There Is A Light That Never Goes Out

50… no more… no less.jpg
Originally uploaded by bernat…

The new year is coming up fast and what better resolution than to return to the blog and get back to the dirty grit of poetic work.

2011 was a great year for me in terms of my professional development with a new title and raise at my non-poetry related job and, I’d like to think, improved as an all around normal person. Sadly, I don’t think I improved very much as a poet. I did become a better teacher of poetry and added some nice publication creds but I don’t think I got any better in my craft as evidence by the fact that this is the first time in years that I didn’t put out a chapbook.

The thing that real stings is how little I’ve come to care about the ancillary aspects of poetics—the readings, the hype, the drama, the talk and the angst of it. I find myself retreating when I hear about anything negative in regard to poetry which is so different from my younger poet self who would hear any challenge about my idea of an ideal democratic poetry state and respond with some deeply righteous indignation. Now, not so much. I still believe that poetry can transform and enrich lives but I don’t think that getting all confrontational and snarly about poetry does anything except make me a stereotype. And, more than anything, I hate being a stereotype.

The end result is an absence from this blog, the Command Central for that before mentioned indignation, and I think that absence has been one of my big mistakes of the last year. There has to be a way to keep promoting the positive aspects of poetry, performance and process without resorting to shock jock jabs and and snipes. Of course, the jabs and snipes are an easy form of writing so I guess I have to keep pushing myself to be a better writer.

Second big regret of 2011—a lack of any real reading. Yeah, I know we’re always supposed to be reading and a “true poet” is knee deep in three books and yadda, yadda, yadda but I’ve put so much energy into getting ahead at my paying job and also working hard at some side poetry gigs that I find myself mentally and emotionally exhausted with any remaining energy going towards staying physically fit. Segue: I worked out 102 times this last year and feel as strong as ever. End congratulatory side.

Well, what to do in the New Year? Make some positive changes and let that change start with reading some good books. Not just poetry but also more full novels, graphic novels, real sci-fi and maybe a bio or two. Keeping up with movie obsession is a good compliment so my main resolution is to commit to the Fifty Fifty Challenge of 50 new books and 50 new movies in 2012. Sound interesting? You can sign up over at a great website set up by author Jon Yang.

All throughout, I’ll be documenting those new books and movies here on the blog, keep up getting better at my job, try out some new recipes, make sure to get in another 100+ workouts this year and, best believe, continue to revise and improve my manuscript for publication.

Peace out 2011 and big ups to 2012.

I Write Like…

I write like
Edgar Allan Poe

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I inputted the last series of CantoMundo write ups and this is what I got. Ok, note to self, time to actually read some Poe. Yeah, I know the hits but reading a broader range of his work couldn’t hurt, especially since Poe is a Bronx poet. ;-)

Shout out to Scott Keith for putting me on to I Write Like.

Ok, who do YOU write like?

NaPoWriMo #13: Building Diverse Communities

Exactly one week ago, I was getting ready to deliver my first ever panel presentation for AWP. Lemme tell ya, it was nerve wrackin’. I just spent the last few days listening and learning from a variety of writers sharing some expert advice is a variety of topics including: Poetry in the Age of Obama, Teaching Bilingual Workshops, Identity & Aesthetics in Multi-Cultural Poetry and the Building of the Republic of Poetry, to name just a few. The common denominator: all the presenters were authors with full-length poetry collections. I’m not tryin’ to knock mahself down, just acknowledging that AWP is not all about the institution (read: graduate level writing programs) that there is room for a variety of voices.

Is that room easy to make? No. Is it easy to just walk into this room and claim your space? No. Is that room a given for all writers who are doing work in spaces outside the institution? Hell no.  Can you be easily dismissed if you don’t bring your A game?  Of course.

That pressure to deliver my very best and show that a writer without a full-length collection who is not presently associated with a graduate level writing program can contribute and broaden the AWP conversation had me stressed out a bit but I knew that sooner or later, someone would say something dismissive about writers in community and  that would set off my presentation.  Sure enough, that’s pretty much how it went down.

The key moment happened at the very excellent Republic of Poetry panel.  In a packed room, after Martín Espada, Tara Betts and David Mura gave dynamic presentations demonstrating the power and possibility of modern poetics to shape our present society into a more just union through community, a man asks, “But what can we do to generate interest in the creation of poetry in other communities? There is so much disinterest in poetry in outside communities.”

Oh, no, he, didn’t.

I already had an outline for a presentation written the night before but that comment was the fuel I needed to make my notes and thoughts into a piece of writing I can really be proud of.

So is it a poem? No, it doesn’t have any metaphor or concerns for music or language. And, yes, since it wouldn’t be possible without poetry in my life and I was able to transfer nine years of recitation experience into one of the best performances I’ve ever had in front of a mic.

