Category: Article


How Zoe Valentine Works

(PHOTO: Zoe Valentine)

Editor’s note: This is part two of an on-going series about successful bloggers and their habits. Read  part one here and click here to read part three.

A lot’s happened in the nearly five years Zoe Valentine’s entertained and informed readers with her blog about what she calls “the most mundane of things” in her daily life.

Those adventures include the Missouri-transplant apartment-hunting in New York City, falling in love, and leaving an economic consulting gig in the Big Apple—fiancé in tow—for an executive administrative support position in the Urbana-Champaign, Illinois-area. Those posts and more gained her a wider readership and caught the attention thrice of web administrators at the popular online publishing platform that hosts her blog Zoe Says.

Not bad for a self-professed introvert. “Having an easily findable online identity is sometimes really scary to me,” the Louisiana-native says in a recent interview. “It’s not just my name, it’s that all of these personal observations and facts about myself are just…out there.”

Even if Valentine tried, this age of smartphones and social networking sites makes it impossible to avoid an online presence. “Already today’s smartphones used by teenagers to text friends have as much computing power as the Apollo spacecraft that traveled to the moon in 1969,” the husband-and-wife research team Ayesha & Parag Khanna tell tech blogger Kyle Munkittrick, of Pop Bioethics.

The Khannas are part of a research and advisory group at the Hybrid Reality Institute, which explores human-technology co-evolution and its implications for global business, society and politics. According to their book, Hybrid Reality, the “balance of innovation” eclipses the military “balance of power”.

The Khannas note this trend will advance for another decade. “Hewlett Packard estimates that by 2015, there will be one trillion devices connected to the Internet constantly recording and sharing information,” the Khannas says. “By 2020, we will literally live in technology.”

Another thing that makes Zoe Valentine’s online presence inevitable are current hiring practices. “In this era, [an] online presence is the best way [a] company can check your…background,” according to Dheeraj thedijje’s post at the tech blog Intelligent Computing. An online presence gives a company a sense of how well a potential employee uses technology, how well she/he writes, and how well the individual conducts themselves publicly.

(PHOTO: Zoe Valentine) That’s the smile, thanks to Zoe’s fiance Kevin .

Valentine built her presence through blogging, which resulted from her friends’ fascination with how she tells stories, either in person or through her narrative emails.

“I had always thought I would go into film or video editing…which is another medium for telling stories,” says Valentine, who earned a BA in Film & Media Studies at the University of Rochester. “But so far it hasn’t panned out that way. I wrote my first post about hunting for apartments in New York City with Craigslist, and the blogging seed was planted.”

Her most memorable and successful post is “The Obligatory Courtesy Smile,” a hilarious post about workplace etiquette. According to Valentine’s piece, this gesture is a “weird smile—sometimes an accompanying nod—that you give people…where you flatten your lips and smile tightly as you pass each other by.”

This post resonated with fellow bloggers. “How about the little ‘wave’ that you give along with the nod as you pass by someone,” writes Nikitaland, who blogs about her dog Nikita.

Think that gesture’s bad? It could be worst, according to Ugogo, a vegetarian and aspiring actress. “What’s really awkward,” she writes, “is seeing that person twice.”

“Courtesy Smile” was also a hit with WordPress administrators, who selected that post among their eight favorites to showcase, or, as it’s called on WordPress, “Freshly Pressed”—which results in a major traffic surge. “Courtesy Smile,” posted July 2011, grossed 12,915 hits in one day.

That post introduced me to Zoe Valentine, who I’ve followed since. And get this. “Courtesy Smile” marked the blogger’s third time being “Freshly Pressed”. The first (November 2010) recorded 2,065 hits, while her second (May 2011) clocked 4,195 hits. “It’s been an absolute honor each and every time,” Valentine says. “The thrill never gets old.”

What makes posts like “Courtesy Smile” successful is that—whether Valentine intended—they adopt what’s called the sitcom format. Like sitcoms, Valentine’s blog posts—whether about chucking a microwave for counter space, how she chooses her drugstores, or why she stopped listening to the radio—are short bursts of enjoyment that include the hero, anti-hero, love interest and buddy.

(ARTWORK: Courtesy)

“Since sitcoms are only 30 minutes long, it is essential that the plot line be fairly tight and resolvable,” writes Winifred Fordham Metz, a media librarian and contributing writer to How Stuff Works, an award-winning website of explanations of how the world works.

In his article “How Sitcoms Work,” Metz adds, “Successful plots will typically fall within a family or workplace setting or some combination of the two.” In “Courtesy Smile,” Zoe’s the hero (for tackling the situations she encounters), the gesturing office mates are the anti-hero, and Valentine’s love interest/buddy is her fiancé Kevin, who demonstrates the gesture in a photo.

Now, here’s how Valentine works. “Sometimes I’m hit with a snippet of inspiration from the most mundane of things in my daily life,” she says. “A funny thought or personal quirk about myself will hit me, and I will whip out my iPhone and enter it into my Notepad.”

(PHOTO: rapgenius.com)

She gets her need to write things down from her parents, who are both prolific writers. “My mom is more poetic and she uses her writing to inspire and encourage others,” Valentine says. “My dad is currently working on publishing a self-help book that he has worked on for a very long time.”

Of her parents’ writing habits, she adds, “They write every single day, even if it’s just personal notes, thoughts, feelings.”

While Valentine’s not writing every day, she’s just as disciplined. “If I feel it’s been too long since I’ve put out a blog post, I’ll refer to my snippets of inspiration, put the idea into a draft, and develop it into a full post,” she says. She also responds to WordPress’s weekly photo challenges, which get her creative juices going.

Lately, her faucet stays flowing. “More often than not, I sit down at my computer with a strong idea of what I need to flesh out,” says Valentine, noting that articles online make up majority of her daily reading.

Those days when she’s dry, she’s learned not to beat herself up. “I went ten months without a new post between last year and this year as I had started a very demanding new job,” she recalls of the ups and downs writers experience. “As I’ve gotten older and developed my blogging muscle, I find I can’t stay way.”

Neither can Charles Gulotta (aka bronxboy55), a long-time  ZoeSays reader. “What a great blog this is, Zoe,” writes the veteran freelance writer and author. “It’s like a candy store that changes with every visit.”

And that’s key to successful bloggers—return readers. “Checking spelling and grammar is…a key to getting people to come back and read your blog,” Valentine’s advice to new bloggers. “Misspelled words or poor grammar (unless it’s ironic) keeps the reader from really delving in and getting lost in whatever you have to say.”

Another advice is to stay open to inspiration in its many forms. For Zoe Valentine, it’s a song line, scene from a favorite movie or TV show, a story line from a novel, and other bloggers. “That’s the beauty of writing blog posts,” she says, “anything can be fully realized in some fashion.”

(PHOTO: Helenbackrwards.com) Tim Seibles is a literary treasure.

Understanding how Tim Seibles got the National Book Foundation’s attention requires some knowledge of neuroscience and of his persistence to be heard.

At any moment, the human mind rapidly shifts between thoughts. It’s that movement Seibles mimicks when arranging the sections of his books. “If we’re really listening, we’ll go from rage to tenderness pretty quickly,” he says in a recent phone interview. “I try to put together different kinds of poems in a section…approximately the ways in which our minds move.”

The results are five books that take readers on an exciting ride through a surprising twist of tone and subject matter on each page. This skill is one reason the National Book Foundation selected his latest collection Fast Animal as a 2012 National Book Award Finalists.

“Established in 1950, the National Book Award is an American literary prize given to writers by writers and administered by the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization,” according to nationalbook.org. A panel of five judges in each genre chooses five finalists from those submitted in their category, which ranges from 150 titles (Poetry) to 500 titles (Nonfiction).

The Foundation will honor Seibles and other finalists Nov. 14 at New York City’s Cipriani Wall Street. The evening before, he’ll be among those presenting during the National Book Award Finalists Reading at The New School.

