's officially back-to-school time. I bought new pens (Pilot G2, .38 "fine" point). I changed out umbrellas. 

I'll miss out on going back to high school, though; my 20-year reunion for TJHSST is in October, but I'll be down in Oxford, Mississippi to launch Vinegar and Char: Verse from the Southern Foodways Alliance. That's a fair trade--the symposium is chock-full of amazing programming, and I'm so excited for this book to come into the world--but I'm sorry to miss seeing folks. Two decades out is when you kind of forget whatever boundary lines existed before. You're just happy to see anyone and everyone in their current incarnations. 

Early this morning, I was thinking about how the utility of blogging has changed a little bit since we first began this process. If I want to tell you about my upcoming reading with Emily Jungmin Yoon and Lindsay Bernal (this Saturday! East City Book Shop, 9/22, 5 PM) or share my excitement about receiving a 2018 "Best of the Net" nomination from Split This Rock for "Customer Service Is," I'll probably use other forms of social media to do so. If I want to blunder my way through a draft of a poem or essay, I'll keep it offline to preserve the publishing options. So this space becomes a space for...what, exactly? But this blog can host thoughts that fill larger spaces than 200-odd characters or a link + hashtag, for sure. Maybe open-ended grist for discussion, like Iggy Pop (circa 1980) telling Tom Snyder about the difference between "Dionysian" and "Apollonian" art. I got to this snippet via thinking about Paul Simon--who a commenter argued was of the "Apollonian" school. I suspect I am too, though I'd like to think I'm capable of raising a little hell on stage now and again. 

August 19, 2018

Back to VCCA

I'm happy to hide out at Virginia Center for Creative Arts in these waning days of summer. The first thing I noticed upon arrival was how green it smells--I love DC, but you don't get layers of flower, grass, and pine, nor so many butterflies. A frog that lurks outside my studio. There's a magnificent spider that I'm pretty sure is a brown widow, not a black one. I'm staying clear just in case. 

Because this is my fourth time here, it's easier to slip into a rhythm: I enjoy being social at breakfast or at lunch but not both. I knew to bring my own orange juice, my own blanket, and a bottle of scotch. I'm trying to spend only an hour a day on email, isolated to the leather couch in the living room. I've got a stack of books and lit mags to devour, and W8 has a comfy reclining chair. I'm happy to see a number of friends listed as past occupants. 

The first night I arrived (9 PM, after stopping off for dinner in Charlottesville), everything was absolutely dead quiet. I worried I'd be the only night-owl. Turned out everyone was just over at the Amherst County Fair, the first time they've had one here in over forty years. The next night, we adventured to the lake on Sweet Briar's campus to see a fellow's installation art (a prototype); another fellow read a story he'd written while here, and a third opened up her studio for an impromptu look at her paintings. 

This, I thought. I've missed this. Although I've traveled quite a bit for poetry since I was last at VCCA, there's nothing like being here. Then, last night, I headed over to the fair. 

I wish I could say this time is all about recharging creative energy. I have over 1,500 pages to evaluate (literally) of work not mine, some of which requires line edits. Yet this is also my chance to push-pin the pages of the fourth collection to the walls, and live amongst them. There's a distinct type of edit that gets done when I look at pages casually, skipping around, and compare adjacent shapes of poems. I catch redundancies of phrase I did not see before. 

I'm still deciding three sections or four, and which poem will close the manuscript. But my resolve holds: this book is a book. I'm excited to tell you more about it soon. 

August 06, 2018


I wrote a book this past week. Okay, to be precise, I finished it--what felt like a somewhat Herculean act of confronting every "TK" page in the collection (is it weird that I can sense, rhythmically, where poems will need to land? perhaps that is another discussion). I put the rest of my life on hold. I edited a handful. I rescued a poem from the abandoned archives via some drastic edits, wrote a prose-poem based on a field trip into the city, wrote a long one after a day's worth of immersive research, then wrote another short one, a kind of early-morning grace note. 

