Monday, December 26, 2011

Inside the Gray

Today I woke up at noon. Christmas was exhausting yesterday and I didn't get much sleep the night before. I think I'm a pretend extrovert. I had to go hide in my old room in my parents' house after I helped clean up dinner. I just needed a break from noise.

At work I wear noise canceling headphones and I play gray noise. It's not as high pitched as white noise. It's awesome. I'm using it right now. The TV is on playing some kind of reality show drama, but I can only hear the calming sound of water falling.

Sal is in New York with his family. I leave to see him on Wednesday. This will be the last Christmas we spend apart. It's been my least favorite holiday. My family is wonderful. I got lovely gifts. I just wish Sal could have been here for it.

I have only five submissions outstanding right now and zero desire to submit new work. I'm just not excited about it at all. I want to start fresh. I didn't meet my goal of 100 submissions this year; I stopped at 64. I'm finishing with pretty great numbers for the year though.

Acceptances: 8 journals/10 poems
Overall Acceptance: 12.5%

Last year I had a higher acceptance rate, but I also submitted to much more difficult markets this year. That acceptance also includes the contest I won. It doesn't include my chapbook though. I don't know how to think about that. It was a total shock to me. Still is.

I have written a lot during this second half of the year, the darkening half. Now that the planet has begun it's slow turn back toward the sun, I'm hoping to discover my poems again. This is what I have to say to gray.

Gray, is that a poem inside? I will unwrap the spine of it. Swindle and spring. I will ravish every shade.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Liebster Love and Other Good News

Hello friends and fellow bloggers. How's your Sunday night going? I've had a somewhat bumpy weekend, as I've not been feeling like myself lately, or perhaps too much like an old self I'd rather soon let go of, but luckily I've also received good news this week and I'd like to share it.

First up, the lovely Carol Berg has nominated me for a Liebster Blog Award! Here it is in PNG form:

Don't know what a Liebster Award is? Don't worry, neither did I until about an hour ago. In short, it's a way for up-and-coming bloggers to share some link love (Liebster is German for 'dearest' or 'beloved') with other up-and-coming bloggers. Once you've been nominated, the rules (created by some unknown force in the universe??) state you must thank your nominator and link to her blog (Thanks again, Carol!).

Next you must link to five other bloggers with less than 200 followers. How does one discover this information? It's not actually available, as far as I know. Technically you can find partial data if you use Google Reader and check their RSS feed stats, but that's only the number of subscribers also using Google Reader. Close enough.

Anyway, I digress and I will say that this isn't a real award - I didn't do anything like save children from a burning building or write the next Great American Novel. I just had a cool enough blog to get someone as awesome as Carol to read it regularly. But it is a nice way to expose your small blog's readers to other blogs you like. So, I'll share five blogs that I read regularly and these lovely people can nominate others if they like, but I'm letting them off the hook. You may accept your responsibility-free Liebster Award in whatever way you see fit.

Rachel Bunting, poet-friend and general awesome person.
Thom Dawkins, poet-friend and Chatham buddy along with Weave Event Assistant.
Aubrey Hirsch, fiction-friend, former-Chatham professor and my first younger-than-me instructor.
Bridgette Shade, fiction-friend and new-blogger.
Molly Spencer, poet-friend, workshop buddy, and fellow new Californian.

To my 40 subscribers I apparently have that also use Google Reader, I hope you will add these folks to your content streams. They's good.

My second piece of good news is something I worked really hard on. On Wednesday I got an email from Finishing Line Press stating they want to publish my chapbook, Braiding the Storm. I submitted it to their New Women's Voices competition in February, but when the results were posted this summer and I wasn't mentioned, I assumed the manuscript was no longer under consideration. However, they were still considering, they did consider, and they said yes.

I don't know what to say or feel about it yet, probably because it still doesn't feel real. I'm mostly just proud of myself, but it is hard for me to say that, especially in a public space. Pride is not a familiar feeling for me, since I tend to be hard on myself to the point where I develop eye-twitches and panic disorders. I never feel like I've worked hard enough. But I feel good about this. Better than good, but again, not sure, more new feelings. I really love Finishing Line though, and I'm so happy these poems will be out in the world. No release info yet, but I'll keep you posted.

To celebrate I am going to re-watch Beyonce's 2011 VMA performance of Love On Top while drinking some peppermint tea. She's so joyful in this performance and I want to try to be more joyful in my daily life. Plus, as far as pop music goes, I think this is one of the best live TV performances I've seen in years. You should watch it with me.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Literary Roundup, Quarantined-Style

I'm at home sick today. It's the kind of sick where you don't want to be far from the couch or a bathroom, but you can't quite sleep. Thankful for my laptop and peppermint tea. Forgive my typos.

I've got lots of literary goodies, old and new, print and online, so I'm just going to dive right in.

Freedom of Expression Wall, Sampsonia Way Magazine
First up, if you haven't already posted your picture for the Freedom of Expression Wall over at Sampsonia Way, you should stop reading this and go do that. I did. I'll wait.

Did you post your post it? Good. Where was I?

Let's talk about print baby! I love when my worlds intersect, such as when the latest issue of Bitch featured a profile on one of my favorite indie publishers, Dancing Girl Press.  "These slim, beautifully curated, and lovingly handmade editions by emerging women poets reflect a cross-section of the newest talent..." says Alison Barker. I couldn't agree more, Alison!

Also in print - and I'm a little late the game on this one - is an essay by Sugar, of Dear Sugar online advice column fame, about how she became so sugary in the summer 2011 issue of Creative Nonfiction #42.  I was also excited to get the latest issue of Worn Journal, which always has thoughtful pieces about clothing and fashion. You don't want to miss this one, which includes articles about clothes and gender identity, different ways of dying fabrics, and a lovely essay about heartache and a vintage beaded dress.

Ok, now on to some online delicacies. Certainly not new, but worth the read, is Julie Dearborn's essay "Unsolicited" at The Summerset Review. Lauren Becker has some short fiction at Wigleaf. Lots to read in the latest Anti- issue, including some former Weave contributors. Finally, check out Lori Jakiela's piece, "The World and Everything in It Stops and Waits and Considers Whether or Not to Go On," in the most recent New Yinzer.

A couple of cool interviews include poet Nicelle Davis interviewing herself for The Nervous Breakdown and poet Stacey Waite interviewed over at Pilot Light.

The holidays are here and for those of you who wait until the last minute like me, I've included this handy literary shopping section of the Roundup this week. Jeannine Hall Gailey lists her top picks for poetry book gifts on her blog. These agate earrings my friend made are just really pretty, just like all of her handmade jewelry. Consider buying subscriptions to any of the print publications I mention above. I personally think that donations make great gifts, so consider Poetry Inside Out and support the continued art of poetic translation.

In Pittsburgh news, I was so happy to hear that Fleeting Pages won for Best Pop-up Store in the City Paper's Best of Pittsburgh. "With no advertising budget, founder and Braddock resident Jodi Morrison and a volunteer staff kept Fleeting Pages running seven days a week." The more I think about how incredible this project was, the more humbled I am to have been a part of it.

I've been compiling this post very slowly all morning. I think it's time to lie down in bed. With a book of course.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Contents Fragile: Please Handle With Care


That word is my new mantra. I've been working on having self-compassion since I realized that my daily anxiety is totally normal, considering the combined stress-level of experiences I've jammed into the last six months. Cross country move. Starting a new career. Moving in with my partner. It's amazing I'm not curled in my bed trembling right now.

One of the things I love to make myself feel horrible about is writing. Not writing. Writing crap. Writing the wrong thing. Not devoting my life to writing. Sure I've been writing here, using this as a salve for the fact that I can't access my poem-room at the moment. But this here, it's not real writing, I said, it's just promotion. This is not being devoted. Because I can't be. I have to devote myself to teaching and paperwork and paying bills and travel and buying gifts and being present with friends and family. I can't just hole up and write some immaculately perfect poem. But when do I do it? Why aren't poems coming to me like they used to?

Compassion, Laura.

