Shoes and Books

There are only two things in this world that get more than their allotted amount of attention from me: shoes and books.

Quite often, I am compelled (usually at inopportune moments) to have the ritual of reorganizing and having private little conversations with each shoe or book as I help them find their proper place. The books have been arranged by color, by subject or theme, by author’s last name alphabetically, and even once I took on the laborious task of trying to create a poem by using the titles of poetry books as lines in said poem. It made for a fun project but it took weeks to finalize and once I pulled a book from its spot, it seemed to lose its luster quite quickly.  The shoes have been arranged by color, heel height, season, event and by designer’s last name alphabetically. You get the point. photo-24

It’s more than reorganizing. It’s a bit of a ritual this dance I do every other month where I take them all out, make a mess of them on the floor (this of course applies to both books and shoes), let them breath with no rhyme or reason. Then I take a soft cloth and together we move around the edges, in the folds, wiping dust or debris, polishing these little gems. There is a lot of quiet time involved. Silent conversation becomes quite an intimate process. With the shoes I’m thinking of where they were last wore and with whom. The places they took me and how comfortably I got there. Whether they are “sitting” or “standing” or “stomping” kinds of shoes.

photo-23Today however, it was books. Today’s discovery: I have a lot of books I’ve not given enough time to. For some of them I’ve reread  upwards of a dozen times, and I still feel as if I’ve not given them enough time. As the books are wiped clean, today I’m alphabetizing which I’m sure says something about how my life is craving order right now.  Today, I’m thinking that if all else were lost, these books would make me whole again. I toss them around cars and rooms and bags and scribble in the margins and really interact in a way that is authentic and true to what I need from said books. And at the end of the day, it’s a quite revisiting that happens, similar to flipping through old photos of lovers who for a moment  in time had a piece of you. Had ownership of a quiet moment that even the best wordsmith can’t capture.

Shoes and books. They get my attention. They get my care.

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Nostalgia (or lack thereof)

Recently, my friend Ara Tucker over at The Art Dealer’s Daughter posted about nostalgia which is quite the coincidence seeing as how a recent project had me quite nostalgic. Or at least, the project had me attempting to be nostalgic.

Hey, it's better than another sweater.

Hey, it’s better than another sweater.

It wasn’t until the last few weeks when I began working on a sentimental craft project for my brother’s 40th birthday that I began riffling through old memories, stories, photo books, letters trying to muster up some good ole’ memories.

Let me explain for those of you that don’t already know how this will end. It will end badly. I will have high hopes. I will have no patience or crafty talent for that matter. I will remain completely unaware of my half-assed attempt at perfection. Not to mention that said recipient’s birthday was February 4th, so at this point I’m well on my way to being a month tardy. Luckily, he grew up with me. His hopes are adjusted accordingly.

As I sifted through memories, only a half dozen came to mind. Then as I went through my memory bank, I found that it had become quite depleted. And not in reference to my brother of course, but generally speaking.

In that moment, I was feeling guilty for not being able to recall much of my childhood. I don’t think that has any reflection on the quality of it as much as my inability to savor on the chewy goodness of it all. I make memories. I’m in them completely. I’m lucky if I snap a picture or two. Then they either stick or they don’t. Simple as that.

I suppose I’ve always been bad at memory making. I’m not sure I understand at the time the fullness of events that are memory-worthy. I simply have snippets of things floating around in my memory bank. I become nostalgic, not because I am longing for the past and what it had meant to me but because I was longing to simply remember the past, all of it. My memory bank is depleted. Perhaps it’s because I’ve stockpiled my word bank.


Fashion & Poetry

An unlikely pairing to some, fashion and poetry are top of mind as New York Fashion Week has recently concluded. There’s not a lot of obvious poetic quality to such an occasion, and yet there is.

Bumble and bumble fashion week teams have just finished working their creative magic on over 50 shows and perhaps the anticipation of such a time has me thinking “outside of the box.”

During one of my brief stints in slumber one night last week, I dreamt of a NYFW show where Bumble stylists worked their magic on hair utilizing different word themes. A few examples:

  • Confessional poetry: looks with bold structures and endless, inflated mass.
  • Avant Garde poetry: looks with dual texture: smooth and sleek versus dry and textured.
  • Acrostic poetry: looks represented with one letter in their editorial savvy.

It’s not a partnership of easy proportions. In fact there are some characteristics of each that are in quiet opposition to one another, but there are similarities. And what if poetry was put in the hands of those who still think its about mushy love notes and rhyme patterns. What if, you could – in the name of art and creativity – create a whole new audience for poetry in a way that is “fashionable”?


Poetic Influence: Where Are All the Readers?

Weeks ago, NPR reported that they found some long lost poems of Robert Frost right around the time of the 50-year mark of his death.  I immediately thought of an interview the College newspaper printed about me my sophomore year at Morehead State University. The title of the article: “Poet-cheerleader says writing makes her relax.” I found the article in a shoebox cleaning out my closet last week and cringed as I read my comments. I was naive and engaged in way too much posturing. The interviewer asked what my poetic influences were, and I said I read a lot of Robert Frost.

