Tag Archive: blogging


A Christmas Post

A lot’s happened since October. I started two new jobs — one full-time (communications specialist for a national nonprofit) and the other part-time (senior editor at a global hip-hop journal). Though the former, more so than the latter, leaves me less time and energy to blog here, I couldn’t be happier. With both positions, I make a living doing what I love: writing. And they help me get my work to a larger audience, even if — at times — with the the full-time gig, I’m a ghostwriter.

They’re also the reason this Christmas is special, why it’s the first one — in a long time — of which I’m excited. It took me working a regular schedule to appreciate this week off. I took advantage of the break and knocked out my holiday shopping before the last minute rush. I also baked an eggplant parmesan, worked with my wife on a gluten-free veggie lasagna and assisted her with baking four 7-Up cakes and dozens of muffins (the 7-Up replaces baking powder, helping the cake to rise).

This morning, I’m looking forward to the chicken and waffle breakfast with Kirk Franklin’s gospel Christmas album on repeat. I’m looking forward to sipping hot cocoa and to eating dinner at my parent’s with my wife, siblings and my niece, Anicia — who, as I’m writing this, fills the house with her sweet sounds, bugging “Nana” and “Poppa” for attention.

(This is Anicia’s  fourth Christmas and the third she’ll actually remember). I’m also looking forward to dessert at my aunt and uncle’s, hanging with my cousins and some family my wife and I haven’t seen since our wedding nearly two years ago.

In addition to my new jobs, I started my newsletter, The Hourglass Flow, of which I snatched the title from a friend’s poem inspired by MF Doom’s verse on De La Soul’s “Rock Co.Kane Flow“: “…to write all night long/the hourglass is still slow/flow from hellborn/to free power like Wilco”. (Check out the back issue and the holiday sale I got going with said buddy that will continue through New Years, then subscribe to the newsletter).

Besides inspiring the title, Doom’s verse also alludes to the love and energy  we bloggers put into our posts, especially since we’re willing “to write all night long” because we have something to say. Every time I wonder how long I’ll keep this up, I think about how fortunate I am to have a platform that promoted several authors and helped a film student raise funds for his feature-length thesis film.

I’m fortunate for a platform to post my articles and essays that would otherwise sit somewhere, collecting dust. I’m grateful to have this platform, without which my ramblings would stay idle voices echoing in my head.

So here’s a short post, checking in, and a long way of wishing everyone happy holidays. I’m excited for what the new year will bring such as, among other things, a piece I wrote on an amazing photographer that will debut in the next Words Beats & Life hip hop journal. I’ll keep you posted on when the new issue is out. Also, if you have anything you want promoted in The Hourglass Flow, hit me at nyckencole@hotmail.com with “Newsletter Item” in the subject line, and it’ll go out in next month’s newsletters (it’s bimonthly). Peace!

Four Year Blogiversary!

(PHOTO: Cai Studio)

Combined, the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall and Opera House seat about 4,700. Beijing needs 13 gigawatts of power to work.

At the time of this posting, which marks this blog’s four year anniversary, readers viewed this site more than 63,000 times. If this blog was a performance running in both the Concert Hall and Opera House, it would take 13 sold out shows for that many people to see it. If the views were gigawatts of electricity, they could power Beijing 4,850 times.

Those views ain’t breaking 100Ks, but they’re more than I imagined when, at a friend’s suggestion, I started this blog back in 2009. I was recently unemployed, then, as a staff writer at a Black-owned Baltimore newspaper.

The thought of a blog, then, brought on what I would later learn was a common fear among first-time bloggers: “No one will care what I write about”. I like how Michael Martine, at Remarkablogger: Cutting-Edge Business Blogging, gives practical ways of overcoming it.

“When you are trying to start a fire, it always begins as a very small flame….Just some tinder, some heat, and some air creates the tiniest flame,” Martine writes in his post “11 Blogging Fears and How to Overcome them for Good — Part 1”. He continues, “But we nurture that tiny flame until it becomes a roaring, toasty fire.”

