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Vandana Khanna
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This weekend is the beginning of an array of “holiday” festivities awaiting me—houses humming with sweater-adorned bodies sipping equally adorned cocktails. Everything smells vaguely of pine, cinnamon and candle wax. The food and conversation is bite-sized: light, airy morsels of vacation plans and movies, shopping and relatives, directions on how to baste something. Inevitably, talk turns to careers, professions, and jobs. And that’s when the awkward pause happens. Whenever my husband introduces me as a “poet”, I can see the confused scrunch forming on foreheads, the nervous laugh bubbling up or the uncertain head nod like he’s suddenly speaking a foreign language. Here in LA people are familiar with screenwriters and novelists. Actors, producers, even Oscar-nominated sound engineers are not out of the ordinary at gatherings. But poets? My party cohorts don’t know what to do with that information. Perhaps they have a hazy recollection of a bushy-bearded Walt Whitman or a tightly-buttoned up Emily Dickinson from their high school English class. Some might have even indulged in a few angst-ridden lines of rhyme in their teenage years. But they don’t know what to make of it when they meet a person who calls herself a "poet" standing in front of them. They don’t even know what questions to ask about being a poet and I totally get it. There’s something about poetry that makes people’s palms sweat. It makes them anxious like I’m going to force them to recite a Shakespeare sonnet in front of everyone. For most people, poetry is other-worldly and distant. Most of what we know of poets and poetry comes from either English classes or Hollywood movies, and neither version really helps to bridge the gap to real life. The examples are painted as either reclusive and awkward or glamorous and troubled. I suppose on any given day I could be one of those things—but most of the time, it seems like too much energy to try. Being a poet today living in America doesn’t much feel like those movie depictions, although who can resist a tormented Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath or Willem Dafoe as T.S. Eliot? Most poets today have been writing for years on their lunch breaks and on Friday nights, at kitchen tables and cafes and bars. We are workers just like everyone else. We watch Jon Stewart like the rest of the world. We carpool and occasionally, if forced, jog. We will smile if provoked and almost never wear black turtlenecks. Mostly, our minds are never quiet, even while driving our cars and washing the dishes, we are writing and revising lines in our heads. We write where we can, when we can, on cocktail napkins and grocery lists, because we are haunted—by words, by trying to find just the right way to fit it all together. The poets I know write as much as they can in between being parents and caretakers, while holding down jobs and paying their bills. We do live in the real world, at least... Continue reading
Posted Dec 20, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Type in the word rejection into any search engine and you’ll probably get the images of writers and actors. Yes, it took me exactly three days of blogging to bring up rejection. I’m a poet, what did you expect? Just as my students don’t believe that writing can be a lonely profession, they often don’t believe in rejection. Apparently, when you are standing up in front of a classroom “teaching” you’ve gotten there, at least in their eyes, unscathed—you’ve never heard the word “no”, everything you’ve written has floated from your “send” button onto a printed page in some magazine (that everyone reads). I don’t like receiving rejections but they do humanize, everyone has been there. I have been rejected by magazines, journals, and contests many times this year (and I still have a chance of a few more before the New Year). Once I got rejected within 24 hours of submitting my work (ouch). I think successes are not always as memorable as the disappointments. My optimistic friends don’t believe this—but for me, it’s true. I remember being a finalist for a book contest—it was me and two other folks whittled down from a couple hundred manuscripts. I didn’t win—and this wasn’t the first time. My friends who are actors remember losing every job that they really wanted, even years later. There are some things the mind refuses to let go of. I’ve heard these mythic stories about Sylvia Plath, Gertrude Stein and E.E. Cummings being rejected. How they eventually published their own work or stuck to it long enough for someone to recognize their brilliance. I'm not sure this knowledge is going to make me feel better. I’m never going to write like Sylvia Plath or E.E. Cummings so these stories meant to soothe me don't always work. What does make me feel better is my 24-hour sulk. Whenever my friends or I get a rejection for a job or a publication that we really wanted, we’re allowed to sulk. We are allowed to be glum, to wear