News of his nomination pinballed through the national literary scene, with poet and activist Tony Medina weighing in. “Tim Seibles’ NBA nomination not only validates what has been a steady, stellar commitment to the word with an incredible body of personal, political, bitingly satirical poetry of integrity,” Medina says. “It also shines some much-needed light on the great, risk-taking work independent presses are engaged in in the face of such precarious times in publishing.”

Cornelius Eady is also ecstatic. “I’m really pleased about his nom,” says Eady, who co-founded the Cave Canem week-long summer poetry retreat for writers of African descent, where Seibles taught workshops. Of the nomination, Eady added, “It’s way overdue.”

That excitement spread to Seibles’ Facebook wall, where friends and colleagues congratulated him. Among them was Debra Marquart, who teaches with Seibles in the Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing. “Not a bit surprised,” she posted, “but very much delighted by this news!”

(PHOTO: Etruscan Press)

“Yaaay, Tim!” posted Marilyn Nelson, poet, translator and children’s book author. “Congratulations!”

Seibles felt the love. “Most beloved friends!… It means a lot to have so many good people in my corner,” according to his wall post. “Again, I so appreciate your belief in me and my poems. For me, being a writer is all about these kinds of connections, fam. May only sweet luck rain on every one of you.”

To hear Seibles tell it, his nomination is icing on top of icing that includes his more than two decades of sharing his work to both national and international audiences. Philly born and bred, Seibles is a member of Old Dominion University’s (ODU) English Department and MFA faculty. A teaching board member of the Muse Writers Workshop, he received fellowships from both the Provincetown Fine Arts Center and The National Endowment for the Arts. He won the Open Voice Award from the 63rd Street Y in New York City. The Stadler Center for Poetry awarded Seibles a Poet in Residence post at Bucknell University. His poems appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Best American poetry 2010.

The National Book Award Nomination is also payoff for Seibles’ patience and sweat that produced his previous collections: Body Moves, Hurdy-Gurdy, Hammerlock, and Buffalo Head Solos. He got the news while he and Jamaican-American poet Shara McCallum visited the Nichols School in Buffalo, NY. “We read poems…talked about how you write poetry, how you analyze it,” Seibles recalls. He tried to ignore his vibrating phone. “Finally, I pulled it out of my pocket in the middle of class and looked at it and saw: ‘Congratulations, National Book Award Finalist.’”

Cait Johnson is another Stonecoast colleague thrilled by her “compadre’s” nomination. “I’ve been a fan since I read his Hurdy-Gurdy and realized that here was a rare man who honors the divine feminine while maintaining a warm, dynamic, and very muscular masculinity,” Johnson says. “Such luscious balance! Such gritty, real, and often lyrical work.”

My first encounter with Seibles’ work was in 2004, when I Googled him and came across his poem “For Brothers Everywhere” (from Hurdy-Gurdy). What blew me away was him calling the streetballers “…muscular saxophones/ body-boppin better than jazz.” Since then, I’ve always admired how Seibles sweats a poem to its maximum potential. Another example is his poem “The Applecake,” where he offers this stunning sequence:

(PHOTO: gourmetrecipe.com) Applecake

I like to consider your applecake
smiling on the kitchen counter, dressed
only in its sweetness, its round face
a jubilant island of apple and sugar—
no mere strudel or sloppy cobbler—
it is a baked cathedral of promises
kept, your applecake
opening up like a three-day weekend,
a Good Friday for the mouth, a jailbreak
from the hard, inedible, unthinkable city.

He makes it look effortless, yet it’s a labor-rich process. “When I think about a poem, I think about it being analogous to a song,” Seibles says. “I think about the songs I love the most.” Among those is Jimi Hendrix’s “Power of Love” from his Band of Gypsies album. “In those five minutes, there’s so much happening in that song both in terms of lyrics and…the sound of the guitar,” he recalls. “Man, I have played that song, since 1970, probably 10,000 times.”

Another inspiration is Sade Adu’s title song “Soldier of Love”. “The musical composition behind her voice sonically is perfectly conceived…the instrumentation is perfect, the inflection of her voice is perfect, the tonal and timbre qualities of her voice is perfect,” Seibles says. “It’s like everything is in place and it makes the song so rich, second by second that it’s irresistible.”

He added: “I know the only way Sade…and Hendrix did that was they worked their asses off. They kept thinking, ‘I can do more. I can make this better.’ They went into the studio and stayed until it rang. So what I try to do, when I think about my poems, is try to approach that work with the same integrity of Hendrix, Sade, and many others.”

DC poet Brandon Johnson certainly puts Seibles up there with Sade and Hendrix. “I admire Tim Seibles’ work because of his ability to inject deep tones into conversational communications,” he says, citing Seibles’ skill at turning pop culture into social commentary.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

He does this through his persona poems that speak through Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, where a classic cartoon subtly shifts into a discussion on  human character. “Tim’s work always speaks to me because of his sensible way of reminding me that the complex can be explained without charts and graphs,” Johnson says, “just an entreaty to pay attention and think past yourself.”

Seibles developed that skill and integrity as a young poet, 19 years old, dreaming of writing books and sharing his work with the world. “Once I got hooked on writing, I was going to be writing something, and most of it was going to be poems,” he recalls. “I was just really thinking, “I’m going to be writing poems, nothing’s going to stop me, and—damn it!—somebody’s going to hear me at some point.”

He learned humility from his teachers Michael Ryan, John Skoyles, and Jack Myers at Southern Methodist University (and later from Mark Cox, Myers again, Susan Mitchell, and Richard Jackson at  Vermont College, where he got his MFA).  “Because of the ways my teachers spoke about paying your dues, like how many rejection slips they got and how long it took before someone was even willing to publish one or two of their poems, let alone a book, I just assumed it was going to take a long time to get much notice,” Seibles recalls. “That’s just the nature of things. There are a lot of writers out there who are better…who’ve been doing it longer, whose craft is sharper. You just keep doing your thing and eventually someone would notice what I was doing.”

Sarah Browning and Melissa Tuckey definitely noticed. “As his many devoted readers know, Tim’s poems are tender and righteous, playful and erotic, lyrical and full of heart,” says Browning, who met Seibles at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in 2006.

That year, she attended his panel on the erotic in poetry. “Needless to say, I was knocked out,” recalls Browning, director and co-founder of Split This Rock, a nonprofit that celebrates the poetry of witness and provocation through a biannual festival, where Seibles read and led a workshop. “Every book of Tim’s has been extraordinary and, last month, the National Book Foundation wised up,” Browning says. “I’m thrilled that the NBF’s recognition will bring more readers to Tim’s essential work. He is truly one of the most urgent and necessary poets of our time.”

(PHOTO: Helen Peppe)

Melissa Tuckey agreed. “I love the humor and joy and political engagement in his work, his generous imagination,” says Tuckey, co-founder of Split This Rock. She served as co-director of the nonprofit from 2008 to 2010.

She first heard Seibles read at Ohio University more than a decade ago. She’s been a fan since. “I am super excited about Fast Animal‘s National Book Award nomination,” Tuckey says. “It’s well deserved, terrific to see his work in the national spotlight.”

The nomination still feels surreal to Seibles. “I’m only now beginning to realize how big a deal it is,” he says. “I always imagined it would be a big deal to get a major award or to be nominated for a major award.” The closest thing he’s experienced to a National Book Award nomination was when he won the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant in 1990. That year, Seibles was among the 40 people the federal arts agency awarded.

However, the National Book Foundation spotlights five writers in each genre: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature. “That’s a very big thing,” Seibles says. Of being among the five, he added: “It really puts you in a tight set of company.”

In addition to comments on his Facebook wall and my conversations with his friends and colleagues,  I constructed this article from a small part of an interview I conducted with Tim Seibles for an extended Q&A-piece that’s forthcoming in BOMB Magazine.

(PHOTO: William Bryant Rozier) Curtis Crisler

Curtis Crisler’s unnamed speaker is a griot of sorts. His distant kin, fleeing from Jim Crow and southern domestic terrorism, joins the 5 million African Americans who decide to roll out.

