December 27, 2006

For Dad's Stocking: Lump of Coal Stout

Usually, the day after Christmas involved staying in my pajamas, reading, writing cards, and seeing some Big Holiday Movie with my family.

But this year, damn it, the holiday fell on a by Tuesday my family was in Minnesota, I was back at work, and I finished the day by eating corn chips out of a bag and watching the original Rocky on cable.

O Santa, thou hast forsaken me!


Last week I workshopped with a friend who has an amazing poem set at a monster truck rally (don't you wish you'd thought of that?). The poem is packed with visual detail and narrative stunts--so much that it is still a little unwieldy, even after 30 or so (!) revisions. Her struggle of drafting and redrafting has me thinking about the challenges of longer poems, especially ones that take us into a "foreign" setting.

My way of circumventing this challenge has been to, well, wimp out: I write shorter poems, often invoking recognizable formulas of domestic and romantic life in order to cut down on exposition.

But I admire the Dantes of the world, the poets determined to take us to an unknown depth. The big question may be, once we get there, how far the poet should lead us out again. In a lot of contemporary epic poems, the poet acclimates us to a new world, takes us to a moment of immersion/epiphany...and then feels compelled to walk us back up the path using analysis, a rhetorical guiderope. As a reader, I resist that. Leave me at the precipice: let me find my own way to the safety of the known.


A few of you know that I was a finalist for the Tupelo Open Reading process. I wasn't one of those chosen--and the four selected all had more prestigious publication records, so that wasn't a huge disappointment. I was sorry that my letter from the editors had no constructive feedback, though, since the intent of the original $35 reading fee was to obtain not only consideration but advice. The compliment that my MS is "ready" for publication is nice--but it doesn't move me any closer to actual publication. It's been a strange month for feedback: I was thrilled to hear my MS was one of 25 finalists for Carnegie Mellon, but I found out unsigned form letter. I had to reread it five times in order to believe my eyes.

Back to the salt mines of stuffing envelopes...

December 20, 2006

Everybody Knows, Everybody Cares

Just back from a long road trip to Kingsport, Tennessee, where I went to the wedding of a friend in college. Lovely and exhausting. One advantage to writing poems about sex, drinking, and family tension: no one ever asks you to write a poem for their wedding.

Thanks, Jessica, for tagging me—-and sorry for the delay!

The first poem I remember reading first collection of poetry was an anthology called Piping Down the Valleys Wild, edited by Nancy Larrick. God bless the Scholastic Book Fair; the $10 bill my mother gave me seemed like a fortune. I loved poems by Sara Teasdale, Vachel Lindsay, and one by Karla Kuskin that declared “I’m a lean dog, a mean dog, / a wild dog, and lone…”

I was forced to memorize numerous poems in school and...I voluntarily learned Emily Dickinson’s “[My life closed twice before its close]” while wandering up and down my grandparents’ house. I was a moody little third grader.

I was never forced to memorize poems for school. I kind of regret that, because it develops a skill that is lost otherwise. When I was translating the poems of Miklos Radnoti, I worked with a Hungarian woman who noted that in her childhood, they recited Radnoti’s poems every morning the same way that American kids recite the pledge of allegiance.

Oh, I also learned Dorothy Parker’s “If [I don’t drive around the park]” in college. I was a moody little third-year at UVA.

I read poetry because...This is a cheesy thing to admit, but rereading a poetry collection I love is like a conversation with an old friend. Literally: I’ll talk aloud to the poet when turning to certain pages. I also read poetry for selfish gain, because reading makes me want to write.

A poem I'm likely to think about when asked about a favorite poem...”When you are old [and grey and full of sleep…]” by W.B. Yeats. There’s a tonality in that one that just sticks with me. But I find it odd that no one ever notes that this is Yeats responding to a French poem by Ronsard (from Sonnets for Helen), and not a fully original work. Great poets openly steal. I envy them.

I write poetry, but...I worry at the end of every poem that it will be the last one. The happier I am in whatever romance holds me at the time, the more I worry.

My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature...I never regret having spent time with a book of poetry—even if it turns out I don’t care for the style. Weak fiction, on the other hand, is like a bad date with a guy who still makes you pay for dinner at the end of the night. I will reread poetry, but never prose.

I find The New Yorker to be dry as hell. I only know this because my boss keeps showing me poems from each issue and asking “what do you think?” It bothers me deeply that there is a substantial portion of smart, accomplished intellectuals (the same ones who give a lot of money to the arts, ahem) who judge trends in contemporary poetry entirely based on The New Yorker.

The last time I heard poetry...Carolyn Forche at the Folger last week, and it knocked my socks off.

I think poetry is like…a spoonful of peanut butter chased with a mouthful of scotch. The association may be based purely on the fact that both typically occur for me after midnight.

I tag Deborah, Paul, Steve, Carly and Angela.

December 13, 2006

Tiptoeing Toward the Mistletoe

First, a little bit of inspiring news--one of DC's own, J.D. Smith, just won a NEA Fellowship for Poetry. Find out more about his work here. Congratulations John!

While I'm playing cheerleader, a heads-up for NY folks on what will be a great reading: BROOKLYN READING WORKS presents AN EVENING WITH 32 POEMS with Deborah Ager and poets Daniel Nester and Terese Coe at the Old Stone House on Thursday December 14th at 8 p.m . Fifth Avenue between 3rd and 4th Streets..."Refreshments. Books and Magazines for Sale. A raffle. Fun."

Ethelbert Miller was kind enough to host me on his Sunday E-Notes, so for an extension of my Milosz rambling look here (scroll down a bit).

I came to the blog today to rave about Carolyn Forche's reading at the Folger on Monday, which was for the annual Emily Dickinson tribute. But I find myself long on awe, short on words. So I will just quote from The Blue Hour, part of a 42 PAGE-long poetic sequence alphabetized by line...

"half-tracks and yellow-eyed transports, and behind them a long road
happens when you say yes
happiness without fulfillment

having made herself stands she was at rest
hayloft, hillock, hoarfrost, hush"

...and note, in another poem, I'd never heard a more nuanced placement of the word "scapula." The little things are what stick with me.

December 04, 2006

Who could resist those eyebrows?

...what follows after the poem is an excerpt from one of my four essays on the outstanding poet Czeslaw Milosz, forthcoming in the Companion to Twentieth Century World Poetry (ed. R. Victoria Arana, Facts on File). I could faint from happiness simply to have them done...

On his poem, "Dedication":


You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty,
Blind force with accomplished shape.

Here is the valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge
Going into white fog. Here is a broken city,
And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave
When I am talking with you.

What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.

