Tag Archive: blogs


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!

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.”

Rejoicing in the Church of Poetry

(PHOTO: Steven Pinker)

I’m coming off a high after graduation last month. I finished the Stonecoast M.F.A. Low-Residency Program at the University of Southern Maine, a two-year journey I started for time to write and complete another manuscript to shop around.

It allowed me to expand my network, see Maine (a place I otherwise would not have visited), and to work with National Book Award Finalist Tim Seibles. While he was the hook, Stonecoast introduced me to other faculty members with invaluable insights: Marilyn Nelson, Joy Harjo, Scott WolvenAnnie Finch, David Anthony Durham, Jeanne Marie Beaumont, Suzanne Strempek Shea, and Cait Johnson.

That high, in part, resulted from my last residency experience—where I spoke on a panel about third semester projects, introduced Tim Seibles before his reading and Q&A, conducted an hour-long seminar on collaborations, and got an amazing intro from Tim at the Graduating Student Reading. My wife, parents, and sister flew in, met the faculty, and fellow Stonecoasters.

I rode that high back to D.C., determined that nothing would kill it—not even Alexandra Petri’s Washington Post column “Is Poetry Dead?,” which dumped Poetry in a hospice. “Can a poem still change anything?” she wrote. “I think the medium might not be loud enough any longer.” That most people I encounter share Petri’s sentiment doesn’t surprise me. In fact, the anti-poetry comments bombard me: from my dad constantly asking how writers feed themselves, to “good for you” responses after people hear I’m a published poet, to the forced smile my wife’s sorority sister gave me when she found out what an M.F.A. (Masters of Fine Arts) was and what I studied.

I shook my head after a poetry buddy told me about an unsuccessful spoken word artist who recently said, “I don’t do that poetry shit anymore.” When the anti-poets spew their rhetoric, I’m grateful for this excerpt of Donald Hall’s 1989 essay, “Death to the Death of Poetry”:

After college many English majors stop reading contemporary poetry. Why not? They become involved in journalism or scholarship, essay writing or editing, brokerage or social work; they backslide from the undergraduate Church of Poetry. Years later, glancing belatedly at the poetic scene, they tell us that poetry is dead. They left poetry; therefore they blame poetry for leaving them. Really, they lament their own aging. Don’t we all? But some of us do not blame the current poets.

The Church of Poetry ain’t short on hallelujahs—not when poetry’s still read at weddings and funerals, not when people turn to poets or attempt to write their own verse on Valentine’s Day or anytime they declare their love for someone special. Could it be what Cait Johnson once said, that “poetry is a shortcut to empathy,” and that “poetry gets at the soul faster”?

My soul sambaed the evening I watched a couple wait for a table at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets in D.C. Attempting to woo his wife, the husband pulled a random poetry book off the shelf, an action prompted by his wife’s question some time before: “Why don’t you read me poetry?”

After reading a few poems aloud, he said, “This is really good.” He bought the book, then, hearing the author was present, asked the poet to pose with him for a photo. When the host called their name, the husband shook the poet’s hand and said that book will help their marriage.

(PHOTO: DCCWW) Students in the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop’s After-School Writing Club.

The gospel doesn’t stop there. I’d love to take Alexandra Petri to Hart Middle School in D.C.’s most neglected community (the Congress Heights neighborhood in the city’s southeast quadrant). Every week, she’d see kids, who thought they didn’t like poetry, laughing as they scribbled their raps.

She’d see a 7th grader sweat each line of his poem about going to visit his dad’s grave that day after school. She’d see an 8th grader writing about her dual heritages (a Jamaican dad and Panamanian mom).

If after all that, Petri said, “That’s nice, but shouldn’t they be doing something more practical,” I’d turn her attention to a 2007 interview, where Bill Moyers asked poet Martín Espada the same thing. “Well, for me, poetry is practical,” Espada said. “Poetry will help them survive to the extent that poetry helps them maintain their dignity, helps them maintain their sense of self respect. They will be better suited to defend themselves in the world. And so I think it– poetry makes that practical contribution.”

I’d love to take Petri to Duke Ellington School of the Arts on the well-to-do side of town, where she’d see  a 10th grader using poetry to deal with her mother’s passing last year. I wonder how she’d feel about her thesis after watching a classroom of students fired up after reading a poem about the ill-treatment of a hit and run victim.

I wish she could hear those 10th graders calling America on her hypocrisies before writing their own poems in the hit and run victim’s voice—addressing the drivers who honked their horns, the detectives who swapped jokes above her, or the shaken witness who stole the crime scene spotlight. I’d turn to Petri and–imitating Espada’s voice–say, “You just saw poetry make ‘…the abstract concrete…the general specific and particular.’”

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

I’d recommend the Post columnist shadow poet Patricia Smith on one of her school visits through Chicago. I’d like to see Petri’s reaction when Nicole asks Smith to help her remember her mother she lost to drug addiction.

I’d send Petri to Durham, NC, where Dr. Randall Horton brings poetry to a halfway house where he was once a resident. I could imagine Petri speechless, watching those men and women count haiku syllables on their fingers. She might even yell “Damn!” when a guy’s poem reminisces about a fine woman’s sundress that was “ghetto dandelion yellow.”

It’s obvious Alexandra Petri’s out of the loop. “The problem with her column is simple. It’s breathtakingly uninformed,” DC poet Joseph Ross wrote in a blog post, which listed a literary institution and contemporary local poets. Ross even offered to show Petri other places where Poetry lives in D.C. “Alexandra, let me take you to a poetry reading,” he wrote. “Let me introduce you to the poetry world in Washington, D.C., that I know. Maybe I’ll even give you a poetry book.”

And that’s nice, considering what every poet wanted to give Petri. Her column wasn’t just “breathtakingly uninformed”; it was offensive. The poets expressed this through the cyber beat down they gave Petri. I’m talking about angry comments posted to her column, an open letter with a reading list, and “irate tweets calling me ‘pretty [expletiving] stupid,’” Petri recalled in a follow-up column, retracting her initial thesis.

But a few thrown stones don’t stop the Church of Poetry from rejoicing, which brings me back to my high and my M.F.A. degree. I could go into what poetry did for me, but I’ve done that enough (plus, it’s on my “About” page). For those who don’t know, this Poetry Church is so funky the gospel wafts like cannabis clouds in a hotboxed car. We welcome nonbelievers to catch contact highs. There’s always room in the cipher.

(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.”

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