But they aren’t the first to do so. Others left before them during the first Great Migration (1910 to 1930), which swept two-thirds of 1.6 million Black folks traveling alone or in small family groups toward New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Indianapolis.

The griot’s people ran with the second wave of migrants who, between 1940 and 1970, swell the Black population of those eight cities, and, like the earlier travelers, they’re determined to hold the industrial 20th century to its promises of jobs and opportunities in the Northeast and Midwest. A large number of them also surge through West Coast cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, and Portland.

Crisler calls this movement one about “Urban Midwestern Sensibility.” The poet, author and educator captures his griot’s journey and bends that history with the 1982 hit “Mama Used to Say” as the theme song in his forthcoming chapbook Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy that Finishing Line Press will release in December. (Preorder your copy here.)

The 18-poem collection’s garnered early praise through blurbs from two rising stars on the national literary scene. “True to its title, Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy bristles with music: an album in verse of coming up hard and finding a path to light,” writes Mitchell L. H. Douglas, author of Cooling Board: A Long-Playing Poem. “Curtis Crisler is both poet and DJ, spinning a playlist of parental wisdom in the guise of the prose poem. These are survival songs. Tune in and be moved.”

Ross Gay, author of Bringing the Shovel Down and Against Which, is just as moved. “Curtis Crisler’s Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy is magic in the way it makes heartbreak music,” Gay writes. “With its halting syntax and precise, twisting diction, with its conjuring of these exact voices…. What I mean is that my heart is jumping around like a kangaroo on account of how beautiful this book. Like I said—heartbreaking, yes. But music, even more.”

Soundtrack’s also half of a new collection Crisler’s currently writing. His other books include a mixed-genre novel (Dreamist), a children’s book (Tough Boy Sonatas), his debut poetry collection (Pulling Scabs, a Pushcart-nominated collection), and his chapbook (Spill, which won the 2008 Keyhole Chapbook Award from Keyhole Press).

(PHOTO: Finishing Line Press)

Soundtrack, his second chapbook, resulted from a two-year process of him watching his poems mature. Prior to that, Junior’s song “Mama Used to Say” kept looping in Crisler’s head. “It was intense,” he says. “I couldn’t shake it.”

That’s when he knew Soundtrack should be a book of prose poems. “I wanted a cadence to the poems that trailed off from the song….into the things that my mother actually would say,” says Crisler, who’s currently an assistant professor of English at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW). “That was the epiphany for me. So I played with it as much as I could and let the process dictate the progress of the poems…I then went back and added and subtracted various ‘layerings’ to the poems.”

The outcome? “Prose poems that address a sporadic rhythm, and gives way to the reflection of a man’s life by using Junior’s song to connect to his mother, community, and past, all while seeing himself become a man in the process, as well as getting insight to the mother’s character,” Crisler says.

The titles in the table of contents’ first two sections reads like a list of “mother-isms” (“…fat meat’s greasy,” “…a hard head makes a soft. behind,” “…don’t eat nobody’s. chittlins,” “…boy, you ain’t gone worry me,” etc.).

Each of Soundtrack‘s three sections opens  with a song line from Junior’s “Mama Used to Say”. By italicizing his mom’s sayings, Crisler weaves maternal wisdom throughout the unnamed speaker’s coming-of-age tale. Take the poem “…you won’t understand what I’m telling you now, but one day you will:

…you won’t understand what i’m telling you now, but one day you will “move mountains. stomp mole hills. righteous glory born to. you from stellar backs. steel workers, postal workers, and soldiers garnered you titles in this. united states of e pluribus unum.” booker t. and dubois ain’t helping with these bills, and you eat a hell of a lot. listen now and hear me then. you need to learn to motivate. push the pulse, inspire. either matriculate or get job. but be more than one buck.

“Curtis’ work evolves from project to project, and now readers will get to experience this poet in a very intimate way,” says Randall Horton, author of Lingua Franca of Ninth Street and Definition of Place. He and Crisler met six years ago at Cave Canem’s week-long summer poetry retreat for writers of African descent. “Curtis showed me the ropes around the campus my first year there,” he says.

Horton’s admired his friend’s work since. “I’m always excited to see what Curtis is doing next,” says the poet and editor, who worked with Willow Books to publish Crisler’s Pulling Scabs and Dreamist. Though he hasn’t read Soundtrack, Horton’s optimistic about the book and speculates it will echo. “I’m referring to a literary heritage of perhaps [Robert] Hayden or [Gwendolyn] Brooks, maybe [Sterling] Plumpp or [Lucille]  Clifton,” he says. “I expect to be left with an experience.”

(PHOTO: Etcy.com)

Junior’s song is an irony that hits Crisler close to home. While “Mama Used to Say” encouraged kids against rushing to get older, Crisler’s childhood forced him into adulthood when his single-mom took night classes to earn her high school diploma.

Latchkey kid is a term that goes back to World War II, when stay-at-home moms took up odd jobs to make ends meet while their husbands fought in the armed forces. The practice of leaving kids home alone in the daytime is now common for working parents who can’t afford childcare.

At 5 years old, Crisler was the little man of the house. “I could cook a basic breakfast,” the Gary, IN-native says. “I walked to school on my own and had a key to the house in my sock.”

And while most latchkey kids suffer from depression, low self-esteem and are easily influenced by peers, that experience made Crisler independent and self-reliant at a young age. “I had obligations…one was to be home to watch my younger sister,” he says.

(PHOTO: William Bryant Rozier)

His then-basic culinary skills enabled him to fix his sister a sandwich when she was hungry. He even tucked her in and waited for his mom’s return before going to bed. “I know my mother believed in me, but I’m sure she worried until she got home as well,” Crisler recalls. “You had to contribute in a responsible way so that the family could function.” He held down the house until his aunt moved in with them.

That self-reliance and his mom made him a better husband and father. “She made sure I knew how to cook, shop, wash clothes, take care of my sisters, take care of our house, and take care of myself,” he says. “She was a bit of a handyman with certain home projects. I learned from her how to attend to family since my father wasn’t there.”

His mom, who raised three kids and her two sisters, gave him something else. “I was able to see a lot of my artistic self through her,” Crisler says, recalling that his mom modeled, acted, and did visual art.

She inspired him to write his first poem in 4th grade. “My mother would support us in anything we did, but she wanted us to show her that we were committed to our endeavors,” Crisler says. “When she saw that, she would be our biggest advocate.”

Her life also taught him that hard work earned respect. Crisler’s fellowships from Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Cave Canem, Soul Mountain, and a guest residency at Hamline University are testaments to his mom’s wisdom.

His work interested Allison Joseph, poetry editor at Crab Orchard Review and director of the MFA Program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “Congrats on the new chapbook!!!” she writes on Crisler’s Facebook wall. “Looking forward to reading it.”

Joseph’s still impressed with his earlier work. “Curtis Crisler’s poems are experimental but welcoming, funky intellectual rides that invite all to share in his scintillating view of our world,” according to her blurb for Pulling Scabs. “It’s always a delight and a surprise to see where a Curtis Crisler poem goes, and there is always gut-bucket substance beneath this poet’s flash and dazzle.”

(PHOTO: William Bryant Rozier)

His hard work also earned him many awards including the Sterling Plumpp First Voices Poetry Award, an Indiana Arts Commission Grant, the Eric Hoffer Award, and a nomination for the Eliot Rosewater Award. A playwright adapted his poetry to theatrical productions in New York and Chicago, and he’s published in a variety of magazines, journals, and anthologies.

What drives Crisler once pushed William Stafford. In an interview with Chicago Review’s Peter Ellsworth, the late-poet said: “The voice I hear in my poems is my mother’s voice.” Those words ring true with the young poet. “That voice pushes me to be more than I am, or at least all that I can be,” says Crisler, who shows this in the poem “now mama’s words ricochet/boomerang my skull”:

now mama’s words ricochet/boomerang my skull. my bones. fatherhood. i’ve stepped into some soupy resistance. mama’s words are all on the soul of my blues. blue muddiness. i can’t define.

