Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Books Make the Best Friends

A few days ago, I completed the arduous task of packing up my apartment and saying goodbye to the sweet spot I called home for the duration of my three year MFA program. Luckily for me, I've got a kind mother with some storage space so I had a safe place to bring my belongings. It took several trips (and there might still be some of my furniture sitting in front of my house waiting for pick-up), but I got the job done (with lots of help!).

Sadly, the first thing to go were my books. For some reason, I thought this would be the easiest place to start. 

Three years ago, I came to Tampa with a handful of books: Isabelle Allende’s House of Spirits, my favorite collection of James Joyce short stories, the essential Writing Down the Bones, and a few other favorites -- perhaps one shelf worth of books. But about halfway through my time in grad school, I had to run to the store and buy an enormous bookshelf to house my growing collection. Now, many books later, as I pulled dozens of books off the shelves, I relived the memory of acquiring and reading each one. 

Photo Credit

Some of these books were assigned reading for class, and their pages are decorated with multi-colored post-it notes and scribbles in the margins. I loved the discussions we had in class, even when I didn't love the book. With the help of my brilliant professors and classmates, we discussed the writers' choices and their storytelling strategies. In doing so, we were able to learn from their prowess and hopefully soak up some of their genius: Marion Winik’s Glen Rock Book of the Dead, Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, the life-changing Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams - to name just a few.

Other books were collected from conferences and various readings I've attended over the last few years - books of poetry, literary journalism, lyric essays, you name it. These books are in better condition than my school books, and many of them are inscribed with the author's personalized message and signature on the inside cover! I'm grateful to have shared a few words with the force of nature that is Amy Nezhukumatathil, Pulitzer prize winning Gilbert King, Joy freaking Harjo, and the sweet and fiercely tenacious poet, Naomi Shihab Nye. These are the books I can connect to the thrilling feeling of listening to a brilliant writer read and talk about their work in the flesh, and the nervous butterflies that flittered about as I waited in line to have my book signed. 

Lastly, a smattering of books were gifts from classmates and professors, hand-me-downs that were deemed right up my alley or brand spanking new books that they thought I had to have. These, too, I will keep close, because they come from fellow writers who I trust and love!

I had no idea how alone I would feel with empty bookshelves, because I underestimated the companionship that I find in my literary loves. I try my best to travel light, and I doubt that I will be able to bring them all with me on my next journey (a teaching gig in Cartagena, Colombia!) but it has been a glorious privilege to live in a house surrounded by these inspiring, curious, and courageous friends! For now, we must part, but I know that they are safe and that we will meet again someday! The lessons I learned from these stories will stay with me even when the books are far, far away.

My beloved Rumi was an avid book lover, too!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Fired Up and Ready to Go!

Dear friends, I apologize for my absence. The last few months have been a strange time, and while I may have retreated from my duties as The Restless Writer, I have been doing anything but retreating from the world.

The time when the tides switch is called slack tide, and that’s the best way I can describe the way I felt during the weeks following the election. Stuck in limbo. Unable to move in any direction. Catatonic.

Since the strange period of stasis, my confusion has transformed into a furious energy that I have poured into learning more about the American democratic system, our current political situation, and similar situations throughout history. My passion for justice has taken on a renewed fervor, and I am reminded of the person I was back in high school, protesting the Iraq war and coming face to face with police in full riot gear at an anti-FTAA rally. I am reminded of the many people, including dear friends of mine, who have fought for justice in this country and around the world, because to do nothing is to be complicit in the injustice.

After spending time in quiet shock, I am finding my place in the fight. I am refusing to accept the status quo. I am realizing the depth of my love for this country. I am grateful for our strong democratic system that has not failed us until now, and I pray that it will continue to sustain us.

I try not to give into fear. When I feel afraid, I know that is when I must yell louder, march longer, fight harder. We will not give in to fear, and we will not let down the freedom fighters, abolitionists, suffragettes, indigenous peoples, and the many men and women who have paid for our country’s injustices with their lives. We will not go backwards, and we will not release the reins of this country that we love. We will stay steadfast on our path and remain on the right side of history.

Here is what I’ve been up to lately!

I contributed to this zine, Love for Love Hate for Hate: A Glossary of Our Time, created by my friend, the artist Beverly Acha. Please consider supporting this project. 50% of proceeds will be donated to Planned Parenthood.

