I’m finally back to blogging! Sorry for the extended break, and thanks for sticking with me. What have I been doing during all this time off, you ask? Keeping busy. Here are a few highlights – more on the resulting insights later.
- I made a big move, crossing the Bay to move from San Francisco to Oakland. It feels a little like hooking up (and shacking up) with the person I’ve been crushing on for a long time, and it’s been really good for me so far.
- I attended my second-to-last residency for my MFA program at Pacific University. Spent most of my time there feeling floored by the fact that the time has passed so quickly, but I had a great time. One of the big high points – Kaffir Boy author Mark Mathabane as a guest speaker, calling us to be a “courageous, humanitarian generation of writers” who write with the spirit of Ubuntu, that which makes us human.
- On the school note, I’m now in my final semester of my MFA program, which means I’m putting together my thesis, a manuscript of poems. It’s an exhilarating, excruciating process that feels a little like killing my darlings and giving birth to new ones every day. So exhausting and so rewarding, to say the least.
- I’ve been booking reading gigs, and I’ll have details on those soon!
- And I’ve been taking good care of myself, which totally counts as a thing to include among this list of life achievements. Because it’s necessary. It’s revolutionary. It’s love.
But okay, I would be lying if I pretended I’ve been only triumphant in my time away. I’ve also been feeling the pressure of what Jay Smooth calls “the little hater,” which said that when I finally got back to blogging, my return would have to be GLORIOUS. Well, this is my return, and it might not be so glorious, but the important thing is that I’m back.
I encourage you to watch this video, and to beat your own little hater by getting back to doing something you love. Let me know how it goes. *Shout out to Sugarcane
, the LGBTQ of color writing workshop that brought this video into my life and helped me beat my little hater*
Warning: this isn't a proper blog post. It's not something from a real professional writer, the kind who has something profound to say after spending the last week and a half soaking up the brilliance of the likes of Leslie Adrienne Miller, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and guest speaker Charles Johnson. I'm not pretending to be that person. I'm seeking the essential me-ness
, so this is a blog post from the real me. This is a blog post about kittens. As we near the end of the Pacific University MFA residency,
I'm trying to decide on a defining moment for this experience. And it's not the moment when Joseph Millar, Dorianne Laux and Ellen Bass shared what they learned from reading Lucille Clifton. It's not when Kwame Dawes read his poems, or when he read the work of Audre Lorde and Langston Hughes, two poets whose words
are tattooed on my body
. It's not
even when Marvin Bell used one of my poems to illustrate the points he made about poetic strategies.
These were all incredible moments that will remain with me, undoubtedly, but if I had to choose just one moment of all of those that are sticking out in my mind, this would be it: Standing on the corner of the farmer's market in Forest Grove, holding in my arms one of the kittens from the free kitten box I've just come across, as Ellen Bass rubs his tiny head and we giggle over his absurd adorableness. I know, I'm ridiculous. That moment had nothing to do with the residency. But to me, in a way, it had everything to do with why I choose to be here. I choose this moment not simply because
I'm crazy about animals, although it's true that I am, and not just because I have immense admiration for Ellen Bass, though that's true, too. I choose this moment because Ellen and I weren't standing apart as student and teacher, or as emerging poet and established poet. We stood together, no expectations between us, just united by our appreciation for cute creatures, a real, down-to-earth, essential part of who we are, not just as poets or lovers of the written word, but as people.These are the moments that make my MFA experience so unforgettable. I am just deliciously delighted to say that Ellen Bass is my advisor for this
semester, which means that from now until January, I'll be working with her one on one to craft an essay and continue to grow in my poetry. I just adore Ellen, as a person and as a poet. She writes the loveliest poems about some of the subjects I care about most, including love between women, healing from trauma, and spirituality. And I've already worked with her in workshop so I know that she "gets" me, and really supports my poetic vision. And kittens. She also shares my love of kittens. She understood my longing
as I reluctantly faced the truth that the kitten in my arms couldn't come home with me. But before I put him down, we all shared a moment - Ellen, the nameless black kitten, and I. And though it may seem silly, in that moment I knew that Ellen Bass understood an essential part of me. Watch this clip of Ellen reading her sweet, funny poem
"Bone of My Bone and Flesh of My Flesh." You can visit her website
I’m tuning in live from the Pacific University MFA residency in Forest Grove, Oregon. We’ve reached that point in the residency when I’m not quite sure what day, or hour or, well, universe I’m in, but I’m having a good time and learning a lot, so I’ve given up on trying to stay grounded and I’m just floating along. The good news is I’ll be more grounded once I leave here. I’m reminded of all of the rewarding reasons I entered this program, so I’m really thankful for my time here.
