Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Collaboration, Coffee, and the Little Things

That's what's getting me through grad school thus far. I had a really good experience collaborating this evening in the midst of the bad assignment in the class that I have a fundamental philosophical, pedagogical, issue with. We don't need to go into the issues I have with the class, but the important point here is that we have a ridiculous assignment due for next week, which almost no one in the class is equipped to handle. So, I met with three of my classmates this evening, and we worked through it together. I can't say that the assignment was fun, but we all worked very well together, and we all brought very different skills and backgrounds to the table, and I think we got a good handle on it. It was a rewarding experience of collaboration, and another reminder that I really do like the people in my cohort!

Coffee. Kind of self-explanatory. I drink a lot of coffee. I go get coffee with various people when I'm sitting in my office. I while away an afternoon drinking coffee in a bookstore and chatting with someone interesting. I have coffee at dinner time, and I stay up till 1:00am and post blogs ;)

The little things: trips to the wine shop, lunch with friends, kitty cat snuggles, random voicemails from friends, crushes that make life interesting.

Monday, September 28, 2009

MFA Schedule (a reality check)

For anyone who's thinking of doing an MFA to have all sorts of "free time in which to write", allow me to explain how my day went today. This is not at all a complaint. I had a lovely, lovely day.

7:00am Wake up, followed by shower, breakfast, walking dog, etc.
8:34am Get on bus to go to campus
8:45am (approx.) Arrive at campus, drop books off in office, chitchat a little
9:05-12:05 Intro to Graduate Study seminar (with a short break around 10:30 during which I exchanged my coffee for water)
12:05-12:10 or so. Class drags on after it's supposed to be over while Prof. hands back abstracts after reiterating more than once how "charitably" he graded them. (Okay, so I am complaining about the condescension in that comment)
12:10-12:30 approx. Gather up a few people and walk into town for lunch.
12:30-1:30 approx. Try to get Indian food at two different places, one of which is closed Mondays, the other too crowded. Eventually end up eating at Pita Pit. It's delicious. Bitch about the class we just got out of and talk about teaching, and I get to tell the story of the creepy guy at the bar who I yelled at on Saturday night.
1:30-1:45 approx. Walk back to campus to my office.
1:45-3:25 approx. Print about 90 pages of reading off e-reserve, grade the last couple of freshman paper proposals, try to write a poem. Chat with a couple of people. Walk over to the library cafe to get coffee.
3:35-4:25 Observe Paul's teaching per the dictate of our teaching mentor group.
4:40-5:30 Teach my own freshman comp class while Paul observes. Hope he doesn't think worse of me because my students are rowdy.
5:30-5:40 approx. Walk to bus stop and chat with Danielle while waiting for the bus.
5:50 approx. Arrive home. Walk dog.
6:00-7:45 Eat leftover Chinese food, catch up on facebook and email, download an Editing Assignment from the class from this morning, write up my observations on teaching from today,try to make sense of Editing Assignment and get some of it done, before deciding to take a break to blog.
7:45-8:00 Post this blog
8:00-1:30 Foolishly drink coffee. Try to finish poem. Think about my plan for my chapbook. Waste time doing random stuff on line. Write in my journal. Look at poem again and decide it's as finished as it's getting for now. (Edited next day)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

First MFA Reading Was Awesome!

(Apologies in advance for any spelling and grammar errors, or a general lack of sense. I only slept for three hours.)

So I read last night, with Nick and Lauren. First MFA reading is under my belt. It was a lot of fun! I was nervous, but in a good way, and everyone was very supportive. There was a surprisingly good turnout considering that the weather was disgusting – cold and rainy – and the reading was held at the same time as the big Iowa game. A few of the 2nd and 3rd year MFAs went to the game instead of the reading, and I may never forgive them (joke), but a lot of MA/PhD students came out, especially our fellow first years, and I really appreciated that. I kept hugging people later and saying I was so glad they were there.

