Thursday, January 29, 2009


My brain has been a bit of a cluttered mess (not unlike my home). I spent most of winter break reading. Curled up on the sofa with a book propped in my lap, much of that reading being for escape purposes. I hibernated in body and mind for six long weeks, ate some Christmas lasagna, knit a dozen washcloths, and took photographs of my dogs flying through the snow.

Being away for the first week of school allowed me to miss the boring bits: no syllabus lecture, no getting-to-know-you activities. Simply diving into the wreck, entering the classroom in the midst of the action, able to carry on a conversation that has already begun without me. I like it better that way, and I'm perpetually late, so it only seems fitting.

I also am proud to find that I have gotten over my first year / first semester jitters (or so I hope). I spent most of the first semester hiding as best I could, keeping my mouth pursed shut, my head cocked, just listening to the conversations around me. I was intimidated, and I'm not sure if part of that has to do with the fact that I was on the waitlist to get into the program (first on the waitlist I feel compelled to point out, pointing that out on my toes, excuse me, please don't discount the first on the waitlist designation, as if that matters oen whit when we are all shoved together and the talent rises to the top, no matter where we were on their selection list) (I think of this all the time whenever I read anything of HM's, who was on the waitlist, and it seems so absolutely ridiculous to me because, in my own humble opinion, her writing is gorgeous, but there you are, the decisions of other people). I had this pervading sense that I did not belong, that I had nothing to contribute. My own writing was clunky (ok, still true, perhaps), their thoughts were so well formed, and so on.

After last week, I think I built up some form of confidence. I wish I'd found that in workshop in the autumn, but I didn't, and here it is, all built up and shining inside of me, and I certainly know I am no more intelligent than I was two months or a year ago, but I find that shivering confidence has begun to reshape the way I'm looking at things, looking at conversation and language and writing. My voice will come out more, which is good, I think, but what's best is that I believe I will approach my work--both as a writer of poetry and as a peer of poets who can contribute critiques and readings--with more gusto.

In other words, I am energized for the semester.

Other things clattering around in my brain:
- Thinking of the bat we had in the fluorescent lights at the bookstore. I would stare up at it as it crept along the plastic divider, pointing it out to the child-customers, who were generally half as fascinated as I was. Research on the internet between sales allowed me to discover I was incorrect in identifying our bat from last year, which most certainly was not endangered, but a member of the common something-nosed bats. I assure you, I adore our little bat, no matter how common. Leslie, the owner of the bookstore, later told me she was able to get the bat out (after it flew around in the store some time after closing) by turning on all the lights in the store and opening the door--it immediately went for the dark street. We spent some time debating what to do with it, though, especially when the temperatures were horrifyingly low: Was a shed better, how about my garage, should we just let it fend for itself, etc.?
- Tonight I was lost in thought, considering which red wines I would pick up for my husband at the liquor store when I came upon the hilly farmland portion of my drive: two lanes, double yellow lines, and there was a car trying to pass someone else, bright lights facing me, and if I didn't slam on my breaks, I surely would have crashed head-on. It was one of those lip-biting moments, where I thought maybe I'd cry in relief or in belated fear, and it reminded me of returning from Cry of the Loon, when Amanda was attempting to pass a car and Brian, in the front seat, said, exactly, I remember: "Um, that's not going to happen..." and Amanda drove on the shoulder, passing cars in a very action-movie like way, and then, it wasn't lip-bitingly frightening but somehow exhilarating, and I think much of that had to do with my decision that we wouldn't die, not all first year poets in the program, all four of us plus one of the fiction writers, because that's just too much and too splashy of a headline (if a headline at all--after all, it wasn't all four fiction writers and one poet, but the other way around). Kind of like how I decided our plane wouldn't crash coming from Palm Beach to Atlanta because Thomas Lux was also on board, and one ("one," perhaps being "God") simply did not kill a celebrity like that, nevermind that most people on board hadn't the foggiest who Thomas Lux, or any contemporary poet might be, most people, including God, probably.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Photo: Marth Updike

