Empowerment through Language...

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Catching Up...

It is already December. I am feeling out of connection with so much of the swirl around me. This was the year I was going to create, witness, experience a turnaround. This was the year that the doors would swing open and opportunity would be prevalent. This was the year I was going to settle soundly into my consulting and do great work. I was going to be offered all sorts of gigs and I was going to be safe and rewarded. It was also the year that I was going to be consistent with my blog, tracing my steps and sharing my thoughts.

It was going to be that year but somehow 2012 forgot to comply with my expectations and prayers.

Nearly 15 years ago, I starting on my journey as a teaching artist in a program for 3rd - 6th graders in an inner city school in my city. It seemed like it was going to be a brilliant career choice as I moved from secretary/administrative assistant to reclaim my path as poet, with teaching as the way to make my way in the world. Of course, I have never taken the traditional path to anything. I am also very guilty of self-sabotage. But the idea seemed good at the time and I believe in my dream, even now. I am just so very disheartened because it has been such a rocky trek and takes so much energy to balance all the projects that somehow still fail to meet my monthly budget needs.

That first program was a disaster, and much of it not of my own making, in spite of my naive leap and lack of experience. I cried on my way home more often than not.

I did afterschool work for several years, with joys and frustrations. It was the start of my practice as an artist educator and my commitment to sharing what I know about discovery, language, verse, the world around us.

This year, I have accepted afterschool work again. I need the money. This served as my primary motivation. I have been believing that I am good at what I do with students in the classroom. Heck, I even managed to get a book published, professing to be skilled in this work. But a small group of 4th graders have jacked me up.

After my first day with my class, just a month ago, I came home completely frustrated and asking myself if I even know how to do this anymore? Why were the children so challenging? What could I do to rein them in? To engage them? Why was it a battle for the first month of the program? What would they accept from me that would keep them focused and enthusiastic? So far, I have tried so much, with only microscopic success. I have spent hours on the phone with the site director, who is a friend and colleague, and I feel embarrassed that I am struggling with the children. What is different about them? Or have I just lost my ability, am I completely out of touch?

The other evening I was speaking with a friend who has known me since before I took the bold step to leave the day job, the health plan, the 50+ hour weeks of clerical work, to pursue that self that I felt was trapped inside, the poet I am. I was sharing my frustrations and bemoaning that the children were making it harder on all of us, if only they would trust me and go along for the ride. After all, I am a lot of fun, right?! I had a much deeper conversation about the same issues with another friend, support, guardian angel just days before, a person who works with challenging young people often classified as "youth at risk." What a catch phrase. She reminded me that we cannot save the world. We can only offer something authentically.

Then it hit me, why should these children trust me?! The same issues that I have questioned before became quite clear. They should trust me because I expect them to do so. That is what many of us in the world of adults and especially in education have come to believe. But their life experiences may not really be such that it is that easy. The children in my group have built astounding walls. Why should I be surprised? I have constructed astounding walls myself too. But I also open up with the slightest provocation. I am that eager for connection and love. The young people who I am spending Monday and Wednesday afternoons with are eager for connection and love too. But it comes at a high price, I suspect. 

Another obvious elephant in the living room has to do with not just my adulthood but, frankly, my pale skin. I can only surmise what the children I share Room 201 with on Mondays and Wednesdays know of trust, of adults, and of white people, since they are predominantly children of color. I could most likely be very wrong in any of my suppositions. But truly, why should the young ones before me trust me just because I tell them I expect it from them? Absurd notion at best. 

I realized the other evening that I must earn the trust. I don't know if I will be successful. I will do my best to present to them experiences, conversations, and activities that illustrate that I am trustworthy and safe. I can only be me and authentically so. In return, I would hope for a relief from the behavior problems and chaos that we have experienced together. I am not sure if I will get it but I will try again, in about 45 minutes. I will keep you posted.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

It's My Birthday - Here Is This Year's Birthday Letter

October 16, 2012

Here it is again, my birthday. As has been my habit for some years now, I write to you, my dear ones, before I head out into the world of commitments, busy-ness, distractions. This solar return marks 59 years on this earth, in this body. As my dear friend Cathy Gibbons would say, I am basking in my late 50s.

It is the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which I never really connected with my birthday before today and it seems oddly relevant, though I am not sure why. And this morning I woke with a beautiful Black Labrador Retriever named Enza sleeping on the floor at the foot of my bed. Enza came to live with me yesterday. She is a mature and lovely, well-trained girl and I think it will be a remarkable addition to my home and my life. After the death of my dear Butch cat 2 years ago, I have been missing companionship in the house. Butch was very much a dog in cat’s clothing anyway so this adjustment is no stretch. Enza seems to have already fully accepted me and I am quite delighted to have her here.