While flying back to San Francisco, I caught up on journal reading. In particular, I read some pieces from the latest Los Angeles Review (which I highly recommend), including Jeremiah O'Hagan's essay about writing essays entitled, "Essaying." Normally I am not drawn to meta-writing, but this piece pulled me in with the balance of research and reflection, personal and universal. O'Hagan recalls his discovery of the essay in high school, while also reflecting on the history of nonfiction writing and the process of writing as exploration, beginning without an end in mind, allowing ideas to emerge organically.

At some point while reading his words, I realized that while I've not been writing poetry, I've been writing nonfiction, right here in my letters to you, Outer Space. O'Hagan reminded me that the essay is a form that can sing like the villanelle or spiral and return like a sestina. It can meander like free verse. It can say something in full sentences, without metaphor. Fragmentation, exploration, discovery. Why had I not realized that my prose was rising to the surface and my only outlet was this virtual space? Why was I not giving it the attention it deserved? But before I judged myself, I whispered compassion. compassion. compassion.

I'm not sure why I didn't hear my essays. Perhaps they've been whispering oh-so softly amidst the loud, overlapping thoughts and lists that my brain loves to recount each night, keeping me awake. It hasn't gotten any louder, but by giving myself a break from my constant ambition through compassionate reminders, I managed to quiet the noise just long enough to hear the stories rising up to the surface as prose.

It's possible I've been experiencing the effects of a small trauma. I imagine myself as a swinging church bell that's reverberating from an especially forceful hammer strike. How could I expect myself to hear much of anything with that loud humming in my ears for the last few months? I'm sure I'm not alone in this, but I like to think I can trudge forward constantly, unaffected by changing environmental conditions or physical needs. Sleeping and eating? That stuff's for wimps! My move across the country is like the winter I believed I could drive in a blizzard. I just pressed harder on the gas and wondered why I wasn't moving as fast as before. Or when I've deprived myself of sleep and I can't figure out (or refused to acknowledge) why I'm so tired. Go go go. Do more more more.

Seriously, Laura. Compassion.

I did write a poem on the flight back to San Francisco. I wrote a poem using phrases from 20 of my finished (i.e., abandoned) poems. It was a good starting place, a place of compassion. I gave myself familiar words, safe words, used words, my words. Because no matter what I'm writing, it's still writing, trailing the words behind me and in front of me as I cross this creek, stepping on word-stones, reaching the trail that I hope will be there waiting for me on the bank. Each word, phrase, line, sentence helping me arrive at a new word, phrase, line... Stopping for rest when I need it. Listening, observing. Breath. Picking up my stones and moving again. Waiting for a rainstorm to pass. Letting myself realize the rain. Handle with care. Breath. Listen, observe, rest...

Say it with me. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Winter Coats Are for Winter

I have been visiting my family in Pittsburgh since November 19th. I worked while I was here from ModCloth's Pittsburgh office, which was fun and fortunate because I could spend extra time with my family and friends without losing work days. I fly home to San Francisco tonight and hit the ground running tomorrow with teaching and writing.

During my visit I stayed in my parents house, the house I grew up in. My old bedroom is now the guest room; Sal and I slept there all week until he left on Saturday and since I've slept alone. I forgot how cold my room can get at night, especially without Sal there, who is part furnace. On Sunday night we missed the chance to talk and I dreamt of him. He emailed me saying he fell asleep after work and dreamt of picking me up at the airport and calling me all night.

The typical question that everyone asks you when you get married is, "How's married life?" Which is then quickly followed by, "When are you going to start a family?" Since Sal and I are not married, the question I got asked the most during my visit was, "How do you like California?" I'm not sure why I started answering the question this way but I told people about all the things I didn't like: how I feel neurotic around Californians, I missed autumn, people pee on the street at night, I can't get used to the slow pace or how expensive everything is. This was an honest response. I'd then quickly follow up with how I love my work and learning the city is fun and there is always delicious food and avocados everywhere! But I made it clear that it was and still is a big adjustment for me. Sal expressed concern about my responses and I told him I just wanted to be honest with people and not just say that I love California because you are supposed to love it. I'm not sure how I feel about it yet. The jury's still out.

A few people asked me whether California felt like home.


But after I thought it about, Pittsburgh didn't feel like home anymore either, especially after Sal left. It's definitely more "me" here. People here drink beer, put fries on the their salads, don't care whether their food is "grass-fed" and they don't wear winter coats when it's 55 degrees outside because 55 degrees is not cold. But it's not home anymore. It occurred to me that I am, for the first time ever, without a home.

I don't know how I feel about it. Many people experience this feeling much younger, but I called Pittsburgh my home for 30 years and five days and now I live in California. As corny as it sounds, Sal feels like home. Saying goodbye on Saturday was hard because I thought about all the times we said goodbye while we were long-distance. But now I say goodbye to so many people and while those goodbyes are the same kind of difficult, they are still hard. Especially when you come from a tight-knit clan like me.

Maybe people become my home? Maybe I carry it with me? Maybe I have many homes? Or perhaps I decide what home means and I consciously build it in San Francisco? I don't have any answers yet.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Literary Roundup! Belated Edition

Hello there, friend. How are you? I have some great lit news to share, but first, some personal updates.

I've been home in Pittsburgh in my parents' home, the house I grew up in, staying in my old bedroom. I've been here since the 19th and it has been a fantastic visit. Sal was here until yesterday, but had to head home for work tomorrow. We had a whopping 21 people for Thanksgiving and my 13-year-old nephew is now 5'10" which is just bizarre. I've spent time with family and friends and my heart is filled with some East Coast love. Gratitude: I haz it. Lots.

I've also been able to work from Pittsburgh since ModCloth has a Pittsburgh office. I've been working on the anthologies for my Poetry Inside Out residencies and reading Weave submissions. Now that I've made progress on all of that, I took some time to read blogs, check my G+ literary circles, and sort through emails. Here's a list of shiny (and one not-so-shiny), recent, and some not-so-recent, literary nuggets that caught my attention.

First up - journals you might want to submit to! (ending with a preposition is OK!) qarrtsiluni, Radioactive Moat, and my poet-friend Mary Stone Dockery (also a Weave 07 contributor!) is guest editing The Medulla Review.

Interesting reads: Ursula K. Le Guin weighs in on the 99% with a fantastical story. Teresa Petro poems about machinery and arts and crafts.

Writing tools for poets and prose writers alike! Check out 14 Punctuation Marks That You Never Knew Existed (I'm a fan of the exclamation comma). I really want these in a poem of mine. I love punctuation so much. Also, if you need a good starting place for a character in your next flash piece or person poem, check out this handy list of archetypes. I also like using Wikipedia for this.

Such sad news about the death of Ruth Stone. An amazing, committed, poetic spirit has left us. ‎"Women who love to write poetry are the hagfish of the world. We eat everything. We eat the language. We eat experience. We eat other people’s poems." --Ruth Stone 1915-2011

I thought about listing some AWP news about panels and off-site readings, but I've decided to devote an entire post to that topic. If you read my blog and you are on a panel and/or reading at AWP, let me know. I'd like to prioritize those events if I can! And I'd like to create some kind of awesome flowchart of prioritization about AWP.

Read this fantastic article from Sampsonia Way Magazine. Burmese children share their thoughts on why freedom of speech is important.

I leave you with an adorable picture of Sal and Domino taking a nap. It makes me happy.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Deep Sea Poetry Diving: An Interview with Poet-Teacher Karen Benke

Karen Benke
A few weeks ago I woke up extra early on a Friday morning, hopped in Sal's blue Thunderbird and drove north of San Francisco to Tamalpais Valley School. I was on my way to observe Karen Benke, poet and teacher for California Poets in the Schools (CPITS) and other organizations for seventeen years. Earning her M.A. from the University of San Francisco, where she studied with Jane Hirshfield, Karen's poetry is widely published in journals and anthologies and she has received grants from the  Marin Arts Council, as well as other residencies and fellowships. She is also the author of the chapbook Sister (Conflux Press, 2004) and RIP THE PAGE! Adventures in Creative Writing (Shambhala / Roost Books, 2010), a creative writing exercise workbook aimed at young children, but fun and energizing for poets of all ages. I was very excited to learn from someone with so much experience on both sides of the poet-teacher hyphen.

