November 28, 2010

The Shackles of Meat

Day four of waking up and going to sleep in the same bed, for the first time in over six weeks: home sweet home. I am slowly weaning myself off the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers. One lone slice of turkey waits in my fridge, with its bed of quinoa and a handful of spicy salad greens; one peanut-butter cookie is left, wrapped in tinfoil. Then it's back to the off-the-road diet.

A trio of poets came over last night, including one we needed to toast for his recent NEA fellowship, and a few loved ones. Given the perpetual email/phone-tag associated with getting together in DC, it was nothing short of a miracle to have a half-dozen people gather around a table with no fuss. I used to live in a dramatic two-story apartment in Dupont Circle, and one of the hard things about leaving was feeling like I was giving up the ability to host. But with enough candles lit, a few extra folding chairs, and a pot of apple cider on the stove warming with cinnamon and spiced rum, this place has the potential for its own (little) parties. It's sappy, but it's true: what matters is the intimacy and good nature of the people at hand. And hey, my headboard makes an excellent coat rack.

Being in one place has given me back the luxury of reading, and so I wolfed down the July/August, October, and December issues of POETRY. Though the July/August issue includes some good poems (I was pleasantly riled up by this one by Arthur Vogelsang), anytime your "Letters to the Editor" are from Stephen Burt, Terrance Hayes, and Daisy Fried, the prose is where it's at. There's a potent "The View From Here" portfolio in which people from fields outside literary academia reflect on the power of poetry within their lives. The standouts are by cartoonist Lynda Barry ("Poetry Is a Dumb-Ass Spider")  and Burundi Parliamentarian Etienne Ndayishimiye ("Dust and Stones," translated by David Shook); plus, there is probably someone in your life who loves sports, is trying to love poetry for your sake, and would welcome seeing the contribution from basketball coach John Wooden ("The Great Scorer"). Michael Dirda's long review of Michael Donaghy's Collected Poems and The Shape of the Dance: Essays, Interviews and Digressions was a truly thoughtful look at Donaghy's legacy, and illuminated his appeal in a way I had never fully understood before. I hope Dirda, whose work usually turns up in places like The Washington Post and The American Scholar, visits these pages again.

Also in the July/August issue, Robert Pinsky's "Death and the Powers: A Robot Pageant" was...well, it wasn't my favorite. This futuristic robot-themed libretto was written in conjunction with composer Tod Machover, who is at MIT's Media Lab; I gave up when Simon proclaimed "Yes come to the light from the meat!" It was as if Ray Bradbury had dropped acid. I did appreciate the revelation, in the follow-up Q&A, that Robert Pinsky wrote for Broderbund Software in the mid-'80s. I suspect his work was limited to Mindwheel, but I'd love to think the former Poet Laureate gave us those ACME-Detective-Acency dialogues in Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Or that he's the mastermind behind Myst. (Admittedly, storylines were less extensive for Lode Runner and Mavis Bacon Teaches Typing.)

Anyway, Pinsky says he's drafting an adaptation/translation project in blank verse for the Shakespeare Theatre Company, here in DC. I'd be interested to see that, when the time comes. I do admire his work, but this piece--a strange mix of satire and melodrama, in which the literal trade of flesh for machinery symbolizes our larger surrender of humanity, with Greek-chorus cameos by the United Way and the Untied Nations--just wasn't doing it for me.

The editors consistently do a great job with their Q&As; the questions are usually insightful, and do not pander. The brand-new December issue is entirely devoted to them, an annual feature, and I really got into the dialogues with Michael Robbins, Jane Hirshfield, and Sine Queryas. That has nothing to so with which poems I liked best--I think my favorite was Charles Baxter's "Please Marry Me," which is exciting since Baxter's usually a fiction writer. And in the case of Robbins, it's not as if we're simpatico in worldview: his tone and politics can veer toward the grating. ("Whole Foods, that union-busting paragon of "new age" liberalism, is a metonym for an entire parascientific culture that makes light of transcendent experience." Oh. Good to know!) But so often poem-specific Q&As feel like nothing more than a defense or decoding of the text at hand, and all three authors escape that. Queryas makes some lovely points about the nature of elegy and asking questions in poems.

All right all right all right, back to work. Getting dressed would be a good first step.