It has been another challenging year but when I start to get too involved in my freak-out mode, I have to remind myself that I have achieved my major goal set forth in a simple declaration in August 1994; I have a life completely centered around my identity, my life mission, my passion for poetry. This is a remarkable blessing. The only drawback, that which often instigates freak-out mode, is that I have had a number of setbacks due to the economy that still make my security tenuous but if I remember the greater truth, I have to dwell on the miracle and blessings much more than the fear. Things are looking more prosperous with many opportunities unfolding for later this year and early 2013. I will make it…

A year ago, I was given the opportunity to work as the Workshops Coordinator at the Downtown Writers Center, to which I have been dedicated for its 11-year history so it was a good step forward. I love the work and have learned a great deal in the process. I am able to use many of my skills in the position and am involved in developing new programming as well, most especially the Young Authors Academy, for middle and high school writers, a dream actualized.

I applied last year for several residencies and fellowships, the most significant being the Guggenheim award. I proposed to complete two of the book projects that I have been slowly working on for the past 7 years. I was optimistic that the panel would see the need for support and that I would be given the time and funding to focus on my writing before any other priorities. Unfortunately, the panel did not select me this time. This is not uncommon but it did sting. My main point in my application was that of the difficulty for writers who are not sheltered and supported by the academic system. Time equals money and if you are in a day job or self-supporting, affording the time and money to do nothing but work creatively is a significant obstacle.

But this is the deal: I did not get it. There is no crying in baseball or requests for funding. You just move forward. And so I have, with one of the two manuscripts nearly completed so I can mail it out for consideration for publishing. I am nearly halfway through the second that I proposed and I have another third of a book also in process. I will move on and keep reaching. I have applied for a VCCA residency for next year and who knows, maybe they will gift me with a month of retreat.

I had the honor, along with my coauthor Quraysh Ali Lansana, of being nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Excellence in Instructional Literature this year for Our Difficult Sunlight. We were in an elite group of five nominees, including Rev. T.D. Jakes and Tavis Smiley. Again, we did not walk with the trophy but we did walk the red carpet. The deeper confirmation was that more than 40 of my dear friends and family members sponsored me financially so I could have the experience of going to the award events in Los Angeles last February. Were it not for the generous outpouring of my community, I would have been unable to make the trip. I am so very grateful for the love and respect for my work that these gifts expressed. I was given the opportunity to see myself through a different lens with this as well. I had to acknowledge the environment of love in which I dwell with the magnificent people who surround me and believe in me, my work, my life. These people provided a mirror that I now keep close at all times.

I have witnessed the illnesses and challenges of many of my dear ones. I have lost several friends and colleagues. I have also welcomed several new lives into the world. I have struggled within my own mind and heart over the course of the year, but I have also paid due attention to the marvel that the honor of life is. How is it that we are given consciousness in this grand mystery of life in the universe? We cannot truly answer any of it but we can witness it, experience it, honor it all, without answers. Maybe that is the real point. Maybe stopping the need to have explanation and rational reason for any of this leads to peace.

I have great concern for our world and, as you all know, I have my opinions about it all, particularly the political tone in this election year. But I also know that the moon is marvelous and I have no idea how many more full moons will beam in my lifetime. I anticipate a long life but none of us ever really knows. I just want to do well in sharing my talents, be a positive force in the lives of others, and an asset to community. I also want to remember to relax, be peace, and keep writing.

Thank you to each of you who reads this most recent of my birthday missives. You are the mirrors of the quality of my life and, without you, life would be empty. I smile because I am supported by a community of loving, caring beings, each with individual talents and value. Thank you for choosing me. I toast to you all. And take note, you have a year to get ready to revel with me when I turn 60!

Much love and light…Namaste!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Every Line of Poetry Is Discovery

Over the past year or so in my teaching work, I have found myself most wanting to impart the joy of discovery that writing can be to my students. Writing is an astounding identity, also ripe with reasons to doubt oneself, grow increasingly frustrated, or simply ache for the time to rest within oneself long enough to hear what needs to be captured. Sometimes I feel I am really just catching butterflies.

This afternoon, I finished reading James Longenbach's The Art of the Poetic Line. Longenbach's book is one of the notable Graywolf series of books on craft, genre, and prosody. At a later point in this treatise, he proferred a thought that echoed what I have been attempting to communicate to my students of all ages:

Whatever shape it takes, this kind of movement is what makes a poem feel like an act of discovery rather than an act of recitation - an event that happens on the page rather than a recounting of an event that happened prior to the page. Lineation is a powerful tool for creating such movement, but not because a poet chooses simply to write pentameter lines or syntactically complete lines or no lines at all. What matters within any particular formal decorum is variation: the making of pattern along with the simultaneous disruption of pattern...This kind of movement - the establishment of a formal decorum in which even the smallest variation from it feels thrilling - is what makes the act of reading a poem feel like the act of writing a poem. It is what makes a poem an experience we need to have more than once, an act of discovery that is contingent not simply upon what we learn but on the temporal process of discovering how it feels to learn again what we've always known.
                               [pg. 112-113, The Art of the Poetic Line, Graywolf, 2008]

I repeatedly remind my students to ask themselves, "What is the rush?" There is a lot at stake: the difference between an adequate poem and something that is magical or striking. We must strive for the latter. There are those who are similar to production potters; the goal is to crank out as much as possible. I admire the truly prolific poet but if the goal is to get the poem done in order to take on the next and the next and the next, is the poet truly sitting within the work to discover its fullest capacity?