After meeting Karen in the front office, I immediately took to her calm, causal, yet no-nonsense demeanor. I later learned this balancing of seriousness and peaceful passion overflows into her poetry teaching space. She was wearing jeans and a cozy blue cardigan and greeted almost every teacher we saw in the hallway as we headed to make copies. It was clear she felt at home here and it's no wonder: she has been teaching this 5th grade class for over five years, ever since her son began kindergarten. All the students called her Karen, a sign that her role was distinct from the classroom teacher, Robin Anderson, who also joined in the poetry writing. As Karen prepared to start, I went to the back of the classroom to take notes.

The class was immediately quiet and attentive - it was clear they were all enthusiastic and took their poetry writing seriously. The lesson was loosely based on using a repeating phrase or word in a poem. Poems were read aloud twice, once by student volunteers and then Karen, some written by famous poets, others by poets their age. She asked questions in a serious-yet-enthusiastic loud whisper, joyfully recording observations the students made regarding which lines "felt the best in your mouth" and "what images really jump out at you, even if you aren't sure why." The room was quickly filling with a gleeful energy.

Karen's "word tickets" fueled student poems.
Next, Karen pulled out a dark velvet bag with a yellow drawstring and the students erupted in excited chit-chat. Karen explained that the bag was filled with "word tickets" which are raffle tickets with words and phrases cut and taped on from magazines, posters, fliers, junk mail, catalogues - anything with words that caught her eye. Karen handed each student a heaping pile of tickets and were to begin using them in their poem however they chose. At first they were wound up by the word tickets and began to talk. Instead of clapping or shouting, Karen rang a Tibetan meditation bowl, which produced immediate quiet, and she explained they would create a gradual silence. It was ok to talk at first, she said, but they were to whisper when it rang a second time so they could start to "go underwater," and to be completely silent on the third ring, to "dive deep" and find their poem.

But they never needed the third chime. Within five minutes, the room was blanketed with a cozy, palpable hush that lasted until the students got up to read their poems out loud. They sorted and organized and made word rows and even full sentences using their word tickets. They discarded phrases they didn't like into the middle of their tables so that others could use them. Some stared at their tickets for a while or stared at the wall or out the window, while others immediately began to write. The only thing you could hear for the next fifteen minutes was pencils scratching paper.

It sounded like ocean waves.

I learned so much from observing Karen's poetry class, I wanted to share these thoughts and observations more fully and in a way that included Karen. So, I interviewed her about writing,  "poeming," lesson preparation, protecting your quiet time, and her next book project focused on teaching (gasp!) teens and tweens. I hope you enjoy her responses as much as I did.

~ ~ ~

Laura Davis: What is your most powerful writing memory from childhood?

Karen Benke: Probably the memory from when I was seven or eight and left notes I wrote in secret for people to find—friends, my parents, cousin, sister, grandparents. My father worked for Pacific Bell and had installed telephones in every room. Not only in our house, but in the homes of our relatives. Even in the bathrooms! In our house and my grandparents house, there was always a little notepad and pen near the bathroom phone. I used to sneak away from the dinner table and go write notes there. In the bathroom! Then I’d fold them up and tuck them under pillows, stuff them into coat pockets. Just a few words like “hi” and “I’m writing this in the bathroom” and “you must know I love you…” Looking back, my note-making was an early form of poetry for me. It thrilled me to no end when my grandmother or aunt would tell me how much finding that little note meant to them.

LD: When did you first start to call yourself a poet? Was this easy for you?

KB: In college, during my sophomore year as an English and Creative Writing major, I took a poetry class from a poet named Gary Thompson. One of the requirements he typed right in the middle of his syllabus was “to be a working poet.” That’s the first time I considered myself a poet. It wasn’t until graduate school, though, during a trip to New Mexico to study with Natalie Goldberg (author of Writing Down the Bones) did I get the assignment to say out loud, “I am a writer.” Saying “I’m a poet,” is still hard. I attach the hyphen and word “teacher,” making sure to mention CPITS. It feels easier to have my gang of poet pals psychically with me, in my answer about what I do. Though all the word “poet” means is “maker,” so in this regard we’re all poets.

LD: You’ve been teaching poetry in the public schools for seventeen years. How do you see your role as a poet-teacher in the classroom and how does that role differ and/or intersect with the classroom teacher?

KB: My role as a poet-teacher is to stir things up on the inside and make imaginative writing fun for both the students and for myself. It’s an added bonus when I can encourage the classroom teacher to write (and even share) a poem, too. This really makes a HUGE difference in the way kids relate to poem-making, the importance and ease with which they slide right in and engage. If their teacher is willing to risk and sit down and feel his or her way in [to poem-making], it MUST be important. Basically, my role is to get the kids to write what they most need and want to say, in a way that brings out their greatest joy. During [those] 60 minutes we get to share that magic space together.

LD: Since observing your poetry class with CPITS, I keep thinking about how quiet your students became and how engaged they were with language and writing. The creative energy in the room was palpable. What steps do you take in your lessons to prepare your students for, what you called, this journey “deep under water” to find their poem?

KB: I work that delicate balance of being a working poet and steeping myself in finding poems that reach my heart and imagination. I try to cultivate that space I need to enter when I write, for [my students]. Sometimes I imagine myself as a student in 3rd or 4th grade and dream up a creative writing experiment that I wish I could have done with a visiting poet way back in elementary school. This helps. When I’m teaching too much, though—and talking too much—I tend to lose touch with the magic of “poeming,” as one second grader recently called it. My teacher, Jane Hirshfield, once shared with me that it’s important to have the right amount of alone-staring-off-writing-time. She didn’t put it like this, but I knew what she meant. She went on to say that she knew when the balance tipped because whatever it was people liked and saw in her poems and teaching wouldn’t be there. This has stayed with me and has served me well. I also meditate and practice yoga, when I’m not teaching ad writing, which cultivates a wider calm / silence / abiding to draw from when I hold the space of a classroom. This practice has helped me to not get as frazzled or “leak energy” as I used to when I first started teaching. That quiet place I create is also what I seek.

LD: Ever have a poetry lesson that fell flat? What do you take away from those classes?

KB: Oh, sure. But I try not to take it personally. So many factors besides just me are present during a writing workshop—the personality or mood of the class, the classroom teacher, the time of day. That said, I think it’s important to be able to change horses mid-stanza. Or somehow take the pulse and energetic read of the room and go in a completely different direction. Yes, even scrap that lesson plan you stayed up way too late the night before carefully creating. I carry my bag of magic word tickets with me, and sometimes what’s needed is to ditch the lesson plan, empty the bag in the middle of the carpet, and let the kids crawl around and move around the colorful tickets with their favorite words, until they’ve found the images they need for their poems.

LD: You’re book, RIP THE PAGE! Adventures in Creative Writing (Shambhala / Roost Books, 2010), reaches a wide-range of audiences: classroom teachers and college professors, poets and writers who need a creative jumpstart, really any person looking for inspiration! Did you set out to write a book with this many audiences? Does this speak to the inherent playfulness of language and the writing process?

KB: I set out to write RIP THE PAGE! (RTP) for 2nd-5th graders, the age group I’m most comfortable being a poetry guide for. I even had the word “Kids” in the sub-title until my smart and savvy editor at Shambhala—and the marketing folks at Random House—suggested I take it out—so RTP! Could be a “cross-over book.” My book’s in its second printing, so I guess it worked. I also have heard from a lot of adults who tell me they always wanted to write creatively, but were scared. They say my book makes it fun for them. This makes me so happy.

LD: Where does the title come from? How do you feel when you think about people ripping out your books pages?

KB: My agent helped me find the title. In my book proposal, I’d initially called it “Skipping Stones,” but she thought this was too quiet and that it would get lost out there. So we started playing around with the word “page” and talked about how the book’s really about playing with words and being willing to get messy. Then the word “Rip” was mentioned and we ran with it. I tell the kids I meet at book fairs and in classrooms that my book’s not finished until they write in it and rip out a few pages. One little girl recently said to her dad, “Hey, where’s my rip it up book?” I like thinking of it as a collaboration, in a way.

LD: Do you have a favorite writing experiment from RTP! that you could share with us?

