Yesterday I had a reading at the University of North Alabama. Suffice it to say, the subject matter of my book is difficult.Mendtells the story of the birth of gynecology and the role black slave women played in that process. The collection is made up of persona poems, and the women’s stories are told in their voices. There are four sections of the book.
Imagined experiences and scenes that display the fact that the women mentioned above were seen as subjects of experimentation.
Imagined scenes from their previous lives.
An eleven-sectioned sonnet corona
Poems that reflect my present day experience of traveling to Mt. Meigs for research, and a few more poems that celebrate the lives of women I’ve known.
During my readings I typically read poems from the first three sections, which all deal with the experiences of the women. I often find myself caught up in the emotions of the poems and overwhelmed by the words. In addition to the subject matter, there is subtext I know most readers won’t notice. I’ve been through a lot the past six years and it’s certainly come through in my work. It’s sometimes a little exhausting to read the work aloud.
Afterwards though, I feel invigorated as students ask questions, tell me that it’s the first time they’ve heard this story and how they feel inspired. I’ve left colleges and students have written poems and essays in response to my work–which is thrilling. I am honored to inspire people that way. Yesterday, I was honored again by a woman who wrote a blog post on my reading and shared it with me. In it, she calls me a superhero. You can read it here.
Mend is forthcoming from University Press of Kentucky in Fall 2018.
I still remember the first time I read my own work in front of a group of people. I was 21. It was at an open-mic at the University of Alabama called “Common Ground.” The poem I was reading was about domestic violence. Subject matter aside, to say that I was nervous would be an understatement. While I read, I was shaking the entire time. Being in front of a crowd has always been difficult for me from the time I was a kid. I would say, however, that my days of standing in front of my church congregation and reciting bible verses, singing and “acting” in various plays prepared me for that moment.
I’d always been put in front of a crowd. Whether I wanted to or not, I was a narrator, Jairus’ 12 year old daughter, a member of the group “Children of Praise,” and a member of the youth choir and adult choir. I’d be there, but I’d be standing on the back row, partially hidden behind my friends, or lying on the floor during a performance, playing a dead girl (who of course had no speaking lines.)
I never became completely comfortable with being on display. The great thing about being a poet, though, is that your work is on display with you, and you’re not alone up there, winging it. With time and experience, I’ve become better at it. Still though, if it’s been a while since I’ve been on stage in front of people, I am completely nerves. I’m always curious to see how I’ll respond to various audiences because sometimes I feel like I won’t know until I arrive.
My next reading is February 7th at the University of North Alabama. I’ll be reading poems from Mend. Here are some things I do to prepare for a reading.
1) Go to another reading. (Under the best of circumstances, I try to make it to another reading that is near the date of my own.) This allows me to think about ways the writer is successful, and if there is an open mic, I can “practice” by reading in front that crowd. It makes me feel more ready when it’s time for my own reading.
2) Get to know the place where you’ll be reading. I look at pictures of the space I’ll be reading in or arrive early so I can see it and visualize myself reading. I try to make sure I am comfortable with walking up to the stage area, the position of the podium or mic, and how far away the audience will be in relation to myself.
3) Select what you will read based on your audience. If I’m reading to a younger crowd, an older crowd, or academic crowd, I choose what I will read accordingly.
4) Choose the pieces you will read in advance. I usually order them according to tone. (Some advice I’ve heard is to go back and forth with emotionally lighter and heavier pieces.) You also have to decide how you want to begin and end. What ideas do you want your audience to be left with?
5) Notate the work. As I read the work aloud, I make notes to remind myself to slow down, breathe, and sometimes even to smile. I highlight lines and words I want to emphasize. My resting face is blank—especially when I’m nervous. I even write down who I want to thank. Another important part of notating is to make a few notes above pieces you want to explain. I try to keep this short—two sentences at the most. I don’t believe you should try to explain every single piece before reading. Also, in my opinion, the explanation should never be longer than the poem.
6) Time how long it will take to read your work. Be considerate of your audience and if you have them, co-readers.
***After the reading, if you feel it was successful, save the pieces in the order you read them, so you will have a reading packet ready to go if needed.
I’m a writer, creative writing instructor, wife and mother of three young children. Currently, every weekday there are 17 tasks that have to be accomplished for my family life alone. (I know this because I am that person who made a list.) I have a to-do list for teaching, I organize a 3D Poetry Exhibit every year, and of course, my own writing life. Needless to say, I experience times when I feel way too busy to write. Here are three ways I’ve found to make time for writing when I feel I don’t have the time.
