Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Confession Tuesday

Jiminy Cricket it’s cold! (Cold weather brings out the unused clichés in me.)

Negative 6 degrees, that was this morning's temp. Can you believe it? I can’t. While we’ve had maybe a two-day reprieve from snowy weather, an arctic blast has taken over like Elsa from Frozen. And tonight, more snow in the forecast. Shouldn’t be more than 6”, but at this point, any additional precipitation brings tears to my eyes.


Last night, I read at Trident Books in Boston with Brian Simoneau and Jill McDonough. It was a cold, cold night, which made for a small crowd. But it was so much fun reading with poets I truly admire.


Today I’m in the thick of grading, festival planning, and taxes. No writing going on now--by choice. I can’t bear to write another snow poem, but I’m ready to take out manuscript #3 and pare it down. What I need to do is start working early in the morning. That's tough because I’ve been so tired in the evenings. It’s a never-ending cycle, I tell you.

Just like the snow …


I’ve been so busy I’ve had to put a calendar reminder on my iPhone to make sure I do one thing every day that’s poetry related—for myself. If I don’t, my goals get overlooked.


So happy Maya Angelou is getting a stamp of her own. Very cool.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Confession Tuesday

I'm not even sure what to confess this week.

A few weeks ago, my uncle--my only uncle, which makes him my favorite uncle, passed away. I wasn't able to go home for the funeral, but he's been on my mind and I know he's in a better place.
Also, this past weekend Phil Levine, my thesis adviser at NYU and a featured headliner at the 2014 Massachusetts Poetry Festival, passed away. All of that packed into this harsh winter we're having, and it's just been a lot packed into a few weeks.


Over the years, I've known a few poets who have been more than influences on me, they have been touchstones. Phil was certainly one of them. As a poet, I appreciated his strong narrative voice and his ability to look at everyday working-class people and bring dignity to their lives with poetry. He showed me the value of using my life in my work, and then go beyond that to broaden my perspective. As a teacher, he could see when I was struggling with words on the page and gave me ways to navigate through rough spots. If he didn't think you were being clear or truthful, he'd let you know. He could be harsh, but you felt like he had your best interest at heart. No bullshit. All of that has made me a better poet.

I can't tell you what a pleasure it was to bring him to the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. The audience was riveted. Along with Carol Ann Duffy, the two of them reading together was simply amazing. If you were in the audience that night you were privy to something special. It was so rewarding to spend a few minutes before and after the reading. I felt as if I had come full circle in my poetry life.

I mourn him as I raise a glass of red wine to him. To Phil. And to my uncle.


This past week I received a Pushcart Prize nomination. Member(s) of the prize committee selected my name for consideration. I'm thrilled! It's my third nomination, but the first from the board. I know there are those who think this prize doesn't matter, but I disagree. I work hard at my craft, so if fellow poets and editors feel my poetry is worthy of the recognition, then I'll take it--gladly. Writing is such as solitary process, so every once in a while, it's nice to get a tip of the hat from your peers.


Snow. Snow. Snow. Snow. Snow. I'm. All. Set.

Phil Levine

This is an essay I wrote for the book, Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine, edited by Mari L'Esperance and Tomás Q. Morín (Prairie Lights Books, 2012).


So Enough

In 1996, I was about to start my second year of study in the graduate creative writing program at New York University. Sharon Olds and Galway Kinnell were my professors, and when I told Galway I wanted to work with Phil Levine as my thesis advisor, he looked at me with the straightest face possible and said, “Well, he’s not as crass as he used to be.”

Crass? Really? My first thought was, “I thought you two were friends?” Once I picked my jaw off the floor, I wondered if I was about make the biggest mistake of my life. Was my skin thick enough to stand up to Phil’s legendary critiques? Would he make me cry?

Known primarily as a working-class poet, Phil’s poetry exhibits a range of human emotions and failings, as he holds everything up against the complexities of everyday life. He’s considered a poet’s poet, writing much in his early- to mid-career about life in Detroit, He is a craftsman in the artless art of making the ordinary extraordinary. Yet he’s known to keep a student’s feet to the fire. If you make a bold statement in your poetry, in Phil’s classes you needed to have thechops to back it up.

