December 31, 2016

Cultivating Space in 2017

Our apartment has gotten messy over this past year. 

The mess is for all the right reasons. The cat's perching corner is crowded with holiday cards from our friends and family. My husband has gotten music and more music. I've gotten books and more books. For the first time, I have teaching files--notes, lecture, handouts--of substance and value. Instead of slim little volumes of poetry, I keep ordering big fat anthologies of essays. The stovetop is coated in a sheen of olive-oil grease, because we cook more days than not. I've learned to cook salmon on this stove. I've made many soups from scratch (and a few from Soupergirl). One of my Tampa colleagues came through town and we had a three-course meal, seated at my grandmother's newly inherited dining table, drinking bourbon late into the night. My grandfather's eye chart, from his days as a naval doctor, is framed and hung on the wall. I've hosted poets for workshop here. My book club meets here. The cat has torn the couch's every edge to shreds, which seems to give her all measures of joy. We have a tray of delicate shells out, harvested from the beaches of Sanibel Island in November and then Kauai in December. 

We always have a vase of fresh flowers by the kitchen sink. We have an air plant named Sangria that lives, persistently and in flagrant defiance of our travels. My in-laws sent us a bowl, which joins the collection of other ceramics in shades of moss and mint and dusk. My husband got two new jackets. I got a hat. We both bought shoes. 

We get the Sunday New York Times and the New Yorker and New York and Oxford American and Gluten-Free and More and Washingtonian and Poetry and American Poetry Review and another handful of literary journals, and we hesitate to send any of it out the door unread. Most of the time, we really do read most of it....eventually. (If you want a reminder of what I'll be doing New Year's Day, here it is.)

In other words, this is a mess of luxury, and I am grateful for that. But gosh, it's a mess. So I've bought ten new hangers--sturdy wooden ones--as an incentive to tackle these closets, and I'm going to dig out my battered copy of Apartment Therapy: The Eight-Step Home Cure from under the bed. I actually used to visit the "Apartment Therapy" website daily, when I had a desk job. We even lived in a building, The Ontario, that has been featured in several (check out our onetime neighbor Scott's place). But eventually the emphasis on "cures" that seemed premised on a large budget and specifically, home ownership--the bold paint colors, the built-in shelves, the wall-anchored lighting--made visits more depressing than inspiring. The toughest thing about city life, for all if its rewards an day particular love of being in Southwest, is wondering if I'll have to give up ever having that room of one's own that all writers (and yes, perhaps particularly, women writers) crave. The last time I undertook this kind of measured, serious consideration of getting an apartment in order, we moved only three months later. So part of moving forward is valuing the process, and not fixating on the results as permanent or even long-lasting.

I celebrate clutter because I come from a family that loves knickknacks, collections, souvenirs. We still trade stocking shipped to overflowing each Christmas. We use items as a way of safeguarding memory and showing consideration for one another. My mother's pantry still has a stockpile of Sandra-friendly foods, free of my allergens, that she always keep on hand in duplicate in case they were ever discontinued. 

Yet I celebrate spaces that are bared, minimal, cleared. I crave them. Having every available space stuffed to the gills--even when a room is quirky, cleverly decorated, squared away neatly--makes me sad in some way I can't fully articulate. I'll try: I believe that unless your household showcases at least some empty spaces, you're not showing the universe that there is an room for new things to come into your life. An empty bowl or shelf is not a barren space so much as waiting opportunity. 

2016 was not a year of questions, not answers; what answers we did receive were, as a larger culture, pretty hard to absorb. I'm not prioritizing the decluttering of a home as a bulwark to avoid the much tougher challenges of supporting my communities, advocating for those who face oppression from even our very own government, and pushing for change. But I'm saying that we all need to tend our gardens, if we want the crops to thrive. Sometimes that means hunkering down in the soil (or in our case, the jute dust and cat hair) and getting to work. There's no way around it. 

But with that work, I create space. Into that space, I keep writing. See you in 2017.

December 06, 2016

Brand-new Paperback and...Videopoems!

As a teenager, I played SimCity. Obsessively. I went to a high school for science and technology. I used to look for any excuse to design a flyer; I built my own website (and have rebuilt it three times over). In other words, there is a part of me that relishes hours spent quietly tinkering in front a computer screen. The first time I made videopoems, I did so as a way of burning off creative energy--nervousness, really-- while I waited for I Was the Jukebox to come into the world. 

I had never worked in iMovie before, so I made a few rookie errors. For example, you'll find two different versions of my video for "Vocation" on YouTube (one ideal for blog display, one widescreen), which means I accidentally split my hit count. My image resolution is not quite up to snuff, and the audio is tinny at times. But I'll never forget the first time I watched as a high-school teacher cued up the video for "I Don't Fear Death" while students took their seats, and realized This is a way in.

Not every student dives into a poem based on the words alone. Some get frustrated when they're reading to themselves and get to a word they can't pronounce. Some need the stimulation of images, the pacing of music. Some immediately turn their thoughts about how they'd illustrate one of their poems and, frankly, how it would be way better than what you've done. I'll take it. I'll take anything that gets them engaged. 