Also, I was not the only person who rocked it at this panel. All my co-panelists (Barbara Jane Reyes, Jan Beatty, Tim Kahl and Susan Kelly-DeWitt) were equally passionate about their belief that poetry is not a single-faced monolith; poetry is its own vibrant, magnificent, myriad creature of many names. And many thanks to Camille Norton for bringing us all together.

Thank you to everyone on this panel especially Camille for bringing us all together.

Building Diverse Communities

I’ll be speaking today about leading independent poetry centers and set it off with a quote from Walt Whitman: “This is the city and I am one of the citizens, whatever interests the rest interests me”

Right now, I am in the city of AWP and the interest is poetry but I do not live in the city of AWP on a regular basis so know I must share this interest in my regular city, which is outside the AWP/MFA path.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not a tirade about the pros and cons of MFA, I’m talking about writers for whom MFA is not even an options–writers like myself who only attended a semester of college and then went out into the workforce; writers who come to poetry in high school or even grade school; writers in prisons; writers who have all the credentials to attend graduate school but achieved those credentials in other countries; writers who have already completed, or are in the middle, of their post graduate studies in law, medicine, education and don’t have the desire to return to school. There may more scenarios but these are some I know about firsthand. These aren’t hypothetical situations, these are real stories of people who would love to become better writers but have to do it through another path than the MFA.

My own path to poetry was through a variety of roads and intersections: open mics, slams, community sponsored workshops, local arts workshops and just kicking it with friends over brunch, either talking about our work or the poets who we recently encountered (both in print and in person).

The last combination I just mentioned may have been the magic bullet for me, a writer with no connection to an MFA program. The exposure to a variety of voices was key and any writer who has access to a local venue that can bring in an eclectic mix of voices will benefit immensely and most likely develop into a poet with a unique voice. I say this knowing I’ve been lucky to live in two of the U.S.’s strongest poetry hubs, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area. Places where there is so much live poetry happening I’ve had to make hard choices on different nights and choose to attend one poetry event over another. Even the act of making those choices forced me to make clear aesthetic choices and develop poetic priorities early in my writing life.

I say to any one in this audience who seems to see the same faces come through to the same readings with the same poems: reach out to the community around you and invite in poets from as many different backgrounds as possible, variety in programming will lead to variety in your own poetic community. Go radical, have one poet with a strong background in printed work come in one week and then have a poet who primarily works in performance come in the next; even better, have them read together, you’d be surprised how often the line between page and stage begins to blur.

Do not be afraid to be a curator, mentor, trusted listener and honest reader. Embrace those titles and live up to what they really mean: be a leader for your community. Not a gatekeeper, or single leader of the pack, true leadership in diverse community is shared. I think of Seth Godin’s excellent book, Tribes, and how he challenges his readers to find a road and stick to it, how this commitment will bring others onto our same path, how to share your victories with your own group, and take personal responsibilities for any failures.

This week at AWP, I heard someone ask: “But what can we do to generate interest in the creation of poetry in other communities? There is so much disinterest in poetry.”

I don’t think there is disinterest in community poetry. I think the disinterest is in taking leadership to create that new poetry. There are so many potential writers out there who are looking for that leadership, looking for the chance for something different, looking for a chance to share their stories. Give them that chance. Find the opportunity to agitate by bringing in the diversity all true writers seek, because if you don’t then those writers will not disappear quietly–they will gravitate to those communities models of the past or their current incarnations. I see Hip-Hop, Macondo, Cave Canem, Kearny Street Workshop, Kundiman, the Basement Writers, the Asian American Writers Workshop, Intersection for the Arts, Acentos, louderARTS, the Nuyorican Poets Café, the Bowery Poetry Club, Bronx Writers’ Center, Tia Chucha, The Affrilachian Poets, Prison University Project, Poetry for the People, the National Poetry Slam, Youth Speaks, Urban Word, Girls Write, La Casita, Flor y Canto, VONA, Spanic Attack, Amiri Baraka’s basement, California Poets in the School, PAWA* and AWP.

Yes, you AWP writers, you have the privilege of writing, the privilege of time and travel, the privilege of knowledge, and now you have the opportunity to share it and fulfill your obligation as poet citizens.

For those of you who think sharing this knowledge outside this convention or the conventions of your institutions, is just a dream. Or that the dream to create new institutions is to daunting; I leave you with the words of famed Nuyorican poet, el Revernedo Pedro Pietri: “Do not dream, if you want your dreams to come true.”

Thank you.

* For the sake of time, I listed only a few community programs. I know many more exist and to those organizations I did not to get mention, my for-real apologies. If you are connected with a program I did not list or would like to alert me about one: Please leave some information about your community program in the comments section.

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.