December 07, 2012

Risk & Point of View

In the last couple of weeks, I've been asked to talk a lot about point of view in poems. In workshops I often question whether the poem has enough risk or urgencyThere are many ways to heighten tension in a poem. Some are thematic, e.g. alluding to backstory. Some are syntactical, e.g. phrasing a sentence as a question. Some are formal, e.g. breaking lines at a critical junction, or enjambment between stanzas. 

But I think point of view is undervalued as a determinant of tension. The POV you choose helps shape the risks your poem can take. 

First Person: Here, the central risk is one of discovery. The speaker's understanding of something, or the reader's understanding of the speaker, should change across the course of the poem. That doesn't mean the subject might not also do something. But keep in mind that you've chosen a POV that privileges his or her perception of that act/experience, a version that may or may not be reliable, versus focusing on the act/experience itself. 

Second Person: Here, the central risk in one of disclosure between parties. A secret is being revealed or created by those present in the world of the poem. If the "you" is being addressed through a series of imperative commands, then he or she should be asked to do something counterintuitive to what we know of that identity. 

There are a ton of Second Person poems being written right now, in part because it is a shortcut to intimacy with the reader. But it's frustratingly static when "I" tells "you" a story, across the course of the poem, that in reality would already be known and complete between the two parties. It's a gimmick, much like when the character in a short story pauses on a doorstep and flashes back to an entire romance right while her finger is pressing the theoretical buzzer. 

Third Person: Here, the central risk is dramatic. These are characters, and you control their stage, even if your writing is inspired by contemporary or historic events. A compelling Third Person poem, whether bird's-eye (in which you're battling the drag of expository language) or omniscient (in which you're tackling the beast of authenticity), is an awe-inspiring thing; I wish more people would try their hand at them. 

Ask yourself why your draft uses its particular point of view. Try envisioning the same poem in First Person, Second, Third. What does an outside view reveal or emphasize about your "characters" and their dynamics? What secrets would one tell the other? How do you newly sympathize (or not) when an antagonist becomes the speaker?

When the poem finds its destined POV, it will cling to it. Your favorite moments won't work in the other modes. You can try the same thing with verb tense: rotate the poem through past, present, and future. And I always create an intermediate draft in which all line and stanza breaks are erased. I massage the syntax as a prose-paragraph, then I break again. Sometimes this results in the same visual format. Sometimes not. 

When the poem starts to fight back, to commit over and over to certain aesthetics, that's when I know I'm on my way. And I'm wrestling with one right now, so wish me luck.

November 28, 2012


Last night, my wonderful and very cold-ridden boyfriend came over after getting off his late work shift. We talked over tea, he dosed himself with Nyquil, and we curled up in bed. After a couple of hours I woke up, restless in the too-hot apartment, the bright blue-fairy light of my computer speakers blazing from the distant wall. I tried to find a good arm position. That failed. I tried to balance my desire to snuggle with my desire to avoid his fevered, germ-laden breath. That failed too. 

When I'm trying to fall asleep, my mind wanders toward projects in progress; in this case, a book proposal I've been been considering since my January VCCA stint. Last night, I realized an idea for a narrative arc--one that resonated with life decisions I'm in the thick of right now. For the next 40 minutes, my mind poked and prodded. This could work. Episodes that had previously felt like nothing more than dissonant essays began to cohere in my mind as sequences, chapters, a braiding of memories with experiences that could be researched and reported. 

Well into my second hour of wakefulness, I jumped out of bed. It was 5 AM. I grabbed my notebook and used the last match in the box to light a votive, wary of the kitchen's fluorescent glow. I poured a small glass of carrot juice, and tipped into it a swallow of vodka leftover from earlier. I scribbled until the clouds began to lighten outside.

The spell was broken, energy vented. I crawled back into bed. He wrapped his arms around me and rested his lips on the nape of my neck. That's when it hit me: this man, who also came into my life during that January VCCA stint, is in the story going forward. He is both high spire and brick foundation. He is part of the adventure.

An adventure that I will, one way or another, commit to the page. The Author rejoices in having a witness, a trusted and funny voice in dialogue for the ride. The Girlfriend wonders: Is this something we talk about? Do I ask permission?

This is a memoirist's problem. I don't face this with poems. Though we sense the texture of inspiring truth, it's understood we talk about the poem as invention. In readings, even those most revealing poem is one among many. There are other things to talk about afterwards. 

