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.

April 09, 2018

Subtweet to the Universe

Dear ________ ,

Let's say you set out to be a writer in the world. 

Along the way, you meet someone who is charismatic and perhaps has the power to help you. But the dynamic goes wrong. Maybe it's a matter of one conversation, one evening. Maybe it's a prolonged exchange over months or even years.

For them, the consequences may exist--a cold look from a colleague, "moving on" from a job--but they are still part of a world that considers them eligible for readings, publications, awards. Maybe even more than eligible: celebrated. 

You, in the meantime, are trying to restore something that was lost. You're finding it hard to advocate for yourself when you meet writers, afraid of lapsing into the patterns of last time. Maybe you no longer even think of yourself as a writer. 

Some time later, in a cultural moment when people are being encouraged to step forward, you wonder if something would be gained by speaking out. And as you are trying to gather your courage, they speak out instead.  

Because they, too, have been abused. They write something jaw-drop beautiful about it. Of course they do--they're writers. Of course, people you love and respect, people who don't know of your experience (and maybe a few who do), are going to cheer this person on in their moment of revelation and honesty as part of a road to (fingers crossed) recovery. And I don't want to devalue that natural response.

But I do want to acknowledge that their words can 'save someone's life,' while making it harder for you to live yours. 

Don't let their public confession of damage become a bulwark against owning your own private pain, as if you somehow no longer have the 'right' to be angry. Being abused does not justify abusing others. Period. This is particularly galling when the narrative, which has given such rich attention to one's own victimhood, grows so much....vaguer...when talking about the era of your encounter. If mentioned at all. 

Just know there are some of us who are listening for your voice. We're here. And the louder and more specific you are--though I know it takes courage--the louder and more specific we can be when we stand alongside you. 

You are a writer in the world. Please write it. 

With much respect,

April 01, 2018

A Ten-Year Glance Back

Have you been trying to figure out how to keep going? I have. It is helpful to be honest about that, in this weird stretch: the optimism of our 2018 resolutions are wearing off and yet the weather, by and large, has not yet lifted our spirits. 

One of the consequences of moving is that one has to reshuffle belongings and filings. So I came across the cover of the very first Washington Post Magazine where my work appeared, in 2008, as the lead-off for the "XX Files" columns "of a certain chromosomal persuasion." There's Cheryl Strayed, pre-Wild. A stock image of a girl runs, playful, across a field. 

Ten years later (and in between), I am again in the Washington Post Magazine. This time I'm talking about "The politics of poetry in the era of Trump," following my trip to Cyprus--an opportunity that would have been unimaginable ten years ago. The image is of a woman's calves, decisive, stepping up.

On a bad day, I might look and see  two bylines, in the exact same spot, neither with my actual name. Today, I'll look and see that I'm hanging in, my work now standing alone rather than one of an amalgam. And look how far the larger cover has come. 

I have friends and loved ones, a place to put my head down at night. But when I look back, it will be writing that saved my life during this stretch. Because I admit a kind of pure, driving curiosity about words that hit the page, even after all these years. What they can do. Where they can go. Narcissistic? Probably. I'm cooking, I'm hungry, I'm still here. I'll take it. 

When I used to take photos of magazines and books in our old place, the place we moved from in January, I could take advantage of the pretty walnut of my grandmother's dining table, or the clean bamboo finish of our rented floor. Now that dining table is my husband's desk, and my floor option is a more pedestrian carpet. But the apartment that carpet belongs to is rent-controlled, and capacious enough to welcome a family for dinner on the fly. If you were coming through town and desperate for a couch (er, a floor) to crash on, the carpet of my studio could do the job. This creature is making herself at home at my feet right now~ I'm going to consider that a victory. I am all about the small victories these days. If you're going through hell, keep going. 

March 16, 2018

An Open Letter to the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities

Dear Director Espinoza, Commissioners and DCCAH Staff

In the wake of the passing of our long tenured and highly respected Poet Laureate Dolores Kendrick, many in the poetry and writing community have wondered about the process by which her successor will be selected.