Monday, January 26, 2009



- Still finding images from last week I want to highlight here.
- Simplifying my spring semester to the recommended number of courses. This spring: a non-fiction seminar, a poetry seminar, and TAing for an introductory literature course. For once, listening to everyone's advice and leaving it at that. (After all, I'm taking this time to write, aren't I? How much writing did I really get done last semester?)
- Reading: I'm just finishing up The Reluctant Fundamentalist for the course I'm teaching; next: The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri. Poems from Language for a New Century.
- Listening: I picked up The Girl With No Shadow by Joanne Harris on audio, which is the sequel to Chocolat. This will keep me company on my commute to campus.
- Feeling quiet; so much swirling about in my mind.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


I wake up this morning, and I know it happened: I was here. But I can't help thinking that dazed: It's all so very surreal... Yesterday, the wrap up of the festival, the parcel I carry in my heart from Kimiko Hahn, the gift of new eyes and language, ways of looking at things, and certainly a new urgency; the phenomenal experience of witnessing Gerald Stern's reading, the beauty of his sense of language and, oh, what a riot of a personality (I want to watch him again and again and embrace him for being the wonder that he is).

Today I fly back, return to that corner of the earth I call Home, embrace the husband I've been without for the past six days, snuggle up against the dogs and the cats that make up our menagerie, sigh at the clutter and fuss, and settle into the routine of being back in school. I'll have to push forth to catch up, but it won't take much; the first week is always so tentative, even in graduate school. And it's back to where I was before, but that was a good place too. (Just a little colder and minus the ocean. And Hahn and Stern, who were important touchpoints for me at this year's festival. And Espada. Mustn't forget his opening night performance. Oh, so much to hold dear!)

I'll be back soon, in warmer clothes, and let you know how the transition to real life is treating me.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

210: PBPF, Day 6

I'd first fallen in love with Kimiko Hahn's poetry in 2002 at the University of Minnesota's Poetry Festival (which meant to be annual, but never got beyond that first year).

Currently, she's working on a collection of poems using the science section of The New York Times (I believe) as her inspiration; she has a series of entomological poems, which, of course, excites me, not only because my dear friend Chris is an entomologist, but because that friendship has led to at least three bug poems of my own, and more in the not-so-distant future.

Her own poetry is crisp, and her last book, The Narrow Road to the Interior was inspired by the zhuihitsu of Sei Shonagon. I suspect I've found something to immerse myself in next, this curiosity, just as soon as I polish up that chapbook manuscript of poems about my grandfather's Alzheimer's.

Gerald Stern asked me if I had a gin and tonic in my bag. I was first in line for my books to be signed, and that's what he said to me, before he asked if my stack was my father's or uncle's collection. No, I demurred. I had probably forgotten my name already, so flustered was I.

His reading was wonderful. He came on stage, already telling the audience Campbell McGrath's introduction was a lie, that he never scolded the men in uniform at some event (before the war in Iraq, there was some kind of gathering of poets and writers and in the same hotel, there was a black tie ball for some sort of armed forces, and there Gerry, as they were all calling him, went off, which I can only imagine), and he tossed his bag onto the floor and pulled out his books and told these wonderful narratives between poems, leaving the audience laughing. His last poem, he muttered, "Where is that fucker?" Gerald Stern! And his poetry is so full of life and verve and celebration and everything that is good about the written word. I can see why my dear friend Eireann seems to love him so.

There were moments during the reading I could feel my heart leap up, I sat on my hands, and forced myself still; I wanted to leap onto the stage and embrace him, embrace the man who could write like that. Oh, and at the end? He kicked his bag across the stage to Miles; there's no way he was bending over to retrieve it, and we all rose to our feet to give a standing ovation.

Anyway, I took many photos, probably too many, but I couldn't seem to stop, and you can see more here, though many are blurry, which is kind of sweet too, and they're blurry because those lights "are too damn bright, can't we do something about this?" and what Gerry Stern wants, he gets from an audience of silly fawners such as ourselves. And maybe you'll meticulously stroll through them as I did, or glance at the thumbnails, or maybe you'll secret them away, or ignore me completely.

But I can say this tonight: it was another magical week at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival.