The motherly voice assures Crisler it’s OK for Soundtrack’s poems to surprise him. “I’m still learning from them,” he says. “I believe these poems have taken me to a place I wasn’t prepared to go.” He started with two poems. “I hadn’t planned on writing them.” But those poems insisted on making their way into the world.

That’s how Soundtrack sprouted from the germ of an idea. “Man, the creative process is crazy cool,” Crisler says. “It frustrates and burns and keeps you on your toes, but when it comes through, it comes through big time, if only from this latchkey boy’s perspective.”

The Residency and Immersion

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Jaed Coffin grew up in Maine and has worked as a boxer and lobsterman before becoming a writer and Stonecoast MFA faculty member.

Jaed Coffin’s goal is to aim for the big idea when he’s working on a writing project, often immersing himself in his subjects’ worlds. And he didn’t expect anything less from his students, who he urged yesterday to do their subjects’ stories justice by giving readers the big picture.

There was a lot to take away from Coffin’s presentation YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS SH*T UP!: An Introduction to Immersion/Literary/Longform Journalism. Yesterday was also the second day of the Stonecoast MFA summer residency, which started with a tour of the Stone House for first semester students by journalist and author Sam Smith, who spent his childhood summers living in the Casco Bay waterfront estate.

I came back this year as a fourth semester student, who for the last six months worked on my third semester project (a creative collaboration with a comic strip artist that produced a comic book) while starting a new job and promoting my debut poetry collection in addition to getting married.

And I’m still charged from Friday’s Flash Faculty Reading, where Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of the novel WENCH, peeled our wigs back with a short story she hadn’t published yet. The award-winning writer, who’s also a former University of California postdoctoral fellow and graduate of Harvard, is guest faculty at this residency. I enjoyed talking to Perkins-Valdez about married life (she’s going on nine years) and appreciated her insights on parenting.

Just as priceless was my first day in the cross genre workshop Explorations in Masculinity, co-facilitated by David Anthony Durham and Jaed Coffin. What’s interesting is there are only two guys in this workshop of seven students. Yesterday, we started our workshop in a room at the Stone House, where we have all our workshops and presentations.

This grand estate is striking with its multiple stone porches and fireplaces. The beautiful stained glass, wood, and tile work are as breathtaking as the ocean view from each room. On the extensive grounds of the Stone House are rocky pathways to harbor vistas, nationally renowned heather gardens, and historically organic farmland.

I was glad that Durham and Coffin took the workshop to the deck behind the house, where our conversations flowed from different male archetypes presented in Twilight and Harry Potter, to the dominant-submissive theme in contemporary literature. We also talked about so-called traditional male types that over-populated action flicks. Coffin asked us if those guys even existed.

(PHOTO: Selectism) Gay Talese, author and pioneer of literary journalism.

That question about the truth was a great lead  up to Coffin’s presentation on literary journalism, or what he called narrative nonfiction. “To me, it’s the least pretentious term,” he said. It’s also a form of long journalism pioneered by writer Gay Talese, who wrote the most memorable profile of Frank Sinatra for Esquire more than four decades ago.

As the story goes, Talese came to  Los Angeles to profile Sinatra. “The legendary singer was approaching fifty, under the weather, out of sorts, and unwilling to be interviewed,” according to Esquire’s editorial note. “So Talese remained in L.A., hoping Sinatra might recover and reconsider, and he began talking to many of the people around Sinatra—his friends, his associates, his family, his countless hangers-on—and observing the man himself whenever he could.” This resulted in the 11,000-word article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” that Esquire published April 1966.

Coffin used the profile as a great example of  the three-part zoom functions used by literary journalists. At 1X (wide frame): the writer captures the subject’s environment, atmosphere, regionalism, culture, subculture, race, identity, and class. The writer zooms in to 2X (narrow focus), where they capture the subject’s home, community, family, past, genealogy, origins and lore. Then, at 3X (narrower focus), the writer zooms directly on the subject. At this focal point, the writer  captures the subject’s eyes, ears, speech, charms, patterns of behavior, clothing, and so on.

Talese does that throughout his profile of Sinatra. That long-form of journalism is defined by an Esquire editor as “a work of rigorously faithful fact enlivened with the kind of vivid storytelling that had previously been reserved for fiction.”

That struck a chord with Coffin, who at 18, knew he wanted to be a writer. At first, he tried his hand at fiction. “The first novel I tried to write [then] I got 25 pages into it and lost myself,” said the Stonecoast instructor, whose passion followed him from undergrad at New England’s Middlebury College through graduation, when he moved back home with his mom and took a job as a lobsterman while he worked on his writing. “I kept using reality as an amplified spring-board,” he said, to do the type of writing he wanted.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) A 21-year-old Jaed Coffin spent a summer in a Buddhist monastery.

Then the literary inertia pulled him to nonfiction when writing the truth became beneficial. “Most of the time truth is better than fiction,” Coffin said. “The social aspect of nonfiction is why I’m in the game. Nonfiction has this beautiful social element. You get to be out in the world.”

Coffin’s explorations took him from Brunswick, Maine, to his mother’s native village in Thailand, where he became a Buddhist monk after his junior year at Middlebury College.

He captured that experience in his memoir A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants (Da Capo/Perseus), which is a tale of displacement, ethnic identity, and cultural belonging. According to the book jacket, it’s also a record of Coffin’s “time at the temple that rain season–receiving alms in the streets in saffron robes; bathing in the canals; learning to meditate in a mountaintop hut; and falling in love with Lek, a beautiful Thai woman who comes to represent the life he can have if he stays.”

The other benefits of writing nonfiction are just as alluring. “You make a lot of money and get to hang out with people,” Coffin said. “You also get to use every skill that fiction writers and poets use.” He’s currently working those skills in Roughhouse Friday (Riverhead/Penguin), his forthcoming book about the year he fought as the middleweight champion of a barroom boxing show in Juneau, Alaska.

Though he loves the adventure, Coffin advised it’s not a prerequisite to writing narrative nonfiction. “Do not feel like, because you have a domestic life, you cannot do literary journalism,” he said. “Reality, on its own terms, is strange and full of conflict. You just have to be patient enough to dig up the conflict.”

(PHOTO: Helen Peppe) Indigo Moor during his presentation Thursday.

During his discussion Thursday, Indigo Moor had a question for his fellow Stonecoast grad students. “How many harmonica players does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

He looked around at the puzzled expressions of writers straining their brains to figure out the punch line. Then everyone laughed when Indigo quoted a harmonica player: “We don’t worry about the changes, man. We just blow.”

His advice to his peers, looking to write in multiple genres, was not to be the person who blows, or makes light of another genre. This was Indigo’s graduating student presentation Taming the Hydra: From Jacking to Mastering Multiple Literary Forms.

For an hour, Indigo covered various genres from the ground up, went over the differences between singular arts (writing poetry and/or fiction) and collaborative arts (writing stage scripts and/or screenplays), and the pros and cons of writing in multiple genres.

It was the perfect way to start the sixth day of the Stonecoast MFA winter residency. Today, which also marked the second half of the 10-day retreat, we started our poetry workshop with Jeanne Marie Beaumont.

Prior to Jeanne’s workshop, I took the Writing On Race and Difference mixed-genre course that Deb Marquart and Alexs Pate led. The first half of the residency, poet and activist Martin Espada was the guest poet. I really enjoyed his craft talk I’ve Known Rivers: Speaking of the Unspoken Places in Poetry.

“Some places are forgotten through negligence,” Espada said. “Others are forgotten deliberately.” And sometimes those places aren’t mentioned because the unspeakable happened. During his talk, Espada used the poems of Nazim Hikmet (Turkish poet, playwright, novelist and memoirist) and Etheridge Knight (an African-American poet) as examples of writers giving voice to those who dwelled in such places.

For both Hikmet and Knight, who spent time behind bars, prison was an unspeakable place until they enabled the voices of other prisoners through their poems. In that case, Espada said, “Poetry humanizes, giving the prisoner a face and body.” Espada’s visit culminated with the poet reading to a full house later that evening.

