Poetry events in Memphis!

For you poetry-hungry Memphis folks, check out one or both of these great poetry events in town this week.



Mary Leader will be reading at the University of Memphis in the University Center River Room (Room 300) at 8pm this evening. Free and open to the public. A book signing will follow.


As part of 100 Thousand Poets for Change, poets Heather Dobbins-Combs, Bobby Rogers, Whit Griffin, Corey Mesler, Mary Burns, and John Reed will be reading from 6:30-9:30 P.M. at Java Cabana Coffeehouse, 2170 Young Avenue. This event will have a $5 suggested donation. All funds benefit the Lowenstein House.

Busy Days

Another week has slipped by, and it’s Friday Saturday, no, Tuesday! I’ve been working on this entry for far too long now. University of Memphis started back last week, and it’s been strange to watch my fellow MFA-ers return to their studies and stresses without me. Some are teaching, some are working on The Pinch, some are just taking classes (and that’s quite enough).

I thought this time of year would hit me, and I’d go through another run of grief of, “oh no! My MFA is OVER!” Instead, I’ve felt so much relief. During my MFA, I was working/teaching at U of M, taking a full course load, writing, reading, and teaching at another school. Now, I can focus on just teaching and writing. No classes have to take. No homework. No teaching at more than one school. It’s comforting to know that I can write when I want to, and that I can set up a workshop group if I want to. I’m so grateful for my MFA experience, but I’m also so grateful for this break. Now, I can’t imagine putting myself through that high-intensity stress again. Maybe someday in the future, but definitely not soon.

Last week was a week of submitting. While I’d like to try to condense all of my submitting/reading/writing, etc. time into a two hour block on Friday mornings, I don’t think that’s possible. After my high of getting an acceptance from one of my dream journals, I was quickly brought down back to earth with two form rejections. So, I submitted one of my fiction stories to several journals last Monday (as I talked about here), and even sent out another 5 poetry submissions. Right now, I have 41 submissions out in the world. Many of them are more than 100 days old (the oldest being over 300 days old!), and many of them are personalized for the journal I was submitting to, so a lot of my work is currently out in the world.

No draft last week. Dealt with headaches galore as well as a whole mess of “this is what we have to do before we officially buy this house” kind of stuff. Hopefully, I can nail one down this week, but I also have this pile of poems I need to go back through and revise in the hopes of having new work to send out. On the upside, I received contributor interview questions from PANK Magazine and sent off my answers today. My first ever interview!

Hope you all had a no-labor kind of labor day. Those are certainly the best kind.


So…I’m in Spain

Richard Tillinghast, in his interview with The Pinch for the Spring 2012 issue, wrote that there is an intoxication that sets in when you visit a country for the first time. You’re amazed by the differences: the food, the architecture, the people, the languages. Those differences you see both help inform how you experience the place you’re in, while also giving you a different perspective on where you’ve come from. He said keeping a running journal as you’re walking around, jotting down thoughts, things, people, etc. you see, can read a little like poetry.

After writing a whole post on why writers should travel, I’m now practicing what I’m preached by staying a month in Spain for a creative writing study abroad program. I arrived in Madrid on June 1st, stayed there until June 3rd, and then took a train to Alicante, where I’ll be until June 28th.

Writing so far has been difficult. I’m very much out of my element. Writing worked best for me at 7 in the morning, coffee in hand. In Madrid, I had to first adjust to jetlag (which took a couple of days), and then I simply had no time because I had a limited window of time in the city and I HAD to run around and see everything (Best thing I saw: Picasso’s “Guernica.” Wow.).

Now, I’ve been in Alicante two days, and the class started yesterday. We have our first writing “assignment” due tomorrow, and we’ll see if something comes up. Spain works on a different set of time. They eat dinner late and wake up later, so 7 in the morning wouldn’t really work for me when we eat dinner at 8:30/9 at night. My host family’s home also only has WiFi in their living room, which means I’m around people or the TV is on whenever I’d be writing. I also don’t speak any Spanish, so it’s been hard for me to try to communicate with my host family, which is a really strange experience. Hopefully, I’ll pick up the language quickly.

