Tag Archives: MFA

Rejoicing in the Church of Poetry



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: DC Creative Writing Student sharing their work at the annual hArtworks reading.

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.


Posted by on February 1, 2013 in Essay


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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.”


Posted by on July 8, 2012 in Article, Feature


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After Arriving Home

(PHOTO: Alan King) Stonehouse

These past ten days were inspiring. I shared space with some of the most gifted people, talking about the cloud language of poetry and how to make our lines sing. The experts made the craft of writing magical enough to transform the Stonecoast MFA summer residency into a Hogwarts for aspiring word witches and wizards.

The spells and charms of both the workshops and presentations kept out anything that would otherwise kill our creative spirits. We lived in that enchanted space for ten days, losing ourselves in the sloping lawns and flower beds of the Stone House. In the backyard, there was a field of high grass that, for me, was the Forbidden Forest. Unlike the other writers, I wasn’t going to brave it for a better look at the coast line.

That short-lived magic became clear to me and the other four writers yesterday morning. It was quiet during our 4 a.m. airport shuttle ride. If our thinking was in sync with one another’s, then no doubt the quietness was our way of coming to terms with what waited for each of us back home.

One blogger would say that our actions that morning were symptoms of the “Post-Vacation Funk.” But, more accurately, it’s the “Post-Residency Funk.” Here’s what me and the other writers have to look forward to. “When you first arrive home—a weary traveler surrounded by the familiar sights, scents and sounds of your ‘stuff’—you can’t help but experience Dorothy’s ‘There’s No Place Like Home’ feeling and sleeping in our own bed,” the blogger writes.

During the residency, we stayed in the dorms at Bowdoin College. We had twin-size beds, and the mattresses were thin. I’m convinced the pillows came from the same material used to make dodge balls. The only nice things about the room were the space and the fact I didn’t have to share it with anyone else.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

In spite of those discomforts, they didn’t  kill the magic. The blogger foreshadows my entire week. “The next day comes…it’s a flurry of activity,” she writes. “You’re answering emails, returning calls…you are recounting details…your head is not likely still in the clouds.”

To get over that funk, here’s a list of residency highlights that didn’t make it into my earlier posts:

  • Karrie Waarala’s performance of Long Gone: A Poetry Side Show. I’ve wanted to see this one-woman show since I attended Karrie’s presentation Creating the Common Languages Necessary to Make a Poetry Show a Success, which I wrote about in an earlier post. Through a series of poems and monologues, Long Gone  tells the story of Tess, a tattooed woman in the circus sideshow.This show was Karrie’s third semester project, which stemmed from her work on a poetry collection from the point of view of people in and around the sideshow for the past two years. “Tess is one of the two main characters in that collection,” Karrie told, a political and art blog.  “The whole thing is sort of a glimpse at the sideshow behind the sideshow… how people like Tess end up there, and the toll a life like that takes.” Karrie added, “She’s not exactly the well-adjusted type.”Last Thursday, Stonecoast faculty and students waited anxiously outside the sliding doors a carnival barker guarded. The character was Karrie’s friend, who was dapper in a white dress shirt, brown vest and slacks, with a matching kangol. He paced back and forth outside the room. When it was time, he went into barker style: Step right up! Ladies and gentlemen! Come see the tattooed woman (Karrie), sword swallower and fire-eater. Come on inside to see the poetry side-show!
  • (PHOTO: Alan King) Scott Wolven's presentation

    Scott Wolven’s presentation War Is Waiting For You: How To Make War Come Alive In Your Fiction. War lives and breathes, according to Scott. It also moves around. The prize-winning crime short story author noted how fictional war works its way into many stories, causing problems. “War is a concept that comes from reality,” Scott advised his students and fellow faculty who filled a room to standing only. “War is a difficult thing to fictionalize.”

    Some problems with narrative descriptions of destruction and action are choppy and detract from the story. The instructor explained that techniques used in contemporary journalism can fix these craft problems. “You will never get back far enough to get away from war,” Scott said. “When you write this…give me, as a reader, some background.” The instructor advised writers to research and to extrapolate events from reality into their narratives.

    “That’s what fiction’s about,” he said. “Create me a believable lie.” One book Scott focused on was Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down, which was a nonfictional account of war. Considering Bowden’s use of multiple view points to chronicle a single event, the instructor noted that importance of selecting the right point of view. “If I’m going to write about war, am I going to get the maximum impact from writing from this point of view?” That’s the question Scott said every writer should consider: “I want to see what’s catching you out of the corner of your eye.” Another note of advice was to avoid being advantageous to the story. “A lot of times we aim toward epiphany in fiction…Stop giving your characters so much knowledge,” Scott said. “Do you have tactics in your fiction where things don’t work?” An example of accomplishing this is writing a war story, where someone forgot to put the right oil in the Humvee. Scott said, “You’ve got to make stupid crap happen.”

  • (PHOTO: Courtesy) Space Gallery

    Hanging with Patricia Smith and the gang. After her performance at Space Gallery in downtown Portland, Maine, Patricia and the crew (me, Quenton Baker, Roger Bonair-Agard, Adeeba Rana, Erica Vega, Emma Bouthillette, Melody Fuller, and Patricia’s granddaughter Mikaila Smith) headed across the street to Nosh Kitchen Bar for bacon-dusted fries and spicy quesadillas. Patricia smiled when her steak sandwich floated to the table. We laughed hard as Roger broke down his foot fetish, and at Patricia rolling her eyes while Melody schooled Mikaila on how to snag fine brothas.