The Washington Post’s assessment of Kendrick, that she was “little known outside of Washington and the classrooms of Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire” belies both her legacy and the stature of the Washington, D.C. literary community. The significance of Washington, D.C. as an incubator and champion of poetry’s power is rooted in a deep history of publishing, performing, archiving and engagement, and its stature has grown considerably during the years of Ms. Kendrick’s term as Poet Laureate.

This dynamic and diverse D.C. poetry community (represented by the undersigned) that next Poet Laureate will inherit would like to know who is overseeing the selection process for that individual and what community outreach has or will be done as a part of that process. The current nomination and selection process does not appear to be publicly articulated. We ask, in the interest of transparency, that it be made public. And if there is a panel to be formed, we strongly advocate that a significant portion of the panel, if not half of the members, be selected from the D.C. poetry community—fully utilizing the existing wealth of knowledge regarding the District’s poetry history. In addition, many believe it would be worthwhile to reconsider the nature of the appointment (tenure, expectations and accessible resources) to assure that it effectively and fairly represents the dynamism and inclusivity of our community and the District at large.

So many of the poets in this community are organizers and activists, and thus we know that more important than institutions or titles is the community’s buy-in and support of initiatives. We thank the D.C. government for keeping the position of Poet Laureate active, and—in our gratitude—we would like to make available our insights and plethora of experiences to assure that the nation’s capital has one of America’s most vibrant Poet Laureateships.

Please contact professor Kyle Dargan of American University for further discussion of how to facilitate future dialogue with D.C. poetry community members on this matter.


Kyle G. Dargan, Ward 7
DCCAH Individual Artist Fellow
Associate Professor of Literature
Asst. Director of Creative Writing
American University

Silvana Straw, Ward 3
DCCAH Larry Neal Award winner & Individual Artist Fellow

Sandra Beasley, Ward 6
Literary Programming Coordinator, Arts Club of Washington
Three-time DCCAH Individual Artist Fellow

Topher Kandik, Washington, D.C.
SEED Public Charter School
2016 D.C. Teacher of the Year

Kim Roberts, Ward 4
DCCAH Individual Artist Fellow
Founder & Editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly
Editor Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC

Dan Vera, Ward 5
Board Co-chair, Split This Rock Foundation

Regie Cabico, Ward 1
Poet Educator, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Susan Scheid, Washington, D.C.
Board Co-chair, Split This Rock Foundation

Melanie Henderson, Ward 5
Poet & Founding Member of Tidal Basin Press
4th Generation Washingtonian

Natalie Illum, Ward 1
Founding board member, mothertongue
2013 Beltway Grand Slam Champion

Margaux Delotte-Bennett, Ward 5
2010 Larry Neal Poetry Finalist

Jonathan B. Tucker, Ward 5
DCCAH grantee and fellowship artist
Poet, Teaching Artist, Arts Organizer

Alicia Gregory, Ward 1
Poet & Arts Administrator

Myra Sklarew, Bethesda, MD
Emerita Faculty & MFA Program Founder
American University

Derrick Weston Brown
Adjunct Professor of English Prince George's Community College
Inaugural Poet-In-Residence of Busboys and Poets (2005-2015)

Reginald Dwayne Betts, New Haven, CT
Former educator at Hart Middle School and Ballou Senior High School

Carolyn Forché, Bethesda, MD
Professor, Georgetown University

Sunil Freeman, Chevy Chase, MD
Former Assistant Director, The Writer’s Center

Bridget Warren, University Park, MD
Longtime owner of Vertigo Books and literary programmer

Abdul Ali
Lecturer, Department of English
Howard University

Alan King, Bowie, MD
Former Teacher at Duke Ellington School of the Arts

Heather Davis, Front Royal, VA
Poet and returning D.C. resident

March 01, 2018


Readers may have picked up on this before, but my inbox is my to-do list. I rarely have more that twelve emails in it at a time because, yes, I avoid the unlucky thirteen. If I agree to do something for you (or with you) that requires two or three to-do simultaneous emails, I get cagey really fast because you're probably pushing me over my inbox limit. 

