Friday, November 26, 2010

Seeing as how I haven't posted lately

perhaps I should take advantage of the fact that it's a holiday weekend and I have some downtime by posting something.

And yet... I'm having mixed feelings about even leaving this blog up, let alone continuing to post to it. And I don't have any idea what to say that might be interesting. The semester is going very well - busy, stressful, exhausting, etc, but good. And I've very much enjoyed having the week off to just chill out and get work done without other obligations. And I'm even more looking forward to winter break. But... I have no idea what I'm doing after May, nor what I want to do. There are so many variables, and for every option I think of, there are pros and cons.

So, instead of any sort of long, angsty, rambling about those decisions, or boring rambling about school, how about a list of some random things for which I'm thankful? It seems appropriate, given the time of year.

So, in no particular order, ten things I'm thankful for:
1. The cat curled up in my lap right now. She drives me nuts sometimes, but I still think she's the cutest thing on the planet, which balances out my ridiculous dog, for whom I'm also thankful.
2. The person for whom I cooked dinner yesterday.
3. The people I didn't eat dinner with yesterday - the friends and the family.
4. A very clean, festively-decorated apartment with no roommate for a couple days.
5. The fact that it hasn't snowed yet.
6. The new boots and the nice warm coat that I have for when it does snow.
7. My poetry workshop, and my Shakespeare class, and my eighteen undergraduate creative writing students.
8. The chance to be in an MFA program, to change direction in my 30s and try to do what I wanted to do all along.
9. The fabulous, beautiful, amazing life I left behind to come here, even though I miss it with a palpable ache some days, like today, when I put up my holiday decorations. I'm thankful that I had a life good enough to miss, that this weird place I am now is not the best place I've ever been.
10. Everything I have and everything I don't, the combination of gratefulness for what is and desire to make things better.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Back to School

Year Two of my MFA program at Penn State started today. Poetry workshop bright and early at 9:05 Monday morning. We didn’t actually workshop today, but we discussed our ideas and goals in terms of “voice” (the general theme of the workshop this semester), we each read a poem we’d written over the summer, and we discussed the reading we’d done for today (selections from Frank Bidart’s collected poems). It’s a nice group of people, and the vibe is very positive. ‘Twas a perfect way to begin the semester!

I’m undecided right now on the other class I’ll be taking this semester. Since this is a two year program now, and I’ll be working on my thesis, I’m registered for thesis credits which means I only need two “real” classes. Right now I’m registered for both a lit seminar on Shakespearean tragedies and a lit course on the 1930s which promises to be heavily political/cultural studies-ish. I’m masochistically considering staying in both of them, but I think I’ll end up dropping one.

I’m teaching an Intro to Creative Writing class, which I’m thrilled about. We meet for the first time tomorrow at 8:00am. I won’t reiterate all my plans here, but it’s basically a mixture of instruction and practice in fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction (i.e. lecture/discussion, lots of writing exercises, one workshop per genre). We’re using this textbook as well as supplemental readings I’ve drawn from classes I’ve taken and generally just other work I like; I’m sort of nervous about teaching work I love because I’ve heard other people say that they feel personally affronted when their students don’t like, or don’t get, some of their favorite literature. We’ll see how it goes, I guess. In general though, I’m excited about the class!

What else? Oh yeah, that whole thesis thing…. It is so strange to me that a year ago I hadn’t even begun my MFA program, and now I am halfway finished. While it would be nice to have a third year, I think the two year program is for the best (I don’t think I could take another year in Central Pennsylvania without serious detriment to my sanity). It’s crazy to think about having a book manuscript done by May, but it’s exciting as well. I turned in about 35 pages of poems to my thesis advisor at the end of spring semester, got her comments back over the summer, and then proceeded to not write very much at all…. In my defense, I did a lot of reading, and I did do some writing; but I traveled a fair amount (spent two wonderful weeks in California – half in San Francisco and half in Berkeley – and also spent a couple of long weekends back in Columbus), I also taught a summer class, and I took an intensive Spanish class, so for six weeks I was on campus eight hours a day, five days a week. Not too conducive to getting a lot of writing done. However, I feel like I have a solid idea for my manuscript and good direction for the revisions on what I’ve already given my advisor so I only need another 15 pages or so. Totally doable, right?