De-clutter. No, now is not the time to finally read your copy of the The Magic of Tidying Up—you’ve probably already been procrastinating on writing. By de-cluttering I’m referring to clearing out mental space. Assess what you actually are spending most of your time on. Is it social media? Netflix? Judge Joe Brown? There IS something that is making you busy. Is all your time effectively spent? If not, consider replacing these habits with ones that feed your writing. However, if you are a (usually committed) writer who has been spending an inordinate amount of time watching The Price Is Right or Judge Judy, please don’t beat up on yourself. It could be that you are collecting. In its own way, “wasting time” can be useful to an artist. If it’s not somehow useful, however, let it go. It’s time to fill that time with reading so you will have fuel to write.
Make a Date with yourself. Now this one is straight from the BOSS herself, Javacia Bowser, founder of See Jane Write. She says that you should make a date with yourself and schedule when, where and what you are going to write. I often end up writing after work (still at the school where I teach,) on Tuesday nights (it’s my night out—my husband and I both have one) or on the weekend. This usually happens on the floor, if I’m at home. One of the only places I can hide is behind my bed with my notebook. 🙂 Because of my family life, too, I’ve learned to write with my kids running around me. That may not work for you, but plan a time. Making a date with yourself means planning a specific time and place where you will write, and not standing yourself up.
Join a writing group or find an accountability partner. There are writing groups in your community. If you are fortunate enough to be in an MFA program, you already have a writing community. Be thankful for feedback because in the “real world” it’s tough to find people who are willing to read and respond to your work. If you are not in an MFA program, do some research. Google local writing workshops and writing groups to find other writers. Even if only online, community provides a great support for your writing. Another option is an accountability partner. An accountability partner doesn’t have to be another writer. It just has to be someone you can share your desire to write with—someone who wants to see you succeed in that venture. Have a conversation with your accountability partner and let them know you’ve been struggling finding time to write but you really want to. Tell them your goal— for example: “I want to write a book by… I want to write an essay by… I want to finish this story by… or I need to make time to start my blog and I want to launch it by…” You get the point. Get them on your team. Ask them if they can remind and prompt you to get on track with writing. It can be anyone. It can be your mom. Ask your partner to check in on you and ask how you’ve been coming along with your work. Their only responsibility is to say, “How did writing go today? I know you said you wanted to launch your blog by February 25th, so how’s it coming? And of course, since you are partners, return the favor. Ask your accountability partner what they want to accomplish, and then hold them accountable.
What brings you back to writing, no matter how busy you are?
There was a time you actually called yourself a “real writer.” You took every opportunity to write. You were desperate, at any time of day or night to get to your notebook. Maybe you slept with it next to your bed so you could write your dreams and thoughts immediately. You were an active lover of the written word and your nose was always in a book—if you weren’t writing.
Maybe you received some recognition for your work and people told you they liked what you wrote.
Then you stopped. Maybe now it’s been so long, you’re afraid you don’t have it anymore.
1. Writing is a gift. It is not going to go away. It’s there, inside of you, waiting to be prompted. However, writing is a muscle we exercise, and if we haven’t been exercising it, we can’t expect to be strong right away. Do you go to the gym once and leave toned and HOT after two hours of exercise on a random day? No. Does it boost your confidence for the next couple of days? Absolutely. But the longer you go without exercise, your muscles may atrophy. You’ll lose confidence, and you’ll probably feel reluctant to go to the gym again, because you don’t want to fail. But when you really need exercise/writing, it will be there waiting. What you write may be weak, but when you develop consistency with writing, your “muscles” will strengthen.
2.“Sometimes the only job of a poet is to notice the different kinds of light on leaves.”—Abraham Smith. Abe is one of my poetry mentors and he told me this a long time ago, at a time I was worried because I no longer felt an impetus to write. This quote sounds a little lofty to some perhaps, but to me it is refreshingly reassuring. So you aren’t writing—as long as you are noticing and collecting, you are okay. Noticing how your daughter’s whole back fits the span of your hand, or where her ends are splitting, or how the yellow pansies near the driveway are wilting in the cold. Collecting experiences: memories, current events, words, colors. Because you are a thinking being you are always collecting, consciously or not. Especially as a writer. We often stand in witness. Be reassured if you are in a collecting and noticing place. Know that it is okay.
3. Be willing to start at the beginning. Toi Derricotte, author of “The Undertaker’s Daughter,” and co-founder of Cave Canem (an organization for black poets) said a few key things in a panel discussion I watched recently. She talked about her experience of a debilitating depression wherein she attempted suicide more than once. During this time she was extremely fatigued and because she had insomnia, she didn’t have the strength to write. When she finally began to write again, she says it was just her holding a pen, and moving it around on the paper. It was her beginning at the beginning, like a child—making shapes, then making letters, then finally writing. I believe that because she loved writing, she was willing to do the work to build her muscle again. You may not be experiencing such a depression. It could just be that your lifestyle is not currently conducive to writing. I get that. But you too, can strengthen your work again. Be willing to start at the beginning. Be willing to do the work. You belong with us. You were born to do this.