November 24, 2010


New York City was lovely but oof, oof, the return trip was brutal! I left my friend Carly's Brooklyn apartment at noon. Once you added up the walk to the subway, the transit to Penn Station, boarding the BoltBus, holiday/rush hour traffic, metro-ing from the DC bus drop, and walking home from Cleveland Park...well, it was eight hours later. All the while hauling a suitcase that has no rolling wheels. Time for a little R&R.

But one of the advantages of sticking around an extra day to hear my friend Erika Meitner read at louderARTS's Bar 13--and she did a fantastic job--was that I also got to have an marketing session with the folks at Crown. There will be news on the DKTBG front soon, including the unveiling of the cover and a book trailer. In the meantime I've got 210 pages of copyediting to do between now and Monday.

Congratulations are in order on two fronts:

1) The amazing DC foodwriter Tim Carman (longtime reporter and "Young and Hungry" blogger for the Washington City Paper) is making the jump to the Washington Post. Yay, Tim! Some of my favorite essays of his include a tribute to the handcraft of dim sum, an investigation on how not to hire a chef, and an ode to intelligent drinking.

...also, of course, there's a lot of buzz in the poetry world right now over the announcement of the latest round of NEA Fellowship winners. I’m particularly thrilled to see Jericho Brown, Blas Falconer, Anna Journey, Joshua Mehigan, Thorpe Moeckel, and Allison Titus make the cut.

Are you feeling generous because of the holidays? Check out Todd Boss's MOTION POEMS project ("Where big poems meet the big screen"), here, and consider contributing to the cause of supporting artists and videographers in their creative work devoted to the interpretation/promotion of poetry.

& Have a fabulous Thanksgiving! My cousins will be frying not one but two turkeys--one Cajun-spiced and one, er, classic. As classic as a deep-fried bird can be.

November 21, 2010

Tonight - Cornelia Street Cafe in New York City!

From our listing in (sweet!) this week's issue of The New Yorker...

Goings On About Town: Classical Music

Inna Faliks: “Music/Words”

The pianist begins her third season of concerts with poetry, presenting an evening featuring readings by the poets Sandra Beasley and Oni Buchanan as well as music by Sofia Gubaidulina, Liszt, Ravel (“Gaspard de la Nuit”), and Augusta Read Thomas.

Cornelia Street Café, 29 Cornelia St. 212-989-9319. Nov. 21 at 6 PM.

I have to admit, I am a little starry-eyed to read with Oni and Inna. (And as I confessed to a friend, "never before has my name seemed so...uninteresting.")Here is a clip of Inna Faliks at the piano:

There is a lovely extended rumination on Inna's musicianship, and the philosophy of the Music/Words series, courtesy of Chris Kompanek ("The Avantgardist") over at the
Classical TV Blog. An excerpt:

Faliks got an early career start, making her professional debut as a concert pianist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when she was just fifteen and has played all over the world since. In that time, she’s developed a love of literature and poetry that informs her musical choices. It’s not a coincidence that she discovered Pasternak’s compositions. While Verse is a completely instrumental album (despite its title’s suggestion), the liner notes contain poems by Pasternak and Edgar Allen Poe along with Aloysius Bertrand’s “Gaspard de la Nuit”, which inspired Maurice Ravel’s piece of the same name.

By keeping the music and lyrics separate, Faliks forces the listener to make decisions about the connections between the two. Does the poem move at a pace directly correlated with the music or does it exist in a more abstract realm to be read and digested at the listener’s leisure? It all depends on how you approach it. This is particularly true of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 36, which Faliks pairs with Poe’s “The Bells," a whimsical and gothic poem divided into fours sections that detail sleigh bells, wedding bells, alarm bells, and finally, the tolling of the bells. Rachmaninov’s sonata has just three movements, so we immediately have to make a decision of where the break should occur. Should wedding bells sound ominous or cheerful? Should they be frantic or slow-paced. Quiet or loud? The piece and poem can be paired to reflect the listener’s outlook on life or contrast completely with it.
You can read the whole piece here, and I hope to see you tonight...

