Lessons of Summer

Lordy, the weekend is upon us. The End of Summer. My balcony's planter-box--once a bright birthday gift from my sister, back in May--has now gone weedy and brown. I'm ready to make chicken chili and pumpkin soup. I'm ready to wear shawls again. 

It's been a good season, driven by a promise that I would stay in and around DC and take care of myself. (The secret: allotting one hour of bad reality television if, and only if, it corresponds to one hour of working out.) I wish I had another two weeks. I have specific ideas for two essays I want to draft, and 4-6 poems. But still, I feel good rounding up the writing and editing I did get done, and a dozen lessons learned. Namely:

1) I need to have faith and be more patient with editors, especially in the case of building ongoing relationships. Twice this summer I turned in nonfiction, and when a week went by with no response I thought "Agh, it's horrible"--to the point of wanting to withdraw for a brute revision/rewrite. To pretend it never happened. Both times it turned out the editors liked what they saw, but it is just one of 1,000 things on their desks. You can burn bridges with insecurity; you gotta be careful. 

2) Even after four years of amazing workshops at the University of Virginia, two years of amazing workshops at The American University, and the Jenny McKean Moore workshop at George Washington University post-MFA...I still benefit from having a writing group. There is something to having an outside set of eyes on your work, no matter how disciplined and discerning one may be. I am particularly grateful to have Kyle Dargan as a reader, more than a decade after we first met at UVA. He rocks.  

3) I am not going to write reviews anymore. There are people who excel at the craft. I am not one of them or, if I am, I take no pleasure in it. It's also the lowest-paying rank of prose that I see out there in the freelance market right now. I'd rather use the work of contemporary poets to illustrate craft essays...and I suspect that'll actually keep their work alive more effectively, three years from now, than a review. 

4) My Colorado uncle is right. Celery salt makes a Bloody Mary. It feels a little weird to season a glass, but that smokiness is all it takes (plus vodka, V8, a bit of Trader Joe's jalapeno sauce, maybe a celery stick garnish). I only ever use one little low-sodium can of V8 at a time, though, so don't worry: it's a mini-Mary. I'm not lushing it too much. 

5) I get more done on days when not all my reading is off a computer screen. Recurring go-tos are New York (not just for that culture matrix--their cover stories are stellar), Rolling Stone, Poetry, and Real Simple. We'll see about The Oxford American.  

6) If you're a creative type who I know to cheat on your significant other in real life, I give myself permission to never fully invest in your work. Life is too short. 

7) I am not going to spend time on Op-Eds anymore. If they don't get taken on the first try, they start feeling stale too quickly. There is also a stridency there, a heightening of stance versus reason that is neither natural nor conversational; it reminds me of the email tomes I used to read & write for my college debating society's list-serv. 

8) 5,000-8,000 steps is the perfect length walk for my neighborhood. Depending on level of ambition I can make it a post office run, or a tour of the National Zoo. 

9) Nationals Stadium has a superb array of beers available, but a pitiful shortage of great french fry purveyors ever since Five Guys left. Boardwalk Fries, you've been letting me down with your lukewarm, undersalted spuds. On the upside, a ketchup-detesting dad and a mustard-allergic daughter have discovered the perfect dip compromise: Cholula hot sauce. 

10) Junot Diaz and I share a love, and that love is Encyclopedia Brown. The world is a strange and serendipitous place. 

11) None of my poetry collections are going to resemble each other. While I hope to have a signature intensity of voice, maybe a specificity of phrasing, and probably always more sestinas than most poets, these books are going to jump all over the place in terms of mood, theme, and rhetorical focus. I'm a restless poet. This is both exciting and terrifying.

12) My love for the essay is beginning to rival my love for poetry. Given druthers, right now I might pick being a regular columnist over writing a second nonfiction book. 

I think that's a PhD's worth of summer research, don't you?


Some links for those whiling away final hours before their holiday begins...