pants with an elastic waistband, to watch as much reality TV as we want (without judgment), to eat potato chips for breakfast if that is our choice. We get 24 hours to be listless and apathetic and discouraged. But then, we have to get back to work—we have to write or audition or teach or do something that propels us forward. When I tell my students I have a folder full of rejection slips I’ve saved over the years they look worried like at some point I’m going to need a hug. But I’m not. I don’t need hugs but I do need my rejections because they’ve taught me my own brand of resilience. They’ve taught me to get up and keep getting up—every day, every week. To push aside the potato chips and head to the laptop. I’ve learned the obvious— that not everyone is going to like what I’ve put out into the world, but that’s okay as... Continue reading
Posted Dec 19, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
This fall I’ve been teaching creative writing again in a traditional classroom with 20 year olds. Their smooth, unlined faces stare back at me with an array of emotions ranging from skepticism to wonder (expressions, that in the end, are troublingly similar)—they don’t exactly know how they got here or why they are here, but somehow we get to the first poetry workshop and their pages are full of break-ups. There’s something about a writing workshop that opens up all the locked doors and we get poems and poems about his leaving, her heartbreak, how each of them wrecked it all. There’s the unique affinity that break-ups inspire that we can’t resist writing or reading about—it is the great equalizer. No matter how fresh or how distant the relationship, how many years have passed, we still have sense memories of those experiences—mine involve a parking lot on a warm summer night sitting on a curb, crying all over the dirty sidewalk. Although I’ve never written about that night, I remember that moment still so many years later and as readers, we remember and relive it within the world of the poem. It’s that vulnerability, that kick in the mouth, the sopping-wet-on-the-inside feeling that we’ve all had. Who can resist the emotions? Hidden or raw, it’s there—the pain, the loneliness, all those images of things cracked open. I experience it all over again with the students—how their hurt and tenderness rises on the page with red eyes, a blue bruised heart. Its why even years later the thought of being stuck in an elevator with an ex churns my stomach, makes my tongue thick and clumsy. These poems remind us that we are all ripe for the tearing—love is tenuous and we should remember that. So next semester, I’m going to dedicate a whole class session to break-up poems. It’s on everyone’s brains from the beginning of the semester and I want them to see how experienced writers navigate these emotions without being too self-indulgent and exclusionary. Good writing lets us in, even for a little while, with dignity or anger or embarrassment. And that’s what we want, I tell my students, we don’t want to be on the sidelines. We want to be let in. Two poems that are on my list for next semester are Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real?” from her book Lucky Fish and Paisely Rekdal’s “Flowers from a New Love after the Divorce” from her collection Animal Eye. One makes me smile and the other makes me shiver. Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real? By Aimee Nezhukumatathil - (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/245516) If by real you mean as real as a shark tooth stuck in your heel, the wetness of a finished lollipop stick, the surprise of a thumbtack in your purse— then Yes, every last page is true, every nuance, bit, and bite. Wait. I have made them up—all of them— and when I say I am married, it means I... Continue reading
Posted Dec 18, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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It’s that time of the year when everything is strangely candy-cane scented and glittering with a tourniquet of lights. We are anxious with our lists, with our need to prove our thoughtfulness. We want the “perfect”, unnamable thing to fill up our loved ones hands. Inevitably, we turn to the experts who tell us what is the “best” of this past year: the best album of the year, the best gadget of the year and of course, the best books of the year. Everyone has a list, but like all things in life, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I’m not sure what it means to be the “Best Book of 2013”. I just know that if you ask me, I can list some great books that I’ve read over this past year. My desk is overflowing with them. Many of the books that I love, that have changed my life, never get placed on lists, but they are all still worthy. Here’s a quick survey of some “Best Poetry Books of 2013” lists out there: Goodreads has got a list that gets voted on by readers: http://www.goodreads.com/choiceawards/best-poetry-books-2013 Slate.com’s list also includes a list of “Overlooked Books” and “Best Lines of 2013”, to which I