An Embarrassment of Riches

Silhouette of a woman with arms outspread and head thrown back. Photo credit: Jill Wellington via Pixabay.

The only thing you need to do to be a poet is to write poetry. But occasionally, if you do the footwork and let go of the results, you get rewarded with some accolades. I’ve had a string of successes recently and wanted to share:

  • In March, the Lambda Literary Awards selected my chapbook Mad Quick Hand of the Seashore as a finalist in the bisexual poetry category.
  • On April 24, Athena Dixon interviewed me for the New Books in Poetry podcast. We had a great conversation about the writer’s journey, how things have improved (or not) for marginalized voices, and how writing practice can change over time.
  • On April 29, new Boston Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola selected my work, along with that of 17 other poets, to be displayed at Boston City Hall as part of the Mayor’s Poetry Program.
  • On April 27, I performed alongside a slew of talented poets, musicians, and actors in the Solidarity Salon, an event started and organized by fellow Lesley poet Lisa DeSiro. The crowd that showed up to Third Life Studios in Union Square, Somerville was wonderfully warm and appreciative, and True Story Theater brought three poems to life–including one of mine!
  • On May 10, three of my poems appeared in the Heavy Feather Review #NoMorePresidents online feature.
  • On May 13, The Rumpus published my interview with Kwoya Fagin Maples about her moving book of historical persona poetry Mend (University Press of Kentucky, 2018).
  • On May 15, the Harriet blog on the Poetry Foundation website picked up the article, thus causing something rather unlikely: my name on the Poetry Foundation website. It’s a far cry from having my poems up there, but it’s still pretty cool.
  • On May 18, I walked in the Lesley University commencement ceremony with a brown hood to signify Master of Fine Arts. Lesley won’t award me the degree itself until I complete my graduating seminar at the June residency, but taking part in the ceremony was quite moving. My mother, brother, and sort-of-mother-in-law all traveled from out of town to celebrate with me and Mark, my partner and biggest fan.

Yes, Dispatches from an MFA are not up-to-the-minute coverage. More to come.

The interesting thing about po-biz success is how short-lived the good feelings can be. Lesley faculty member Tracey Baptiste has talked about the moving goalposts, and others seem to agree with her. I’m sure I’ll be eyeballs deep in existential angst soon, but for the moment, anyway, I feel like the Poetry Gods are smiling upon me.

Thanks to you, dear reader, for supporting me in these endeavors.

On Celebrating National Poetry Month While Earning an MFA

National Poetry Month is April, the cruelest month according to T.S. Eliot. And I get where he’s coming from, especially in Boston, where lilacs may or may not be breeding out of the dead ground. This month, everything bloomed late because the Weather Gods decided to send us temps in the 40s for most of March and April, and then bust directly into summer on May 2 with a high of 87. I should be used to this by now, seeing as I’ve lived in Boston for 18 years. But California spoiled me in my toddler years, and on some level I’ll always mourn weeks and weeks of room-temperature weather. The temperamental temperatures affect my mood as well, leading to unpredictable amounts of spoons.

The good thing about National Poetry Month is also the bad thing about National Poetry Month: everyone is celebrating poetry. As anyone perusing the listings I post can see, Boston has a thriving po-scene. There are open mics and slams and performances and launch parties and panels and exclusive hoity-toity readings every week and twice on Sundays. In April the listings just explode. And those are just the ones I know about–I hear about other ones all the time that don’t make my list. And then there are the informal writing groups, as secret and desirable as lesbian potlucks.

Continue reading “On Celebrating National Poetry Month While Earning an MFA”

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Final Packet

Read on for the cover letter to the final packet of my first semester at the Lesley MFA program, written to my teacher Sharon Bryan. The cover letter of a packet is meant to be a meditation on your writing and study process over the course of the previous month — a sort of “making of” the finished work that accompanies it:

Dear Sharon:

How strange to think that this is the last packet I will be sending you. The semester has gone by so quickly. I was really worried about being able to finish all the work on time, but it turned out to be possible after all. About halfway through each packet I would get incredibly anxious. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to finish the work on time, and that what I sent wouldn’t be good enough. It’s natural to want to get the most out of a degree program as possible, but it’s also important not to let the perfect get in the way of the good. The fact that the course work is pass/fail helps, but ultimately it’s a question of whether I think I am doing the best that I can. Continue reading “Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Final Packet”

Boston-Area Poetry Readings for January and February 2018

In my unbiased opinion, the one must-see reading this winter is happening on Saturday, February 3 at 2pm. Come see me (Frances Donovan), Erica Charis-Molling, Sonja Johnson, and Heather Derr-Smith read for free at the newly renovated library in beautiful Jamaica Plain.

Others might argue that honor goes to Nikki Giovanni (!) at Brookline Booksmith on Friday, February 2.

Also a shout-out to Regie Gibson and the other fine poets performing at the Gwendolyn Brooks tribute this Saturday, January 13 in Lexington, Mass.

All readings are in Massachusetts.

Friday, January 12, 7:30 pm
Alan Smith Soto, Tim Suermondt, and Pui Ying Wong
Loring-Greenough House
12 South Street (across from the Monument)
Jamaica Plain, MA

Saturday January 13, 3 pm
Chris O’Carroll and David Davis
Powow River Poets Reading Series
Newburyport Public Library
94 State St.
Newburyport, MA

Saturday, January 13, 4 pm
Tara Skurtu
Porter Square Books
25 White Street
Cambridge, MA

Saturday, January 13, 7:30 pm
Contemporary Poets Celebrate Gwendolyn Brooks
Nancy Boutilier, Robert Carr, Jennifer Clarvoe, Tom Daley, Regie Gibson, Krysten Hill, Dorian Kotsiopoulos, Julia Lisella, Kathy Nilsson, Sabrina Sadique, Lloyd Schwartz, Joyce Swagerty, Cammy Thomas, Jonathan Weinert
Munroe Saturday Nights series
First Parish Church
7 Harrington Road
Lexington, MA

Wednesday, January 17, 8 pm
Valerie Duff and Musical Guest
Unearthed Song & Poetry
Home.stead Bakery & Cafe
Fields Corner
1448 Dorchester Ave.
Dorchester, MA

Continue reading “Boston-Area Poetry Readings for January and February 2018”

At What Price Poetry?

A fellow poet recently had the courage to complain about the expense of our chosen vocation. It’s a sad fact that the net proceeds for poets are usually negative. We often have to pay to develop our craft and get ourselves read. Perhaps it’s not unlike many art forms in this way — especially the “fine” arts like ballet. In the case of poetry, schools, workshops, conferences, book tours, and contest fees all add up. Those of us who publish books may end up making little or nothing on them. Readings at most venues don’t offer remuneration, while the poet usually ends up having to pay for gas and dinner. If you sell a few books, you’re lucky to break even.

Payment — or lack thereof — is difficult subject to speak about in public settings, partly because of the unspoken taboo on discussing money matters at all, and partly because of the notion that artists must do what they love for free, or have to suffer for their art, living in garrets and shivering next to wood stoves. It’s easy to sound bitter, and no one wants to publish — or read — a bitter poet. It is possible to make a living as a writer of prose, but not with poetry. Not in American society, where most mentions of poetry in mainstream society joke about how awful it is to have to listen to it.

This double bind is why I went into web development in the mid 1990s. I didn’t have parents who could support me or supplement my income and I didn’t have the connections that make it so much easier to break into publishing. Zines and websites used to circumvent the snooty literary establishment, but the fact is that my education and inclinations have given me champagne taste when it comes to literature in general and poetry in particular.

After 20 years in an industry that’s taken me further and further away from my literary roots, I’m embarking on a low-residency MFA program that will allow me to keep my job while I focus on honing my craft in my off-hours. An MFA is not cheap. I was fortunate enough to qualify for a merit scholarship, but I’ll be paying for the bulk of tuition with student loans. Once I graduate, my monthly payments will equal about half of mortgage. Worst case scenario is that I end up saddled with so much debt that means I can’t afford to make a career change more in line with my passions.

All of that being said, I do believe there are bright spots in the cloudy future. Grants do exist. Paying gigs (mostly teaching, but also prose writing) do exist. Scholarships do exist. Free artist residencies do exist. Lesley awarded me a scholarship and I’ve won awards in the past so I know it’s a possibility for me. The key is to not get sucked in to the maw of the pay-for-play mentality of some literary circles. And that’s hard because sometimes the people in those circles are the poets I really admire and want to be like.