KB: I don’t have a favorite, but I did combine two during a RTP! workshop at Book Passage last weekend.  The 8-10 year-olds really seemed to like it and wrote for a long time. First we combined favorite touch-sound-taste words (pgs. 64-65—slippery whisper, icy roar, spongy whimper, etc). They had fun calling them out as I raced to write them up on the white board in a purple marker. Then we read the poem from “Seek the Hiding” (pg. 173) and talked about their favorite letter—either vowel or consonant—and what would happen to words if a certain letter (theirs!) went missing. Where would they look to find it? What lengths would they go to in order to get it back? They were asked to look underneath, behind, in back of things from nature, sounds, tastes, using as many or few examples from the list in purple...

LD: As a teacher and a poet, how do these roles intersect in terms of the creative process? How do your poems find you? How do your writing experiments find you? Do you find them? Describe your processes a bit.

KB: My roles as teacher and poet are often at odds, competing for my time and attention. One is more outgoing, the other more shy…wishing she could just stay home in her pajamas and write with the cat nearby. But many of my poems find me when I’m out in the world, writing with kids. So off I go. The writing experiments come from the kids and my dreaming-doodling mind, as my poet-teacher mentor, Linda Wolfe, called it. I get a lot of inspiration from other poet-teachers. Prartho Sereno, a close friend and amazingly gifted poet and teacher, has been very encouraging and generous. I watch how she takes risks with her lesson plans and experiments, and it helps me take flight, too. The annual CPITS conference is a great place to hone the process of creating your own unique lesson plans. Often, I’ve borrowed from someone else’s ides, taught it a few times, taking what works for students and turning up the volume—and removing what doesn’t resonate for me and my style. I’ll add some of my own favorite sample poems from published poets and from student-poets (kids love reading poems from their peers). And, after working out the kinks of the intro and the hook to draw them in…a new lesson plan is born.

LD: What poetry projects are you currently working on?

KB: I’m currently working on putting the bow on the package of my first full-length manuscript, WATCH. It contains poems from my chapbook, SISTER, plus many poems I’ve been quietly working on since 2004, between teaching and writing RTP. I also just finished a picture book—a secret late night passion—called In the KINGDOM of WHAT DISAPPEARS. It’s currently with my agent and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for this baby. The picture book market is so very tough to break into.

LD: You’ve got another book coming out about teaching poetry writing to tweens and teens. What are the most important characteristics a poet-teacher should consider when teaching this particular age group?

KB: LEAP WRITE IN! (r-i-s-k required) is due out from Shambhala/Roost Books in 2013. The tween/teen age group I target in this book (10-13 yrs.) is a tricky bunch. You can’t be too nice or too friendly when you first step foot in a 7th grade classroom. (One friend agrees, adding, “they’ll eat you alive!”) They aren’t going to outwardly cheer and adore you like the 2nd and 3rd grade crowd. Tween and teens can be oh so cool and awkward, shy, and scared. They want to show you who they are, but they aren’t even sure. They keep changing their minds, moods, personalities. A combustible combo. I make it a point to meditate a little longer before heading off for middle school. I make sure I truly love the sample poems I’m bringing in and the writing experiment. (The word ticket bag is never forgotten.) They can catch a whiff of a faker a mile out, so you have to be real with them. You have to be real no matter what the age. I started meditating with a group of 6th graders last year. I call it “pre-writing.” And guess what? They love it.

~ ~ ~

To purchase a copy of Karen Benke's book RIP THE PAGE! please visit the press website or your favorite independent bookseller.

For more information about Karen's poetry workshops for kids, please visit her website,

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Back from Whatever THAT Was

Forgive me, dear blog readers. I was in a strange place earlier today because, as it turns out, I'm not super good at resting. Or at least resting without simultaneously making myself feel bad for resting. Despite the fact that my body needs more rest. I can't promise I won't delve back into LauraCrazyPantsLand again here in Dear Outer Space, but I can promise to follow up those kinds of moody, teen-angst posts with something cool and fun.

Speaking of cool and fun, check out this video of ModCloth co-founders, Susan and Eric Koger, wherein you can see me sitting on the far end of a couch during the Fashion Writers' product name brainstorm meeting. You'll recognize me because I seem to have a really itchy nose because I'm scratching it for my entire 3 second appearance (which starts around minute 1:19). Also, it's a cool video about the company.

Broken Noise Filter

When I think about all the words there are out there, words that were crafted with exceptional thought, passion, and authenticity, it makes me feel so grateful that anyone takes the time to read a few of my poems or these few blog updates. So thank you.

I'm struggling with my noise filter. The world is especially noisy these days and my head is the kind of head that is easily distracted by noises. When I am writing at ModCloth, I bring headphones and play white noise, because it's actually anti-noise. Hushing, underwater, bubble-creating, focus-enabling anti-noise.

I have always struggled with noise distraction. My sensory filters are less efficient than other people's. It is my daily struggle to find a quiet cocoon of space and time to connect with myself. Today I'm at home because I've been struggling with some kind of pre-illness that doesn't ever seem to manifest into actual illness. So I'm stuck in the weird place where I'm exhausted, but can't sleep, thinking constantly, but can't focus on work. This blog post is the first productive thing I've done all day. Napping was a failure. Laid there for an hour. Annoying bird outside and annoying thoughts in my brain. Just couldn't catch the cloudy hem of sleep...

I almost can't go on right now. Someone is hammering outside. My right shoulder is aching because who knows why. I realized recently that my body is stick or in some kind of achy state of pain pretty much all the time. Also, someone is using a tool that makes a buzzing noise. Guesses include a buzz saw, shop vac, other kind of drill or perhaps a power washer. Time for the white noise.

Sigh. I literally get goosebumps when the deep whooshing starts.

I tried catching up on blog reading today. I started going through my "feminist" label and I had to just mark them all "read." I couldn't do it. I get sucked into the sad noise of our world. It's important to stay informed, but it's also just as important to protect yourself, if you have the luxury of/ability to turn it off.

A friend of mine reached out to me this week with some struggles. Work is making him super depressed, he feels antisocial, unmotivated, uninspired. I felt so much compassion and I wrote a really long email back where I'm pretty sure I said something like, "Life is really fucking hard always, so figure out what makes you feel good for a brief moment in between in order to cope with it." While not untrue, perhaps the worst advice ever given to someone who needed a pick-me-up.

Feeling so behind on my poetry, behind what or who I don't know. Everyone must be more productive and committed than me (duh). It's been a while since I've written a good solid poem. I haven't edited an old poem in weeks. I am far from my goal of 100 submissions this year too. It's all noise though. The noise in my head. The hammer and buzz saw. My achy shoulder/neck/hand/knee/ankle.

I think that's the most frustrating noise for me right now: the competitive noise of the writing world, the feeling like I have to keep up with writers who clearly have no issues with noise filtering like I do. To sit idly by thinking to myself, "How you produce anything worthwhile with all this NOISE going on?" Maybe they are more practiced. But these thoughts are also the noise, the part of me that makes comparison noise. The other noises will always be there, but this one, I make myself. It's useless. I should just write a poem. But the thought turns my stomach and exhausts me. I have so many other tasks, noisy tasks whispering to me, "...silly Laura, you don't have time to write a poem right now..."

Where's my off switch?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Delicate Dancing: Reflections on Teaching Poetry to Children

In the category of "spending time reflecting on how lucky I am, despite continued levels of high stress" I've been pondering my classes and thus falling more in love with teaching poetry.

It began when I went to Tam Valley Elementary to observe veteran poet-teacher Karen Benke teach a lesson on poetry writing for California Poets in the Schools. I had the opportunity step back and watch her drape this magical poetic enchantment over the classroom with her general demeanor, metaphorical explanations of writing, and the infusion of poetry into every moment of her hour of class time. Her teaching was an elegant dance, the kind of gentle balancing that comes with years of practice and reflection, and a deep understanding of her students' developmental needs and abilities. I am interviewing Karen about her teaching and depth of experience for the blog and I can't wait to share it with you.

Since I'm super fond of lists these days, I'm sharing what has happened and what I've learned so far over the first six weeks of teaching poetry translation to fourth and fifth grade students in San Francisco.

