April 30, 2011

A Poem about the Greeks That Worked Out Just Fine

I will go back & write about my South Carolina travels, but first I want to tell you about how I ended National Poetry Month. On Thursday, April 28, I visited an undergraduate English class at Adelphi University, a class that for many is their first significant exposure to studying poetry. Though we'd never met, Professor Kimberly (Kimmy) Grey invited me out of the blue some months back with kind words and the promise of students who had each purchased a copy of I Was the Jukebox. I said yes, without fully processing the logistics of driving to Long Island and back within 24 hours.

To be honest, folks, the month has been as exhausting as it has been exhilarating. As you may notice, things are changing: not only the blog design but the launch of a Twitter feed, an Author page on Facebook, and a general uptick in online activity. This has come after a month of nonstop touring, and feeling the cost in every possible way--body, soul, love life. I've had some hard deliberations about how I choose to spend my time. Why go from reading to reading, when I could probably make as much money hunkering down and freelancing in the comforts of my Washington apartment? How does one tread the fine line between reaching people and, um, pandering out of an addiction to an audience? We respect authors for the former; we judge them for the latter. I fully expect to stumble en route to finding a balance between the two. 

But if I fail, I'll fail in the trying. 

When you're feeling low, there is nothing more restorative than to walk into a classroom like Professor Grey's. They'd read the book, and thought about its themes and motifs. They listened. They laughed. They cared. They made requests. They had questions, one of which picked up on my Shakespeare references, one of which pinpointed a contemporary influence out of nowhere (yes, you can hear Billy Collins's poem "Litany," in "Love Poem for Oxidation"). Thanks to Professor Grey's leadership--what an amazing teacher she is, clearly delighted by the act of teaching--they'd looked up definitions of any words they didn't know, and they knew about the sestina form. And at the end, -everyone- lined up to get their books signed, even though it meant some of them were late for their next class. That never happens!

Many of the students had presented on my book via memorizing and reciting poems. This in itself is a labor of love, especially when taking on a 39-line poem such as "The Platypus Speaks." But one student chose to work through a poem visually, not verbally. She chose one of my favorite poems to share with undergraduates, one which I often introduce using "the doorstep premise." By "the doorstep premise," I mean that a leap into surrealism can be introduced by many everyday actions--such as opening the door. What if it's not the expected guest on your doorstep, but someone (or something) completely out of place? Such as...a Greek warrior? What happens then?

Without further ado, here is the ILLUSTRATED version of "Another Failed Poem about the Greeks," courtesy of Adelphi University student Emily Frisbie. You can look at this linked version (via W. W. Norton) or in I Was the Jukebox for the original line and stanza breaks. I've taken them out here, to focus on the pace of the images.

"His sword dripped blood. His helmet gleamed. He dragged a Gorgon’s head behind him. As first dates go, this was problematic. He itched and fidgeted." 
"He said Could I save something for you? But I was all out of maidens bound to rocks."
"So I took him on a roller coaster, wedging in next to his breastplated body in the little car. He put his arm around me, as the Greeks do. On the first dip he laughed."
"On the first drop he clutched my shoulder and screamed like a catamite. 
When we racheted to a full stop he said Again."
"We went on the Scrambler, the Apple Turnover, the Log Flume."
"We went on the Pirate Ship three times, swooshing forward, back, upside down, and he cried Aera! waving his sword...."
"...until the operator asked him to please keep all swords inside the car."
"He was a good sport, letting the drachmas fall out of his pockets; sparing the girl who spilled punch on his shield...."
"...waving as I rode the carousel’s hippogriff though it was a slow ride, and I made him hold my purse."
"On the way home he said We should do this again sometime, though we both knew it would never happen since he was Greek, of course, and dead, and somewhere a maiden rattled in her chains."

There you have it. A successful poem about the Greeks. Someone liked one of my poems enough to live in it for a while, scene by scene, and that offers glimmers of hope that I'm doing the right thing, even if the right thing doesn't make for the most comfortable or   consistent of lifestyles right now. Thank you, Emily! Thank you.