For me, Phil was the first poet I had read who made the working life poetic. I mean, he made the grease under one’s fingernails poetic. He made Detroit everyone’s hometown. Who knew universal joints could be poetic? His gritty style gave a certain dignity to factory life. And his mastery of poetic forms is an aspect of his work often overlooked. Two of my favorite books by Phil are What Work Is and his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, The Simple Truth.

Phil’s straightforwardness in addressing the reader has always endeared me to his poetry. If poetry has a “fourth wall,” as in stage acting where the dialogue is spoken directly to the audience, then Phil attempts to hook the reader in and truly bring him or her into the poem.—something I’ve always strived to do in my work.

Well, Phil did not make me cry. He did what any dedicated teacher does: he makes his student better. While Phil was a tough critic, he was generous with his time and his words. He cared enough to tell me if I was going in the right direction or simply writing a piece of junk. And he did that more than once. It was important for me to work with someone whose strengths were in areas I thought were my weakest. He also urged me to read more outside of class, so I could become the poet who would be ready to write a good poem at a moment’s notice.

Studying with a talented writer is a real gift, no matter how famous or how many books he or she has published. Phil was more than a mentor. He was a physical representation of how I wanted to live in the world as a practicing poet. He gave his time to my classmates and me, encouraged us to experience life in the real world, and pushed us to question everything. I knew that to be the kind of poet I wanted to be, a part of me had to change to practice this vocation.

In other words, Phil taught me it was OK to make an ass out of myself.

Through the weekly routine of wringing every last ounce of experience out of my poems, Phil taught me persistence. He told me that if I stuck with writing poetry—because so many creative writing students go in other directions after graduation—I’ll probably write a few hundred during my poetic lifetime. But I should look for the occasion to push myself into an uncomfortable space to do my best work. I need to make myself available to the process when those occasions occur.

Thirteen years later, I found myself in a position to write to him and share some good news: my first book, Underlife, was being published by CavanKerry Press. Finding a publisher can be a soul-crushing experience. But here I was, about to publish my very first collection. And Phil was right—the further away in years I was from grad school, the less confidence I had in my abilities. Sure, I could write, even publish a book. But those years away from NYU without the safety net of having a regular routine, making a space for poetry, I felt lost. It really wasn’t until I connected with virtual writing groups that bloomed all over the Internet in the late 2000s that I found the courage to write and share poems again. Now I understand that writing a good poem is about more than craft or technical proficiency or blind love of the word. It is this, and it is more.

I wanted Phil to know all of that.

In late 2009, I mailed a letter to Phil with a copy of Underlife. When the package dropped over the mailbox door, I felt this huge sense of relief. Closure, maybe. At the risk of being crass, to use Galway’s word, I’ll share excerpts of my letter with you. Some moments are worth sharing, and receiving this letter was certainly one of those moments.

January 22, 2010
Dear January,Thanks so much for sending the new collection. I do remember several poems from either the class or your thesis. …It was wonderful to discover what you’ve been up to since you left NYU; I knew you’d become a mother, but I hadn’t know that that fact and the child had worked their way into your poetry. I truly believe that becoming a parent adds something to what we write; until that moment we can allow ourselves to be our own children, but the fact of that child ends all that. For a mother I’m sure it’s more powerful than for a father; I take that back—I’m not sure at all. Both roles are mysterious.

…You know, I’ve finally retired, but I had so many marvelous classes, so many wonderful young poets. What a lucky man I was. People ask me if I miss it, & of course I do … I just thought it was time to go. …And I just turned 82, so enough.”

So much for 82! Being chosen U.S. Poet Laureate is a well-deserved honor for a man who has devoted himself to perfecting his craft. I’ve known Phil to be the consummate writer who takes pleasure in the process of creation, and ultimately creating a new way of seeing an object, or an event, or even a person. And if you don’t think so, “then you haven’t heard a word.”