Overall, I’m a lot more comfortable here than I was a year ago, more confident of being able to be a successful grad student, but also feeling an increased pressure to “perform” outside of my classes, i.e. publish, get into a PhD program, get a job, or something.

And I still miss my Columbus people/my Columbus life to a ridiculous extent sometimes, in spite of the fact that I have wonderful friends here and an amazing partner I never expected to meet. Sigh! Anyway, who wants a poem? Yes? Someone out there said yes? Well, okay, here is a very early draft of something I wrote after coming back from California…..

Leaving San Francisco at Night

How many lights make up the body

of this place, it straight lines, its curves

tiny houses sprinkled like freckles

on the red-earth skin?

I entered in daylight, over water,

through clouds, struck by nothing

so much as fear of the bay

drawing closer and larger, green

and mottled, dotted with toy boats.

Since then I’ve walked the skeleton

of the city, miles and miles, hand

to hand at ground level, climbed to the top

and looked down from the tower,

but it’s only here in darkness, blinking

goodbye, that I see it as whole.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Two more things

My students are blogging this summer too. I do weekly journals during the school year, but because the summer session is so squeezed in terms of time, I decided to do a blog instead. It also saves paper, and that's a good thing as well. They've done some good stuff here if you want to take a look. Some lazy stuff too, but mostly good :)

And I encourage you to check out Poets for Living Waters, an online collection of poetry motivated by the Gulf oil spill. There is some lovely stuff there, for example these two poems by Sarah Green. I just sent them two poems as well, and would encourage my poet friends to do the same.

After a long absence...

I am finally posting on my blog again.

My summer has passed through a few distinct phases, which I'll try to summarize, and it is now winding to a close. A month from now, fall semester will have already begun.

Phase 1 was the one in which I last posted. I read a lot, relaxed a lot, hung out with friends, wrote, and ran.

Phase 2 was two glorious weeks away from this town. I spent ten days in California and didn't want to leave, then spent a long weekend in Columbus before returning to PA. San Francisco was fabulous, and Berkeley was beautiful, and M and I had a wonderful time. Columbus was also an excellent time in which I ate a lot of good food and hung out with a lot of old friends.

Phase 3 was rather unpleasant and unhappy, in that I had to adjust to being back here and get ready to teach class. I also decided in that time period to take Spanish this summer so there were logistics to be worked out with that. And I started thinking more about what to do after the MFA; my conclusion, subject to change as always, is that I'm going to apply to just a couple of PhD programs in creative writing, as well as apply for other types of things as well. Hence me taking Spanish; most of the PhD programs require a foreign language competency. Phase 3 ended with my pilgrimage to Comfest back in Columbus. A wonderful hot weekend and another which I did not want to leave.

Phase 4 began on June 30th when I started teaching and on July 1st when I started my Spanish class. What I've been doing since then is getting up at 6:00am every day (M-F), catching the bus at 7:30, spending 8:00-12:25 in Spanish class (it's a summer intensive course, which basically goes through a semester of Spanish every 2.5 weeks. I skipped part 1 since I took Spanish in the past, part 2 was the second elementary level, and part 3 which I'm doing now is intermediate), then going to my office to eat lunch, prep for class, have office hours, etc, then teaching 2:20-3:35 and then either walking or taking the bus home and getting back between 4:00 and 4:30. Then I do homework, grade papers, and maybe read or write. M moved in here last weekend, just temporarily, because his old lease ended before his new one began. It's going well.

I'm actually really loving my Spanish class and really wanting to go to Spain next summer. I also am enjoying my teaching assignment this summer, though the room is small and hot; the students are smart though and interested and mostly unjaded. I get to teach creative writing this fall. Definitely exciting, but I also need to plan a new course. If you have suggestions for readings or activities, let me know. Particularly in the realm of fiction because that is not my genre of choice. I'm more comfortable talking about poetry or nonfiction.

What have I read? I don't even remember. I read a lot during that third part of my summer: some memoirs, some poetry, some fiction. Outstanding things I remember reading were Audre Lorde's memoir "Zami: A New Spelling of My Name - A Biomythography" and the poetry collections "Late Psalm" by Betsy Sholl and "Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities" by Kazim Ali.

