Note to Self: Start a Book Club

This morning, I had a thought. And despite my title, it wasn’t about starting a typical book club. As the first day of classes looms and work on syllabi is delayed by work on finding classrooms for face-to-face classes where they can be socially distanced and other unusual tasks that have occupied the summer and set me behind on my normal work, I was thinking about how to shake things up in my poetry workshop. In my online graduate class, I usually assign a certain number of pages from a poetry collection every week, and I may still do that, but this morning I’m thinking about how to organize it more like a book club. For instance, one of the first discussion topics I may assign is to tell about their favorite poetry books that they’ve read in the past year or so. Most of my students will have had poetry classes recently, so they should at least have read something fairly current. I might allow them to discus poetry magazines they’ve read, too.

But I might also make some changes to how and when they discuss the books I’ve assigned. I might open those discussions up early, so they can read the books they want in the order that they want to read them. They do this anyway, so why not let them write comments as they are reading. Then we can be looser in our discussion of the books and possibly incorporate more of what they’re reading in our discussion of their poems, both in terms of what they’ve written and in terms of what they’ll write going forward.

In relation to my previous post on Whole Writer Workshops, I’m thinking about ways to make the workshop less about revision of what has been written (always important) and more about what else might be written that semester or even after. A good workshop is always about discovering new things to write about and new things about how you write and what is possible, and it is not just about refining what has already been written. Treating one part of the class like a book club may be one way to move in that direction. I’m not sure how much I’ll change about the class structure that generally works pretty well, but it might be a good time to try out a few new tactics.

Whole Writer Workshops

In our low-residency MFA program, we have developed an alternative to traditional workshops that I like to think of as “Whole Writer Workshops.” These are workshops that follow up on the ones we do during the semester which are more or less traditional, depending on who’s teaching. During our summer full residency, we look at work that’s been submitted to other classes in our workshops. Because these workshops are cross-genre (we will have poets, playwrights, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers in the same room) and because we don’t expect revision for a grade during the 9 days of our residency, we try to look at the work not in terms of what needs to be ‘fixed,’ but in terms of what it says about the writer and what it suggests the writer may want to do next.

I think this is a perspective that can be useful in other, more traditional workshops, even when we do expect revision. We may look at a story or poem and have questions about one of the undercurrents in it. It can be very liberating to discuss how this strand could be developed both within the piece or in a different piece. It can be helpful to discuss different genres and forms together and to realize that the way you might develop a subject in a poem might be very different than how you would develop it in memoir, for instance. We are able to talk about how an essay might grow out of a poem or how a poem might distill a narrative or how different vantage points might be portrayed through the characters in a play. It can be energizing and constructive to discuss how essays or stories in a collection can play off each other and how the answers to questions about one piece might most productively lead to a new piece rather than being developed in the current one (which might overburden it).

Because we are workshopping pieces that have been workshopped and revised already, we can talk about how workshops frequently ask for more, and how that isn’t always the best advice. Often our residency workshops ‘get it’ more than ones that are focusing in on form or on detailed comments for revision. Thinking about the writer and not just about the text can actually help with critique, which runs contrary to how we’ve been trained.

In the typical workshop model, the writer must remain quiet and the answers are only sought in the text. There is a place for this kind of critique, and it can also be very valuable, esp. when workshop participants know what is happening and why, but it also leaves out a lot, especially the voice of the writer. So when workshopping in a traditional class (graduate or undergraduate), I try to learn from the experiences I’ve had in the residency workshops and to strike a balance between textual critique and a more wholistic approach.

Rocking MacBook Pro Fix

Anyone who has read my blog would probably know I’m not afraid to repair my own computer, but I also try to know my own limitations. This was not one of those times I thought was a DIY fix. I thought I’d write about it anyway because the symptoms are interesting and potentially dangerous.

Recently, I had started to notice that typing on my MacBook Pro Early 2015 13″ was a challenge because it was rocking back and forth as I typed. The case seemed warped, and I wondered if I could have possibly done something to it transporting it in a bag with things like a camera or iPad that weren’t perfeclty flat. That didn’t seem likely, but it was the first thought that came to mind.

After awhile, though, I realized that I was having trouble closing the case, and looking at it carefully, I realized that the keyboard was bulging. This finally caused me to do a little searching online, and with the right search terms, I quickly saw the likely problem.

The battery in these MacBooks (and several others) can sometimes swell when they get old. I’d been getting errors about the battery for some time, but figured I could live for awhile with a battery that didn’t last as long as it used to. When I read that the gas inside the battery that was causing it to expand could actually catch fire, I decided it would be good to replace it.

After a quick look a iFixIt to see how hard the repair was — Difficult — so I decided not to attempt it. Not only do you need solvents to loosen the glue holding the battery in, but if you puncture the battery, it could explode. You need ventilation, too. Though I’ve replaced my own battery in the past, it wasn’t this involved, so I decided to see how much it would cost to repair. After calling around to find a local repair shop (my usual one isn’t doing those kinds or repairs anymore), I found a cell phone repair shop that was willing to change the battery for $160.

Since leaving the battery alone could mean fire, explosion, or at best a cracked keyboard or lower case, I figured it would be worth the cost. It took a few days for them to get the part, but once they had it, they were able to replace the battery in a couple of hours, and I was back up and running with my MacBook.

The main reason I’m writing this is to say that if you are experiencing symptoms like I did — a rocking case or a case that won’t close — it’s best to get it looked at right away. Now my laptop doesn’t rock, the case closes perfectly, and typing is so much better.

