"Projecting Your Voice on the Page" in VA

Many of my events coming up this fall will follow a traditional rhythm--I read from a book, I take some questions, etc. But a few of the events have a wildcard format, something for me to get excited (and slightly nervous) about. I need to put together a Powerpoint presentation on the history of allergy for an audience of doctors. I'll lead a seminar on the sestina for the Poetry Society of South Carolina that's in Charleston on Saturday, September 10. And then there's this Friday....

This Friday (September 2), I'm avoiding Labor Day traffic and getting on Route 7 to drive to Leesburg, Virginia. 

Now, an aside. Route 7 holds a special place in my heart. Many associate it with the Gordian-knot nightmare of Tyson's Corner. But for me it is the winding stretch that goes from my grandmother's house in Seven Corners, out to my family's house adjacent to the Wolf Trap National Park and Filene Center, and then all the way out into the rural areas around Harper's Ferry. It was the first road I ever drove, and it took me everywhere a high schooler could need to go (except, er, my actual high school--had to use the Beltway for that). 

Anyway, I'll hop into the car with my mom and drive out Route 7 to Leesburg to be part of the "First Friday" entertainments in their historic and walkable downtown. This is a really cool mix of live acoustic music, wine tasting, art gallery openings, letter press demonstrations, even a comedy hour called "Last Ham Standing." So even if you're not a writer, there will be lots to do. But if you ARE a writer, you might consider joining us for this... 

"Projecting Your Voice on the Page" with Sandra Beasley

Northern Virginia Writers First Friday ~ September 2, 2011 ~ 7:30 PM
in the Leesburg Town Hall, 25 W. Market St., Leesburg, VA 20176

Voice: It is perhaps the most elusive element of strong writing. In this presentation, award-winning author and poet Sandra Beasley will discuss how to develop a voice that is immediate, compelling and precise.

Beasley is author of I Was the Jukebox, winner of the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize. Her debut, Theories of Falling, was selected by Marie Howe as the winner of the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize. In July of this year, Crown published her memoir, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, which offers a cultural history of food allergies in America and was declared a great summer read by Health magazine. Sandra also is an essayist whose work has been featured in The Washington Post Magazine. She serves on the board of the Writer's Center. 

Cost: $4 for members of The Writer's Center and residents of Leesburg; $6 for the general public. For more information, visit www.writer.org or call #301-654-8664.


I'm going to offer a mix of practical tips and observations that will apply to working in both prose and poetry. We'll look at some great examples of clear and forceful voices of authors past. If you've ever found yourself frustrated by a slow opening to your essay--all background, no hook--or a poem idea that feels so alive in your head but falls flat on the page, this seminar is for you. And we'll have fun. It's a Friday night on a holiday weekend! We're going to make this Friday-night worthy.

Ok Ok Ok Ok Ok

You might recognize the field and barn in the background of this image. Not too long ago I posted a picture of the abused horses that used to be protected within these fences.

Sadly, the people who ran the shelter had to sell the land. The horses are gone, the field is groomed for sale. No doubt the grass will be paved straightaway to attract condo/apartment developers---errrr...I think I'm going to pull some Ammons off the shelf today.

The other day, though, I was heading to the post office to send out the manuscript to another contest, and saw this on the telephone pole. Had to snap a quick photograph. (Apologies to the guy in the black Mustang who had to wait momentarily while I pulled over.)

My guess is its a sign for the next crew to come along the access road, something about electrical or gas lines. And that's kind of a nice idea, and how like poetry, isn't it? Putting these signs out there for the next reader, whoever they are, for whenever they happen by.

I've chosen to take the pole's message personally, or at least as a reminder: all will be "OK."

It's true. It will.

There's a lot going on: dissertation writing, teaching, working on the new manuscript, other university commitments, and Baby is a only few weeks away (finally!).

