January 11, 2022

January Jump

When I opened my laptop at the end of December, determined to post to this blog once more before the close of the year--well, that's how I found out Betty White had died. I thought, Nope, see you in 2022. I closed the laptop's cover. If you've struggled with social media for this past year, I get it. I've needed to go silent for long periods. That's particularly painful when the pandemic hasn't given us a chance to connect in other ways, because it can feel like damned-if-you-do, erased-if-you-don't. But I'm grateful because when I look back at the second half of 2021, I spot bright glimmers of living, of pleasures taken, seized in a time that felt dark. 

I went to Nationals games, mostly with my dad, and we cheered when the team was good and hung on even when they were terrible, having traded away almost all our star power. The cactus in our bedroom bloomed a half-dozen times. Sal the Wonder Cat kept us amused, though for a stretch we had to refocus on his critical care--a crisis he came through thanks to Marshall Veterinary Clinic and VCA SouthPaws. 

We took advantage of the post-vaccine, pre-variant lull to visit friends in Maine; one of them, Maureen Thorson (pictured distantly on the shore), has a great poetry collection coming out next month called Share the Wealth. We went sailing and ate many oysters. Their house backs up against a stunning Audobon preserve. 

The day before fall classes started at American University, my husband and I day-tripped down to the Annmarie Sculpture Garden & Arts Center--the planned part--and added on a dusk hike to Calvert Cliffs--the unplanned part. My semester was good but busy. I instituted contract grading, which is a larger conversation I'd like to have; not sure if this blog is the place to do it. I had very few chances to gather in-person with writers, which is usually a big part of why I teach, but we did have a lovely reading at GoodWood on U Street. That doubled as a chance to say goodbye to longtime local fiction writer Leslie Pietrzyk, who moved down to North Carolina. Fortunately I think she'll be back to visit because her new story collection, Admit This to No One, is all about DC.

My one bit of book-travel was for Lit Youngstown, and poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis was a much-needed passenger for the long drive to Ohio. I got to give a lecture on the golden shovel as a form, and introduce Jan Beatty for the closing night reading. The unexpected gift was a painting by Kelly Bancroft inspired by my prose poem, "Cherry Tree Rebellion."

Our neighborhood is right by the water, and I've tried to take advantage of that--there's no quicker lift to my spirits than a walk along Hains Point, and for many months a free jitney ran back and forth across the Potomac Channel for the sake of the neighborhood. The Wharf restaurants are too expensive to visit regularly, but one quiet afternoon I treated myself a a Vesper and worked on an essay collection. 

I'm very ready for the new year. Let's be honest, that exactly what I said at the end of 2020. 2021 did right by me in many ways. I put out my fourth collection of poems, Made to Explode, and had work appear in three anthologies. My family got to celebrate my sister's wedding in October at Glen Echo, and we managed to safely host my husband's family for Thanksgiving; these are immeasurable gifts. And yet I'm ready, I'm ready, and daring to be optimistic. I hope you are too. 

June 12, 2021

Still a TJ Kid at Heart

Have you come across the pseudo-fact, circulating recently, that claims 72% of all American adults live within 20 miles from where they grew up? I don't trust that as a statistic, but its true that the when I map the driving distance from my home in SW Washington, DC, to my family's home in Vienna, VA, the distance comes up as just 17 miles. Though I'd note that distance still takes more than a half-hour to travel thanks to Beltway traffic. 

There are moments when I nourish the instinct to get away, and moments when it feels incredibly rewarding to have stayed so close to home for so long. Evidence of the latter has been a recent dialogue with Fairfax County's Public Libraries, which provided refuge on many a day growing up. Our conversation has resulted in both an hourlong "Meet the Poet" event recorded online last week (which you can view here) and an upcoming July seminar, free, on "Narrative Strategies and Truth-Telling in Nonfiction," intended for folks interested in self-mentoring themselves toward writing a memoir. 

On the heels of a virtual 8th Period visit with the TJ Poets Club for National Poetry Month in April, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology asked me to speak at their graduation ceremonies. As an alumna, I couldn't imagine saying no. But as the date neared and it got really real, I wondered how I was going to use this chance--all six glimmering minutes of it.