It is not uncommon, as an editor of a literary journal, to see potential that the poet has missed, that may be accomplished with simple edits as well as looking at different possibilities for line ends, enjambment, tighter language, even reordering stanzas and lines. There is a rush to be done and get the poem out the door. Many poems are close to hitting the mark but this ain't horseshoes.

James Tate once spoke to a group of writers at the Asheville Poetry Festival; I believe it was 1995. Among the indelible comments he made that day was his belief that a poem should take a grand journey that, when over, we ask, "How did I get here?" but in looking back at the poem, the route is completely obvious.

We cannot intend or plan much of what comprises a great poem. Last night with a new class of adult writers, I discussed how I consider our creative work in this way: this is a journey; the bus is being driven by the piece. I am riding shotgun holding the map. The readers will be seated in back, going along for the ride, trusting the poem and me well enough to believe that we will arrive at a destination proving it was worth their time. The poem is the driving force of everything. And everything is important, every choice is critical, right down to the smallest shift in punctuation. No one proved that as clearly as Lucille Clifton in her magnificent, stark poem, dialysis. When originally published, as it appears in Blessing the Boats, the last line, Blessed be even this? is a chilling question. When I heard Ms. Clifton read this poem upon release of the collection, she read it as published and then she read it as she had grown to understand its meaning: Blessed be even this. More than once I have said Ms. Clifton is the kind of woman I want to be when I grow up.

Today, a friend wished me the opportunity for joy. I would love to resume joy as a way of being, the way Ms. Clifton taught by example. In a small step of accommodating that wish, I chose to slow down from everything else to immerse in my own poetry for the evening. I sat on my deck with my work, my computer, my iced tea, the cardinals' shrill chirps punctuating the forgiving hour. I worked until I could no longer read my new edits on poems from 2011 and the crickets were tuning up. I pushed stanzas around like wheelbarrows. I chopped lines like wood to see the rings. I found places to trim and advantageous enjambments. I threw other language from the poems entirely.  I also submitted five poems for consideration, beating a deadline in the process. I was poet first and all the other identities had to wait.

The mosquitoes were hiding around my ankles to escape the bats. It was time to come in.    

Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Art of Lifelong Learning

I have been working steadily as an educator now 11 years, some of it very frustrating, most of it joyous. I will teach in any setting, will work with any age group, and the size of the group matters not a whit to me. If I can share the information I have cultivated and the passion I feel for writing, language, reading, and learning, I will do it. Often I even am paid for my instruction and that is becoming more and more a precedent, which is a good thing since this is my career.

In school settings, particularly in the one district that I served for 6 years, I was frequently scheduled to work with what I refer to as reluctant learners. Other times, I was placed in "special ed" classes in which students mostly had emotional issues and/or learning disabilities, I assume with the hope (or even expectation) that I would not only address skills needed to bring scores up on the standardized assessment tests but also perhaps excite the students. Now, those who work in education understand the delicate balance of special ed: there is often additional funding to provide the support, even if just a small budgetary asset, so that is a potential plus; the other side of the seesaw is that those students labeled with special needs will test lower and bring the overall rating of the school down (and, thus the teachers who may face evaluation and public scrutiny in the process). This will affect funding, faculty assignments, sometimes even the fate of the entire school. These are very high stakes.

I am not sure what happened with my work in that district overall. There was never any formal assessment of my work, which leads me to believe that there was a certain disconnect with the value of what I was developing to meet the needs of improved literacy as well as English Language Arts proficiency. I had hoped that there would be a tracking of the students, some of whom I met in elementary school, taught again in middle, and then in the high school. I was hoping to not only further develop my pedagogy but prove that it had merit. We never did the pre- and post-tests. There was no step to that higher level of documentation and observation. On the one hand, I had tremendous freedom in my work, often tailoring my lesson planning to specific classroom needs and requests from the teachers themselves so that was the upside. The downside is I have no data to indicate my effectiveness. I can only hope. 

In that district, I worked annually in five schools: two elementary, two middle, and the one high school. Add to this schedule the other districts where I gained contracts, plus my adult education, and a single class at the college level, and I determined that I was teaching an average of 2000 individuals a year. Most of those students were before me for an average of 3 - 5 contact sessions.