The readings here are very informal. Very not like they were at BG, for better or for worse, I’m not sure. They are organized by MFA students, held in a really cool campus building,
in this crazy basement room with red carpeted walls (couldn't find a good picture of the room), and there is beer. Rather a lot of beer actually. No faculty members attended last night – I don’t think they ever do for these types of readings, but I know there is a “works in progress” reading series with the students who are working on their theses, which is more formal. So, people drink and joke and make comments and the introductions are hilarious. Here’s the beginning of the intro my friend Daniel, a 2nd year MFA, wrote for me: “Various theories have been offered regarding the origins of Emily May Anderson. One story states that Dylan Thomas, king of the gods, awoke one morning with a splitting headache, and asked William Carlos Williams to strike him with a hammer. Williams did so, and Emily emerged from Thomas’s head, fully formed and carrying the notebook of wisdom and the pen of truth.” And it goes on in that vein.

The reading was great but nothing like the good old days in Prout Chapel, sneaking booze in soda bottles; here the beer is subsidized and right out in plain sight. Most of us went to a bar after the reading and then there was more socializing after that, hence my three hours of sleep, and my probable lack of sense here. It was a great experience though, and I look forward to the next reading.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reading Saturday, and some random thoughts

The first MFA reading of the school year is this Saturday, and guess what, I am one of the three readers! Yay! I am excited and nervous, but mostly looking forward to the social aspect of the night.

There may be something wrong at some level that I am more excited to see a large group of people in a social setting than I am about my first graduate reading, but I really am struggling with the lack of social interaction here. It's not that people aren't nice; everyone is very nice! And it's not that I don't do *anything* socially, but it is just a very different atmosphere for me. I miss my friends in Columbus, and I miss my easy, comfortable concept of myself. All of that is thrown into question here: am I smart enough? am I talented enough? do I work hard enough? along with other questions of sexual and class identity that I just didn't have to think about after establishing my life in Columbus. Starting over in a new place forces me to re-establish an identity here with a new group of people. It is very much an existential crisis, as someone phrased it yesterday.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Posted a short blog at The MFA Chronicles tonight about a Penn State student who disappeared over the weekend and was found dead tonight. It appears to be an accident, rather than foul play, but it's really sad; and I know I'm going to have to talk about it with my students on Wednesday, and I don't really know what to say to them.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Even the sight of Scarlet and Grey makes me homesick and I don't care about OSU football

A non-comprehensive list of things I miss about Columbus

- Giant Eagle a block from my apartment
- the ability to buy wine at the grocery store
- good, cheap, noodle places
- Greek food
- lots of Indian restaurants
- Northstar (or anything like it)
- good food in general
- gay bars
- a neighborhood where I would feel comfortable kissing a girl on the street
- The Short North in general
- specifically all the great independent shops
- even more specifically, Posh Pets, Substance, Karavan, Paul Robinett, etc.
- Goodale Park
- a skyline view
- the Olentangy bike trail
- flat places to run
- Clintonville
- The North Market
- the grimy parts of the OSU campus area
- Poetry Forum at Rumba
- Café Apropos
- MoJoe Lounge – specifically good iced coffee and a pretty patio
- and most importantly, my friends!!!!!!!!!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Consider this a prequel

to my next chapbook review. We're reading Poems in Conversation and a Conversation this week; it's a collaborative chapbook written by Elizabeth Alexander and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. Alexander is reading at Penn State next week, and I've read some of her work before. I've been fairly lukewarm on it, and I remain so after reading the chapbook, but the poems by Van Clief are totally fascinating! Here is a link to an interesting little interview with her:

Oh, and she's a Penn State MFA grad :)

In Praise Of My Cubicle

Cross-posted on the MFA Chronicles

When I visited Penn State in March, some of the MFAs gave us an unofficial tour of the Burrowes Building, home of the English Department. They showed us some of the seminar rooms where we’d have classes, the library of lit mags and previous student theses, the big poster listing all the student publications, and they showed us the GTA offices. All the MFAs have their offices in a large basement room divided into shared cubicles. It’s fluorescently lit, cluttered, and feels like…well, cubicles in a basement.

I was a little put off. My disappointment was probably because I had the good fortune to be an undergrad a couple of years after the English Department had moved into a brand new building and the grad students at BG had real offices – two (or maybe three) people might share a room, a real room with a door, and they’d each have a desk – on the 3rd or 4th floor, with windows. Those little basement cubes were just depressing!

At the beginning of this semester, it was a little bit annoying to have to schedule my time in the office in cooperation with my cube-mate; there’s only one desk and one computer so we can’t both be in there at the same time. And the temperature regulation in the basement is not the best; it tends to be hot, so people open windows, so then it gets cold. I’ve learned to leave a sweater in my cabinet.

