December 27, 2020
September 24, 2020
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[Background music, instrumental.]
I’m Tracy K. Smith and this is The Slowdown.
You know how they say that, when confronted with a photo, most peoples’ natural inclination is to seek out themselves? I suspect this might also be the case on videoconferencing platforms. I have Zoom meetings most every day, and I hate to admit it, but of all the faces in the tiny grid, my eyes keep gravitating back to my own. Is that what I look like when I talk? I find myself thinking. How is that the expression I make when I listen? What’s up with my mouth? And on, and on. I think I may have found the true culprit of the “Zoom headache.”
My kids are the same way. For them, Face Time is just a chance to make loony faces in what is, essentially, a flashy mirror. With a tap of button I hadn’t previously known existed, they can turn themselves into foxes, or sharks, or—much to my dismay—poo emojis. Which is why it’s so exciting when I find them enthralled by a mound of dirt in the backyard, or bent over the pages of an actual book. They’ve wriggled free of the human compulsion for self-scrutiny. For however long it lasts, they’ve forgotten themselves entirely.
The same goes for me when I sink into a good book, or sit in the backyard chasing after a woodland creature with just my eyes. That rapturous self-forgetting helps me temporarily cut ties who I am, and what I lack, and how soon I ought to get back to the task of trying to keep up with my betters. It’s been hard to get to that state under the current conditions. Everywhere I look, there’s evidence of me. Best are the days when something unexpected takes me by surprise. A song comes on, even a song I’ve heard a thousand times before, but this time it opens up a new door. Or, I turn the page onto a rapturous metaphor and finally, thankfully, I’m carried far far away from the cage of my own self-regard.
I guess this is another of the lifesaving properties of art: the ability to carry us far beyond the limits of our known selves. Because the world is full of fascinating perspectives, and sometimes one very good form of self-care is to get lost in the world outside your head.
Today’s poem is “The Piano Speaks,” by Sandra Beasley.
The Piano Speaks
After Erik Satie
For an hour I forgot my fat self,
my neurotic innards, my addiction to alignment.
For an hour I forgot my fear of rain.
For an hour I was a salamander
shimmying through the kelp in search of shore,
and under his fingers the notes slid loose
from my belly in a long jellyrope of eggs
that took root in the mud. And what
would hatch, I did not know—
a lie. A waltz. An apostle of glass.
For an hour I stood on two legs
and ran. For an hour I panted and galloped.
For an hour I was a maple tree,
and under the summer of his fingers
the notes seeded and winged away
in the clutch of small, elegant helicopters.
[Background music, instrumental.]
The Slowdown is a production of American Public Radio in partnership with the Poetry Foundation. This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, on the web at arts.gov.
Update: The Slowdown has added an automated transcript service.
September 17, 2020
First off, full disclosure: I had to request that we call it "The End of an MFA." They'd titled it "The End of the MFA," which felt far too dire.
I have a new piece out in a nationally distributed magazine, and usually when that happens I shout from the rooftops. But I've been quiet this time--until a couple of friends, earlier this week, gently asked: why the silence? Part of the reason is that my essay, "The End of an MFA: What Happens When a Low-Residency Program Closes?" is not online; there's no link to share. Anyone interested will have to go pick up the September/October issue of Poets & Writers off the newsstands or, more likely, get around to finally reading the subscriber's copy that arrived a few weeks ago.
I'm proud of the piece. I welcomed the depth of understanding that came with the multiple interviews I did to research it--I found that people were excited to talk with someone paying attention to the fact that * seven * low-res MFA programs have closed down since 2015. What's hit me in recent weeks is how acutely I am also grieving the loss of my own program at the University of Tampa. From the (very recently) updated website: "The MFA in Creative Writing is being discontinued and will no longer accept applicants."
The view in the snapshot above is one I've gotten every January and June since 2014, with the minarets of Plant Hall visible on the other side of the river. I'll always be grateful for the traipsing to Ybor City in the early days; the brisk walks along the river in recent ones, where I would stop in at the Armature Works for a bowl of ramen or a slab of ribs; the discovery of the gem that is the Tampa Museum of Art; conversations at The Retreat that left the stink of smoke in my hair; a pint sipped under the thatched-roof of Four Green Fields while I worked on an intro for the Lectores series. For the first time I had my own distinct home city in Florida, a state that my family (and my in-laws) have had ties to for as long as I can remember.
