10
Jul 14

The Next Big Thing: Poems on Climate Change

Thank you to poet Ti Kendrick Hall for tagging me in the Next Big Thing! I realize now as I’m writing this that I was tagged once before, a year ago, but at that time I wrote about the story behind founding the Red Sofa Salon & Poetry Workshop. This time I could probably talk forever about my current poetry book project, and I’m excited to share!

welcome-home

Welcome Home, by Vaughn Bell, photo courtesy of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education

1) What are you working on?

The short answer is that I am working on a book of poems that addresses climate change. The poems respond to recent news reports, speak in the voice of the Inuit goddess Sedna, imagine how humans might evolve to respond climate change, sound out a cry of grief and anger, and even occasionally engage in satire as a way of processing the psychological effects of knowledge of climate change. It’s a large, ambitious obsession of a project. It’s the first time I’ve ever written poems that actually have an identifiable theme.

2) How does your work differ from others’ in the same genre?

Since starting this project I became aware of the existence of the “ecopoetry” sub-genre. I started reading as much as I could find that fell into that category, and discovered amazing books, like Redstart: An Ecological Poetics, by Forrest Gander, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille Dungy, and Eco Language Reader, edited by Brenda Ijima, among many others. Much work that is considered “ecopoetry” is experimental in style and form. I was inspired to experiment formally in a few poems, but I know that much of the poems in the manuscript are fairly straightforward in terms of their shape and style. So my poems differ from other forms of ecopoetry in that they are not incredibly formally inventive. However, the use of Inuit mythology in this manuscript, specifically the story of Sedna the Arctic sea goddess, is different than other poetry I’ve come across. Sedna has taken on a life of her own in these poems, showing up all over the world, like a superhero, taking revenge on us humans for our folly in destroying the planet. I’m proud of that and excited to see where she will lead me next.

3) Why do you write what you do?

Hurricane Sandy broke open this well of poems for me. At the time I didn’t realize that’s what was happening, but as months passed after the hurricane, I realized my poems were taking on a strange and anxious tenor. It was also the first time in a long time that I was really writing a lot of poems and feeling motivated in my writing. I’ve always cared about the environment, but for some reason it was only after Hurricane Sandy (perhaps because it was so close to home, here in Philly and my hometown Queens, New York) that I really felt terrified about the imminence of climate change.

4) How does your process work?

It’s very interesting to me to be writing into a book of a poems that has a clear theme, as I’ve never done this before. Having a theme is quite helpful, because even when I’m stuck I have material to fall back on in which to go deeper. I’ve been collecting lots of sources for reading––books, articles, etc.––to educate myself about climate change. I scan news articles, follow climate change news on Twitter, and I look for stories that pique my interest. I’ve been reading all kinds of indigenous mythology and have been weaving that into the poetry. My goal as I continue is to push myself in terms of how poetic form can lead me to deeper psychological investigations of the topic and to more profound explorations of my own and our society’s fear of what is happening right now to our planet.

If you’d like to stay in touch and get updates on my most recent publications, readings, and Red Sofa workshop and reading series announcements, please subscribe to my e-newsletter.

Passing along the torch to the next few “Next Big Things”… Look out for Yasmin Belkhyr next week!

Yasmin Belkhyr is a writer in NYC. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in PANK, Word Riot, the Adroit Journal and SOFTBLOW. She is also the Founder/Editor-in-Chief of Winter Tangerine Review. She will soon move to South Africa and write poems about honeydew and heat. You can see more of her work at yasminbelkhyr.com and her blog is wildflowerveins.tumblr.com.

 


16
Mar 14

In the Middle of It: Notes from Vermont

IMG_4100I’m on the other side of the Ides of March, post-Purim (the holiday of reversals), and inhabiting another side of myself. I am two weeks into my first writing residency, with two weeks to go. The first week here at the Vermont Studio Center was long and deep. I started writing immediately on the first day (even at the airport on the way from Philadelphia), and kept up a good pace for the first few days. The experience has been a big adjustment, an inversion of my everyday life at home, where there’s always something else to do other than focus on my poetry. Here poetry comes first, and that’s thrilling and frightening.

I enter my writing studio after breakfast and I expect to just walk straight into the deepest parts of myself. Eileen Myles was a visiting writer here the first week and talked about the writing process as similar to when a dog circles and circles trying to find the perfect position in which to get comfortable. That’s how I feel when I walk into the studio. I pace, move books around, fill my water bottle. Finally I sit down in the velvet green armchair by the window overlooking the frozen lake. I stare out the window and start to feel my mind move. Sometimes I fall asleep. Sometimes I pick up a book and read and a sentence injects itself in me and I grab my journal and start a new poem. I get up for lunch. I return. I go to yoga or to chop vegetables for my kitchen duty. I eat dinner, return to the studio at night.

