Thoughts on the end of my first decade of poetry

Originally uploaded by Heart of Oak

The 2000s have been good to me and it’s good to see this decade pass into some good memories.  Of course, not everything was flamenco guitars and endless tapas with some rocky spots I could have avoided with some foresight but you know how that goes.

The most notable event of my 30s (Yeah, I’m a decade baby so as 2010 comes in so do my 40s… Good times!) was my introduction to poetry.  This is a good thing to remember cuz ten years back I wouldn’t know a good poem if it came up and smacked me in the back of the head.  Today, I do have a good idea what a good poem is to me and it doesn’t have to hit me in the head to be good.  I also have some sense of what a bad poem is and I’m very ready to smack it upside the head. The trick is to keep myself writing more of the good poems and less of the bad poems while developing a personal rubric that balances the technical and evocative elements I enjoy in poetry.

I’m trying to stay positive as the ball drops tonight cuz my relationship to my own poems has been seriously rocky lately. This coincides with my lack of blogging since the internet has not been doing much to improve my writing lately.  All I seem to keep finding is negativity and finger pointing, nameless bashing and a general focus on what’s wrong with US Poetry over what’s good.  And, seriously, who wants to be a part of that?

Now I gotta look at the man in the mirror (C’mon, no end of the year post is complete without a Michael reference) and stick to a game plan that steps up my own game by comparing my new work to my old work, submit more, read more fiction and keep working towards my AA and do it with a smile, style and a fly fedora.


On Community Workshop

The Community Writing Center
Originally uploaded by KatDeiss

Yesterday’s Emerging Writers Panel at the SFPL was a great event-solid turnout, lots of information and a diverse group of opinions regarding the pros and cons of various writing programs.  It was an honor to be one of the panelists and share out some of my experiences.  For more info and links on some different writing programs, check out the PAWA Inc blog.

And here is the text of my presentation:

I came into poetry in my early thirties and jumped right into the thick of it by frequenting a local open mic in New York City with little preparation except reading a few passages of Neruda and Eliot, and listening to the poetry of my fellow open micers.  As you might imagine, my first attempts at poetry were horrific.  Well, maybe it wasn’t that bad, because I was lucky enough to receive the encouragement and direction from the resident poets of the A Lil Bit Louder reading series. The organizers kept encouraging me to read my poems aloud to develop a connection between the verse I was writing and how it was connecting with a live audience.  Over time, as I was beginning to get an ear for what I liked to write, I would be given suggestions on what authors I should be reading and getting to know and so I was introduced to the books of Willie Perdomo, Patricia Smith, Junot Díaz and the Aloud anthology of poets from the Nuyorican Café.  I didn’t know it but this was my first community workshop, after a good reading I would get direct feedback from audience members about the lines they felt resonated with them and if I had a poor reading, which still happened more times than I care to admit, a poet would take me to the side and point it out to me. When the opportunity to take a series of formal workshops with these poets, who were now collectively known as the louderARTS Project, came up, I jumped at the chance.

More than just learning the language and norms of a workshop setting, both in a formal classroom and informal live reading setting, I was also learning that the first lesson of community is to take your knowledge and pass it down to the next aspiring open micer.

Since those first workshops with louderARTS I’ve continue to seek out various community workshops, partially for the challenge of sharing a class with poets in various stages of development but mostly out of necessity.  While some poets debate the merits and drawbacks of an MFA in creative writing, I don’t really have a choice in the matter since I’ve yet to complete an AA much less think about a post-graduate degree.

With that said, I still feel that community workshops have afforded me a space to broaden my own poetic aspirations with the ability to take classes with writers who, and I know this is gonna sound corny, are my heroes.  Not only that but most of those classes have been fairly low-cost and in some cases even free.

This isn’t to say that the community workshop experience is a poetic paradise.  I find myself often having to grapple with instructors who view poetry as a therapeutic form of expression with no rubric set in place for what makes a poem successful other than it should have an ethereal quality of power, emotion and purpose.  Too often this kind of workshops seeks to open the world of poetry by validating anything that has been penned down with line breaks.  Thinking back to my first experiences, if I had been told everything I was writing/reciting was the new hotness I would still be cranking out ambiguous, florid, morality fables to tepid, polite applause instead of trying to reach a higher level of creative language for myself.

A call to higher figurative language is one of the hallmarks of the instructors who have pushed me the most in my poetic development—informally, the advice and example of Roger Bonair-Agard kept me moving to the next different poem while also delving and identifying what the emotional core(s) of the poem were in recitation; in a more formal setting, the guidance of Willie Perdomo and Truong Tran has made me look back over my work to refine points of syntax and word choice that can both broaden the language while condensing it at the same time.

And, in the most informal sense, I think of the poetic conversations I engage in daily with my wife, Barbara Jane Reyes, who also happens to be the first reader/listener of all my poems.  Whether we are discussing a literary event we attended, how I’m going to structure a new chapbook or just what exactly is the definition of poetry—we are constantly going over the points of craft and how it can be expanded for the sake of a better line, tighter stanza, finer poem, worthwhile manuscript.