Czeslaw Milosz

“You whom I could not save,” Czeslaw MIŁOSZ implores, “Listen to me” (ll. 1-2). In classical tradition, a “dedication” is a formal act, a delineation of space in response of loss. The poet offers up Warsaw to the memory of the dead: “Here is a valley of shallow Polish rivers … the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave” (ll. 10,12). ...But the speaker is not pure in his “dedication,” either to the dead or poetic principle. Miłosz subtly complicates the poem by resisting the siren’s call to self-sacrificing devotion, which is the secondary meaning of “dedication.” The speaker is haunted not by the ghosts of idealized ancestors, but instead by peers whom he knew in all their human compromises. He cannot help but remark “What strengthened me, for you was lethal” (ln. 6). The elegant closing gesture is one of appeasement, not of martyrdom: “They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds / To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds. / I put this book here for you, who once lived / So that you should visit us no more” (ll. 22-25). The poet knows that holocaust has, paradoxically, given life to these poems, and he feels the burden of having survived. He can only pray that the hungry dead will be content to consume the art—and not the artist.


November 25, 2006

Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

Just in case turkey, cranberry sauce, and 80 proof alcohol isn't enough to make your holiday weekend complete, THIS SUNDAY (Nov. 26) at 5 PM to hear MATTHEW ZAPRUDER read from his book THE PAJAMAIST (Copper Canyon Press), at Politics and Prose Bookstore (5015 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008; #202-364-1919; parking behind the store). Zapruder's work is top-notch, guys. Come if you can.

PS--Wear those socks Aunt Jenny gave you on Thanksgiving! We promise we won't tease.

November 22, 2006

Pretty Shiny Things

Hey, Eleventh Muse--thanks for the Pushcart nomination! If you haven't seen the poem, "Unflown," it is not too late to buy an issue.

On Sunday I went to the Pyramid Midatlantic Book Arts festival--pages of all shapes, colors, fabrics, dimensions. A book that came bookmarked with its own brown wool hairball, 3 feet in diameter. A book that was illustrated using the dried and compressed offal of an animal, wrapped in the skin. A $360 book that was manufactured using 360 one-dollar bills.

It didn't take long to realize that these books are primarily marketed as works of art, not texts; most 8-16 page books were at least $35, and full-length collections (or broadsides) cost anywhere between $100 and $500. Some extremely limited edition pieces were in the stratosphere of $1500 or more. People literally wore white gloves to examine the merchandise.

As a lover of collecting, I was tempted. As a reader...not so much. The texts were mostly generic philosophical or witty obervations. Some craftspeople used the books as a form of vanity press. Poetry is a natural match for the book art format because of its brevity, but for the most part only the usual suspects were featured: widely-circulated work by Dickinson, Frost, Gertrude Stein.
Seems a shame that the best contemporary designers and the best contemporary poets aren't collaborating a little more.

A couple of welcome exceptions: The pictorial Webster's Dictionary by Quercus Press is a brilliant idea. I'd have been shocked if the Center for Book Arts HADN'T been there (poets, you have until DECEMBER 1 to submit for their contest). Representatives of the Ruthless Grip poetry crew were on hand--recently evicted by the Washington Printmaker Gallery in Dupont, their readings have moved to Pyramid Midatlantic's headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland). There were also compelling broadsides of poetry by Sara Langworthy and Brian Cohen (whose unbound "Bird Book" took home a juried prize).

Goal for next year: a table shared by Big Game Books and Foursquare. Show 'em how it's done, ladies.

November 15, 2006

Old Winter's Song

I just discovered that someone has YouTubed footage of Eva Cassidy's famous performances at Blues Alley. Click here to see her sing Autumn Leaves. How does someone open her mouth and have such a gorgeous sound emerge, with no bells and whistles of studio production? Incredible. "Tall Trees in Georgia" was always my favorite cover of hers; I'd sing it over and over. You can also track down her version of "Time After Time"...and, well, it goes on and on.

My mother loved Eva Cassidy's voice so much, it got to the point that Eva would recognize her in a club audience and wave hello. Hard to believe it has been ten years since the singer's premature death from cancer. D.C. misses you.

A silent stretch: exactly the thing I promised I would not have on this blog. Sorry, folks, but life and four essays on Czeslaw Milosz got in the way. November is a always a quiet sadness.

Carly Sachs, great poet and channeler of our local grocery store diva Ramona, broaches an intriguing issue on her blog about the difficulties of the poetry scene in Washington. She says:

"There's the more formal readings at LOC and the Folger and then the university readings, the slam scene, the avant garde, the northern Virginia, the question was, should we have less readings or how can we work to help each other out rather than thinning out the scene b/c we all agreed how vibrant DC is."

At a publishing event a few weeks ago, I was talking to Richard Peabody (guru of Gargoyle), and he mentioned that years ago there was an ad hoc Poetry Committee in town--with representatives of the local series and scenes--that actually coordinated schedules so that there was never more than one major reading in town each night. So the local Poetry Audience was regarded as a pretty unified body, even if aesthetics varied between events. Though I recognize that this has the potential to become elitist quickly in actuality, I admire the idea behind it. I could imagine a quarterly pow-wow at Busboys and Poets where people met to hash out calendars (perhaps with Kim Roberts as our referee, since her Beltway schedule is the most comprehensive of any in the area).

The problem of thinning out one's audience through over-invention (versus revitalization of existing structures) is a serious one, for reading series and for literary journals. Part of the reason I haven't curated a second season of Washington Literary Salon is that, the year after the first, Reb and Carly started up Burlesque Poetry Hour. Their series has a dedicated space, a reading day (Monday) same as that for WLS, and a similar draw in terms of readers and audience. What's the point of competing for ego's sake? I'd rather put my energy into supporting the existing enterprise.

And if that support can happen to take the form of buying a Down and Dirty Martini and bidding on Kim Addonizo's thong, all the better!

November 03, 2006


Monday's Burlesque Poetry Hour with Maureen Thorson, PF Potvin, and Gianmarc Manzione was one of the most fun readings I have been to in a while. (I'd say that even if I hadn't won the bidding on Maureen's handmade Crown of the Spider Queen, I swear.) The types of poetry were different, but the caliber was high across the board. Maureen's latest (just a wee bit satirical) work is on the Spider Army, a pseudohistorical account of the appropriation of spiders (their service, their silk, their engineering principles) by the American military. Potvin writes brief but volatile prose poems that tweak the tropes and concerns of the middle-class. Manzione's lyrics have a heightened sense of place and form, a conscious elegance of word choice. Each engaged in his or her own way. To the right is a new No Tell book, which Reb gave me that night. All I owe her is my firstborn--ain't that a steal? I'm posting it here because Reb has a knack for designing covers that play to what Lulu does best. The image is crisp and clever.

I got a bed this week. Dissembled the futon of five years with my bare hands, and I'm not sorry to see it go. If this sounds mildly irrelevant, realize that part of my excitement stems from the fact that this new bed can, for hours at a time, act as a huge desk...which, being a city dweller, I don't otherwise have room for. Being at Millay and having not one but two folding tables at my disposal made me realize how mugh I missed being able to lay things out and move them around. Poets are spatial creatures as well as verbal ones, after all.