  • Community Discussion: Writing and Spirit. This wide-ranging, open discussion about the intersection between writing and spirituality. Here’s some quotes from that discussion:

“As writers, we have to look beyond the cynicism in the world and find that spiritual place.” –Annie Finch

“If you’re in popular fiction and can open people up to myths, why not take those myths to a wonderful place.” –Annie Finch

“Spiritually is a way of being. It’s more of a verb than it is a noun.” –Tim Seibles

“It [spiritually] is a way of approaching life; it’s a certain kind of attentiveness.” –Tim Seibles

(PHOTO: Alan King) Community Discussion

“DNA is the spiral of stories.” –Joy Harjo

“The poetry is a journey…It’s basically a mystical path.” –Joy Harjo

“I feel like my work is part of a small movement, an antidote for what’s wrong in the world.” –Cait Johnson

“I love the idea of digging down to the roots to see how we’re all connected.” –Cait Johnson

I get obsessed with what is God? Who is He? Am I talking to what’s outside myself or in me?” –Kazim Ali

  • Party for Graduating Students. DJing from her laptop, Patricia measured the temperature of the dance floor. If it got too hot, she cooled it off with alternative rock. If the dance floor was too cold, she funked it up with James Brown’s “Sex Machine” (requested by Joy Harjo). Roger and I had to show the Stonecoast family how to dance to Soca. The highlight of the night, though, was watching Joy get down to the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize”.
  • Tim Seibles’s manuscript Fast Animal. Even back here in DC, it seems surreal to be holding the manuscript for Fast Animal, which will we be published early next year. I started reading it on the shuttle that took us back and forth between Bowdoin College and the Stonehouse. Reading those poems, I chuckled and smiled bright enough for the other writers to wonder what was up. They’ll have to wait and find out when the book drops.
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Posted by on July 19, 2011 in Article


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The Journey Home

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Ray Gonzalez

Poet and essayist Ray Gonzalez  once wrote that “home is…the place where an inner being begins and ends.” That’s probably the best definition of the theme woven through Linda Buckmaster’s presentation The Return: Writers Consider Homeplace, which seemed symbolic since there’s one-day left of the Stonecoast MFA summer residency.

I spent eight days hanging with poets, aspiring novelist and creative nonfiction writers. I gained a wealth of knowledge from my peers and instructors in both the workshops and presentations. I got to hang with Tim “the man” Seibles, Patricia “you don’t want it” Smith, and the great Scott Wolven.

I saw Smith and Joy Harjo bring the house down with their performances at Space Gallery in downtown Portland, Maine. My homey Melody Fuller (watch out for her memoir coming soon) hosted an elegant dinner party for me and other members of the newly formed Black Student Union (of which Woven’s an honorary member) at the bed and breakfast she stayed in Freeport.

I’ve enjoyed everything (even the party tonight that Smith’s Djing), but my feelings echo Gonzalez’s other definition for the theme of Linda Buckmaster’s graduating student presentation. He wrote, “Home is the generator of longing.” I miss my fiancée and my bed. Waiting for me an hour-flight away are the sounds of gallon bucket drummers, sticks rapping on cowbells and hands smacking out conga rhythms—all of which make up DC’s soundtrack.

(PHOTO: Mattijn Franssen)

My longing for home echoes those of the six writers in Buckmaster’s presentation. Borrowing from Gonzalez’s definition of home as “the place where our inner being begins and ends,” the grad student described homeplace as a physical place where a significant event shapes the writer. “It is the act of them going back to that place that helps them see that shift inside themselves,” she said.

During her presentation, Buckmaster focused on the “Then (provincial) and Now (sophisticated),” which essayist and critic Sven Birkerts defined in his essay “The Time of Our Lives” from his collection The Art of Time in Memoir. He wrote that the past deepens and gives “authority to the present, and the present (just by virtue of being invoked)” creates “the necessary depth of field for the persuasive idea of the past.”

Of the six writers, Gonzalez was interesting. In his essay “The Border is Open” from his collection The Underground Heart: A Return to a Hidden Landscape, Gonzalez wrote about his journey back to his childhood home in the desert surrounding El Paso. Gone for 25 years, he returns as both native and tourist.

Gonzalez alluded to Buckmaster’s point of how time away and the return home help writers see their inner shift. “I have produced a large body of work that could not have been written if I had stayed in west Texas,” he wrote. “I had to leave my home two decades ago to be a writer…with a more objective view of how a childhood of isolation influenced the way I respond to the world.”

(COVER ART: Courtesy)

I couldn’t imagine leaving behind everyone I love to spend 25 years trying to be a writer. Ten days away at an MFA low-residency is long enough.

In this morning’s poetry workshop, Joy Harjo unknowingly added context to Gonzalez’s journey while speaking about the spiritual energy of poems.”If there’s a disturbance of home…it’s…on so many levels,” she said. “The person goes out into the world still dealing with that disturbance.”

Gonzalez was dealing with racism in his high school, his parents’ divorce, and his dreams of succeeding in careers that never materialized at home. Coming back after 25 years, the poet’s dealing with another type of disturbance. “Much of the desert where I wandered as a boy is gone, replaced by strip malls and new housing that cover the trails I used to explore alone,” he wrote. “I find more houses in El Paso with iron bars on the windows…with the exception of my mother’s house.” Gonzalez added, “These stark but complex images are the first I see each time I visit.”

Since he left home in 1979, the poet noted the difficulty of creating a sense of home in other cities where he has lived. His home is in his memories. “The memory of the desert creates an invisible nest of roots that allows a native to wander far before finding a way back.”