I have been observing that the philosophy of lifelong learning is fading over the horizon. Even with adults, the idea of being a learning machine is not prevalent. We are a goal-oriented society much more than we invest in the value of process. In the college level course as well as the adult writing workshops I facilitate frequently, I have discovered an attitude that I refer to as consumer-based education; in other words, "I am paying for this so you have to teach me what I want and the way I want you to teach it." I find this frustrating.

The idea that an experienced educator, or even expert in one's field, would determine how they best can convey the knowledge to the student who does not yet have it is not valued, particularly once one has presented a check or a credit card number to pay the course fee. Often, the student wants to decide how much they can be asked to read, to produce, and how the course should be structured. Just as often, the paying student does not even fully understand the nature of the course he or she has signed up for after reading the 30-word blurb in a brochure but still wants the course to meet some preconceived idea of what they will be experiencing. Additionally, some (albeit a very small minority) can be quite vocal about their perceived needs and expectations, even confrontational.

The word I use more and more often about the process of writing is discovery. I want students to discover what the poem wants to be, to discover the wonder of a great line, or the sound of the vowels, or the subconscious metaphor in their work. I want them to be curious rather than exacting. I want them to be patient in letting the work unfold, knowing that there is no deadline in creating a good piece of writing. Deadlines only apply to homework and publishing.

Racking up a pile of adequate poems is far less important that lolling about with a new work and striving for the best word, the most advantageous line end, a new stanza configuration, all with the goal of creating something magical, or even important. What does it matter if a writer spends an hour rearranging a new piece to see what will be implied in the process? After all, isn't that part of the joy of being a writer, playing with language to discover all its potential and impact?

If I ask a class of adults at the beginning of each session, "How was your week as a writer?" I am suggesting that they take the time from all their other obligations, duties, and distractions to honor that part of their selves, their identities. It is no frivolous query. Yet, sometimes those adult students balk at the question, shy from it, and then complain about it on my evaluations. They are looking to get a particular set of teachings or experience, mostly "What do you think about my poem?" rather than "What can I learn about being a poet?"

I am never complacent about my work. I demand a great deal from myself. I read other poets and read about poetry regularly, I talk with other writers, I experiment, and I push myself to grow, to never believe I know all there is to know about the art. I have determined that I know a fair amount and that I have a certain level of skill that I am now becoming comfortable in, even confident. I know I have a viewpoint that is worthy of sharing. I have also discovered that a classroom full of seemingly cranky 5th graders will often be more open to discovery than any number of adults. This is so in adult writing workshops and in teacher in-services. It is sad that we only want what we think we need. We want praise and a list of "how to's" rather than being willing to let the instructor be the driver and to sit back and enjoy the ride, while discovering that there is a new landscape beyond our own knowledge and expectation.  In the interest of discovery, I rarely forecast what I will be teaching. I am resistant to syllabi, and equally resistant to rubrics.

I teach what I want to learn. I learn more every day so I can teach it better. I love my work but I do wish that every student enters a class because they are more interested in process than product. The product will come. This much I know. Now to convince the customer.

Monday, June 25, 2012

It Is Way Past Time...

It feels like the darkness is lifting. I cannot explain it but I am optimistic in small ways. The past year has been like a fire walk. The economy is a part of it. Bureaucracy has been another part. Then there is the fact that I am moving very quickly through my 50s and next year I will mark completion of six decades on this earth. That is astoundingly sobering.

I have had the habit of believing in the surface elements of my life and then getting supremely disappointed as the story unfolds. Time after time, just as I think I am stabilizing, the rug gets pulled out from under me, forcing a new life plan, often improvised. I am exhausted, to be honest.

I have been hiding from many and doing a critical assessment of my life purpose, my work, and my volunteerism. As with many of you, when we volunteer our time, it is because the cause or organization is so worthy and we want to share our skills to meet the vision. Recently, I came to the conclusion, however, that I could not afford to give so much of my talent to others until I could be certain of my own security. It reminds me of the flight attendant's reminder that we should put the oxygen mask on our own faces before attempting to help another, in case of a decompression. I have been gasping and feeling defeated.

Being a poet is my identity; it is also my purpose in this inexplicable thing we know as life. My closest friend suggests that the lesson is to not be so attached to identity but that one is hard. What else do we have? How do we provide a scaffold for our incarnation and existence?

I walked away from my commitment to this selfhood when I was a young adult. I hid from it because I was so afraid it would not work out. I have been building my career as I know it now for nearly 20 years. It is hard to believe so much time has passed. Now I have been forced to assess my commitment again. I do good work. I have a love and passion for my work as well as maintain integrity in the offing. Why is it so difficult to make a living? Why can't I get anchored into stability? I just ask the unanswerable.

Thankfully, sometimes the sky is enough response, or the call of cardinals in the lilac, or the smell of a rainbow waiting to be born...

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

All I Wanted to Do Was Give Them Money...