In one week--on December 13--the paperback edition of Count the Waves makes its debut in the world. I feel so fortunate to have a hardback run as part of working with W. W. Norton. But the truth is, the affordable paperback is what makes it onto a syllabus and into a classroom. I love these poems, and as I've written about here before, I feel strongly that the best way to ensure a poem's survival is to teach it to the next generation of readers and writers. So, what can I do for this book? 

I can remind people that there are six sestinas, including the title poem, with varying degrees of play in their endwords and lineation, which makes the collection a great way to consider the tradition and flexibility of that form. 

I can be available to Skype with your students (I am!) or do Q&A over email (I am!).

I can point out that Count the Waves is in dialogue with the new anthology The Traveler's Vade Mecum, edited by Helen Klein Ross. The long story short is that my engagement with the series began in response to her solicitation. I just happened to keep writing TVM poems, ultimately two dozen in all. 

So if students were to go back to the original 1853 compendium by A.C. Baldwin (the complete text of which can be found online), pick a phrase, and write a "Traveler's Vade Mecum" poem of their own, they'd be conversing not only with me but with Frank Bidart, Billy Collins, Huang Fan, Denise Duhamel, Hailey Leithauser, Dan Vera, Ann Fisher-Wirth, and a bunch of others. 

I can keep paying it forward--promoting the new and forthcoming books I love by others--because I believe that to give to a community is to get a community.

And I can make videopoems. 

Returning to the realms of iMovie, I found that there were many more ways to tweak and enhance the performance. Fingers crossed that makes for better videos, though I'll let you be the judge. Exporting to YouTube or Vimeo is significantly easier; "processing," which used to take hours, now takes minutes. was boughtby Getty, which is a bummer because the pricing is much more aggressive, and some of the quirkier contributions have been pared from the collection. On the other hand, the quality control is much better. I just had to get clever about making my purchases as efficient as possible, and looking elsewhere for free images. I also took advantage of some neat new transition effects embedded into iMovie. 

Kevin MacLeod is still my personal hero when it comes to offering royalty-free music. But his Incompetech can be a little maddening to navigate. I was thrilled to see that he has upgraded to taking part in a spiffier website, Free Music Archive, which offers an incredible variety of options categorized by genre and searchable in terms of length. 

I keep my videos short, under two minutes, but that's just a personal preference. Also, I feel strongly that the best results come when you can find a piece of music whose length genuinely matches your voiceover, versus cropping something down. There's a magic to how the crescendos and shifts in pacing--of an artwork created independently of your poem--can accent the turns in the text. (Somewhere in there lies a theory of the organic volta.)

I still do a lot of fussing. I still worry they're not perfect. But here they are. Note that the screenshots are just that; the active links to YouTube are below each image. 

Video poetry has a spectrum of aesthetics. Other examples that you might enjoy...

Jason got me excited about making videopoems again, including commiserating on how to source images and introducing me to
Check out his other video, "Twilight."

For many of us, Kate is the original inspiration point. I love the intimacy of these. 

The doubling format of text and audio allows McCabe to enact the translation process.

The illustrations for this are fluid and wonderful. This deserves a LOT more views.

This is another tribute to the power of original art created for a video.

In this case, the custom-composed music is particularly compelling.

Did you know there were prizes for videopoems? This one won the O'Bheal International Poetry Film Competition at IndieCork Festival, Ireland, 2016.

Sometimes simple is best: the poet addressing the camera, sharing a bit of cultural context or a story behind the poem. A perfect option if you're working with an iPhone.

...And sometimes, a poem can represent the contributions of an entire community.

Using the hashtag #BlackPoetsSpeakOut returns a number of powerful recorded readings.

The creation of the poem's text, "letterpress in salt," becomes the activating image.

This is technically the record of a live production that included performance of Baroque music; it shows how powerful layering multiple levels of sensory information can be.

The example in the link is "The Giraffes at the Lincoln Park Zoo," by Anna Leahy

The example in the link is "Wonder Woman Dreams of the Amazon" by Jeannine Hall Gailey

Motionpoems, the Minneapolis nonprofit founded by poet Todd Boss, creates high-quality short films by working with outside production teams. In recent years they have taken to collaborating with another organization  (such as Cave Canem, or VIDA) for a "season" of videos at a time. A few favorites:

The best singular index of what is out there can be found at Moving Poems, which Dave Bonta and a team of collaborators has put years of work into developing, maintaining, and updating. The alphabetical roster of poets with videopoems is particularly great if you're shaping a syllabus and you want to incorporate visual elements. You can suggest additions to the archive (yourself or someone else) here.

In other words, there's a lot of people out there who can talk to your students about making videopoems. But if you end up sharing my work with them, let me know! I'd be happy to talk through my thoughts on the process.

There are also writers who have created ongoing series of video-essays that integrate audio and film elements, are variations on "intermedia," or document staged and performance art, all as a substantial component of their artistic work--Jillian Weise's side persona as Tipsy Sullivan, Kenzie Allen, and Karrie Higgins all come to mind--as well as the Southern Spaces "Poets in Place" series, which documents poets reading their work in settings that inspired them. Those writers deserve their own discussion for another day, but check out the links in the meantime.