Posted by on July 16, 2011 in Article


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The Residency II

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Jaed Coffin

Jaed Coffin drew a diagonal line on an easel pad and called it the spine. That’s the idea of identity, he told a room of writers at a presentation Friday. Coffin drew a wavy line that curved along the diagonal one, and called it the narrative.

Then he shaded in dots where the lines intersected. “Every time your narrative crosses the spine is a moment your reader is committed to your story,” Coffin said during his presentation The Indecent Proposal: How to Sell a Book in Fifty Pages.

His session was among the 18 of 22 Faculty Presentations that have already occurred since the Stonecoast MFA summer residency started. I’m seven days into it.

Earlier that day, we had our second poetry workshop with Joy Harjo, who’s among the faculty for this half of the residency.

The first day was amazing. Harjo gave us an in-class writing assignment to either talk to or riff off our obsessions, the thing that comes up a lot in our poems. My obsession was the city. When I read my list of things I’m drawn to in urban settings, Harjo noted that everything I listed were sounds.

On our second day with her, each person brought in a poem from a poet we considered to be our poetry ancestor. I brought in Sonia Sanchez’s poem “Ballad”. We went around the table, invoking the voices of our ancestors.

Harjo’s fascinated by dreams and what they tell us. “The dreams have been my teachers since before I was born,” she told us. “There’s a lot of material in them.” She suggested that, if we really wanted to get intense with our dreams, then we should wake ourselves up around 3 a.m. to record them.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Joy Harjo

“A poem is an energetic system,” she said. “It’s very important, when we’re working on a poem, to pay attention to our dreams…that’s our library in a sense.”

That’s how we start every workshop session, which results in Harjo’s wise words echoing in my head throughout the day. When a workshop member asked what if you don’t dream, Harjo suggested taking a natural supplement. “If you’re not having dreams,” the instructor said, “vitamin B will trigger them.”

And that’s how it’s been these seven days—writers having deep discussions before the dew dries on the grass. So you can see how there’s so much to take in. Add both the faculty and graduating student presentations, and I’m convinced I need a second head to hold everything I’ve learned this residency.

After staring at the schedule, I settled on Jaed Coffin’s presentation on preparing an effective book proposal that delivers and sells the idea, that shows an agent/editor the writer understands his/her story, and gets them paid. According to Coffin, a pitch should have three parts: an A, B and C.

The “A” is the writer’s basic story. “In memoir, I think of this as your most raw experience,” Coffin said. On what writer’s should consider, he said, “It’s the elemental experience you triumphed [or] overcame.”

The “B” is your story’s story, which puts the situation/experience in context. “Often times, this larger story that deals with your experience deals with place, setting, era, epoch, region and issue,” Coffin said.

Then there’s “C”, the transcendental story. According to the instructor, it’s the synthetic effect of both “A” and “B”. “This,” he said, “is where the conflict and tension emerges.”

(COVER ART: De Capo Press)

Using his own autobiographic books—A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants and Roughhouse Friday—Coffin filled in the template with his experiences.

With A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants, the “A” (basic story) was the biracial American kid becomes a monk. “A simple, fundamental experience,” the instructor said. “We all have narratives with which we tell our lives.” On what writers should consider, Coffin added, “What story am I trying to tell about my character, that fundamental nugget.”

The “B” (context of situation/experience) is that his story happens in his mom’s Thai village. “There’s that one thing that tweaks the story to where they’ll be conflict,” the instructor said.

Then there’s “C” (transcendental story): the “fact I was a monk in my mom’s village complicates our idea of what it means to be American,” Coffin said.

The process was the same for Roughhouse Friday. The “A”: there’s a bar in Juneau where guys fight. “There’s something kind of charismatic about bar fights,” the instructor said. “No one looks away from a bar fight.”

The “B”: most of the guys in the bar are of Tlingit and Haida ethnicity. “Suddenly,” Coffin said, “the fight begs the question, Why?

The “C” answers that question: the guys fight because of their ethnic identity and their cultural history. This also adds to the discussion on what it means to be American. “Somehow the merging of my experience and identity come to this larger thing,” Coffin said. Without that “larger thing,” the instructor noted, the book doesn’t have staying power. “If you just want to talk about your experience, that’s fine,” Coffin said. “But I don’t think your book will last.”

Another thing that guarantees staying power is what’s called “the spine,” which Coffin defined with an excerpt from an email his editor sent him. “It’s the thing that you keep coming back to,” writes Rebecca Saletan, of Riverhead Books. “Make a lot of digressions as long as you keep coming back to the spine.”

(COVER ART: Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Coffin elaborated. “No narrative is a straight line. Good books tend to meander,” he said. “Good writers always have a good sense of the spine. That’s what keeps the reader engaged.”

Among Coffin’s examples of text with “a good sense of the spine” is Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which is chronicles the struggles of the Lees, a Hmong family from Sainyabuli Province, Laos, and the misunderstandings that arise between their culture and the health care system in Merced, California.

What makes books like The Spirit Catches You successful is the “take away,” what Coffin noted makes the reader pass or recommend a book to someone else. The instructor added that most writers don’t know what the “take away” of their books are yet. “The take away is something you have to earn,” Coffin said. “I can sell a ‘C’”—the thing that’s constructed in the mind beforehand—“but I can’t sell a take away.”

When submitting a proposal to agents, the instructor noted, writers will need three things: an overview, chapter summary, and writing sample—a framework that goes against conventional wisdom, which required a longer list of items included in the proposal.