This doesn't mean that much, in the overall scheme of things. Now I second-guess myself. Now I send to a few trusted readers to second-guess for me. Three sections, fifteen poems per section, 68 pages total; all of this is negotiable, of course, though it's comforting to find measures equal to Count the Waves and I Was the Jukebox, my previous two collections. I'll want to place a few more poems in journals, and I'll need to draft a precis--a 1-2 paragraph introduction that distill's the book's thematic focus and makes a case for why people might want to read it. 

At the end of the month, I'm fortunate enough to head to Virginia Center for Creative Arts, push-pin pages to the walls, and live within the book's geometries. The time will feel stolen--departing the morning after my workshop for The Writer's Center ends, returning to DC the day before my American University class begins, and with University of Tampa work on my desk while I'm down there. But I'm going to make the best of things: hacking away on the page, reading voraciously, sleeping at odd hours, talking with other artists in the muck, wolfing down food without having to worry about the dishes (!), poeting. All that before I even think of sending to my editor in September. Who, in all honesty, might reject it. 

This book's arcs are particularly interesting to me. I knew I'd be engaging history in the American sense, but I hadn't anticipated the significant passages of personal time within the text. I wrote my own poems about Southern food traditions, not knowing I would get to edit Vinegar and Char: Verse from the Southern Foodways Alliance. I have poems that celebrate being constantly on the road, but I also have poems that embrace hunkering down in Washington, D.C. I wrote poems that reference a grandmother in her life, then in elegy. I've included two golden shovels--both of substantial length, because I use the entirety of a Gwendolyn Brooks text--substantially different in tone, because I've witnessed a conversation evolving around what a "golden shovel" is defined as, and how it is used. 

Am I writing poems with the political awareness I had in 2015? 2016? 2017? No. That awareness is always changing. So I think about an interlinear conversation between neighboring poems, between past and present. Usually I prioritize magazine placement, and I found a wonderful, generous showcase in Waxwing (with a few others queued up), but a third of these pages haven't been published and it might stay that way; they need context.  They make me nervous. They should.

Still: I wrote a book. If there's poets out there who get deals in advance--with the comfort of meeting the deadline as a makeshift victory--I don't know them. My bank account was at $5.27 earlier this week, after rent and health insurance and groceries, and poetry probably won't change that. We venture forward based only on our inner drive, our treasured absurdity. I wrote the book I needed to write. 

July 27, 2018

"I just really all the time want to be rearranged" ~ Allison Titus

Last Wednesday, after teaching my TWC workshop at the Hill Center--a wonderful group of eleven students, sacrificing a bit of their summer for six sessions of poetry--I looked at the round-up of links I had for a blog post, and thought, "I'll just write this in the morning." Except in the morning, I found out my grandmother had died. 

Many people in the literary world has had a strange past week, where the waves of news have included the seeming implosion of an independent press, the exposure of a fraudulent agent, the revelation of a serial manipulator in our midst, and the publication of an offensively lousy poem in a prominent forum. Then we discovered water seeping through the floor of our living room. The universe, it seems, is trying every which way to keep me from taking pleasure in poetry. 

But I'm going to stay my course, in part because I'm so determined to finish my manuscript by the end of the summer. Even on the days otherwise unproductive I've tried for a bit of revising, tinkering, fussing with order. For the first time in my adult life, I've invested in plants, pots, and dirt--and belief that I can cultivate and sustain with my time, that I can grow things. And I'm thinking a lot about what makes a poem a worthwhile endeavor, why we do what we do. 