I once had a man forbid me from writing about him in any form. It was stifling. It spooked me out of drafting for months. Another, an artist himself, would say "It's all material." I wonder if that maxim has ever been tested with him on the other end of the art. The first question I got after reading a personal essay at Frostburg State University this past summer was, "So, how much of that is true?" My flustered response--"um, all of it"--flip-flopped in my stomach as I considered the shady activities committed by a central (albeit unnamed) character. Right now, that essay is a finalist for a contest that offers a reading in the town where said "character" lives. It's one thing to write honestly about our weaker moments. It's another thing to deliver them to his doorstep. 

Sometimes students and aspiring memoirists ask me about the risk of writing about real people. I have no problem defending the ethics. There are very few cases where someone is at legitimate risk of lawsuit for libel or slander. What you are really worried about is making your dear ones mad at you. And I can't assure you that won't happen. 

"Isn't everyone flattered to see themselves in print, deep down?" No. Writers say things like that to each other, forgetting that we're writers. Our worldview is warped. My principle is that nothing is off limits, as long as 1) I've made my best effort at being truthful, and 2) I'm as hard on myself as anyone else in the scene. I stand by that. I remind myself of the revelatory nonfiction that I've read over the years, which meant so much to me, that may have been hard for that author's dear ones to see themselves in at the time. But principle is cold comfort when you lose someone over creative work.

If I could go back in time, are there pieces I'd spike, paragraphs I'd strike? No. That makes me feel selfish, but no. Second-guessing yourself as a memoirist is the worst pesticide. You don't just kill a weed; you contaminate the soil.

All of this is to say that when we woke up, puttering around the apartment and drinking orange juice, I did not ask.

Writers don't get a pass from the social pact. We have to give as good as we get--which might mean suspending judgment, cheering on a friend's decision that you'd never make for yourself, letting your own less-than-flattering moment go up on someone else's canvas. But when you surround yourself with the right people, those who go the distance of a lifetime, they recognize the capacities that you have to exercise to thrive. It is inseparable from their love of you. No permissions necessary. 

November 20, 2012


Spotted on one of my favorite blogs for visual innovation, Colossal: Arizona artist Ernie Button, is creating a series of photographs that show the bottom of tumblers after that last drop of single-malt scotch is drained. "It’s a little like snowflakes in that every time the Scotch dries, the glass yields different patterns and results," he says. "I have used different color lights to add ‘life’ to the bottom of the glass, creating the illusion of landscape, terrestrial or extraterrestrial." 

There is an ew factor--these are close-ups of dirty glassware--but I find the visual rhythms here beautiful, more so knowing how they're made. Above is "Macallan."

I've been thinking a lot about rhythm this week. It's only a month (!) until I take up residency at Lenoir-Rhyne University, and so I'm saying Yes to every RSVP. Most days include multiple destinations; in particular I've been on the circuit of the Writer's Center, the Folger Shakespeare Library (for both the Hardison Poetry Series and PEN/Faulkner), and the Arts Club of Washington. I see someone at a dinner party one night, and the two days later they grab a chair in front of me for a reading at Politics & Prose. The cumulative effect of these repetitions is that makes DC feel like a neighborhood instead of a city. It's ironic that the anticipation of leaving has reminded me what it's like to really live here. 

The poetry manuscript is still getting turned inside out, as every new draft seems to displace as many pages as it adds. A trusted reader pointed out, "You've got a series of series." Do you present those series in discrete sections, or braided together?  Unity is appealing; monotony is not. Can there be an emotional arc if the narrative is always changing hands? These are good questions, hard work worth doing, but good lordy. If I Was the Jukebox was composed in one-month sprints, this book is the marathon. 

Poetry made an unexpected cameo in the food coverage of the Washington Post today, when Jim Shahin posted Jake Adam York's wonderful BBQ poem "Grace" on the All-We-Can-Eat blog. Last fall, Jake and I talked poetry, food, and the rituals of the holidays in a four-part interview for Southern Spaces. It's worth a listen (I hope); the site is carefully edited, very search-friendly, and an invaluable resource for students.

I'll leave you with Ernie Button's "Dalwhinnie"...a bottle of which waits on my shelf, ready to be poured when I get home from tonight's Story League show.