Coffin recounted a story about the mistake he made earlier in his writing career. He submitted a 140-page proposal that resembled a press kit, which included a market analysis. He advised both nonfiction and fiction writers against this. (While his presentation was for nonfiction students and the rules for other genres are slightly different, he noted that his framework also applies to fiction students.)

On bypassing conventional wisdom, Coffin said, “If you can hook an agent in five pages, to hell with a market analysis.” Chapter summaries should be no more than 15-page chapters, he noted. “Every chapter summary should have an event,” Coffin said. “A physical action should occur.”

And for nonfiction, he noted, a writing sample should be 25-65 pages. Coffin said, “No one wants to buy a 1,000-page manuscript from a no-name author.”

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Posted by on July 15, 2011 in Article


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Creating Mental Motion Pictures For Readers

(ARTWORK: Courtesy)

Looking up from his laptop, Richard Cambridge adjusted his eyeglasses before resting his elbows on the lectern. He surveyed the packed room of Stonecoast faculty and fellow grad students at a session he led Thursday. “How many of you’ve seen Mission:  Impossible?” he said. Several hands shot up, remembering the opening montage of the popular TV series: a hand striking a match and lighting a fuse.

Cambridge smiled. That fuse burning across the TV screen, he noted, is what happens inside the reader’s mind when he/she reads a great book.

Cambridge’s Making Movies on the Mental Retina is among the 19 of 26 Graduating Student Presentations that occurred so far during the Stonecoast MFA summer residency, which we’re midway through.

The second half of the residency officially started yesterday. Scott Wolven killed the Flash Faculty Reading that included Tony Barnstone, Rick Bass, Jeanne Marie Beaumont, Carolina De Robertis, and Nancy Holder. I enjoyed Jaed Coffin’s coming-of-age essay on his adventures in a small town, changed by gentrification.

In his presentation on imagery, Richard Cambridge was on a mission: to equip his peers with a new layer to what he called “our writer’s ‘toolbox'” of techniques, making “one word worth a thousand pictures.”

Using Elaine Scarry’s  Dreaming by the Book, a work on literary aesthetics, Cambridge identified five techniques used by writers to power the projector reel of the reader’s imagination. That list includes rarity, dyadic addition and subtraction, stretching and floral supposition.

(ARTWORK: Princeton University Press)

The one that jumped out at me was radiant ignition, or the lit fuse burning through the reader’s mind where the story plays out like a movie. I immediately thought of Stephen King’s article Imagery and the Third Eye. “Some critics have accused me…of writing for the movies,” the bestselling author writes. “It’s not true, but I suppose there’s some justification for the idea.”

According to sources, his books have  sold more than 350 million copies. “All of my novels to date have been sold to the movies,” he writes. They’ve also been adapted into TV movies and comic books.

King noted that both film and fiction share an interest in imagery. “I’m suggesting that my novels have sold to the movies,” he writes, “simply because they contain elements of vivid image that appeal to those who make films.”

However, the author of contemporary horror, suspense, science fiction and fantasy fiction knows images don’t carry a whole story. “Novels are more than imagery—they are thought, plot, style, tone, characterization, and a score of other things,” he writes, “but it is the imagery that makes the book

‘stand out’ somehow; to come alive; to glow with its own light.”

According to Scarry, “Radiant Ignition  sets narrative in motion…helps make apprehensible the interior motion of fictional persons…to animate what would otherwise be, however vivid, only still pictures in the mind.”

Radiant Ignition is closely related to dyadic motion. The clearest explanation of this technique is as a “rapid composition of a series of still images.” Think animation, where a cartoonist sketches the cartoon’s every motion. Flip those pages of sketches, and the two-dimensional character appears to move.

Citing examples of two of Scarry’s theories in practice, Richard Cambridge turned to Joe Hill’s novel Heart-Shaped Box, which tells the story of aging rock star Judas Coyne who’s haunted by the ghost, Craddock McDermott, after buying the dead man’s funeral suit. Craddock was the father of a groupie Jude dated before she committed suicide. The dead man’s out to kill Jude for revenge.

(ARTWORK: Courtesy)

Richard Cambridge’s noted an example of dyadic motion in the following passage:

Craddock McDermott moved in stop motion, a series of life-size still photographs. In one moment his arms were at his sides. In the next, one of his gaunt hands was on Georgia’s shoulder. His fingernails were yellowed and long and curled at the end. The black marks jumped and quivered in front of his eyes. ¶Time leaped forward again.

Cambridge noted that Hill gives away his technique. It’s the “first ‘instruction’” he gives the reader “to compose the movement of this particular character in his movie that is playing in our head.” The instruction comes again here:

In one instant Craddock’s hands were gently cradling Georgia’s head. In the next his right arm had come up to point out and away from his body: Sieg heil. Around the dead man, time had a way of skipping, a scratched DVD, the picture stuttering erratically from moment to moment, without any transitions in between.

The descriptions of Craddock’s fingernails (“…yellowed and long and curled at the end”) and how time moved (“…skipping, a scratched DVD, the picture stuttering erratically…”) are what Stephen King called “the bright picture that glows in the physical eye or in the mind’s eye.” Scarry’s theories and Hill’s use of them go back to the caveman who “held his audience spellbound around a fire at night.” Perhaps, King writes, “he even got an extra piece of meat for his efforts if the story was a good one, the first writer’s royalty!”

Those details are also why Hill, Cambridge noted, gets away with giving his readers “instructions”.  As a writer, he said, “You don’t take the audience behind the curtain and show them how the trick is done.” But Hill can do it because he doesn’t break the trance.