I think I just need to fight against my conceptions of where I can be creative and Just.Be.Creative (this sounds like a bad name for a perfume…). This same experience happened when I was in Greece last year. I ended up jotting some things down and reading a lot, but I couldn’t write while I was there. Thankfully, the experiences soaked in and turned into some pieces later.


In other news, I came here on a high of good news. MayDay Magazine accepted my poem, “The Family Pet” (which I unfortunately don’t have a draft process for). Front Porch Journal which I’ve been wanting to get into for some time now, e-mailed me to tell me they really liked some of my work that had been picked up by other journals and asked me to send in more ASAP. New York Quarterly also e-mailed me to tell me they had forwarded one or more of my poems  to the second tier editorial board for further consideration.


I feel like I’m in the right place right now, and I’m curious to see what all will happen while I’m here. Have any of you traveled? What have been your experiences with it as it relates to your writing?


I can now officially look around and exhale a sigh of relief. All of my major MFA duties are completed. All I need to do is wait to hear whether I passed and then run around campus getting all of those signatures (graduation isn’t real until you’ve done a lot of paperwork).

Comps was particularly painful. For other people, it might be easy, but for me, it wasn’t. Our program gives you seventy-two hours to answer four out of six essay questions, in about six pages each. So, over a weekend (usually), you have about three full days to write about twenty-four pages of coherent argument.

I agonize over papers. I go back over them again and again and again. On Friday, the first day of my comps, I just sat in front of my computer writing, writing, writing until a merciful fog settled over my brain, and I could do nothing but sit next to my husband and watch reality TV. That was not the way to go about it. I should have  sat down and figured out the examples from my reading list I wanted to use for each essay question and type those up and get a clear sense of an outline. Instead, I thought that if I just write enough, I’ll figure out what I’m arguing and then be able to go back and hack things down.

In that fog, thoughts started running through my head like, “I don’t need that piece of paper! I can just give up right now! Then I wouldn’t have to write anymore! I already have my book. I won’t be able to get a job with an MFA anyway, so who cares?? I WOULDN’T HAVE TO WRITE ANYMORE! I COULD GIVE UP NOW!”

Thankfully, I put myself to bed and woke up much more clear-headed. On Saturday, three essays came together easily. All of the writing I had done had helped, and I had a clear vision for how to approach each one. Before signing off to watch Gray’s Anatomy episodes, I typed up the examples I wanted to use in my fourth essay. Sunday, I finished the fourth essay by 2pm. I came home from a meeting and spruced up the other three (did MLA citation, added some to ones that were a little shy of the six page limit), and sent them off.

On Sunday, I actually started to enjoy the writing. My Comps questions required me to specifically engage with my own work while also referencing the work on my MFA Reading List.

One of my questions was, “Myth plays a large role in your poetry. And yet many writers today avoid it for reasons such as the feelings that it seems unauthentic, unmodern, dishonest, remote emotionally, and/or artificial. Poetry since the time of the Romantics, and especially since the advent of Confessionalism, seems to be moving in the direction of placing a high priority on the poet’s own life more than traditional things like myths. How does a poet go about making myth her own? How can it become authentic and honest and close to poet emotionally? Use examples from your list as well as from your own poetry to answer this and to provide specific support for your answers.”

This question, like the others I answered at my Thesis Defense, really required me to explore the why behind my writing. Why do I do things a certain way? What emotions do those things create? Do other poets do similar things? I ended up using Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s poem, “Rome,” and Sandra Beasley’s “Another Failed Poem about the Greeks” to back up my reasoning for taking myths out of their historical contexts in order to create emotional rifts that point at modern concerns.

Comps really grounded my choices. I had to apply an academic lens to my own writing, so writing is not something isolated and mystical, but something that can have theory and weight behind it. For me, having this blog really helped me in preparing for this exam. I was already used to talking about my writing and some of the whys behind it, that it wasn’t such an extension to apply that to this exam. There is also this quote by W.H. Auden: “It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it.” Having to read not only critical work written by poets about poetry, but also lots of poetry by lots of different people, really got me thinking about the art of writing and the art of writing about writing.

Now, I get to wait to hear the official verdict and start packing for Spain. Yup, I’m doing a creative writing study abroad program in Alicante, which I leave on May 31st for and return on June 26th. All in all, it’s been a great semester and looking to be a great summer too.