say, Bravo!: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2013/12/mary_szybist_frank_walker_and_the_top_10_poetry_books_of_2013.html Publisher’s Weekly was only able to list 5 best books of poetry this year (let’s hope 2014 is better): http://best-books.publishersweekly.com/pw/best-books/2013/poetry NPR put out a good list of some noteworthy books of 2013 but has placed poetry and short stories together, because they are apparently the same thing: http://apps.npr.org/best-books-2013/#/tag/poetry So, the following is what I’ve read this year that I really liked. The first list of books was published in 2013. The second list is no different as far as wow-factor, they just missed the list because of expiration dates. All of these books are interesting, unique and “perfect”. I’ve calculated that I’ve bought about 18 books of poetry over this past year and I’m hoping for at least 20 in 2014. I figure, I write it, so I should read it. If you are looking to fill up the hands of the ones you love with something beautiful and thought-provoking, then please consider the following: Sky Ward, Kazim Ali Bright Power, Dark Peace, Traci Brimhall & Brynn Saito X Marks the Dress: A Registry, Kristina Marie Darling & Carol Guess Vow, Rebecca Hazelton The Traps, Louise Mathias Body Thesaurus, Jennifer Militello Mezzanines, Matthew Olzmann To See the Queen, Allison Seay Incarnadine, Mary Szybist Antidote, Corey Van Landingham Small Porcelain Head, Allison Benis White Below is a list of the poetry books I also bought/read this year—but were published prior to 2013: The Lost Country of Sight, Neil Aitken Fair Copy, Rebecca Hazelton Loveliest Grotesque, Sandra Lim Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls, Erika Meitner I Was There for Your Somniloquy, Kelli Anne Noftle Animal Eye, Paisley Rekdal On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year, Lee Ann Roripaugh Bellocq’s Ophelia: Poems, Natasha Trethewey Enjoy yourself—read a poem! Continue reading
Posted Dec 17, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
I feel it’s only right to confess something in my first-ever blog post, (deep breath): I like to read other people’s blogs, especially poets I don’t know personally. For the past decade or so while I have been having children, writing a book of poetry and teaching here and there, I have also been religiously (and secretly) reading poetry blogs and websites. It is my lunchtime ritual—kitchen table, bowl of soup, laptop and blog. Reading other poets’ posts is my way to connect with a poetry community without ever getting out of my pajamas…or flip flops. I’m sure there are much smarter people who have written about whether us cyber voyeurs are really part of a larger community or are simply just eavesdroppers. Either way, it’s what I do, what has gotten me through years of being homebound without being totally isolated. For a writer, who for one reason or another (say the birth of twins for instance), can’t leave the house to go to a writer’s conference or even meet up with her regularly scheduled writing group because she hasn’t gotten around to showering for a few days, a poetry blog is the best way to keep that part of her, that poetry-part, breathing. Its comforting to know that there are others out there who care as much about poetry as I do, more even, because they put their thoughts out into the world daily, weekly, monthly. They are clever and persistent. They write and publish and read, even when I’ve been too tired to do so. Someone on the other end of the computer screen has kept the candle burning and to quote Frost, “that has made all the difference”. Yes I admit to trolling the internet looking for poets and their words in the world—they are my daily affirmation, my support group, my guilty pleasure. I’ve found out about trends and controversies, been reassured that someone is counting the number of women writers who are getting published and talked about (thank you, VIDA); but mainly, I’ve found kindred spirits (unbeknownst to them)—other writers who feel the same joys and frustrations that being a poet encompasses—the poems that get rejected, the books that get taken, and the endless empty pages waiting to be filled. This is really what our lives are made up of: words and pages and books. There are so many poets out there writing about the craft and business of poetry that the sheer force of their knowledge, insight, and research have made me a better writer. So here are a few of my favorite poetry blogs and websites (out of thousands out there), some I turn to for sheer humor and support, others because they have smart things to say: Julianna Baggott (http://bridgetasher.blogspot.com/): because she’s a writer and a mom, and isn’t afraid to talk about both. Sandra Beasley (Chicks Dig Poetry) http://sbeasley.blogspot.com/: because she’s a working writer and gives good insights into the business. C. Dale Young (The Micro Muse) http://blog-cdaleyoung.tumblr.com/: because I... Continue reading
Posted Dec 16, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Dec 12, 2013