(PHOTO: Helen Peppe) Martin Espada during the guest reading.

There were faculty readings just about every night this week. I read and got to hear students in poetry, creative nonfiction and popular fiction flex their literary muscles on the open mic. There was even a Romance: Happy Hour, sponsored by the popular fiction students who write romance stories.

Amidst all this, I managed to find time to talk with Indigo Moor. We both write in multiple genres (I write poetry and creative nonfiction, while Indigo–who published two poetry collections, Taproot and Through the Stonecutter’s Window–has written creative nonfiction, a stage play, a screenplay, and is working on a novel).

I told him I have a hard time switching back smoothly from creative nonfiction to poetry, without writing prosaic stanzas. When he said that’s what his Thursday talk would be about, I knew I’d be there.

During Indigo’s presentation, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities between his and the one Cait Johnson led five days earlier. Both Cait and Indigo talked about writing across genres. But, while Cait’s specifically focused on poetry and creative nonfiction, Indigo’s included popular fiction, stage scripts and screenplays.

(PHOTO: Helen Peppe)

And I’ll admit that the thought of writing in those genres can seem as daunting as going up against the beast of many heads. This literary hydra, according to Indigo, is not unlike the Lernean Hydra that Hercules killed.

But, unlike the Greek god, our role as writers is to tame the hydra—not kill it. And taming the hydra entails knowing the pros and cons of writing in multiple genres. Among the cons were the time, energy and practice invested into the efforts.

“If you think about how much energy you put into the genre you write in, you have to put more energy into the next genre because you’re carrying baggage from the previous one,” Indigo said, adding that the effort is worth it. If an idea doesn’t work in one genre, a multiple genre writer has other avenues to express that idea.

Taming the hydra also included both prose writers and poets entering other genres with an understanding of the rules. Prose writers experimenting with poetry have to start by distilling their sentences down to its essence, while balancing the lines that carry imagery with those that carry statement.

In poetry, Indigo noted, sentence structure takes a back seat to musicality. He advised the poets to do the opposite, which involves them knowing the art of the simple sentence. In prose, the sense of music takes a backseat to the story line. “It’s so easy to look at fiction and say, ‘It’s not as hard as poetry,’” Indigo said. “That’s not true. You have to learn how to write in an expansive form.”

(PHOTO: Stock)

Cait Johnson raised some eyebrows and made a roomful of writers blush when she talked about orgasms. According to Cait, a Stonecoast faculty, the best orgasms happen when two people are vulnerable and intimate with each other.

To hear her tell it, that same intensity’s achieved when writers engage in other genres. Cait’s wise words resonated with both students and colleagues during her presentation Passionate Bedfellows: What Poets and CNF [Creative Nonfiction] Writers Offer Each Other.

For starters, poetry offers the magic of words.

“Writers are magicians,” Cait said. “Words are magic.” And part of that magic are the imagery and rhythms that affect people physiologically. “Writing poetry itself is a healing,” the multi-genre instructor added. “I believe we are a culture suffering from disconnection.”

What makes creative nonfiction significant is its knack for smoothly incorporating research information into prose. “That’s what’s going to help your poetry,” Cait said, “if you can ground it in something real and something juicy.”

Cait’s presentation fell on the second day of the Stonecoast MFA winter residency, where I’m starting my third semester. The previous semester, I had a wonderful time working with Joy Harjo as my mentor. During our time together, I produced new poems, including the imitations that accompanied my annotations.

Through Joy’s guidance, I strengthened those poems through revision. Joy and I also took a deeper look at T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song for Prufrock” and other poems, and Amiri Baraka’s Transbluesency.

(ARTWORK: Courtesy)

I remembered telling Joy that after reading Eliot’s poems, I saw how rich his poems are with details, how they felt complete without giving too much away to the reader.

That was my takeaway: to write complete, detail-rich poems that are open enough for the reader to come to their own conclusions or discoveries.

What I discovered, going through Amiri Baraka’s Transbluesency and looking at what changed in between the first and last collections included in that volume, was a shift in his influences.

Baraka’s early collections seemed informed by his personal life, while current events–both domestic and abroad–inspired his poems half way through Transbluesency. The jazz music and musicians influenced Baraka’s later poems in the volume. And that’s how my twice-a-month phone conversations with Joy went during my second semester.

The first night of the residency, I was glad that Joy, despite the airline losing her bags, made it in time to present at the Flash Faculty Reading that included Tony Barnstone, Sarah Braunstein, Annie Finch, Nancy Holder, Cait Johnson, James Patrick Kelly, and Debra Marquart (who, with Alexs Pate, is teaching the Writing About Race and Difference workshop that I’m in for the first part of the residency).

Joy read an excerpt from her upcoming memoir, which she noted took her 14 years to write. “I kept running away from it,” she told the audience during her reading. She repeated it to me and Amanda Johnston, my Cave Canem sister who is starting her first semester in the Stonecoast MFA program.

It was good to see Joy. I made her laugh when I told Amanda that, in terms of my poems, Joy was my fitness instructor during the second semester. Joy’s feedback on my poems was helpful. Because of her suggestions, I now consider various levels on which my poems work. I also include more details and I’m not afraid to write long poems.

Joy laughed when I said her suggestions have my poems posing like bodybuilders, showing off their new muscles. She laughed louder when I told Amanda that the entire second semester Joy forced my poems to do extra bench presses despite them being tired and wanting to relax.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Cait Johnson

Cait Johnson pushed us just as hard during her presentation, when she paired up students in creative nonfiction with those in poetry.

The added advantage of both genres is that poetry’s a shortcut to empathy, while creative nonfiction teaches poets how to tell detailed and engaging stories.

The class exercise involved poets finding a story line in their poems and turning it into prose, while creative nonfiction writers wrote a poem describing a character or setting from their pieces.

“That’s what this presentation’s about—lighting things up,” Cait said, before turning to Mary Karr and Li-Young Lee, two writers who’ve successfully used elements from both genres to light things up in their work.

In Viper Rum, Karr’s creative nonfiction influences are in the autobiographic subject matter she tackles in her poetry collection. Each poem’s a revelation of Karr’s demons such as alcoholism and her suicidal thoughts.

Karr’s blending of the techniques paid off, according to a reviewer at goodreads.com. “Fierce, brilliant work here. Like exploring an open wound,” the reviewer wrote. “Not for those unwilling nor unable to explore…go outside the bounds of textbook time-lines.”

Li-Young Lee went outside the bounds with his memoir The Winged Seed, what an amazon.com reviewer called “part poem, part waking dream, part remembrance.” What makes this memoir unconventional is its beautifully crafted lines.

(ARTWORK: Courtesy)

“He takes us on a journey to his psyche,” Cait said. “He makes us feel, with him, the immense experience from the inside.” Lee’s blending of both poetry and creative nonfiction grounds his lyrical Winged Seed in the stories of real people.

Though Lee’s mostly known for his poetry, his memoir is an example of what Cait said happens when creative nonfiction students experiment with poems while working on their memoirs: they come back with “a mother lode” of imagery to bring back to their creative nonfiction.

Of Li-Young Lee, Cait concluded, “He’s writing about writing; he’s writing about memoir, and he found his way in.”

Nancy Schwalb: A Community Champion

Full Disclosure: I’m the senior program director at the DC Creative Writing Workshop. I covered the award ceremony where Bank of America honored our executive director, and I wanted to share it here. Congrats again Nancy!

(PHOTO: Abbey Chung) Young-Writer-in-Residence Renita Williams, Executive Director Nancy Schwalb, and Board Chair Dr. John Cotman in their militant stand against the cold, wet weather of that evening.

With two young people from her program, Nancy Schwalb approached the podium. “As you can see, I brought my bosses with me,” she told a laughing crowd Thursday evening.

The DC Creative Writing Workshop’s executive director, known for her wit and sense of humor, continued. “Our organization’s so small—hey! There’s our senior program director! And over there’s our program manager,” Schwalb said, pointing into the audience. “That’s it for our staff—oh! And most of our board is also here tonight.”