And in terms of the poetry, this week will also be a busy one. I'm waiting for word on a "second read" of a poem from the new manuscript which is under consideration at one of my favorite journals.  I'm also waiting to hear about the 2011 Ruth Lilly Fellowships for which I'm a finalist, which will probably be announced on Wednesday or Thursday. And I'm also waiting for an email from a big-league book contest about which the coordinator said, roughly three weeks ago, the winners would be announced in "the next few weeks." So, needless to say, this is a week I've been looking forward to.

Sure, it occupies my mind at times, but, you know, not to worry. Sometimes a sign appears to direct the electricity lines of our hearts, and this is one that I'm taking with me out into the world.


On my most recent endless drive, I stopped off to buy a bottle of wine for the couple that would home-host me that night. While up at the register, I saw a little basket of bottles of absinthe (or rather, "Absente"..."now with wormwood"). I thought "Hell, why not?"

Impulse buys under $10 are probably a bad idea when at a liquor store in Tennessee, but there you have it. 

So here I am, back at home in DC and readying for Hurricane Irene with bags to unpack, books to read, peaches to eat, and absinthe to drink. Here is my Vincent-Van-Gogh-inspired still life.

The taste? 110-proof licorice. Plus two varieties of food coloring, Yellow #5 and Blue #1. Can't say I love it, much as I love fennel. I'm probably doing it a disservice by trying it straight. I've had enough Sazeracs in my day to know it can be an excellent sweet grace note to an otherwise merciless rye drink. 

Hemingway had one of the great absinthe recipes: "Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly." He called it "Death in the Afternoon." 

And this is what Oscar Wilde said of the drink: “After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”

Of course, absinthe is primarily known as a poets' vice: Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Marie Verlaine, two of the major Symbolists, drank it like water. Extremely corrosive water. The love story of Verlaine (young at 27, with a pregnant wife from a well-to-do family) and Rimbaud (younger still--still shy of 17) is an untamed tale that culminates in a gun going off--but not before one of the two had first been slapped in the face with a fish. If you're curious about the whys & hows I recommend the biography Rimbaud, which Graham Robb published with W. W. Norton in 2000.

Here is a video of the poet Christian Bok presenting and then translating Arthur Rimbaud's poem, "Vowels," which many believe to be a poem inspired by absinthe:

...Okay, okay. I confess: I may not be inspired to write a poem by this little bottle. I'd settle for being inspired to empty my suitcase. 

The Monday Tape

The new academic semester started up last week and I ran out of steam for blogging. I'm working on a couple entries, and hope to get them posted this week and next.

Not a whole lot of news on the poetry front: revising poems, waiting to hear back on poems and manuscript submissions, teaching poetry, writing about lyric. Same old same old and loving this life.

And now, being that it's Monday...

The Top 5 Links to Books/Degrees/Industry/Magic/Etc

5. I've started looking for jobs and encountered this comic this morning: For Lack of a Better Comic

4. What else can you do with an English major but work at a bookst---Oh, wait. Nevermind.

3. Every book President Obama's read since his campaign. Via The Daily Beast:

2. Brian Joseph Davis defends MFA Programs @ The Huffington Post

1. Poets & Writers has a new list of the Top 15 Creative Writing Doctoral Programs

Foxfire Ranch

This snapshot was taken a little over a year ago, on one of my first weekends in Mississippi. My friend Jeff and I had driven out from Oxford to Foxfire Ranch, which is just south of Holly Springs. His girlfriend Nikki (on the left) was coming from Memphis and met us there. 

I didn't know what to expect, but I soon realized this was one of my favorite places on earth. During the rest of the week, Foxfire is a working cattle ranch owned by Annie and Bill Hollowell. But on Sundays they let folks come and camp out in their open-air barn out back to hear bands play--usually three sets between 4 and 9 PM. People bring a picnic cooler (BYOB) or take advantage of the BBQ and collards Miss Annie herself cooks on site. Kids run around with their dogs. Little Ole Miss girls get going in their hula hoops. You come out with the sun still blazing; you leave long after it has set. 