All to say, whether your path is a community workshop or an MFA program, talking about your poems over drinks at a slam or analyzing the linebreaks of your favorite verse, the emphasis should always be on where your work is today, what you would like to see for it tomorrow and what is your game plan to get it there.  They say there is no such thing as a dumb question and I think in poetry there is no such thing as a dumb poetry conversation.  The only question is where will you be having that conversation and with which community.

Thank You and You’re Welcome: The Party Game

You can learn more from a critique...The rules are simple: Gather a group of friends, if some just happen to be award winning poets, oh so much the better; engage in discussion regarding all things literature and pop culture, a stretch but a good game should have some element of difficulty; and (here’s where the fun kicks in) have them open up to a random page in Thank You and You’re Welcome. While you never know what exact crossroad we are at in life, we can be sure Kanye can help us locate the profundity of our distress (last four words stolen from the Millennium episode, “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense“).  Finally, be sure to have camera in hand cuz after reading some of Mr West’s deeper prose–I can’t read all of the “Missing Bannister Theory” without a deep eye twitch overtaking me–your  friends may not come by your home again.  Good times!

Embrace your flaws The missing banister theory I wonder...(2) Believe in your flyness...
I would rather lose because... Think It Say It Do It I wonder...
I would rather lose because...(2) The missing banister theory (2) Never complain without offering a solution
95% I hate the word "Hate" Love your haters...

And these are the breaks…

Time’s Up
Originally uploaded by lautreamax

My father hands me back some pretty good feedback on a six-part poem I’ve sent his way. He says, “Es tiempo de parar soñando y comenzar trabajando.” Palabra, pops.

All this to ponder how long is it going to take me to become real good at poetry. Not, a lil good. Not, that was one nice poem. Not, do you do spoken word? Not, hey can ya make it rhyme for the kids? Not, be sure to get angry and make a point. No, I’m talking really good.

A few months back Claire Light posted on the “10,000 hours” theory. In short, you have to put in 10,000 hours of practice in order to master an art. This also came up at VONA with instructor Steven Barnes, another advocate of the 10,000 hours theory. Barnes was so gung-ho on it that he challenged anyone who thought they were good enough to be a writer to lay it all on the line. Write. Every day. Find what makes you hyper-productive: music, tea, exercise, yoga, whatever, and rush right into it. Enter a hyper-productive zone as soon as possible and jam out as much writing as you can in the 30 mins, one hour, two hours that you can.

Something I have not been doing at all much lately or, to get to the nitty gritty, really at all in my writing life.

I realized this over a guys-day-out jaunt to AT&T Park. During the pre-game tailgate party, I meet a friend-of-a-friend and the subject of my writing comes up. To my surprise, dude is seriously interested and starts asking me a ton of questions about my work. “So what’s your daily routine? How exactly do you write poetry?” And this is where I ended up sounding like one of those quasi-mystic, poetry-is-self-expression pendejos I privately rag on. “Well, I just keep an idea in my head, listen to a lot of language, read what I can, and when the time’s right; I put it down on paper.”

Ok, so three-quarters of that is pretty sound but the last part makes me sound like I should be an extra in the video for Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Killing Moon.”

Yeah, I’m extra harsh on myself today and, quite frankly, I’m pretty harsh all the time. All I keep thinking is I got to read more poetry, study more theory, read more blogs about writing, contact more folks who know how to writer, connect with more authors, and, oh yeah-when fate comes up against my will, write more poems.

Well, maybe it’s time to change tactics a little and go back to the 10,000 hours theory. I know I already have a jump start on this but I’m going to actually start from today and ask this question on the daily: Have I contributed one solid hour to my writing today?

For today the answer is no. Too much day-job work. (Uhmm, can I say how happy I am to just have a job and how lucky I am to have one that lets me contribute to youth education? Yeah. And it’s not fun all the time but that’s why it’s called work and not What I do for fun and get a paycheck for. Nebulous rant: Done.) Where was I? Yeah, too much day work. Too much social media. And too much blogging. Not that I plan to quit blogging since it’s something I actually enjoy. But blogging doesn’t always contribute to my poetry so less blogging. Maybe more critical write-ups, more process, more I Speak of the City, more rough drafts and more edits.

Well, time’s moving on and I mean to catch up with it.

Or, as my father would say, “Less dreaming, more working.”

breaking poems nominated for American Book Award

Good news from the folks at Cypher Books:
Cypher Books is pleased to announce that breaking poems by Suheir Hammad has been nominated for an American Book Award!

Add that to the Arab American Book Award and to the fact that breaking poems and ZaatarDiva has been at the top of Small Press Distribution’s Best Sellers list for the last few months. Nice.

At VONA, Suheir made it a point to thank all everyone for their support in spreading the word about breaking poems and helping a small press with a select few authors keep coming out on top. This despite the fact that Cypher Books runs a very tight operation with little means to promote books other than promising they will continue “publishing today’s most necessary poetry.” It’s a promise that is resulting in true grassroots support and serious award recognition.

So what ya waitin for? Keep spreadin the word, y’all.