Since late last spring I have been redefining my career path. I was full of expectation after 5 years of planning, proposing, drafting, editing, and finally completing Our Difficult Sunlight. When the book was in print, I was giddy with pride and accomplishment. But to be honest, there has been not one step of this process, to date, that has flowed well. I guess that is unreasonable to expect in the world of publishing these days.

I thought that the book was going to take off with a burst of energy. I was ready for interviews, for professional development gigs, for hundreds and hundreds of copies sold. I was prepared to accept success.

Instead, I lost my primary contract with a school district where I had been working for 6 years due to budget setbacks. Instead, the marketing efforts of the book were not what I anticipated and there was a tremendous amount of work for me to do. Instead, I had to look other places for my income and generate new opportunities, at the same time doing whatever I could to also generate interest in this book that I believe in wholeheartedly. Instead of an avalanche of opportunity, there is a slow roll of a rather small snowball, and I feel like the hill that it is tumbling down is miniscule as well.

I fell seriously behind in all of my bills in the past 6 - 8 months, and I scraped everywhere I could to afford the conferences and gatherings where my coauthor and I were promoting our project. I borrowed from friends and am slowly paying them all back. At one point, I ate only pasta, scrambled eggs, and carrots for days.

In January, new work started to open up. I returned to a school where I have tremendous allies and yearly do a residency with 6th graders. Although I have cut my price nearly in half from my original billing so the school can still afford to bring me in, I was making enough to know that I would eventually pay up on my debts. I also love the students and the teachers so it is worth it. In February, I did a short residency with 4th graders in two schools in another small district. That sum was figured into my catch-up plan as well and I developed another curriculum piece that I can recycle throughout New York State. I have also designed a program for an elementary school here at home that is in the early stages of implementation. All of this work is very exciting. Additionally, I started a part-time job that I love and will have lots to share on this in the near future. This position will not only fulfill a great deal of my interests but also meet at least half of my monthly expenses so now to fill in the gaps.

So I got paid for the January and February gigs last week and the checks have cleared. I plugged the phone back in after several weeks of avoiding all the bill collectors. I started making arrangements to pay up. One of them was my mortgage company. All I wanted to do was authorize two payments to bring my mortgage current after 3 months of missing the mark. This took me nearly 40 minutes of conversation with a gentleman who was just not listening to me. My proposal of one payment yesterday, with the funds readily available, and then another payment on Friday when my biweekly remuneration is automatically deposited in my checking account was so far beyond his scope of comprehension.

For some reason, this bank representative needed complication. He made the whole transaction an ordeal. He said that he needed to take a full history of my finances again, because "the program is asking for it." I did not want negotiation or opening up a can of worms. I just wanted to authorize payment of my past due balance and start paying on time again as I had been doing for years. He wanted to have set figures for my income and could not understand, no matter how many times I explained to him that I was not a salaried employee with a set paycheck. My hours vary, my work is not always consistent, and I could only give him history, not a future projection. Besides, to me, it did not matter. TAKE MY MONEY and let me move forward.

I finally got my desire and the conversation ended, easily 30 minutes later than it should have if the man had just listened to me...if he had been able to process the circumstance in his mind and expedite me moving back onto the path of solvency.

Like so many other aspects of my life, I anticipated a simple action and got drama and frustration. Like so many other times in my life, I endured the absurdity and made the choice to write about it and then move on. This morning, I am current on this obligation as well as several others. I will continue to chip away at the backlog. I have been exhausted by all of this and, I admit, completely disheartened in many ways. But I am putting one foot in front of the other and facing forward.

In the next 2 weeks, I hit the road for the Split This Rock Festival and a visit to College of St. Rose to promote both the book and the work I do as educator and poet. Then I will come home and settle into the projects right here in my own community. The book will continue to gather recognition but I have come to realize that the book is not "IT" for my career. I am the commodity and the book is a part of what comprises my value and skill that I can turn into income. So for now, I will often be working close to my house instead of 4 hours away. I will sleep consistently in my own bed rather than acclimating to hotels or friends' guest rooms. And I will write...perhaps finish the two books of poems that have taken a back seat to the goals, dreams, and immediate needs. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

So Much to Naming...

Every so often while I am weaving through school rooms, I mispronounce a student's name or I call them by someone else's name accidentally. The responses are varied and I am always both embarrassed for the mistake and apologetic. I do ask the student to accept my apology; I do what I can to cement their identity, face/name/smile, into my memory for days ahead. I also ask all of the students to be patient with me because it is a lot to learn everyone's names and remember them. Ironically, I often remember those students who are frequently challenging first. I suppose that is natural. In essence, were they not finding ways of gaining attention, although gaining attention is a far bend from seeking recognition. Like all things, there are two sides to the coin.

A name is all we have to bring the world to us.