As for the music, it's where pros come out to  jam, from Kenny Brown to Revered John Wilkins to all three Burnside brothers. The vibe reminds me a little of a good late-night on U Street, after people have finished their paying gigs at Blues Alley or wherever and want to do a little pick-up playing. And there is dancing. Sometimes, everybody up on their feet; sometimes just a few brave souls doing their thing.  

A year later, I made a straight drive from DC to catch the Saturday night show of the annual North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic. I arrived about 4 PM, having left my apartment at 9 PM the night before, and realized there was no option other than to fill my flask, slip on some gold Mardi Gras beads, and catch a second wind. This was one of the headline acts--Garry Burnside playing with Cadillac Funk. That's Andrew in the hat and sunglasses on the right, the frontman for CF. I'd heard them play a few times, but never got to talk to them before. I stayed out as long as my tired body would let me.  

I'm typing this from Andrew's kitchen at the moment. Tomorrow I'll be at Foxfire again, wearing my favorite black skirt for dancing (not so short as to be scandalous, with a bit of a flare if I'm twirling). Cadillac Funk will be up on stage, with Garry on guest guitar and Bill Perry, Jr. on keyboards. I'm hoping Jeff and Nikki can make it out to join us. They are engaged now, living together in Memphis. 

A lot can happen in a year.  

The Ciardi Translation

I received a kind email from a poet-friend yesterday evening. Despite a long and difficult day of teaching, she still made time to send a note of congratulations: Praise Nothing was named a finalist for the 2011 John Ciardi Poetry Prize.

I knew the winner’s name had been released (congrats to Karen Holmberg for winning the prize), but I hadn’t yet received any notification. What a happy surprise! Before this email, I figured any note from the contest organizers was lost or, more likely, not coming since the winner had already been chosen. But this finalist status is, hopefully, an indicator that acceptance is truly a matter of the manuscript finding the right readers at the right time.

This same friend who emailed also recently encouraged me to NOT overhaul the manuscript if publication doesn’t happen this round. Her advice is yet another reason why I am so thankful to have the online poetry community with whom to share news, both good and bad. People who will drop you a line out of nowhere just to encourage you: these are my kind of people. As I said to her in an email reply, “Genuine belief and support within a community: I'd be lost without it.”

Last January, I plunked down the $25 Ciardi Prize entrance fee for a few reasons: I admire Steve Gehrke’s Resurrection Machine which BkMk published; a colleague introduced me to the fine people at BkMk at the last AWP and they were quite nice, really seemed to support and believe in their authors; BkMk is in Kansas City; and they publish good books (see Megan Harlan’s Mapmaking which I bought at AWP). The underlying reason for submitting there, however, was the name: Ciardi.

I often say that Milton was the first poet that blew my mind. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “Milton? Really?” And this statement, for some out there, probably lumps me in with various accusations of sadism, misogyny, or some kind of orthodox authoritarianism. Well, it’s true about the mind blowing. Mostly. Just ask me the next time we see each other. It’s not really an uncommon story, I think. In early high school, Satan rocked my world. But I digress…

Speaking of Satan and my underlying reason for submitting (to the contest), in some respects I think it is fair to say that before my somewhat more complex feelings of sympathy for Milton's shape- and size-shifting Satan, and before the ensuing theological confusion that caused me so much consternation, there was Dante's ice-encased, bat-winged, three-headed horror show version which seemed right out of a nightmare or a movie I'd never be given permission to see. Looking at these interpretations, though, I'm not sure which is really more horrific. Blake's, I think. Certainly it's more energetic and enticing...

Milton's Satan interpreted by William Blake
via Phil Coppins

Dante's Satan interpreted by Gustave Dore
via Wikipedia

My love of Divine Comedy all goes back to eighth grade and checking out Ciardi’s translation of Inferno from the school library. I never checked books out from the library unless I had to for a report of some sort, and so I think I must have heard of this title from a movie or television. Not sure what would have triggered the idea otherwise. But there was danger in this book. As well as something daring. Frightening. Even something about this book that made it seem bad for me. (Picture Jerry and George reading Tropic of Cancer. That was me, but with a 14th-century Italian epic poem. Same deal.) I doubt I even knew it was poetry, but I decided that I would read the entire darn thing. Every word. And I did.