Posted by on July 15, 2011 in Article


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How To Write About Sex

(PHOTO: Alan King) Stonecoast faculty instructor Aaron Hamburger leads Tuesday’s discussion on writing about sex.

A roomful of writers laughed after Aaron Hamburger noted that nipples shouldn’t be compared to cherries, pencil erasers or Frankenstein’s neck bolts—at least not in literature. “Metaphors should be used to make things clear,” the Stonecoast faculty member said during his presentation. “But we’re all adults, here. I think we’re clear on what a penis and breasts look like.”

Hamburger’s presentation Let’s Talk About Sex: How To Use Eroticism Effectively in Writing was the Tuesday highlight.  I’m five days deep into a 10-day summer residency in the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program.

The first half of the residency culminated today with a dinner for poetry faculty and students at a local pub. Earlier today, my group had our last poetry workshop with Tim Seibles. (Next week, I’ll be in a different workshop group led by Joy Harjo.) I’ve knocked out all my required evaluations for the Graduating Student Presentations. Aaron Hamburger’s was the last of my required Faculty Presentations.

Writers packed the Casco Room of the Stone  House Tuesday afternoon to examine the work of authors depicting eroticism in original ways. Among Hamburger’s examples of works that transcended simply reporting the mechanics of sex was the title novella of Philip Roth’s short story collection Goodbye, Columbus.

The title story, which looks at the life of middle-class Jewish Americans, is from the perspective of Rutgers University grad Neil Klugman. While working a low-paying gig at the Newark Public Library, Neil meets and falls for Brenda Patimkin, a Radcliffe College student whose wealthy family lives in the affluent Short Hills.

Hamburger’s example is what happened after Neil agreed to hold Brenda’s glasses while she goes swimming:

She dove beautifully, and a moment later she was swimming back to the side of the pool, her head of short-clipped auburn hair held up, straight ahead of her, as though it were a rose on a long stem. She glided to the edge and then was beside me. “Thank you,” she said…She extended a hand for her glasses but did not put them on until she turned and headed away. I watched her move off. Her hands suddenly appeared behind her. She caught the bottom of her suit between thumb and index finger and flicked what flesh had been showing back where  it belonged. My blood jumped. That night, before dinner, I called her.

(Artwork: Chris Andruskiewicz)

Hamburger noted the tension in Neil’s anticipation. “You want to do a striptease, which is what she [Brenda] did,” he advised his audience.

Not every character should like sex the same way, Hamburger noted, then cited a tender moment between a nameless Hungarian writer and an aging actress in Peter Nadas’s novel A Book of Memories:

I edged closer to her, and rather than objecting to this she helped me by slipping her arm under my shoulder, gently hugging me to herself, and simply to return the gesture I let my hand slide up her thigh, my fingers slip under her panties. And we lay there like this. Her burning face on my shoulder. We seemed to be lolling in some spacious, soft and slippery wetness where one doesn’t know how time passes but it’s of no importance anyway. With my arms I was rocking her body as if wanting to rock both of us to sleep.

Hamburger pointed to a masochistic sexual relationship between two strangers, Beth and The Man, who go away for the weekend in the short story, “A Romantic Weekend,” from Mary Gaitskill’s collection Bad Behavior:

She put her glass on the coffee table, crossed the floor and dropped to her knees between his legs. She threw her arms around his thighs. She nuzzled his groin with her nose. He tightened. She unzipped his pants. “Stop,” he said. “Wait.”…This was not what he had in mind, but to refuse would make him seem somehow less virile than she. Queasily, he stripped off her clothes and put their bodies in a viable position. He fastened his teeth on her breast and bit her. She made a surprised noise and her body stiffened. He bit her again, harder. She screamed. He wanted to draw blood. Her screams were short and stifled. He could tell that she was trying to like being bitten, but that she did not. He gnawed her breast. She screamed sharply. They screwed. They broke apart and regarded each other warily. She put her hand on his tentatively. He realized what had been disturbing him about her.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Victor LaValle

No matter the characters’ sexual preferences, Hamburger advised the crowd not to forget to include foreplay in their stories. Don’t make the mistake, he said, of jumping right to penetration. The instructor cited a moment between Rob, a male prostitute, and his customer in the short story, “slave,” from Victor LaValle’s collection Slapboxing with Jesus:

Rob eats pussy like a champ. He’s on awful knees that should have been turned in months ago; they are now numb. He should be getting ready for school; tenth grade is usually the age of football teams and part-time work. She says, —Don’t stop, through those teeth so white Rob was sure they were caps…—Don’t you fucking stop. She has soft skin everywhere and does nothing he might call work. This woman doesn’t have rough fingers like secretaries who must type and dial phones all their lives or lawyers who look tired and must win every argument; not even models who are so pretty, or pretend to be, that they would never have to pay for an ugly little kid to eat their pussies. Her legs and thighs are draped over his shoulders, her ass somewhere in that space between him and the bed; he wants to tell her that his shoulders hurt, but will he? No.

Watching some folks in the audience cringe at the details, Hamburger offered some perspective. “I’ve met Victor LaValle. He’s a total gentleman,” he said. “He’s not the type of guy to say, ‘Rob eats pussy like a champ.’” But the author, he noted, realized that the language was appropriate for the story. What the author did underscored the instructor’s message. Speaking of LaValle, Hamburger said, “He does his characters justice.”