To put this gratitude in perspective: when this semester began, I was freaking out. I wish I could use my writerly skills to describe it more eloquently, but that about captures it. I was freaking out, as in, I wasn’t sure where I was heading or why, that kind of feeling like you’re rushing forward, only everything is dark, so you’re not sure where you’re going. I was freaking out, as in, I didn’t know what I was supposed to be writing, was struggling to recall why I’d embarked on this wild quest to get an MFA in Poetry, of all things, when it’s hard enough to make a living as a poet, and harder still when you’re a crazy person who writes things barely recognizable as poetry, like I happen to be.
Marvin Bell tells the class of 2011
to "write with abandon"
With a deadline looming, I was honest with my advisor, Marvin Bell, about my freaking out. It’s nice to say I could be honest with him, but the truth is, I had to be honest, because I felt frozen, unable to write anything without a crippling sense of self-doubt paralyzing my mind. There I was, lucky enough to have the prolific poet Marvin Bell as my mentor, and all I could do was wonder if I belonged here, or if I was forging my way through a path that was never meant for me.
Marvin’s response was so sweet. He was gentle, generous, and silly with me, reminding me to have fun, because when I’m writing, I’m doing something I love. He told me, in much more eloquent words, to stop freaking out, to stop worrying about what others expect of me (himself included), and to simply be who I was born to be. Me.
These ideas have been coming up at the residency, so those who have brought it up have unwittingly continued to confirm that I know what’s best for me. From Dorianne Laux’s insights on childhood memories as moments that define us as people and as poets to Kwame Dawes’s words on the personal necessity for political poetry, every piece of advice from the past week has had its limit. That is, every faculty member here acknowledges that their guidance can only go so far, and it’s up to us, the writers, to let their words reach their fullest potential in our own work.
In other words, what I’m after is not something Marvin Bell or Kwame Dawes can give me. I’m seeking the essential core of my me-ness. Expressing what it truly means to be uniquely me means being the best poet that I (and only I) can be.
Following a trail at
the Elk Grove winery in Oregon
Sorry I've been so quiet, dear readers! I'm currently in Forest Grove, Oregon for my third residency of the Pacific University MFA program. Each residency has been a unique experience so far, and I'll update soon on how this one's going. One of my fellow students is blogging thoroughly about it - check her out at Sobre Mariquita
in the meantime. And speaking of quiet, what happens when a shy, quiet person like me comes to a place like this, with the potential to make invaluable connections with other writers around me, if only I can emerge from my shell and speak? I'm finding out, and I'll let you know. Here's a piece I wrote on the subject after attending the Trinidad's Bocas Lit Fest in April.
Coming soon on Inkblot:
- Recaps on recent events, including The Color of My Spirit and Harlem's Poetic Rebellion.
- Exciting updates on upcoming events.
- A creative non-fiction piece inspired by Memorial Day.
- An update on my progress in the Pacific University MFA program, as my second semester comes to a close.
I've been getting hearing some really great feedback from folks who have read some of my recent posts (thanks, y'all!), and who are also awaiting more, so I just wanted to let you know that there's plenty more on the way. Also know that I'm always open to feedback, and to suggestions if you come across anything you think I'd like to blog about. It's not just my work that keeps this blog alive - I wouldn't be able to do it without your support!Here's some entertainment to hold you in the meantime.