-For DC friends planning calendars: please come to the Arts Club of Washington on Tuesday, September 18, when I host a poetry reading by Meghan O'Rourke. 

-For NYC friends planning calendars: join me at Le Poisson Rouge on Sunday, September 23, for a show with pianist Inna Faliks & baritone David Adam Moore. 

-For friends adrift at what to do with a post-MFA fall, apply for fellowships and prizes using this invaluable list compiled by Erika Dreifus. (My goal: to head back to the Millay Colony next year. Their deadline for 2013 residency applications is October 1.)

-...And for friends returning to teaching, Matt Bell made me laugh with this McSweeney's Internet Tendency contribution: "MY GRADING SCALE FOR THE FALL SEMESTER, COMPOSED ENTIRELY OF SAMUEL BECKETT QUOTES."

Enjoy, and see you in September~

The Weight of the Human Soul

In 1907, Dr. Duncan Macdougall published the results of some curious findings. He claimed to have found the weight of the human soul. In his experiments, Macdougall weighed the bodies of a handful of people as they lay dying. Then, when the person had passed, he observed that his measurements changed: the weight of the respective bodies got lighter after a few minutes. The good Doctor concluded that this difference in the post-mortem measurement must certainly be the weight of the soul. The first soul he weighed was ¾ of an ounce, or 21 grams.

After this weekend, I know that Macdougall was on to something. He just got his figure wrong. The precise figure is not 21 grams. It’s 12 pounds. That’s the total amount of weight I lost on Saturday while suffering from a monster flu virus. 7% of my total weight.

I can’t remember the precise moment when I felt my soul depart my corporeal existence, but I’m sure it happened. No soul could withstand that much hell.

In the past couple days during the moments when I’m not drinking pint glass after pint glass of tap water in order to re-inflate my organs (should my kidneys be aching?), I’ve recontextualized what happened to me as, not an illness, but a detox. I don’t know if what I went through can be considered a  true detox, but it feels like it. I feel “cleaned out,” as they say and I’ve been thinking carefully about what’s going to go back in to replace what came out.

I’m a fairly healthy guy. I run when I can. I eat well and don’t drink booze most weekdays. I don’t smoke. Don’t do drugs. I get a regular amount of sleep. The whole nine. And yet what do I do when I finally come around and feel like eating again? For the first time in roughly four days?

via mygofer
Bam. Red Baron. I know: classy. It’s a guilty pleasure and it’s what truly sounded good.

Big mistake. Felt like crap all night. Felt like I was sick again.

Tonight, though, I made amends. Knoxville recently got a Trader Joe’s and it’s right near our house so I ran over there after teaching this afternoon and bought a frozen paneer tikka masala and spinach rice meal. Put good in, get good out.

This is all a roundabout way of getting to the poetry detox I’ve been on for several months, detoxing from politics. No politics, no talking heads, no nothing until the first Presidential Debate. Expel and eliminate the political waste and focus on the poems.

The detox has been successful in at least one respect: it’s helped me to renew my love of soccer. Replace one obsession with another. But in terms of poetry, it’s helped me focus, mostly on my reading. I’m getting a lot more reading done. And it’s all paying off in the new work. At least I hope it is. Although I don’t really have too many new poems, I think I’m doing a good job of replenishing the well. The poems are right there waiting for me to write them. Putting good in and getting good out.