I marched in and was arrested at a Fight for 15 rally in Tampa where we shut down a McDonald’s.

I joined hundreds of water protectors in peaceful protest at the construction site where they are drilling below the Suwannee River to lay the Sabal Trail pipeline.

I joined 20 thousand women (and men) in peaceful protest in St. Petersburg, FL


I created a poetry chapbook, Offering, and I’m happy to send a copy to anyone who is interested.

*********I became a finalist For Best of 2016 There Will Be Words. You can watch a video of my performance below and PLEASE VOTE HERE!***********

Links to recent articles:

And remember folks! We are Fired up and Ready to go! 

(An animated video of Obama's speech about the chant)

Friday, December 9, 2016

Artists & Crisis

Hello friends, it's been over a month since my last post, and I'm sorry for the radio silence. And yet, it's only been a month, but somehow it feels like I am living in a different world today than I was then.

In the past month, America has elected a truly unqualified and wholly incompetent man to run our country. I am terrified, to say the least.

The last four weeks have been filled with despair, confusion, fear. I know that I am educated, skilled, privileged, and compassionate, and yet, I am finding it hard to figure out the best way to move forward. As a writer, as an artist, as a woman. As an environmentalist, as a potential mother, as an open-hearted person.

There is much work to do, but where to start? There is power in the written word, but right now, the anxiety and rage that I feel make sitting at my desk hard. I want to be out in the streets. I want to rage. I want to pray. I want to demand justice. I want to enact change.

I make phone calls to my representatives, and find myself waiting endlessly for my call to be answered. I sign petitions and donate money. I read articles, educate myself, and share the knowledge with others. I ask my brilliant friends what they are doing, how they are moving forward. I try not to feel helpless.

I ask myself - what place does poetry have in all of this? What role does art play in the revolution?

I am not alone with these questions. Poet Matthew Zapruder writes in his Lithub article, "Poetry and Poets in a Time of Crisis":

This wandering, though, is not a mere luxury or privilege. It has an essential purpose. In Wallace Stevens’s essay “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” he makes the argument that poetry is a place where we can preserve our imaginations, and resist the “pressure of the real,” that is, the incessant drumming in of information, of news, of terrible events and realities. If we do not do so, he argues, we lose something essential to our humanity: our imagination.

The world on November 8th was a vastly different world than the one we woke up to on the 9th. The plans that I had before the 8th no longer seem relevant. This event has shaken a great many people across the country, and the world. It's easy to get overwhelmed by everything, especially when the situation seems to get worse by the minute.

As artists, we are sensitive to the pervading energies that swirl around us. We cannot help this. In fact, our sensitive nature is what makes it possible for us to do the important work of making meaningful art. So be kind to yourself during this dark time. That's what I'm trying to do. As uncomfortable as it is, I am trying to accept the uncertainty. I do not have all the answers. I do not feel like a walking beam of light, full of earnest and eager possibility. I am afraid. I am confused. I feel unmoored, lost. And that's okay. Eventually, I will figure out how to use my energy and skills to make positive change. And you will, too. But for now, take good care.

Friday, November 4, 2016

A Love Letter to the Library

It dawned on me the other day that I’ve gotten spoiled. Being a student at USF means that, not only do I have access to all of the books from any USF campus, but I also have access to any book that is part of larger library consortiums like Interlibrary Loan and UBorrow. So basically, I have access to any book I could desire—for free! And you want to know what’s the icing on the cake? As a graduate student, I can check books out of the library for SIX MONTHS! All of this in exchange for taking a few classes and writing a thesis! Yes, it’s a good deal.

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I come from a long line of library-lovers. When we were little, my mother used to take my sister and me to the library several times a week to read books in the carpeted nooks and check out our favorites to bring home with us—as exciting as taking home the class pet! As I grew older, the library became my refuge, the place I could bike to and not be disturbed by my parents and annoying little sister. I always had a revolving collection of library books on my bookshelf (a habit that persists to this day), never satisfied with only taking out one book at a time.

Side note: Although I am a lover of books, I prefer not to buy any if I don’t have to—unless I’ve read it already and really, really loved it. Book lovers with a bad case of wanderlust, like me, must be conscious of the possessions they acquire, and although I rarely buy books, they somehow seem to propagate on my bookshelves while I sleep!

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In college, I worked in the Frost Library as one of my on-campus student jobs. I can’t express to you how much I loved getting to work, punching in my card, grabbing a rolling cart full of freshly returned books, and taking the elevator down into the bowels of the building where I spent the next few hours in haunting quiet, reading call numbers and shelving books. Sometimes, when I found a book that piqued my interest, I’d take a seat and thumb through it for a few minutes before moving onto the next book in my cart.

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My college library was named for this great American poet
Once, in my sophomore year, we broke into the library in the middle of the night and played an energetic game of capture the flag. I remember running up echoing stairwells and hiding in dusty study carrels as we tried to find our opponents flag and bring it home. I don’t remember who organized it or who won, or even if we got caught, but I do remember it being one of the most thrilling nights of my college experience.

When I travel, I always like to check out the public library. I believe that you can judge a place by their library (which says a lot about places like Miami that continuously cut library hours year after year). On my first day in Australia, I remember going to the main library in Brisbane and being duly impressed by their high tech set-up. I’ve spent time at the gorgeous library in Juneau, Alaska, a beautiful multi-storied building that sits right on the harbor so you can watch the boats pull in from the window. Ever been to the New York Public Library? So freaking majestic.

As a writer, the library is a trusted friend. Like an artist who wanders the aisles of their favorite art store, looking for supplies and inspiration, writers find their tribe amidst the pages of love-worn library books. To me, libraries are also sacred space for reflection and silence—much-needed in our world where silence is endangered. In Miami, when I needed a place to write late at night, I found that the University of Miami law library never closed not did they check IDs. In fact, I have a library card from everywhere I’ve been for longer than a few weeks: Miami, Melbourne (Australia), Amherst, Tampa, Belchertown—and hopefully this list will continue to grow.
A small sampling from my collection of beloved library cards
But it’s not only the writers who flock to the sacred space of the library. Several times a week, my father makes the trip to the iconic Coral Gables Library and bugs the librarian about an obscure book or simply reads a magazine on one of the sofa chairs. The library is a place for anyone and everyone: children, grandparents, students, the homeless, locals, itinerant travelers, and anyone in between. I think it speaks to my love and respect for libraries that anytime I’m with a child, whether a cousin or a babysitting charge, I always always always take them to the library—like my mother did with me and my sister when we were kids.

There is something special about sharing public space, and the library is one of the few places in our society where we can simply be without being consumers or producers. It’s a neutral space, which is probably why many of our polls in this election are at libraries. Libraries are also a community space—something hard to find in our highly individualistic American culture. They are meeting places, places of learning. I’ve had the good fortune of giving several writing workshops at my local library (Writing the Family History, Memoir Writing), as well as attending my fair share of classes throughout the years. In fact, I met a woman who became my dear friend, Adrienne, because we both showed up to an off-the-cuff writing class at the Coconut Grove Library on a Wednesday evening, and we haven’t stopped talking or sharing work since.

Image result for library memes Unfortunately, I fear that I have not been able to take advantage of my privileged library situation as much as I would have liked to during my time at USF. Taking graduate classes means that there is not much time for your own personal reading choices. Rather, I will leave graduate school with a gargantuan list of must-read books and authors that were recommended to me but I haven’t had the chance to read yet. I have started to get seriously concerned about how I will get my library fix once I graduate from USF and no longer have a working student ID and convenient access to millions of libraries across the nation! When I voice my distress to my teacher and my boyfriend, they remind me that lots of places have libraries and I need not worry.

After they calm my fears, I think of the libraries I’ve visited around the world, and my own mini collection of library cards, and I breathe a sigh of relief. This library lover may be losing her privileged grad student status soon, but the world of libraries will continue to provide me with the shelter and inspiration that every writer—and I would argue, every person—needs.

Publication update: I've got a short story at Cuba Counterpoints and a column at BUST online! Thanks so much for your support! :)

Friday, October 14, 2016

In Poetry I Trust

It might not come as a surprise, but I have yet another literary love: poetry. I’m obsessed. It’s all I want to write.
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This semester, I hesitantly enrolled in Jay Hopler’s poetry workshop. I was nervous about signing up because 1) I know nothing about poetry and 2) Jay is a renowned and accomplished poet. In fact, his poetry collection, The Abridged History of Rainfall, was recently nominated for a National Book Award.

Workshop classes are different from a craft class where we learn HOW to do the thing, whether it be nonfiction essay, short stories, or comics. The purpose of workshop is to learn by producing work, sharing it with your peers, and giving feedback. Before we even had our first class meeting, I was expected to write a (decent) poem and send it to my classmates and professor. Yikes!