I have had some experiences in the past year about identity that are only now revealing the lessons I have been inviting. The first was of computer-generated identity theft. The last time I was aware of identity theft was in the 90s when I was getting billed $9.99 once a month for what turned out to be an online porn site. The greater insult was that it was called something like This was approximately the same time when the AARP invitations first started arriving. I was not amused.

This summer, I purchased software for a contract job after a search brought me to a really cheap download of the program I needed. This became my lesson in "if it seems to good to be true, it is." So small charges started hitting my account and I reported it to the bank, after some research on my behalf by friends who do a lot of web marketing and commerce. It took a few weeks but the bank found in my favor. This same issue cropped up again a few weeks ago so I had to change my card again. Annoying. There is no choice but to deal with it. I can't let people take advantage of my name.

My name is precious to me for both reasons of lineage and choice. I carry my mother's family in my given and middle names; my great-grandfather George Anderson, to be exact, my mother's maternal grandfather. I claim her maiden name on her father's side in my heart: McConnell, Asheville family.

I have rejected my birth surname for many reasons but I do feel a renewed connection to that part of me as well. The Sechrengost/Custer family line has become important to me and I have found a cousin after many years. We hope to never lose each other again.

Some people only know me as Georgia Sechrengost. Some know me only as Georgia Popoff. There are some who know me through both monikers. They have seen what a difference a name can make.

To my family, I am often affectionately George. I became Georgia Popoff to finally carry the name of my father of nuture. He had cancer and there was no time to question. I was adopted as an adult and I will carry his name for the remainder of this life. There is a fierce history in the Popoff line, determination and resilience. The same with the Zeitlins, who were my Grandma Anna Popoff's people.

Professionally, I added my middle initial to keep a connection to my mother's blood. It was a very deliberate act to claim Georgia A. Popoff. It was synonymous with Poet. It has a nice ring. It creates balance. I am a Libra.

There are a number of communities in which I am recognized for my work. But I must confess that there are times in which I feel invisible, or that I am working in a vacuum. I am not sure why it feels this way but sometimes the automatic faucets and toilets don't see me either. At times I feel like a stealth bomber moving about, just under the blips.

This was my frame of mind at the recent AWP conference most often. There are many reasons for this. I will speak to that another time. For now, just hear me when I say I can slip through without recognition quite easily if I so choose. But there are times when one may not want to be invisible. Times when a person may want her name to be spoken with admiration and face connected to that regard as well.

I have experienced two fascinating and difficult circumstances regarding my name this winter. The first was in relation to vying for an award during which, for reasons that follow a certain logic, my name was not included on the nomination. This was not to anyone's blame. It was a simple miscommunication. The true challenge was to navigate the error. In spite of numerous notifications to the organization by a myriad of individuals, and via many differing forms of communication, the error was not rectified, other than in one print form. This was a tender failing. I was invisible. I felt erased. Not relevant enough to someone (or ones) to warrant naming. I was shouting into a cavern and there was no echo. It was a lonely and frustrating circumstance. It significantly diminished my joy for the nomination. Fortunately, my own community bolstered me throughout and called my name with respect and enthusiasm. I am so very grateful. I now move forward. It was what it was.

Just a couple of weeks after that turn of events, I eagerly awaited the inaugural issue of a new arts journal in which I was premiering two of my favorite cycles of poems, work that I have been absorbed in for nearly 5 years. At last, the debut of the effort and I could not wait to see them on the page, perfect bound, snuggled in with all the other writers and artists.

I glanced quickly through the two columns on the back cover; I was listed but I didn't linger there. I flipped to the table of contents, found my page number, and fanned my way to my poems. They looked crisp in print. My eye scanned up and the poems were attributed to George Popoff. I nearly swallowed my tongue. I looked again. It was not my tired eyes. I double checked all the other places where my name appeared: cover, TOC, contributors' pages, and, in each instance, I was Georgia Popoff. At least I retained my gender, but my name as I prefer to have it cited was not correct anywhere. I was crestfallen. I could have handled the loss of the middle initial consistently throughout the journal but the error on the poems themselves was too difficult to process.

When I spoke with the editor, of course he was distressed and profoundly apologetic. Mistakes happen. Particularly when up against a print deadline. But I also had to navigate the emotion I felt. My name is just not that difficult. A state, the first letter of the alphabet, and a simple compound word. There are many others, even in this particular journal, whose names go through all sorts of contortions of spelling and punctuation. Why was mine a mess?

I once inadvertently dropped a middle/maiden name of one poet whose work was being published by the Comstock Writers Group. The writer was distressed and I apologized and wrote a correction. That was what I could offer for the slight. The glitch with this journal will be rectified. But the first moment of seeing my words in print lost its joy. A sadly familiar feeling.

I wear this name with tremendous pride. I hope I do my father and our family an honor, that I bring honor to all through my work and my intention. That is all I can really muster. As my dear friend Sue Stonecash reminds me consistently, "Just keep doing the good work, Georgia. That is what truly matters."