November 12, 2010

Profanity, Peanuts, and the Peach of the South

For years I didn't swear. For years, much to the amusement of longtime friends. Sure, as a non-religious soul I used "goddamn" pretty freely, but that was it. On the occasion of my 20th birthday, it was noted that I'd yet to have been observed using "the S-word," and I'd admitted to using "the F-word" only once--seconds before being hit by a car, while crossing a turnpike near my high school. (I figured if I was going to die a virgin at the age of 16, I should at least get a little sinning in before I departed this earth.)

But poetry changed all that. In "The Fish," a poem in Theories of Falling, I was trying to describe a certain variety of fornication where only a coarser word would do--an issue that came back with "In the Deep," in I Was the Jukebox. Up until that point, even during singalongs I would respond to profanity with an abrupt beat of silence. But I couldn't very well do that when reading my own poem. So I came around. 

The truth is, fuck is a delightfully flexible, satisfyingly Saxonic word. Philip Larkin's "This Be the Verse" wouldn't be the same if it started with "They screw you up, your mum and dad." Which is why I felt comfortable belting out this song for the whole length of I-85 yesterday, en route to Atlanta:

Life is too short to mouth the words. 

While passing through South Carolina, I stopped off at a roadside stand that had been tantalizing me, eight billboards in a row, with the promise of apple and peach products fresh from the orchard. I tried the free samples, but nothing was quite right. The chow-chow was too vinegared, the apple butter too sugary, the peach-pecan preserves lacking in identifiable pecan texture. There I was, feeling guilty with a half-dozen empty sample cups in hand, yet nothing I could get excited about buying.

Then I saw the sign: BOILED PEANUTS. I'd heard about them many times over the years, but usually in the context of "Ew." (And having seeing the swollen, bulbous goobers, boiled for 10 hours straight and bobbing in tubs for sale in various gas station Quick-E-Marts, I wasn't sure I could disagree.) But these were local peanuts, fresh cooked, the long drive ahead was an argument for protein, and they were only $2 for a pint bag. After having checked to confirm nothing had been added but salt, I figured What the hell?

They were good! In a sense, the perfect road food: the process of splitting the shell and scooping out the soft innards with one's teeth is just complex enough to distract you from monotonous highway driving, but there's no powder or sauce to be spilled all over your clothing if you drop a peanut. Mind you, I'd only eat them driving alone--I've never figured out how people romanticize that kind of messy, hands-on consumption. Henry Taylor has a poem that frames the whole artichoke as a sexy meal, but somehow my table manners didn't get the memo. 

Upon arriving in Atlanta I remembered, with a rush of emotion, just how much I love this city. Some places you like to visit; some you know you could move to without a second thought. And I now have a favorite place to roost--The Highland Inn, a kind of Chelsea Hotel of the South, which sits between Emory University and the Little Five Points neighborhood. A tapas place to the right; a boutique/gallery to the left; a "Ballroom Lounge" club and recording studio underneath, with a bar that serves until 2 AM; and a pretty black cat roaming the hallways. Clean sheets, continental breakfast, and free WiFi, all for $80 a night. Take that, Holiday Inn Express.

For those who made it out to the reading, with Chad Davidson and Alka Roy, hosted by the amazing Bruce Covey, many thanks--we had a big, attentive crowd that spilled over into the various side-aisles of Emory's new Barnes & Noble. (Isn't it weird that somehow, along the way, B&N went from being "the bad guys," to "the lesser of two evils vs. Borders," to bankrolling some really good programs?) Beforehand the poets had dinner at Doc Chey's, a restaurant I remembered from previous visits for its generous portions and chill vibe. I had  a divine spicy ginger/garlic stirfry of asian eggplant and chicken, with brown rice. (Following Thai in Greensboro and the peanut gamble, it's been a great trip for food.) We opened up a rather perverse set of fortune cookies--Bruce's warned him "You can't win them all"--and giddily resolved to incorporate the fortunes into the night's readings. 

Afterwards we went to Manuel's, a dive that shows off one of Atlanta's odd fascinations, the blended beer (Pale Ale & Guinness, Cider & Guinness, Lager & Cider, etc.). It's odd, given the affection for house concoctions, that when Chad ordered a "hot toddy" for Alka she ended up with a mug of hot water, a teabag, a packet of honey, and a shot of Jameson's. Somehow the small group of us polished off a platter of french fries, sweet potato fries, onion rings and two platters of potato chips. Poetry works up an appetite. There was some hollering related to a football game (I think Atlanta pulled off a win over Baltimore), which we ignored. At the end of a long evening Bruce and I retired to the Ballroom Lounge for some serious talk of life and pages. Over the local Sweetwater brew for him and tumblers of Red Label for me, we closed the place down.