I don’t know about “roaring,” but I got a modest flame going — made even nicer by bloggers Zoe Valentine (of Zoe Says) and Robert Hookey (of You’ve Been Hooked and The Book of Terrible), both of whom I recently profiled in previous posts. I’m grateful to them for spreading the word and linking to the features I wrote on them; I’m also thrilled their readers boosted my number of views, followers and likes.

When I was a new blogger, the articles and posts about “best practices” seemed overwhelming, though I appreciated the info, which included successful habits — like interacting with readers through comments, using web tools to publicize posts, reading other bloggers, etc.

Then there’s the ongoing debate over blogging routine — whether to post everyday, twice a week, or monthly. “Some bloggers do best when they’re in a steady routine,” writes Ali Luke (of Aliventures), in his guest post at problogger.net. “If you find that posting once or twice a week quickly ends up as posting once or twice a month, then you might actually find it easier to post every day. That way, you can build a strong writing habit.”

I don’t think it’s wrong to blog once or twice a month if you’re posting longer (800-1,500 words), in-depth, well-researched pieces that give your readers enough to chew over until the next post.

In its early stages, I wanted my blog to showcase magazine-style articles about the artists, educators and advocates I met while drifting through under-the-radar D.C. I wanted to introduce them to my readers. For that, I knew I didn’t have the creative endurance to generate post ideas daily, let alone twice a week.

And that’s not what this blog wanted, anyway; it certainly wasn’t feeling what I envisioned for it. In many ways, this blog is analogous to my soon-to-be-four-year-old niece who pretends to fall asleep at nap time before wiggling herself across the bed, away from “Nana” (my mom), who’s nodded off.

(PHOTO: Alan W. King) My niece, Anicia

(PHOTO: Alan W. King) My niece, Anicia

This is the same girl who corrects strangers when they mispronounce her name: Anicia (ah-NEE-sha) — the one who smiles while imitating Nana and “Poppa” snoring. She once told “Nana” she’ll one day be “Dr. Anicia.”

Her sense of self is as frightening as it is exciting. “By the time your child is three years old, she has made remarkable developmental strides — some willingly, others less so,” Dr. Michael Meyerhoff, a child specialist, writes in his article “Understanding How Children Mature”.

”These strides are not only intellectual but social and emotional as well,” he continues. “Though still dependent upon you, your three year old has begun to establish her sense of self and many of the elements of her adult personality.”

(ARTWORK: Stock Image)

Now, if a child specialist calls a 3-year-old’s actions normal, then why should I expect different from my blog — my baby — that’s a month older than my niece. I knew what I had to do, which resulted in my blog being a far cry from what I initially wanted.

Letting it evolve on its own terms, under my paternal guidance, resulted in a shift away from covering D.C. to including book reviews and — during my grad school days — essays and short stories. My once or three-times a month blogging schedule became whenever I could.

And I’d feel bad if it wasn’t for Zoe Valentine’s advice on avoiding burnout. “I went ten months without a new post between last year and this year as I had started a very demanding new job,” Valentine told me last month. “I’ve had my ups and downs, as any writer/blogger does.” But she didn’t beat herself up for not posting weekly. That, she said, helped keep her going.

I’d feel bad if it wasn’t for the fact that you all love me anyway — enough to keep following me or checking in to see what’s new. And, while it’s easy for any blogger to take their readers for granted, I think you should know how much I appreciate all 2,880 of you.

I’m far from a rock star blogger, but your attention’s enough to make me feel like a headliner jamming before a packed concert hall. It’s enough to make me feel electric, charged off you gigawatts of bright energy.

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: 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.”

Blackbird Poetry Festival

(IMAGE: HoCoPoLitSo and Howard Community College)

This time of year, Poetry gets a lot of attention from the mainstream public. News organizations around the country that would otherwise snub her appearance play paparazzi, recording her whereabouts and goings-on.

Thousands of businesses and non-profits celebrate her vital place in American culture through readings and festivals, through book displays and workshops.