1. As a poetry teacher, your role is different than the regular classroom teacher. 

After teaching gifted education for two years, I gained solid teaching experience. I developed a persona of "loving authority" with my students, but there was definitely more authority upfront. I have a loud voice, and that was an important factor in controlling my newest classes here in San Francisco. However, after a few weeks, I was have trouble figuring out why my students were still so concerned with the rules of each assignment, rather than taking advantage of the opportunity to express themselves. I realized that I had somehow drained the fun from my classes because a few problem students were forcing me to be more strict than the poetry teacher should. That's where this teaching role differs from the regular classroom, because while the classroom teacher sees them daily, all day, and has time to set expectations, I do not. My persona needed to reflect that while these students were in school, this class was different. In poetry class, we do a different kind of writing. Yes, we revise like they do in their regular classroom, but the tools are different. Also, I can use those very tools to set the tone. Karen is great with this by using explanations like, "Now we have to go deep underwater and be silent to really find our poems" or "Sometimes we find poems behind our knees!" Children understand this kind of thinking, because it is how they think, if you can manage to tap into it.

2. Structure and discipline are essential to creating a safe space for poetic expression.

The tone you want to strike in your classroom must still include structure. This informs each decision you make: seating arrangements, group work, scaffolding, and the rules you give your students when the write original poems. It takes a lot of support to let students "write anything." They want rules. This includes rules about expected behavior. I teach two classes twice a week, fourth and fifth. The older students took this class last year and came to me somewhat disillusioned. While I had a standard for "three strikes and you're out" for misbehavior, I wasn't following through with it. It was growing worse each week with my fifth graders, so finally, after some students were rudely yelling while I began the lesson, I told them they'd lost their "three strikes" privileged and were down to one. If they misbehaved today, they were out. Within five minutes I sent two students back to class and after another five minutes, I sent two more. The remaining kids knew I meant business and the rest of the class went smoothly, for the most part. The big change came the next day when the kids I removed were on their best behavior and I had so many chances to give them positive feedback. They wrote some of their best poems.

3. When they have questions about what to write about, say, "Yes" as much as possible. Except when you have to say, "No."

This is related to point two, except it specifically as it applies to the writing prompt or exercise. In school, kids are trained to expect rules. This is what school is for, essentially, especially at a young age. For the most part, kids will learn how to do things on their own. Teaching requires about 90% classroom management and 10% subject matter knowledge. Therefore, they get really used to following the rules and being scolded when they don't. When I give them assignments, especially at first, the students shower me with "can I write about this? can I write about that? what do I do next? is this right?" and so at first I said yes to just about anything. Then some students wrote about the same thing every week. Or they got super hooked on the fact that I let them use the word 'hell' in their poems, as long as it was the opposite of 'heaven' and not a curse. The boys wrote endlessly about violence. The girls wrote about rainbows and flowers. Much like discipline, they needed more structure in their assignments, just enough to get them to a place where they felt safe. I have now banned violence from poems and also any curse words and bathroom humor. It was too distracting. Also, I made assignments that tapped into universal emotions like anger and loneliness, which pushed them to find new words to describe these feelings. Eventually they got the hang of it and I could say yes more often. But it takes time.

4. Praise should be given in thoughtful abundance.

I generally avoided praise in my last teaching job, because kids will become praise junkies. However, I only see my kids twice a week now and when a child comes up to me with something original they have written and they want me to read it, just the effort of sharing deserves to be rewarded. Maybe they don't have opportunities to hear a teacher say, "Wow! I love this image!" or "This line is so original!" I know they don't because teachers are busy and overworked and have way too much to squeeze into the three or four solid hours of daily instruction time. Also remember this: when you are 10, there isn't a wrong way to write a poem. Seriously. Yes, some kids will pick it up faster than others, but in general, there is something praiseworthy in every poem. Even praise for their hard work and creative use of language gives them a positive feeling that makes them want to write more and more, which should be the goal of the writing classroom. The more they write, the better writers they become. Of course, balancing praise with thoughtful feedback is key. Including revision in your curriculum will assist with this and encouraging the use of literary devices (that you've taught them already) will only give you more chances to praise and offer feedback. Again, a delicate dance.

5. Though it may take time, eventually the magic of writing poetry transforms your students.

The Artistic Director of Poetry Inside Out, John Simon, told me that somewhere between class number five and eight (of a sixteen lesson residency) everything shifts. It happened sooner with my fourth grade students than my fifth, which I expect to happen next week. I'd struggle through my lesson with fifth grade and then my fourth graders came in saying things like, "Yay it's time for poetry class!" or "Miss Davis, I love writing poem so much!" They write poems for you and make you adorable gifts like origami flowers. In short, they're hooked. And this just feeds the delicate dance of structure, discipline, praise and persona. They want to be there, so the behave. They want to feel good about their writing and they take it seriously. They love learning new ways to express themselves. I can't begin to tell you how incredible it is to watch a room of children thoughtfully revising their writing, asking their neighbor for advice about which word sounds better, asking you if it's ok to write another poem, coming up to you with ideas about what they want to write about. If you can manage to navigate your way through those first weeks and get to this stage, well, pat yourself on the back, because it's a hard road. But also, take a moment to recognize how essential opportunities for creative expression are for children and how poetry has an ability to transform a group of loud, video-game obsessed kids, into the thoughtful, creative voices of our future.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What you got going lit world? Giddy-Up Roundup!

First a Laura update: I have been getting some more sleep these days, thanks to our amazing mosquito net! (I know you were so worried about my sleeping habits...) Though I have been restless the past few nights with some thoughts tumbling around in my mind-grapes. Money and budgeting had me spazzing out big time on Saturday, especially since all of my student loans got kicked out of the post-graduation grace period. I worked that out though, but it took a lot out of me.

I replenished my strength with some shopping at what shall now be known as The Most Awesome of All Goodwill Thrift Stores Ever! In a mere ninety minutes I left with 14 new items for only $62, including three or four vintage pieces. I really needed some new clothing because apparently it never becomes winter here in San Francisco, it's just perpetually spring-fall. Those seasons don't last long in Pittsburgh, so I needed to boost my mid-season wardrobe to only-season status. Plus I still have what I'm calling Thesis Pounds to lose. Until then, I finally have some skirts and tops and sweaters that fit me. I can't wait to go back.

Worn Journal has a new issue on the way: Lucky 13, which seems to have been stolen by Cat Woman or something. Let's see, what else? Oh yes, new issue of Moon Milk Review is up this week! I'm also excited to share that the accepted two of my poems, in particular a poem that is very personal and feels right at home amongst the other fiere MMR poems about the female experience. Why yes, I did just call my own poem fierce, because it is. I'll prove it. The last stanza: "Strike a match. / Torch it." Boom.

Weave has the issue 07 contributor list posted and it's going to be our BIGGEST issue yet. So many awesome pages, including our contest winners, a review of the anthology Beauty Is A Verb, incredible artwork and a high number of historical people poems, paintings and stories. Oh yes, and a makeover story. I love seeing all these pieces together in one place!

ModCloth has a great interview with Ada Limón from a while back. Good stuff in there. Also, more recently, they posted a picture of me as Smurfette. That's my brother, Rick with me. Good stuff!

My dear dear friend, poet D. Gilson, is so dear. He is also a freakin' badass poet. His chapbook won Seven Kitchen's Robin Becker Prize and has an interview from a few weeks back up at Joe's Jacket wherein he discusses the intersection of queerness and poetry, among other things. Also, he's super fun to follow on Twitter!

Finally, fiction writer and Weave editor Bridgette Shade has some excellent life advice. I suggest you read it to avoid absentmindedly wandering into any black holes.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Mosquito Showdown

They came last February. Or at least that's when I encountered them while visiting Sal in San Francisco for a late Valentine's day or something like that. One morning Sal woke up with a lip swollen from what I shall now call a Mosquito Kiss. Curious, we though, to get a bug bite on your mouth. It went all downhill from there.

I got over seventeen mosquito bites on my arms during my brief stay for less than a week. Mosquitoes like me. The feeling is anything but mutual. I spent nights awake because the damn things managed to somehow find our ears just as we were slipping from twilight into deep sleep and BUZZ us awake like a menacing too-early alarm clock.

imagine twenty on one arm. yeah.
During another visit, they were at it again. How are they getting in? Perhaps through our giant windows without screens? Perhaps. Screens for these windows would cost too much and it didn't seem like a splurge we were willing to make. So I decided to try and capture the little bastards. And by capture I mean squish against the wall.