Allison Titus is a writer I've been following and appreciating for a while now, and in a recent interview with Bennington Review she says this:

When I get excited about a poem, it’s always the same way, that I respond most to poets/poems that arrest me and startle me back to attention (to the world, to life, to living) all over again, in some strange or intense manner: I’m always mostly desperate to be staggered/astonished/undone (by the world and thus by language). I just really all the time want to be rearranged; Robert Creeley is really good at doing this to me (“I heard words / and words full / of holes / aching.  Speech / is a mouth.”). When I’m working on my own poems, I like most to be surprised by something that develops/materializes in the way that feels as “true” as it feels wild, crucial, off-kilter.

This captures something really right to me, something essential. One of the things I've emphasized recently, in teaching and editing as well as my own work, is the importance of making space for the wild unknown. We often use the rhetoric of a poem's "landscape," but in this context the cartography is both science and art--we need to admit and honor elements that surprise us, that don't fit on first glance. This feels especially important as I work on a fourth collection, and gently resist my natural inclination to plot and plan as a way of easing anxiety over how little control I have over where and how this book lands. 

Our Writer's Center workshop is called "The Poem Comes Alive," which is an excellent excuse to emphasize what Titus refers to as "poems that arrest me and startle [us] back to attention." With that in mind I gave the students "Homecoming Cistern Alien Vessel," by Gabrielle Calvocoressi. To start, we considered the mainstream tropes associated with "alien" exchanges, whether entreaty to a new world or return to a "home"; this turned out to be something folks in the room were quite thoughtful about, thanks in part to the manifestation of these themes in cinema. 

`Much of what Calvocoressi does is employ the power of simple dislocations of language, such as in the description: "No more // need to make the shape of a machete / with my mouth. Pushing up up up the tired / sides that want to drop below my teeth."...which on one hand engages a familiar idea of forcing a smile, but on the other hand is so much more estranged. Or a few stanzas later, there's a quick twist from the threat of overt sentimentality to something more wry and cynical, via the enjambed sentence "And my arms open and my life / coming in and out of the “ATM."" Life, it seems, is an expensive commodity. 

All of this is ramps up to core concerns: the limitations of body as vessel; the peril of a self-congratulatory identity that wants to be liberal and generous, yet is inextricable to mechanisms of consumption and oppression; the question of how to love or welcome the self, once that admission is made: "My pink skin / a sail full of indignation. My eyes pitching // across the feed. It is so good to be home / and yet. I have a ship inside. How can / the organ welcome me? I’m not a sow // on her worst day. Which would be what? / Breaking from the barn? Eating all the acorns / and rolling in the mud? No. // Her worst would be at my hands / and on my plate for supper."

Lordy, an electric poem. If the reader juxtaposes it with another recent one, "Mayflower Cistern I Feel My Pilgrim Worry," a sense emerges of a poet wrestling with inheritance and privilege. These are not novel themes, but Calvocoressi approaches with a wonderment of language and image that is really remarkable. 

***An aside: If you're looking for an online class and you read this before August 6, I'd urge you to sign up for Calvocoressi's  "Fantastic Worlds In The Realest Poems: How Fantasy Fiction Might Help Our Hardest Realities Bloom" (the class runs 8/6 though 8/31). I've never regretted sending a student in the direction of 24PearlStreet, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown's virtual learning space. 

***Another aside: Allison Titus has a new, letter-press chapbook with the folks at Barrelhouse called Sob Story: The History of Crying, and though I haven't ordered my copy yet, I'm betting money ($10, to be exact) that it's worth your time. 

Other poems I've read or re-read this past week, ones that "rearranged" me and come to life on the page:

July 06, 2018


*blinks in bright light of day*
I did a lot in June, just not here. 

I've begun working with PEN / Faulkner to visit local high schools and teach the personal essay. On June 5, I went to KIPP DC College Preparatory to visit three classes. They had Edward P. Jones's photo taped to my desk and Jericho Brown's poem on the wall. On June 6, 826DC took over Petworth Citizen's Reading Room to celebrate their new anthology, Spit Fire. The anthology showcases student work from the SEED School and is as good-looking a book as you will ever see. I anchored the lowercase series open mic with poems from my new manuscript--DC poems for folks with DC institutional memory. 