Posted by on July 12, 2011 in Article


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The Residency

(PHOTO: Snowmonks) The 86 Ensemble (formerly the Snowmonks)

During yesterday’s presentation on music and improvisation, Gil Helmick and his band inspired the writers in the room to face their fears off the page. “I’ve actually watched my work change before my eyes while I’m performing,” he said. “Line breaks go. I’ll toss lines over my shoulder like they’re dead birds.”

Helmick’s presentation Poetry, Music, Improvisation, Synergies of the Subconscious is one of four faculty presentations I’m required to evaluate as a student.

I’m in my second semester of the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program, one of the nation’s leading low-residencies.

It’s a rigorous two-year graduate education in creative writing. Each semester kicks off with a ten-day residency at the historic Stone House. (Last residency, we stayed at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, ME. This time, we’re at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME.)

Helmick’s among the Stonecoast faculty members who, during the residency, lead workshop groups in creative nonfiction, fiction and popular fiction. Outside of the residency, faculty mentors give us one-on-one intensive instructions in our chosen genres. Last semester, I had the great Tim Seibles as my mentor, and was fortunate enough to get him again as a workshop leader for poetry.

As a Stonecoast student, I get to take electives in scriptwriting, translation, performance and cross-genre. We’re all required to do a third semester project and lead an hour-long presentation in our fourth semester. I’m excited about collaborating with a visual artist to do either a poetry comic book or a graphic novel in verse for my third semester project.

Yesterday was the fourth day of my residency that started with Tim and Patricia Smith scorching the Flash Faculty Readings that included Boman Desai, David Anthony Durham, Stonecoast Director Annie Finch, the Elizabeths (both Hand and Searle), the awesome and amazing Cait Johnson, and Michael Kimball.

(PHOTO: Alan King) Stonecoast faculty and students enjoy lunch outdoors.

During the residency, I’m also required to evaluate three graduating student presentations. My favorite so far is Karrie Waarala’s Creating the Common Languages Necessary to Make a Poetry Show a Success.

She presented on her Poetry Side Show, what she did as her third semester project. According to Waarala, it was an involved process that led to a successful multimedia project, where she incorporated video performances of poets/actors along with her stage presentation. This, she said, allowed her to keep the focus on her performance without having other actors with her on the stage.

“I feel funny calling this a one-woman show when other people were involved,” she said before wisely admitting, “You cannot do this alone.” She got help from a friend who built her a trick mirror. Others designed posters and websites to help her get the word out about her show.

The extent to which Waarala went to pull off her project was impressive. Her research included her reading, conducting interviews and traveling with a small ring circus. For her third semester project, she hired a sideshow barker, a fortune-teller, and a juggler who peddled a unicycle outside her show while tossing and catching flame batons.

But, perhaps, more risky than keeping several objects in the air simultaneously was Waarala quitting her job as a librarian to pursue her third semester project full-time. After hearing that, I thought of how my fiancée would kill me if I quit my job for a project.

Two nights prior, Kazim Ali brought the house down with his reading. Earlier that day, I learned about 10-minute plays in James Kelly’s and Elizabeth Searle’s faculty presentation, ‘Get Shorty’: One-Act Plays and Short Films as a ‘Way In’ to Scriptwriting.

(PHOTO: Alan King) Indigo Moor (fellow Stonecoast student) with Annie Finch (Stonecoast Director) and Alexandra Oliver (Stonecoast student).

The presentation involved everyone partnering up for a role-play exercise. One person played the scriptwriter pitching a story to the partner, who played the director. After five minutes, the roles reversed. Kelly and Searle kept us engaged by acting out a 10-minute play.

In that presentation, I learned a 10-minute play is 10 pages double-spaced. I learned about the Aristotelian unities, the rule of three characters (the third person disrupts the relationship between two people), and the mistakes beginning playwrights make.

“Beginning playwrights feel they have to explain a lot,” Kelly said. “They don’t trust their audience.”

Instead, he suggested using fewer stage directions. “Trust the director. This medium is collaborative,” Kelly said. “Your job is to step back from what you think is important.”

His message—“The fate of your work is tied to other people”—was echoed yesterday in Gil Helmick’s presentation on music and improvisation.

Helmick’s part of a multimedia performing arts crew known as The 86 Ensemble (formerly the Snowmonks), which blend spoken word, piano, and cello improvisations that’s attributed to what’s called “thoughtful, challenging and periodically disruptive juxtapositions of image, metaphor, meaning and sound.”

After The 86 Ensemble got down, the floor was open to students and faculty who either composed on the spot or brought something already written. Poet Anne Witty was brave enough to kick it off for all the poets, sci-fi and fiction writers who eventually worked up the courage to improvise our narratives.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Gil Helmick

We had church in that upstairs room of the Stone House.

Indigo Moor and Patricia Smith kept encouraging me to go up. When I told Indigo that I’d go if he went, the poet/playwright/fiction writer got up and performed the title poem from his debut collection of poems Taproot.

On my way to the mike, I thought of Helmick’s point on the important element of improvisation. “The key, in improvising with others, is to listen. It’s through listening that magic occurs,” he said. “It’s through listening the dueling happens.”

I listened and found my way into the duel with my poem “Hunger”. But the magic happened when folks, initially put off by getting up in front of their peers, cast their inhibitions aside to add their voices to the cipher.


Posted by on July 11, 2011 in Article


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The Never-Ending Journey

(PHOTO: Jupiter Images)

EDITOR’S NOTE: In honor of national poetry month coming upon us in less than two weeks, here’s an essay on a young poet’s never-ending journey  and the lessons learned along the way.

