April 01, 2019

Teaching (& Festival-ing!) in Cork

Strange to navigate the busy waters of the Cork International Poetry Festival, and then the very next week--from a distance, via social media--watch writers navigate the even busier waters of the AWP Conference in Portland, Oregon. I managed to photograph every reader I saw in the Cork Arts Theater, except for closing night when my phone died. (Note that this happened mid-email. So I spent an agonizing twenty minutes wondering if I was standing up Kim Addonizio. Luckily, she got the message and made her way to Cask to meet up for dinner.) The downside of the phone dying is that I can't show you Kim's awesome shoes, or the sweet interplay between Billy Collins and Leanne O'Sullivan, a rising star of Irish poetry who had received the Farmgate Café National Poetry Award earlier in the week. The upside is that I was able to relax and fully inhabit those moments. 

The festival was an extraordinary event overall, and I particularly praise the organizing efforts of Patrick Cotter, Director of the Munster Literature Centre, and MLC administrator James O'Leary. One of the notable features is the commitment to cross-cultural exchange, with several multi-lingual readings. The pleasure of hearing Polish poet Tomasz Różycki (right) was heightened by knowing that a stateside friend, Mira Rosenthal, had done the artful translations of his sonnets. Copies of Colonies sold out almost immediately, but I snagged one and had him sign it; I'm hoping to have Mira sign it, too, at some future AWP. 

Festival photos aren't the most exciting material; they take place in a monotonous setting. I take them to lock in the remembered experience. But I knew I wanted to post a few photos, and that includes snapshots of my co-reader Kim Moore (left)--what terrific company of smart, funny, feminist poems, including the "All the Men I Never Married" series--and of Shangyang Fang (top), winner of the Southword Journal's Gregory O'Donoghue International Poetry Competition, whose work showed daring and exuberance in its intimacies of image, with intriguing choices of when to dart like a diving bird and when to meander along the stream of consciousness. Another favorite was Sasha Dugdale, who read an astonishing title poem from her collection Joy that channels the voice of Catherine Blake (William's wife and collaborator on his printmaking); I bought the book and devoured the whole thing later that night. I was thrilled to see students from both University College Cork and MLC mentees present at the Cork Public Library, which is also where Cumbrian poet Katie Hale read from Assembly Instruction, winner of this year's Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition. Her "Teaching Grammar in a Poetry Lesson" is an instantly satisfying ars poetica, a bit like Billy Collins' "Introduction to Poetry." But unlike the Collins poem it ultimately yields to celebrating the creative instincts skills of the students, rather than disdaining their attachment to meaning. An immense, endearing compassion pervades Hale's work. 

I took a little downtime this past weekend to update my teaching files. Since I'm not working toward some future tenure application, it's important to pause periodically and do my own self-archiving of the lessons I've created, including fine-tuning of handouts and syllabi. My commitments in Cork include a graduate-level workshop at University College Cork, where we used the sonnet as a recurring building block of formal engagement; two community menteeships with accomplished students, tailored to their needs on such topics as sequence-building and manuscript organization; and a standalone meeting with the women's group of the Cork Migrant Centre, housed at Nano Nagle Place, where we discussed poems of origin and heritage. As part of the festival time, I offered a four-day seminar class on "Bringing the World to the Poem" that ended up filling to capacity.  

As has happened at every turn in Ireland, I was delighted by the curiosity and sophistication brought to the close readings. Each day I turned up with eight to ten possible poems, then went with the five that felt right for the pacing and interests of the group. I thought it'd be fun to share here--links to texts where available--along with photos of the prompts I offered. (If you're reading this with a screen reader and want access, email me at earthlink.net and I'll transcribe.) They're organized by theme, which is how we progressed day by day. One of the decisions I had to make was whether to try and feature Irish poets, but I decided to play to my strengths of familiarity and shared culture. As I told the group, they didn't need an American poet barging in to teach them about Seamus Heaney. 


Mark Doty - "Golden Retrievals"
Ada Limón - "How to Triumph Like a Girl"
Jamaal May - "There Are Birds Here"
Lucia Perillo - "Shrike Tree"
Dan Chiasson - "The Elephant"


Elton Glaser - "Shucking"
Henry Taylor - "Artichoke"
Wisława Szymborska - "The Onion"
Kevin Young - "Ode to Pork"
Naomi Shihab Nye - "My Uncle's Favorite Coffee Shop"


Richard Blanco - "Looking for the Gulf Motel" 
Cyrus Cassells - "Return to Florence"
Beth Ann Fennelly - "Souvenir"
Sally Wen Mao - "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles" 
Megan Fernandes - "Amsterdam" 


Camille T. Dungy - "The Blue"
Kimiko Hahn - "Maude"
Jane Hirshfield - "For the Lobaria, Usnea, Witches Hair, Map Lichen, Beard Lichen, Ground Lichen, Shield Lichen"
A. Van Jordan - "Einstein Defining Special Relativity"
Alberto Ríos - "Some Extensions on the Sovereignty of Science"

Turns out that in addition to wrapping up finals grading at UCC and working with my community mentees, I have one more unexpected teaching opportunity on the docket. As part of the daily prep and handout-making for the festival workshop, I made friends with the good folks at Mouse Internet Cafe. So when I found out that an instructor had cancelled on them for an event scheduled as part of the Cork Lifelong Learning Festival, I offered to step in. If you happen to be in Cork on Monday, April 8, come hang out with us at 7 PM (location on Barracks Street near the Southgate Bridge). We'll be discussing "Three Poems for People Who Really Dislike Poetry."