Lucky life, indeed! I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to work with Kimiko Hahn, who not only gave her tough love to specific poems, but also trained our eyes for future poems, I am blessed to have worked in a group of strong poets (how often do you appreciate all of your classmates?), I am bless that I could feel the world fall away as certain poets took the stage (Martin Espada, Anne Marie Macari, Gregory Orr, Kimiko Hahn, and Gerald Stern especially). Oh, and the ocean! I moaned about seeing the ocean back in August, and now I have it, bottled up, I'm bringing it back to set on my windowsill so I can remember the shape of these days.

209: last day of class

You can have your own glimpse of Kimko Hahn in this video from the Jackson Heights Poetry Festival:

Friday, January 23, 2009

208: PBPF, Day 5

Evening's Reader: Dara Wier. Her poetry plays with convention and expectation.

Evening's Reader: Gregory Orr, whose personal story has a tragic moment, which is told in The Blessing, which recounts the story of when he accidentally shot and killed his brother at the age of twelve. His own work is quiet and lyrical, and in workshop, I hear he is good and pushes the poet to explain why certain choices were made. Understanding this motivation could help strengthen the next draft, and the next.

I am learning, slowly, how to package these messages I've been given this week: how to give myself the vocabulary to remember. I knew much of this before, the radiance and the close examination, the ways in which to do it, but I hadn't been shown how, hadn't had exactly the right tools. I have much to mull over and process and hopes to bring it into my own work and the critiques I give of others'--to be more of use. And despite any difficulties I may have had with the workshop last semester, to bring those tools into seminar and make the best of a learning experience. To be of use. To myself and others.

207: sea birds in flight

I love the ones just escaping the frame. More sea birds, on land and in there air, as well as more of the conference here.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

206: PBPF, Day 4

Today is a day for hibernating: a small headache is touring my brain and I have a small stack of books requesting immediate attention, please.

I chose to take Kimiko Hahn's workshop because I'd heard she was a good instructor, that she was tough, and that is exactly what I've needed. I'm learning, though, that it's all about how it's phrased. I need to learn how to process those things: "I love how you...." is saying, "The poem is strongest..." or, as Kimiko says, "Where is the poem most radiant?" She says she loves highlighters, and in this way, we can visually see where it pops, so to speak. She'll tell us that a certain phrase is "not interesting," or "not as interesting as [another phrase]," or that something "doesn't do [the next line / the poem / the preceding lines /etc.] justice." We aren't allowed to nitpick or even firmly edit--"that's [the poet's] problem, not ours." We're not there to edit, but give suggestions. There are many potential drafts, and it seems as if no first draft is a failure, but loaded with potential. Time is strict, tight, and you could be called on even if you seem fully engrossed in re-reading or had slipped out to go to the ladies', so be prepared to have a suggestion, an indication of radiance, a new direction in mind.

We've also been doing the "stealing assignments," where we read a poem (today's: Mark Doty's "A Green Crab's Shell") and consider all the possibilities for creating an assignment. Even if we don't love the poem (and I enjoyed this one), we can still ask ourselves what the poet is doing and how that poet is doing it.

My biggest issue I'm trying to overcome is the second draft, the third, the fourth. I have a fear that I will muck it up even more and maybe not even notice. It's often easier for me, in workshop, to see the possibilities in others' poems, but in my own, it is hard to break away from that first narrative, the first run through. I don't claim to think it's perfect, but I don't want to make it worse.

But in this workshop, there's a lovely attitude of: try three different endings, put it in a drawer. Come back in a week and see which one works.

And why else am I here? Why else am I in an MFA program but to learn to take risks? I just need to remember to put the previous drafts in a folder, and let time do its thing.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

205: PBPF, Day 3

Reading: Anne Marie Macari. Her poems are quiet, natural wonders. I'm looking forward to reading her work. One of these days I will be clever and read the complete works of these poets ahead of time, but for now, I'll have to be satisfied with just reading the works of the workshop leader. Her own work has much similarity to my own interests in mine--the body, the natural world.