Another new aspect of the detox I’ve been thinking about is the detox from poetry. Trying to get away from all of the depressing, mindless, nattering that occupies so much of the poetry discourse space. Trying to worry less about it, how I should participate more, about changing it. I like what Rodney Jones said in the Spring 2012 issue of Third Coast:
via poems.com
I'm not into movements or schools. Those are for fish. American poetry is not a factory or an argument. I prefer poets who fail the standards of other poets of my previous affections. I look for aesthetic freshness, narrative brilliance, imagination, bold language, dramatic intensity. I don't care if a poem is tragic or comic or a mixture. Anything that doesn't embody individual character bores me.
I’m also interested in detoxing from my normal bag of tricks and moves. Interested in detoxing from the first manuscript, pushing myself (and this is obvious but I’m pigheaded and slow) to write poems that are “new,” new for me. (I’ve been harping “Make it new!” at my students the last two weeks.) Again, Rodney Jones:
What I was getting at was the most important thing: originality, which might also be construed as character. We can't judge Rilke by the standards of Neruda. The greatest poets write from a necessity that forms style and carries from book to book, but their new poems fail to be the old poems. 
That’s what I’m after: poems with a consistency of style and a newness. And this means, I think, detoxing from the old, stale, used-up claptrap I’ve got clattering around in my toolbox (not to mix metaphors too much) and really pushing toward the places that make me uncomfortable, that challenge my poetry norms.

Tomorrow’s a writing day. Finally. Looking forward to a morning and afternoon of putting my pen down on the page.

Whitman sings the body electric. I’m detox-sing my body poetic.

The Last

A whimsical posting of this photo on my Facebook account sparked a discussion of the 1982 animated movie, The Last Unicorn, which (along with Peter S. Beagle's wonderful book) made a serious impact on my young creative consciousness. So, resisting shame, here is my one of first published poems--which appeared in my 1998 undergraduate thesis at the University of Virginia and won a contest sponsored by Charlottesville's writing center and now-defunct literary magazine, Streetlight. I got to drive to Harrisonburg and record this winning poem, which was played on public radio for the subsequent month. They backed it with a Joni Mitchell song. 

The Last 
                    For Peter S. Beagle

Lloyd never calls them unicorns, no.  They don’t grow those in Kentucky.  Sure—
four feet, one horn—but they bleat just like goats, they still bleed at the gums 

when they get into the barb wire.  Not like the horn is some shining gold either, 
sparkling with magic: just dim white bone, and an occasional crust of dung.  Still, 

one comes almost every spring to the Mathers’ farm: the veined head 
emerging from the womb of a perplexed mother, that single deformed horn 

which makes Lloyd wipe his brow nervously with a loose blue rag, and take 
his whiskey break at one in the afternoon.  All the other kids get names like 

Billy, or Janey: but this one will be called Nuisance, or perhaps Dammit,
and will crop the back pasture for a few lonely years.  It just ain’t natural, 

Lloyd complains to his wife.  Nobody wants that one.  Molly nods, promising
to mix a better feed grain this year, to add eggshells for calcium and clover

for luck.  Yet in the evenings, after Lloyd has laid his overalls over the rocking chair
and snores hard in the birch bed, she likes to sneak out in her white nightgown.

Stepping lightly in the tractored dirt, leaving no more than a single smudged toeprint,
she eases open the barn door and goes to where those goats are, the strange ones

nobody wants.  They come to her handfuls of alfalfa, gently butting and jousting 
each other, and she calls them by their real names: Amalthea, and Marek, Lir

looping his horn through the sash on her gown, pulling apart the loose bow; 
Fortuna, always wary of dragons as she chews a lace hem but skitters from touch.

If this were a fairy tale, and Molly a young maiden, she would braid a bridle of golden 
wheat and be gone by morning. But this is Kentucky. Molly will pick the last strands

of hay from her hair long before Lloyd wakes up; and the sun will rise a red bull, 
snorting at our need for real beyond real. 

~Sandra Beasley (circa 1998)

"on the lip of / nothing": the sick child

We had our first experience with a sick child on Thursday night. H. woke up three times coughing and vomiting during the night. It's a strange helplessness you feel during those moments, holding your son who's looking at you as if all the discoveries he'd made about the world over the last nearly eleven months now meant nothing, that he feared and understood this new experience was a new reality. Which it was. Which it is. And there's nothing I can do about it.