So that is summer in a nutshell. Busy, mostly good, and going all too fast.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Summer Reading, etc.

In some ways it's odd to think it's only May 7th and I'm already settling into my summer schedule. I went out with a couple friends on Wednesday (celebrating Cinco de Mayo and the end of the semester - they had both finished that day), but other than that, I've been cleaning, reading, and working on thesis poems. I realized yesterday that I have a lot more poems I would consider putting in my thesis than I'd previously been aware of; that's a good thing, but it makes me really start thinking about what I want it to be "about".....that crazy question: "what is this poem about?"

I also finished reading An American Childhood today, and I liked it. Annie Dillard's writing is intelligent and lovely, and the story has such wonderfully observed details. Most of it didn't really grab me emotionally, but there was one part I wanted to quote:

"As a child I read hoping to learn everything, so I could be like my father. I hoped to combine my father's grasp of information and reasoning with my mother's will and vitality. But the books were leading me away. They would propel me right out of Pittsburgh altogether, so I could fashion a life among books somewhere else. So the Midwest nourishes us (Pittsburgh is the Midwest's eastern edge) and presents us with the spectacle of a land and a people completed and certain. And so we run to our bedrooms and read in a fever, and love the big hardwood trees outside the windows, and the terrible Midwestern summers, and the terrible Midwestern winters, and the forested river valleys with the blue Appalachian Mountains to the east of us and the broad great plains to the west. And so we leave it sorrowfully, having grown strong and restless by opposing with all our will and mind and muscle its simple, loving will for us: that we stay, that we stay and find a place among its familiar possibilities." (pg 214)

That really resonated with me and my experiences as a child who read a lot. I also liked her matter-of-fact statement that Pittsburgh is the far eastern edge of the Midwest; I think I'd have to agree.

I feel like there are really two midwests: one that was defined by the industry on the Great Lakes and includes OH, MI, IN, IL, WI, and MN and might stretch down to also include states like WV and KY which are not usually considered part of the Midwest, but which have more in common with it than with any other area (western PA and western NY also fit here, culturally and economically, but the states as a whole aren't midwestern); and a second, more westerly, Midwest with which I'm less familiar, one which includes KS, NE, MO, IA, and the Dakotas. Yeah, so that was a tangent. Sorry. We debated this in my nonfiction class this spring, and I am kind of obsessed with mapping and places in my poems, so it's not utterly unrelated.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Hello, my poor abandoned blog

I have survived my first year of graduate school, and although I have plenty of work to do this summer (reading for fun, reading for my thesis, writing and revising for my thesis, planning and later teaching a summer class, planning a fall class, etc.), I may also make more time for posting on my blog.

Last week I turned in my poetry revisions, and my seminar paper; I'd submitted my last nonfiction piece the week before. And I taught my last English 15 classes. I went to a party for my nonfiction class. I went to the MFA Variety Show, which was a fantastic time, and I went out afterward with some of my classmates, and we sat on the patio at Mad Mex and drank beer and enjoyed the nice weather and the knowledge that we'd made it through a year of grad school.

M. went back to California today - he's probably in flight right now - and I'll be flying out there in three weeks to see him. I'm greatly looking forward to that trip, to see him of course, but also to see San Francisco and Berkeley.

I've started my summer reading list. I'm still actively soliciting suggestions to add to it - poetry, especially, but any and all genres as well. The first thing I'm reading is Annie Dillard's An American Childhood. I love her writing so far, but I find myself wanting her to be conscious of, and reflective on, class and privilege; she does reflect a little on race, and her privileged position as a white child. I'll see how the rest of the book comes together and report back more in-depth then.

Also, in the arena of things on which I am to report: there is supposed to be a new Thai restaurant in the plaza near my apartment. I plan on stopping there on my walk back from campus today, and I promised M. I would issue a full report. Neither of us are holding our breaths, and we remain nearly as disappointed with State College's food as we were this past fall. We've discovered a few gems, but very few. Yet another reason to look forward to my SF trip, and the time I'll spend in Columbus.