And for a month, she’s the life of the party. The national attention’s enough to make her think the country takes her seriously, that she’s more than a national obligation the Academy of American Poets started in 1996. The month-long festivities continue until April’s final days before the public moves on to the next celebration, before her limelight dims enough for certain publishers, booksellers and literary organizations to still recognize her.

This year, Howard Community College and HoCoPoLitSo aren’t letting Poetry go out like that. They’re announcing her presence with a bang April 26 at the 4th annual Blackbird Poetry Festival. Come celebrate at the “Poetry In Harmony” Coffee House reading by Michael Cirelli (a National Poetry Slam individual finalist, winning the finals in both San Francisco and Berkeley), Kim Addonizio (considered “one of our nation’s most provocative and edgy poets”), Naomi Ayala (poet, freelance writer, and consultant), and a performances by musical group Mother Ruckus (Sahffi and Gayle Danley). (Click the link for performer’s bios.)

There will also be readings by faculty and students from Howard Community College, where it’s all going down. Check out the workshops and watch out for the “Poetry Police,” who’re citing anyone caught without poetry on hand for National Poem in Your Pocket Day.

(IMAGE: Blackbird Festival) Clockwise form top left: Kim Addonizio, Mother Ruckus, Naomi Ayala, Michael Cirelli.

The day’s events are mostly free, except for the Mother Ruckus performance. (Tickets will be $15 general admission, $10 for seniors and students with ID and open to the public, others for students only. Get your tickets online by clicking here.)

The festival’s schedule is as follows:

9:30 – 10:30 Naomi Ayala speaks at Howard County School System (HCPSS) Professional Development Day Session I

10:40 – 11:40 Naomi Ayala speaks at HCPSS Prof. Dev. Day Session II

10:00  Poetry Police start to patrol HCC at campus looking for National Poem in Your Pocket Day violations

11:00 – 12:20 Kim Addonizio meets with HCC’s Creative Writing Class (closed)

11:00 – 12:20 Michael Cirelli meets with students and community (open and free)

2:30 – 4:30    Readings by: Naomi Ayala, Michael Cirelli, Kim Addonizio and regional poets, HCC students and faculty (open and free)

7:00 Doors open for “Poetry in Harmony,” a coffeehouse-styled reading

7:30 – 9:30 Readings by Michael Cirelli and Kim Addonizio, and a performance by musical group Mother Ruckus, which includes performance poet Gayle Danley and songstress Sahffi. ($15, $10 for seniors and for students with an id)

The Ear Hustler (flash fiction)

(PHOTO: stfudii)

“YOU LOOK GOOD,” the guy tells the woman. They’re standing behind a teacher in a coffee shop where the audio selection shifts from jazz to acoustic world music to blue grass, then back to jazz. Grounded coffee beans claim the space with their fragrant presence.

The guy has close-cropped white hair. He’s wearing a gray sports blazer over tan khaki pants. He’s much older than the woman, who’s dressed as if she’s heading toward the gym or as if she’s just finished jogging and came inside to cool off, having had the sun bake her complexion a pumpkin hue when it seemed to scream its heat over everything uncovered.

The teacher taps his fingers on the countertop. He took his students out for a writing exercise. He told them where to set up, and figured he had enough time to grab a drink and get back before his students noticed him missing. He needed something cold for his dry throat made dryer by the 78 degrees. He watches the couple, who, at first, appears to be father and daughter—that is, until he sees how the old man is holding her shoulders.

The woman looks no younger than 25, yet something about the touch still seems inappropriate—the old man rubbing her arms and squeezing her flesh, how his touches linger. That she doesn’t shrug him off says she’s comfortable with this, that he’s done this before. It says she even enjoys this as he leans back and slowly rolls his appraising gaze over her new body. “How much weight did you lose?” he asks.

A woman making drinks tells the teacher his Green Tea frappuccino is ready. She tops it off with whip cream while the teacher smiles like the young woman who tells the old man, “I lost thirty pounds.” The teacher pops the straw through its paper sheath; he slides it through the dome cover and into his drink, which a student will later say looks like guacamole and sour cream, stunning the teacher with her imagery.