Everyone in the packed penthouse laughed until their faces turned red.

Watching Schwalb work the room, the attendees couldn’t have known she was nervous in the days leading up to the award ceremony at the Bank of America building downtown.

She was among the Community Champions the financial institution honored Nov. 10 at the 2011 Greater Washington Neighborhood Excellence Initiative Awards.

Since 2004, Bank of America’s initiative has recognized, nurtured and rewarded organizations, local heroes and student leaders who enriched their communities and inspired others to get involved.

In 1995, Nancy Schwalb got involved when she founded the DC Creative Writing Workshop, which uses arts education to transform the lives of at-risk youths living in DC’s Congress Heights neighborhood, an often forgotten part of the city. According to recent data from the Social Justice Center at Georgetown University, Ward 8, which encompasses Congress Heights, has educational hurdles.

For starters, among 16-19 year-olds, the high school dropout rate was 16 percent, “substantially higher than the district average of 10.1 percent.” The center also found that “one third (34 percent) of Ward 8’s population over 25 did not have a high school diploma, which was about average for the District.”

(PHOTO: Abbey Chung) Our students hard at work.

Additionally, 7 percent of residents don’t even have a 9th grade education, and the Median Annual Income is $32,348, according to recent statistics.

Since its founding, the DC Creative Writing Workshop has expanded from its base of operation at Hart Middle School to two neighboring schools—Simon Elementary and Ballou Senior High—to accommodate increased demands.

The Workshop’s creative outlets help our students resist the lure of the streets. Through the nonprofit, thousands of students have attended readings, plays and other literary events, won dozens of writing awards, and enjoyed a wealth of new experiences not otherwise available to young people in Ward 8.

Many of our former students go on to universities such as NYU, George Washington, Penn State and UNC’s Chapel Hill campus, to name a few. (To see more photos of our students, visit our Facebook page!)

According to Bank of America, local heroes, like Nancy Schwalb, “are vital voices for change and role models who move into action, making life markedly better in their neighborhoods.”

(PHOTO: Bernie Horn) The whole crew: Program Manager Abbey Chung, Nancy Schwalb, Young-Writer-in-Residence Michael Johnson, Me, and Renita Williams.

The award ceremony and penthouse reception was a fitting way to honor a woman whose superpowers—according to those in the know—include “vocabulary boost, peripheral vision, cookie crumb pinpointing, and indestructibility.”

That night Schwalb was every bit the superhero in her black pant suit, posing for photos with her young-writers-in-residence—Michael Johnson and Renita Williams—who accompanied her earlier to the podium.

The $5,000 Bank of America awarded to Schwalb will help the DC Creative Writing Workshop hire more former students, like Mike and Renita, through its youth employment program.

Bettina Judd’s Poetic Justice

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Bettina Judd) Bettina

She didn’t go looking for poetry. In fact, it was the other way around, Bettina Judd told a packed house Friday evening at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets.

She was the Sept. 9 feature at the Nine on the Ninth monthly poetry event, the longest running series hosted exclusively by Hughes poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown.

Typically, a featured artist kicks off the event, followed by a 10-15 minute interview and audience Q&A with the artist called the BluePrint Sessions. The event culminates with a limited open mic. Bettina tore it up.

A bi-coastal Cave Canem Fellow, the Spelman College alumnus infuses her interest in women’s studies, social justice and spirituality in her poetry and visual art.

This practice echoes the point Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux makes in their book The Poet’s Companion: “There is a world inside each of us that we know better than anything else, and a world outside of us that calls our attention.”

Bettina navigates both her internal and outer worlds by challenging interdisciplinary scholarship and intertextual narrative through her doctoral program in Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The poems she read Friday came from her dissertation, a poetic and visual exploration of body, memory and the history of gynecological experimentation on Black women in the US, and an academic and creative venture on affect and Black feminist politics in Black women’s art.

(ARTWORK: uncopyrighted image of Anarcha)

Among those poems is the “Etymology of Anarcha I” that alludes to a slave woman named Anarcha who suffered severe vaginal tears from child-birth.

The damage resulted in Anarcha’s inability to control her bowels and bladder, according to various sources. Though the speaker in “Etymology of Anarcha I” is not Anarcha, the persona suffered from a similar ordeal although she wasn’t giving birth.

The audience at Busboys and Poets tensed and squirmed in their seats from the poem’s physical details: “when the tearing came there was/ no baby in the canal but a new route:/ fistula, with a hard f like fetal/ freak, fatal, furor.”

The audience bristled at the poem’s psychological details: “i needed the f when the break screamed/ no sound from me but fire, fuchsia/ becoming an un-fuckable woman is a freedom/ the black hole of my sex, a fare/ to the good doctor I will be flesh/ which you will think brutal.”

Slave women like Anarcha, Betsy (sometimes spelled “Betsey”) and Lucy were guinea pigs for Dr. Marion Sims, who experimented on them to hone his skills in what would later be called gynecology. The three slave women’s spirits, summoned by Bettina, haunted Busboys and Poets Langston Hugh’s room.

Betsy and Lucy come alive in “The Opening”: “betsey leans in with sure hands/ slosh of seeping liquid/ lucy prepares for metal on wet tissue/ menstrual blood to urine to feces.” There’s companionship between Betsey, Lucy and the speaker, who’s also been experimented on, when the speaker says: “we are an unfortunate journey, a plunder/ darkness’s heart and treasured coast.”

(ARTWORK: Courtey of The Anarcha Project)

These psychological details intensifies the horrors of experiments done on Black women’s bodies: “[…] introduce spoon and i am sacrament/ unforgivable sin and reprieve practice/ in the dark ghetto of my body.”

These psychological details illustrated the companionship between Bettina’s speaker and the other two women:

dear lucy, dear betsey
that we three weren’t so perfectly broken
the scent of us so eagerly hunted
if our mouths, when opened up
could light our darkness

Bettina’s speaker’s handle of trauma illustrates another point Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux make in The Poet’s Companion: there’s no equation between good poetry and unhappy circumstances. “We each write out of our own constellation of experiences,” Addonizio and Laux writes. Last night’s reading was heavy–the weight of history so present.

But Bettina didn’t leave us there. She brought it home with her poem “Full Bodied Woman” that had women calling out uh huh! and I know that’s right! The women and men in the crowd exchanged knowing glances with one another when Bettina read:

a Full Bodied Woman gives life in edible chunks.
those who know partake. those who don’t
run to lesser women, and die of starvation.

The crowd’s shouts of affirmation got loud at this point of the poem: “from this we know She will return/ for who could  reign over a woman who/ sings I’m a Woman without apology? As in:
I am that I am.”

Bettina made us laugh during the Q & A with Busboys and Poet’s poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown, who started the monthly reading series six years ago. Asked how poetry found her, the poet covered her smile. “It’s a really embarrassing story,” Bettina said. “Big up to John Singleton!”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Bettina)

This puzzled the audience until the poet elaborated. It was Janet Jackson’s character, Justice, in Singleton’s 1993 film Poetic Justice that started Bettina off on her journey as a writer.

Like her speaker with the three slave women, Bettina found companionship with poetry. So much so that it still wakes her up with the 3 a.m. urge to write. “It’s like a ghost. It knocks against your head,” Bettina said. “It kept finding me even when I thought I was through with it.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Ernesto Mercer

Depending how one might see it, the 20th century could be something most folks around the world wouldn’t mind watching go up in smoke. For starters, there were two World Wars, Nazi death camps, the Great Depression and Vietnam.

In the great ol’ U-S-of-A alone, we had the Trail of Tears, Jim Crow, Klansmen and lynching. And if those weren’t enough, the assassinations of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and John F. Kennedy also dot that century’s timeline of atrocities.

With his Gunpowder + A Match (outbackintheshack + Carolina Jones Ink, 2011), Ernesto Mercer aims to make sure the 20th century sizzles for his global brothers and sisters.