Occasionally an email crosses over from being a "to-do" to being a "ghost." A haunting. Every day I see it, and every day I wonder why I haven't responded to it yet. Typically there is just the one. 

Up until December of 2017, my ghost email had the subject line "My mother died, I am writing poems," and the email dated back to July 2015.

What type of jerk doesn't reply to that email, I ask you? Or rather, I asked myself. At least once a week. For a year and a half. 

Then I'm in a meeting, and a colleague mentions she has been in ongoing correspondence with the author of this email. Who happens to be a famous and influential author, someone you admire greatly. Everyone gushes. 

What type of idiot doesn't reply to that email, I ask you? Or rather, I asked myself. 

The first time we met, we didn't meet. He give the opening remarks at a ceremony where I later got...third place. He had to rush out to catch a plane before the results were mentioned, so he probably doesn't know I'm a bronze talent and nothing more. 

The second time we met, it was after a friend emailed to say he'd featured a sestina of mine on his website. I was delighted to introduce myself at the tail-end of an AWP panel and hear him say to others. "She's a great poet!" This will be a highlight of my conference. Later, in an email, he will admit he was stoned on Valium at that point due to a pre-existing injury.

I am trying to figure out why I spent hours, hours, reading and re-reading the concerns about Sherman Alexie this past week. Why I feel so soul-hollowed. Why I picked a fight with my husband last night (this probably isn't Alexie's fault; it has been a crap week).

In revisiting this email, I re-read emails we'd exchanged. Mostly his one-liners proportioned to my nervous, highly edited three paragraphs. How are the poems coming? Once, a snapshot of a stanza of mine and the comment that I'd "murdered" him. Once, the challenge regarding my photo: "You look way too happy. Need more suffering poet." (That was funny. I laughed.) Me, joking in return, sometimes with an edge, but never too explicit; that's how these games are played. 

Because I'm searching for his name, another email comes up: the request to reprint my comments on one of his poems in an anthology. I say Yes, because I am a huge fan. For the single most difficult course of my MFA education, I wrote a final exam annotating "The Business of Fancydancing." I got an A in that class. 

I finish this dive into the archives and I'm a little confused. When prompted with his poem, and actually his two elegies--an email one day, then another the next--why did I freeze up? Why didn't I just send him a damn poem in return? Why didn't I at least send condolences?

There is something you aren't finding, I think. I do the deeper dive, and that's when they come up, emails from the first email address in 2012 before the two other email addresses (his account has been compromised, he explains), the ones from Father Arnold. "You are an awesome poet. This is a very short fan letter," he says. It seems true! Maybe it is true. He pays attention to my work line by line. 

The new draft he shares is ostensibly about spectacles, pictured as bare legs intertwined in a bed. The second "quick poem" he shares is a couplet about adult love. His phrase. He says he's working with his shrink to understand the concept. Because I am fancy-dancing, I send a text in return--a poem already written, one about my future husband--and he replies gracefully. Then he goes silent for a while.  

When the surfaced with poems about loss, I couldn't reply. Because on some level I wondered if this was a kind of grooming. Because I knew that no matter how ably I rose to the challenge, at first, sooner or later I'd give something away that I did not want to give. Because I'd be trying to impress him. Because I am a huge fan. 

Sometimes the cloak is praise.

Sometimes the cloak is humor.

Sometimes the cloak is grief.

Sometimes the person doesn't even realize he (not always a he) is cloaking intent. 

Sometimes (s)he/they doesn't realize what the intent will turn out to be. Sometimes a person is genuine, and yet a charmer, and an abuser, and yet a survivor of abuse, and a valuable poet, and yet an oppressor of poets, all in one. We contain multitudes. 

I hope people step forward with their stories, if the right choice for them, because it can be unburdening to be heard by your community. We are listening, we are here. We cannot allow the mourning of those who have "failed" us, who have lost our good faith, to obscure what was really lost: the words of talents who felt violated, suppressed, and threatened by the energy of someone more powerful than them. 

My story is not a trauma narrative. I am not claiming that space. This is just what I happen to have to say.