The cover. via
I know that I liked it, but don’t really remember a whole lot. I have strong sensory memories of the edition’s cover, and remember feeling sickened by some of the descriptions of Hell, and I vaguely remember Ciardi’s vision of Satan and thinking that he must have it wrong. Ciardi, I mean. I’m not sure why I thought that, but then I didn’t have enough sense to know the book wasn’t written by John Ciardi and the title of the book wasn’t "Dante’s Inferno."

Over the years I’ve read many translations of the Inferno, and only a few of the whole Divine Comedy. I prefer the John Sinclair prose translations which, while earning my MFA, Garrett Hongo insisted I read. I dutifully complied, and didn’t look back. I frequently reread portions of Purgatorio. Still, not so much for Paradiso, though maybe it's an acquired taste, or maybe it gets better with age. Hell, I should probably give it a try now. I am, after all, acquiring age, if not taste.

This fall, my poetry students will start off reading four different translations of “Canto 1”: Ciardi and Pinsky’s different verse translations, Sinclair’s prose, and the Birk & Sanders free verse. They’re going to write about their own poetics and incorporate their translation preferences. It’s a short writing assignment, but students almost always exceed the word count on this one. There’s something about Dante that really sinks his hooks in you. (Obviously.) For me, anyway, that process started early and with Ciardi, and I’m happy to remember that this morning, and happy to celebrate community, legacy, and poetry.

The Monday Tape

At the risk of this recurrent feature becoming another link and info dump, today's Monday Tape is just that:

The Top 5 (Unranked) Poetry Stories I Read Online Last Week

5. "A Conversation with Award Winning Poet Matthew Zapruder"
"I think a misconception some people can have about poets is that they are mainly interested in 'language' as pure material, as something outside of its function as a communicative mechanism. Maybe this is because at least on the surface some poems seem uninterested in a reader. I am very interested in the reader, in fact there is probably nothing I am more interested in.

4. "I Am Corrupted" - Seth Abramson
"I was thinking recently about some things I’ve seen in the poetry community of late -- particularly a couple of dishonest essays and interviews by a poet whose literary work I admire very much, but whose critical writing is largely inaccurate, disingenuous, and based on data its author knows damn well are bad data -- and I couldn’t stop thinking that there’s a need, perhaps, to catalog the tiny corruptions we as poets on occasion indulge and see whether (and ask ourselves whether) those tiny corruptions add up to a more substantial corruption of the self over time. If they do, what’s to be done? I don’t know. Whatever we can do to stop it, I suppose. Which will differ for each person."

3. "Dean Young on MFAs, Recklessness etc"
Montevidayo's brief review of Dean Young's The Art of Recklessness.

2. John Gallaher comments on the Five Points interview with Kim Addonizio
Gallaher comments on this interview as a way to pick at the scab dividing poetry into its to (arbitrary) camps: the (semi)autobiographical and "energetic word play." Worth reading and something to think about for a few.

1. Joseph Millar on Elliot Coleman
One of my favorite poets, Joseph Millar, describes his early days of teaching at Johns Hopkins in the summer of '69. 

Away Games

Since my last post was about home fires, seems only appropriate that this post be about away games. I have spent the last three days hammering out my Fall 2011-Spring 2012 book tour schedule, which I will share in every conceivable outlet (including this blog & Booktour.com) over the weekend. A few immediate highlights:

Reading at the AJC Decatur Book Festival in Decatur, GA, on Sunday, Sept. 4

Reading at Chop Suey Books in Richmond, VA, on Sunday, Sept. 11

Reading at New Dominion Bookshop in Charlottesville, VA, on Thursday, Sept. 29

Panel on persona poetry with Stephen Burt (swoon) and panel on memoir at the Boston Book Festival in Boston, MA, on Saturday, Oct. 15

...and that is just for starters: about 30 events in all. If you should happen to see a date that is close to your public library, book club, or PTA meeting, please let me know. I'm driving 99% of the time, which means my schedule is flexible. The more people I get to meet and share my books with, the better.