I didn't sleep well and I don't know if it's because I've also caught the virus. Hopefully not since his mother is also getting over a similar illness. Mostly it was paranoia that kept me listening to the baby monitor and frequently getting out of bed to walk across the hall and into his room to confirm he was breathing and not drowning in his own vomit. These are the things you think of when your chid is sick. And it's these things and worse when it's the middle of the night. Your brain...just goes. To horrible places. Flashing on The Road. On Beloved. Margaret Garner. All the what-would-I-do, how-could-I-go-on questions.

This afternoon I was thinking about how to write about this experience and, as I sat down to scratch out some lines while H. napped, I remembered this poem by Sharon Olds from The Gold Cell.

I guess I don't need to write the my-child-is-sick poem since she's made it so no one can ever write that poem again. Well, obviously that's hyperbole, but you'll read the poem. You'll see what I mean. Especially if you have children.

via Vogue online
Sharon Olds has been in the poetry news lately. Vogue Magazine recently profiled her and has a brief review of her latest collection, Stag's Leap, which is described as
her most unified and vital work since 1992's The Father, finds both seeker and sensualist at their best. Describing the emotional trajectory of the year, 1997, that her husband of three decades left her for another woman, Olds moves from the intimacy of a long marriage, with its “hard sweets of femur and stone,” shared objets and domestic rituals—a haircut, a snooze on the sofa—to the “courtesy and horror” involved in its undoing. In the title poem, the speaker compares the deer emblazoned on a bottle of wine to her husband, “casting himself off a cliff in his fervor to get free of me”—and, with an astonishing generosity, cheers him on: “When anyone escapes, my heart / leaps up. Even when it’s I who am escaped from, I am half on the side of the leaver.” 

When My Son Is Sick

When my son is so sick that he falls asleep
in the middle of the day, his small oval
hard head hurting so much he
prefers to let go of consciousness like
someone dangling from a burning rope just
letting go of his life, I sit and
hardly breathe. I think about the
half-liquid skin of his lips,
swollen and nicked with red slits like the
fissures in a volcano crust, down
which you see the fire. Though I am
down the hall from him I see the
quick bellies of his eyeballs jerk
behind the greenish lids, his temples
red and sour with pain, his skin going
pale gold as cold butter and then
turning a little like rancid butter till the
freckles seem to spread, black little
islands of mold, he sleeps the awful
sleep of the sick, his hard-working heart
banging like pipes inside his body, like a
shoe struck on iron bars when
someone wants to be let out, I
sit, I sit very still, I am out at the
rim of the world, the edge they saw
when they knew it was flat--the torn edge,
thick and soil-black, the vessels and
veins and tendons hanging free,
dangling down,
when my boy is sick I sit on the lip of
nothing and hang my legs over
and sometimes let a shoe fall
to give it something.

Sharon Olds
from The Gold Cell


For most of the last two weeks I've been living in my robe, eating dinner after dinner of shucked mussels, spinach, quick-chopped Kumato tomatoes (this is what happens to "readymade rations" if you live near a Whole Foods), Triscuits, and the occasional icebox vodka. Off Facebook, off Twitter, off anything that could distract me from the profile of a musician that I've been working on. 

Well, okay, I took a break for a trio of baseball games. This has been a revelatory season, and it's fun to be part of it. I have many memories of trekking up to Baltimore to watch the O's, and when the Nats first came to DC I accompanied my dad on some obligatory outings. But this year I've gotten to follow closely enough to recognize the tics (and fill in the bios) of individual players; this year the visiting team's at-bats is not the time to chat, but the time to watch Strasburg work his magic. I've always loved the game in the abstract, but this year I get to love it in the day-to-day.

Back to the writing. I'd be specific, but until the assignment feels like a sure thing I don't want to jinx it. I could hear a smile in my editor's voice when I called yesterday and told him he had copy coming his way. "Your job is done for a bit," he said. 