February 14, 2018

Evolution of a Valentine

Today, a student walked into my office at Wichita State University and wanted to talk about sestinas. Yes, please! We got to this place from her interest in poems that channeled crime, noir, and sustained narrative, which had led me to suggest Jim and Dave Defeat the Masked Man, by David Lehman and James Cummins.

The sestina was a new form to her. She had looked up the basics of the history and patterning of end words. From there, we talked about organic modes to which the sestina might lend itself--poems of fixation, of worrying--and looked at a few favorite examples. 

Since she seemed a bit nervous about the process, I offered to show her some drafting notes from way back when. I first scanned these to appear in Issue Two of Pelorus Press, a nifty resource for anyone interested in tracking the art of literary editing. 

First, scribblings during a long road trip to visit Sarah Lawrence. (The future founding editors of Pelorus were in that class, which belonged to Jeffrey McDaniel.)

I was reaching for words with some syntactical flexibility--"saw," for example, or "time" / "thyme"--but otherwise I wasn't committed to an idea. At some point I flipped the page over and tried to distill my options. 

Out of this play, one image had arisen: a martini with one of those inexpensive cocktail swords. Did that mean this poem would be set in a bar? Not necessarily, but I was in the setting of a bar when I picked up my drafting a few hours later. 
Always a little painful for me to read through the roughest of rough drafts, since many of the phrasings veer toward emotional and placeholder language ("AKA me"). But at least the wheels are turning. In particular, I was weighing whether the speaker would directly address the object of his desire. I had realized that if I wanted to use "act," the speaker needed to have an actual act of some kind. 
For me, the litmus test is those first two stanzas. If I can place the end words first voluntarily, then as directed by the form--if I justify the reflexive moment, transitioning between stanzas 1 and 2--I get excited. Here a conversational mode facilitates the required echo of "time." I still haven't figured out the central conflict: yes, his job might be a deterrent to dates. Yes, there might be humor in tracking how a child trains to become a sword-swallower. But what's the real-time risk going to be?
I've moved from lined notepad to trusty template--a document that lives on my desktop for when I'm playing with the scaffolding of this form. The child's prop has changed from chopstick to butter-knife. Although committed to POV, I'm still trying to decide tense. The toughest part of the sestina looms, stanzas 4/5. This is where you have to change it up; the sestina is a marathon, not a sprint. 
After a lifetime of avoiding bloodshed, the speaker now craves this sign of vulnerability that is embedded in love. Stanza 5 re-harnesses the power of endstops. That elusive "oil," which proved unwieldy as an endword, gets a chance to appear. (Only after I spend an afternoon researching the art of sword-swallowing, and discover that the camellia oil on the blade is borrowed from samurais.) "Saw," the first word I scribbled before this was even sure it could be a poem, is also where I get to land. I've probably read the poem aloud twenty of thirty times at this point, as part of the revision process.  

What interests me about the form is the push-pull between the control you have (choosing end words) and the control you surrender (the narrative spun out by those end words). This poem is one of six sestinas that appears in Count the Waves. I ultimately obscure the stanza breaks, because I want it to read like a dramatic monologue. That version can be found here. I'm glad to look back and be reminded of how I found my way from draft to draft. I'm grateful that a poet walked out of my office ready to tackle her own sestina. Though I am 1,253 miles away from my husband, that's all the valentine I need. 

February 04, 2018


I woke up at 3:41 AM and haven't been able to fall back asleep. And I'm thrilled about that. Because I woke up from a dream of writing, and that means writing is nigh.

My creative instincts go dormant in times of high stress. So do my social media instincts; I drop off of Facebook and Twitter and, evidently, this blog. That's a good survival tactic--I focus on my to-do list, and steer around antic or angry one-line postings--except I feel guilty about the isolation, anxious I've misplaced myself. In the past two weeks, I moved and then I moved again. I stayed up until 2 AM unpacking the last of cardboard boxes in our new apartment and, after a few hours' sleep, packed my suitcases and made the 20-hour trip to Wichita State University for February. The bed & breakfast where I'm staying has an in-house kitty, a Russian Blue who stares at me dolefully and merely tolerates my petting. I miss the polydactyl tortie who leaps up on my pillow and gently extends a paw to tap me on the forehead.