4. The best thing for a writer is a book.Especially a non-writing writer. Keep reading.
5. Since writing is your gift, doing it can make you feel like the best version of yourself. It can be your “self-care.” It can be you, loving yourself.
Last semester one of my student’s poetry submissions was rejected by Young Arts (A literary contest for high school students.)
She’d spent a great deal of time on it. The work had been edited, memorized, and she even spent several hours recording a perfect performance of the poems by video. She’s tough on herself in several areas, an overachiever to be sure, so when she received the rejection she was devastated.
She cried in front of my desk for several minutes while I tried to talk her through it. “This is one place, one group of people who rejected your work.” I told her. “Rejection is part of being a writer.”
“But Young Arts is THE place, she said. I told her I knew how she felt and recounted a recent experience where my own work was rejected by a contest I respected. I told her how I cried, and I’m an adult who has been dealing with rejection for a while.
“But how do you deal with this all the time?” she said.
This question almost made me cry with her. It’s relevant to all of us. Here are a few things I’ve learned:
1) Accept that you will have your work rejected more often than not. On average, for about every 10 places I submit (individual poems) I’ll probably receive about 4 publications. My Submittable is pitiful. Submittable is a platform many literary journals and magazines use to compile written submissions. I have about 70% more “orange” (rejections) than I do “green” (acceptances.) About once a year I lead my students through the process of submitting to literary magazines. I only have them submit to five places and facetiously tell them to aspire to have 99 rejections before they are ever accepted for publication. One student walked in class one day and excitedly told me her work had been rejected and I gave her a high five. (This student was recently accepted to Yale but has never received a publication—this is a prime example of why one shouldn’t stop pursuing their craft in spite of rejection.) Rejection is part of being a writer.
2) Once you receive a rejection, make a practice of sending the work back out, immediately. Re-submit as tears of sadness are still drying on your cheeks. If you feel it needs editing, edit right away and get it back out into the world. Your work should always be under consideration somewhere. Since it takes so long to hear back, you don’t need to waste time to be depressed about it for a month before re-submitting. Google and find another literary journal/ press/contest and get it back out there. *Remember when submitting you can have the same work under consideration at one time. (I’d recommend having the same work at no more than five places.)
3) Make sure you sent the work to the right place. All literary journals, magazines and presses have an aesthetic, and publish work with certain themes, subject matter, etc. Use websites like Poets and Writers and New Pages to find places that match up with the type of work that you are submitting. When you find a literary journal or press, make sure that they actually publish the type of work you are submitting. You can do this by thoroughly reading their site, looking at previous work they’ve published, etc.
4) Realize that a rejection of your work is not always a rejection of you. There are so many reasons why work can be rejected. Here are some: your work wasn’t completely edited before sending, space in the publication (perhaps there’s a limit in page numbers, the press feels that your work doesn’t connect with their mission/vision, they received hundreds of submissions and yours was one of the last ones they considered, one person on staff was sick the day they reviewed your work and was in a bad mood…okay, I’m reaching here, but you get the point. Writers continue to the work after they are rejected because they love what writing does for them.
5) Keep it in perspective. Cry, be upset, do what you have to, but don’t stop. Don’t stop writing. Don’t stop submitting. Don’t stop improving your craft. One place– no matter how much you’ve built it up in your mind–should not decide the future of your writing career.
6) Know that someone, some literary staff, organization or press is going to see your work and love it. They are going to get it. They are going to say, “YAAAAASSSSS… this is what we’ve been waiting on!” If you’ve done the work of getting your submission in the best shape possible, it’s going to happen. Be patient. And when it happens you will receive affirmation that your work is respected by your peers. You will be on cloud nine. You will glow with the warmth of success.
And sometime after, you’ll submit somewhere else, and you’ll face another rejection. Cause it is what it is, as they say.
When I tell people I’m a writer, they usually respond with some version of, “I’ve been trying to write a book…” and then this trails off into infinity. But then I ask, “What’s it about?” Because I’m genuinely interested. Because I want to see everyone write what they have inside of them. I love talking about manuscripts and drafts with writers (it’s something I geek out over) and especially with people who don’t yet call themselves writers. So, since I’m often asked this question in person, by direct message, Facebook message, etc. I thought I’d make a list of things I’ve found helpful.
1) Compile what you already have. I’m hard pressed to write in a notebook. Ain’t nobody got time for that. I’ve written on napkins, the backs of receipts, post it notes, my hand, baby wipes, and yes, on good days, in a notebook. (I was kidding about the baby wipes.) Here’s what I’m saying: wherever you have written parts of your book, ideas, etc., find it all and type them into a Word document, in any order. Save the Word document as Manuscript. Don’t worry about a title now.