Nope. I wish hitting "Send" felt that way. Something I've noticed in journalism: there is no sigh of relief. Instead I am doubting last-minute cuts for length, concerned someone's feelings will be hurt if they are not mentioned, already thinking ahead to the first edit, aware I have to work up an annotated copy for the fact-checkers that requires re-tracing hours of tape. It is different when your source material is your life, or the imaginative well of poetry, or even the static object of a book being reviewed. With profiles or travel pieces, we capture people and places as a kind of permanent record. In spite of everyone's inherent quirks and myths, their inconsistencies, they trust us to dedicate reality faithfully to the page--and sometimes the more ambiguous the reality, the better the piece, which means we must both record and interpret. I take that responsibility seriously. I worry I'm not good enough. I lose sleep over it at night.  

I'm not saying this to whine, just being honest.  I have a feeling my friend Wright Thompson, who works for ESPN and wrote this amazing piece, would laugh at me. Loudly. This is part of the gig. But I'm an MFA baby--no one trains us for this. 

There are some good posts going on around the blogosphere. I loved Leslie's anecdote about interviewing for The New Yorker. I felt a sharp pang of sympathy for Jeannine, whose press has announced closure. People talk about blogs as a dying form, yet neither one of these experiences would have been told right through Facebook or Twitter alone. 

Wild in the Plaza of Memory

via Tucson Festival of Books
Here are two poems by the inimitable Pam Uschuk. I had the pleasure of getting to know Pam a little bit while she was the 2011 Visiting Poet at the University of Tennessee. She speaks to the possibilities of poetry effecting change in our present day better than any poet I've heard in quite a while.

If you ever have a chance to hear her read or to attend a workshop, I urge you to do so. In the meantime, you can read new work in her latest collection, Wild in the Plaza of Memory. Pam is also the Editor of Cutthroat, a journal also worth reading.

Ode to Federico García Lorca

Federico, sometimes you come to me as a little rain
straining up from the south, smeared
with the scent of orange rind and blood.
Smeared with rabbit blood frenzy, coyotes
ring the house howling the hour
the moon ticks like a gypsy watch
above the pool where the heron sleeps.
Where the heron dreams, a smear
the size of the moon is actually a guitar
moaning the syllables of your lost name.
Federico, when you come to me, the unbearable
longing of trees roots deeper in the sky, flies
among stars like a comet in search
of its dead twin. Federico the wind tonight is arctic
silver, not green, not forever green,
and I think how easy it is to die, skin basted
with orange blossoms and loneliness
as if loneliness was a horse a poet could break
or deny. Tonight, you are the slivered silver moon
ticking above cedar and sage that remember
their roots in the olive groves of Andalusia.
Green rind of death, how dare you spit
out the syllables of such desire? Federico,
some nights you fly through the window,
the eye of a hawk on fire,
black gaze gone to blood, gone
to the ropey bones of moonlight,
to guitars laughing in blue pines,
to the wet bulls of passion,
to the weft of love abandoned
to oiled rifles in an olive grove
on a sunny day before I was born. Did
they so fear the delicacy of your hands?

What Came True

Blue mountains came true
and the stars writing our history across
night’s eyelid even today
when I see you among giraffes, hundreds
of miles away, snapping with your third eye,
camera shots of those lashes
longer than hummingbird wings.
The body as memory came true,
the shady notions of mountains
bared their teeth and were true. In
the hazy Italian Apennines that we drove
through long ago, rescuers dig
out two hundred bodies crushed by earth
shivering in its thin unreliable crust.
The heart as flower came true
until the moon like an interrogation lamp
stripped the bedroom of privacy,
electrocuting dreams of kindness
on its short circuit betrayals.
What have we learned in all these years
but habits exhausting their own circles,
stupid tongues dragging in the dust?
Or balance laughing and tucked under a hawk’s wings,
holding out dawn’s lilac attar, a mouthful
of rain water, the blue grist of sky
to rub against our hollow palms?