Standing in front of my fourth grade Eng/Lit class, I had only one goal: to recite every line correctly. It was more than just a goal; it was mandatory. Mrs. Garrison would assign us poems that had to be memorized and recited back to her.

I don’t remember the names of the poems or who the poets were. But I remember if you couldn’t pull off the task, you spent your recess on the wall watching your friends have fun. That thought, alone, was torment enough. That was my introduction to poetry.

If you asked me then what I thought of it, I might’ve told you he was no friend of mine. I might’ve also likened him to the kid the teachers never caught picking on his classmates, the kid who got everyone in trouble. I’d learn much later that he was misunderstood and only did what he did for attention. After a few more encounters — in middle school, high school and college — we became friends.

Since our friendship, I’ve published two chapbooks and completed two full-length manuscripts. My work has appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, including Alehouse, Boxcar Poetry Review, Indiana Review, MiPoesias and Rattle. I’ve also received fellowships from VONA (Voices of Our Nation) and Cave Canem, and was recently nominated for both a Best of the Net selection and a Pushcart Prize.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

And while I’m a long way from that nervous fourth grader, poetry doesn’t seem to be impressed with that. No matter the accomplishments, it still asks me to prove myself to the craft, or to take it to the next level. In fact, I hadn’t begun to scratch the surface of poetry’s possibilities, including the advocacy it involves, until I started teaching at Charles Hart Middle School in Washington, D.C.

This advocacy, according to poet Martin Espada, involves “speaking on behalf of those without an opportunity to be heard.” Through their poems, the kids at Hart speak on behalf of friends and family members who they see as underdogs.

They speak on behalf of a community that’s been misrepresented in media coverage and with grim statistics that often describe Hart’s location — in the southeast section of D.C. — as a high-crime and high-poverty area. (The median income for area households is $24,905, according to, an online database of schools and their surrounding communities. With  31,688 residents living around Hart, only 10 percent of those 25 years and older have college degrees.)

What I admire about my students is their courage. Even when statistics show they have a tough life ahead of them, they turn to what’s practical for them: poetry. In a July 2007 interview with Bill Moyer, Espada explained what I had yet to learn, but what my students knew all along. “Poetry will help them survive to the extent that poetry helps them maintain their dignity, helps them maintain their sense of self-respect,” the poet said. “They will be better suited to defend themselves in the world.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Patricia Smith

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Patricia Smith.

To equip them for that, I’ve turned to three contemporary poets. If they were X-Men, Patricia Smith would be Rogue, Tim Seibles would be Iceman and Tony Hoagland would be Beast. Contemporary American Poetry would be the Westchester mansion where they hone their powers for the betterment of humanity. But these three are more than just mere poets; their mutant-like abilities set them apart from others in that camp.

Rogue can absorb psyches and abilities of individuals or several beings at once. In Patricia’s case, she can take several poetic forms — including the villanelle and sestina — and spin them on their heads with the ease of penning prose. As if the sestina wasn’t complicated enough, Patricia effortlessly executes the double sestina challenge.

Every time I read her work, I’m inspired to push myself harder in the craft. “While she writes from the ‘I,’ she writes selflessly so,” according to the Book of Voices, an online library of poetry in spoken word, performance and text.

Just like Rogue, Patricia can also absorb and reflect anyone’s memories, knowledge, talents, personality and physical abilities in her own poems. “The audience is free to step into her shoes as they will, trying on her point of view as her writing slips into the identities of others,” the Website states. Those muscular poems seem to breathe, sing and dance on their own while possessing an “enlightened, worldly political conscience” I wish I could accomplish in my own writing.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Tim Seibles.

Sometimes I catch my poems trying to be as cool as Tim “the Iceman” Seibles. Understanding that cold is slang for hip and fresh, Tim is one of the coldest poets publishing today. When I first read his work in Hurdy Gurdy, it was clear what made him so cold. In his poem, titled “For Brothers Everywhere,” Tim compared the streetballers to “…muscular saxophones/ body-boppin better than jazz.”

Every poem I’ve written since have been failed attempts at trying to master Tim’s cool. “This is not a poetry of a highfalutin violin nor the somber cello,” poet Sandra Cisneros wrote in the blurb for Hurdy Gurdy, “but a melody you heard somewhere that followed you home.” His poems are as slick as the ice slides the Iceman glides over at high speeds.

Tim’s work also has a “streetwise” lyricism that gives his poems a conversational tone. It’s that same lyricism in my own work that puts my poems in conversation with his. My poem, “The Sweet Urge,” was an unsuccessful attempt at mirroring the intensity in some of Tim’s poems.

Another technique I’ve borrowed is one used by both Tim and Tony Hoagland: humor.

“It’s important to weave really substantive issues into poems that have pronounced humor in them,” Tim wrote to me in a December 2006 email. “It catches people off-guard, so they really hear something before they can go into the ‘denial zone.’”

As for Hoagland, his poems have been described as “playful, provocative, and sometimes even a little mean.” Like Beast, he possesses “a super genius intellect.” At the same time, his poems aren’t afraid to do hand-to-hand and acrobatic combat with issues considered taboo. “To me, a good poem threatens the reader a little, crosses over some line of the social contract, or the poetic contract, which sets off alarms,” Hoagland told Miriam Sagan in an interview on Tres Chicas Books Web site.

One such poem that set off alarms among Black writers was “Rap Music”:

…I have a bad suspicion
there’s a lot of dead white people in there

on a street lit by burning police cars
where a black man is striking the head of a white one
again and again with a brick,

then lifting the skull to drink blood from the hole—

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Tony Hoagland.

