The Volta

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“The poem is a ritual space for the practice of feeling.”  -Gregory Pardlo

I’m less than a year away from finishing my MFA and recently chose my thesis advisor. David Payne is a poet, fiction writer, and memoirist. His most recent book, Barefoot to Avalon, is a memoir about his brother. He discusses it here.

After David read the sample I sent him, he asked me to think about “where the status quo is broken”. And I have. For most of the summer and now into the fall. And I’m still not exactly sure. Then I was assigned the poet Gregory Pardlo’s memoir, Air Traffic for one of my other classes.

For Pardlo, the tipping point, or fulcrum, is the point in the poem where something in it shifts. It could be a plot twist. It could be a change in tone. It may be a point midway or more toward the end, and Pardlo calls it the volta, or “moment of transformation”.

He says there may be many patterns in a poem, but THE VOLTA IS SPECIAL. The volta marks a moment when the poem breaks its deepest and most characteristic habit. He says if there is no volta, no tipping point, the poem is “a laundry list of selections and anecdotes…a litany of relapses…the barren passage of time unthwarted.”

Maybe one day I will find my volta.

Kim of Queens

I’ll admit it: I do have a secret obsession with the child pageant reality show Kim of Queens.
Canceled after only two seasons, Kim of Queens follows the former Miss Georgia winner turned pageant coach Kim Gravel (pronounced, “Gra-Vell”) as she readies her kiddie clients, ages 9-16, for a shot at big-time pageant stages, such as Miss Georgia and Miss America. Each week her “pageant pros”, as she calls them, are accompanied by their mothers, whose personalities range from overbearingly encouraging to disturbingly narcissistic. After watching every episode if this series three times in a row (the final episode aired back in 2014), I have come to the conclusion that it is the mother’s heavy-handed coaching/overbearing nature that I’m the most fascinated with. Or maybe it’s watching the kids conquer a fear and coming out of it feeling braver and more confident. Or maybe I just like watching them shop for fancy dresses.

Every morning before work I watch one hour-long, DVR-ed episode while draining two cups of microwaved coffee. This is how I start my day.  I told a friend of mine that I watch Kim of Queens as a way to bore myself into productivity, but I don’t believe that’s the reason. I don’t know why I watch this show.

What shows are you secretly obsessed with? Has anyone watched Kim of Queens? What are your thoughts on the mothers and why it was canceled? (I have my own ideas, which I’ll save for another post.)

Research Trip: Nutley, New Jersey

I was in Nutley, New Jersey to explore a corner of someone’s life. A dimmed corner of a life and a time I’d only heard stories about. I was in Nutley to seek evidence that the stories were true. I was expecting to find nothing of value. I was expecting to be turned away. I figured at the very least I’d have a good cup of coffee and some exercise.

Nutley at first, with its beautiful parks, nice little library, and local sub shop, felt like any other quaint little town I’d visited. But then it felt like more. The more I explored, the more comfortable and relaxed I got. Nutley was different. Friendlier. And it wasn’t just the strangers who walked past me and said hello. When I asked the owner of the sub shop for bus directions back to the Port Authority, he went out of his way to write them out for me. When I realized I forgot my ID at the library after spending the better part of an afternoon searching through old yearbooks, the reference librarian recognized me as soon as I walked in and said, “I was looking for you!” as if we were old friends and not just two strangers who’d just met earlier that day and barely exchanged ten words apiece.

Within that town’s library I found a little physical proof, but the real value for me was walking the same trails and sidewalks I knew she must’ve walked fifty years ago. I found her in the calm water, in the weeping willow tree, I saw her riding her bike up and down the trails and eating an Italian sub with oil and vinegar, salt and pepper. In Nutley I finally found her.

Meditations on New York (When To Call Yourself A New Yorker)

kids on subway

You’re a New Yorker when you feel like one, no matter how long you’ve been here. It’ll happen one day. You’ll visit City Island or walk the Brooklyn Heights promenade for the first time or buy churros from the woman with the cart on the subway platform or see something crazy like a man with a pet rat on his shoulder or a tow truck towing another tow truck and you’ll think, “Wow. Okay. I’ve been christened. Now I’m officially a New Yorker.”