People have been all atwitter in response to Bill Logan's journal entries at the Poetry Foundation this week. They've been satisfying to read (even if I am of the blogger ilk which he mocks). Like it or not, he is out there serving as a real critic--saying what he likes, what he doesn't like, and why, and pulling no punches about it. Occasionally his criticisms verge on the ad hominem (I recall a particularly crass attack on Kim Addonoizo). Bah. Those kinds of cheap rhetorical moves are a waste of his time and ours. But otherwise, if people want to defuse Bill Logan's power I would suggest they do so by raising the bar on other poetry reviews which, by and large, seems to be awfully afraid of being critical. If we want others to take us seriously, then we have to be unafraid of less-than-laudatory observations. If there were more push-and-pull in the overall field of reviews, Logan wouldn't get so much attention. Poetry is such an undernourished business that unless someone is Billy Collins or Robert Pinsky, even the slightest critical prodding can feel like kicking a dog when he's down. Suck it up, says the Bill Logans of the world, and I'm not sure I disagree.

October 26, 2006

Down the Rabbit Hole

I won't even pretend that I have time to be posting, but a few things...

For people in the DC area--

Sunday, October 29 at 2 p.m. The Writer's Center is pleased to host a celebration of the Washington area's thriving small press community. Editors of several literary journals and book publishers will share anecdotes. The program will include writers and editors from Bogg, Dryad, Gargoyle, Gival Press, Minimus, Passager, Potomac Review, Pretend Genius, The Word Works, Washington Writers' Publishing House, and WordWrights! At the Writer's Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD 20815. Free admission and light refreshments. For more information on this and other programs, please visit our web site,, or call 301-654-8664.

...Tragically I suspect "light refreshments" refers to lemonade and cookies, versus the scotch and mixed nuts that are the birthright of editors everywhere. But hey, if we were dealing with poetic justice this whole event would take place in a smoky bar.

Last night's reading at Kensington Row was astonishingly satisfying, in part due to the obscene amount of garlic-sauced eggplant I had at the Chinese restaurant beforehand (MSG makes the heart grow fonder) fellow reader Nicholas Johnson has a knack for dramatic monologues and villanelles, and at times he had the audience laughing out loud. Really a delight to meet him and hear his work. Smallish crowd but very attentive, and all the new work from Millay (which had been untested until now) seemed to go over well. Thanks to everyone who came and our host, Judy McCombs.

I stumbled across the above image today, which was used to publicize the New York run of a play called Rabbit Hole, starring Cynthia Nixon; I know it as the cover art from an issue of Rosebud published a few years ago. It was my first big, national publication and I showed it to all my (non-poet) friends, who were duly impressed by the glossy feel and the fact that Stephen King was in the same issue. I later learned the main topic of discussion among the high school crew, when I wasn't around, was "What's up with the bunny nipple?"

October 19, 2006

Little Things

Postcard from the Poetry Bus--definitely my favorite one so far. I once had a bad ostrich run-in myself, after taking my sister to a petting zoo. I was wearing a shirt that had a glittered design across the chest, and guess what? Ostriches peck at anything shiny. Anything. Didn't even buy me dinner first.

I was complaining to a fellow writer today about how casual we are in being perpetually exhausted and stressed--too comfortable, as if we either lack the discipline or desire to make things change. Then I ran across this guest entry on The Happy Booker, "Work More, Sleep Less (And Take Good Care of Yourself)," which at least assures me it is not a DC-centric phenomenon.

For a variety of reasons I have been reading multiple poetry manuscripts recently, and I find myself internalizing a few questions that come up again and again--things to check for myself in future drafts, little ways I interrogate the strength of the manuscript. They include:

-If your last line is distinctly longer or shorter than the median length of those previous, is this an intentional move, or a sign the poem hasn't "settled" into its optimal lineation?

-Is the use of the confessional second person a shortcut of drawing the reader into the poem, or does it genuinely communicate information that would not be available in the first or third person?

-Is the "you" a displaced "I"? If this is being done over and over in a manuscript, why?

-Do the poems derive dramatic thrust using both rhetorical gestures (hyperbole, negation) and figurative gestures (metaphor, simile)? Are grammatical marks (ellipses, exclamation marks) being used to compensate for an emotive lack?

-Do you find yourself using the same rhythms and syntactical patterns, over and over, to create a sense of closure in each poem? Is this a conscious, formal choice? What are the consequences?

-What would you describe as the most unusual coherent aspect--the hook--of this MS?

...just a few ideas, from one editor. I'd be intrigued to hear from others.

October 10, 2006

The Wheels on the Bus

Is it my imagination, or are the litbloggers in a slump? Other than tilting at the windmills of Best American Poetry, we seem to be in a quiet period.

Coming back to the real world of two jobs is never easy, and I was happy to take refuge in the basement bar of the Big Hunt for the Washington D.C. stop of the Poetry Bus Tour last week. The reading was loosely divided into a first half of traveling poets, then a second set of D.C. locals. Joshua Beckman and Matthew Zapruder, the fearless leaders of the tour, were also the strongest poets of the first half. I particularly loved Matthew's Canada poem and Josh's poems from the second section of his new book, Shake.

The hometown team's half was good, not great; highlights included Rod Smith, who read a gloriously inscrutable poem called "Identity is the Cause of Warts," and Kyle Dargan, who captured a hallmark of local poetry by integrating social and political issues into his work. I think the diversity (read: fragmentation) of D.C.'s poetry scene works against us here...what should feel like an all-star lineup instead felt a bit like pinch-hitting. It's a damn shame that Maureen Thorson of Big Game Books (and a recent PSA Chapbook award) was in the audience, versus up on stage. Still, a fun evening, and thanks to all who organized it.

Two shameless self promotions: A 7 PM reading at Kensington Row Bookshop on October 25, with NYC poet Nick Johnson. Come on out--there's a reception and an open mic to follow. This will be the debut of my new September poems, so wish me luck.

Any day now, issue 6 of melancholia's tremulous dreadlocks will go live, featuring three poems also written at Millay. The layout is nice and clean and the lineup of poets is stellar, but what a funny title for a journal...I can honestly confess that I never expected to see the phrase "melancholia's tremulous dreadlocks" in a book manuscript of mine, but onto the acknowledgements page it goes.

October 01, 2006


Home again, home again. Left Millay by way of Somerville (outside Boston), where in a truly strange and wonderful coincidence I ran into the Wave Books Poetry Bus Tour and Major Jackson...on WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 4 the Bus heads to DC, where Barrelhouse will host it at The Big Hunt downtown. My friend Kyle (of UVA and recently, AU) will be temporarily hopping on board to read. Be there, or be square.

Sadly the ten-hour drive left me too exhausted to make the Baltimore Book Festival, which I hear was splendid. Give me a day or two to breathe and then, I swear, I'll be back in full form.

New manuscript title: "Theories of Falling"...

September 14, 2006

In the Soup

Last week one of the fellows made a pot of chicken soup. Not a pot--a vat. We'd had two roast chickens the night before and in they went, bones and all. The resultant broth threatened to flood the main house. When a woman makes that much soup you know her emotions are doing the cooking. If you ever find yourself bombarded with soup, pies, and brownies you might want to ask the cook what's going on. Odds are that someone's heart is about to be broken.