November 14, 2012

On Narwhals

Lookee here!

I was delighted to spot a narwhal tusk on the wall of the Folger Shakespeare Library's Great Hall--part of their "Very Like a Whale" exhibit, on display through January 6. I am quite fond of narwhals; not on the scale of capybaras, maybe, but close. Like capybaras, they make a cameo in a poem of mine, "The Editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica Regrets Everything," which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Black Warrior Review way back when, as part of the chapbook "Bitch and Brew: Sestinas."

In case you know little about this creature, let me introduce you...


Monodon monoceros


In recent years, narwhals have achieved the cultural ubiquity shared by penguins, pandas, and small vanity dogs. Key indicators include the founding of “Narwhal Vs. Narwhal,” a powerpop ensemble based in Portland, Oregon; foodie-blog buzz over the “bacon chicken narwhal," two chicken breasts wrapped in bacon, fried, and detailed with pepperoni fins and a tusk carved from pepper jack cheese (recipe here); and the “Avenging Narwhal Play Set,” complete with baby seal and Koala bear figurines readied for impalement.


“It’s weird they have that one tooth,” he says. “Gross.” 

“What’s wrong with a tooth?” I ask. “We’ve got even more teeth. Are we ‘gross’?”

“No, but theirs is freaky long—and always on the same side, left incisor. Isn’t it just the males? I only remember because it’s freaky.” 


Nar is old Norse for corpse; Scandinavians named this arctic whale the “narwhal” because its gray, mottled body resembled that of a drowned sailor. Inuit myth claims the creature originated when a wicked woman, tricked into anchoring her son’s hunting line, was dragged into sea by a harpooned beluga. In her dying struggle, the harpoon’s shaft tangled in her hair and fused to her spirit-self, forming the narwhal. 

By Medieval times the narwhal tusk was thought magical, synonymous with the unicorn horn. The Vikings delightedly jacked up their export prices. Neighboring royalty took to drinking from cups made of hollowed-out tusk, believing the cups neutralized poisons. In 1638, the Danish scholar Ole Worm (a.k.a. “Olaus Wormius”) exposed unicorns as a scam. It took another century before British physicians stopped prescribing powdered tusk for everything from erectile dysfunction to the plague. 

Seafarers have long wondered why narwhals surface, rear up, and rub horns in a display known as “tusking.” Are they friendly? Conspiratorial? Jousting? Naturalist Charles Darwin decided their tusks were a secondary sex characteristic, akin to antlers—handy for showing off, not good for much else. His educated guess was soon accepted as fact.

Narwhals are exceptionally elusive to field study; none have survived in captivity. And so, there is no known record of narwhals feeding. Scientists theorize their diet from posthumous stomach dissections that yield halibut, cod, shrimp, squid, and rocks. The rocks are probably accidental. 


Narwhals frequent the waters of Greenland, Canada, and Russia. Each weighs between one and two tons, averaging 12 to 15 feet in body length. They dive deep and fast. Really deep: 2,400-4,500 feet. Really fast: they make the round trip in 25 minutes.

Around 75,000 narwhals live in the wild. Their predators are orcas, polar bears, and humans. The latter is under increasing regulation. In 2004 Greenland banned tusk exportation, setting hunting quotas to subsistence levels. Inuits prize raw narwhal flesh, mattak, sliced and dipped in soy sauce. The taste is termed “hazelnutty.”


The Narwhal tusk may spiral up to 10 feet and is usually found in the upper left jaw of the male narwhal. One in 500 males sport a second tusk. Only three percent of females ever grow a tusk. 

It was a 2005 study that revealed the tusk is really a pulped tooth, containing an astonishing 10 million nerve endings. Narwhals use their tooth to detect subtle shifts in salinity, temperature, and other environmental factors. This casts new light on the purpose of tusking. Perhaps it is collaborative form of tooth-brushing, scraping away algae and barnacles that block nerve tubules. 

In all likelihood, tusking also generates pleasure. In contrast, the human penis contains only 4,000 nerve endings—less than half as many as the narwhal tooth. If only humans could multitask in such spectacular fashion, gingivitis would soon be a thing of the past. 

Narwhals! And that is our Wednesday serving of awesome. 

These are busy days--I hope to see some folks at the VQR event tonight, and also at the Story League showcase next Tuesday, both at the Arts Club--not to mention that I'm fighting off a cold. But how could I not emerge from my hibernation to talk narwhals?