This limited-run collection is a chapbook, meaning it’ll have nearly 40 pages and either be saddle stitched or stapled along the folded spine. It’s the oldest form of publishing that goes back for centuries. It’s an affordable way that helped writers get their work out.

These publications range from inexpensive productions to handmade editions that sell for hundreds of dollars. The inexpensive productions (between $5 and $10) helped Mercer get out his earlier work. (Read his poem “THE BEG.”) And this time around, he enlisted the help of a friend to run off a limited batch from her copier.

Poet Randall Horton, a professor and publisher, can’t wait for his copy. “I have been waiting to read something from Ernesto for a minute now,” he said. Horton’s among the writers interviewed for this story, who haven’t read Gunpowder + A Match. All each writer has to go on is Mercer’s earlier work they either heard at readings or read in literary journals and anthologies.

Horton first read Mercer’s work as an editor for the literary journal Tidal Basin Review. “I have been a big fan since,” he said of the work he published, noting that Mercer’s right on time with Gunpowder + A Match.

(PHOTO: Ernesto Mercer)

What Horton found engaging about Mercer’s work was that it stimulated on multiple levels.

“If you are a fan of Adrian Castro”—the Afro-Latino poet, performer and interdisciplinary artist—“then you are going to love what Ernesto does on the page,” Horton said. “Ernesto is coming from many traditions.”

Among them is Mercer’s practice as a priest in the Cuban tradition of Palo, a religion developed by Central African slaves brought to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo. Those slaves, mostly of Bantu lineage, created a belief system that respected ancestral spirits and nature’s powers.

Those slaves and their belief system also inspired Mercer’s title Gunpowder + A Match. According to the religious practice, the soil, sticks, bones and other “natural objects” are believed to have spiritual powers. During the main ceremony, according to various sources, a priest places those items inside a sacred vessel.

And only the spirits of the dead, which dwell in those vessels, or Nganga, guide all religious activities performed with the Nganga.

In Spanish, the tradition’s known as “La Reglas Bantu” (“The Bantu Rule” in English). Among its several branches are the Mayombe (the oldest) and Brillumba. Mercer’s a Mayombe priest with rights in Brillumba. As a Mayombero, with 23 years in the religions, he’s the priest of Nsasi—the god of lightning, fire and explosions among other things.

(PHOTO: Ernesto Mercer)

Where the title Gunpowder + A Match fits into all of this is the intense healing ceremony that requires Mercer using gunpowder to draw intricate patterns on the ground. “These designs are usually only seen by initiates and those who seek the healing of Mayombe,” he told me in a recent interview.

Due out in September, what Mercer called “a nice-sized plate of poems” will be available to everyone, not just initiates. It’ll be available for those seeking a healing from their 20th century wounds that, for many, resulted from the rise of illegal drug trades both globally and in America’s urban neighborhoods.

The remnants of that 20th century era, for many, are the loved ones still strung out on or that died from crack and heroin. Mercer raises the issue in “e-FLAT BOOGIE,” a poem from Gunpowder + A Match, in which the speaker is a ninth grader digging on M, an older sister of a former classmate.

“Every dude/ loved M + she/ knew it,” Mercer’s speaker says in “e-FLAT BOOGIE.” M’s a ‘hood honey who uses what she’s got, and takes advantage of the speaker’s feelings by telling, instead of asking, him “to walk her to/ the store.” To which the speaker’s accommodating.

On their way, Mercer’s speaker is confronted by some unsavory elements of the drug game, in which the speaker likens the dealers to pimps: “& even with/ Star Crystal &/ Mary Jane/”–cocaine, crystal meth and reefer (or weed)–“working right/ across the street/ the guys still/ hated me anyway/ walking with M.” And fortunately for the speaker, the hate didn’t go beyond the dealers’ angry stares.

(PHOTO: Mignonette E. Dooley) younger Ernesto Mercer

Gunpowder + A Match will also be available for those curious about Mercer’s whereabouts for the last decade. It was the poet’s attempt to heal himself while he figured some things out about love, lust, loss, anger and fear. “I hope readers follow me through a few obsessions, ruminations and preoccupations,” Mercer said. “I hope they are willing to wander with me through the vagaries of my voice and voices.”

That journey resulted from the poet almost losing his voice around 1999. At that time, Mercer stopped publishing consistently after completing his third fellowship with the Cave Canem summer retreat for writers of African descent. He published poems here and there in literary journals and anthologies until his responsibilities took over.

At the time, his hands were full, working as a welfare case manager in DC. Additionally, Mercer was seven years into a 14-year apprenticeship to be a Mayombe priest, learning Creole while studying plants and herbs, along with chanting, dancing, divination and more from his priest-teachers.

Even still, he thought about poetry a lot and where he was going with his. “I discovered that I could not write the way I heard the poems in my head,” he said. The job and his apprenticeship (which had him bouncing between DC, the Bronx and Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood on the weekends) made that difficult.

That’s when Mercer knew he’d have to do something about the outside demands sapping his creativity. “Over that time,” he said, “I’d write for myself and challenge myself.”

And given that the playwright, poet and essayist Jay Wright and the African Diaspora influenced Mercer’s older poems, Sharan Strange got excited at the news of Gunpowder + A Match. “The title of the collection is provocative,” said the senior lecturer in Spelman College’s English department.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Strange can’t wait to read Mercer’s new collection. “I’m expecting that he wants to provoke, perhaps even explode the usual responses to his work, or address some smoldering issues in this contemporary sociocultural moment.” She added, “I hope the community will be open to the work, engage it, and talk back.”

Challenging himself, Ernesto Mercer reemerged in the arts scene with three performances at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of African Art that included a libretto for Ayo Ngozi’s “Fela 70” and two productions with his long-time collaborator and partner Tosha Grantham in “The River Never Rests/Man Unda Wata” and “Nnandi and the Hunter’s Shirt.”

And just when it seemed he got his rhythm back, Mercer almost lost it again around 2009. He’d sent some poems to an interested publisher, thinking his work would reach a larger audience.

Instead, they sat on a shelf, collecting dust. “Sometimes it seems that folks like or want my work, and then don’t know what to do with it,” Mercer said. Of that time, he added, “I don’t hear or know what happens to my work sometimes.”

It didn’t take Mercer long, however, to hear something after regaining his work from the publisher and sharing them at readings. “I kept getting asked by audience members and fellow poets: ‘Where can I get these poems?’” he said. And with that enthusiasm, the poet knew what he had to do.

Since the announcement posted two weeks ago on various blogs, it created an ongoing buzz among writers. “As with any poet who has shown skillful and harmonious eclecticism…I am certainly paying attention to how and where Mercer guides me in his collection,” said Ashaki M. Jackson, a social psychologist and poet residing in Southern California.

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Ernesto Mercer)

“As a writer who is generally impatient in life, I’d also enjoy seeing what a meditative writer has to offer through his exploration of self in the world, in others, in spirit, in love, and in other spaces.”

Jackson noted that Gunpowder + A Match will be part of a recent wave of fresh writing from poets of color. It’s the result of organizations such as Cave Canem, Kundiman, VONA and Callaloo—literary institutions of color using their skills and resources to help marginalized writers.

Mercer’s new collection is also, for Jackson, “an important part of what should be an increasingly consistent stream of publications from these writing communities.”

The social psychologist and poet hoped Gunpowder + A Match will be a strand woven into both the national and international literary fabric. Mercer’s voice, according to Jackson, “is one that resonates at the street-level and the God-level.”

Derrick Weston Brown, who recently read with Mercer at Busboys and Poets’ Sunday Kind of Love reading series, agreed. “His poems are unlike anyone else’s, and that’s the good thing,” said the educator and poet-in-residence at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets. “His voice and his subject matter are distinct. They come from an older D.C.”

And while that era’s fondly remembered by lifelong residents for the abundance of black-owned businesses and tighter communities, it also had its negative elements. Going back to “e-FLAT BOOGIE,” Mercer’s poem is a portrait of a DC, where prostitution once defined 12th and 14th streets NW: “too many girls/ on 14th St so/ 12th & Que/ got to be the Ho/ Stroll extended,” according to Mercer’s speaker.