While I am being all self-promotional, I should say that it has been a really nice week for grass-roots blog reviews of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl. Thank you, Rebecca Tolley-Stokes, for calling my book "eye-opening." Thank you, Nina the Cooktivist, for letting me change the menu for your birthday party--and assuring you that you aren't alone. Thank you, Shelly Bowers, for assuring me I wasn't crazy with my Richard Scarry "Busytown" conceit in the closing chapter. Thank you, Kalen Landow, for saying "Most books I read require only a simple few sentences or maybe a few paragraphs, but sometimes a book hits so hard, so close to home,  that I feel compelled to say more. Sandra Beasley’s Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl is one of those books." That made my day.

I'll be running away from home again soon (damn you, Mississippi, and your siren call) but it has been a good week. Waking up to see rainbows splashed across the wall of my apartment courtesy of my sister's solar-powered prism; an amazing cocktail at P/X (gin, tequila, basil coconut water and turmeric) with Leslie; a familiar meal of sweet potato salad and tea-cured salmon at Teaism; lounging in the pool with Hailey; the ease of a post office within walking distance; the fun of stopping off at Politics & Prose to pick up my copy of Meg Waite Clayton's The Four Ms. Bradwells (is that a stunning cover, or what?). Funny that I've reached this point where being in one place for over a week feels like a luxury.

Someone asked me the trick to being on book tour. I said that I always unpack fully between each stop, even if in one place for less than 24 hours. True. Also: travel with your own towel--whether you need it to wash your face, or just to create a cozy texture on an unfamiliar pillow. Also: no matter small the town, look up the one hippie cafe with coffee + WiFi beforehand. There is always one. Also: figure out the magical technology to fit the ones you love in your suitcase. Still working on that last part.

My patron saint of writerly traveling is Naomi Shihab Nye. A favorite of hers:


Letters swallow themselves in seconds.   
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,   
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable,   
lists of vegetables, partial poems.   
Orange swirling flame of days,   
so little is a stone.

Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,   
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.   
I begin again with the smallest numbers.

Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,   
only the things I didn’t do   
crackle after the blazing dies.

-Naomi Shihab Nye


I submitted summer grades last night and hope to get to the office machines early this morning in order to beat the rush of fellow syllabi copiers. Classes begin next week, and you can bet that we'll be looking at poems by Philip Levine in my Introduction to Poetry class.

In the past, I've used him to teach lyric structure and measure, and also to discuss voice. I think I may have them read some of these recent Poet Laureate newspaper articles alongside some much older reviews and have them write about the historicity surrounding his work and its reception over the decades. I think its important to get some context for why this appointment is so significant.

Here's the PBS News Hour report on the news and also a poem by Dorianne Laux which pays tribute to his impact on her work and life. The poem appears in her newest collection The Book of Men, but I'm reposting this from Valparaiso Review which originally published the poem.

Mine Own Phil Levine

after W.S. Merwin

What he told me, I will tell you
There was a war on
It seemed we had lived through
Too many to name, to number

There was no arrogance about him
No vanity, only the strong backs
Of his words pressed against
The tonnage of a page

His suggestion to me was that hard work
Was the order of each day
When I asked again, he said it again,
Pointing it out twice

His Muse, if he had one, was a window
Filled with a brick wall, the left hand corner
Of his mind, a hand lined with grease
And sweat: literal things

Before I knew him, I was unknown
I drank deeply from his knowledge
A cup he gave me again and again
Filled with water, clear river water

He was never old, and never grew older
Though the days passed and the poems
Marched forth and they were his words
Only, no other words were needed

He advised me to wait, to hold true
To my vision, to speak in my own voice
To say the thing straight out
There was the whole day about him

The greatest thing, he said, was presence
To be yourself in your own time, to stand up
That poetry was precision, raw precision
Truth and compassion: genius

I had hardly begun. I asked, How did you begin
He said, I began in a tree, in Lucerne
In a machine shop, in an open field
Start anywhere

He said If you don’t write, it won’t
Get written. No tricks. No magic
About it. He gave me his gold pen
He said What’s mine is yours

Dorianne Laux
from Valparaiso Review, Fall/Winter 2009-2010

Philip Levine. That is all.