A draft a day, damn it. Titles: The Fish, Of Mothers, The Birches, The Field, Holiday, The Angels, My Los Alamos, The Ring, The Green Flash, Theories of Falling. There was an eleventh, but it was a poor stillborn thing...what seemed rich with rural detail turned out to be smug. But overall there are patterns and cohesions, sparks in the lines; I'm having fun. I finally used the phrase "the reveal" in a poem--that is the title my book has had for months--but immediately realized the poem was not Title Poem material. So the search for a platonic form of the book continues.

A big thing I'm trying to do is give myself permission to leave certain poems out. Not because they are lacking, but because they don't fit. They'll go in the next book, whatever that is. This is harder than it sounds--the poems that have appeared in high-profile magazines or anthologies are a kind of security blanket that I want to wrap around the manuscript, as if to prove "this is your worth your time--just look at all these other editors who said so."

Okay, back to work. Neruda calls, and I never resist a Chilean man.

September 08, 2006

Of Monarchs and Men

Now that the the sun has decided to visit for a while, we discover that monarch butterflies are drawn to the fields of golden rod by the barn. They flutter by constantly. Lest I lose credibility, we've also been tracking the appearances of bats and mice. If you leave an apple on your desk, they will come. One nice thing about such a small group is that each evening's dinner at the table settles into one coherent discussion, often about philosophical and pragmatic aspects of the arts--you know, the kind of gossip your non-artist friends *really* tire of. Our roundtable of 6 did go astray the other night on rather pedestrian topics, leaving Robert to observe that all three courses of food had been accompanied by talk of "taxes and vermin," as he good-naturedly retreated to his studio.

A few of you know that I have a side project while I'm here--a biographical entry for Pablo Neruda (and seven brief critiques of individual poems) for a forthcoming compendium of 20th C. World Poetry. Part of me regrets taking on anything that competes with my time for poetry here--I don't think it will keep me from drafting, but it does guilt trip me out of any of the "fun" prose reading I brought. (Dennis Lehane, I hardly knew ye.)

Neruda's life story is an exceedingly interesting one. He struggled for his entire life on how to define himself in terms of politics versus poetry. No, that's a lie--Neruda himself embraced BOTH definitions, politican and poet, (he also embraced a lot of wine, and three overlapping wives) and it was all around him who were left to struggle to reconcile the two. For all his bravery, Neruda's unwillingness to use his heft within the Communist Party to speak out against the persecution of Russian writers under Stalin (his great hero, later his "great mistake") may be unforgivable. But oh, the poems! I love some of the poems, and I sympathize with his disdain for critical dogma. He revised word by word, sound by sound; the antithesis, some said, of his close friend Lorca. But unlike Lorca, his long life yields a chronology of his philosophical and moral development as expressed in his body of work--his sentimental days, his polemics, his epics, his odes--a reader can literally track his values in poetry as they shift, and I find that deeply satisfying.

I may end up posting one or two drafts over the month. We'll see. So far, I have four, one for each full day here, and theoretically I'll write another tonight. They are going hand-in-hand with a strategic redesign of the first book MS; I'm not sure the book NEEDED a strategic redesign, but I have all these push pins and blank walls and hey, nothing better to do but shuffle and ponder. One slap-my-forehead moment: "The Fish"? Isn't that title already very much taken? Does this mean it has to be "The Goldfish"? Argh.

September 05, 2006

All's Fair in Love and Austerlitz

Hello from Millay. It’s taken me a few days to write, and it’ll be days and days before I write again; but I thought at least one report would be fair.

The drive to Austerlitz, New York, after 11 hours flying from Hawaii and a set of storm delays, was a bit harrowing. 8 hours that took me into the heart of New York City (navigating the upper versus lower levels of the GW bridge had NOT been part of my plan), encountering head-on a car speeding the wrong way down the Taconic State Parkway (I went from a clipping 65 mph to a slothlike 30 mph after that), and arriving on the grounds of the colony at 11 PM—which were modest, dark, and seemingly deserted. I walked around for 20 minutes and found no people, only an empty kitchen and a set of claw marks in the pavement, with a chalk identifier: “BEAR.”

Wandering down to an equally tomblike barn, I finally stumbled across a door to an open bedroom, with a piece of paper thumbtacked up that read SANDRA. I fell asleep, exhausted and a bit demoralized, in a bed I assumed was meant for me. I woke up, looked around at the neatly pined-and-linened room and beyond, out the window into a rural hill covered with goldenrod. My nose was sunburned and peeling from Hawaii, and my head ached. It was dead quiet, and thought: don’t know if I’ll stay here. Don’t know at all.

Two hours later was an immeasurable improvement. Calliope, our director, found me and shared a strong pot of coffee and a tour of the grounds. I found the odd room to go for an internet signal, the odd bend in the road to walk to for a cellphone connection. Hopping into my car, restless to see the countryside in actual daylight, I found…the Chatham County State Fair. So my first day at the Millay Colony included a tractor pull, a sheep auction, riding the Trapeze of Flying Chairs, buying a baked potato and fresh apple cider, enjoying the 4H display “How to Keep Your Amphibian Hoppy” and the music of the Squeeze Accordion Band, and winning three goldfish with the toss of a pingpong ball. At dinner I finally met my Colony-mates—five kind, funny, creative people. Wine flowed. We named the fish Edna, Norma and Kathleen, after the Millay sisters. After dinner, the true test: going back to my studio, turning up the track lights and the space heater, and trying to actually write.

And today, pinned to me door, a first draft: “The Fish.” So I’ll stay. Once the sun comes out, I'll go find that rumored Poetry Walk and get to know the woman of the house, Ms. Millay.

August 19, 2006

Off to Hawaii...

Two weeks of sunburns, tequila, and swimming with turtles. Then the real work begins in New York. I'll try to send a virtual postcard or two if I can get the internet access but in the meantime, take care and make a little trouble--the summer ain't over yet.

August 14, 2006

Shackin' Up & Shippin' Out

You can find me at the No Tell Motel all week know those beds that vibrate for 10 minutes when you insert a quarter? Yep.

I'm a little bit frantic readying my life to be abandoned for six weeks, but I am happy to welcome two new books into the world: THE STEAM SEQUENCE, by Carly Sachs (Washington Writers Publishing House), and ORGANIC FURNITURE CELLAR by Jessica Smith (Outside Voices). I'll have more to say soon enough, but for now go check out Ron Silliman's blog, where he champions Jessica's vision.

August 07, 2006

A Rose is a Rose is a Room is a Rose

I was working (read: snooping through the internet) and came across this old essay by Joshua Clover on the origins of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, "The Rose of the Name," in the premiere issue of Fence--

It is a smart essay, and appealing; it reminds me that I wish sometimes that I was a language poet, as they seem to have slightly better parties with stiffer drinks and more talk of God. That's a joke. Mostly. I admire the philosophies and styles of Language poetry, the brassy humor and the willingness to be apropos of nothing. But the trick is that, at the end of the day, so few of the poems truly move me. So few seem to take what, to me, is the greater risk of personal (rather than merely cerebral) investment. As a poet and a reader, I'm always on the lookout for a good human moment, a moment of resonance and even comfort; I'm selfish that way. Anyone else have this problem? Maybe I am just not looking hard enough, in the right directions.