March 01, 2019

The Road to Cork

The universe knew I needed a change. I love DC, but I have been soul-weary. So when the call came from the director of the Munster Literature Centre (an actual phone call) asking if I would take on the John Montague Poetry Fellowship, I said yes. 

I had never been to Ireland. In the weeks leading up I fielded kind suggestions of what I had to see in Dublin, in Kerry, the castles and cliffs. but I privately thought I just want to live in Cork.  I was determined to embrace this city. This city, in return, has embraced me. 

My home is at Nano Nagle Place, where the namesake Honora Nagle is buried. Born in 1718, she went on to open a half-dozen schools (partially in secret, years education was still forbidden to Irish Catholics), to found the Presentation Sisters, and to spend her life serving Cork's people. My apartment is simple and bright, with a full kitchen. All my neighbors are nuns. 

On February 4, NNP hosted a Chinese New Year celebration for the Year of the Pig. Goldie Chapel was transformed by a Buddhist altar, bright with incense flowers, and fresh fruit. The festivities included a dragon dance, several hours of chanting, and a communally lit table transformed into a "river" of 1,000 tea lights. 

Every Tuesday walk up and around a cobblestone bend to Alchemy Coffee, where I get a regular black coffee to go. From there I quickstep to the University College Cork, where I lead a workshop for ten graduate students. We're using the building block of the sonnet, complicated by extensions and playfulness in the form: Rita Dove, Mark Doty, Wilfred Owen, e.e. cummings, Olena Kalytiak Davis, with Terrance Hayes and Wanda Coleman on the horizon. Along the way we're detouring to look at poets such as Elizabeth Bishop, Harryette Mullen. Five workshop poems per class is the magic number--crunched, sure, but manageable, unlike the six per class that I always tell myself I can do (but never can). 

Wednesdays, I try to not leave the apartment at all. I stay in and I rest, and I write. 

On Thursdays and Fridays, I have two-hour one-on-one sessions with poets in the community, who I chose based on applications with work samples and project statements. These are a different space, chatty and collegial, but at the same time I can really push on individual needs and risks to be taken. Although I orchestrate readings for each given week, I don't try to do written feedback--they simply leave with the notes they've taken during our conversations. I'm struck by how energized I am by a model where each week holds six hours of "live" teaching paired with two hours spent on notes and prep, versus what is usually the opposite ratio. 

When I walk--and I walk everywhere--I just try to take it all in. 

The river Lee is a constant, audible presence. 

Saint Fin Barre's Cathedral was completed in 1879; the site's significance for Christianity dates back to a seventh-century monastery.

Took me more than a week to realize that signs for "The Lough" were directing me to a lake thick with swans, ducks, geese, assorted wild fowl, and--on the particular morning I walked there--older men directing their remote-controlled boats in a kind of regatta. 

The street graffiti is vibrant, often interrogating Ireland's politics and nationalisms. 

The Welcome Inn is one of two downtown pubs licensed to open at 7 a.m.

In the Shandon quarter, visitors can climb to the top of in the tower of Saint Anne's Church and ring the bells on the way up. The tower is known as the "four-faced liar" because the clocks never read the same time. The weather vane is affectionately known as the "goldy fish"; it's actually a salmon.

Cork suffered terribly in the recession a decade ago, but there's signs of recovery in the construction all around town. Tension, too, as residents plea for affordable housing instead of fancy hotels. 

I get a long weekend of Saturday & Sunday & Monday. There's terrific music at places like the Corner House, Charlie's, and Sin E. Pub life is as simple as walking in to pick out your draft (I prefer Beamish), plunking down the requisite stack of coins, and striking up craic with whoever is in earshot. The O'Bheal poetry series, which includes an open mic, takes place above the Long Valley Bar (the "Hayloft") and runs until midnight on Monday nights. 

The Triskel Church, just over the bridge, has been converted into a theater--I saw Casablanca there on Valentine's Day. I got a balcony seat for the "Johnny Cash Road Show," a grand sing-along at the Everyman Theater. I went back a week later with a second-row seat for the Irish National Opera's Orfeo ed Eurydice.

All the principle roles in the opera were sung by women, the choreographer did double-duty as the director, and the conductor played harpsichord. 