2) Stop thinking “masterpiece,” every time you sit down to write. You don’t need “the muse.” You don’t need for every sentence or line to be perfectly inspired at the moment of its conception. Just write. Just put your pencil/pen on to the paper and move it around to form letters. If you are afraid of writing something bad, you may never write. The way I’ve heard it—
you’ve got to write the bad stuff to get to the good stuff. Stop being afraid to write something bad. The best writers do it all the time.
3) Stop editing while writing. You’ve decided to write two pages today. But after the first paragraph, you look up and see spelling errors, grammatical errors, etc. Then you spend 15 minutes correcting that one paragraph. By the time you are done, you may not feel like writing anymore. You may feel discouraged. My suggestion would be to finish writing what you’ve committed to write that day. There will be time for editing later. The important thing is that you follow your train of thought, uninterrupted, and get out what you want to write, first.
4) Read, read, read. This is crucial, especially for beginners. Read other books that are in the same genre as yours. Read books that are like the book you want to write. See what others have done so you can see where you fit in. And stop being afraid of reading other’s work. You have your own personal style and voice. Reading only enriches your own voice and sparks your imagination. I began writing a new manuscript last January and what I did for constant inspiration was to read one collection of poetry a week.
5) Set writing goals. Decide on a reasonable time (based on your schedule, personality, lifestyle, etc.) you’d like to be done with first draft of the book. Decide on a number of pages you’d like to write each week or month. In 2017 I decided I wanted to start working on my second book. I decided I wanted to write 60 poems by August 31. That meant that I’d need to write two poems a week. To keep the momentum going, I knew I needed to read so I set a goal of reading one book of poetry a week. I’d read; get an idea for what I could do, and then I’d write two poems. A lot of them were messy and bad, but when I got into the habit, some of them were good. In the process of writing the new book, my current manuscript MEND was accepted for publication. I had to put the new book on the back burner, but I accomplished over half of my goal.
6) Lastly, find a space that is conducive for you to write. As I type now, Eden, one of my twins, is braiding my hair, pulling it and tugging my head to one side. Seriously. Right now. Vivienne is asking me to replace the batteries in her toy. Unless I’m relentless, I usually don’t write at home. Finding time to write for me means writing at work, on lunch breaks, early morning or when my kids go to bed.
So since my acceptance letter I’ve been doing my best to figure out marketing, as well as editing and preparing MEND for publication. I’m only now realizing too, the fact that I have written a book. It’s still a pretty fantastic idea, especially after working on it for 6 years. It shouldn’t have taken six years, but it took me so long mainly because other important things were happening. In the past six years I’ve had a twin pregnancy, a single pregnancy, moved, began a new job, and did I say I became a mother? I only had one year of writing the book before I had children.
It was difficult to find time to write once I became a mother, but it became necessary that I use the time I had. The days of lingering in coffee shops for hours were over. “Writer’s block” became a thing of the past. If I was going to sit down to write, I had to do work, whether it was good or bad. And a lot of it was bad. My creative energy was now divided into writing a great poem, braiding my daughter’s hair or a myriad of other tasks. The first year of my twins (Eden and Vivienne’s) lives, I made their shoes. Yes, I am that woman. It was a unique time, and now I don’t know how I did it. I made barefoot sandals and spent hours finding perfectly coordinating outfits and making headbands to match.
Suffice it to say, it was tough to make writing a priority, so for a while, it was on the back burner. What motivated me more than anything was the thought of losing my gift of being a writer. I was afraid that if I continued to not write consistently, I’d become the example of every old poet who’d chosen “the simple life” over their art. So, after the first couple of years of motherhood, I returned to work full time and began working on the manuscript again, slowly adding piece after piece until finally I attended a writing conference in Miami with the Homeschool. Homeschool Literary Lambda is an organization that holds workshops on visual art and poetry. During the workshop, which was a surreal experience—perhaps because it was my first time away from my children—I wandered around Miami in a kind of daze, listening to music and breathing in the salt of the city. The workshop I was in was taught by Cathy Park Hong, and she was teaching us the art of the long poem. We’d been assigned to write a series of poems. I was mildly annoyed. I thought it would be practical to just write what we wanted, and I didn’t want to have to stick to one subject. This annoyance was short sighted.
A year before, I’d been constantly praying and thinking about what would make the book complete. It was given to me in the middle of the night—and I know it was divine—three words. “Crown of Sonnets.” I know this may sound crazy to some, but this was exactly how it happened. I’d never written a crown of sonnets. I didn’t even have a clear concept of the form. A year later at the conference, I still hadn’t written it. Two weeks after Hong’s workshop, however, it came. I began writing the long poem in my collection, a sonnet corona entitled, “What Yields.” I worked on the poem for three weeks and by the end I had written eleven sonnets for the series. I finally had the end of the book.
That was February of 2016. By March I’d finished editing the collection and was sending it out for publication. It had been six years since I’d first begun researching.