Travel has been the catalyst of my 30s. I have to laugh when I remember missing a dear friend's wedding, back in my 20s, because at the time I couldn't fathom driving to Nashville alone. Travel has offered me the chance to see incredible things, and to clarify what I can do with my life. But at times it is lonely, especially when getting to know the prairie winds and 4 AM trains of Kansas.

A couple of nights before I left home, I hosted a poetry dinner at the Arts Club of Washington. I've been doing these for a while now, as a perk for the members. Each salon is a chance to read and discuss poems, curated to theme, over a three-course meal. The theme this time was "Travel," and here are the texts I used:

So what sparked a creative wake-up call this particular night? After a pressured first week of meeting students and eating dinners of boxed soup, I finally took a day to explore Wichita. Nothing too ambitious, but I ventured out to get Kālua pork with fresh white rice and a side of Lomi-Lomi salmon at Noble House, a Hawaiian lunch plate spot as good as any I've had in Kauai. I suspect it was Chef Akamu Noble himself working the register. Upon hearing I was a poet from D.C., he recommended I visit Reverie Roasters up the street, where I got a "boneshaker" espresso (I'm a pushover for espresso with a side of fizzy water). Then, just for the excuse to stay, I drank another two cups of batch brew coffee. Cue the 3:41 AM wake-up. I did a few hours of drafting on comments for forthcoming poetry anthologies, so that's two items off my to-do list. But what mattered most was being surrounded by the hum of other people living and working. The funny thing about traveling far from home is that my goal, once I'm here, is always simply to make myself home. Now I just gotta befriend the cat.

January 13, 2018

My Life in Boxes

This is my apartment, or rather, this is the remains of an apartment being readied for a move. I flew home from teaching in Tampa today. The truck arrives on Wednesday. I leave for a monthlong stint at Wichita State University next week. I have a knack for stacking major life events, one on top of the other. 

We're not leaving DC, or Southwest; we're moving just a few blocks away. Why? Because the new apartment has a second bedroom, which makes for a writing office. Making this leap has been a struggle, since a two-artist household doesn't satisfy the conventions of many housing opportunities in a bigger city. But sometimes you have to take the leap, even when it is over a great big canyon. 

I have loved this apartment, but I'm ready to prioritize what I can so with with a room of my own. There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind. So, you see that little teak desk in the photo above? That blue chair? They are going to go here, in the photo below. The best part is that I think I can eke out enough room in this office for a futon that would allow me to offer visiting poets a place to crash, as long as you don't mind waking up surrounded by books.

January 07, 2018


Presenting the introduction at the start of a reading is one of my favorite ways we get to celebrate fellow writers--especially when the audience is the University of Tampa MFA program, gathered for their annual January or June residency, and I'm able to share a poet whose work means a lot to me. Yesterday, Ada Limón joined us for a triumphant lecture and reading. 

Since Ada is someone who I got to know in part through this space--the blog scene, and the poets associated with it in the mid-2000s--it feels appropriate to share what I said. Plus, the art of the introduction is something that interest me; how do we weave in personal anecdote while making sure to provide the important tenets of biography? How do you prime the audience for what to hear (or not)? 

In my MFA program, Richard McCann was (is) legendary for the quality of his introductions. The first thing the author usually said was, "Let's just stop there."

Here's what I said, minus a few ad-libs:

Those of you who have studied poetry with me know that I am a fierce defender of the distance between poet and speaker. So it’s mildly heretical that I’m about to talk about the author off the page, rather than on it. Indulge me. 

Ada Limón and I were part of a cohort of poets who came up at about the same time in publishing our first books. Now, I say that word "cohort" with two asterisks. 
The first asterisk is that we were a cohort uniquely born of the internet era. Yes, we each had the communities created by school—which in her case, was a rock-star class of New York University MFA graduates. But in the larger sense, we were that first virtual community of poets who had a meaningful dialogue via comments left on each others’ blogs. We muddled our way through NaPoWriMo together. We cheered each other on when no one else was paying attention.
The second asterisk is that Ada’s first book and her second book were simultaneous, thanks to having Jean Valentine select the manuscript Lucky Wreck for the 2005 Autumn House Poetry Prize, and then—literally, within months—winning the 2006 Pearl Poetry Prize with The Big Fake World. That never happens. She made it happen. 