I hosted my book group for a discussion of Valeria Luiselli's Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions. This was our first time in the new apartment and twelve of us fit into my living room with no space crunch, always good news. Many gummy bears were eaten. 

In pursuit of sanity, I spent time with careful, discerning essays:

Yet I also reveled in Essay Daily: Talk About the Essay: What Happened on June 21, 2018, the premise of which, I suppose, is "hot takes" of the best possible variety. 

In Tampa, I heard readings from Kazim Ali, Sonya Huber, Tracy K. Smith, and others, including Elizabeth Engelman, an alumna from the MFA program who is going to bust the world open with her memoir. I got to present on "DisLit, CripLit, and Inspiration Porn: Centering Narratives of Illness and Disability," a forty-slide lecture (the assembly of which was complicated by the fact that my laptop broke the weekend before the residency). Students learned about the Fries Test. Three of the program's faculty poets teamed up to discuss poetry in translation and world poetry. 

I met with my four students for the fall term--three of whom are in their thesis semester--two poets, two nonfiction writers. Because we meet every day for a workshop and the students are juggling a tremendous amount of other responsibilities during the residency, we need creative readings that we can do "cold," as a group, and then discuss on the fly in terms of their craft. Since I frequently have returning students, I have to always be on the lookout for new material. Here were a few of my favorites this time around:

Tiffany Midge - First-World (Story) Problems: Brown Girl Multiple Choice Edition

Karrie Higgins - "Prince and the Sparkle Brains: Growing up epileptic, surviving sexual abuse, and loving Prince"

Jono Naito - "Winter Is My Favorite Season"

Elizabeth Wade - "Variant Table" & its origin story

Steve Fellner - "Self-Portrait as a 1980s Cineplex Movie Theatre (An Abecedarian)"

I'm intrigued by Fellner's decision to graft a poetic form, the abcedarian, onto an essay format. He did one of these with 1970s cinema, as well; that essay appears in The Normal School. If you notice a preponderance of Waxwing excerpts in the links above, that's no coincidence. I have five poems in the new issue, which sparked a deep dive into their archives. Feels particularly welcome to be on a table of contents beside Alison Stine, Wayne Miller, Paul Guest, Mary Biddinger, and Matthew Guenette, writers with whom I've been sharing space for over a dozen years now in one place or another, including the blogosphere; and to see work from voices that are newer to me but that I am tremendously excited about, such as Iliana Rocha and Franny Choi.

I got back from teaching and had two days to unpack my suitcase. Then I re-packed it for the Berkshires. We made the seven-hour drive so I could I co-host a creatives' symposium in a quirky new hotel space, TOURISTS, a reimagined motor lodge in North Adams, Massachusetts, thanks to the vision of Scott Stedman and Jeff Gordinier. I got to hug poets Beth Ann Fennelly and Erika Meitner and January Gill O'Neil, and finally meet Rachel Zucker; new friends, poem-toasts, an oddly tasty spread of pork and Calabrian chiles on seed bread thanks to Cortney Burns, wandering through the woods to the chime chapel, more poems around an open fire, Jeff & company's late arrival from the Esquire thing; touring Mass MOCA (Louise Bourgeois & James Turrell & Anselm Kiefer), lunch at Bright Ideas Brewing,  a p*cha k*cha talk, broccoli rabe with wood-ear mushrooms, beet salad, more reciting of poems, live music from Sean Rowe (whose foraging expedition I'd missed earlier in the day while on the hunt for a digital projector), following Jan's lead to talk about fostering inclusivity in the literary scene; finally meeting Laurie's brother (which made me miss Mississippi), more beet salad, introducing some folks to Tommy Pico's Nature Poem, learning one of my co-conspirators had been Tommy's classmate, learning another, Rachel, had just interviewed him for her Commonplace podcast series, and getting up to the top of Mount Greylock; stopping off for a Sam Gilliam glimpse at Williams College and dinner in Troy, New York, on the way home. 