Since they liked to land on the ceiling and it was difficult to reach them, I devised a method of killing that included a long wooden rod that in a previous life was used as to hang clothes from in a closet. Due to extreme lack of storage space, we removed all the rods from our extremely shallow closets and replaced the dead space with shelves. So the rod was just leaning against the wall and I thought, why not? I learned that you can't just swoop in at them. Mosquito killing requires a steady, focused patience. There I stood, in my underwear, eye mask around my forehead, quietly smashing mosquitoes against our walls.

Mosquito killing is a messy business. While researching why mosquitoes always seemed to find us in bed (they are attracted to heat, body odor, and carbon dioxide, which are highly concentrated in the air with two people in bed), I also learned that the little fuckers bite all animals and the bitten are called the bloodhost. Yes. We're wandering into weird vampire territory here. Because they vant to suuuck your blooood ah ah ah! and they DO suck your blood, when you kill a mosquito, there's bright red blood splatter. Beyond gross.

When I finally moved out here this summer, the bites were getting ridiculous and Sal had moved the Mosquito Killer 1000 (aka: wooden rod) to the garage. He was not as affected by the bugs at first. They didn't bite him as much. I needed a new killing mechanism. But what long object also has a flat surface on one end?

Enter the Swiffer.

Yes folks, your Swiffer mop (preferably dry mop, because it's lighter) can double as a bug killer, particularly mosquitoes. I no longer had to aim and kill with a 2 inch circle. I had a whole field of space with which to squish! Plus, attached a tissue to the flat surface provided easy cleanup. I got really good at this. I'd wake up in the middle of the night to kill them. I knew where they hid in the apartment: curtains, behind clothes, the side of the nightstand. The dumb ones were on the wall beside our heads. I got those ones easily. Some nights though, the finesse required for killing escaped me and I just couldn't find the little sucker. Soon they multiplied. We'd have four or five in the room at night. I'd think I got them all, only to be bitten by another. It also turns out I have an allergic reaction to the bites, so they itch and swell up and ooze and itch and leave lasting marks. Fun stuff.

Through all of these, we learned to sleep completely beneath the sheets, myself waking up sweaty each morning, and mostly bite-free. That didn't always help though because they found my face, since I just can't breath with my head under the covers. One night while I was particularly hysterical from sleep deprivation, Sal made me a head protection device (an old T-shirt with a hole cut out for breathing). I'd wear this with my eye mask, only my nose peaking out to breath the cold night air.

Many times during our nightly battles one of us would suggest buying a mosquito net. It was just never something we thought about during the day. Plus, they are kind of ultra-romantic, not really style. A few weeks ago, I finally broke down and researched to find the best one online, which is of course called the Dreamscape Hoop Canopy, and it arrived in a ridiculously over-sized box. It was fun to put together. That's Sal, tying the canopy to the hoop. Not sure which part is the dreamscape.

I almost wept the first night we slept safely beneath the mesh layers. One little guy did get through that night, but Sal turned on the light and ushered him out the opening. Sal whispered to open my eyes and look above my head. Perched on the net were at least five mosquitoes, surrounding me, waiting for the bloodhost. Vultures. It was seriously like The Birds up in here. Creeptastic.

I still have to kill the occasional blood bug when I'm in the living room or bathroom. One got my arm good yesterday evening while I was on the couch. Eventually, we'lll need screens in the windows. But it feels so good to sleep through the night again. And if poetry doesn't work out for me, I can always pursue my backup career as an insect exterminator.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Flying List of Awesome

  1. I'm writing this update while flying on a big plane from New York to California. 
  2. I decided to write in a list because it felt more manageable. I miss blogging. I spent the summer unemployed and had lots of time for it and now have more to write about with much less time.
  3. Today I got two poems accepted by Super Arrow. One of the poems had been rejected over 24 times. I'm happy.
  4. Sal and I have been having a lot of discussions about balancing our professional lives and personal lives. We are both tired a lot. I decided we need a life coach or at least a cleaning person. And an accountant, but that's another issue.
  5. Who cleans your house? How do you decide who cleans it? Is it as clean as you'd like it to be? If you are female, do you feel strange taking on more cleaning duties than your partner, especially if said partner is male? 
  6. When in the world do people have time to raise children?
  7. I finally took some time to create a new chapbook manuscript. This feels good. 
  8. Do people with careers have social lives? Do people with careers watch television? Roxane Gay, I have no idea how to have time to write, teach, AND go see all the movies you review. I'm glad you do though, otherwise I'd never know how horrible Contagion was.
  9. There is a baby crying on the plane. 
  10. Weave reopened to submissions on Saturday. We still have to read fiction from the last reading period. I don't feel bad about this. I'd rather us take our time, than rush and miss something we want. 
  11. I have worked at ModCloth for almost one month and somehow, magically, managed to not buy one single thing. Aside from my new Tom's shoes, I haven't bought any new clothing since July. Considering I went into a small amount of debt during my last semester of graduate school from impulse ModCloth purchases, I'd say that's some growth.
  12. Teaching for Poetry Inside Out is the most rewarding teaching and poetry-related job I've ever had. I continue to be challenged by my students. I am learning to listen to people speaking other languages on the bus. Languages are opening up before me on a daily basis. 
  13. Tomorrow I start teaching a high school class of English Language Learners at a new school. I'm mostly excited about this, though it's been a while since I've worked with this age. I hope that some of them will talk with me in Spanish, so I can practice. I also have two who speak Chinese, a student who speaks Burmese and one who speaks Punjabi. Wow. 
  14. I'm learning a lot about history and geography from Poetry Inside Out teaching.
  15. I'm still on a plane and now there is turbulence. I also have only 36 minutes of battery left, yet I have at least 90 minutes of plane ride left. 
  16. I didn't think I'd get to number 16. I guess I had a lot more to say.
  17. What has your life been like?
  18. Updated additional question: Do you know what the Baby-Pope-Jesus-Bishop statue is supposed to be? Besides, you know, creepy? It was in the bakery we went to in Brooklyn.
who are you???

Thursday, September 29, 2011

I Can't Believe They Pay Me to Do This

That is the title of the memoir of the past two weeks of my life.

I'm pretty exhausted. My transition from unemployment to being thrice employed happened overnight, and I didn't get a lot of sleep that night. I haven't had much time to get caught up either, since my mom is coming out for a visit later today. She'll be here until Monday morning, at which point, I start my long distance hurdling sprint again for the week.

Today I start my job as a poet-translator. What's most fascinating about this work is the fact that I don't speak anything other than English. I am, however, a good poet and experienced, confident teacher of children, and these thinks make up for the fact that I might not be the most skill at reading Chinese poems aloud just yet. But that's ok, because a number of the students I'm teaching are Chinese American. I wonder if any of them are from ancient Rome and know how to speak Latin.... hmm...

In all seriousness though, I never considered translation because I thought you had to have some kind magical training. Maybe I am not giving myself enough credit, because I do have some experience with Spanish (I did take the class for six years in middle & high school), but really, translation isn't about being fluent. Knowledge of poetry can bolster your skills as a translator of poetry until the language skills develop. Since most languages won't translate exactly anyway, and poetry often uses strange syntax and surreal images, much of the work of translation is making a choice about language, much like you do when you write in your primary language.

If you are a poet and you haven't tried translating, find yourself a poem in another language, get thyself onto Google Translator and do a rough translation. Then take a look at the poem. It probably won't make total sense, but that's ok. Try Googling phrases. Or translating entire phrases to see if there is more meaning. It's fascinating to see how many options we have with language. It's a wonder we ever communicate anything at all.

My other job is writing about fashion, which seems different, and it is, but it's also translation in a way. I am writing product descriptions for ModCloth, which is super fun because I get to come up with pun-filled names for adorable, vintage-inspired dresses and shoes and then write the fun descriptions. Describing a real solid object in a fun, yet informative way for someone who only has a picture of the object, well, that's translating. And it's a blast. Because I get to write stuff like this. Also, it's super hard to not spend all the money I earn on adorable clothing. I can't believe I haven't bought something yet.