Reading: It was hard to pick a favorite of Thomas Lux reading, so feel free to wander on over to Flickr and check out the others in this year's festival set; he is truly a wonder to watch and listen to and reminds me much of a Jim Hensen creation. He told a story of his twenty one year old daughter skydiving, and I wondered what it might have been like to have Thomas Lux as a father. He came up to talk about how it's nice to have all of us kindred spirits together, and how he's known Gregory Orr "since we were baby poets, and now we're old, decrepit poets." Later, when I had his early works signed he said, "Oh, so you're going to read my baby poems. You know, they're not very good."

I think his work begs to be heard from him--maybe there are three categories of poets (no, more than that, obviously, but for what I'm saying here, let's make it three): the spoken word sort whose work belongs on the stage (almost exclusively), the academic poet whose work is best on the page, and that sort of in-between, the poet who won't appear at poetry slams, but whose poetry lives so much better in the open air, in the narrative out-loudness of the poet. That last is what I believe Thomas Lux to be. I probably wouldn't go on about him if I were telling you about my experience of reading him on the page, but he has been known to say things along the lines of wanting domesticated animals to understand his poems--he is not interested in tangled, high-fallutin' poems, and I hear when you are in workshop with him, he is one of the folks that will do the closest reading, making sure each syllable counts, and though it might take a great long while, your poem will have gone through the wringer (and, you hope, is better for it).

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

204: PBPF, Day 2

Craft talk: Gregory Orr spoke of the importance of the quest in poetry, and spoke of "looking outward to look inward."

"Do so through gathering an anthology, a Personal Anthology: those poems you most love. To gain insight into yourself (and your Quest) by looking away from yourself at those poems you most love. This personal Anthology is a composite self-portrait. Yourself in the language-flesh of other poets' poems."

Emerson: "Make your own Bible."

He spoke of how we are to collect these poems, but don't bother with an introduction, with over-analyzing: instead, spend that time handwriting the poems, so that the poem becomes a part of the body. Memorize, read aloud. Share.

It's something I have done already, though only the collecting, and it's still a process, only just beginning. I need to ingest more, return again and again, copy it out longhand, see how those words in that arrangement feel at my fingertips.

(The voyeur in me wants to see others' poem-diaries, their bibles, so to speak.)

Craft talk: Denise Duhamel spoke of humor in poetry. She began by letting us know Dennis Leary was one of her instructors when she was in college, before all his fame and fortune, when class was canceled and instead the students went to his routines and analyzed them the next day. She led us in a choral singing of poems to common tunes, read a prose poem with a clever voice called "Personal" by Sally Dawidoff and David Lehman. What I loved most about her talk was the exuding personality--a kind of cheer and honesty that broke away from that academic seriousness that pervades the poetry world so often. Surprises are good.

I also liked this one: "Lana Turner has collapsed!" by Frank O'Hara. (Listen)

Evening's reader: Denise Duhamel came back to read, and I appreciated being able to hear her speak about humor, followed a few hours later with her reading many humorous poems. The ones that seemed the strongest for me, as a listener, were more recent ones about her parents, who were in an escalator accident (indeed!), and the poems seemed emotionally right for such a moment, for the kind of reflection on rehabilitation (something about her father collapsing and her mother getting scalped) and horror that probably ocurred in those days.

Evening's reader: Martin Espada was not entirely a surprise to me, but I know he was to most of the audience: I went to see him at the Loft's Poetry Festival back in autumn, and he is clearly a gifted storyteller. Oh, oh! I cannot urge you enough to go see Martin Espada if you have the chance. His poems are ringing through my head: "Alabanza" and "calle San Sebastian" especially. He sang those poems, he danced those poems, and the audience, as we left, murmured at what a glory it was to witness this. Edit to add: also, I had forgotten (how could I?) that he had gotten a standing ovation.

And lucky Minnesotans: he is coming to Hamline in March, he told me.

I remember last year, when Sharon Olds was the draw for me, and I adore her still, but I also got to come home with another poet whose poems will appear in my own Bible--Claudia Emerson. And Martin Espada will be there too, and Kimkio Hahn, who I am working with this week, as will others I've met: Carolyn Forche and Maxine Kumin, Robert Bly and Joyce Sutphen, and those I have not: Anne Sexton, Pablo Neruda, Anna Akhmatova, Adrienne Rich, Liesel Mueller, and on. (This list needs to grow.)