October 25, 2012

November 14! VQR Shindig & Issue Review

I have four poems from my current manuscript in the Fall 2012  Virginia Quarterly Review, themed "The Female Conscience." It took a minute, amidst all the travels, for me to get to sit down and read this gorgeous issue. But now I have, and I'm so impressed (honored) to be included. Highlights, a.k.a. an annotated TOC:

-"Is There Such a Thing as the Female Conscience?" an essay by Jean Bethke Elshtain...At the magazine where I worked for several years, Elshtain was my first "get," a prestigious scholar I convinced to contribute a small item and later, a significant book review. I am so glad the issue leads by taking on the substantial question of the theme's title and, ultimately, questioning its validity for beyond academic (if useful) provocation. 

-"Dreaming of El Dorado," an essay by Marie Arana...Arana is both a confident editor and a superb reporter. This piece pulls me into the world of gold mining in La Rinconada, Peru, with ferocious energy. I care. I wish I didn't, because the options facing these people are bleak. Incredible and merciless and necessary photoessay, too. 

-"The Sweet Spot in Time," an essay by Sylvia A. Earle..."I took pleasure in turning questions such as 'Did you wear lipstick? Did you use a hair­dryer?' into a discourse on the importance of the ocean as our primary source of oxygen, the value of coral reefs, mangroves, and marshes as vital buffers against storms, and the delightful nature of fish, shrimp, lobsters, and crabs alive, swimming in the ocean—not just on plates swimming with lemon slices and butter." I want to be this woman when I grow up. 

-"Of Flight and Life," an essay by Reeve Lindbergh...A priceless glimpse into the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who served as spouse to one of Americas greatest adventurers while creating a formidable identity as an author and correspondent. Particularly poignant is the daughter's recognition of her mother's change over the years; too often we try and fail to understand our parents as homogenous, ageless archetypes. 

-"Bad Feminist," by Roxane Gay...I have read most of Gay's essays and articles published in the last two years, yet this was unique access into the quirks and vulnerabilities of her mindset. So much resonates. Is it the fate of our generation of 30-somethings to feel like Bad Feminists, rather than be No Feminists at all?

-Page 93...when I came up for air and realized, hell, I'm reading this cover to cover.

-"Labor," a short story by Maggie Shipstead...It says something that while my sympathy, based on real-life experience, should have been with the three friends--the fierce, fun, independent ones, stubbornly child-free--I found myself feeling for the protagonist. The gift that is both we-love-you and now-go-away: I've been there. 

-Three poems by Victoria Chang...If this is what she is up to, I want to read the book. Smart, funny poems that rely on repetition & linked phrasing (mimicking transitive properties of logic) and are set firmly, refreshingly in the non-academic workplace. 

-"One to Watch, And One to Pray," a poem by Camille Dungy....No words. This poem just touched me--deeply entrenched in the moment of a family's deathbed vigil, and also irritated and enervated by the presence of a needy newborn.

-"My Fight," an excerpt from the memoir by Deirdre Gogarty...the book is called My Call to the Ring (Glasnevin, 2012), and tells the story of how Gogarty got on the path to becoming a world champion in boxing, a field owned by men. There is probably some tough, headstrong, unholy little girl in your life who needs to read it.

-"My Life as a Girl," a memoir by Stephen Burt...This dovetails beautifully with the recent profile of Burt published in The New York Times Magazine. I love Burt's refusal to defuse the ambiguities, e.g. the opening line, "Maybe I just want to be pretty."

It is interesting that the back page is a facsimile includes a note from the agent of the (then young, pre-Nobel-Prize-winning) author Nadine Gordimer, offering these markedly modest snippets for potential inclusion in an author bio:

"Publishers in both South Africa and in America want to see a novel from me, but I don't know if I can write the novel I want to write.... 
Except for a very short spell when I worked for the local newspaper in the small town in which I lived (how I wish I could use all the wonderful material I picked up from knowing everybody's business for that five months--but South Africa has a small white population and a long memory), and another short spell when I went to University in Johannesburg, I have always written for myself. 
I now live in Johannesburg, am married, and have a baby daughter."
I am not sure it was an intentional commentary by the VQR editors, but I am intrigued by the notion of what Gordimer could have written, versus what she has written. What does this tell us not just about the female consciousness, but the female conscience?