April 25, 2011

Publisher's Weekly Just Made My Day

From the April 25 issue of Publisher's Weekly...
Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life

Sandra Beasley. Crown, $23 (240p) ISBN 978-0-307-58811-1

In this intelligent and witty memoir, poet Beasley (I Was the Jukebox) recounts her lifelong struggle to live a normal life while waging a battle against deadly food allergies. The author is one of "more than 12 million Americans who have been diagnosed with food allergies, a figure that includes almost 4% of all children." The title of this enthralling book is not hyperbole. As little as a kiss or hug from a family member or a friend who had eaten cake or ice cream at a birthday party could cause Beasley to break out in hives or, worse, suffer anaphylactic shock. She calls sherbet "sweet, icy death in a bowl." Beasley details her vigilant parents' never-ending routine for keeping her safe during her childhood until she left for college, how she and her friends coped with "the thousand minor hassles of living with" her food allergies during college, and the perils of eating while traveling. Throughout this thoughtful and well-written book, Beasley closes the knowledge gap surrounding food allergies. She writes entertainingly about the history of allergies, and current research findings; religious issues surrounding food allergies; and processed foods and their hidden ingredients. (June)


So much of this book was written under deadline, and with very little feedback from the outside world. It's not like poetry, where by the time a full collection comes out you've had the thousand back-and-forth rounds of response from workshop classmates, journal editors, and readers. So to get an early & positive review is a huge gift. Someone finally read it! And liked it! Let the happy dance commence~

April 18, 2011

This Friday at the Writer's Center - Story/Stereo!

I am in Oxford, Mississippi, catching my breath after a couple of readings in South Carolina. More on those in a day or two, but in the meantime I wanted to give you a heads-up on an AMAZING show coming up this Friday at the Writer's Center. 


Featuring Emerging Writer Fellows Andrew Altschul (author of Deus Ex Machina) and Eli Hastings (author of Falling Room). They will be joined by cellist Amy Domingues, who will play “A Night of Baroque Music” for the Viola Da Gamba, an early sister instrument of the cello. 

Hear Domingues here; get a glimpse of Andrew Altschul's novel via NPR

8 PM - Free - 4508 Walsh Street, in Bethesda
(Accessible from the Red Line metro)

This is a little different from other nights in the series--we're staging it in the reading room, for a more intimate vibe, and the acoustics will be be particularly easy on the ear. Give it a try! You won't regret it. 

April 12, 2011

Forward and Back

I am listening to Arcade Fire and Alexi Murdoch's Time Without Consequence--weather for an overcast day. I am filing. I am cleaning. I am doing my damn taxes. 

Last night I heard Naomi Shihab Nye at the Folger. I so deeply admire her: her poems, her style at the microphone, her incredible generosity to each and every reader. I love what she does for poetry in this world. I love that's she's a citizen of the world, yet also deeply Texan. I shyly presented my copies of Fuel and The Red Suitcase, books I've owned for years, giddy as any teenybopper. 

Afterwards, my sister and I detoured around the Tidal Basin. We visited the Jefferson Memorial under the moonglow. We wandered through the FDR Memorial, noticing how the bloom of cherry blossoms matched the rosiness of the quartz walls, and sat in front of those amazing water installations, and read inscription after inscription of President Roosevelt's words. The one that always stays with me is: "They (who) seek to establish systems of government based on the regimentation of all human beings by a handful of individual rulers... call this a New Order. It is not new and it is not order." 

Whenever I think of leaving this city, I think: but how could I leave these monuments?

Three days ago I was reluctantly making the long drive back to St. Louis from Carbondale, Illinois, where I got to sit on a panel with Joe Meno, Matt Guenette, and Rick Bass, then read poems of my own, which apparently helped inspire this post over at Basalt Magazine. For the record I agree with Travis's advice 100%. Also for the record, the SIU program is one of the best in the country if you are up for the model of a small town that focuses students into a cohesive community (versus a New York scene); it helps when the students are so incredibly friendly, chill but dedicated. 