With all this working, I haven't really made much time for writing poetry. It's only been two weeks, but I can see that I need to set aside time for it each day. I'll get the hang of it eventually. I think having long spans of time to write actually hinders my process, because I allow myself to be distracted by other things, rather than focusing on the poem. If I have only 15 minutes, well, then I must get to work.

In fact, I'm going to do that now before I get ready for work. You should try to translate something today.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Colorful Cornucopia of Delicious Literary Autumn Squash!

I broke the ice last night and dove back into blogging after a hiatus for a couple of weeks. Maybe it was less than that, but I was writing every other day for a while there and then I started feeling guilty and so I just jumped in, jackknife-style, and now I'm covered with bloggy goosebumps and ready to share with you an autumn harvest of literary wonders!

First, in case we aren't Facebook friends, you might not have heard my happy news. My poem "Widowing" one the 2011 Crab Creek Review Poetry Contest. The contest judge of Dorianne Laux, who had some amazingly generous thoughts about the poem. It's a big huge giant honor to be selected and I'm seriously still flying high from the news.

I also attempt being a formalist poet over at Whistling Fire. Check out my poem "The Ordination of Woman" that the published last week.

In online literary news, a bunch of journals have released their latest issues including Toad, Boxcar, PANK, and Sweet. I plan to sit down with all of these issues and read read read this weekend. I love them all. I'm a particularly big fan of Rachel Bunting and Mary Biddinger, both who are featured in Toad. Also, Adanna Literary Journal, a lovely new feminist print journal, has featured the work of some of their latest contributors online. Check out Carol Berg and Mary Stone Dockery, two upcoming Weave contributors.

I just got my copy of Gregory Sherl's Heavy Petting. Super excited to read it. I've flipped through it and caught a few pages, but I've been super busy with starting new jobs this week. I'll be honest, I don't read a ton of male poets. It's taken me a while to find people I like, and sometimes I find myself being uber-critical, and I have to step back and try to take in the experience and perspective of another. Sherl's poetry, often about relationships and sex, is open, funny and honest. It's quirky, which seems to be "the thing" in the hip-poet world at the moment, but not so quirky that it misses the emotional boat ride. These poems resonate. Some are also pretty sexy. I like sexy poems. Also, can I just say, nice job YesYes Books! Your design and print work is simple, yet stunning. Check out the review of Heavy Petting at Read This Awesome Book.

Let's see, what else?

Read this interview over at Poets & Writers with John Murillo, where he discusses voice and reading your poetry.

In the intersections of technology and all things literary we find two great bits of news. One, the Poetry Foundation has an app for your smart phone. Pretty sweet to be able to pull up any poem you want, whenever. Also, for you Kindle users out there, you can now check out books from certain libraries that use a service called OverDrive. I haven't tried it yet, but if you do, please let me know how it works. I think this has the potential to be HUGE.

Pittsburgh, I miss you. I miss autumn and pumpkins and the gorgeous hillsides ablaze with color. The last reading I attended in Pittsburgh was City of Asylum's 2011 Cave Canem reading. It was fantastic and featured readings from poets Toi Derricotte, Cornelius Eady, Natasha Trethewey, and special guest Amiri Baraka. If you missed it, never fear. I've posted the video of Amiri Baraka's reading at the end of the post. You can also read an interview with Baraka in the latest issue of Sampsonia Way. While his poetry often sparks controversy, I think that is one of things I see less of in the world of poetry these days. Let's all go write some poems that piss people off this week, okay?

Oh boy, there is still more literary deliciousness!

Issue 06 of Weave was reviewed by NewPages. Says reviewer Hazel Foster, "this issue offers an accessible mix of prose and poetry." I agree! Also, "Weave is a great example of how an independent print magazine can succeed. Subscribe, submit, find a comfortable place to devour and enjoy." Thanks so much. Oh yes, subscribe or purchase by tonight and you can get half off anything you buy. Just use the code "BICOASTAL" at checkout.

On an unrelated note, everyone in California is wearing these shoes. I want them too now. They look super comfortable. I'm going to Nordstroms tomorrow to try on a pair I think. I need some comfy walking shoes. Also not literary, but still fun, are these comics about bisexuality. Definitely relatable.

My last morsel of lit news comes from the United States Postal Service. Thanks for putting more poets on stamps. I can't wait to get my hands on these! Send me a postcard with one of these and I'll love you forever and ever.

Happy reading everyone.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Long Time No Blog

Hey you! How ya been? I've missed our little chats lately. Sorry I've been so busy and I have a few blog posts I started and then abandoned and then more time goes by and I feel guilty for not blogging, which then makes it not fun anymore.

The truth is that I've been busy because a got jobs. That's right, you heard me. I got jobs. Plural. More than one. Two, in fact, with a third in development. I started working as a part-time freelance fashion writer for ModCloth and I'm tutoring kids in the East Bay. I also began training to be a poet-translator for Poetry Inside Out. All of these gigs will get their own update someday, when I'm not nodding off over my sleepy-go-night-night mug o' peppermint tea.

Goodness gracious, I'm tired.

It feels good be tired from working though. Really good. I have officially ridden the bus more during this past week than I had ever in my entire life combined. I did lose a cute sweater and my favorite blue felt flower pin on the 71 bus yesterday afternoon. Or maybe it was the 47. So many bus routes, but either way, losing my pin, well, that was sad.

I'm so tired right now, but I am still alive and I want to write more when I'm not tired but I still need to finish my lesson for tomorrow afternoon and I have to get up for an early appointment. That was long winded. Short version: me sleepy now, write more soon. kthax bai.

I leave you with an awesome picture of the Barenaked Ladies, who I saw in concert last night. It was a belated birthday gift from Sal. Second row seats = Awesome.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Hello Out There!

It seems that my recent post about getting involved with your local literary community has inspired people. This is super exciting! One compliment that I get from people, that I don't mind getting, is that I've got a lot of enthusiasm. Usually they are referring to something specific, like poetry or travel. However, those closest to me know that I tend to be easily excitable. "IT'S TUESDAY! I LOVE TUESDAYS!" Or "ZOMG this Pad See Ew is SO GOOD!" Then I do a happy dance. It's a very uncool dance that involves a lot of bouncing and flailing. Watch out when I flail. I'm pretty tall, I might knock you down.

So yeah, I'm excited that people are excited about getting involved.

Speaking of getting involved, I attend a fantastic conference this weekend for California Poets in the Schools. I met a bunch of really great veteran poets who have been teaching in the schools for decades. They were so inspiring! I also made friends with some of the new poets and I'm stoked to get more involved. I will be updating about this organization a lot.

I also drove on highway 101 South for 343 miles. Then, again, coming back north. California, you're mountains are wooing me. *swoon*

I have news. News that I can't share yet. It's good news. Like, really excitingly good news. I almost can't stand it. This is an exercise in developing patience.

The good news I can share is that I got a job! That wants to pay me! Soon! I start a part time tutoring job in the East Bay next week. I will teach reading and writing to groups of second graders for the school year. It's very exciting.

I also am hoping to get involved with Poetry Inside Out, part of the Center for the Art of Translation. I've been accepted for their training, which runs for the next two Saturdays in a row. I'm so excited to meet poets in the city.

There is more to say. I will say it soon. But I must get some reading and writing done this afternoon.

Yeah, I rhymed. What WHAT?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Learning the Words

I had this math teacher in college –actually he was a math education teacher – who was very strange. Most of the subject matter courses were designed to have you finish the semester with a 4-inch binder full of lesson plans that you could use in the classroom. This was a practical and reasonable way to teach teaching. My professor though, let’s call him Professor Big Picture, well, he taught his philosophy. He quoted Maria Montessori and said that school wasn’t for educating, but rather, for social conditioning: teaching kids to raise their hands, walk in a straight line, only go to the bathroom when an adult gave you permission.

Most of his students complained about this course, because we didn’t leave with our normal stack of lessons. Instead, we spent the entire semester on one project: teaching a young child to add, subject, multiply and divide fractions (I watched in amazement as he taught a six year old using math manipulatives how to multiply 3/8 times 1/2.) He insisted that the way we taught math in schools wasn’t about real learning, but about memorization of algorithms, or rules. His educational philosophy was based on a simple truth: kids know everything, except the words.