Those in the DC area have an opportunity to join us in a celebration of this issue on Wednesday, November 14, at the Arts Club of Washington (2017 I Street NW). 

Beginning at 5:30 PM we will have a reception, leading into a 6 PM reading by guest editor Marie Arana (Writer at Large for the Washington Post and author of several books including the forthcoming Bolivar: American Liberator); Judith Warner (writer for the New York Times Magazine and Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress); Mary Emma Koles (winner of the 2009 Gerald Stern Poetry Prize and the 2012 Mississippi Review Poetry Prize);

Copies of the magazine will be available for purchase, and the festivities will continue with post-reading refreshments. This event is free and open to the public. 

Seriously, now. I'd venture to say that it you make it to one reading in November (as a friend of mine), make it to this one. It's an awesome glance to be part of the new forward momentum of VQR, which is of late making a lot of great hires. Onwards~

October 22, 2012

October Yes

This is the third October that I have traveled to Mississippi, and (for better and for worse) the occasion of least internet access. A few glimpses of what I saw:
Oxford is as it always is...wonderful, and welcoming. Within the first few moments of being in town I bumped into Charlie walking outside Proud Larry's (where he was playing that night), Ron hollered down a hello from Square Books' balcony, and Chico drove by--with his dog Ringo hanging out the passenger side window--and said "Welcome home!" We ate smoked catfish salad at Ajax, caught  Thacker Mountain, had a second dinner of oysters at Snackbar, and had one helluva time. 

Because it was the weekend of the big game versus Auburn ( = drunk Ole Miss craziness = no hotel rooms) we trekked out to Memphis and, ultimately, the Shack-Up Inn for the weekend. The inn is outside Clarksdale, cotton country, and consists of an aggregation of buildings that includes refurbished sharecropper shacks, a cotton gin, seed houses, and other outbuildings. Lots of corrugated tin and cypress wood. We were just a few miles down the road from the Crossroads of Highway 49 and Highway 61, where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in return for his guitar skills. I don't know about that, but the BBQ ribs and beans cooked by Abe's, at the base of the crossroads, were definitely soul-worthy. 

Cotton truly is the name of the game here. Those are great rolls of it, off in the distance, wrapped tight in chartreuse shrinkwrap. Fluffs of it tumble down the road as you drive. 

We ate those ribs while lazing our way through a Sunday on the balcony of our Sky Shack, a room that overlooks the inn's central Juke Joint Chapel.
Office, pantry, sometimes music venue--but we had it to ourselves after dark.

One of many bottle trees dotting the grounds, as ubiquitous as kudzu in Mississippi. From Hill Country to Jackson, Starkville, we made our way east, we watched the landscape shift in tone. By the time we got to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, we were talking a very different type of glass: Dale Chihuly.

My absolute favorites were these basket-forms, which were displayed alongside the artist's collection of rugs and other woven textiles. But I could also appreciate the epic quality of the site-specific "Mille Fiori," an installation that echoed an underwater sea garden and included a wicked ghost stingray:

Really, you can't go wrong with a good stingray. 

We made our way home via Skyline Drive, staying at the Skyland Resort before wandering all the way up to Front Royal. The temperature was a good 30 degrees lower than down south.  On went the socks, on went the coats. We listened to bluegrass instead of blues (with a little Django Reinhardt that I'd picked up in Atlanta mixed in for good measure). Instead of BBQ-dusted potato chips, we snacked on honey-roasted peanuts. We chose darker beers instead of Red Stripe, the red wine over the white. Instead of cotton, my eye was drawn to the orange leaves like handfuls of flame. 

We visited 10 towns in 12 days. We went to a party at Rowan Oak, lawn strung with lights and oysters shucked on the spot. We toured Sun Studio. We watched a possum romp through Red's juke joint. We talked with writers, artists, musicians, teachers, awesome new-business owners, and a guy who lives half his year in a kayak on the river. I saw beloved friends & people I will surely never see again. The crazy thing about traveling in October is that you feel as if you come home to a different season. But after a summer of going to ground, regrouping, I'm ready for it. I'm ready for change. That so much of this narrative uses a "we" instead of the usual "I"? Part of the change. 

PS ~ The really good photos are on this boy's fancy camera.