The actual morning of ceremonies was a flustered affair, because the administration had only gotten the green light for an in-person gathering less than two months prior. My husband and I trekked out to Woodson High School in Fairfax on the first blazingly hot day of summer. A bunch of us tried to access the football field one way, then turned around and got told we would have to backtrack. I realized I didn't have a contact phone number for anyone. Seconds were ticking down to the 9 AM start time. 

But somehow (after being yelled at for accidentally stepping on the track), we found our way to the incoming march of TJ faculty. I felt tremendously relieved to spot Marianne Razzino--fellow member of the Class of 1998, now mathematics teacher--who was holding a black robe and generic regalia to throw on over my dress. Next thing I knew, I was sitting on a stage facing the Class of 2021.

Here's what I had to say, opening with a few ad-libbed observations as I eased into the strangeness of the task at hand~

Thank you for that wonderful introduction; thank you for choosing me to be here; thank you to my own former classmate, who made the regalia sit on me. I'm really honored. I'm glad to be here at Woodson, site of many a Thomas Jefferson High School Homecoming victory, and in the company of...cicadas. 

I know that you are a good, honorable group of people, because during this time I have watched multiple cicadas land on you, and you've found gentle ways to--[hand gesture]. I haven't seen a single one swatted or squished yet. I appreciate the pacifists among us. 

Years ago, I actually auditioned to be the graduating speaker for the Class of 1998. I was not chosen. So I thought about digging up that old speech. Pulling it out, tearing away the dot-matrix feeder strips; if you don't know that reference, ask your parents later. But the world that we lived in, in 1998, is so different from the world we live in now. 

I wanted to speak to you all as an alumna. I wanted to give you the most direct and hardest-earned knowledge that I could offer, and I'm following some amazing comments that have been made already. Forgive me that, in typical TJ fashion, I working on these comments 2 AM on the day they were due. 

I’ve got five minutes and I've got three things to tell you. 

First, I want to talk about a honey fungus in Eastern Oregon, Armillaria Ostoyae. I know. Stay with me. It's the largest creature on earth—it's the size of sixteen football fields—and it lives mostly underground. The bad news is this mushroom isn’t allowing the coniferous trees above to grow. But the amazing news is that parts of the organism are 8,000 years old. 

And then, I want to talk to you about the octopus, and the fact that it has three hearts and dark-blue blood. I want to talk about how capybaras are the friendliest creatures on Earth. I want to talk to you about DNA, and black holes. 

Science is the language that humans use to articulate wonder and curiosity, and it is beautiful thing that every one of these students, every one of you, speaks that language of science. You can go into any number of professions—you can become lawyer, restaurant owners, even a poet—but I can guarantee that your success in whatever field you choose will be enriched by continuing to learn about the science and technology of this world. So please, always hold space for that.

Second, I know I am talking to a crowd that is expert at cramming, at acing, at burning the candle at both ends, whatever metaphor you want. I say this with love: please, now, if you aren't already, think about your mental health. Think about taking care of yourself. Build your reserves. Recognize that the You who gets a B is worth just as much as the You who gets an A. 

And I love that I wrote this message to you all last night, but I've already heard it echoed today. I heard your principal say it, and I heard your classmates say it, and that tells me that you all are thinking about these things. Because I have been where you are. And, trust me, there will come a time when all-nighters are no longer an option, okay? All the caffeine in the world will not allow you to activate the way that you're able to activate right now. In addition to being brilliant, high-achieving performers, you might want to be good partners, loving parents, or simply people with lives outside your work. 

You are more than your productivity. To loosely cite Voltaire—whose Candide I read in Ms. Curtis’s AP Literature class—do not let “perfect” be the enemy of good. 

The third thing I want to say is that you are so fortunate in the company you have kept for these last four years, even when it was over Zoom. I move among artists, who tend to congratulate themselves for being interesting. And they are. But honestly, person-for-person, your classmates at TJ are the most interesting cohort of people you’ll ever meet, and their names will constellate the sky of every imaginable profession, every geographic location, in the years to come. So keep track. Don’t disappear on each other. 