Speaking of food, I am starting to get hungry, so I'm going to gather up my books and run a couple errands downtown, then head back toward home and pad thai. (On, and on the issue of walking, I've decided that I won't buy a bus pass for summer, just a roll of tokens. That will make me walk unless it's bad weather or unless I have a lot of stuff to carry. It's about 40 (hilly) minutes to get to Burrowes, perhaps less to where I'll be teaching this summer. Good exercise!)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Poem-A-Day Challenge, Day 6

Make It Beautiful

Hair that was braided,
dirty, make shining and clean,
use the fan to blow it just right.
Feet that were calloused,
dark, thick-skinned, make
soft and clean, barely touch
the ground. A simple tunic
make couture. Weathered
skin make pristine. Deer
make fearless, leaf fall symbolic,
the boat in the background
unimportant, beauty the focus.

(After “Pocahontas” by Annie Leibovitz)

Sunday, April 4, 2010

April Poem-A-Day Challenge

I did this challenge last year and actually wrote thirty poems in thirty days. Most of them were no good, but I got a few I really liked that I've worked on since. I am not committed to doing all thirty this year, but I'm getting the prompts and have written one so far.

Yesterday's prompt for Day 3 was to write a poem with the title "Partly ____" (fill in the blank). Here's my attempt:

Partly Risen

The sun when I wake
to a cat’s claws tangling
my hair, the whole
wheat pita bread
I tried to make from scratch,
the shoots of asparagus
in my mother’s spring
garden, my heart
this morning when I walk
in the sunlight on this day
that celebrates a savior
I used to believe in.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Spring Break

It may be evident by the fact that I haven't posted here since the very beginning of the semester that I've been busy. That is certainly true. It's been a difficult semester. The first four weeks or so, I felt quite often that the only thing that was going well was teaching and sometimes poetry workshop. I was just not comfortable in my other classes, and I felt out of my element. I eventually settled into them and feel pretty good about everything right now, but it was a process and made for a difficult eight weeks and made me very glad last night to leave my professor's reading and say "I am officially on Spring Break!"

I'm not going anywhere for break, and I have lots of work to do over the week, but it will be very nice not to have any scheduled obligations, to sleep in and stay up late and drink wine, to go running during the warmest part of the day. It's also supposed to be about 50 degrees for at least part of next week, which might finally melt all the snow, which is super exciting. I am really looking forward to warm weather!

Break has been good so far. Last night after the reading, five of us went to go see "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" at the State Theatre downtown. It was a really quirky, lovely movie, and the theatre is nice - one of those old-fashioned single-screen theatres with a balcony and a stage so they can also host musical performances and other events. I got home around midnight last night, and stayed up for awhile. I woke up this morning with no alarm, walked the dog, drank coffee, ate a "penalty donut"*, worked on poems, submitted one set to an online journal, then did some lesson planning for the week after break. Went for a 3.5 mile run later and it was sunny but chilly, and windier than I'd realized so my eyes were watering like crazy. Ate leftover tofu curry and channa saag for dinner (M had stayed over on Wednesday and I'd cooked dinner), and I think I'm going to soon pour some wine and try to work on my next nonfiction submission.

I've been doing a lot of thinking this semester about what I want to do after the MFA. It's a two year program so once I got through the milestone of that first semester, I had to start realizing that I was already a quarter of the way through and should probably give some thought to what to do next. I'm still contemplating applying to Lit PhD programs, but now leaning more toward applying to PhD programs that offer a creative dissertation option OR just taking my MFA and trying to get a fixed term position at Penn State for the standard three years (or possibly four if I could swing it). The one thing I know for sure is that I want to teach. Like I said, my teaching was sometimes the only thing I felt good about earlier this semester, and I've been having a really good experience with this class. I actually had a really good day regarding teaching earlier this week. I'd applied to teach in the LEAP program this summer, and I got assigned to the section I'd requested. It's a section that's paired with a Photography class, so I'm really excited to work with some creative kids and plan cooperative lessons with the other instructor. Later that day, I also got my SRTE scores from fall (the quantified student evaluations) and they made me really happy. So I'm looking forward to an exciting, challenging, fun summer teaching assignment, and I should get to teach creative writing in the fall, and it's incredibly nice to know that at least this one thing consistently feels good and right to me.