October 03, 2012

"Bits" (Hat-tip to Eduardo C. Corral)

A week ago, I was in New York City doing the NYC thing--a reading at Le Poisson Rouge, a meeting with one of my editors, a stroll through Central Park that included a Bloody Mary at The Boathouse. It was lovely but it also lit a fire under me: I have got to get some things done now. (Before a trip to Mississippi that looms, in all its glory, on the October horizon.) I came home and wrote up a three-month plan, drafted two poems for a sequence in my manuscript, and...have been a ghost online. Price ya pay. 

So let me use this time & space to simply note a few things that intrigue me:

-Kyle McCord rocks. He has a killer poem up at Linebreak, one of my favorite online journals, that begins "When a man loves a woman, / he is asked: Soup or salad?" He is also the co-founder and content manager of LitBridge, which is burning up the internets with its advice articles (check out this one by Ash Bowen, "Confessions of a Dirty Careerist") and its smartly curated series of "Interviews with Graduate Programs."

-Thomas Sayers Ellis (not to be confused with the other TSE) has taken on the position of poetry editor for The Baffler. Seems like a good aesthetic match--the most recent TOC lists adventurist stylists such as Rae Armantrout, Joshua Clover, and Matthea Harvey. It's a handsome leftist magazine that has fought its way back to life; I love the idea of substantive poems integrated with smart essays and articles, a la The Believer The Nation and (sometimes) The New Yorker. Let's see where that fierce mind wanders. 

-Poets, once again time to ask yourself: what good things do you have to say about the human condition? I know we traffic in heartbreak, melancholia, scotch, and difficult mothers. But optimism and compassion are not the enemy. In other words: the October 20 deadline approaches for the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prizes. (The "Sargent" in her pen name honors family member & famed painter John Singer Sargent. The family history is quite lovely--take the time to read it.)

-There are some fabulous events coming up at the Writer's Center, and I say that without any bias based on being a Board member. Specifically:

Saturday, October 6: "Nonfiction Storytelling in Science, Engineering and Policy--The Necessity of Narrative." Ignore the boring title. The line-up of guests is stellar, as is the brand of Lee Gutkind and Creative Nonfiction

Saturday, October 13: "Make Lit Happen: Journeys Through the MFA and Beyond." A daylong program of panels that address the perpetual questions of whether you belong in an MFA program--and what to do after completing one. Featuring voices I trust such as Michael Collier, David Keplinger, and Eugenia Kim.

...And, my four-class Tuesday night workshop on "How It Works: Making Truth Claims in Your Poems." It begins on October 23 and will take place in Bethesda. We'll be working hard to write poems that not only make observations about everyday experience, but strive to articulate the way our world works. Each week will lead off with guided discussion of poets--such as Czeslaw Milosz or Jack Gilbert--who blend passion with philosophical resolve.  (Okay, okay, this one I'm biased about.)

September 21, 2012

Hidden DC

The other day I was talking to a blogger about The Blog as a hub or curatorial instinct: although there is a general focus on poetry, the only thing these posts all truly have in common is, well, me. It's the reason I don't accept guest posts. It's the justification for including some pretty random tangents, such as this one....

I am a DC girl, and in the last year or so I've realized I may be one forever. When I was a kid, I would come in to visit my dad's law offices that overlooked the C&O Canal in Georgetown, trying over and over to climb the unfinished brick walls. I rooted from the third deck as the Nats clinched a playoff spot last night; I take pride in our sushi chefs and beer selections; I watched the homecoming parade for Desert Storm veterans along Constitution Avenue, complete with yellow-ribbon fireworks;  I defend our slightly staid fashion sense; I remember when Art-O-Matic was in that very strange decrepit EPA building space; I once crashed a kite into the side of the Washington Monument. 

I am, in particular, very passionate about monuments and memorials (beyond flying kites into them). I probably get it from my dad; when not lawyer-ing he was Army-ing, and in fact he was one of those who broke ground at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. We still have the shovel. When my first conversation with the boyfriend made mention of the FDR Memorial--which he proceeded to have strong opinions about--I knew there was something there. I've written about the Jefferson Memorial for the Post Magazine. 

Oddly enough, the Lincoln Memorial is never one I've bonded with. Odd because it has an incredible role in our collective history; more than any other monument it doubles as a stage for the nation. But there is one aspect to it that fascinates me...