What are your summer plans? How is your writing ritual holding up?

Thesis Defense: Another reason why you should get an MFA

April has been a crazy month. I went back to work after two weeks off recovering from my surgery and had to hit the ground running. I had to finish my thesis, turn it in, defend it (I passed! Yay!), and finish reading the books on my Comps reading list (I have comps next weekend). Writing has definitely taken the back burner to the things I needed to do to teach and graduate, but I’m grateful that there is an end in sight.

The Defense (or what some audience members have called, My Thesis Offense)

I really had no idea what to expect going in. I had never attended anyone else’s, but I knew I was going to be asked questions, and that since I’d sat with my manuscript for a good six months or so, I’d probably be more than capable of answering them.

The thing I wanted the most out of my defense was a clear idea of how close Predator’s Tongue is to being a book. At AWP, there are always several panels on the differences between MFA theses and books: Can graduate faculty members really help a thesis become a book, or are they too different? Some people go on to publish a finer, more edited version of their own thesis, like Michael Chabon and Sandy Tseng. Some scrap their thesis totally and begin anew, like James Allen Hall, who wrote Now You’re the Enemy after he graduated from his program. I know that the more I’ve worked with this manuscript, the more I’ve really found my own stride and some of the older poems just get shoved out or are re-worked entirely. It has been a continual process.

The defense, for me, really turned out to be a good conversation about why I chose to do things the way I did them: why break it up into the sections I chose? Why did I choose the predator/prey theme to tie it together? what am I saying about gender? what went into how I chose the ordering? why the title? what are the advantages/disadvantages of not writing “confessional” poetry?

Looking back, there are some places where I wished I had formulated my ideas a bit more. For example, I’m still unsure about the title. Predator’s Tongue was a suggestion by my thesis adviser. Originally, I was attached to Oral Lore as a title. As I’ve been working on this manuscript, I began to notice how much I use the word “mouth” or its many synonyms (speech or lack of speech, tongues, “maw,” “jaw,” etc.), so I wanted something that pointed at that. I also wanted something that pointed at a larger motif in the work. Oral Lore points at the fact that many of the poems are myths or mythic, stories of re-making and transformation. While I’m still attached to Oral Lore, I was aware that I should probably choose a different title. Not only is it hard to say (says my husband), but it doesn’t really clearly unify the work like pointing at a major theme would. So, my adviser suggested the title I have now. When asked why I chose the title, I didn’t have a clear answer since I haven’t completely bought it yet. I know it works better than Oral Lore, but there’s something about it that I haven’t completely bought yet. I wondered if it’s because it doesn’t have an article in front of it. I want it to be A Predator’s Tongue or The Predator’s Tongue, but it does sound better without one. Tongue of a Predator also doesn’t sound all that great…I wish I could have owned the title more, but regardless of whether I keep its current title, it did give me a clear unifying structure. The entire book is framed around the predator/prey motif.

All in all, I did get some good pointers on how to move from thesis to book. I need to move some poems from a later section to an earlier section, and I need to look at re-ordering the second section a bit. I also got some good suggestions on inspiration for future poems I could stick in the work to keep pointing at that major theme. The literature faculty member on my thesis committee also gave me great insight from her point of view. She looked at my work in terms of gender, in terms of arc, and her comments were particularly helpful in seeing how a non-creative writer might see and approach my book.

When thinking of the “Get an MFA or not?” argument, I still strongly say, “Get an MFA!” Having a conversation like this about my book really was important. I got to think and explore more about why I did things the way I did. It’s no longer some “magic process” conceived in a windowless, four-walled room; it’s a thoughtful, methodical one, one that has to be tested and re-shaped and re-welded to really stand strong. I got the opportunity to wade through some insecurities, hear some helpful feedback, and engage with members of academia who’ve worked through manuscripts and been published several times before me. This is exactly what I needed to finish shaping this book. I hope that once I graduate (in August!) that I’ll be able to build this sort of supportive community outside of this program, so I can have this same sort of conversation after I draft my next book.

Today, I feel much more confident going forward, and I think once I run my draft through the ringer once again, I’ll be submitting it to the Crab Orchard Review First Book Award open May 15th.

Here’s to endings (and new beginnings)!