That was a lie. I said Robert Frost because of a book of poems my father gave me for Christmas one year. I never read the book. I said I read Frost and that he was an influence to me. Probably in an attempt to sound smart or influenced. This leads me to a common problem within the literary landscape.

Where are all the readers?

I ask this question knowing I have committed the sin of writing without reading in my earlier years as a writer, but seeing as how I’ve had some brilliant minds and good guidance over the last decade, I can say that I know see the intrinsic link between being a writer and being a reader. But do the masses?

With just over 100 full-residency and low-residency MFA programs in the country, the space for creative development is expanding far more quicker than the audience of poetry readers is expanding. In fact, some would argue the readership is diminishing if anything.

I had a student approach me after class the other day and announce, “I want to be a writer.” My first response: “Who are you reading?”  His response was similar to the response I get from my beloved dog when I ask him a question: tilt of the head, furrowed brow, expression of “huh?”.  I told him to read religiously – as often and as a much as he could. To read that which is appealing and that which is not. To discover what the landscape is and how his voice will play a role. He seemed discouraged. So I tacked on to the end of my speech, ” and keep writing.” His smile returned.

I was asked months ago “What do you want to do with your literary career?” Ethelbert Miller started an obsession that has had me tinkering with various thoughts and plans since that meeting. I believe part of it is to assist in curing the problem above. Reinvigorate the readership. And merge fashion with poetry (hang in there for more on this one).


Intersections & Insomnia

I’ve been lying awake at night for weeks now. Mostly churning over the happenings of the day, dwelling over the happenings of tomorrow and wondering how I’ll fit in all of my nifty little resolutions I’ve got listed under the bright blue title of January.

Lately, I lie there, mostly on my back, hands crossed calmly over my mid-section staring at the new chandelier. In my defense, it’s quite beautiful and quite distracting.

Fancy Distraction

Fancy Distraction

During these mind-numbing moments of insomnia, I’m not struck with brilliant ideas regarding the writing or my next manuscript idea. Instead, I’m finally tackling the intersecting segments of my life. For years I’ve kept them in distinct little silos, careful not to let them influence each other. Much like my plate of food at holiday parties. Nothing can touch anything else. In fact, as a child I’d get an extra napkin so if the corn started moving into the mashed potatoes, I could simply dab up the juice and keep them separate once again. I should’ve known then what this would do to my life.

I’ve been thinking about my extroverted daily interactions where personality and boisterous energy prevail, where hair and the efficacy of silk powder proteins and the description of the hair shaft and root direction are part of my daily vocabulary. Then I come home and try to turn off my hair brain and turn on my word brain. The transition is always sticky, messy, and usually not too successful.  So in my late night wanderings I thought to myself – why haven’t I tried to write about that which seems to consume my days. Hair Poems. Some friends and poets have been urging this since last fall, but I’ve been resistant. Now I’m going with the notion of stop resisting that which is natural. Hair Poems have begun. Stay tuned.


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.


Why Now?

Why make goals/resolutions/focal points (whatever you want to title them) for the new year? I’ve never done it in 35 years and I’m moderately okay. I think I’ve said I was going to stop biting my nails most of my life or “be a better person” (whatever that means). Mostly my resolutions revolve around vague concepts that are so expansive I know I won’t even remember them by February. This year, I came back from my Christmas excursions ready and focused on doing something. Something different.

It started with a few vague goals: watch an indie film for every mainstream film, read more, write more, maintain work/life balance. Then I bucked my own New Year’s tradition and sat down for a few hours and flushed out my life into categories, which I then broke down into priorities and strengths and weaknesses ( I realize the ridicule that will ensue after this confession ). I was still unmotivated to actually change. I flushed out each category recognizing opportunity and tying each goal to a personal trait that I wanted to work on. Then I broke it down in a bulleted list by month. January looks something like this:

  • stop biting nails (check)
  • publish blog (check)
  • read Mary Karr’s “The Liar’s Club” (partial check)
  • attend a poetry reading (check)
  • find your “me time” spot (check, bless you Teaism)
  • get a library card (check)
  • submit to Breadloaf again (partial check)
  • conceptualize my literary career (partial check)

And hence, my intensity that my poor friend Elizabeth has had to endure everyday on phone calls since 1/1/13. I realize we are only 24 days in, but I envision a year of progress, a year of change. I’m somewhat destined for complacency and if I’m not careful it will become entirely too comfortable like my 2002 Steve Madden boots that have a hole in the sole that I refuse to get rid of. Perhaps in February I can work on replacing those. So here’s to a year of progress and making things happen instead of merely awaiting their arrival.


Jeffrey Levine

poetry, publishing, and mentoring

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