In spite of the fun that I’ve had here in State College, I’ve still felt pretty isolated, particularly during the week. My “previous life” in Columbus was very social: I had a lot of friends, I might go to trivia on a Monday, karaoke on a Wednesday, or just meet someone for coffee or a drink or dinner any day of the week. I seldom went more than a couple days without some sort of social interaction. And here it’s not like that. We are all buried in our work during the week (some people stay buried on weekends) and I might talk to the people in my classes, I might talk to my roommate for 5 minutes here and there, but then I go home and work.

Enter my cubicle. For a few different reasons, I ended up spending more time in my cube this week, and I realized that I would not want a separate office somewhere. I really like seeing people walk by; sometimes they just wave and say “Hi, how are you?” and a few times this week I actually had real conversations with some of my fellow students. It was nice! Just taking a few minutes out of the work day to chat with someone was surprisingly refreshing, and I realized that I love my cubicle. I would imagine the set-up was just designed because of the lack of available space, but it functions to foster community and to help people feel connected to each other.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

And this week's reviews, just for the heck of it

Two short reviews from class this week.


The poems in Martha Collins’ chapbook Gone So Far seem written specifically to break the heart and confuse the mind. The collection opens with a prayer about growing old which functions as a prologue, introducing the subject of the chapbook. The next poem, “A Little Life” blends images from a Dutch film with stories of war told by the speaker’s great-grandfather; ideas of being buried alive flicker between the broken lines of the poem and set up the mother’s request to “please make sure” that she is dead and then the assertion that “there’s life/ in the old a little yet”. The proceeding poems trace that “little life”, the final stages of the mother’s aging and increasing loss of control and connection with reality before the collection ends with “Her Poem”, a piece comprised of the actual words the poet’s mother spoke a few weeks before her death.

The poems in the chapbook dip into prayer, memory, and conversation, and often appear on the page in a scrambled, confused manner with short lines broken in the midst of phrases, or isolated individual lines, or alternating lines like a conversation where the two sides don’t match up. Images of the body and of breath appear throughout, as do light and dark, roads and travel, family members who’ve already died, and various nature images. Though the poems are difficult to make sense of on their own, as a whole they paint a picture of disconnection and of the impending loss of the relationship between mother and daughter.


The poems in Miriam Goodman’s chapbook Expense Report are unified by a focus on work. The collection opens with “The Interview” and ends with “Labor Day” -- interview implying a search for, a desire for, work, and Labor Day a break from it. Throughout the collection, Goodman represents many types of work: the corporate world, teaching, housework. None feel particularly rewarding; it is only in “Bed Time” when the speaker hangs the pressures of the day on a hanger and in “Labor Day” that a sense of peace emerges. Images of food and eating appear throughout the chapbook, beginning with brief mentions of wine and restaurants in “The Interview” to “Breakfast in Nashville with Loretta Lynn” to cooking spoiled vegetables and calves’ brains in “Shell”, to a sushi restaurant, drinking with the boss, a company picnic, a steak dinner, a story about rival bakers, snacks purchased at an airport, and in “Labor Day” the child who doesn’t want to break his food. Food and the desire for food appear throughout. “Forecasting/Sales Meeting” ends “I pull up vanquished, another prospect/ famished; eat everything in sight.” and “Labor Day” concludes the whole collection by describing photography, a holiday pastime, as “feeling displaced onto the object/ the famished glance, allowed.” I don’t know what I make of these images, but they do lend a sense of coherence, a continuing frame of reference. Sexual imagery also appears frequently through the book, in awkward conjunction with office supplies, dreams of Buddha, a much younger boss, a husband who almost strays. Stylistically, the poems mix prose with poetic line breaks, even in different sections of the same poem in “In Defense of Desire: Business Arguments”. The theme of work, and subthemes of food and sex, emphasize the daily life appeal of the poems.

Week 3 Is Winding Down

and I am exhausted. And bewildered. In more ways than I can (or should) accurately enumerate here. But it's okay. In fact, it's good and more than good. I have written two poems this semester, and I can already see my understanding grow. I am reading some wonderful poetry and learning to be a more careful reader. I am teaching and loving it, learning from the days that work and the days that don't. I am challenged and rewarded in so many ways.