She is right. But I am also an endangered species. I am the end of the play of genetics created by my biological parents. They had no other children together. Subsequently, I am childless. When I am no longer breathing, my strand of DNA is extinct. I have two things to leave behind. My work and the name attached to it.   


Friday, February 24, 2012

A Brush with Greatness - Part 2

It is hard to believe that it has been a week since Q and I stood in our finery for our photo before entering the Shrine Theater to discover the fate of our book. Anticipation is so much more absorbing than fact. Think about it in your own life. We worry and we hope and once we receive outcomes, all that effort is nullified. I keep trying to live without expectation, anticipation, but it is a human trait so I am not always very successful.

We did not receive the trophy but we gained a great deal in the process and we made some wonderful contacts, as well as shared the experience with family and friends. We will always be able to use the nomination as a marketing tool. We are also always able to say to each other that we knew we were right; if we applied, we would get the nomination. The big machines that support several of our fellow nominees aside, we were in good standing with notable authors as a part of a remarkable program. There are politics involved and we learned a great deal about that as well. But we were there and we attended the big show besides. Quraysh was thrilled beyond belief when Ms. Cicely Tyson said hello as she brushed past his aisle seat. We were both astounded and honored to stand in line for the Red Carpet with the Tuskegee Airmen. Now these were true celebrities, authentic heroes, and living history.

Would I do it again? Yes I would. But I would be much wiser in some of the logistics that such events entail. I would have a publicist ram through the clogs at the velvet rope. And I hope I would bring home the hardware, if I could. On the other hand, I am satisfied and had a terrific time so it was all worth the time, effort, money, and anticipation. Thanks to all who supported me personally to make it possible and to those who have and continue to support this book. 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Our Brush with Greatness - And Now Back to Work

A month ago, my coauthor, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and I received notice of nomination for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Instructional Literature. We had been confident that we would be so recognized if we presented the book for consideration and that day affirmed our anticipation, as well as our belief that we have created something of tremendous value.

This experience is as close to Dancing with the Stars or American Idol I can imagine right now. We were in formidable company in the listed nominees:

  • Bertice Berry's A Year to Wellness and Other Weight Loss Secrets;
  • Synthia St. James' Living My Dream: An Artistic Approach to Marketing;
  • The T.D. Jakes Relationship Bible: Life Lessons on Relationships from the Inspired Word of God; and
  • Too Important to Fail: Saving America's Boys, Tavis Smiley's companion book to his recent PBS documentary.
We were clearly faced with a great deal of work to compete with this slate of nominees. Each has a tremendous national presence, the backing of big publishers, and so on. We are two poets and educators running as fast as we can to share the tools and resources we have put nearly 5 years of our lives developing that resulted in this book coming into the world.
It was last week when I started thinking that we could possibly win, in spite of our relative newcomer status. I can liken it to the musical "overnight sensation" whose bio states that there are 20 years of small gigs and broken-down-van tours before hitting the big time. Maybe this would be the chance for the lesser known to pull off a grassroots campaign and surprise everyone.

It would prove to be labor intensive and daunting. Then there was the concern of getting both of us to Los Angeles for the ceremony and array of events that nominees would be able to attend. Quraysh had the support of his university for this travel, giving me moments to question myself again about not pursuing an academic career.

I grappled with my choices. I looked into Kickstarter since I know many who have been successful with that vehicle for jumpstarting projects but decided that a direct appeal would be better and leave the Kickstarter option open when I needed to seed a bigger project. I struggled with asking my community for support for many reasons but it was the only answer. A couple of key confidantes urged me to state my need so one Sunday night a couple of weeks ago, at 10 p.m., I sent out an email to 250 friends, family members, and colleagues petitioning for support by voting for the book, sharing the word of the nomination campaign, and then the very specific need for travel funds so I could head to Tinsel Town.
Astoundingly, I had pledges and contributions to meet most of my expenses within 24 hours, then more that permitted me to accommodate the rise in the hotel costs I incurred from first research on line to what it would actually cost once I could book the room, as well as breathing easily in paying for incidentals, meal tabs, etc. It was a remarkable outpouring of love as well. I was overwhelmed and honored.
We were in the middle of Hollywood's fluff. We quickly learned the rules of the Red Carpet, even if not overly successful in getting before the cameras. We dressed up and strutted with the famous, the almost famous, as well as some of our friends who were nominated in the poetry and fiction categories, all of us a little glazed by the frenzy and flash.
Bishop Jakes won the trophy. He was not there to accept the award and offer gratitude. The two lithe young actresses tasked with the pre-show award announcements accepted on his behalf. Naturally, a part of me is wishing that this could have been a 21st century Cinderella story in which we received the prize, and all of the opportunity that we would have garnered from it, especially the press being a winner would have afforded our project and resultant work as consultants. Yet I know that we are winners to have gotten into the deep with this roster of noted authors. We will always be able to tell folks that we were Image Award nominees. We will always be affirmed in the mission of this book from the beginning of our collaboration to this very day. We were right...
In the next episode, I will share some of the tales from the Red Carpet. Right now, I need a shower and I have to head out to the social media networks to thank everyone for their vibes, prayers, and support. To all of Quraysh's and my friends and circles, we are the winners. I am grateful to you all as well as for this marvelous, confounding life.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