Afterwards some of us--thanks to the deft ambassadorship of Allison Joseph and Jon Tribble--had dinner at Tom's Place, a hidden gem 20 minutes outside of town.To understand Tom's you must know 1) that the apostrophe is shaped like a heart, 2) that it is nestled between two strip joints--and 3) that it is the only restaurant in the world qualified to recreate the starring meal from Babbette's Feast. I had duck, perfectly done duck breast with a lingonberry reduction. I finally got to chat with poet Traci Brimhall, who is going to take the world by the roots of its hair. I talked to Jake Adam York, which always makes me happy. Matt recounted teaching "The Experiment" (from Theories) to his students, which was beyond generous; I'm digging my newly signed copy of Sudden Anthem, and I can't wait to get my hands on American Busboy

Here they are--the troublemakers, the friends, the bards:
(with me behind the camera--someone had to do it)

Five days ago I was getting lost in the woods of Sweet Briar College, prior to giving the opening reading of their creative writing conference with John Casteen. In wandering up a hillside to look at a slave graveyard, I somehow veered from the "easy" path to the blue-blazed trail for expert hikers. A recent storm had uprooted huge trees, the root-balls towering ten feet above my head. I came to a lake. I needed to be on the other side of the lake to get back. I planted one foot, then another, on slippery-mossed rocks at the low part of the stream leading away from the lake. I wondered about falling in. I clambered up a hillside. I picked up (but luckily, quickly discovered) a deer tick. The ground cover was fiddlehead ferns and tiny purple flowers. I had no cellphone reception. I was getting lost. The sun was shining.  

Tomorrow I drive to South Carolina, to visit Coastal Carolina University (so looking forward to visiting with poet Dan Albergotti and Sewanee-mate Jason Ockert). Friday I read in Charleston, which is getting its National Poetry Month on. On Saturday I will stop off en route to see a couple more poet-friends, in our natural habitat: a whiskey bar. And on Sunday I will wake up in the arms of Oxford, Mississippi...finally. Finally.

April 10, 2011

Soon to Return to Poetry Matters, I Promise

...but in the meantime, I about fell over laughing as I watched this.

April 06, 2011

On the Move

After just a few days at home--enough time to taste a new scotch with friends (Johnnie Walker "Swing," a round-bottomed bottle designed to stay upright on ships at sea), hug a cherry-blossom tree, and host the last meeting of my TWC spring workshop on "The Strategic Poet"--I am off again. My house really needs cleaning, but it'll have to wait.

I'm heading down into Virginia today so I can get an early jump on Thursday's Sweet Briar Creative Writing Conference, which will start with a classroom visit and end with an 8 PM PM with John Casteen. Fingers crossed I have time to pop in at VCCA, just to say hello to whoever is around; I bet it is lovely in spring (I always go in January). From Thursday night's reading I hustle the 3-hour drive up to National for a 7:30 AM flight to St. Louis, so I can make my way to SIU Carbondale for the Little Grassy Literary Festival, where I'll be joining a panel with Matt Guenette, Joe Meno, and Rick Bass on the writing life, to be followed by a reading of my own. 

It's not my ideal to Frankenstein two conferences--I'd rather attend each in their entirety, and really sink into the ideas being discussed--but this is the nature of April: trying to be in two places at once. 

I get to take part in a different kind of conversation, moving out of the auditorium and onto the page, in the new Spring 2011 issue of Tidal Basin Review. It's called "The Black Issue," but I suppose I get a free pass as a DC poet. Thomas Sayers Ellis is well known as the author of  The Maverick Room and Skin, Inc., but not everyone knows he is an amazing photographer as well (that's his shot on the cover, "Swing Youngin'"). I was one of a group of writers--including Nikki Finney, Afaa Michael Weaver, Nathalie Handal, and Aracelis Girmay--to submit a question to him in response to his portfolio of images, a kind of round-robin review. His answers are provocative, revealing, and articulate: typical TSE. Check it out, either via their online version or by purchasing the print issue for $20. I think the latter would be worth it; some of the photographs are in color, and all are hi-res. It'll end up being a collector's item.  

April 03, 2011

Greetings from Fort Worth

I cannot fathom a better way to kick off National Poetry Month than to have spent three sunny days in Fort Worth, talking about the life and craft of poetry. Texas Christian University--yes, they of the horned frogs--provided a strikingly bright and lovely and purple-hued space. The TCU faculty (Curt Rode, Dan Williams, Alex Lemon) made sure we were taken care of at every turn. 