Good lord, I love Atlanta. But I love Oxford, too--so, onward. Six hours of driving ahead of me, some sweet memories behind me, and more to come. 

November 08, 2010

Nesting & a Poet Lore Gem

Home for a precious few days, which have consisted of: sleeping for 10 hours straight, Netflixing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, watching my sister work the silks at Trapeze School, seeing the new (and gorgeous) Arena Stage for a play with family, eating chicken with leeks & hot peppers at the suspiciously named "Jenny's Asian-Fusion" on the Waterfront (but actually, it was quite good!), seeing friends visiting from Seattle and Princeton, laundry, restocking my home scotch bar, and trying desperately (and failing) to catch up on all the poets to whom I owe feedback on poems. 

On Wednesday I hit the road again. Two readings coming up--Atlanta and the Emory Poetry Council's Series on Thursday (November 11), New York City and Cornelia Street Cafe two Sundays from now (November 21). Would love to see you if you're in the neighborhood. I think the evening at Cornelia Street, which will feature pianist Inna Faliks and poet Oni Buchanan, will really be something special. 

Also, earlier today I ran across a fantastic poem in the new Poet Lore. Poet Lore is the oldest continuously operating journal of literature in the United States--founded in 1889--and we are proud to host it out of the Writer's Center. You can always count on each issue to be jam-packed with work by a refreshing mix of emerging and established voices, as well as a reviews section. Enjoy this sneak peek from the Fall 2010 issue:


It is puzzling--no one sees the snow falling
in the field. I am all alone, the field must
think. Except for the snow, of course,
which is a companion only in the sense
that it comes down silently. The sadness
of a field is commensurate with the way
the shortleaf pines or the junipers
or the paper birches offer their bodies 
as boundaries, which is another way 
of saying they exist as contrast. 

My father wrote two books about New Zealand,
one about Abel Janszoon Tasman,
one about Hongi Hika. He wrote them
on an enclosed porch that overlooked
our Michigan back yard, and our one strict rule
was that if he was sitting before
his typewriter we were not allowed
to be anywhere he could see us.
So that is why, of course, my most vivid
memory of early childhood is of knocking
one evening on the porch window to show him
how many fireflies I had collected
in an old pickle jar. My mother told me once
that in every moment of his life
my father was half listening to us
and half to a little dog of anguish.
My father typed and typed and did not
seem to hear that I was knocking,
and the expression on his face
was like the snow that drifts down
to this field tonight and covers everything. 

-Doug Ramspeck

I'm really interested in this poem's balance between the generalities of landscape in stanza one and the swerve toward precise, yet conversational diction that opens stanza two. Plus that gorgeous ending! I actually knew Doug Ramspeck's name because he won the 2007 John Ciardi Prize for Poetry, which led to his collection Black Tupelo Country being published by BkMk Press. That press is always on my radar, and I'd even applied for that prize with what became Theories of Falling. Always funny when you read the work of someone who "beat" you and think Damn, he deserved it. 

November 04, 2010

Goldilocks Syndrome

Three days, three towns, three different beds I've woken up in--none of them my own, none just right. Now I'm just one high school class visit away from DC. Oooh...make that one class visit + one Bodo's bagel lunch. If my biggest dilemma of the day turns out to be whether to get a cinnamon-raisin bagel with peanut butter versus a BLT with avocado on sesame, I am a lucky girl.

Yesterday was a lovely visit to the University of Virginia, where I read from Theories of Falling and took questions from Lisa Spaar's APPW (Advanced Poetry) thesis class. Hard to believe that the popular and growing APPW concentration, in which undergrads can complete a full-length creative manuscript for honors credit, grew out of a pilot experiment that began with our Class of 2002. Hard to believe I was workshopping Kyle Dargan's then-thesis Chronografia, eventually-to-be the Cave-Canem prizewinner The Listening, on the bare floor of Room Eight East Lawn those eight years ago. Hard to believe the "Happy Halloween" that I foolishly chalked on the invaluable historic brick outside said Lawn Room still lingers. The students were bright, fun, inquisitive, and just as overwhelmed as we were by the prospect of navigating post-grad life.

Even after the greatness that will be Story/Stereo this Friday (see you there, I hope?), there are two readings coming up in DC that I'm sorry to miss. One I'll miss for my own reading in Atlanta; the other because I'll be at Oklahoma! with my grandmother. But just because I'm being deprived doesn't mean you must be. Details and my annotations ("Why You Should Go") below...

Open Door Reading with Susan Coll and Josh Weil
Sunday, November 7, 2010 - 2 PM 
at The Writer's Center (4508 Walsh Street, Chevy Chase, MD)

Josh Weil reads from The New Valley: Novellas. Weil is currently serving as the fall 2010 writer-in-residence at The James Merrill House in Stonington, Connecticut, where he is at work on a novel. He is joined by Susan Coll, who reads from Beach Week, her most recent novel. Susan Coll is the author of four novels, including Rockville Pike, Acceptance, and Beach Week.

Why You Should Go: Susan Coll is one of those hidden treasures of DC--a smart, insightful writer who is tuned in to the minor dramas and contemporary humor of American family life. Over at, book critic Lizzie Skurnick called Beach Week "hilarious and witty." And Josh's work is haunting--I had the pleasure of being with him at the Sewanee Writer's Conference when he read from The New Valley. There's something very old school about the way he develops his Blue Ridge landscapes and his complex voice; something that reminds me of Breece D'J Pancake, which is high praise indeed. If he reads from his next novel, know you'll be getting a sneak peek at something big.


Barrelhouse Presents Reading Series with Adam Golaski & Sherrie Flick of Rose Metal Press, and John Cotter & Maureen Thorson of Open Letters Monthly
Thursday, November 11 - 7 PM
at Black Squirrel (2427 18th Street NW, Washington, DC)

Two Rose Metal Press authors--Adam Golaski and Sherrie Flick--will be in D.C. reading their flash fiction and small stories. Golaski is the author of Color Plates, "a museum of stories" that take their starting points in Impressionist paintings, but then spread out in wildly unexpected directions. Flick wrote an essay for RMP's Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction; she is also the author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness.

They will be reading with two Open Letters Monthly authors, John Cotter and Maureen Thorson. Cotter has a new novel out (Under the Small Lights) and has been on a joint tour with Adam Golaski. Thorson is the founder of the D.C.-based Big Game Books and is the author of Applies to Oranges, a full-length poetry collection forthcoming from Ugly Duck Presse.

Why You Should Go: This night is going to be a LOT of fun, as well as supporting and recognizing the power of small presses. The Barrelhouse folks know how to host a good shindig, and they've lined up a quartet who all give energetic, often funny readings. As an art lover, the premise to Golaski's book intrigues me. And I just finished John's book Under the Small Lights while lounging in a friend's backyard in Oxford, just down the road from the football stadium...listening to the roar of carpet-bagging Auburn fans as Ole Miss lost yet another game. For those imbibing, I'd recommend pairing a bourbon with Sherrie Flick's work--or a tequila & cranberry cocktail with John Cotter's--or a robust draft porter with Maureen's poems; nota bene, Black Squirrel has a stellar beer collection.


November 01, 2010

This Friday!

After two weeks on the road--which can be broken down to three campus visits, two readings, five days camped out at Main Squeeze, and a busted headlight later--I'll be coming home to DC. And what a welcome day to arrive...just in time to host the third (and final) Story/Stereo of the fall~featuring musician Devin Ocampo and Emerging Writer Fellows Doreen Baingana and Alison Pelegrin. Ocampo is yet another in the long line of local legends lined up by our curators, Chad and Matt. He's currently in Medications, but he'll be performing his own songs (hence "Devin Ocampo Sings Devin Ocampo"). You can get a sneak peek of his music via the free clips on his MySpace page, hereDoreen Baingana is the author of Tropical Fish: Stories out of Entebbe, and Alison Pelegrin is the incredible poet behind Big Muddy River of Stars

It's going to be a great night.

The details:

What: Story/Stereo: A Night of Literature & Music
When: Friday, November 5, 8:00 P.M.
Where: The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD 20815
Admission: FREE
Contact: 301.654.8664 or visit