This was a lot for some people to really grasp. I loved this course and loved the way Professor Big Picture taught it. He was old and strange and made jokes about how kids have no idea what they are saying when they Pledge Allegiance or sing about “purple mountains” and “amber waves of grain.” When I think back now, his ideas about education were pretty revolutionary, especially for a bunch of college students in the Mon Valley.

But think about it: what if we are born knowing everything but the words? What does that mean for educators? For starters, it means everyone has the capacity to learn; we just need to make sure we are speaking their language. With math, perhaps the language can be specific or more limited, because there are correct answers. In the humanities, things are more subjective. But I think Professor Big Picture’s philosophy applies here too.

Let me tell you a little story.

I first got involved in a literary community as an editor. Rather, I started calling myself an editor. I didn’t know much about literary publishing at the time. I just knew I had friends who were writing some really amazing stories and poems and I thought they deserved to be shared with the world. I did harbor doubts about my role as an editor though. What makes me think I can decide what is good and what isn’t? I wasn’t a published writer. Actually, I was writing some pretty awful poetry at the time. But I was surrounded by people who were writing really awesome poetry and I knew it. Turns out, I was in exactly the right place.

Today I watched this video that animates a brief talk by Ira Glass about people who do creative work (embedded below). He posits that all creative people begin in the same place. We have an inner sense of what is inherently good in the work we admire. However, the gap between what we love and what we create ourselves is BIG. But what is inherent at the start is our taste.  We know what we like; we just can’t quite imitate it yet. Some of us try. Glass says that a lot of people quit before they get through this process of closing the gap. But successful creative people spend a long time – years – working to close the gap between what we know is good, and what we are creating. The only way to close that gap is to create more and more work.

This video made me feel much better about my path into the literary world. It turns out I knew what I was doing when I first started as an editor. The work we selected for the first issue of Weave is still the same quality, though my tastes may have fluctuated as I grew. What I’ve gotten better at is articulating why a piece of writing works. I’ve learned the language of craft. I’ve learned the words and I’ve applied this knowledge to my own writing. I still have a lot of words to learn. I always will.

Parents will often complain about the ‘terrible twos’ phase of childhood. Having worked with kids this age, I’ve witnessed the frustration that is inherent in learning to speak. Talk to an 18 month-old sometime. They know what you are saying. Seriously. They can understand you. They just literally can’t form their own words yet. They have been listening to the words since before birth. They want to communicate. Parents remind children to ‘use their words’ well after they learn to speak. When a young child can’t articulate, it’s incredibly frustrating, thus resulting in lots of tantrums and timeouts. But I can relate. When I get upset about something, I find it harder to explain myself. And yet, when I find the right words – those perfect words that clearly explain how I feel, what I want, what I need – well, that’s an amazing feeling.

So maybe Professor Big Picture was right, and not just about learning math, but learning anything. We all know things, inherently. This collective knowledge is the human condition. We just need the words.

Other Voices Weigh In

Other writers out there are weighing in on the discussion about publishing poetry. Here is a list of what I've found to be most useful.

Sandra Beasley: What I Think About When I Think About BlazeVOX

Sandy Longhorn: Buy or Borrow a Book of Poetry Today: Not a Post on the BlazeVox Kerfluffle

Roxane Gay: A Kingdom of Kings

Vouched Books: Poets Going Gentle Into the Good Night: Thoughts On BlazeVOX

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Why Poets are the Worst Salespeople Ever AND Seven Ways to Get Involved in Your Local Literary Community

I've been quiet here all week, waiting for the dust to settle after the BlazeVOX thing. It will soon be out of our minds, because that's how things go these days. So many words out there, so many people talking. Is anyone listening? I've been listening this week, reading blogs and TwitFacePlus updates and I keep encountering the same words over and over.

Poetry doesn't make money! There is no profit in literary publishing. You won't get rich publishing a lit mag! No one reads this stuff except other writers and even that readership is debatable. Give up on life because all your dreams will never come true.

Geez, when you put it that way, what hope is there for any of us?

Poets are the worst at sales. We run around saying things like this and then act surprised when no one wants to listen to us read our poems or buy our books. I can hear people saying our words back, "Well, you said no one reads poetry anymore..."

Seriously folks, we need a new slogan. It's late here and I'm beat so I can't think of anything at the moment. I'm toying with something like, "Poetry makes you rich in metaphors and ideas!" Maybe that's lame. Right now it sounds kind of cool. And by cool, I mean super nerdy.

Additionally, I keep hearing people talk about themselves. How it's SO HARD to be a writer. Yeah, it is. But it's also hard being human. Sure, things like money can soften the edges and, you are right, we already have established that most writers aren't rich. But you know what else can soften the edges? Community. Getting involved with your local literary community can help lighten the burdens that come with writing. But don't think about what you can GET from your community; think about what you have to offer. Not sure exactly? Well, here are some of my thoughts I've come up with this week to get you started.

1. DONATE money to a local literary organization.

Yeah, we have established we're all broke. But think about all the money you spent this year on beer. Or movie rentals. Or delicious candy treats. Whatever it is, consider opting out one week and donating $5 to a local literary organization. And in the process you could get a little healthier by cutting down on extra calories or going for a walk instead of zoning out in front of the television. Just saying.

2. SHARE your time, skills & knowledge with a local press.

When I imagine an editor, reading manuscript after manuscript, searching for funding, running a business, designing, printing, promoting and selling books of experimental poetry, I think to myself, why in the world has no one volunteered to help him? I could not run Weave with my amazing staff of volunteers. Everyone that is involved with Weave has come forward on their own and offered to help. Not sure what you can do? Well, if you aren't confident in your editorial skills, perhaps they need help stuffing envelops or running to the post office. Maybe you are awesome at social networking and could set up a blog and Facebook page. Or perhaps you are great at event planning and could volunteer to help set up a reading. The door is open. Walk through it and offer to help.

3. ATTEND local literary events.

Go to readings. Especially ones where you don't know the people who are reading. They are usually free, sometimes they ask for a donation, or just ask that you buy a drink from the venue. Awesome! Now you can have that drink back that you donated from step one. Don't underestimate the power of your own physical presence in an audience. Engaging with the work of others has ripple effects in our own lives.

4. BRING your non-writer friends to the next lit event.

This is a big one. Next time you head to a reading, bring along you BFF from college or that friend from work you've been meaning to hang out with. You never know how people will be affected by a reading. This will help open the poetry doors to a wider audience and strengthen the community.

5. ADVOCATE poetry on a daily basis.

Talk about poetry with your mom and your coworker. Your neighbors and kids. Tell friends about your favorite poets. Tell them about the last reading you attended. Talk to people about the volunteer work you do with your local lit mag. Of course, you can also talk to them about the latest episode of Parks & Rec, thereby demonstrating that poets are completely out-of-touch with popular culture. Lend someone a book of poetry you think they might enjoy or show them a cool animated poetry video. Reach them. Talk it up. Be an advocate. Demonstrate poetry's relevance in your life.  Don't complain about how poor you are. Instead, write a poem on a post it and put it on back door of a bathroom stall. Sew poems into shirt tags at the Goodwill. Mail a postcard poem to an old friend...

6. BUY books. 

And READ THEM. Yeah yeah, money again. But lots of presses have sales or discounts on older titles and back issues. Speaking of which, Weave is having a half off sale right now! Again, figure out a way to make it a priority. Make coffee at home instead of hitting Starbucks. If you can't buy books, then get your butt to the library. Libraries are awesome.

7. CHAMPION the work of others.

Offer to help your recently published poet-friends hold a reading at your local library. Write book reviews. Chat up your social networks about an awesome piece you read online or a great new book by an emerging writer. Email a poet whose work you admire and tell them you are a fan. I've done this last one before and boy, is it a powerful thing to let someone know how their words affected you. I highly recommend it.

While these steps might have some overlap, I think they are a great starting place for those who are looking for a community. Not sure where to start in your community? A quick Google search will show you what organizations are nearby. If nothing is close, well then, start something! A reading series, a monthly workshop, a book club. Whatever. You have something to offer. Get your butt out there and get involved. I'm talking to you. Yes, you. Stop blogging about how you'll never make money from poetry and get out there and make something even better: a friend. Yeah, corny I know, but it's the truth.