203: wandering the beach

Just a few of my favorites; many, many more will be uploaded on flickr, but not just yet, else my eyes might cross. You can see this week in this (growing) set, and you can see last year at this time in this set.

I'm off to tonight's reading, and then I hope to settle and, at least, post photographs from this afternoon's talks and tonight's readings, if nothing else, though I may be able to prop my eyes open long enough for a few befuddled comments.

202: How I Spent the Inauguration

Some are in the crowded Crest Theatre watching the inauguration projected onto a big screen, but the enormous television here was enough for me: the beloved turkey and brie croissant I'd dreamed about since my last visit here and Sambazon's Organic Acai smoothie, my bed freshly made and poetry dancing through my brain.

I'm back from morning workshop, where Kimiko Hahn did not hesitate to peel apart the poems, giving good advice, little snippets I jotted into my notebook:

- In a list poem, each element needs to be equally extraordinary, or "out it goes"
- Isolate each item in a list poem and check it against the rest
- Where is the poem most honest? Where do we trust it the most?
- In revision, attempt different drafts--not just one new draft--put them in a drawer for a few weeks and see which one works the best.
- If you have trouble with titles, come up with five very different ones. Give it some time, see where those take you.
- Watch out for: overused phrases, phrases that promise too much
- The use of unique, repetitive articles (in this case, "a pleasure" and later, "a confession") to help poem resonate
- Be careful of the melodramatic moment
- If you use repetition in your poem, try altering it to give new meaning
- Splice in phrases (words spoken by characters in poem, etc.) to focus poem
- Some poems need a radiant spark, a surprise to pull items together
- Rule of thumb: know your threshold for repetition (or you could lose your reader, but also know it can be an incantation ("She Had Some Horses" by Joy Harjo)
- Hahn also brought up the poem "Skunk Hour" by Robert Lowell, which is essentially a panorama and has a moment of focus where the speaker states, "My mind is not right" and continues on--and in this, it is an act of telling in order to show.

I write this as Elizabeth Alexander reads her poem. (See a video on preparation for the event.) I think of words, "spiny or smooth," as she puts it, and I'm so glad to be here at this time. I hadn't realized only a few others have read at inaugurations / related events: Robert Frost, who recited a poem from memory when the sun and the wind prevented his first to be seen; James Dickey, that famous jerk with talent; and Maya Angelou, whose snippets of poems grace Hallmark cards as well as Miller Williams, who I had not heard of previously (though I did know of his daughter, Lucinda Williams). Last year, I read Alexander's collection American Sublime, which I really enjoyed, as I began the Vermont College's poetry reading list.

Today is so absolutely filled with hope for me: a re-energizing of my own writing self, a much needed respite from cold weather, and this, oh this, today when hope becomes president.

I'll be back again, after craft talks, a trip to the ocean, and tonight's reading. I'm sure I'll have much more to say.


Monday, January 19, 2009

201: PBPF, Day 1

Today: last night's sleep didn't get me far; perhaps calling it a three or four hour nap would do it more justice. Flight delayed in Atlanta; slept from before take off until the touch down jolted me awake, me thinking: that's a bit of turbulence. Went to the wrong hotel, and an eighty dollar taxi drive later, I am an hour late to the opening night. Despite all this, I am settled, signed up for a conference with Kimiko Hahn, contemplating what on earth I could say out loud that would be worth her fifteen minutes, thinking of how I already feel the buzz of jump-starting. Tonight, a book pile to consider.

And a poem, for you:

Ode to the Maggot
--- by Yosef Komuyakaa

Brother of the blowfly
And godhead, you work magic
Over battlefields,
In slabs of bad pork

And flophouses. Yes, you
Go to the root of all things.
You are sound & mathematical.
Jesus, Christ, you're merciless

With the truth. Ontological & lustrous,
You cast spells on beggars & kings
Behind the stone door of Caesar's tomb
Or split trench in a field of ragweed.

No decree or creed can outlaw you
As you take every living thing apart. Little
Master of earth, no one gets to heaven
Without going through you first.