[8/9/2006 - Draft of poem that was posted here removed to maintain publication eligibility.]

August 02, 2006

Burlesque Hours and Boxes of Books

Hooray for everyone who came out to the Bar Rouge for Monday's Burlesque Poetry Hour (and a "we missed you," via smoke signal, for Maureen trapped at her law office). Karl and Christopher proved to be lovely dinner partners and great readers. Gilda and Lolita were, as always, sassy and brassy & perfect hostesses. The Down & Dirty martini had just the right dash of tobasco. I have to confess, I think I was underbid--only $18 for my garter belt, wrapped around a copy of the latest 32 Poems? Come on, people--that's quality poetry. Not to mention the best purple-satin-and-bordello-lace a girl can find in DC.

Jessica Smith not only made the drive all the way from Charlottesville, she did so with the imminent birth of Organic Furniture Cellar on her mind. Go buy your advance copy. The woman needs to pay rent, damn it. Don't pretend you've never been there.

This is the second time I have seriously debated posting a poem draft on here. Hmmmm.

In a mere three weeks I will be gone for twice that long (and who knows what my internet access will be, whether blessing or curse). I am driving all the way to the Millay Colony in New York, and so there is a big empty box in my backseat, waiting to be filled with books for inspiration. I've picked up essays by Cynthia Ozick, fiction by Nabokov, poetry by Josh Bell and Cate Marvin, criticism by Tony Hoagland, a few others. Deb Agers suggests Best Words, Best Order by Stephen Dobyns. Give me suggestions for books to throw in the box, please--

July 28, 2006

...And the Spaz Rats

In happy news, my redesigned website is finally up, after several days of earthlink limbo. Still some pages to be tweaked and expanded, but the basic concept is in place.

For those who gave positive feedback on my original site, many thanks. I'm especially happy to know I motivated a few other folks to getting their name into stardom. That old design just became unwieldy to update: too many boxy frames and columns, too many small niches of detail. This feels less claustrophobic. I'm hoping to add back some of my original photographs, eventually, once I secure the server space.

When I launched a site under my own name, it seemed arrogant: I didn't have a book out, didn't have a publicity photo, didn't feel comfortable referring to myself in the third person. What compelled me to go online was simple: Sandra Beasley and the Spaz Rats.

Mind you, this is not a Sandra Beasley I know. This is a woman who lives in Canada (I think) and specializes in...alternative medicine for rats. She is the queen of the pet rat scene and man, is she a prodigious poster.

I am slowly but surely chipping away at her hit count, but for YEARS if you googled my name you got not poetry but: Sandra Beasley and the Spaz Rats. The best case scenario was people thinking that was the hip, alternative name for some crazy rock band of mine. The worst case scenario...well, you can go see for yourself. The "Sandra Beasley Independent Living Center" wasn't helping me either.

Anyone else out there have a crazy doppleganger story?

July 24, 2006

Sides that are Tiny in Nature

Ooooh, my goodness. When my thick envelope arrived from Big Game Books, I had no idea what I was in for: 5 magnificent tinysides, the first in a cavalcade of a series from one Maureen Thorton, resident book-binder and awl-victim of Capitol Hill. They are handmade! They are 4-color gorgeous! They are only $4.50!

They are already sold out. Begin your envy.

"butterflies" by Jessica Smith (pictured above) has the most substance per square inch. Each poem sprawls and loops across the square pages. The immediacy of the butterflies in the natural landscape intersects with a hinted-at emotional landscape of the speaker, who revisits and reconnects wordings in gestures of reconciling the two. My eyes enjoyed roaming these poems.

Mark Lamoureux's "Acheron Census" features this lovely small lyric:

Jaffrey, NH

They walked there,

from Noone Falls Mill.


Each of the short poems has the title of a town, tweaking the "Census" theme.

"The Archivist's Log of Interpersonal Experiments," by Stephanie Anderson, takes the prize for best cover (clean lines in pine green and ruddy orange), and consists of 26 four-line sections, interrogating actions described in the (alphabetically sequenced) titles: Handling the Juggler, Bickering with the Kiln-Stoker, Kissing the Literalist, Riding Sidecar with the Motorcyclist, etc.

In other news, the latest first-book interview at Kate Greenstreet's site is none other than...Frannie Lindsay. Worlds collide! Go check it out.

And, exactly one week from today I will be taking it off at Burlesque Poetry Hour.

Also, a trip to Baltimore left me obsessed with moving to Tindeco Wharf (waterfront, right between Fells Point and Canton). Anyone up there want to hire a poet? It's a restless time of year.

July 19, 2006

Opening Pandora's Book

First off, a quick congratulations to Paul Guest, who just revealed that his book Notes for My Body Double has won the Prairie Schooner Prize. This puts him in an elusive club, joining my friend Frannie Lindsay, of poets who have had both their first and second books published via prestigious contest wins.

Frannie's first book, Where She Always Was, won the May Swenson Award; her second book, Lamb, is forthcoming as Perugia Press’s 2006 Intro Award winner. I'm a big fan of the cover, pictured here.

I've been thinking a lot about first books lately, when and how to take the plunge: it's an overlooked fact that the odds of someone's manuscript being ready for publication, and the readiness of that poet to be the author of his/her first book, are extremely unlikely to happen at the same time. I've been following Kate Greenstreet's terrific series of interviews with poets on how their first book did (or did not) change their lives.

One recurring theme in the Q&As is that the poets who made the happiest transition beyond initial publication were those who were already actively invested in another phase of writing when the first book finally made it into print. Which makes sense...except, in practice, until that earlier collection receives the outside validation, I suspect we continually ask ourselves: is this my real first book? Is this my new, better self? Shouldn't these shiny new poems squeeze out those dusty old ones? If I just shuffle and reshuffle and pay my $20 fees and hold out another 8 months, will Louise Gluck recognize my singular genius?

Just keep writing, I know. A friend was warning me, just the other day, to not throw the baby out with the bathwater just because I was excited with some new work. Then she admitted that she, too, was thinking about reincarnating her first book manuscript--allowing only a few core poems to survive from the previous version. Shut up. Keep writing. I know. I know.

July 13, 2006


Last night I was at a mothertongue reading at the Black Cat here in DC (yes, Tara Betts was *amazing*). A woman was preparing for her open mic stint by running her fingers over lines scribbled in a journal. The journal's cover was ornate, red leather molded with the Sacred Heart of Jesus (you know, the flaming one). "That's a nice journal; I bet that's from Florence," I said, and it was--a gift from the woman's friend. "But," the poet confessed, "I had it for months, and I never actually wrote in it. It's so fancy. It just didn't feel So now I use it for the dirty stuff." Sure enough, the poem she read from it was a sinuous erotic encounter--thumb licking, head turning, sighing and sweating. She had a little black notebook tucked in her jeans pocket for the more straightforward stuff.

I sympathize. To give a journal to a writer is safe, like giving something adorned with an apple to a teacher. But really, we tend to be very picky about where we write and what we write in. I have stacks of untouched journals from well-meaning friends. I bet I'm not the only one.

Cornelius Eady finally convinced me to keep a notebook; for every previous professor I had just created a mock-journal at the last minute, scribbling out retroactive drafts from the poems I had created on a computer. The magic book, for me, had a hula girl on the front who danced when you shifted the cover in the light. Today, I can thumb back through it and see the antecedents of poems that have long since evolved into print. I love that. But sadly, I wrote out the last page a few months ago and have yet to find a suitable replacement. I'm looking for decent heft, a line wide enough and tall enough, a cover that is colorful but not distracting. There have been a few contenders but nothing quite right, and now there's growing pile of orphaned journals with just two pages used.

Too hot! Too cold! Where's the one that is just right?

July 10, 2006


I have always been a predominantly narrative, predominantly biographical, poet. Polished. Reliable. If you think I'm being arrogant, here's my outside reference point: Charles Wright described my work, years ago, as "often good, always competent."

I am not suggesting he meant it as a high compliment.

A few months ago I began working toward poems that spun off the energy of a dramatic speaker and a defined motivation, without having a particular "story" to tell. The decision sprang from some of poets I was reading--Sarah Manguso is one--who navigate emotional space as if it were a metaphysical matter, and give themselves over completely to the voice, rather than a discernible setting. There's something risky about that. I wanted to give it a shot.

This has caused some consternation in my writing group, a group of a half-dozen accomplished local writers I have been working with for over a year. I took a bit of a beating last time around over a draft that was too opaque in places. I can take that--it was a draft, after all, and I've worked on it since, taking into account their comments. Some of the metaphors are unruly, outright strange. Here's an excerpt:

I took him in, and the bitch in me begs you for eviction:

Turn loose my eyes, let my jaw drop. Tongue like a leash
on the bad dog. Marble knuckles, fatty and loud.

Punch the sweat from my collarbone—
rainwater off a cheap awning. Blood untunneling.

I am stubborn with tenants that no one will miss.

I am a bathtub of dumb machine parts, sometimes mistaken for a plan.

That last line "just didn't work for me," said one poet--who also said he likes poems constructed "brick-by-brick," with a foundation and a clear rhetorical conclusion--and though it was hard to hear, I can respect it, because he expressed it as a preference based on his own writing style.

But one poet made the global observation, about my writing, that "because the language and images are so consistently strong," I was letting the voice make connections that the explicit structure and narrative of the poem "didn't support." Symbolic leaps were being taken that couldn't be rationally justified by the given story. That it was something I ought to "watch out for"--to curb against in the future. This was offered in the mode of a workshop, so I didn't rebut. And I keep trying to absorb it as just another facet of critique, and find a way to make it serve the development of my poems. But after three weeks it is still gnawing at me.

If a poet makes a move over and over, based on her strengths, isn't that...her style? What makes her poems distinct? Isn't that where we locate the tension?

Don't get me wrong. One of my day jobs is in journalism. I'm all about clarity on the sentence level. If my writing is cluttered with a dangling modifier, a sloppy word choice or a vague pronoun, I want to know. I don't want the whole poem to be derailed because I didn't make it clear who the "she" was in the opening line.

But I don't owe the reader something that goes down easy. I'm not sure how I feel about the idea of clarity as applied to the total poem. I know a lot of good poems with diamond-cut, absolutely clear meanings, systematically derived from a sequence of observations. I know a lot of truly great poems with no such thing. And though my workshop was frustrated by moments in the poem that they couldn't explicate, they were able to talk about the emotional stance of the speaker, the relationships being explored. So something fundamental was working.

I'm going to go back to Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin, who I think made an excellent point about clarity in the introduction to Legitimate Dangers, using these lines from Joyelle McSweeney's "Persuasion":

"Others were more economical than I. but I / had my red marble."

Okay, the syntax is clear. No confusion on the sentence level. But no, there's no easy origin for the red marble. The speaker is not in a school yard, playing. She isn't a glass blower. And yet, the covetous specificity of the "red marble" is such that you grasp the contrast to the world of bland, ephemeral economy. The confidence of the voice carries the moment.

At least, for me it does. Maybe I'm being whiny; I'm sure I'm being defensive. But it's not always easy, in the workshop world, to sift out the comments that sharpen from the comments that dilute. A few years ago, a poem of mine described "the window slow-hunkering down upon itself, molecule upon jukebox molecule, toward the hungry earth." My entire MFA workshop voted to cut the word "jukebox." The setting was modern Pompeii, the speaker a lover, the other metaphors bridal in theme--the jukebox was deemed "out of place" and "random." Myra Sklarew, the professor, was the only one to defend it.

"Sometimes the inexplicable," she said, "is where the true poetry is happening."

Check Baby Check Baby 1234

***Self-deprecating announcement: Okay, you know that whole "moderated comments" phenomenon? Didn't realize I A) had it turned on, and B) that it then required review and "publishing" of comments. Didn't even know where to look for responses. I figured the radio silence had just been a function of being a new little fish in a very big pond. So, for the dozen or so people who have taken the time to comment on my blog since I started posting--thank you! And I'm sorry about the inadvertent censorship! Consider yourselves liberated.

And to think, I went to a high school for science & technology.

***DC-centric announcement: For those in the area, two poets reading in town this week who I highly recommend: ERIKA MEITNER of Charlottsville (Tuesday, Miller Cabin Poetry Series) and TARA BETTS of Chicago/Brooklyn (Wednesday, mothertongue at the Black Cat). I heard Tara (pictured at the right) read on Sunday at Busboys and Poets and the woman blew me away. Total control of the stage, the pace, the tone. Very strong blend of political, activist intent with narrative structure--the story doesn't get drowned by The Message. Def Poetry Jam was lucky to have her. And she was the best random AWP Austin roommate ever, courtesy of a Wom-Po list hookup (I feel like a giddy high-schooler with a yearbook and a sharpie pen, scribbling away, but that doesn't make it any less true).

July 05, 2006

Scenic Carbondale, Home of the Soybean

This last week was a bit of a blur, as it included a whirlwind trip (30 hours, 6 hours driving, 6 hours flying) to Carbondale, IL, where I picked up my sister from the Young Writers Workshop. Christina attended on the first annual Younkin-Rivera Scholarship--and with her long hair in braids, her flowing skirt, her dimples and her slightly sexy/slightly moody poetry, she is definitely a Beasley girl. It was funny (and a bit creepy) to sit near the back, and listen as the boys in front of me whispered "She's REALLY good" (with an implied "REALLY hot" in there somewhere). Ah, youth. Lock 'em up while you can. Miraculously enough, I don't think the late-night hijinks got much worse than marathon games of UNO.

Allison Joseph (of CRWROPPS and Crab Orchard fame) has put together a wonderful program that brings together 28 poets and fiction writers, aged 15-18, for a week of writing workshops, teaching sessions, and open mics. For some, my sister included, this was a first chance to be away from home, living in a dorm with a group of dynamic and talented teens. In particular there was a standout group from Oak Park High School, just outside Chicago, who had clearly had a lot of practice on the slam scene. Oak Park has a history of poetry, actually--Charles Simic was a longtime resident. I give credit to Allison for fostering such a supportive atmosphere, which was palpable the moment I walked in for the awards ceremony and reading. You can't help but bond with a teacher who swears freely and will show you how to make jewelry from wire and crystals in her spare time. And who gets up and stomps a rather noticeable cockroach making its appearance onstage, right in the middle of one girl's reading.

A random aside--a few prominent contemporary poets, such as Denise Duhamel and Nick Carbo and Joy Katz, appeared in the program as sponsors of scholarships. The young writers may not have known who these people were, but I did, and I was amazed and grateful that that they had reached out with their support. We all know, the wallets of poets are not padded. But if you happen to have a hundred dollars to spare in theis year's budget (tax refunds? skip a week of eating out?), consider contacting Allison and making a donation. I can tell you firsthand, you'd really be making a difference in these kids' lives. Christina is already talking about next year.

June 24, 2006

We Live for Danger

A few months ago, when Sarabande first published the anthology Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century, edited by Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin, there was some gnashing of teeth about the value of the book. Eh. Now that the dust has settled, the book remains a reliable bedisde companion: I pick it up, I read, I put it down, I find myself wanting to write more poems and better poems. That is my definition of a useful poetry anthology.

For those more concerned with the politics of using it to teach--well, any teacher worth her salt knowns to take the identity of the editors into account, and never teach anything as an absolute survey of what is "best." (Or even what is "legitimate," though I think that's a willful misreading of the title, ignoring its origin in the Frost epigraph.) For those overwrought with such concerns, go join the Garrison Keillor debate on Wom-po. Back to Legitimate Dangers.

I thought Mark Doty's introduction was a clever knitting-together of the aesthetics of the book, and I liked this line: "[the poets] are concerned with the creation of a voice, a presence on the page meant to be an experience in itself, not necessarily to refer to one that's already taken place." This seems like a good principle to work with, even for those who are working in a confessional or narrative spirit, because it forces attention to the language and moment of the page. It amazes me to this day how many poets draft and edit as if they were working in prose, with line breaks, and care little for the economy and variety in their word choice.

A few yays and nays:
Poets whose selections drove me to buy their books: Matthew Zapruder, Dan Chiasson, Josh Bell.
Poets whose work benefitted from being pulled out of book-length context: Juliana Spahr, poems from Nick Flynn's Blind Huber.
Poets whose work becomes slightly *less* interesting in the anthologized setting: Richard Siken, Spencer Reese.

Perhaps the oddest feature of the book is the "additional reading" list at the end, which essentially serves as a "runner-up" list of poets who were eligible according to the criteria, yet must not have quite made the cut. There I find poets who had seemed obvious and odd excludions while reading the book--Sarah Manguso, Deborah Landau--and a few well-deserving friends--Erika Meitner, Ted Genoways. Ted in particular is a missed opportunity, because his work is truly loyal to form, versus many of the "formalist" poets that ARE included, but who are only using form to ironic effect.

And yet there's STILL no mention of Patrick Phillips, author of Chattahoochee, or Gabrielle Calvocoressi, author of The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart. But maybe my centrist tendencies are beginning to show, because Phillips might write just a bit too much about his family, and Calvocoressi may be just a bit too rooted in American history. But damn it, they are good.

To be fair, I should acknowledge my own brush with having been anthologized, in the 2005 Best New Poets book published by the staff of Meridian, at the University of Virginia. It was a wonderful experience, but left me with an odd dilemma this year: another magazine editor asked to nominate me for the 2006 BNP volume. I declined, since I had already been in it the year before, but found myself wondering: Am I no longer eligible as a "new" poet? Does that make me an OLD poet? I don't even have a book out! I wasn't even old enough (or bold enough) to be included in Legitimate Dangers!

Anthologies: beautiful but cruel.

June 17, 2006

A-Millaying We Will Go

So it looks like, due to a generous disbursement of time from my employers, I might just get to to take Millay up on their offer for a residency in September. I am thrilled and just a little scared. I've done residencies before but...a month? A seven hour drive to remote, upstate New York? A total of only six artists? Could be incredible (EJ Levy and Geno Gloria both offered rave reviews)...or, it could be summercamp from hell (they weren't the only one to offer reviews).

But this is a necessary kick to get me writing. Now that the first book has clicked into place (not a printer's plate, mind you, but a far more ephemeral "place"), my perfectionism has been striking prememptive death-blows to subsequent non-manuscript drafts. It makes me think of Sylvia Plath's poem, "Stillborn": "These poems do not live: it's a sad diagnosis. / They grew their toes and fingers well enough, / Their little foreheads bulged with concentration. / If they missed out on walking about like people / It wasn't for any lack of mother-love. // O I cannot explain what happened to them! / They are proper in shape and number and every part. / They sit so nicely in the pickling fluid! / They smile and smile and smile at me..."

Sylvia Plath. Brilliant poet. Lousy Millay roommate, I'm betting.

June 12, 2006

In Which We Actually Report Poetry Matters

The new 32 Poems is out, and I am thrilled to pieces to find myself the featured poet on the magazine's webpage, to be found here. I haven't had time to digest the issue yet, but Curtis Bauer and Steve Mueske are always welcome names to see, and closing poems by Terese Svoboda and Megan Snyder-Camp have already caught my eye (that's right, I'm one of those types who immediately flips to the back of the book). If you haven't seen an issue yet, take a chance and order one--they are of simple, classy design and pocket-friendly size. Still trying to convince Deb Ager to come out with the scratch-and-sniff edition...but I am a patient woman, and wily in my ways of persuasion.

In other grand news, Big Game Books guru (and fellow UVA grad) Maureen Thorson has just
won a 2006 PSA Chapbook Fellowship, selected by Heather McHugh. She's being suspiciously quiet about it--perhaps, for someone of the DIY school, there's a perverse shame at such mainstream recognition. But I have no such compunctions or ethics, and will freely trumpet her success. The image here is from the cover of her most recently produced book, The Spectacle of Meat. Each handmade book is not only numbered, but thumbprinted and gilded. They do things right down on Capitol Hill.

June 05, 2006

Rivalry, Schmivalry

So, today my much younger sister received a letter from Allison Joseph herself, congratulatng Christina on winning the Younkin-Rivera Prize for Young Writers. Which means $250 and full tuition to attend the Young Writers Workshop this summer at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.

Once upon a time in the midwest, our great-grandfather was the mayor of a small Illinois town. Barely a week into his term, his youngest daughter fell down a poorly-capped dry well on the property of the new mansion they'd built for the new mayor. This, apparently, is how my mother got her name, in the child's honor. But that's another strange story, for another strange time.
Back to my sister. The Poet. The Award-winning Poet.

Things in life are stressful as all get-out right now, but I'm going to take the next 2 minutes and 29 second to grin like a fool.!

Okay...Back to work.