Tampa is where I learned to teach. I got the invitation to apply when the main adjunct experience I had under my belt was a "Writing I" class at the Corcoran College of Art + Design (also now closed, ooof). I'm not saying I was unqualified--I'd led workshops in community writing spaces such as The Writer's Center (where I still teach), and I'd had multiple visiting writer gigs in tandem with book tours, which had taken me into classrooms across the U.S. But this was different. Steve took a chance on me. This was a paradigm shift, something that began to sink in as I met the other teachers and thought... colleagues? After years of lone-wolfing, I'd found a pack.
My devotion might have been particularly acute because I had nowhere else where I taught on a regular basis. Sitting in on every seminar that I could--usually from my vantage point of sitting in the corner, on the floor, near the stage of Reeves Theater--I got a priceless education of my own. I hope that the colleagues I annoyed over the years by "eavesdropping" on their lessons can forgive me, but honestly I was just so excited to learn from you all. I also reaped the benefit of the fancy writers who we brought through as visiting Lectores. To be honest, I learned both from them and about them. I learned that what matters isn't the excitement the students have when you arrive, because that can be all glamour and no substance; what matters is the forward momentum the students have after you leave.
Tampa was where I developed my workshop style: bright, performative, probably reading- and vocabulary-heavy, hopefully with a lot of laughter to ease the rigor. Tampa is where I developed my first dozen go-to hourlong lectures, which I'll carry with me for the rest of my teaching career, and realized that I delight as much in teaching nonfiction as I do in teaching poetry. Tampa is where I discovered what I'm most gifted at (line edits) and what I spend way too much time on (line edits). Tampa is where I had the time to form lasting mentorships with students, often seeded by the solidarity of shared identities or reference points.
Tampa is where, ironically, I learned these mentorships were not limited by geography. I'm a firm believer in the low-residency model for the access and flexibility it offers. I took student work with me to Cyprus, to Kansas, to Ireland. I conferenced with a student on my wedding day, while someone fussed with the back-closure of my dress. I conferenced with a student while I was hunkered down on the floor of my SW DC apartment with my dying cat (that wasn't ideal, but bless the student for making me laugh in such a tough time).
Students, you have been so, so kind and patient with me, and you trusted me with such valuable material of life and art. I'll never forget that.
On the scale of 2020 losses, this is bearable. I've already heard from teachers delighted by the UT transfer students landing in their respective low-res MFA programs. I have every faith that they'll thrive. I'm fortunate to have a final two talented students, both of whom I taught in earlier semesters, with whom I'll get the satisfaction of shaping thesis manuscript--one last poetry collection, one last nonfiction work.
That said, I wish we'd gotten a proper send-off. When we met in January of this year, though there was open concern, there was also a resolve to rally and recruit. By February, the program had been shut down via an e-mail. In March, all of our AWP gatherings were cancelled. The June residency moved to Zoom because of COVID-19. I suspect the January 2021 capstone events for our last round of graduates will also be online or, even if there is an in-person component, it will feel risky for our scattered (former) faculty to fly in for the festivities. We deserved one more dance party.
There's no need to use this space for a post-mortem, or to philosophize about why our low-residency program was vulnerable in the first place. Read the article! I just thought I'd put here what I couldn't put there, which was: pure gratitude. And pure sadness.
August 04, 2020
I get leads on projects many different ways, but this is the first time that a neighbor--one with whom I trade cat-sitting favors--has given me a heads-up on a call for poets. Fast-forward to being on the phone with the organizer of an annual local outreach project that usually takes the form of four communal meals staged during the month of August. The Sunday Supper series would have to take a different form this year, due to COVID-19 concerns.
The question: could I write six poems with one week's notice?
The answer would usually be No. I'm not a particularly fast or prolific poet. If asked to talk about how I come up with a poem, I compare the process to an oyster at work.
But I really wanted to take part in this project, to be staged in the Southwest Duck Pond adjacent to our apartment in DC. That's the park I look out over, from our balcony; the park whose quacking ducks keep company on quiet summer days; the park we walk through on our loop to the farmer's market. For me, the Southwest Duck Pond is the heart of the neighborhood, and I couldn't imagine passing on the chance to have poems there.
As I talked to the organizer, I was pacing our living room. My gaze fell on a copy of Yoko Ono's Grapefruit. That was the solution, I realized: action poems.
I don't know if there's any singular or formal definition of an "action poem" but they are usually simple in their premise, a text that stages a series of steps or philosophical considerations (they have a counterpart in Ono's "pieces," such as Cut Piece, where the emphasis is on the actual engagement versus the prescriptive text).