Issue 18 of Barrelhouse came out, with my essay on "Pioneers of the Digital Trail." If you want an essay that name-checks Mavis Bacon, Carmen Sandiego, Number Muncher, The Oregon Trail, The Secret of Monkey Island, and pained teenage love affairs, this is the essay for you. You can't find the text online--thank god--but the issue is for sale here, and they typically sell out every print run. 

Somewhere in there, I drafted a 3,000-word essay on sestinas that is scheduled to run in American Poets.

The funny thing is that when I came here to explain my June absence, I felt nothing but a sense of failure--a silent blog, a wasted month, and a fixation on the deadlines that were missed and are still pending, rather than any of the ones met. This despite an envelope full of thank-you notes that arrived from the KIPP students. Don't let the corrosions of the world fool you, friends. Please keep doing the good work that I know you are doing. 

May 13, 2018

On Craft & Canon

I have a piece coming out in the Washington Post tomorrow, exploring the dilemma faced by teachers whose syllabi include authors now credibly accused of abusive or harassing behavior. The conversation began in a Facebook post. Funny coincidence: only two days earlier, I'd been talking about the fine line between professional time and procrastination as a freelancer, particularly when it comes to social media. [Update: link to the article]

I don't advocate for the banishment of these authors; I'm not looking to label anyone "trash" or "canceled," two words I've seen applied with (understandable) anger by others. But I definitely believe that anyone choosing to teach the work has to take on the responsibility for teaching the work in context--and I'd question why any one author would ever be irreplaceable when putting together a multi-era, multi-genre syllabus. That suggests, to me, a certain lack of imagination or research on the part of the professor. 

Fifteen years ago, would I have argued to preserve these hallowed syllabi? In 2003, did I think that you have to separate the artist from the art? Perhaps. Then again, the me of fifteen years ago wasn't quick to see the urgency of aligning herself with feminism, either. I might have been 90% of the way through my formal schooling, but I've learned a hell of a lot in the fifteen years since. The authors I looked up to, back then? Some I still admire, more than ever in fact. Some I've set aside. Some now have the connotations that I imagine people attach to the funkiest cheese--an embrace of the mold and stink, not without value, but not something you'd turn to on a daily basis or give to a friend. And maybe that's making light of something that I can't really bear to make light of. I'm still learning more, day by day.

In hindsight, I realize how fortunate I was to be exposed to terrific and relatively varied voices in the classroom. At the University of Virginia, Scott Saul's syllabi were racially inclusive and edgy in their politics. At American University, Myra Sklarew made sure we understood poetry as a conversation within the world, not just the United States. That said, I was still fumbling my way toward understanding the biases and machinations of the "canon" as it had been handed to me (credit Grant Snider's great cartoon, above); and I was a long way towards understanding that I could do something to change it. Because that's an empowering thing: we can change the canon. We can do it when we write smart critical essays centering the work of African-American poets, of disabled and D/deaf fiction writers, of Appalachian memoirists. If you're Dr. Emily Wilson, you can do it by translating The Odyssey.

Earlier today, I opened the latest issue of a magazine to which I subscribe and have published in. When I spotted an essay on political poetry, I flipped ahead. Maybe this would be something I could share with students. I then, with disbelief, tallied those cited on the first page: Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mark Edmundson, David Orr, David Biespiel, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, Dana Gioia, W.H. Auden. When presenting critical thoughts on the political poem, in this day and age, I'm genuinely surprised that someone would open with eight Caucasian cis-male writers and not think, Huh, maybe I need to widen the lens a little

Ultimately, five women are mentioned: Anna Akhmatova, who is presented in (literal) parenthesis; an exploration of the journals of Etty Hillesum, killed at Auschwitz in 1943; Deborah Garrison, whose poem is reproduced and given a close reading, immediately following the same treatment for a poem by Bob Hicok; Simone Weil's arguments regarding The Iliad; and Eavon Boland's take on a poem by Yeats. 