I am going to read the next chapter of the rhetoric text tonight, and work on poetry tomorrow, and then go teach class, and then I'll try to find a decent martini in a college town with some of the girls from the department. I am glad it's the weekend.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Update on first workshop, and a poem!

I posted an update on my first workshop over at the MFA Chronicles tonight if anyone wants to read it.

And, since Enru asked, here is the first poem I workshopped. We had to respond to the chapbooks, as I've mentioned, and then take one poem from one of those chapbooks and use it as inspiration for our poem. I appreciated the use of form in Jeffrey Harrison's book, and so I wrote a villanelle 'in response' to his villanelle.

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

Although it feels empty, it’s never quiet here –
rustling leaves, cicadas, those critical crows.
I think maybe it is silence that I fear,

that I wouldn’t know what to do if all I could hear
was the beat of my heart, the way breath grows
to fill the emptiness. It’s never quiet here –

I fall asleep to the whine of insects beating near
my window screen, reaching toward the glow
of lamplight. I think it is silence that I fear,

even more than failure, no response, a deaf ear,
my mother’s refusal to hear her name even though she knows.
Although it feels empty it’s never quite here

that we meet. My mother will talk for a year
about our relatives, her garden, the climbing roses.
I think maybe it is silence that she fears,

or giving me a chance to tell her what she doesn’t want to hear.
Crows wake me early, my mother weeds beans in rows.
Although I feel the empty space between us it’s never quiet here
but I think maybe it is an inevitable silence that I fear.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Review of "At Night, the Dead" by Lisa Ciccarello

Stop #3 on the Read Write Poem Virtual Book Tour. I know the admin folks at RWP are on Pacific time, so to them this might appear three hours early, but it's September 3rd here. Trust me ;)


Lisa Ciccarello's chapbook At Night, the Dead haunts the mind of the reader just as the dead haunt the poems in the collection. There is a tight, almost claustrophobic quality to many of the poems; the reader is located immediately within, inside, while the dead seem to hover just outside. The first poem establishes this enclosure at the outset: “You lock the door. You lock the window. You dream of the dead. You salt the sills from the inside. You are going to dream.” The dead will appear in your dreams, regardless of the precautions you take.

The dead move slowly inside as the poems move forward. By the end of the collection “you” have disappeared and the dead have taken up residence. “The dead set up the house they remember, but it is not as they remember,” and even more disturbing, in the very last stanza, the first person has now joined the dead: “We reach for salt in the empty salt box. Missing from the kitchen what could keep us from the house…Our mouths draw close. The flame does not flicker.” All the salt, all the locks, have not kept the dead away.

The poems in this chapbook are short, some only a line or two long. Although I confess to not making much literal sense of the collection, the images are distinct and evocative. Unsettled dichotomies and conflicts of darkness and light, water and salt, dirt and diamonds, heat and home and love and paper and fruit fill the pages, but ultimately fail to make a concerted whole. This may have been the poet’s conscious intention; the mood is certainly constant throughout, but there is no recognizable narrative. Some other choices are hard to explain, such as the use of “yr” instead of “your” in some (but not all) of the poems. Another choice the author makes is that each poem is titled “At night, the dead” or some variation thereof. While this functions very well in terms of reinforcing a mood and a set of images, it makes it difficult to identify particular poems for commentary.

Overall, the chapbook is moody, dark, and haunting; the language is lovely and redolent with images (my favorites are “the sky smells like tea, the sky smells like timber and steam” and “the dark is a black bag where the eyes are kept”).* If you are looking for straightforward narrative poetry, you won’t find it here, but if you’re looking for a unique point of view and a quirky, creepy, set of poems, you will enjoy this chapbook immensely.

Get your handmade copy of At Night, the Dead

* from the second poem “At night, inside the house, the dead:” and the poem on page 16 called “At night, the dead:”

Charles Baxter on the importance of being still

Interview with Charles Baxter

I am enjoying the irony of having read this tonight, after having had the link open on my computer for several days and never feeling that I had the time to sit down, be still, and "waste" time on reading an interview.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Review of "Investigations: The Mystery of the Girl Sleuth" by Kathleen Aguero

When I first started reading Kathleen Aguero’s chapbook Investigations: The Mystery of the Girl Sleuth (dedicated “For Nancy Drew fans everywhere”) I felt like the type of audience the author intended: I grew up reading Nancy Drew and other girls’ mystery novels and am now at an age where I sometimes long for the simplicity of a formulaic plot and a crook to catch.