And though M, the ’round-the-way honey, was known for “cussing/ out bamas for/ 4 hot blocks,” she’s still a lady. So much so that the speaker places her above those on the stroll. For him, M wasn’t just an object of attraction, but a mentor.

(ARTWORK: Jermaine Rogers) Afro Punk art

The way he’s treated by M informs how he treats her baby sister S, who he knows was “crushing on” him. “I could tell M/ liked the way I/ was carrying it,” according to Mercer’s speaker, “just let her hang/ a thing I’d picked/ up from M herself/ how she’d say/ to walk her to/ the store…”

While walking to the store, M asks the speaker about his new school. The speaker tells her he’s “thinking/ about getting/ a Mohawk &/ joining this band.” Mercer gives the reader another glimpse of the negative elements from the “older DC” when they hit Logan Circle: “we/ could see bumper to/ bumper on the/ inner & outer lanes/…all slow riding/ to check the girls.”

That’s the D.C. poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown learned about after moving there in 2001 for grad school. That year, the Charlotte, North Carolina-native stumbled upon the tail-end of Mercer’s Afroche reading series and workshop at the now-defunct Kaffa House, once in the 1200 block of U Street NW.

After hearing about Mercer for the first time, Brown unsuccessfully tried to hunt down a copy of The Black Rooster Social Inn, an anthology that included poems from Mercer, Brandon Johnson, Joel Dias-Porter (DJ Renegade), Renée Stout and Gary Copeland Lilley—all of whom made up the “Black Rooster Collective.”

Brian Gilmore’s also from the “older DC.” The poet and public interest lawyer noted that Mercer’s been M.I.A. for a while, and hoped that Gunshot + A Match will change that.

“Hopefully, this will mean he will be out and about with the poets somewhere for a minute,” said Gilmore, who’s known Mercer since the late 80s. “It is always a big deal when Ernesto puts out work or performs,” Gilmore said of that time.

Of Mercer’s new chapbook, the poet and public interest lawyer said, “I am just anxious to read the work and experience it as always.” Gilmore added, “He is going to take you somewhere and it is not where you think you are going either.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Ernesto Mercer)

And Ernesto Mercer’s aware of how that might affect some readers. “There’s a lot that folks won’t like in here,” he said. “But I’ll let some of that be a surprise. There’s enough stuff in the poems to get me shanked.”

Though Mercer’s from another time, the poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown said, “His spirit is young, and so the poems have vitality and urgency.”

Brown noted that both qualities were essential to preserving the history of a city whose demographic is rapidly changing. “His poems make the reader remember as well as be mindful of the community that exists and is ignored at the same time,” Brown said.

Gunpowder + A Match will make up for what Brown couldn’t hunt down his first year in D.C. “I get a second chance to hold a physical collection of Ernesto’s newest work,” he said.

Those interested in snatching up Mercer’s new collection can pre-order their copies from PayPal (read Ernesto’s 4 easy steps to pre-ordering GUNPOWDER + A MATCH), or from Mercer himself (either in-person or through his Facebook page). “When they’re all gone, they’re all gone,” Mercer said, noting that neither he nor his partner is trying to be a publisher.

“No reprints and no reruns. This is it and out,” said the man who’s currently busy preparing with a band for an evening performance in the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art’s exhibit “Artists in Dialogue 2: Sandile Zulu and Henrique Oliveira.”

The performance, “Match + Wood,” takes place Oct. 22. “I’m back,” Mercer said, ready to travel the country with his Mojo-swagger.

“I’ll ride the Chinatown buses up and down the Coast, read at open mics—featured or not, known or unknown—and, as I did when I was younger, have my chapbooks in my bag.” Oh, he’s back, alright. And, according to Mercer, “That word is bond.”

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Rachel's self-portrait

When I wrote about Rachel Eliza Griffiths back in March 2010, the post focused on her skills as a photographer who’s credited for a number of author photos that appear on the backs of several poetry collections.

And after publishing two of her own—Miracle Arrhythmia (Willow Books, 2010), a Small Press Distribution best-seller, and The Required Distance (The Sheep Meadow Press, 2011)—I’m excited about her third collection Mule & Pear (New Issues Poetry & Prose), which is available for pre-order on AMAZON and due out this September.

Voices from the novels of Alice Walker, Jean Toomer, Toni Morrison and others inspired Rachel’s speakers in Mule & Pear. “Each struggles beneath a yoke of dreaming, loving, and suffering,” according to the publicist. “These characters converse not just with the reader but also with each other, talking amongst themselves, offering up their secrets and hard-won words of wisdom, an everlasting conversation through which these poems voice a shared human experience.”

(ARTWORK: New Issues Poetry & Prose)

Poet and educator Frank X. Walker elaborated on what Rachel’s created with this collection. “Griffiths gifts us with deleted scenes, alternate endings, and a VIP pass to wander the sets of some of the greatest literature of our time,” Walker writes in the blurb. “The reader won’t be able to resist the urge to reread Hurston, Morrison, Larson, et. al. or put this new way of seeing perhaps a new poetry technology down.” He added, “But what else should we expect from an artist who sees the world through so many mediums?”

And Rachel mixes the mediums by providing a book trailer for Mule & Pear, which I will review for a later blog post. The trailer’s gotten Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville’s (SIUE) attention. “The book trailer includes images of black women, Nina Simone’s song ‘Feeling Good’ as the soundtrack, and short excerpts of writings, presumably poems by Griffith,” according to the SIUE Black Study Blog, an online platform where Black studies, technology and active citizenship come together in an exchange of ideas among African-American academics.

Of Rachel’s book trailer, the blog notes, “The women in the video are shown in different poses, some wearing far out attire.”

Rachel’s attire consists of many hats she wears as a poet, writer, photographer, and painter. Her literary and visual work has been widely published in journals, magazines, anthologies, and periodicals including Callaloo, The New York Times, Crab Orchard Review, Mosaic, RATTLE, Puerto Del Sol, Brilliant Corners, Indiana Review, Lumina, Ecotone, The Acentos Review, PMS: poem memoir story, Saranac Review, Torch, The Drunken Boat, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, Inkwell, Black Arts Quarterly, African American Review, Comstock Review, Hambone, and many others.

“And many others”? My friend is a busy woman. Others have also taken notice. “I’ve been hearing about or more accurately viewing Griffiths’ presence on the black poetry scene for a minute now,” according to SIUE’s Black Study Blog. “Griffith had already been building and establishing herself as a noted poet and photographer.”

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Rachel's self-portrait

Part of establishing herself was the “Ars Poetica, Photographs by Rachel Eliza Rachel,” an ongoing documentary on African-American poets, that opened in Brooklyn’s DUMBO community that month. I wrote an advance story on the exhibit in my March 2010 post.

Ever since I’ve known her, I’ve always been impressed by her talent and low-key demeanor. We met each other in 2007 at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets. I’ll never forget her kind and warm presence.

She loves hugs, is always encouraging her friends to be their best selves, and is genuinely happy for the accomplishments of others.

She’s not one to boast about her own accomplishments. When Rachel and I reunited during my second time at Cave Canem (CC), I didn’t know my CC sister was working on the “Arts Poetica” exhibit, or that she had three collections of poems and a novel done—all of which were manuscripts at the time.

Knowing Rachel, she wouldn’t have told me about her credentials and accomplishments. Or that she received the MA in English Literature from the University of Delaware and the MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. I had to do some digging to find out she also received fellowships including Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, Vermont Studio Center, New York State Summer Writers Institute, Soul Mountain, and others.

“And others”? You mean there’s more? Yeah, Rachel has definitely been busy—and she’s got a trailer, too! “I’m excited about the implications of a book trailer focusing on a volume of African American poetry,” the SIUE blog stated. “The release of this video further solidifies her reputation as poet and visual artist.” There, you have it. Check out the trailer, then preorder your copy of Mule & Pear!

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