Women surface but, by the numbers, the waters are presented as masculine. At almost every turn, their voices are presented as counterbalance, subjugate, accessory. The one cited most, Hillesum, is also the relative novice of the group; she died at 29, her diaries published only posthumously. Here's one example of how the analysis handles her:

Considering Etty Hillesum's statement, "I am not afraid to look suffering straight in the eyes," we might consider the expression of individual style--well-written, conscientiously crafted--as the literary equivalent of this individual act of seeing, as an embodiment, a framing, of this recognition as suffering that is also the second, active meaning to suffer. Style, individuality brings us into the act. Often, too, the difficulty of expression is part of what needs to be expressed. Homer states the difficulty outright; Merrill renders it with stylistic complexity. 

There's a subtle hierarchy being reinforced here. Hillesum's talent is positioned as naive and experiential witness, "conscientious" in her craft of witness (a backhanded compliment if there ever was one). She is a vessel. Homer, Merrill--they are agentsThe irony is that this essay earnestly and sincerely wishes to wrangle with the issue of who is ignored, and why, and the legacy of poets as "legislators" of our collective spirit. The author wants to interrogate our impulses toward memory and history-making. He should begin with questioning why this essay cites who it does, and in what proportion. The rhetoric of the essay wants to claim a middle ground between "traditionalists arguing for a consensus poetry" and "an avant-garge arguing of a destabilizing poetics." But when your endnotes consists almost entirely of the hegemony, that is just as loud a rhetorical statement as the body text.

My point is not to drag any one author, especially a poet whose work I admire, and one who is making time for the under-compensated track of literary scholarship. My point is that these approaches to writing about craft are endemic and entrenched. This is not a matter of the teachers who are "woke" or not "woke." This is a process of not only wakening, but questioning the conditions of your previous slumber, and wondering what you can do to respect and engage those who were never asleep to begin with. That's why I'm wary of anyone determined to enshrine a syllabus that features a particular contemporary author ("a genius!"). You're telling me, on some level, that your mind is already made up on who the next generation of the canon should feature. That's still changing. That's in our hands. Ready; aim; fire.

April 30, 2018

Golden Rule

Yesterday, I went over to a friend's house. I arrived at 4 PM; I left six hours later. In between we drank wine, cooked four pounds of mussels, grilled vegetables, and traded poems. I was grateful for the sunshine, the gorgeous cherry tree flowering in her backyard, and her overly enthusiastic (and freshly washed) pup clambering for pets. 

Most of all, I was grateful for the balance of the exchange: two poets who have been following each others' work for years, with a baseline of respect and appreciation, talking freely about drafts in progress. We don't have particularly similar styles, especially in our projects of the moment. But we're able to be frank about what's working and what's not on the page, and that's worth its weight in gold. Everyone needs trusted readers. 

If you pursue being active in the literary world for a while, you're going to end up in all kinds of relationships. Literary journals, reading series, giving interviews or interviewing someone else, conferences and festivals, teaching gigs, blurbs, freelance, shared advocacies, spontaneous friendships--each of these is a path-crossing. Money sometimes comes into play, but the money is rarely consistent or proportional to the economy we live in. In other words, breaking a fee or honorarium down to an hourly wage won't help you make sense of how you spend your time, or necessarily help you set goals for the future. Sometimes the Yes we give to the unpaid thing leads to a lucrative opportunity. Sometimes the Yes we give to the thing with $$$ attached ends up costing us something of truly great (though unmonetized) value. 

You're going to have to figure out some rules for yourself. Otherwise, you'll burn out. The first time I stumbled across this reality was helping a friend name what had become, for her, a toxic relationship with a larger organization. They thought they were doing her a favor. She thought she was doing them a favor. 