Nelly Furtado's music video for "Big Hoops (Bigger the Better)"
includes influences from Native American dancers. That alone is nothing new for mainstream artists, of course, but check out Adrienne K's review on her Native Appropriations blog
, where she discusses why she's so glad to see a mainstream artist including Indigenous dancing in a way that shows respect and avoids cultural appropriation. Do you think this can influence other artists to do the same? Enjoy the video!
The beach in Seaside, Oregon,
where our Pacific University
winter residency was held
Do you ever deal with those, the uncontrollable factors? How have you dealt with them? I ask because I assume you have the answers. And maybe those answers aren't right for me, but surely you've figured out what works for your life. We're constantly teetering around trying to find some sense of balance, and the balance I'm trying to find right now is between absorbing the wisdom from the brilliant minds around me and trusting that I know what's best for myself. For instance, recently I went to my winter residency
for Pacific University's MFA program. I shared about my experiences there last June
, and I'll soon share some of my insights from this trip, too. Surrounded by faculty as accomplished as Marvin Bell, Kwame Dawes and Tayari Jones, I feel quite humbled. At times during the residency, my voice vanished,
and I felt that all I could do was learn all I could by listening. But wait - what becomes of a writer without her voice?
At some point, I had to realize that their wisdom was available to guide me, of course, but not to create my words. I have to do that part on my own. And creating my own art means trusting in my ability to do so.
At CUAV's Wellness Wednesdays
, we've been talking about intuition, that feeling you get in your gut when you just know
something. It's the feeling that makes you the expert in your own life. Some would say that creativity is inherently intuitive
. And you could say a lot
about the relationship between writing and intuition. If I write this way, I may come up with some work that feels pretty raw
. But I took in some important lessons about revision at the winter residency, and it reminded me that I can always go back and take another look, make another draft. Always trusting that my voice can create the right words for my own blank page.
I've been taking a long break from the blog, as I attempt to get some life business in order. There are some things I've been able to control and put into place exactly as I'd like them. And for some other things, I've managed to do nothing more than realize I've got to give up control and let them happen as they will.
When all you’ve got is your art, you can’t help but learn something from it.
One of the good things about keeping busy with readings
is that I’ve been so immersed in my writing. So naturally, that’s where all my life lessons have been coming from recently. Like the one that goes: it’s not what happens that matters, but what’s discovered along the way. This could apply to readers and writers of a particular piece, but I think it can apply to the way we approach life, too. Here I am, spending so much time working on my writing, and what would it mean, reaching whatever end goal I’m heading toward, if I didn’t learn something valuable along the way?
I keep running across reminders of this lesson. It appeared in craft talks from folks like Sandra Alcosser and Joseph Millar at my residency
last month. And again in a documentary I recently came across, called “Breathless in Trinidad & Tobago.”
It’s a film by Vincent T. Joachim
, documenting his travels with Jeff Cruz to Gonzalez, Trinidad to teach a free photography workshop to youth. I can’t believe I didn’t find this earlier – a film about the empowerment of youth through the influence of art, set in my father’s home country of Trinidad. This is such a great find.
Joachim helps change the lives of the young people he works with by not only boosting their photography skills, but also by helping them see how the tools they use in their art can also apply to their ways of living. For youth growing up in a country where so many are affected by violence, gaining the confidence and skill these young people build could make a life-altering difference.
On one assignment, Joachim urges the young photographers to “change your perspective – not just in photography, but in your daily life.”
That’s something I’m trying in my writing. And in other ways, too.
What do you learn from creating art?
Check out this clip from “Breathless in Trinidad & Tobago,” and watch the entire film on Vimeo here
Marvin Bell gives the commencement address
On the final full day of the June Pacific University MFA residency
, faculty and staff, new and returning students, and family and friends of all gathered for the commencement ceremony recognizing the achievements of the Class of 2011.
I felt a little ridiculous for tearing up at this graduation. After all, I’d only just met these folks who were graduating. I haven’t gotten a chance to work with them in workshops or to watch the progression of their writing, but as I listened to Jan Bottiglieri deliver the student address, and to Marvin Bell sending them off with words of hope and wisdom, my heart swelled with pride.