*Oh, and to explain the "penalty donut" - a fellow instructor has a rule that if anyone's cell phone goes off in class, that person has to bring a snack for everyone on the next class. A student had to do this yesterday and brought in way too many donuts, so the instructor was giving them away afterward, and I took one home for this morning. I may institute that rule myself in the summer.

So, I am going to do some work now and hope to have a similar day tomorrow and most of the next week - sleep in, coffee, write, run, more work. Rendezvous with M at some point. Other social engagements as they occur. Yay, spring break!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Long-Overdue Review

A Walk Through the Memory Palace
by Pamela Johnson Parker

Winner of the 2009 Qarrtsiluni Chapbook Contest

My apologies, first and foremost, to the lovely folks at Qarrtsiluni that is has taken me so long to getting around to reviewing this chapbook on my blog. It appeared in my mailbox during the chaotic end of fall semester and was ignored during break, along with all other things that seemed like “work”.

However, reading Johnson’s poems is not work, or at least it’s not odious work. The chapbook opens with the poem “78 RPM”, a beautifully observed narrative about summer, desire, and music. This first poem sets itself up in short 3 line stanzas, and many of the proceeding poems follow the same format. The second piece is a two-part poem called “Tattoos” (Johnson utilizes multi-part poems throughout the book), and while the poem feels rather list-heavy to me, the images are enduring and vibrant. The chapbook takes up themes of art quite frequently, whether in “First Anniversary: Reading Russian Literature” or “Reading Keats in a Japanese Garden”, a Matisse painting in “Engendering: For Two Voices”, or the speaker’s own poetry in “Unreal Gardens Without Toads in Them, or, Last Year’s Journal, This Year’s Yard.”

For me,the greatest beauty of this book is not in the poet’s academic intelligence (though it gleams fiercely throughout and enhances each poem) but in the equally profound intelligence she demonstrates toward the human mind and heart. The final poem, the long six-part “Breasts”, demonstrates not only an understanding of the body, but also of the speaker; as a prepubescent girl, she thinks “Some day I’ll need a bra, some/ Day I’ll sag like Gran.// Not me. Not now” while as an adult, and a mother, when faced with her sister’s diagnosis of advanced breast cancer, she concludes “Neither/ Of us will say cancer,/ Neither of us// Mentions our mother./ Daughter, I hold you tighter/ to my breast.” And my favorite moment of the chapbook comes at the end of "First Anniversary: Reading Russian Literature" -- after describing the poor young couple celebrating their first anniversary on a swelteringly hot day, the poems ends "You wish, like/ A child at Christmas, for snow; I loved you/ Hopelessly is all I remember of Pushkin."

While certain images and themes recur throughout the book - art, water, fish, flowers and plants, desire and death and change – I didn’t always feel that the poems connected to each other or came together as a cohesive chapbook whole. “Some Yellow Tulips”, about a Holocaust survivor, and the final long poem about breast cancer, are both wonderful poems on technical and emotional levels, but did not fit the same mood as the rest of the book. Overall though, the poems are strong and this is a chapbook well worth your time and money. It is available online or in print form. Also, be sure to check out the other cool stuff going on at qarrtsiluni, the online literary magazine.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Semester #2, Day #1

I taught my first class of the spring semester today. So far, so good.

I also have a grand total of 28 books on my coffee table which I had to purchase for my grad classes: 13 for poetry workshop, 3 for nonfiction workshop, and 12 for African American poetry. I have a LOT of reading and writing in my future!

I also have a very late schedule this semester. Both of my workshops run from 6:30-9:30pm, one on Tuesday, one of Thursday. My seminar runs from 12:20-3:20 on Wednesdays, and I'm teaching from 3:35-4:25 MWF. We're continuing our Writer in the Community group from fall, and that will be meeting from 11:00am-noon on Wednesdays, but that is the only thing on my schedule that falls before noon. I am pretty good at being a night owl, but it is going to be an interesting adjustment.

I have no idea what I'm getting into the with NF workshop, or the lit seminar, but I'm looking forward to figuring that out.