The collection opens with “To Nancy Drew on her 50th Birthday”, a poem which seems to me basically a mélange of titles and situations from many of the books. A note at the end of the volume calls this piece a found poem, but I felt that it was a bit boring, at least for an opening. However, the next several poems interestingly articulate Nancy’s problems (an unhappy marriage, a breast cancer scare) and discontent with her role in life; in “Competence”, she would “…like to change plots/ but she can’t figure out how.” The poems continue, following Nancy on a vacation where she can’t quite relax, peeking into the thoughts of her father and the housekeeper, then becoming more socially aware. “Stumped” reads like a real woman’s crisis with Nancy stuck between past and future with no way of growing older, nothing but a “stalled self”, and in “Unsolved Mysteries” Aguero points a finger at the selfish bourgeoisie world Nancy inhabits. And then, with “Mystery of the Tolling Bell”, the poems shift from a third person view of Nancy’s fictional world to a first person world in which teenagers do horrible things, friends commit suicide, and mothers develop dementia.

These poems, while couched in the terms of mystery, don’t fit with the rest of the collection. I found myself wondering if Aguero wanted to write two books: one about Nancy Drew, the other about the mysteries of her own life (or other ‘real’ lives). If she did intend to blend the two together, the balance is off in this chapbook; only five of the nineteen poems are in the third person. I feel like the chapbook would be stronger without those pages, particularly as it ends on a lovely note. After all of Nancy’s failures, fears, and stalling, the final piece “Zen Nancy” seems to show a girl sleuth who has somehow found a way to grow up, as she investigates bigger mysteries like “the sound/ of stone, the color of air,/ the vast and cloudless sky”.

The chapbook is available from Červená Barva Press

This has nothing to do with the MFA

Just felt like writing out a celebration and a complaint that have nothing whatsoever to do with grad school, writing, or anything else beyond mere vanity and comfort.

1) On Sunday, after buying my books, I stopped in a shop in town that sells all sorts of outdoor gear, clothing, accessories, etc. (This is a big area for hiking) I was just browsing around at first and was immediately impressed by the cute clothing they had, much of it made from organic and/or sustainable and/or natural fabrics. That is not an essential criteria for my clothing, but it’s nice when I can get it. What I ended up getting instead were two pairs of shorts for running. People who have gone running with me, or know me in real life, know that I hate to wear shorts; I have been and remain to a degree self-conscious about my thighs and upper legs – I think they are chubby and pale and ugly – so I never wear shorts shorter than Bermudas in social settings, and I am constantly searching for running shorts with an inseam long enough to cover my thighs. This is difficult, because I’m also extremely long-legged. I’m only 5’7” but I have the legs of a person who is 6 feet tall. Literally. I’ve compared them. I’ve looked in running stores before, and one shop in Columbus carries a longer length women’s short (I forget which brand – Asics maybe, or Nike, a common athletic brand) but the one time I was there, all they had were small and extra large. I am neither! So, all this rambling to say that I discovered on Sunday that North Face makes at least two distinct styles of women’s shorts which are suitable for running and have a long enough inseam to make me happy; one was simply a longer styled short, the other was a tall/long version of a shorter style. AND both were on sale! I wore the black ones on my long run Sunday and they were super comfy and the blue ones on my 4 miler today and they are quite acceptable. Yay!

2) And now my rant. The water in State College sucks! I don’t mean the taste of it sucks, although it kind of does; I’ve had worse though. Tastewise, it’s somewhere on par with the heavily chlorinated water in certain Cleveland suburbs although more minerally and less chemically. What really sucks about the water is what it does to my skin and hair. My hair is like straw, my face and chest are broken out, my hands are peeling, and I got a nosebleed today; that’s how drying the water is! I invested in a deep conditioner for my hair and some super moisturizing hand cream and I’m trying to be religious about moisturizing face and body, but it is quite annoying.

So there you have it. Two totally random things I’ve discovered in or about State College, PA. Oh, and there ARE drag queens :) And I know one :) So that's happy too!