12 Years to Discover a House Is a Home

January 2000, it had been frigid cold. One Saturday morning, the last of the month, ice was thick on the iron stairs to my attic apartment where I had lived for 10 years. A line of friends stretched to the ground helping lug the chaos in boxes and bags to their trucks and vans, then to load into my new home just two blocks away. Nothing changed but my street name: same house number, zip code, phone number, same community. I was 48 and I had purchased my first home. In my adult life, I had moved 23 times, and the decade spent in my aerie was the longest I had ever lived in one place.

I woke on Sunday morning alone surrounded by a bunker of boxes throughout the house. I did not know the sounds yet. My cats were freaked out and one took to the basement for a month. I thought, at one point, that perhaps she had died down there.

This home has been my miracle over and over again. In the first 6 years of living here, I took in roommates to meet the mortgage. I have had several changes of career over the years I moved in. I have lived alone for the second half of my residence. For the past 2 years, I haven't even had pets, other than the fish but they don't talk much. 

Many people have come to stay, for a night, a weekend, and now I have guests for a few months while they get on their feet and prep for a new baby. They have brought their dog, who is getting used to me.

Some have come here to heal. Some have come to party or to write. For some, I am a relief and a good night's sleep in the middle of a road trip. Others stop by for coffee or tea. My home is meant to be shared with others but still be a haven for myself when I need it. 

I have become a gardener while living here. My grandfather, Cleveland McConnell, advised me as a young writer that, if I wanted to be a poet, in my lifetime I had to accomplish two things: live in the country and grow a garden. I have experienced both. Now my gardens are permanent and ever-changing. The first September that I harvested herbs from the raised bed at the edge of my deck, I cried. These are the herbs I would harvest when I grow old.

In the 1980s, I shared an apartment around the corner from this house and I often sat on the back porch with my electric typewriter working on poems. I could see the big deck on the back of this house and I mused, "I would love to have a house with a deck like that someday." I realized that I had managed that dream very literally the first time I sat on my deck with a cup of hot coffee. 

I have watched the children of the neighborhood grow up; we lost one to  a bullet in his 19th year. His younger brothers and I planted a lilac sapling in the corner of their yard; only to discover it cut down by the landlord's lawn maintenance crew. I replanted it with a new next-door neighbor several years later. In a couple more years, it will bloom to mark the anniversary of his passing. There is also a Jackmani clematis in back that bursts with purple blossoms every June to acknowledge the loss of my beloved brother Alex.

Many neighbors I love have moved from the block, more have moved it. One of the elders has passed away and we have lost many trees on the block and in my yard. I have expressed my politics openly. I made jam for the church mothers across the street and sent a summer bouquet for their altar.

I felt like I was playing dress-up for a long time but no longer. This is the home I intend to occupy for the remainder of my life. It is the definition of roots and stability to me and now I have lived here longer than any other residence in my entire life. When and if the time comes that I can no longer climb the stairs, I will add a walk-in shower to the half bath on the first floor and convert my library to my bedroom. This is the house that poetry gave me. This is my respite but the door is open to those who will benefit and my gardens bloom to delight eyes. And hopefully, a long time yet, I will retire to my pillows, breathe deeply, fall into a gentle long sleep and have a very peaceful passing. We all hope for such a transition, I think. But until then, I have squirrels in the attic, mice trying to winter in the kitchen, and a ton of work to do on my many professional projects! Now to get back to it...blessed be to you all. Stop by sometime. I will put the pot on for a sip together.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

ODS Nominated for NAACP Image Award!

The NAACP Image Award nominations were announced in Los Angeles at 9:00 a.m. PST on Thursday, January 19, 2012. I am honored to share that my coauthor, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and I were nominated for our book, Our Difficult Sunlight: A Guide to Poetry, Literacy, & Social Justice in Classroom & Community, in the category of Instructional Literature. What a thrill this is to be considered in this significant arena of recognition.

The Howard University literary journal, Amistad, republished an excerpt including the foreword by the esteemed educator, Dr. Carol D. Lee, and the prologue. The link above will take you to the site, and the reprint starts on page 99.

You can order ODS from the major on-line sources: Powell's, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.

But most of all, you can vote for us for the NAACP Image Awards: Your advocacy and support are appreciated. The Awards will be broadcast live on NBC on Friday, February 17th, at 8 p.m. EST. Wouldn't it be marvelous to give an acceptance speech?! Ha!