My main partner in crime was Ada Limón; though I'd already been looking forward to seeing her, I had no idea how fun it would be to ride around in the backseat, with Lucas driving. When I meet people looking for fresh, sensual, resilient work by a contemporary poet, I send them to Ada's books. She has the most joyful laugh I have ever heard, as well as a stellar collection of shoes. The other participants included Kevin Prufer (whose new poems really intrigue me), Christian Wiman, Art Smith, a trio of Texas Poet Laureates past and present--Karla Morton, Alan Birkelbach, and Paul Ruffin--and someone who held that Other Laureate job, Billy Collins, who delighted us by sticking around after his headliner reading and taking part in the whole conference. 

I hope I did my part to contribute to the discussion. My panels included a presentation on Poetry & the Political, in the context of "Why Does Poetry Matter?" As a DC resident, typical in my cultured diplomacies, the intersection of poetry and politics is an issue I have ambivalence toward. But someone needed to speak to it, and I fumbled my way toward articulating not only some guidelines for what constitutes "political poetry" (a terms I think is used far too loosely) and why poets should pursue writing it. To my right sat Christian Wiman, which was terrifying because 1) I knew he'd have an eloquent presentation on his topic, Poetry & Faith, and 2) many of the key examinations of civic engagement in contemporary American poetry have taken place...on the pages of his magazine. 

Billy Collins sat in, impromptu, on our "Acts of Revision" panel, for which I'd passed out two dirty-laundry drafts of my poem "The Translator" in addition to the final version, and walked through the revising process. Halfway through the panel, I looked down the table to see Billy's copy of my handout covered in scribbles, and I thought Holy god, I hope he's using it as scratch paper. But no. He ended up using my poem to make his points, which felt a teensy-bit like being unexpectedly workshopped before a crowd--a heartstopping moment for any younger poet, though ultimately illuminating. 

Saturday was the juggernaut. Early in the morning I joined two of the Texas poets for a discussion on regionality in American poetry. I made them jump by asking about Cowboy Poetry at one point. My angle was the effects of online communication and technology, which threatens to dissolve the traditions (and in my opinion, positive benefits) of regional affiliation. My advocacy for regionality has a lot more to do with its social impact than how it translates to the page, which led to an interesting back-and-forth with Billy (do I get to call him that now?) during the Q&A. 

Later in the day, I offered a lyric take on "The Writing Life" that stood in contrast to Ada's very practical and compelling advice on seeking "writing" jobs outside academia, and Kevin's thought-provoking look at living "through" book reviewing and editing; "through"because, he said, one can't actually live "on" them. To balance those two I wanted to riff a little--Letters To a Young Poet-style--on the daily risks, revelations, and sacrifices of a living as a poet. Not sure if it worked or not, but it did give me the opportunity to utter the phrase "Great poems are like great sex: they require intimacy and invention." 

At the very end, I actually got to...read some poems. I read with Art Smith, who I've come to adore. I could sit around and talk Theodore Roethke with him for hours. 

On our afternoon off, I prowled around the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, which has a fantastic layout--labyrinthine walls that edge right up to a rippling pool of water; startling visual cliffs on the second floor thanks to interior glass walls; a rooftop garden. Sighted: several mammoth works by Anselm Kiefer that brought tears to my eyes, including "Book with Wings," below. Sighted: Owen Wilson, slipping upstairs for a quick tour of the Ed Ruscha exhibit. Sighted: A woman I have not seen since high school, now an art professor at Texas A&M. 

The Symposium's sponsor, Ronald Moore, is the best kind of patron for the arts--curious about the discussion without being controlling as to its direction. My understanding is that this symposium had, in previous years, been focused on the discipline of philosophy; I hope we won him over to giving the poets a chance in future years as well. At the closing reception we visited his house, where the art on the walls included a Jane Goodall portrait I recognized from the Modern, a Pablo Picasso, and a Francis Bacon. 

Afterwards, a few of us went out for a late dinner, and both Kevin and I dared to take on the Dr. Pepper-BBQed pork chops. Probably not the smartest move at 10 PM. But after three days of eating tater tots, french fries, chips and salsa, and more chips and salsa, we had nothing to lose. When in Texas...