I didn’t know how to feel about this poem the first time I read it. I was conflicted; on the one hand, I appreciated the poet’s honesty — what I struggle with in my own work. On the other, I couldn’t help but feel offended at some points in the poem.

But isn’t the poet’s responsibility to be a “rabble rouser”? Hoagland seems to think so. “A really good poem is the poem which breaks through the television screen into the world and reminds the reader that reading or listening is not a safe…experience, but that poetry is about open-heart surgery, being woken up or taken somewhere unexpected and dangerous.”

At Hart, I’m always inspired by my students’ courage to go to those “unexpected and dangerous” places by using what’s practical to them: poetry. It’s what  helps them “maintain their dignity” and “sense of self-respect” despite what the news and statistics say about them. They also have what I wish I had in fourth grade: an interaction with poetry that isn’t frustrating and a discovery that the written word is a powerful thing, and that their voices matter.



Posted by on March 20, 2010 in Essay


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Photo Exhibit Showcases Black Poets

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) poet Marcus Jackson

Marcus Jackson is counting down the days until his friend’s art showcase and exhibition. If you ask, he’ll say it’s a long time coming. With the event two weeks away, he also anticipates that evening will be an emotional one. “I grew up trying to act like a tough dude,” Jackson says, “but you might catch me dropping a couple tears in public.”

He’s among several poets who were documented in portraits that will be on display March 18 at “Ars Poetica, Photographs by Rachel Eliza Griffiths” at the Cave Canem Foundation’s Brooklyn loft at 20 Jay Street.

The event—which starts at 6 p.m. and goes until 8 p.m.—will open with a reception, which will be followed by a reading of several poets included in the 25 portraits. “Some of the poets are reading poems generated from their engagement with a particular image from the show,” says Griffiths—a photographer, painter, poet and writer.

Before and after the reading, there will be live jazz by the Guillaume Laurent Trio. The opening reception is open to the public. “We’re all very much looking forward to it,” says Camille Rankine, program and communications coordinator for the Cave Canem Foundation, which is committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of African-American poets.

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) photographer-painter-poet-writer Rachel Eliza Griffiths .

The exhibition is the result of a three-year partnership between Griffiths and the foundation. In fact, Griffiths—whose visual art and writing have appeared in various publications including Callaloo, The New York Times, Indiana Review and RATTLE—got the project idea when she joined the Cave Canem community in 2006.

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) poet John Murillo.

“The event is something we’ve had in mind for years, since Rachel has been taking photographs for Cave Canem and we’ve become more aware of her talent,” Rankine said. “Now that we have this beautiful loft space in the artistically-rich DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn, we’re thrilled to be able to showcase her work and host this wonderful opening event.”

By definition, the Ars Poetica is a literary device that employs the use of poetic form to define or describe the nature of poetry itself. Often introspective rather than on the surface, it’s a poet’s attempt to explain what poetry is or should be by using the forms and traditions of poetry.

Jackson and others believe that definition is apt in describing Griffiths’s work. “Rachel’s work exudes the power of an eye and heart that are not only privy to the importance and beauty of blackness, but also to that of poetry,” he said. “Her appreciation and comprehension of these elements always seems to render breath-halting photography.”

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) poet Toi Derricotte, co-founder of Cave Canem.

Ars Poetica will run through May 31, with viewings by appointment. There are several reasons why Jackson anticipates the event being an emotional one. For starters, the showcase will focus on a group of people many feel America’s literary landscape tends to overlook: “writers of color.”

A testament to this, for many, is the tale of Cave Canem. Founded in 1996 by poets Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady to remedy the under-representation of African-American poets in MFA programs and writing workshops, Cave Canem has become a home for the many voices of African-American poetry.

Another reason for the tears may be that some of the poets photographed have since passed on. “It’s been difficult,” Griffiths says. “Since I’ve been a part of Cave Canem in 2006, we’ve lost members of our family.” The literary world is still coping with the loss of a giant, Lucille Clifton, who passed away on Feb. 13. Last summer, Griffiths was fortunate enough to photograph her, along with poet Nikky Finney, in Virginia.

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) poet Tyehimba Jess.

Ars Poetica, Jackson says, “is the unearthing of a rich mineral from which our eyes and hands have too long been diverted.”

“With this exhibit, we hope to bring from the margins to the center the cultural accomplishments of African American writers,” Rankine says. “Though much has been documented about the Harlem Renaissance, there’s not an abundance of material on contemporary black writers.”

And of course, the event is to highlight Griffiths’s talents. Jackson says, “There is great anticipation for the opening of Rachel’s ‘Ars Poetica’ because of her artistic skill.”

Frank X. Walker, another poet documented in the portraits, agrees. He refers to Griffiths’s portraits as poems. “One of the poems she shot with her camera pulled me to the project head first,” he says of his friend who he’s known for what seems like a lifetime.

Walker—who, as he puts it, is “trying to conjure up an opportunity” to get him to New York—is not sure if he’ll make the event. “The positive energy surrounding this project…is palpable,” he says, “even from Kentucky.”

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) poet Frank X. Walker.

The showcase and reception, Griffiths says, is just the beginning. “I see a book of these photographs.  I would like the photographs to travel to different cities where Cave Canem poets might also have readings in conversation with the exhibit,” she says. “It’s all elastic—the collective will continue to grow and I hope the photographs…will reflect its movement.”

For more information, visit You can also contact Camille Rankine at 718.858.0000, or by email at



Posted by on March 5, 2010 in Article


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