Monday, February 16, 2015


UNCLE! I give up.

We have an overwhelming amount of snow on the ground. Usually, our snowfall ranges 25-30 inches in a season, not 70 inches in three weeks. Yesterday's blizzard (Yes, blizzard. the second in two weeks) brought our area a fresh 16 inches. It's really hard to tell with the blowing snow swirling it back into the air. All those clips with Massachusetts in the news, they're true. Not hype. And yes, we will get through this, but there are people out there who have lost days of work, lost wages, lost money for struggling businesses.

And what happens when it all melts?

Today's morning temperature was -2 degrees with a wind chill of -24 degrees. Crazy. Everyone is bone-tired. Frayed nerves abound. Too many days with kids at home--and it's school vacation week. Giant icicle hang off our roofs like daggers. We breathe a collective sigh of relief when we have a day without snow. We're worried about snow on the roofs, snow on the street. Kids moving between mounds taller than most humans. What's the bright side? There is no bright side.

Global warming is real.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Confession Tuesday

Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god I hate snow. I mean, we’re in a weather pattern where it snows every other day. Some days it’s flurries, others call for school closings and days off from work. I have a snowblower but my back aches because I have to shovel—you must shovel. The mounds are too big so the snow topples over. There’s too much of it with nowhere to put it.

And let me tell you what snow does the psyche: it buries it. I don’t have space in my little brain for anything else. All I see is white. I can’t shake the feeling of claustrophobia. The driveway mounds are higher than the top of my car, so entering that space feels like I’m digging myself out of a coffin. If the snow piles were to topple over me, no one would find me until spring. I’m. Not. Kidding.

There’s more snow coming in the next few days. Last night, when I saw the updated snow amounts, I yelled at the TV. I never do that.
Alex testing out the snowblower.


The kids love it. I mean, they’ve only gone to school three out of five days for the past three or four weeks. Who wouldn’t want to be at home during this weather? They don’t realize those days come with a price when the last day of school comes at the end of June. Ugh.

Fortunately, it’s the kids who save me. At some point, we get giddy at the possibility of snow days. In fact, we’ve come to expect it every Sunday night. Our days have been spent hanging with neighbors in walking distance. Ella has had some kind of a sore throat all week (not strep), so it’s just as well she’s not in school. Alex has too much energy for the both of us so we may just bury him in the snow.


If you're a grown up, watching back-to-back episodes of your favorite show is binge watching. If you're a child, it's called too much time on your hands.

I’m so tired of deciding what to cook and then cooking it. I'm just a cranky, cranky person right now.


Almost all of the recent poems I’ve written have snow in them. I really don't have any more room for the snow, even on paper.


Another blizzard-like storm on the way for this weekend. Yippee!

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Confession Tuesday

Happy Tuesday, folks.

I took this photo last night after the second major snowfall in a week. We got about 17 inches of snow on top of the 27 inches that fell last week. Pretty, isn't it? There's nowhere to put it, and after another snow day I'm ready to go back to work. Seriously, it has snowed eight out of the last 11 days. I'm ready for a return to normalcy.


Congrats to the Patriots on another Super Bowl championship! Didn't realize it had been 10 years since the last victory. I think Tom Brady's piercing blue eyes made the difference.

Honestly, I am not a football fan. Not really. But with all of the deflategate BS, I was in like Flynn. They're just a great team. A great QB and coach. It was an evenly matched game, but the Pats prevailed. 


Thanks to Doug Holder and Dennis Daley for reviewing Misery Islands.


I completed my Poem a Day (PAD) Challenge. Woo hoo! It was fun do to but I'm so glad it's over. Now begins the work of making sense of the drafts. Most of my poems written in the last week or two of poems have snow as the subject matter. I mean really, all I had to do was look outside and write about the landscape. 

The problem with doing these challenges is that it makes me want to redo my manuscript. I do think these additional poems will make my the collection stronger. 

That's a fun thing to think about: book #3.


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