...the hidden face. 

It's a story I first heard from a college boyfriend; then I overheard a tour guide--someone definitely not employed by the National Park Service--saying it to a busload of Japanese tourists; then I was reminded of it when I stumbled across this website. The principle is that if you stand in the right place, looking at the profile of Lincoln's statue, you can see a second face sculpted into the curves of hair on the back of his head. See it?

Now, apparently theories about as to who the face belongs to. Did Daniel Chester French, the sculptor, create a self portrait?  That seems to me...kinda silly. A man who devotes his craft and his life to creating such legacies is probably not so petty & egotistical. Is it of Robert E. Lee? I doubt that version too, simply 1) French was a Yankee, and 2) because General Lee had a very distinguished visage that looks nothing like the one above:

I mean, seriously. The Father of the Confederacy had one hell of a beard; any artist worth his salt would have honored that. Even if it meant giving Lincoln a mullet. 

No, the theory I return to is the version I heard from a boyfriend I met through UVA's Jefferson Literary & Debating Society (which sponsored a stone in the Washington Monument, during its construction, that you can see marked with our name to this day) (yes I am a nerd). He said the face belonged to Ulysses S. Grant, famously temperamental and insecure soldier-cum-leader, who worried he would never be as revered as the martyr Abraham Lincoln. Grant directed French to work his profile into the statue so, by hook or by crook, he would always have his mark on the Mall. Check out the side by side (with Grant's profile flipped to emphasize the symmetry):

Awesome, right? Awesome. Of course, I am just perpetuating the myth; the bureaucracy that stands between conception and construction of a monument makes it highly unlikely that it was an act of intent rather than fate. 

But I like the myth. I love DC. And that's your random tangent for the day. 

September 13, 2012

On Wedding Poems

I am once again in a wedding party. But this time as a poet. Which means...(cue Jaws theme music)...I must either write or select a poem for the occasion. When my friend Dan Albergotti got married, he picked the perfect person for the job: his friend Natasha, a.k.a. Natasha Trethewey, a.k.a. the new Poet Laureate who is reading at the Library of Congress tonight. Smart man, that Dan. Sadly, my friend Dave has to settle for me. Dave is my oldest friend, in many ways my best friend, and I don't want to let him down. 

When he asked me the title for the program, I told him to call my presentation "Epithalamium." A bit of a cheat, because "Epithalamium" is a catch-all word from the Greek that describes the form of poems or songs that celebrate a marriage and, more specifically, is usually addressed to the  bride en route to her wedding chamber. (The same way "Aubade" describes a morning poem that records the parting of lovers.) In other words, whatever poem I read is an epithalamium. In other words: TBD. I don't want to retreat to the classic Shakespeare or Elizabeth Barrett Browning. My role here is to be a lighter, contemporary voice amidst the solemnity of vows. But I can't be too edgy--it's a poem for a church, meant to honor, not a toast with a glass of whiskey in hand meant to entertain. Can you tell I am overworrying? Did I mention he is my oldest, bestest friend?

There are a few favorites out there I could turn to, and I share them here for anyone who stumbles to this page looking for a wedding poem. One is Jeffrey McDaniel's "The Archipelago of Kisses," which the epigraph dedicates "for Sarah Koskoff and Todd Louiso." It appears in his great third collection, The Splinter Factory~


We live in a modern society. Husbands and wives don't grow
        on trees, like in the old days. So where
does one find love? When you're sixteen it's easy--like being
        unleashed with a credit card
in a department store of kisses. There's the first kiss.
        The sloppy kiss. The peck.
The sympathy kiss. The backseat smooch. The we shouldn't
        be doing this kiss. The but your lips
taste so good kiss. The bury me in an avalanche of tingles kiss.
        The I wish you'd quit smoking kiss.
The I accept your apology, but you make me really mad
        sometimes kiss. The I know
your tongue like the back of my hand kiss. As you get older,
        kisses become scarce. You'll be driving
home and see a damaged kiss on the side of the road, 
        with its purple thumb out. If you
were younger, you'd pull over, slide open the mouth's ruby door
        just to see how it fits. Oh where
does one find love? If you rub two glances together, you get
        a smile; rub two smiles, you get
a spark; rub two sparks together and you have a kiss. Now 
        what? Don't invite the kiss
to your house and answer the door in your underwear. It'll get
        suspicious and stare at your toes. 
Don't water the kiss with whiskey. It'll turn bright pink and explode 
        into a thousand luscious splinters, 
but in the morning it'll be ashamed and sneak out of your body
        without saying good-bye, 
and you'll remember that kiss forever by all the little cuts it left
        on the inside of your mouth. You must
nurture the kiss. Dim the lights, notice how it illuminates
        the room. Clutch it to your chest,
wonder if the sand inside every hourglass comes from a special
        beach. Place it on the tongue's pillow, 
then look up the first recorded French kiss in history: beneath
        a Babylonian olive tree in 1300 B.C.
But one kiss levitates above all the others. The intersection
        of function and desire. The I do kiss.
The I'll love you through a brick wall kiss. Even when
        I'm dead, I'll swim through the earth, 
like a mermaid of the soil, just to be next to your bones. 