Facebook exploded last night with the official word that Philip Levine will succeed W.S. Merwin as our next Poet Laureate of the United States. No word yet as to what his poetry project will be, or if he plans one, but one thing is sure: this is excellent timing. Here are a couple links to the news (the Fresno paper's the best one):
The Washington Post: "Philip Levine was not expecting to be the new poet laureate of the United States. 'It just wasn’t something I thought I’d get,' he said, sounding a little amused by the whole thing." 
The New York Times: "The Library of Congress will announce on Wednesday that Philip Levine, best known for his big-hearted, Whitmanesque poems about working-class Detroit, is to be the next poet laureate." 
The Fresno Bee: "I don't know if they'd want me writing for official events," Levine said. "A poem to Congress? No, thank you."

Last night I reread some favorites from What Work Is and The Simple Truth, and tried to recall when I first encountered Levine's work.

I'm not sure of the year, but it must have been around 1998, my undergraduate Intro to Poetry class. Our assigned text for the course was A. Poulin Jr.'s anthology Contemporary American Poetry, 6th ed., and for whatever reason, Levine's poems weren't part of the assigned readings.

The photo in the Poulin anthology.
(link to photo source)
On this particular fall afternoon, I'd been reading Robert Bly in preparation for our next class discussion. I remember the college's small library, the table where I sat, a girl that smiled at me as she passed. My blue Bic pen in hand, I felt the slight warmth of weak light through the window bathing the huge book I held open to Bly's strange portrait, his puff of white hair and absurd necktie.

I remember this so clearly because I often think of this moment as the day I decided that, if I was going to write poems (this is long before I knew about workshops, publishing, the MFA, having a "career" in poetry, the po-biz), I was going to have to buckle down and read every single poem in this huge anthology. I figured if I could do that, I should be pretty darn ready to write my own poems. O the naivete...

I also knew that I had to make notes in the margins. I wasn’t exactly sure why this should be done, or to what end, but this is what I'd seen all the serious students doing. Had to be the "right way" to read poetry. Plus, if I opened up my anthology in class, all my peers and, maybe, the teacher, would see my marginal notes and finally recognize how bright and earnest I was. (Hopefully you can hear the nostalgia and sarcasm from where you are.)

And so I proceeded to read these poems, “Surprised by Evening” and “Waking from Sleep,” “Poem in Three Parts” and “Passing an Orchard,” and all the others. I wrote comments in the margins. Blue ink all over the pages.

A slightly embarrassing sample of my marginal notes.
I still have the anthology, and I’ve just pulled it off the shelf. With tongue in cheek, here are some of those insightful notes: “harsh/violent,” “reincarnation,” “no chance = offense.” Complex binaries like “awake vs. asleep,” “good vs. bad,” “morning vs. night.” Other comments like “suppressing imagery—like a chest cold,” “Interesting not ‘turn to dust,’” “interesting change off falling to tunneling,” “nature with human response and action qualities,” “Great waking image!”

I circled words, wrote dictionary definitions at the bottom of the page, drew lines connecting words, underlined all the words that rhymed with "Bly." I remember, too, that I read each poem twice, because that’s what my teacher said to do. “See? I’m a good student, right?”

I realize that none of this has been about Philip Levine. And that’s my point.

After I finished prepping for class, studying the Bly poems, inking my insights onto the pages of the anthology, I decided to do the same to one of the poets not on the syllabus. Figured I’d get ahead of the other students. Figured I’d read some outside poet and mention them in class. Drop their name. Separate myself from the group by doing that.

So I picked up the book and began to page through, front to back. Decided I’d stop at the first poet whose photo was as weird as Bly’s.