[Note that the audience jumped into spontaneous applause here! She had a lot of fans in the crowd, some of whom had only encountered her for the first time at the afternoon craft seminar.]

One of my first trips to New York City, in November 2007, was to read alongside Ada at Chelsea’s ACA Gallery for Big Game Books, a micro press  Three years later, I crowded into NYU’s Lillian Vernon House to hear her read with Jason Schneiderman and Jen Knox. I’m pretty sure I told each poet that I was friends with one of the other poets, to hide that I was just a big huge fan and I didn’t really know a soul in the room. 
There, she electrified the crowd with these lines from the title poem of her third collection, Sharks in the Rivers, which plays with a speaker’s efforts to overcome phobia:

Through another doorway, I walk to the East River saying, 
Sharks are people too. 
Sharks are people too. 
Sharks are people too. 
I write all the things I need on the bottom 
of my tennis shoes. I say, Let’s walk together. 
The sun behind me is like a fire. 
Tiny flames in the river’s ripples. 
I say something to God, but he’s not a living thing, 
so I say it to the river, I say, 
I want to walk through this doorway 
But without all those ghosts on the edge, 
I want them to stay here. 
I want them to go on without me. 
I want them to burn in the water.

Since then we’ve done a conference together in Texas, a panel together in Massachusetts, had some frank talks about the publishing world, and grabbed that fast hug at countless AWP Conferences. I’ve watched her move to Kentucky and have a book named “Top Ten” by the New York Times. So when I say you’re in for a great reading, that’s based on a decade’s worth of witness. The downside of having an introducer who follows your work for a decade is that she can dig up old interview answers like this one, from The Scrambler circa 2007:

[Note that at this point Ada curled up in her chair like one of those roly-poly bugs.]

Question: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Answer: (and here, I’ll excerpt) 
In ten years I'll be living in my hometown of Sonoma, in a small house with a big garden….I'll probably be married or living with an aging rock star or some organic farmer who is single handedly trying to bring back the bee. 
I'll write more poetry, some fiction, an album, and a screenplay. 
I'll go to Salmon Creek and build bonfires. 
I'll be remembering everything in case anyone forgets.

I started off by giving myself permission to get away from the page, but now I return to it. What I appreciate about Ada Limón’s work is not pyrotechnics of form, but the ember of a closely held truth. Although I know that one of her formative mentors is Philip Levine, I actually think of another Philip, Philip Schultz, and his great big heart.

The poet and the speaker are not one and the same. But I suspect that the poems you’ll hear tonight—drawing on both Bright Dead Things, a 2015 finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Awards in Poetry, and her forthcoming collection The Carrying—will grapple with realities common to us all:

Like sharks, to survive we move forward to live. 
To move forward, we name goal-dreams and dream-goals.
To move forward from there, we must admit:
What was gained? What was lost?
How is that loss manifested in the natural world?
How do we make good of mourning?
How do we reconcile our past and future selves?
We embrace being present. Yet we dream again. We dream big.  
Without further ado, and with much pleasure, I present Ada Limón.


I played only a minor role, of course. What followed--six poems from the most recent book, six poems from the forthcoming one, a few jokes, and great prefacing comments that invited the audience to engage with the work--that's where the magic happened. But I'm so glad I could help set the stage for Ada.

One of my former students, who first encountered "How to Triumph Like a Girl" in our residency workshop a year ago, was in tears of happiness. Once can get complacent about the value of readings, fifteen years into a career. Then I'm reminded that they can be revelational, revolutionary spaces. They can touch people.

The bookstore staff sold out of copies of her book within minutes.  

Safe travels, lady! See you next time. One of my favorite things about this life, stressful as it may be, is that there is always a next time.