Golden Rule: The gift economy only works if everyone is clear and in agreement on who is giving the gift to whom. Sometimes you give. Sometimes you get. But if you're in a lit-world situation where no one's clear who is giving, and who is receiving--run.

Melissa Febos explored setting rules in a great 2017 essay called "Do You Want to Be Known For Your Writing, or For Your Swift Email Responses?" The truth is that I read that essay with a tingling sense of euphoria, followed by a wave of regret: I will probably be someone who goes to my grave known for her swift email responses. Replies at 3 AM. Replies at 5 AM. I'm an Inbox-12 girl and I actually feel really good about that. Accumulating a vast inbox of unanswered queries, implicitly tiered by their ease of reply and relevance to my professional momentum, would bring me absolutely no satisfaction whatsoever. 

But I admire the core of her point, which is: find what works for you, prioritize it, and let go of the rest. If I spend the rest of my life in DC (the area in which I grew up, and attended graduate school), I'm going to end up with seven or eight tree-trunk rings of lives, concentrically embracing one on top of the next. I can't honor all of them, all the time. I think of this frequently in terms of local readings and arts events, which often stack 2- and 3-deep for each day of the week here. It's fantastic! It's ridiculous! It's impossible to experience in the way my completist heart desires!

How do you figure out when to say Yes, and when to say No? How do you know when to skip something? How do you know when to outright quit something? How do you accurately gauge the best use of your time?

Dang it. I was so hoping to have an answer to these questions by the end of this post, a winning strategy that could help me conserve my time so that encounters like the one described above--fresh mussels, flowering cherries, an exchange of poems--have the room to occur. The truth is that it's a process, one I'm in the thick of right now. I mention that so that if you're in the thick of it too, you know you're not alone.  

April 19, 2018

Heirloom (Old Poem / New Poem)

People sometimes ask how to know when a poem is "Done." I resist that term, actually; I think of poems as ideas and insights gathered to the consciousness of the poet. The text on the page (or as delivered live, in readings) is always just the best possible approximation the 'poem' available to that poet at the given moment. There's no one definitive version.

The practical advantage of that attitude is that I try to be easygoing about accepting other people's edits to my poems, or even typos in reproduction. Poems aren't cars; you can't ding their bodywork or crack their glass. Poems are clouds you get to ride for a little while, if you're lucky. Then the vapor yields to rain. Then you start over. 

All of which is to say that I revise freely, sometimes heavily, as part of a poem's journey from draft to magazine publication to appearing in a book. I published a variation on this poem in 2013 via the southern Foodways Alliance's Gravy. Same title. But when I hunkered down with history--one of the central organizing principles of this new collection--I wanted to adjust the focus. The result feels like a new poem.


Lo, twelve children born to a woman named Thankful
in Nampa, by the border between Idaho
and Oregon. Lo, two brothers drive to Miami
not knowing if their plan will work.
Lo, what were once waste scraps fed to the cows
now repackaged—the fry shavings sliced, spiced, and oiled.
Lo, a chef at the Fountainebleau takes the bribe.
Lo, Tater Tots are dished onto the tables
of the 1954 National Potato Convention and soon,
enshrined in the freezers of America. Three decades later,
the golden age of my childhood is a foil-lined tray
plattered with Ore-Ida product, maybe some salt, maybe
nothing but the hot anticipation of my fingertips.
Lo, my mother is an amazing cook and Lo,
my grandmother is a terrible one, but on the tinfoil plains
they are equal. I need you to understand
why my father will never enjoy a ripe tomato
glistening, layered in basil. Put away your Brandywines,
your Cherokee Purples, your Green Zebras.
Lo, as with spinach, as with olives, he tastes only
the claustrophobia his mother unleashed from cans
to feed four children on a budget. We talk little of this.
Lo, what is cooked to mush.
Lo, what is peppered to ash. Lo, the flavor
rendered as morning chore—that this, too, is a form of love.