But at the moment, the teacher sips the gooey goodness of milk, ice, and green tea powder. The old man asks the young woman, “How did you lose the weight?” The teacher nearly chokes from her response: “I got divorced.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today, the weather was so good, I took my poetry students (only two showed up for class) out to Wisconsin Avenue NW in DC’s Georgetown. Their assignment was to people watch–observe how strangers interacted with one another. The students were supposed to also observe the strangers’ body language, and then create a flash fiction story. I took part in the exercise and wrote the story below.

(PHOTO: Peter Dworin/ NYTimes)

A BIKE MESSENGER WHIZZES BY, running late for a delivery she should have made an hour ago. She has one more time for a client to complain before she’s fired. She flies by the sound of Bengal music wafting from the red Honda Civic that waits for the traffic light to turn green.

She passes the cyclist whose rolled up yoga mat is in her bike’s rear basket rack. She passes a guy late for an interview. He’s got a folder with copies of his résumé. I should have worn a watch, he thinks. He puts his face against the glass panes of an art shop, and then bolts when the store’s clock tells him what time it is.

The courier passes the woman rolling her bag along. I don’t know how I let the sales lady talk me into buying this, she thinks. The pink and green rose pattern is so ugly. The courier passes a woman on the phone outside Long & Foster Realtors. Then the courier’s gone before a green Saturn whips a U-turn ahead of the silver Audi station wagon that’s about to pounce the intersection on the green light. The Saturn turns before the officer in the tinted out black Denali with strobe lights notices. It turns in front of the old guy who’s waiting for the cross walk signal. He shakes his head at what he thinks was a careless maneuver.

The old guy’s wearing black dress slacks under a mud-colored Parka and lily pad green winter hat. I should’ve checked the weather before I left home, he thinks. I’m burning up out here. It’s 65 degrees, for Christ’s sake. He looks around and spots a writer and two girls. Who’s that guy scribbling in his book? the old guy continues. What are those two girls doing up on that wall?

The old guy shoves the thought from his head when he’s nearly trampled by three students from Duke Ellington School of the Arts skateboarding down Wisconsin Avenue. One of them is a junior. He’s brave enough to wave at a teacher from his department, as if the junior didn’t have an art block class to attend. The skate boarders avoid the woman pushing a stroller up the sidewalk. The woman’s a young mother—she couldn’t be older than 21.

(PHOTO: Travel Smart)

The mother snaps her head away from the couple who both look as though they stepped out of a Calvin Klein ad. Supercuts! the young mother thinks. That’s where they got their hair cut!

The couple laughs and points at a bald man in the passing pick-up truck. Pick-up truck dude’s smoking a cigarette and wearing a button-up shirt with too many medals to be a civilian. He stares at the writer and two girls hanging out on the wall. I fought in Vietnam for what—so some hippies could sit on some wall instead of working and write about nothing.

He shakes his head. And people like them wonder why republicans want to cut funding for the arts, he continues. Well, I’m all for it. Stop wasting that money and put it towards something useful, like war. But those comments are lost on the writer, who’s preoccupied with another old guy walking up Wisconsin Avenue in a biker’s jacket that probably fit him three decades ago. Now, the jacket grabs at his shoulders and elbows like officers subduing a perp on the run.

The writer glances up at his students staring at what’s across the street. To where, he doesn’t know or care. His attention’s on the woman in black tights and a light sweater. Every step she takes, her athletic legs flex like a whisper that teases him for looking—that is, until he remembers his fiancée at home. Next to her, the woman in black tights is Medusa. Every time he’s around his fiancée he pinches himself. That his fiancée is still there after the pinch, that he hasn’t awaken from what feels like a dream, only proves how lucky he is. The teacher’s jarred from his thoughts when one of his two students asks, “Mr. King, are we going to do this until five o’clock?”

(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.”

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