But I must say that we’re 2 months into the semester and my intimidation has been replaced with elation. I find that all I want to do is write poetry. Forget my novel, my memoir, etc. Poetry is where it's at.

Paul Mundoon on poetry: I’m interested in revelation, in what will be revealed through the poem, through me — not what I have to reveal, but what it has to reveal, if that makes any sense. So I have no revelations at all. I know nothing. I’m not to be trusted on anything. But the poem may know something, and may be trusted, actually, on what it has to express in the world, in my practice. 

My friend, the poet Sarah Duffy, was surprised by my enthusiasm when I gushed to her about my newfound love of poetry. She graduated from my MFA program last year and she’s barely touched poetry since. Hopefully, it won’t be a permanent hiatus-just a necessary recovery period after three tough years of writing boot camp.

I can relate to Sarah’s burnt out feelings towards poetry, except mine are directed towards prose. I’m in my 3rd graduate creative nonfiction seminar and my brain is saturated with so much how-to information, so many experts giving their two cents, so many voices saying what’s right and what’s wrong.

On the other hand, when it comes to poetry, I’m totally green. My relationship to the craft is uncomplicated—but also naïve. I have no idea what’s right or wrong, so I’m just having fun on the page. Also, I’ve never identified as a poet so the stakes are lower. Poetry is not my niche, it’s just a class I’m taking to make my writing stronger overall. In a way, this takes the pressure off and allows me to create freely.

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I’m not sure how long my romance with poetry will last, nor do I know if this kind of naïve love is sustainable. But my new crush has me thinking about my relationship with poetry over time—and it turns out that I’m not really a stranger to it. Sure, when it comes to writing it, I’m a newbie. But in terms of appreciating the form, poetry has been in my life for many years. My Cuban grandfather recited José Martí poems at the dinner table, and my French teachers forced us to memorize poems by Jacques Prévert and recite them to the class on a weekly basis.

These memories make me wonder—why isn’t poetry more of a staple in American culture? In Cuba, my mother spent every Saturday morning in la clase de declamacion where the students learned to recite poems by heart. Poetry recitation is fundamental to European curriculums. But in the States, I don’t remember ever being introduced to poetry until high school.

I was listening to an On Being interview with New Yorker poetry editor Paul Mundoon and he made the point that, in this country, we give children “children” poetry, rather than the big kid stuff.

Image result for paul muldoon“What passes for poetry tends to end up as merely Dr. Seuss. Now, I love Dr. Seuss. I think he’s fabulous. I think he’s fabulous. But if you ask an eight-year-old to write a poem, she’ll come up with the tadpoles. You ask a 15-year-old to write a poem, and it’s sort of sub-sub-sub-Seuss.  But my own view is that children should be — insofar as we have any control over them at all, and of course, as parents, we know we have less and less, as it should be — but in some sense, I think we should be introducing them to Robert Frost, and Lord Byron, and Tennyson, and Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop, and Emily Dickinson, and John Donne. We should be giving them not, quote-unquote, children’s poetry, but poetry.”

So why not give kids the big kid stuff right off the bat? I didn’t understand what all those poems my grandfather recited where all about, but I understood that language was beautiful, and that poetry is a living, breathing thing.

Poetry should be taken out of the dusty books and into our dining rooms and classrooms. It’s meant to be listened to—like music—not read. It’s meant to be shared, like the way our ancestors used to share stories around a fire.

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I was expressing this to my farmer friend and the chair of the Religious Studies department, Dell deChant, and he broke out into beautiful recitations of Yeats and other fantastic poets. He says that poetry was a big part of life in his childhood home, but he also acknowledges that he was on the cusp of the generation that still learned poetry in America.

I’ve gone ahead and printed a few of the poems that my grandfather used to recite with such robust energy, and I’m going to do my best to learn them. My heart already knows them, but I’d like to memorize them so that I can share them with my own grandchildren one day (and with Dell!).

Do you have poetry in your life?

One way you can introduce poetry into your life is by listening to poetry podcasts. Some of my favorites are The New Yorker Poetry podcast, The Poetry Society, Poems Out Loud, much poetry here, and Poetry Spoken Here. I’m sure there are tons more out there.