As a student at the University of Virginia, I fell in love with Ono's work through a literature class that had us considering it alongside Ishmael Reed, Djuna Barnes, Tillie Olsen, and other counter-culture icons. If I visit a museum with a significant Fluxus holding, I go in search of her work. The big and heavy, blue-foil-covered 2000 edition of YES was my first experience with getting a "fancy" art book; I'd bought Grapefruit from Brooklyn's now-defunct BookCourt as a travel edition, something I could share with students.
The project organizer signed off on the umbrella concept. Now I wouldn't have to come up with six separate premises--but I still needed six distinct ideas. My husband and I sat out on the balcony over the weekend, brainstorming what we thought of when we thought of the SW quadrant, and why we'd moved here five years ago. The next morning, he presented me with a Post-It on which he'd jotted notes.
The night before deadline, I was up for hours but it was a happy energy. Most poets will admit a crisis of confidence after we finish a book. Is that it? Is that the last poem I'll ever write? I knew that these texts were engaging themes in Made to Explode--which has a whole section of prose poems dedicated to DC--but they felt distinct, new, in part because a public art installation requires a different energy. And oh, it felt good simply to be word-smithing and line-breaking again.
The installation went up yesterday. In lieu of the actual long table with 25 chairs of years past, a chalkboard-covered mock table invites comments from passersby, while two oversized chairs model a social distance. On fifteen of the bright red rocking chairs that are a signature, a mesh pouch holds a laminated, ring-bound booklet featuring the work of seven local poets, alongside conversation prompts and suggestions for additional reading; an online component shares all the poems, plus streamable playlists from DC DJs.
As I write this, a tropical storm is passing through the city. So I have to hope that those laminated pages are water-tight, and that the letters in "community" are fastened to stand against high winds. I have to keep faith that the sun will come back, and people will gather to the duck pond to sit in the rocking chairs and read poems. Nothing's easy in 2020. But I'm still here, and you're still here, and that's a start to something.
May 02, 2020
Those who have worked with me through the University of Tampa's MFA program, or in individual consultation, know that organizing manuscripts is my favorite thing to do. There's something magical about observing what chemistry is generated from individual poems, written over a span of months or perhaps years, being put into conversation with each other. I try to be generous but persistent in asking what it will take to create a successful manuscript, versus the optimizing of individual drafts. I love shuffling and re-shuffling pages to create the right pattern, and approaching ordering as both art and science.
I've benefitted from winning multiple contest-driven models toward publication, and been a behind-scenes force in deciding the outcome of others. There's a lot of apprehension and suspicion around awards--how deliberation happens, who benefits, how you can bet prepare your manuscript. I don't claim to have definitive answers, but I can tell you about my own experience and instincts.
As a judge, here's what I look for:
Is the approach to speaker(s) discernible?
I never assume the speaker and the author are the same person. Period. Even if there seems to be a close congruence. The rigor of my position has proven useful in leading workshops, and it means that I'm not prejudiced against "unlikable" protagonists. That said, I know we often draw from the well of biography in writing poems, and I respect the intimacy of the "I" and "you," as well as any archetypal proper nouns such as "Mother" or "Dad," when on the level of the individual poem.
What gets tricky is when I'm reading a chapbook or section in which the manuscript only periodically relies on having a sustained speaker: meaning, the author wants the understanding to be cumulative, in fact relies on it...until they don't.
This often takes the form of a persona poem that would, if applied to poems surrounding, dramatically shift our understanding of the relationship to a "you" or a given love / family member. The manuscript actually wants us to engage with that poem in a vacuum--to lift it out of context, as a moment of experimentation--but if that's the case, I look for helping signifiers on the level of title or form. Otherwise, you're inexplicably breaking your contract with the reader.
And if a figure carries over from a poem to the one immediately following, check to see if there's continuity in tense and mode of reference (direct address, versus third-person narration). If there's a change in how the character is handled--why? Is it tied into a changing perspective or emotional distance? There's nothing wrong with revising poems to be in more substantive dialogue with one another, even if they'd already been in print on the level of journals or magazines.
Does this gathering of poems have urgency?
This often gets simplified to saying contests favor the "project" book. I don't think that's strictly true. But every artistic medium is struggling with the pleasures and perils of volume--the reality of many worthy voices that are publishing, performing, and producing new work in these times--and while that's terrific, we look for why this particular set of poems needs to appear together and now. This is particularly relevant in scenarios where you're taking your recommendation of a winner into conversation with a group, arguing for it against others' top picks.
Tension can come from concerns that are thematic or formal, but it's gotta be there. Personal identity, historical moment conversant zeitgeist, core relationship dynamics, craft of form or line--create a collection that articulates a crisis or big question of some kind. Here's the good news: sometimes a single poem is enough to raise a collection's long simmer to a boil. Maybe that's a poem waiting to be written.