I know, I’m a sap. While I’m sure that part of what moved me was pride in the accomplishments of the graduates, I know that part of it, too, was pride in myself. Though I haven’t yet put in nearly as much work as the graduates have, I’m proud of myself for even beginning the process, and the glimpse of where I’ll stand in two years gave me chills. Wow, if I’m tearing up now, I’m going to be a wreck by the time I get to my own graduation.
Here’s why I’m so proud of myself and my fellow brave first semester souls – we’re saying yes, diving on after plunging head-first into something unfamiliar. Some of us had never been through a workshop before holding up our work for critique. Some of us, hardly used to coming across anyone but family and friends on a daily basis, suddenly found enthusiastic smiles and warm introductions in every direction.
By the end we’d understand the attention. At the beginning
of the residency, I was excited, but I didn’t yet know how eager a returning student would be to come back to this community of passionate, hard-working writers. They were thrilled to welcome me to their world, in on the secret of all that I was in for. By the end, I also understood the frequent check-ins – at some point, each first semester student would realize just how much work this program would be, possibly around the same time each of us realize we’re relying on far more caffeine than we’re used to, and our own enthusiastic smiles might disappear.
It’s true, I was worn out by the time I watched the graduates celebrate their degrees. But I’m looking forward, happy to take on the challenges ahead, glad to know they're only just beginning.
I feel so lucky for the chance to work with Kwame Dawes
at Pacific University. He's one of my wonderful workshop leaders at this residency
(along with Ellen Bass
), and I'm also going to get to work with him one-on-one throughout the semester as he serves as my faculty advisor. I am, to say the least, thrilled. He gave an incredibly moving reading last night, and after hearing him and the amazing Patricia Smith, I spent the evening in a giddy poetry nerd trance. It was almost too much. What's a girl supposed to do with all that inspiration?
I'm working hard on the answer. But my time here at the residency isn't nearly the extent of my admiration for Kwame Dawes. Earlier this month was Caribbean American HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, and as you may know, both the Caribbean and HIV prevention are passionate topics for me.
This is why I adore Dawes' Emmy awarding-winning website, LiveHopeLove.com
, which draws attention
to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Dawes' home country of Jamaica. Kwame Dawes' remarkable poetry sheds light on the lives of those who are living in Jamaica with hope, love and HIV. Visit the website for the full experience of LiveHopeLove. Here's a glimpse of it, with Kwame reading his words among images of Joshua Cogan's photography. Also, this Monday, June 27th, is National HIV Testing Day. Will you participate?
Wine and words awaited us here
Ah, the life of a writer.
Mornings spent listening to the masters of craft spread their words of wisdom, putting the life you've dreamed of within your grasp. Afternoon workshops, finding that one of the best ways to learn and grow is to grow in community. Evenings, drinking wine and listening to the masters read their breath-taking work. Nights connecting with those who are as passionate about the written word as you. And early mornings - real early mornings - curled up with a notebook, furiously scribbling the ideas that have roused you from sleep after the previous day's inspiration.
A girl could forget this is some fantasy writing camp, and not really everyday life.
Of course now, more than halfway through my first Pacific University residency
(already?), I'm trying to figure out how to continue as much of this life
as possible once I return home. Some of what I've heard has been helpful in the practical sense. Marvin Bell gave a talk titled "How to be a Writer Every Day," calling us to be writers by setting and meeting writing challenges, each and every day. Today's talk was an interview, Heather Sappenfield leading a discussion with Bonnie Jo Campbell about how even someone who hears early in her career that she is "everything wrong with writing today" can go on to find her voice as a writer, and become a very successful one at that. Mostly, though, I know
that I'll continue life as a writer not simply because I'll have advice to follow or assignments to turn in, but because this experience is reminding me of how I long to write, and to write better each day. For me, growing as a writer means growing as a person, because for me, writing is a daily reminder of my reason for being. It's all so easy to remember in the moment, of course, and I can only hope that after this experience is over,
I won't forget the invaluable lessons I've learned here. I get the feeling, though, that even if my conscious mind forgets, my writing reflexes will always remember. So long as I continue to be a writer every day.