Pamela Uschuk
from Wild in the Plaza of Memory
Wings Press, 2012

If you could not fail

via gradschool.utk.edu
A couple weeks ago, I packed up my office in Neyland Stadium and hauled five years of coursework, grading, research, and ephemera to my new office in the sky: the twelfth and top floor of McClung Tower a.k.a. the post-Soviet-style "Hotel McClung."

My new degree and status as a full-time Lecturer has many perks: parking a stone’s throw from my office, legit health insurance, a salary for the first time since I was a Sales Manager for Borders Books, the opportunity to teach a range of classes. This term I’ll teach multiple sections of Freshman Comp as well as the 400-level British/American Modern Poetry survey.

It has been two years since I have taught the incoming freshmen and I am very much looking forward to getting into the classroom with them, teaching the introductory rhetorical skills, argument, etc, and giving them an opportunity to reach out into the University with active minds and hearts, with critical eyes, with an attitude of service and outreach. And as the first week of classes with these new students begins, I am, again, thinking of David Bartholome’s article “Inventing the University,” and particularly this:
“To speak with authority they have to speak not only in another’s voice but through another’s code; and they not only have to do this, they have to speak in the voice and through the codes of those of us with power and wisdom; and they not only have to do this, they have to do it before they know what they are doing, before they have a project to participate in, and before, at least in terms of our disciplines, they have anything to say.”  
(quote taken from thoughtjam)
Here’s to some liberating, challenging, fun, insightful instruction and in-class conversation. Here's to my students setting out on this trek, to my students who've already begun to (re)invent themselves and their definitions of "university."

On the other hand, setting up a reading schedule for an upper-level survey is difficult because these students are at the end of their major, they’re thinking about post-graduation work/lives/etc, they’re enthusiastic but are ready to be done, and they need to be challenged in a way that sets them up for further study, potentially grad work.

During the summer, I kept coming up against one main design problem: this is not a graduate class. It’s an undergraduate survey. Many of the students won’t have a lot of background in Modernist historicity, the key players, etc. Some of them will not have read much poetry. Some of them will not have taken a literature course at all. Some of them are in it just to fulfill a writing requirement. We’ll have a lot of work to do early on in order to find common ground and lay the foundation for discussion and criticism. As I always say, “Read widely. Read deeply. Write outwardly.”

Charles Demuth
"I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold," 1928
image via metmuseum.org
In order to address these design issues, especially the depth vs. survey conundrum, I’ve titled the course “Modern Correspondence: Surveying British/American Modern Poetry.” In addition to surveying the backgrounds/bios of the main (read "selected") poets, we’ll also look at their letters, their criticism and poetics, their manifestos, how they responded to each other’s work, how they responded to their surrounding artistic, cultural, and historical moment. And we’ll also look at how their work is still alive today in the work of contemporary poets, ask the questions of how today’s poets are, in many ways, corresponding with figures like T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, Yeats, Mina Loy, Stevens, and others. The blessing, of course, is that there’s so much to cover. The difficulty is, well, there’s so much to cover. Can’t wait to get in there.

In poetry news, I sent a new batch of poems out to two journals last week, and will send out another few by the end of the month. The work on the recent poems, since the acceptance of the book manuscript, has been steady. I’m planning on using this term to take a step back and really investigate what it is I want to do in these new poems, in a new manuscript.

Typing that last sentence, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with friends last week. We were talking about what we've been reading, new book/author discoveries, etc., and the conversation turned to writing and risk. I brought up a recent Ted Conference lecture I’d heard in which Regina Dugan, director of DARPA, asks the following question: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”

That’s it, folks. That’s the question for the new semester, for my students, for my new work. The terrifying, liberating, radical question: "What would you do if you knew you could not fail?"
What’s your answer?

On Visiting Colleges

Since I don't have a new book out, I won't have the whirlwind travel over the coming school year. And that's fine by me. Just as this summer has been about my third poetry collection, the fall will be about planting seeds for the next nonfiction book. And in the spring of 2013 I'll be the Writer-in-Residence at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina. It's a small town outside Asheville, but the program has a big reach--just check out their Visiting Writer Series line-up.