Kimiko Hahn gave us a packet of four poems, and the idea is for us to use them as "stealing" prompts, as she put it. Look at the poem, figure out what you see, craft-wise, then turn it into a prompt:

- Write a poem that is a direct address.
- Write a poem that is a direct address and reveal who that subject is in the beginning. Or the end.
- Write a poem about something appalling and use an elegant style. Or vice versa.
- Make a list / definition poem of a particular object.
- Use heroic diction for something thing-ish.

She spoke of how workshops are to go: instead of those nitpicky line edits, we are instead to open ourselves up to listening, to knowing where the poem is working the hardest. She pointed out how revision isn't about polishing and fixing always as much as it's about making choices.

That sort of thinking takes a great weight off the poet's shoulders. Instead of finding a way to say it right, you find a way to fit it all together that works for you, that makes your heart sing. My heart singing? In my own work?

Trish Hampl talked about how we often think of life after the first draft as: "Fix it, stupid." But it's not about that. It's about re-singing, re-assigning, re-assessing, re-writing, re-vision, not about repair. Not in the frozen pipe / cracked windshield sort of way anyway.

It is night, and despite my hour and a half nap on the way here, I think I can get myself to sleep by midnight, wake to breakfast in the lobby on wicker chairs and between vibrantly mango colored walls.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


To me, it's an awfully big shock for any of my friends, let alone the ones just a month or two younger than me, to have a nine year old daughter, but it's true. Jeff's little Eve turned nine this past summer, just one month after Ryan and I turned nine as a couple. And there he is: with a wife, with a daughter, with a cat and dog and chinchilla and a son out in Arizona.

We were there when Eve was born. I walked with Lani around the block, keeping witness as she eased her contractions, I drove in with them to the hospital, I held her when she was hours old. And now she's long and reading, she has glasses and friends who sleep over and carries on smooth conversations when I thought, just days ago, she was cooing and yanking on Ryan's ponytail. It all changes so fast.

Driving home: little scribbles of light on the highway.

Tomorrow: flying to Palm Beach Florida for the poetry festival.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Somewhere around the holidays, I stayed up late, finishing up the advance reader copy I have of How Far is the Ocean From Here by Amy Shearn, a graduate of the MFA program in which I am currently enrolled.

Sometimes I wonder at the fairness of that: I'm already tainted by realizing if time had aligned properly, she could have been my classmate in Reading Across Genres. Thus, the reading experience is changed, but aren't we always the worst jurors, having read reviews or word of mouth, having judged the cover in whatever way and been drawn in or repelled by all the blurbs?

Either way, I think there's something that draws me to Shearn's style, the snippet we read of Frankie (whose storyline may be the most interesting of the book and much buried under others) for 1101 last semester had some gorgeous language, though with strange plot turns (a child having full conversation with a classroom skeleton?).

The novel itself is fine. I generally am drawn into a book for the language, the setting, and the characters (development). For me, just this time around, the setting was fine, and the characters made me squirm a bit. I don't think characters need to be likable in a novel, but perhaps what I wanted was more dimension, more reason. I felt extreme indifference and even annoyance.

However, I can't help but think: this Amy Shearn, she's got something. She's got charm (for she charmed many in the program on her visit) and she's definitely got a gift for figurative language. This is strange to admit, but sometimes it was actually too much: like gathering little twigs for a fire, not enough for a full flame. (Ah, the irony of using a simile to point out too many similes.) Too much of a good thing maybe?

I do know this: I strongly believe Amy Shearn has a gorgeous book in her. This one might not be it, but it's a decent first book. And you can bet I'll read whatever she has out next.

Recent library acquisitions: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (we're starting with this one in the class I'm TA'ing for this semester: EngL 1201W Contemporary American Literature--look, look, there's my name again!), The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (our next book club pick), and Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (recommended by a co-worker at the bookstore where I worked over the holidays). These will accompany me to Florida next week.

I'd love to hear books at the top of your must-read list. My own: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, something by Michael Pollan, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, A Mercy by Toni Morrison. (I've been saving these and so many, many more. It's that whole save-the-best-for-last food philosophy that sometimes gets me in trouble when I get full too fast.) On the way from the library: Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, and 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen.