Category Archives: The Next Big Thing

The Line

The books have accumulated quite a bit of dust here at Book Dust. Layers and layers.  I’ve been in hiding, but here I am, peeking out from the protective covers that I’ve had myself buried under as of late.  I’ve been doing a lot of self examination and in the process of course I’ve discovered some correlations between my life and my work. My latest obsession: challenging my theories on the line.

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of essays and articles on this topic to challenge my thinking. As someone who is largely guided by sonic qualities of a poem and the line itself, I decided to challenge my own instincts, to be a bit more vulnerable. I recently drafted a poem that was intended to document an experience with storms. Those who live in the Northern VA area know that storms here  are prominent and vicious in their destruction. Most storms are, but I do find our particular geography to be plagued with strange, beastly storms that know when your weak and strike at that exact moment. This poem came out of one of those storms.

My original intent was to build the anxiety of the speaker and the speaker’s experience with each line. As I began drafting, the poem took the shape of a longer line (shocker, I know.) The poem looked on the page just as I’d expect a poem of mine to look. Then a new thought occurred: this poem seems…unchallenged, too expected. So I took to the page (with the prompting of one of my Readers) and began challenging my instinct and re-evaluting the line based on how the breaks can add potentially more ambiguity to the poem. I’ve posted the poem’s original draft version below so you can see where the poem wanted to go.


Thoughts upon a Storm Centralized to One Block in One Neighborhood and That Block Happened to Be Mine

All the trees decided on this one night to finally give in,

to let the softness of all their years finally break them.

They fell like a parade of sound, smashing cars and roofs,

shattering windows. They did not go quietly.

 

It started mid-night. I woke to the sound of pelting against

glass and wondered what beautiful man was throwing rocks

at my window. Whose voice was going to crawl inside of me,

make my body split open like a watermelon that implodes

 

with its hissing and sucking sounds, the way it cracks itself

open and all the juices drip from the countertop onto the tile

floor, as if the watermelon suddenly couldn’t stand itself

anymore.

 

The sky surged with its light show and like a fool

I stood in front of the three-pane picture window waiting

for the gusts to break through. Hoping that kind of force

would find its way inside of me. In the dark storming of night,

 

I grabbed towels to fill the gaps around the door where water

was spilling in. I sat feeling the shutter of wind rattle wood to my spine.

Something was wrong and it was coming for me. All this destruction

occurring and I couldn’t yet see the chaos it was leaving behind.

This was not the case with the fence. I could see it, from the back window,

collapsed, whole sections fallen, a line of white plank and then suddenly

an infinite black whole and it made me think of my running shoes

and how now, with this fence so open, it would be a good time

 

to start running and shortly after that, I fell asleep once the clangs

of the night had muted. That next day as we all cleaned up our messes,

as men walked down the streets with their chain saws and the streets

were weighed down by plumbing trucks, tree cutting trucks,

 

power trucks, I thought of how proud you’d be that I’m doing this all

by myself. Neighbors who never spoke were sewn together by all this

destruction. Everyone was outside, cleaning twigs, scraping

mounds of debris to the curb. Push it all to the curb they’d say.

 

The lilies you like out front droop now, pounded down and scattered

from the hard rain and I think of how just yesterday they were open,

yellow, tall and just yesterday you were here and then gone so quickly,

just in time to miss this storm.


As I went back to the page, I wanted to examine adding layers of ambiguity and tension in the piece with the line breaks. The short line is something I struggle with mostly because to my ear it sounds so foreign, so truncated. However, the intention of this poem was not fully served by the long lines. In the current draft stage, the poem is operating in shorter lines opening up new possibilities that weren’t in the original draft version. I noticed the words that carried the most weight in regards to the speaker’s experience were given a line all to themselves to live and breathe and the tension and syntax of the piece began to function dramatically different. This was also a great exercise in releasing the exposition that existed in parts of the poem. The shift to a shorter line made those expository (read: unnecessary) moments more apparent at every turn. Here’s the revised version:

Thoughts Upon a Storm Centralized to One Block in One Neighborhood and That Block Happened to be Mine