Photo by Christopher Felver
(scanned from anthology)
I only made it as far as Levine: his scraggly mustache, his eyes that seemed to be crying from joy, his goofy necklace and medallion, his teeth (!). He seemed to be looking right at me, and far into me, to the core of who I was and wasn't, and who and what I wanted to become.

The first poem I read was “Animals Are Passing from Our Lives,” and this is my point: I devoured all nine of his poems, and I didn’t scratch a single blue-ink note in the margin. Not a one. Nada.

I just read.

I read the poems over and over and over, and I never told anyone about him. Not the other students in the class. Not the teacher.

I didn’t want them to know about him because he was mine. He’d spoken to me.

Years later I teach his poems in my own workshops and intro to literature classes, always hoping that his poems will find a student just as they found me, that he would become theirs in the same way, that he would be there to teach my students to read poems, to see the connections of our lives.

Thankfully, now that he is Poet Laureate, we have a reminder of what poetry and poets can do. I'm grateful that Philip Levine remains, and is even more so now, all of ours.


Animals are Passing from Our Lives

It’s wonderful how I jog
on four honed-down ivory toes
my massive buttocks slipping
like oiled parts with each light step.

I’m to market. I can smell
the sour, grooved block, I can smell
the blade that opens the hole
and the pudgy white fingers

that shake out the intestines
like a hankie. In my dreams
the snouts drool on the marble,
suffering children, suffering flies,

suffering the consumers
who won’t meet their steady eyes
for fear they could see. The boy
who drives me along believes

that any moment I’ll fall
on my side and drum my toes
like a typewriter or squeal
and shit like a new housewife

discovering television,
or that I’ll turn like a beast
cleverly to hook his teeth
with my teeth. No. Not this pig.

Philip Levine
from Not This Pig

Other Philip Levine poems posted @ Against Oblivion:

"A Sleepless Night"
"To a Child Trapped in a Barber Shop"
"Sweet Will"
"The Sea We Read About"
"On 52nd Street"

Broken Violin

I've been away from the blogosphere for over a month, so let me thank you for stopping by. I don't think there's a better way to come back than with Gene Autry singing "Back in the Saddle Again," but just in case that isn't enough, here's a little out of context T.S. Eliot to set the mood of what this return feels like for me:

from "Portrait of a Lady"

The voice returns like the insistent out-of-tune
Of a broken violin on an August afternoon:
"I am always sure that you understand
My feelings, always sure that you feel,
Sure that across the gulf you reach your hand."

May and June were good months for blogging, and now I'm back in the saddle again. The public writing served then, I think, as a distraction from all the many hands tugging at my coat. Also, for a couple hours per week, it was a nice diversion or rather a controlled interruption from the dissertation work of new poems and lit crit. Which is not to say that I needed to get away from my work, but that thinking aloud on the blogosphere was helpful to what I was thinking and writing about in other spheres. And then July came.

Image via Vanderbilt University

July: packed to the gills.
July: birthing classes and baby prep.
July: The Staycation.
July: too hot to go outside.
July: “Little poppies, little hell flames…”
July: waiting for manuscript news.
July: teaching a summer class every day (wonderful students!)
July: politics detox, rebound, detox again, rebound.
July: listening to stand-up comedy and comedian podcasts instead of politics.
July: birthday introspection.
July: dissertation reading and writing.
July: errands, errands, errands.
July: How is it August already?

Now that you’re up to speed on July, here’s where things stand on the poetry front. A post-July recap:

  • Got word that I’m a finalist for a 2011 Ruth Lilly Fellowship. Results in September. The list of finalists is exceedingly impressive. I’m humbled and honored to see my name there.

  • 4 new poems in the works, one is already out there.

  • Record response time: 90min from The New Republic.

  • Plan to have at least 3 more poems ready to go by the time more journals open in September.

  • Crossed off a few items from my 2011 Poetry Goals.

  • Got word Praise Nothing was a finalist for The Tampa Review Prize, The Saturnalia Books Prize, and The Prairie Schooner Book Prize. That makes five finalist nods and two semifinalist nods. More folks saying it is only a matter of timing.