Feel free to leave me a message telling me what poetry means to you, and how you keep it alive in your life.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

More Structure = More Spontaneity

Hi friends! The semester is well underway and I've been buried beneath my novel and my memoir (I'm writing a memoir?!) and all the other things that take over a graduate student's life.

In the meantime, my nonfiction class has been reading and learning about John McPhee, the grandfather of nonfiction--and let me tell you, he knows his stuff!

McPhee breaks down his writing process in this New Yorker article and in this Paris Review interview and the main thing that comes across is his love for STRUCTURE. According to him, "Structure is not a template. It’s something that arises organically from the material once you have it."

In the article, he writes about the computer software (that was essentially designed FOR him) that he uses to organize his notes into sections. Then, once he has those separate sections, he can sit down at his desk and focus on JUST THAT SECTION rather than getting bogged down with an onslaught of information and data.

"Structure liberates you to write," he says in the interview. "You get away from the mechanics through this mechanical means. The spontaneity comes in the writing, the phraseology, the telling of the story—after you’ve put all this stuff aside."

Meanwhile, I was swimming in the second draft of my novel, and I could barely see what way was up or down. It was while lamenting about this to my fellow writers at an SCBWI meeting that one of them mentioned Scrivener.

"It's a lifesaver," she said. "It'll totally help you get organized."

I had heard about this writing software from another friend, and I'd even tried my hand once, but it had been a while since I'd used it. I decided to give it another try.

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As you can see from these pictures, Scrivener has all kinds of great tools that help writers visualize their story (many of which I haven't even figured out yet!) This helps writers understand the structure of the whole thing, and also allows us to hone in on one particular section/chapter/scene--very helpful when you're 30k words in!

Thanks to Scrivener, I just finished the second draft of my novel and sent it to my advisor today! 152 pages and 42,600 words! Whoo!

I've even found Scrivener to be helpful in writing smaller pieces, like a lyric essay or a short story.

The moral of the story is that STRUCTURE=FOCUS=FREEDOM. Writing and stories come from a place of deep inspiration, but eventually we've got to sit down and wrangle the beast. Tools like Scrivener help us do that dirty work!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Horseback Writing: A Writer and Her Muse

Normally, college students move into a dorm with their laptop and a few bags of clothes. But not Karissa Womack. She moved to college with her horse, an Appaloosa named Willow. Karissa got Willow when she was just 13 years old, and the pair grew up together, riding out into the woods on adventures and even competing in hunter jumper shows. When Willow suffered a hoof injury, Karissa had to give up on competing. But she did not give up on Willow.

Now Willow is 18 years old and Karissa is a graduate student studying creative writing at the University of South Florida. Karissa continues to fight for Willow every day. While most graduate students spend their weekends relaxing by the pool or throwing back beers at the bar, Karissa spends any extra time she has at the barn with Willow, mucking her stall and taking care of her sensitive hooves. They still enjoy walks together in the nearby nature preserves.

Karissa and I lived together during our first year of graduate school. When I first went to the barn with her, I peered into Willow’s stall and saw all of her equipment—saddles, medicine, etc. That's when I realized how much time and money keeping Willow costs Karissa. I realized all of the sacrifices that my friend has to make in order to upkeep a pet as energy intensive as a horse. I can leave for the weekend anytime I want and leave extra food for the cat, but Karissa can’t leave town without making sure that someone’s going to take good care of Willow. She doesn't just worry about paying her own rent and groceries. She’s also got to pay Willow’s board, her feed, and her medications, not to mention general horse maintenance such as farrier bills and supplements. This is a lot more financial responsibility than most 25 year olds have to handle! But Karissa does it without complaint. She loves nothing more than driving out to the barn early Saturday morning and spending the day with her best friend, giving her the best treatment possible and going for long rides through the woods.

Recently, Willow suffered a life-threating colic--a major gastrointestinal condition--that nearly killed her. Luckily, she was able to get to the Equine Medical Center of Ocala right away where vets tended to her immediately and essentially saved her life. 

While Karissa is beyond grateful that the surgery was successful, she is now saddled with over $10,000 in debt. Her credit cards are maxed out and she’s taken out a care credit card to help with the costs, but she is still looking for donations through her GoFundMe page. Any amount helps!

Meanwhile, both Karissa and Willow look forward to the day when Willow will be back home in her barn, happy and healthy enough to go on long rides through the grassy paddocks, like the two of them used to do.