They did not go
quietly. All the trees
decided on this
one night
to finally give in,
to let the softness
of all their years
break them.
They fell
like a parade
of sound, smashing
cars and roofs,
shattering
windows. It started
mid-night. I woke
to the sound of pelting
against glass,
wondered
what beautiful
man was throwing rocks
at my window,
whose voice
was going to crawl
inside of me,
make my body
split open
like a watermelon
that implodes
with its hissing
and sucking
sounds, the way
it cracks itself
open and
all the juices
drip from
the countertop
onto the floor,
as if
the watermelon
couldn’t stand itself
anymore.
The sky surged
with its light show
and like a fool
I stood
in front
of the three-pane
picture window
waiting
for the gusts
to break through.
Hoping
that kind of force
would find its way
inside
of me. In the dark
storming of night,
I grabbed towels
to fill the gaps
around the door where
water was
finding its way
inside.
The shutter
of wind
rattled wood to
my spine.
Something
was wrong
and it was coming
for me.
All this
destruction and
I couldn’t yet see
the chaos
it was leaving behind.
This was not
the case
with the fence.
I could see it,
from the back
window, collapsed,
whole sections
fallen,
a line of white
plank and suddenly
an infinite black
hole and it made me
think
of my running shoes
and how now,
with this fence
so open,
it would be
a good time to start
running.
Once the clangs
of the night had
muted, I fell
back to sleep,
sleep had waited
so patiently
all night for me.
That next day
as we all cleaned up
our messes, as men
walked down the streets
with their chainsaws
and the streets
were weighed down
by plumbing trucks,
tree cutting trucks, power
trucks, I thought
of how proud
you’d be
that I’m doing this
all by myself.
Neighbors who never
spoke were pushed
together by all this
destruction.
Everyone
was outside,
cleaning twigs, scraping
mounds of debris
to the curb. Push it
all to the curb they’d say.
The lilies
you like out front
droop now, pounded
down
and scattered
from the hard rain.
Just yesterday
they were open,
yellow, tall
and just yesterday
you were here
and then
gone
so quickly, just
in time
to miss this
storm.

This poem is still incubating, but its learning. This is a lesson I continue to learn as a poet and as a human: pushing one’s self to operate in new ways is essential to our own growth, despite how unnatural and ill-fitting the new ways may be, despite how terribly itchy or snug this sweater of change may be. The ways in which we encounter our work need to be fresh and challenging, even if it doesn’t stick. We need constant reminders to return to a process we know well and shake it up, much like we constantly review the proper way to floss at each dental visit. We have been doing it for years; we simply need to be reminded and consider trying it a different way to get different results. (Yes I just compared poetry to flossing). I’ll keep you posted on what this poem morphs into from here.

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Poet Lore

Thanks to Ethelbert Miller & Jody Bolz and Poet Lore for selecting my poem “Harvesting” for publication in the Fall/Winter 2013 issue.


The Next Big Thing

When my new friend Hananah (Banana) Zaheer initially posted information about The Next Big Thing, I thought it might be the blog equivalent to being put on one of those dreaded email chains. When she explained the intention of the project, I realized it aligned quite nicely with my 2013 promise of making goals and actually caring about them for the entire year. I met Hananah in Sicily at the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference this past year, and we became fast friends and admirers of each others work. Her general enthusiasm and spirit for life is enviable, as are her entertaining tales from Dubai.

So what’s it all about? The Next Big Thing works by an author creating a post and answering questions about their work in progress.   They then tag five other authors also working on their projects and pass the baton, so to speak, to those authors so the masses can find out what they are working on, thus exploring The Next Big Thing.

What is your working title of your book?

Chambermaid

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I have no hesitation in stating the obvious. The idea came from my own experiences with a heart illness, as well as a painful divorce. These literal and figurative heart issues had me exploring how we contain ourselves within our own bodies and the relationship we  have with this vessel that carries us around each day.

The title Chambermaid articulates this relationship we have with our bodies and how we cater to the whims of our body’s demands. The fact that a Chambermaid is literally someone who “tidies up” rooms in a larger space seemed more than accurate to me as an overarching issue in these poems. And, the sound quality associated with chambers and the heart’s beat is accurately depicted with this title. Sound is important to me and this manuscript.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

In my early twenties I was diagnosed with a heart condition that required emergency surgery to implant a pacemaker. Life-threatening: no. Debilitating: not so much. In my twenties, I was mostly concerned with how big the scar would be. Vanity prevails in youth. As time passed, I was suddenly interested in how to exist with a foreign object (of which I was now dependent upon) inside of me.  These questions of who we are to our bodies and vice versa became front and center in my psyche. Additionally, around the same time I was dealing with a divorce. The irony of the literal and figurative heart became an issue I wanted to explore. With all this tragedy there’s quite a bit of humor that seeps into the poems (what my therapist at the time told me was a coping mechanism and that I wasn’t actually a funny person). With all of that I began exploring the places and spaces that we inhabit, geographically, spiritually, emotionally and how that affects us in our relationship with our bodies.

There are poems that you write for recovery and these began as that. I didn’t think most readers would care to hear this particular voice. I didn’t think I cared to hear this voice. It took years and a few remarkable poets to tell me to stop being stupid. In almost those exact words.

What genre does your book fall under?