I’ve spent so much time avoiding dedicating myself to the arts because I’ve been too afraid of failure. I’m taking the leap this time — or, more accurately, I’m taking a measured, clear-eyed walk along a rocky and difficult path that hugs the side of the mountain.

Succeeding in the end might require a revision of my definition of success into outcomes I can directly affect rather than those that depend on the whim and tastes of judges and editors. When I look at it that way, success is inevitable.

Photo credit: slgckgc via Flickr, CC 2.0

Interview with Widows’ Handbook Editor Jacqueline Lapidus

It was through Holly Zeeb that I first learned of The Widows’ Handbook: Poetic Reflections on Grief and Survival, an anthology of poetry written by, for, and about women who had lost their life partners. Holly, a fellow student of the PoemWorks workshop and an excellent poet in her own right, was one of the many poets who contributed to the book. Holly lived with cancer for years before succumbing to it in late January 2016. Her literary legacy includes not only her poems in The Widows’ Handbook, but also a chapbook from Finishing Line Press and Eye of the Beholder, a book-length collection in limited run. In addition to — or perhaps because of — her poetry, she left behind a wide circle of friends and fellow writers. They crowded Newtonville Books to grieving friends read her work. I got one of the last seats in the house and found it deeply affecting to hear the finished versions of poems I saw take shape in workshop.

I met Jacqueline Lapidus through entirely different circumstances and only realized her connection to The Widows’ Handbook and to Holly after we had been corresponding for some time. The anthology had been on my reading list for some time, and meeting Jacqueline was the push I needed to crack the book. A slight woman with a mop of curly blonde hair, Jacqueline has a fascinating life story that spans continents and waves of the feminist movement. She was kind enough to talk with me about the societal implications of widowhood, her own experiences with it, and the work involved to create such a comprehensive anthology.

What role did poetry play in the grieving process for yourself and the poets in this collection?

My significant other, with whom I was involved on and off over more than 40 years, died suddenly the day after Thanksgiving 2004. We’d been together continuously for the past 10 years of his life.  I wrote poems to deal with my own grief, and anger, and frustration, because writing poems is what I do when I have strong feelings. I’ve done it all my life, and I’ve always sent my work out in the hope of getting it published. But the poems about widowhood that I submitted to literary magazines were rejected, probably because the editors—mostly young—couldn’t deal with such a painful theme. Then Lise Menn, a college classmate of mine who was also widowed, came to Boston for a conference. We went out to dinner, and while we were waiting for our order, she showed me her widow poems. After reading them, I had this bright idea. I said, “You know, this would be a great topic for an anthology.” And when you have a bright idea, well, you’re the one who has to make it happen. That was how we got started on what became The Widows’ Handbook. I pretty much knew what we’d have to do because I’ve worked in publishing for most of my life. I knew there was a potentially huge readership out there—eight million widows in this country alone!—and I knew that nobody else had done this kind of anthology before.

More experienced poets in The Widows’ Handbook, wrote widow poems because writing poems was what they always did. Lise Menn, my co-editor, wrote her widow poems particularly as a way to communicate her feelings to her therapist, because at first she couldn’t talk about her grief directly. But some of our contributors hadn’t written poetry at all before they were widowed. They started writing, sometimes in the context of therapy or writing groups, as a way of coping.

Continue reading “Interview with Widows’ Handbook Editor Jacqueline Lapidus”

April 2016 Poetry Readings in Boston MA and Environs

NOTE: You can find an updated version of these listings here.

April is National Poetry Month, which means that readings and classes abound. Here are my top picks:

Listings follow. All venues are in Massachusetts (USA) unless otherwise noted: Continue reading “April 2016 Poetry Readings in Boston MA and Environs”

Boston Area Poetry Readings for October and November 2015

I usually post only the upcoming month’s reading so as not to overwhelm you, gentle reader. But Daniel Bouchard, the poet who compiles these listings, sends dates much farther into the future. Time moves faster in the fall in Boston, so here’s a cornucopia of readings for the next six weeks. Get some dates on your calendar now before it’s full of harvest festivals, Halloween parties, and turkey dinners.

Thursday, October 15, 7 pm
Central Square Press Editor Enzo Silon Surin and Afaa Micheal Weaver
Trident Café and Booksellers
Boston Poet Spotlight Series
338 Newbury Street
Boston, MA

Continue reading “Boston Area Poetry Readings for October and November 2015”