~Jeffrey McDaniel

***Note that I hand-checked the above against the book; I've seen some other versions around the internet that get line breaks and even whole phrases wrong, argh. 

There is also this fun(ny) one from Taylor Mali, "How Falling in Love is like Owning a Dog," for couples with a clearly equal & happy power relationship. 


First of all, it’s a big responsibility,
especially in a city like New York.
So think long and hard before deciding on love.
On the other hand, love gives you a sense of security:
when you’re walking down the street late at night
and you have a leash on love
ain’t no one going to mess with you.
Because crooks and muggers think love is unpredictable.
Who knows what love could do in its own defense?

On cold winter nights, love is warm.
It lies between you and lives and breathes
and makes funny noises.
Love wakes you up all hours of the night with its needs.
It needs to be fed so it will grow and stay healthy.

Love doesn’t like being left alone for long.
But come home and love is always happy to see you.
It may break a few things accidentally in its passion for life,
but you can never be mad at love for long.

Is love good all the time? No! No!
Love can be bad. Bad, love, bad! Very bad love.

Love makes messes.
Love leaves you little surprises here and there.
Love needs lots of cleaning up after.
Somethimes you just want to get love fixed.
Sometimes you want to roll up a piece of newspaper
and swat love on the nose,
not so much to cause pain,
just to let love know Don’t you ever do that again!

Sometimes love just wants to go out for a nice long walk.
Because love loves exercise. It will run you around the block
and leave you panting, breathless. Pull you in different directions
at once, or wind itself around and around you
until you’re all wound up and you cannot move.

But love makes you meet people wherever you go.
People who have nothing in common but love
stop and talk to each other on the street.

Throw things away and love will bring them back,
again, and again, and again.
But most of all, love needs love, lots of it.
And in return, love loves you and never stops.

~Taylor Mali

You can watch him deliver it here...

I wrote my first epithalamium a few years back: you can find "On the Occasion of Your Wedding" up on the Cerise Press website, but I'll share the text here too:


People will tell you it is natural
to pair off. People say this despite

the Pope, in his backseat built for one.
People say this despite the cuttlefish,

with three hearts of his own and no room
for more. People say this despite

the majestic imbalance of bee hives;
despite the komodo dragon,

fertilizing each egg herself. People
are bluffing. There is nothing natural

about your pan caked in his grease,
or the way you tuck used Kleenex

in the crevice of his recliner. No one
ever lovingly stitched His or Hers

on a clog of drain hair. In the natural
world we each have our own cave,

a nice cave, tin cans strung between us,
a lake big enough for fishing, swimming,

the radial distance of being perfect and

perfectly alone. But here’s to saying
Screw it and I do. They make duct tape

for situations like this. They make
peanut butter. They make knowing

when to sing along to music you do
not like. They make knowing when to

leave the room. They make tiny,
superstrong magnets that will pin you

to a refrigerator door just long enough
for a kiss. I wish you all of these things,

these things you will need — and earlier,
as I tied the immaculate bow on what

I gave you instead, I thought You fools.
You lucky, lucky fools.

~Sandra Beasley

I'd like to think it's right for a wedding, but it's not right for this wedding. So I draft and fuss, fuss and draft. And I try to remember: the important thing is that two people I adore, the right people for each other, are joining hands and hearts before the eyes of God, family, and friends. I'm just a juggler people pass by on their way to the big tent. 

"Brueghel Wedding," a line drawing by Gary Peterson