That said, I've been booking things here and there, and I've finalized a trio of visits to colleges over a week in October: dropping in on a creative nonfiction workshop at Ole Miss, a reading and workshop at Belhaven University outside Jackson, and a craft talk and poetry reading at MSU in Starkville. I'm thrilled to return to Mississippi, but in particular I look forward to the variety of these events, and the students I'll meet.  

These visits matter. I take them seriously. We talk about the benefits they have for the students--the advice about publishing, the chance to network--but the impression is significant for the author as well. I was just reading the Washington Post and I came across a book review by a woman whose name, to this day, makes me shudder. Why? Because she was a nightmare when she came to visit my MFA program. She critiqued the manuscript of a fiction student, which was identified as a chapter of a novel-in-progress, and in her opening salvo announced that she didn't find the protagonist likeable, thought the work setting was boring, and that the section (and by association the book) used the wrong choice of POV. This was a semester before theses were due.

There's nothing wrong with drastic suggestions, except subsequent remarks--which confused the names of characters and obscured plot points--made it clear that she hadn't read the manuscript that closely. The writer, a kind and thoughtful student who had based his character's job on months of research, left on the verge of tears. He'd come in so excited to be the one workshopped by the Very Important Writer. (We knew she was Very Important because The New Yorker had reviewed her book which, when I tried to read it after her visit, proved witty but emotionally arid.)

When you show up disinterested in student work other than as a chance to show off how smart you are or how merciless editors can be, they notice. When you check your watch, counting down the minutes until you're off duty, and you skip the round of beers back at the favorite grad student bar, they notice. When you're rude to a beloved program mentor because he or she has "settled" into the teaching life while you've gone on to publish another three books, they notice. And they have a right to notice! They've spent their money on your books, they've spent hours studying your craft, they got up at 6 AM to pick you up from the airport and ferry you back to campus. 

So show up, damn it. I don't mean that you can't demand coffee as a premise to cogency, and I don't mean that you have to magically recall everyone's name when signing books. You can be human. But please, be present. 

We had some wonderful visiting writers as well. One was, at the time, just a poet on tour to support his second collection--a philosophical, slightly difficult book with an indie publisher. Since then he has become a superstar; his life was made a movie. It would be easy to resent someone who has come so far, so fast, but I will always remember how attentive he was students in workshop, how engaged and kind at the reception afterwards. For years after he would say hello at AWP, remembering our meeting at American University even if he couldn't quite remember my name.  

He showed up. 

Happy Returns

I figure the quickest way to update any remaining readers/visitors is with a state-by-state rundown. So here's the last three and a half months.

I'm working on getting back into the blogosphere. The Poetry Email List will start up again this month, so watch your inboxes. Other updates on the poems, the forthcoming book, readings, other projects, that'll all come soon and hopefully with some worthwhile content and consistency.