May 30, 2006

HardScrabble Life

"Hardscrabble" was the name that Ulysses S. Grant gave to his first homestead as a married man. That random fact aside, the last few days have included a little family time, a little poetry, and a lot of Scrabble. There's been a recent and welcome explosion of gaming with the boy (over bourbon) and my grandmother (over red wine). It's been far too long since I got to play regularly...The colony at VCCA had a Scrabble board, but 9 times out of 10 the visual artists would balk at playing with the writers. Apparently we took it way too seriously. (Look, seven letter words are a serious business.) Oddly enough, there was no such Pictionary embargo against the visual artists.

May 25, 2006

Damn the Ellipses, Full Speed Ahead

I spent Tuesday in a day-long seminar on disproportionate enjoyment of this kind of pedantry assures me that yep, I am meant to be in this writing business. Plural possessives! Initialisms versus acronyms! (Which was new to me, oddly, despite a military background.) Restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses! Hyphens and n-dashes and m-dashes, oh my.

Imagine the Hotel Monaco ballroom filled with 80 editors sipping a lot of coffee and giggling over this example of poor comma placement: "I'd like to thank my parents, Jesus and Ayn Rand."

During my lunch break I slipped away to Sushi-Go-Round in Chinatown. It's an odd variant on "fast food" where the sushi chefs continually fix dishes (2 pcs nigiri, 3 pcs maki, a scoop of seaweed salad) that are then sent out on a rotating counter the length of the room. The dishes are color-coded for price ($2 for spicy tuna, $4 for octopus nigiri), and you grab what you want to assemble a meal. Reminds me of picking plastic ducks out of a carnival pool, where the color of their bellies determined your prize. I suppose not-contracting salmonella is a good start, as prizes go.

Just in case you were wondering: It is the theory of the Editor of Copy Editor (and I tend to agree) that in the long run, "they" will become an acceptable way to refer back to the singular antecedents of "he or she." There is simply no singular general-neutral pronoun in American English, and the language is going to fill that hole whether we like it or not. We wince at it now because we're right in the middle of the transition--but Britain changed over long ago. After all, once upon a time we gave up "thou" for the singular "you," didn't we?

Last night: the Riverby Books reading series "A Space Inside," hosted by the lovely Miss Monica Jacobe, and starring another favorite, up-and-coming DC fiction writer Alex MacLennan. Alex has been all over the place lately, thanks to the fresh talent evident in THE ZOOKEEPER. His very fetching author headshot doesn't hurt either. Alyson Books did a great job with cover design, though the transformation of "Laurel," a main character, to "Lauren"--as misspelled on the back-- was a bit of a blow. Alex has taken it in stride. Back in yonder days, he was my Fiction Editor at Folio, so I'll get to say I Knew Him When. It's a fantastic reading series--the bookstore is an unknown treasure, authors pace themselves well, and there's plenty of wine and hobnobbing afterwards. Check it out in June, when the reader is friend and poet Natalie Illum.

May 22, 2006

Bees, Busboys, Burning Rubber

A somewhat sublime writing group on Sunday. The trains ran on time, everyone got substantive feedback, and the poems were good to begin with. What I gain from these sessions is not so much line edits, but finding out what major narrative/relationship details I just assumed were implicit in the poem turn out...not to be. It can be frustrating to sit in silence while your fellow poets workshop all the things the poem might be about (an old teacher called these "Killer Bee discussions"). But better to suck it up and clarify now, in the draft stages, before the poem is out fending for itself in the world.

After workshop I dashed down to Busboys and Poets for the launch of Tigertail, edited by Richard Blanco. Unfortunately I missed hearing my friend Deb Ager (damn alphabetical order!), but it was an all-star lineup, enjoyable nonetheless. Josh Weiner's long poem skewering the intersection of (racialized) politics and (little league) baseball was a true paean to D.C. "Play that funky music, white boy," he intoned. "Play that funky music."

Deb has a minor thread going on on her 32 Poems blog about "careerism" in poetry. I do think being career-minded and outgoing (yes, even "networking") in poetry gets a bad rap: more than once I've encountered the cult of moaning "oh, I never get around to sending out work..." or, worse yet, the poets that do send furiously to first book contests, yet never support small presses by buying contemporary poetry books. It's crucial, I think, that we take responsibility to vitalize and create our own poetry community--to communicate (yes, at places like AWP and colonies), to send congrats when they are due, to recommend poets to each other, to make it out to readings. And the funny thing is, when you do that, sending out is so much less intimidating. Really.

There is a flip side to "careerism" though, that causes me hesitation. It is easy, when navigating the social spaces of poetry, to get in the habit of automatically praising the work of friends/peers without really stopping to listen, deeply, and evaluate. If incestuous praise runs rampant, everyone's work suffers; the aesthetic settles, grows stale. I think we owe it to ourselves, as poets, to really think about what we admire on an aesthetics level--and to seek it out and specifically promote it, in fellow poets and our own work. I am not advocating this to the exclusion of other styles or schools, mind you--I rarely write "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E" or Flarf poems, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate a really fine example of the style when I see one. I just think a distinction ought to be made between those we respect for their contributions to the poetry community, and those we admire as poets. And if one person merits both praises, all the better.

My office is near the National Zoo here in D.C., and occasionally we can hear the more piercing animal sounds--especially hyenas. A motorcycle just burned rubber outside my building, but what my ear heard was: elephant. Ooooh! Elephant! And I instinctively scurried over to the window to look. For an elephant. On Connecticut Avenue.

There are worse problems to have in life.

May 18, 2006

Fear of Commitment

So, this blog thing...exists. Nagging at me, begging to be pulled and prodded. Somewhere in between a hangnail and a tumor on the scale of potency. Ideally less harmful than either one. Am I ready for the love affair with the virtual world that is blogging?

I was never one to keep a diary. I tried. I failed. I have a lot of gorgeous, colorful journals with approximately 4 1/2 pages written in them. How many of the poet-bloggers kept a journal when they were younger? And do they still, now that they have blogs? I write articles for a local paper, DC North--first food, then nightlife, now a regular column on the elusive "DC Scene." I may be slowly migrating toward the land of Carrie Bradshaw. The other afternoon, I took the time to seriously construct a pitch for a story to...Cosmopolitan. (Long-distance dating tip #2: ask him to give you a blanket as a gift, so you can think of him even while curling up on the couch with popcorn and a movie....) So, yes, clearly, I have excess writing energy that should be better spent. But if I'm going to do it, I'd like to do it right. Which means updating regularly, with purpose, and making it less about show-and-tell and more about a meaningful dialogue.

Blogs, I have noticed, have distinct personalities--and pulses. I was always told that I had to keep a houseplant alive for a year, then a pet, and only then was I ready for a "real" relationship. Where do blogs fit in on that hierarchy?

April 25, 2006

Coming this summer...


Bar Rouge (1315 16th Street NW Washington, DC) at 8 p.m.


Hosted by GILDA (Reb Livingston) and LOLITA (Carly Sachs)

We come...

We read...

...We take it off.

As if you have something better to do?