One of the best things about conversation here is that when you tell someone you're working as a poet, they don't freeze up or look embarrassed for you  There's always a common ground--another writer they know, or a favorite book to recommend. Walking down the street, one passes whole blocks mural in the words of poets. I have difficulties with the brogue, sometimes mistaking a question for a statement. But I have no difficulty owning who I'm here to be. Even my American-ness is greeted kindly, versus the self-disgust I've internalized as a function of the last few years' national affairs. As I experienced in Cyprus, the rest of the world does a much better job remembering how young we are as a country. 

I've been modest in my restaurant ambitions, mostly happy to have the roast chicken lunch at Farmgate or a quick sushi bite. The Quay Co-op (I had to learn to say "key," not "qway") has fresh produce, canned curries, brown rice. I have made good stir fries, squid ink pasta tossed with tuna, but I'm saving the more intensive prep for when I can team up with my husband. We'll walk to the English Market and buy a meal's ingredients from A to Z. I miss him terribly. If I could figure out a way to smuggle the kitty into his suitcase when he comes over, I would. 
I keep my drink orders here simple--a Beamish, a whisky--but one spot, Cask, has excellent fancy cocktails. The Conkers consists of Powers, blackberry wine, palo cortado, and chestnuts salted in-house. They set it on fire before serving. 

A fellowship isn't a residency. My duties are more complicated than that--not only because of financial concerns, but because I feel a general responsibility to be out and about in the city. But like a residency, this time gives me distance and fresh perspective on life at home. I miss so much, but I don't miss everything. And letting go of those things that I don't miss will be an important part of returning.

The weather can be mercurial. The hills are steep. Strange to become a version of myself that reaches for blue jeans and flats, instead of skirts and heels, and buries herself in warm clothing. But this is a deeply good place, and I am grateful to be here. 

February 01, 2019

January Tidings

I made black-eyed peas on New Year's day. I'd need every bit of good luck I could get, since the next day held a fourteen-hour hell-drive straight to Tampa, arriving in time to teach with my MFA program's residency. Nothing says "fancy life of a poet" like napping for an hour in front of a South Carolina rest stop. But increasingly, Tampa has become such a dear place to me. I love my students. I love waking up at the Sheraton and looking out along the Riverwalk. Funny how something that began as a source of anxiety--I'd had no previous graduate-level teaching experience before joining faculty--has, five years later, become an anchor and such a valued part of my life. This particular residency, we were fortunate enough for a visit from Meg Day: amazing poet, unforgettable lecturer, friend, kin. 

Seeing Meg connect with Kayla, this term's Outstanding Graduate Student--graduating with a superb essay collection I was fortunate to help with--was all joy. 

From Tampa, on to Naples to visit family. We wandered through the Naples Botanical Garden, then got bug-bit while enjoying dinner courtesy a campground of food trucks set up by the water. Adding a somewhat surreal element, Abby Wambach was chilling nearby with her partner and their dog in a very nice motor-boat. 

If you happen to be making your way from Naples to Miami, you'll be driving through the Everglades and I highly recommend you stop off at Joanie's. They took good care of me, allergies and all, from the lima bean soup to the fresh-grilled grouper atop salsa made that morning and a salad dotted with tiny flowers that had been grown in the cafe's front yard. I also had a moment during a rest stop when a crowd looked at me funny, as I walked along talking on my cell phone. So I turned back and looked--I'd passed right by an alligator. He was too sleepy to notice me. 

In Miami, I had a brief residency at The Betsy. The Writer's Room program is amazing (in return for a reading and a meet-the-artist reception, they give you a place to stay and a $50 / day tab at their restaurants). That said, one has to get past the strangeness of the entire staff knowing who you are and why you're there. SWWIM was kind enough to host our reading, where I finally got to meet Vinegar and Char contributor Elisa Albo. (Have you signed up for SWWIM's daily poem? You should!) I read four books in two days--Jessica Hopper's Night Moves, David Menconi's Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown, Alexander Chee's How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, and Porochista Khakpour's Sick--lounging whenever I could by the Betsy's rooftop pool. I checked into a cat cafe for an hour. And I walked down to the South Pointe Park, a walk that brought me comfort so many days back when I was living in Miami in February 2011, as part of a now-defunct artist residency. I'm working on my next nonfiction book, and this was the perfect setting. But that's all I'll say about that for now. 

Lyn at Square Books sent me a snapshot of the year-end display of bestselling titles in the front window. And look: Vinegar and Char is right there, nestled at #48. I'm grateful because I'm so dang proud of this anthology and, for various reasons, I haven't gotten to celebrate it properly outside Mississippi. But my March 11 reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library--with contributors Atsuro Riley and Sean Hill--will go a ways toward fixing that. 

Thank you, January, from delivering me from the arms of Florida into the embrace of the new: I'm in Ireland. 

I'm settling in as this spring's John Montague International Poetry Fellow for the Munster Literature Centre. That means teaching a workshop over at University College Cork, mentoring a few community folks, and leading a four-day seminar on "Bringing the World to the Poem" (still some spots available) as part of the poetry festival March 20-23. (Sorry to miss you, AWP.) People have been kind enough to make all sorts of tourist suggestions, and I'm sure I'll explore as the weeks go on. For now, I'm just happy to be in one place.