  • Got the best notification/rejection letter I've ever received. Though I came close and didn't win the prize, I certainly felt like I'd won something. A month later, I'm still running on that letter's fuel.

  • Received an encouraging email from a publisher who asked me to resubmit so they can “keep it in front of [them].” After some debate, I decided to pay the reading fee and resubmit.

  • Waiting to hear from a handful of small presses and contests.

  • CavanKerry and Milkweed – I'm particularly looking forward to hearing from you two.

  • Will start the resubmission process again in September/October, but will need to scale back the number of submissions because of cost.

  • One place to send to in August: Red Hen.

  • Starting to wonder if I need to overhaul the manuscript again. Am I missing something? More on this later...

So, in terms of this public sphere, we’ll see how it goes. My plan is to post twice per week just as I did during the last good stretch in May/June. I'm also going to restart the poetry email list. But, you know, this term will be busy with dissertation work, conference presentations, book reviews, teaching literature instead of workshop, and I’m serving as Asst. Director in the Writing Center and Co-Director of the Young Writers Institute.

Off-campus, though, that’s the biggest and bestest new commitment – it’s Babytime!

Wish me luck.

Home Fires

So it has been a quiet week on the blog, but not a quiet week in real life. After a great day at Politics & Prose, I zipped down to Mississippi to wrap up my book launch with readings at Square Books in Oxford (you can see a full video here) and Lemuria in Jackson. Then I promptly returned to DC to tape an hour of live conversation on The Diane Rehm show this morning for NPR & WAMU (archival recording here)--which was such a thrill. I remember hearing an American University MFA professor, Kermit Moyer, wax poetic on her show many a morning. 

Oh: my book was picked as a "Great Nonfiction Read" in the August 8 issue of PEOPLE. Doesn't get much more surreal. Amy Winehouse is on the cover, for goodness sakes.

But if you asked me what I spent the last week doing, here's what I'd say: I was tending the home fires. Because while this book launch is a thrill, the roller coaster ride to end sometime. (Uh...ignore the mixing of those two metaphors.) If you haven't put some time into developing real connections with real people, you're going to end up at the amusement park alone after closing time. And that's a lonely place. 

Here's what tending the home fires looks like...

Cooking dinner for new friends and adored ones. Menu: lemon chicken with olives, parsley, and red onion, herbed couscous with stir-friend portobello mushrooms and spinach, carrots glazed in ginger ale & chile powder, and fresh fruit with peanut brittle (the only store-bought indulgence) for dessert.

Adding a day to my return drive to DC by first driving down to Jackson, Mississippi, to see my beloved former boss Mary Lynn Kotz receive an award at the Mississippi Museum of Art for her contributions to the arts (among other things, she wrote an incredible biography of Robert Rauschenberg).
Finding this package leaned against my door in DC, sent by a young woman I met at my Lemuria reading. Now, by all standard accounts that was the least successful of my launch readings--teeny-tiny crowd. But that meant I had time to connect and really talk with Rachel, a talented teenager who at first claimed she came only to get out of family cleaning chores at home. But her attentive questions made me suspect otherwise. So I bought  her a copy of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl. And receiving one sincere thank-you makes the reading worth more than 50 books sold.
Opening my package to discover a copy of her school's literary journal, which she had a hand in editing. Editors of little journals, unite! I particularly love how she signed the masthead page.

...and discovering that she, like me, is fascinated by the Orpheus & Eurydice myth (I have several poems that reference it in my first collection, Theories of Falling). Editor and poet. Go, Rachel, go!
...As for today, a confession: what I should have done, after The Diane Rehm Show, was rally for a high-powered happy hour downtown with literary types. But I was exhausted. So you know what I did instead? Curled up in bed with Molly Birnbaum's book Season to Taste--a memoir about being a chef-in-training, then losing one's sense of smell in a freak accident--which I have loved for its smart writing, vivid imagery, and sensitive blend of memoir and science. I finished the book. And I took a nap. I am tending the home fires. I am tending to my heart first, my career second.