Poetry.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Hmmm. This is a different question for poets. To play the “I” in my manuscript I’d probably choose Reese Witherspoon. She’s southern, classy, and has good hair.  For the Doctor who plays a great supporting role in a lot of these poems, I’d choose Morgan Freeman. He seems like the type that could deliver a diagnosis in a way that doesn’t make you realize he’s telling you something negative. And his voice is haunting, which is fitting. To play the role of the male character, I’d probably choose someone who is unfortunate in a lot of ways.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Ah, the elevator pitch. This is a book of poems exploring the confines of the body and how we deal with the capacity of living at odds with our own bodies. Does that sound smart enough?

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

In a perfect world, I will win a literary prize that results in publication and a well-funded book tour across the vineyards of Italy.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

The first draft of the completed manuscript? At least 4 years.  I have issues with letting go. The manuscript will tell you so.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Oh wow. Questions like this make me feel shy and insecure.  I’d like to say its in the spirit of anything from Linda Gregerson, Cate Marvin, Sylvia Plath littered with moments of Whitman. What’s not littered with moments of Whitman?

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The dry wit. The formal choices. The intricacies of order.

Now, I will pass you along to some great writer friends of mine.

Shelley Puhak: Oh, my dear Shelley. Shelley and I met ages ago when we studied together in Brunnenburg at Ezra Pound’s estate. We shared much wine over picnic tables among the vineyard on the grounds and shared a long flight home together after discovering we didn’t live too far from each other. I remember being struck by her brilliant and creative approach to her writing and thinking to myself, “that’s someone I want to surround myself with.” Smart, good-hearted, funny and someone who no matter what time I inconveniently text or email her for opinions, rants, guidance, feedback, and even friendship she is always responsive and always a Reader for me. She has taken me into her poetic circle, embraced and nurtured me, and for her guidance and more importantly, friendship, I’m forever indebted. Shelley lives in Baltimore, MD where she teaches at Notre Dame of Maryland University. She is the author of Stalin in Aruba, awarded the 2010 Towson Prize for Literature, and the chapbook The Consolation of Fairy Tales, and she is winner of the 2011 Stephen Dunn Prize.

Nicole Tong: I met Nicole years ago in my MFA program at George Mason. Her poetry is smart and beautiful at the same time and she is easily coined as the person in the program that I kept saying to myself, “I wish I wrote that.” She and I spent some great times at Silver Diner cafe workshopping over endless mugs of coffee. She’s not only an amazing writer but a genuinely generous reader of other’s works, a true rarity these days. Nicole currently teaches at Northern Virginia Community College and is working on a series of poems about water. She grew up on the coast and her hometown’s history with water contamination and its subsequent health impacts on the town’s residents are what fuel this current project. Her blog, Given the Already is worth checking out.

Joe Hall: Joe Hall I met in my MFA program at George Mason. His poems are daring and ambitiously smart in ways I really admire. Joe’s first book of poems, Pigafetta Is My Wife, was a finalist for the 2010 Goodreads Book of the Year. Currently he is finishing up the design for his next book “The Devotional Poems,” due out in March from Black Ocean Press. You can follow Joe at The Container Store: Vols. I & II.

Ara Tucker: Ara’s response to my request of her to participate: “you are going to make me a writer yet, aren’t you?”  If I only I had a magic wand to make certain minds good writers. I don’t. She is an “inspired” writer – a writer that I met this past year at Breadloaf in Sicily and we became fast friends. She was immediately someone whom I felt at home with. Ara’s sense of humor and realistically informed perspective on all things we encountered in Sicily became something to admire. Her writing is so full of the kind of truth and heart that I admire in writers, but it’s not forced. It’s quite natural the progression her words take towards whatever issue or experience she is depicting. She has recently launched a blog called The Art Dealer’s Daughter where she weights in on “culture, identity and everything in between.” She is also working on a collection of poems titled “Nappy Routes” and a memoir “The Women I Carry.” Following her blog is a must. I’m lucky enough to get weekly emails of her observations on life and I’m better for it.

Jill Beauchesne: Jill is a lovely little lady I met at George Mason in the MFA program. Her laugh and smile are infectious and her poetry packs a punch. My favorite picture of us is in a shoebox in my office somewhere and it is us in some handmade t-shirts with ironed on letters making a political statement about oil. Jill had a way of making me want to care and be a part of something bigger. Currently she works in Missoula, Montana where she is among the things that make her who she is: nature, landscape, animals, lots of yoga and poetry, etc. Currently, Jill is taking the entire year to keep a list of all the birds she sees in one year. Birds as muse for poetry.

Message for tagged authors:
Rules of the Next Big Thing

***Use this format for your post
***Answer the ten questions about your current WIP (work in progress)
***Tag five other writers/bloggers and add their links so we can hop over and meet them. Be sure to line up your five people in advance.
Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:
What is your working title of your book?
Where did the idea come from for the book?
What genre does your book fall under?
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Include the link of who tagged you and this explanation for the people you have tagged.


Jeffrey Levine

poetry, publishing, and mentoring

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