What poems do I remember the next day?
Judging is usually done under less than ideal circumstances, along with everything else when you're trying to make a living as a writer. The boxes of binder-clipped pages that used to arrive at the homes of National Poetry Series screeners were legendary. Although we've since found a way to spare the trees using online submission, one's neurons can still get pretty frazzled.
Any responsible judge will only solidify a decision over multiple days, usually via an informal sifting out of manuscripts worthy of further consideration. Every manuscript on Day 1 might blur together. But the manuscript we pick up first on Day 2 or 3 might get our best, freshest attention. Motivate us to return to yours. If the decision comes down to a few manuscripts of indistinguishably high quality, we might ask, "What's the single poem that has made the strongest impression?"
So: don't hide your light under a bushel. Lead with a poem that will energize and inform every poem we read thereafter, and don't save the "best" for last. If you want more thoughtful dialogue about what poems to use when opening and closing, check out this series of interviews conducted by Sarah Blake for Chicago Review of Books.
Keep in mind that this is in addition to whatever evident qualities of image, soundplay, lineation, and narrative that I'll reward on the level of the individual poems.
There's no magic formula to calculating who will like your work: some judges favor contest entrants kindred to their own aesthetic, whereas others specifically resist anything that sounds too much like themselves.
What I'd advise is that if there's any particular "de-coding" that might be needed to best access the collection, such as identifying a nouveau form or citing historical resources and allusions, err on the side of being direct in your explanations via endnotes, epigraphs, etc.. You can always lighten the touch later, in consultation with your editors. But there's no way to clarify retroactively.
Here's what I don't worry about:
Who you are. Manuscripts are usually scrubbed of identifying info before they get to me but, when not, it's pretty easy to set aside awareness of the author. (Unless I've mentored or have an intimate relationship with them--at which point, I'd disclose the conflict.) The extent to which author identity matters is if the manuscript centers on a particular culture, I want to have good faith that it's not an appropriative or merely decorative gesture. But it's on me to figure that out from the text itself.
That one typo. You know how you send off a manuscript and then find the page where gibberish (or worse, a wrong but plausible phrasing) has crept in? Or realize you should have switched the order of a couple poems? That happens to all of us. Don't feel like you need to bother a contest administrator--pleading to update a file or substitute a page--based on such gremlins. They aren't the make-or-break factor.
Here's what YOU need to consider:
If you view a chapbook or book as the destination, you'll almost invariably be let down on some matter of production value, interaction with the editors, or lack of media recognition. No process is perfect, especially if it's coming after years of anticipation.
I use the metaphor of book as passport; online or in person, where can a collection can take you? What conversations will it spark? That said, your publisher is not your travel agent. People are often surprised to realize that W. W. Norton doesn't arrange or fund my participation in readings, conferences, or festivals. I do it all on my own. And there's a lot to consider about the privileges and iniquities embedded in an attitude of "you make your own path"--that's not a tidy end to any conversation. But it's where we need to begin, in understanding the value of contests that yield an artifact of bound pages and a judge's citation. What I've experienced over and over is that what matters most is not a physical book, but the community it fuels.
If you're interested in learning more about Driftwood Press's Chapbook Contest, the guidelines are here--you have until July 1 to submit a manuscript of 15-40 pages. The cost is only $12, though I'd encourage you to take the $20 option that includes a copy of the winning chapbook. I bought a trio while visiting the Driftwood Press table at the (rumored, improvisational) AWP Conference in San Antonio, and they're beautifully designed. Each closes with a brief interview with the author, which makes the collection eminently teachable. Pictured here with editors Jerrod Schwarz (center) and James McNulty (right) is recent winner Kimberly Povloski, author of Hell of Birds.
I'd love a chance to read the poems that you've been working on.
April 15, 2020
"At one conference a fellow read aloud a poem she claimed to have written the night before. The poem was brilliant, and I didn't believe her for an instant.
So I watched her during the next twelve days. She was present at every reading and taking notes at every craft talk. She was unfailingly well dressed and cheerful. She was among the last to leave each late-night party.
One morning I got up very early for a bird walk. As I crept down the stairs of my arm before 5 AM, I found her with her laptop on a couch in the lobby, wearing glasses and sweats. She was writing. 'She's like a professional athlete,' I thought. I was humbled. I gained a new level of respect for the work ethic and athleticism of major-league writers. I decided to believe her about the poem."
|Sandra Beasley at SWC, 2008 - Photo by Aaron Baker|
|Some of the 2008 SWC Fellows.|
March 27, 2020
Hello, 2020. Weren't you supposed to finally be the better year? I've refused to change my Facebook profile photo since November 2016--the snapshot I took just moments after voting, relatively secure in what I thought that day's outcome would be. I was wrong. So many days since then have felt wrong, especially living just blocks from the nation's capitol, but when you're going through hell you keep going, right?