TN – Finish dissertation, hunt for jobs, primary child care during day, teaching at night, editing Praise Nothing manuscript, submit grades, graduate, pack car and family, leave for vacation.
KY – Paducah McDonalds for coffee – “Two creams and two sugars.”
MO – St. Louis, airport hotel, free drinks, H. first night in hotel, loves the king-size, drive & try to find something worthwhile in landscape, fail (mostly)
KS – Visit Lawrence, Thai food w/ friends, Hays, consider small-town life as viable option, regret ever leaving Kansas
CO – Denver, two days with grandfather, H. meets Great-Grandpa, BBQ w/ extended family
WY – No time for Cheyenne, Garth Brooks song, Starbucks in Rock Springs
UT – Family in Ogden, t-ball, walks to neighborhood café, patio dinners, gave a reading at Weber State (lovely time & people), phone interview for job, seriously consider Ogden as place to live & raise kids
ID – Twin Falls strip malls, invited for campus interview, no professional clothes, few job docs with me, begin mental notes on new job talk
OR – Burns, nostalgia tour of Eugene & U of O, Oregon Coast, work on job/poems in evangelical Christian tourist café (free wifi), take H. to beach!, run on beach, submit final draft of Praise Nothing to press, grandfather in quick decline, grandfather dies, drive to Portland, fly to campus interview in Pennsylvania
PA – Campus interview, wonderful experience, PA landscape, consider move, preliminary house hunt, grieve
WV – Morgantown house hunt
OR – PDX & Powell’s
WA – E. family reunion (Seattle area), basketball with brothers-in-law, withdraw from job consideration, adoration of Pacific Northwest reaches new heights, must return to the West, cross state to parents’ lakeside cabin, H. on boat, sister & husband up from CA, after months of planning: parents’ surprise 40th anniversary party, relax as much as possible, break a toe, flight to CA memorial service
CA – Grandfather memorial service, grieve/visit with family, brief visit with childhood friend
WA – Lakeside relaxation, take E. shopping, Hornby’s Fever Pitch, hyperextend knee
ID – Brief trip through, gorgeous
MT – Missoula, take H. on carousel, solo walk through old city, hit on and invited to party by girl working at wine market, excellent pizza, explore Bozeman, consider MT as viable option, Billings lunch with a tour busload of Knoxvillians, Miles City & celebrate our 11th wedding anniversary, dinner: fried green tomatoes, buffalo steak, risky crab legs
ND – Gorgeous, oil, Fargo is bigger than you think
MN – Mall of America, visit college friends in St. Paul
IA – Drive through Waterloo (home of Michelle Bachman and John Wayne Gacy), Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Davenport, Iowa becomes viable option
IL – Champaign-Urbana, in and out of Illinois
IN – Indianapolis coffee, in and out of Indiana
KY – Regret not stopping at Toast in Louisville, at Lexington cut down toward eastern Tennessee
TN – Home, content

We Need Another National(ish) Poetry Series

Art by Doug Beube
Last month I had the pleasure of attending a reading at the home of Reb Livingston, the editor of No Tell Books, which featured poet and editor Bruce Covey. As I chatted with Bruce about the upcoming slate of publication for Coconut Books, I asked: 

Why doesn't a consortium of publishers start up another "national" poetry series for indie and/or experimental presses?

The principle is simple: poets pay a reading fee to have their books considered not by one press, but by five quality presses simultaneously. The existing National Poetry Series (which currently incorporates Coffee House Press, Fence Books, HarperCollins Publishers, Penguin Books, University of Georgia Press) has a great track record of selecting poets from a variety of aesthetics and matching them to appropriate houses. But they get a ton of incredible manuscripts, of which they can only publish a few. 

There is room for another national poetry series, one that recognizes an annual cohort of exciting new voices. Coconut, Black Ocean Books, Octopus Books, Switchback Books: I am looking at you. Doesn't need to be the same publishers every year, though there should be a quality control mechanism for rotation in and out of presses (perhaps approval by an advisory board) that includes a pledge of minimum reasonable levels of support in terms of editorial infrastructure, design, number of copies printed, distribution, secondary award nominations, and publicity. The reading fees could fund an auxiliary force that works to market each year's winners, and by association the publishers. While I realize that there will always be variations in aesthetic--different opinions of what the "best" manuscripts are--that is why one employs multiple judges. 

One thing the NPS does not do is create a network between each year's winners/judges, though the invaluable perks include name cache, an AWP reading, etc. But imagine if these indie presses went all in, and pooled their resources in terms of connections to opportunities with readings series and classroom visits around the country. Anyone who attends AWP offsite events recognizes that these likeminded affiliations already exist on an informal level. Imagine if this gave heft to freelancers trying to pitch small press books for review? Imagine if Small Press Distribution did an "Indie Poetry Series" summer special, a package rate for all five titles? 

I'm not naive about the bureaucracy or ethical complications associated with contests, but I'd love to hear some discussion. Nothing great ever happens unless you start with the "imagine" phase.