Andre Wagner, Photographer

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From his site: “Wagner’s photography explores the poetic and lyrical nuances of daily life and everyday people. He develops black and white negatives and makes silver gelatin prints in his personal darkroom.” Photo from @photodre 

I’ve been following Brooklyn photographer Andre Wagner on Instagram for a while now. I don’t remember how I found him, but I think his photos are spectacular. Much of what he posts are high contrast, black and white photos he’s taken of humans being human. When I describe his photos to friends, I call it street photography, but to me, the photos are so much more than that. When I look at his photographs, I feel a connection to each one of his subjects. He has a book, too.

Library Post: Where I Write

photo of library courtesy of Incubator

Thanks to an incredibly generous friend, I’m lucky enough to have found a day job in NYC that supports my writing life. I work at Rockefeller University 3 days a week as an administrative assistant in a lab full of some of the sweetest and brightest people I’ve ever met. If you live, commute, and work in any big city, you know how difficult it can be sometimes to find a quiet place to work. A lot of people I know go to cafes, which is great if you have headphones and the baristas don’t mind. I actually used to pay for a membership at one of those studio spaces just to have a quiet, dependable place to go after work and get some words down on the page. Now I have access to the Rita & Frits Markus Library.

Where do you write?

If you live in NYC, don’t want to spend money on a space, but are looking for a place to work, here are some of my other go-to spots, all FREE:

NYPL – Schwarzman Branch: This is the fancy library with the lions out front next to Bryant Park. Gorgeous and inspirational space, quiet, open until 8pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Ace Hotel: Free wifi, open 24 hours, long tables with plenty of outlets, can order food and drinks when you’re there, but no worries if you don’t – they won’t bother you. A bit noisy so bring your headphones.

The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen: requires a membership, but the cost is a nominal $50 a year and you practically have the entire place to yourself. To me, this spot feels like a hidden secret. Open on weekdays: Monday-Thursday until 6pm and Fridays until 5pm.

NYPL – Science and Business Branch: Open on Saturdays. Open most weekdays until 8pm. When I worked at my previous company, I loved that this spot was so close I could just pop in right after work.

The Highline Hotel: I have a thing for working in beautiful spaces, and this space definitely falls into that category. I’ve written in a little side nook off to the side of the main lobby bar.

Poets House: Once she saw this post, my dear friend Ann suggested adding their library and reading room to the list. She’s a classy lady so I’m inclined to trust her judgment. Hours are Tuesday-Friday, 11am-7pm and Saturday 11am-6pm.

Revising That Living and Breathing Thing

I follow this cool poet on twitter, @monetwithlove. She’s always tweeting out these self-deprecatory things or little supportive, writerly-type tips. The other day, she sent out a survey asking writers which is harder: revisions or beginning something new. I’ve always found revisions to be harder… maybe because often I’m not completely comfortable with how to approach a new piece that doesn’t know what it wants to be yet. Is it crazy that I see each piece as a living and breathing thing with its own identity? That I don’t want to poke it too hard for fear I’ll injure it somehow? I have a classmate who’s focusing on the topic of revisions for her craft presentation and I think that’s an excellent idea. I’ll share notes from her lecture here when I have them. In the meantime, here are some images of ways I attempt to stumble through my own revision process.

At the Slice Literary Conference, September 2018

I was honored to be awarded a scholarship to this year’s Slice. I’ve attended writing conferences before, but this 2-day event was a first for me. As an introvert, I forget how hard they are: the meeting and the small-talk and the attempt to discuss my work in a way that sounds halfway coherent.

I approached a stranger after a panel about writers igniting change – a female Somali-born writer who now lives in Seattle – and failed at an attempt to verbalize my ideas and connect with her. I made me feel discouraged. It made me not want to go back for the second day. But I also didn’t want to quit. I remembered how inspired I felt after Alexander Chee’s and Porochista Khakpour’s joint keynote. Alexander Chee said his novel, Queen of the Night, took 15 years to finish. He said, “I had this habit of erasing my accomplishments”.

I realized sometimes it’s just about changing my mindset and just making it about the journey. I try to keep an updated list of my accomplishments for the days when I feel exhausted; when nothing I do or say (or write) ever seems good enough. It comes in handy.