Now here we are. Last week, I watched a man at CVS steal a single item: a digital baby thermometer. It was the only thermometer left in stock, it was priced absurdly ($46.99), and I was not going to stop him.
My silence has not been for lack of adventuring. Everything has felt in flux. I had a great trip to Tampa--followed by news that the MFA program where I have taught for six years is shutting down. I had a great trip to Knoxville--for a job I didn't get. I was in the 1/3 crowd that made it to the AWP Conference, in part because of sunk costs and in part because I so wanted to see a city that my father's family has always loved. San Antonio was wonderful, with its riverwalk and El Mercado and art and the Japanese Tea Garden and red-pepper mezcal cocktails and BBQ and bluebonnets and Friends of Sound Records. Going to Texas was a reset we needed.
The conference was strangely intimate, with longer conversations, and yet also strangely distanced, with so many less hugs. In a different year, there would have been praise for the benches on the books fair floor and the banks of motorized scooters available for check-out. I hate to think of that momentum being lost, just as I hate to think about AWP losing the service of Diane Zinna. As it was, I was able to take part in "The Future is Accessible," talking in person with Emily Rose Cole and connecting with Jess Silfa and Alice Wong via Skype; I attended three other substantive panels and an offsite reading. That was enough.
We got home safely, if nervously. That was before everything started getting truly strange. And to counterbalance all this anticipatory grief, one beautiful piece of news: meet Sal the Wonder Cat, who keeps me company while I work from home.
Now we are are hunkered down in our Southwest apartment, the three of us (poet / artist / cat), wondering what on earth we're going to do to pay rent and health insurance in the coming months. Usually, a weekday is punctuated by announcements being piped throughout the elementary school catty-corner to our building, but schools are closed. The red rocking chairs that ring the duck pond are empty. I try to get some fresh air every few days, but between my seasonal allergies and a history of severe asthma, the pollen bloom makes that a questionable proposition. No one wants to feel short of breath right now.
Any in-person events for March, April, or May have been cancelled--and with them, that income lost. I'm hoping to keep leading spotlight discussions for Politics & Prose; a first session to discuss Carmen Maria Machado's memoir In the Dream House went well, and another discussion of Carolyn Forché's What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance is coming up on Wednesday of next week (April 1). Teaching online isn't easy; I have to multitask between so many different types of attention, and I'm still looking for an effective live-captioning option. But they're deeply absorbing conversations, and that's a bit of a godsend right now.
The only in-person conversation I've had with anyone other than my husband was when one of the workers from Officina ran over with a bag of groceries. With their dine-in options shuttered, they're trying hard to stay afloat. He recognized me from my regular pop-ins to their market, where I usually buy fresh bread and pork sausages. Now they're selling me produce straight from the prep kitchen that might otherwise go to waste: bags of parsley and broccolini, Idaho potatoes, huge onions, and a whole brined hen we'll roast this weekend.
Beyond that indulgence, we're sticking to what's in hand--pasta, rice, canned tomatoes, tinned sardines, bacon, and every imaginable kind of bean and pea. I got really excited because Cento is still shipping their basics. I have a huge jug of olive oil and a stash of white wine. When I was editing Vinegar and Char, I spent a lot of time thinking about the good, sturdy foods we deem essential in times of crisis. Yesterday, as I worked through preparing Made to Explode for W. W. Norton (the manuscript goes to the copyediting desk next week), I paused on this poem, an earlier version of which appeared in the Southern Foodways Alliance's Gravy~
IN PRAISE OF PINTOS
Forgive these mottled punks,
from the piñata of the New World,
and their ridiculous names
of Lariat, Kodiak, Othello,
Burke, Sierra, Maverick.
Forgive these rapscallions that
would fill the hot tub with ham
while their parents
go away for the weekend,
just to soak in that salt.
Forgive their climbing instinct.
Forgive their ignorance
of their grandparents who
ennobled Rome’s greatest:
Fabius, Lentulus, Pisa, Cicero
the chickpea. Legume
is the enclosure, fruit in pod,
but pulse is the seed.
From the Latin, puls
is to beat, to mash, to throb.
Forgive that thirst. Forgive
that gallop. Beans are the promise
of outlasting the coldest season.
They are a wink in the palm of God.