I have moments where I’m worried I haven’t written enough each day––that old capitalist impulse toward mass production. But artistic production is much wider and deeper; poems don’t take shape on an assembly line. They inhabit the moments in between the actual writing of poems. It’s true that you have to show up for the muse. You have to treat the process as primary, as the first thing you’re responsible for. So that even when you’re not writing, the poems brew. You learn to be gentle with them. You learn to be okay with just sitting there for a while. The longer you do it the more normal it feels, and like animals, the poems begin to feel more comfortable emerging from the underground.

It’s kind of painful at first to transition to this way of working––you’re afraid you won’t make anything good, that you’re wasting time. You want to go home, be with your partner, go to a party, watch a movie. But the poems are spirit animals walking alongside you, sometimes going off on their own, but always returning. You have to feed them. You have to make it your full-time job.


29
Oct 13

How to Ask for Money as a Poet: A Drama in Ten Parts

1. Start by actually writing poems. Find that you’re sneaking in writing time wherever you can get it to fit.

2. Realize you have a book inside you.

3. Get really excited you have a book inside you.

This is what excited looks like.

This is what excited looks like.

4. Apply for artist residencies so that you can have the uninterrupted time and space you need to get that book out.

5. Get accepted to said residencies (if you’re lucky).

6. Realize you need money to help fund residencies.

7. Get nervous. Consider not going to residencies if you can’t afford it. 🙁

8. Tell friends why you’re nervous. Listen as they encourage you to ask for money. Furrow brow. Frown. Smirk. Make awkward face.

This is one version of awkward face.

This is one version of awkward face.

9. Fret for a few months about the prospects of asking for money.

10. Realize this project means more to you than any other before. ASK FOR THE DAMN MONEY.

P.S. Thanks in advance. 🙂


02
Sep 13

(Re)Introduction: Blogging My Beautiful Mess

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Rainy Labor Day, Philadelphia

I’m sitting here in my home office on a rainy Labor Day in Philadelphia, my fat cat splayed across the desk as I type my way into meaning. I’m finding my way back into blogging after a few starts and stops. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with blogging, and I blame it on Montaigne. If you’ve never had the pleasure of being introduced to Montaigne’s essays, please stop reading this blog immediately and go read them.

I remember attending an AWP panel a few years ago about essay writing and the Internet and how Montaigne might be described as the first blogger (or proto-blogger). I love that idea, but I’m hard-pressed to find a contemporary Montaigne in the blogosphere (though if you know of one, link away!). It was holding myself up to that standard that made me feel I couldn’t blog. Montaigne’s essays are fresh, beautiful, insightful meanderings of the mind. His topics are at times mundane, quirky, and profound. He allowed himself to follow trains of thought without worrying about where they would lead.

If you read advice about blogging, you’re often told to find a niche. What if someone had told that to Montaigne? He definitely did not have a niche. He wrote about very random stuff, but it wasn’t the stuff itself that was interesting but the way he allowed his mind to wander across the page. Nevertheless, I came back to the idea of blogging because I actually do have somewhat of a niche, or at least a clear topic.

I am going to blog about my writing process. This is something I’ve resisted for some time. As an editor, I tend to be overly critical of my own work. The idea of revealing the messier parts of my work and myself is scary. I fret over my poems, and I wouldn’t dare keep a 30/30 blog in April (30 poems in 30 days) and show the world my horrible first drafts (though now that I’ve said so, maybe it will be an interesting challenge). But at the same time, there’s something valuable in allowing oneself to get closer to the mess. Writing can be scary, difficult, intimidating. I’m often paralyzed by my own fears of not writing a really great poem so much so that I won’t write for a while (though one book has helped me immensely with embracing this fear: Writing from the Inside Out).

So here’s what I’m doing. I’m working on a book of poems that respond to climate change. It’s weird to say it out loud. Saying it out loud means I’m beholden to it, and I’m telling the world it matters. It does matter. It’s just taken me some time to get used to the fact that I really have something to say. I’m going to blog about this project to keep myself on track and to examine aspects of the writing process, to see what I learn along the way, and what might be useful to others.

As I listen to the rain coming down here in Philadelphia, the awkward rhythm of drops tapping on the roof, I’m thinking about nature as both chaotic and patterned, like the mind. I’m reminding myself that I, too, am a beautiful mess, full of thunder, splashing this way and that. And I’m going to put that beautiful mess on the page and see what comes.