Doesn’t mean you have to say these were the best years of your life and, in fact, I hope aren’t. I hope the best is ahead of you. But trust me when I say that the bonds forged in the fires of this high school mean something. 

I look out and know that I am looking at the people who will shape our world in the years to come. The great part is, I trust you with that world. I have seen so many signs that this generation is talented, adept, inclusive in your social values, generous with your spirit. I ask only that you take care of yourselves, and take care of each other. Thank you. 

As the ceremony shifted into presentation of diplomas, I realized that my placement--you could draw a straight line from the photographer's camera, to the principal, to my chair--meant that I'd be photobombing graduates as they received their diplomas. Sitting and smiling through 400 names is no joke. But it wasn't hard to smile, watching their individual energies as each person cued up to cross the stage. They fussed with their tassels, they stood on tiptoe, they double-checked which hand they were supposed to extend. "Whatever feels good to you, man, just go with it," one of their faculty advisors said, clapping his hand on the back of a student.

Watching a wave of blue caps flip into the air, what I felt was gratitude. And hope. 

May 05, 2021

Poetry in Bloom

1:30 AM on the (very) early morning of my 41st year, and I'm giving myself the birthday present of a blog post I started drafting (checks notes)...oh, back on April 11. 

National Poetry Month is always busy, especially with a new book in hand, but this year the events were all from my office--my Zoom corner. I have missed traveling on a profound level, because those long drives turn out to offer the time when I mull new projects. On the upside, never have I gotten to give so many readings while barefoot; two highlights were my event hosted by Politics and Prose, with Teri Ellen Cross Davis, and my event for The Writer's Center with Kim Addonizio. And my husband has held down the fort magnificently in terms of cooking dinner most nights.

April also marked my first experience coordinating an event for the O, Miami Poetry Festival. The challenge in proposing a project for 2021: to what extent would people be interacting? How could we create something fun, but also safe?  I reached out to Neil de la Flor last fall (great poet, lives in Miami, always has interesting ideas), and something came up organically in conversation--that his family had a multi-generational business in floral deliveries. One thing led to another, and we partnered with SWWIM to curate a selection of poems inspired by flowers, which then went out in bouquets delivered by Dolly's Florist. 

My contribution, other than a general habit for task-mastering, was to conceive delivering the poems in origami form--something that could sit decoratively in a bouquet and invite unfolding as a tactile interaction. Since I turned out to be the only origami enthusiast on the team, this also meant the literal hunkered-down time of folding 150 pinwheels. Felt good to do something hands-on, since I couldn't actually set foot in Miami. 

I've loved origami since I was a kid, taking classes on how to make cranes at the McLean Community Center. One thing I thought about as I worked in the (once again, very) early morning hours is how I used to try and rush through the preparatory folds; the moments in process when the paper has to be creased, then uncreased, to ease a later move. Younger Me thought that was a waste of time, that surely I could finesse the move without it. Older Me understands the necessity. Maybe there's a metaphor in there somewhere. I'd like to think that the challenges of 2020 were, in a sense, preparatory folds for some great move ahead. 

Some other things that happened: I logged on at 5 AM on a Friday to hear the work of a friend I made in Cyprus, an international poetry discussion only possible across Zoom; I got to virtually visit my old high school, which has asked me to speak at their (in person!) June graduation proceedings; I wrapped up a semester of teaching creative nonfiction workshops at the undergraduate and MFA levels, which proved a particular delight; we refreshed the balcony planters with a new type of sedum, "Indian Blanket" (Gaillardia pulchella, a wildflower), tomatoes and peppers; Sal the Wonder Cat continued to loll his ridiculous self across every conceivable surface of this apartment. 

Perhaps this is a trite thing to say, but I do appreciate you coming by this blog. I don't update it as often as I could, or should, or want to. But it's a good, sturdy little tether that binds me to remembering the question of whether I would ever publish a book at all, and therefore how quintessentially lucky this life has been. I'm happy you're here.