Hash Brown Nest

has brown nest

The other morning, I was home alone: my wife and son were visiting her mother, and I had class, so I couldn’t go along. Tired of cereal, I decided to make eggs and potatoes, and came up with this idea for making a “hash brown nest.” Really, I just didn’t want to wash two pans, but then the idea was intriguing and I liked the name I came up with.

I’ve finally figured out how to make pretty decent home-style hash browns by cutting the potato in thin strips, rather than grating it. Grated russet potatoes always fall apart and make mush, not hash browns, and I don’t like rinsing them and then drying to try to keep that from happening. It never worked as well as I wanted, and created too much mess. But a slightly thicker, cut potato fries up nicely. I think slicing the potato keeps the fibres more intact than grating it does.

I fried the potatoes in oil for a bit until they were nearly done, made an open space in the center to create a nest (keeping it mostly free of potato, though it’s fine if a few pieces remain), then cracked two eggs into that open space, added salt and pepper, covered them so they would baste a bit, and in a couple of minutes I had my breakfast. A little hot sauce is good on top, and next time, I might melt a little grated cheddar cheese on top at the end. Tasty, easy, and not hard to clean up, this is a great dish for one person, though you might need multiple pans for multiple people to keep the nest shape going. Or on a large griddle, you could probably just shape the hash browns into nests with space between.

The Poet as Plumber

I don’t mean to brag with a title like this, but I did fix our kitchen sink this week. The title sounded too good not to use, and what I really want to do, which is one part of this blog, is just to say that poets are people, too.

Last month as we were about to go on a little trip to see family (maybe our only chance to do that for awhile, even if it wasn’t without risk), I heard a crack when turning off the hot water while washing dishes. When I went to turn it back on to rinse something, water came out of the handle, not the spigot. That’s never a good sign.

By holding the handle down and using cold water, I made it through the last of the breakfast dishes: water came out the hot side if I didn’t hold it down when the cold was running. Shutting off the water to the faucets under the sink seemed to do the trick, so with a little trepidation, we were able to leave on our trip, knowing I’d have a job to do as soon as we got home. Actually, I waited until the next day, since there had been no catastrophic leak while we were away and we could use the sink in the laundry room as a stop-gap.

Replacing the kitchen faucet proved to be more of a job that expected, though. There were several complicating factors, including that the fittings our countertop installer had used to attach the faucet had rusted. As anyone who’s worked on a undermount sink can tell you, there’s not much room to maneuver under there. Much banging, cursing, and destroying the old faucet ensued before I finally got it out, but I had already determined it would need to be replaced, not repaired.

Then I had to figure out how to attach the new faucet, since the connectors were too short, which is probably why the previous faucet installation was so weird. I found marble countertop adapters that looked like they would work, though our counter isn’t actually marble, it’s a composite made of recycled newspaper, so it isn’t quite as thick as marble. Back at Lowe’s, I found a couple of washers that had large enough inner holes to go over the adapter (1 3/8 inch, if you want to know). My last trip to the store was right a closing time, but by time for bed, the faucet was fixed.

Unfortunately, in the process, I decided I should replace the under-sink water filter, too, since it had been at least 6 months, probably longer, and was overdue. Even more unfortunately, the O-ring on the filter housing decided to give out, so it leaked everywhere no matter how much I tightened it after replacing the filter. That model is discontinued, and though I could have ordered a part, no one had one I could get that day, so another trip to the store, and I came home with a brand new filter assembly, which then had to be installed. More fun ensued, trying to get at the screws on the bracket which were in a nearly impossible location. Who knew that plumbers also have to be contortionists?

Will there be a poem that comes out of all of this? I seriously doubt it. But even poets have real lives, and some of us are brave or foolhardy enough to attempt our own repairs. At least I have most of tools I needed and could improvise anything I didn’t have — vice grips are great, if somewhat destructive alternatives when you need something to turn a stubbornly rusted-on nut. A hammer and a big screwdriver will work if you don’t have a cold chisel. And the end result is a new and much nicer faucet with a new water filter for which they ought to have parts for at least a few more years!

In Praise of Rhubarb

We’ve been up in Iowa for the past week or so, visiting my mother.* One of the joys of a visit there in the summertime is her great stand of rhubarb. She has two types: a small, dark red variety and a larger, whiter variety. Both are tasty, though the darker one is what we prefer for pies and sauces. When we feel we’ve picked enough of it, though, we move over to the lighter variety with thicker stalks. The flavor is about the same; only the color is different.

Rhubarb is one of the strangest ‘fruits.’ It’s actually a vegetable, though you eat the stalk. Don’t eat the leaves; they are toxic. The stalk is very tart, so you need to cook it with sugar (or eat raw, dipped in sugar, which was a childhood treat). Therefore, it’s perfect for pies. One legacy my mom passed down to me was making pie crusts from scratch. This lattice pie cruse uses the quick and easy method of alternating strips, rather than trying to weave them together. It still turns out about the same, and the pie dough was very flaky. The secret? 2 cups of flour, 3/4 cup of Crisco, salt, and ice water. Adding about a tablespoon of Crisco to the standard measurement of 1/3 C per 1 cup of flour helps make it lighter.

Once we’d eaten the pie, we were in the mood for another rhubarb dessert. This is Rhubarb Angel, which has a butter/flour/sugar bottom crust with a merringue and a custardy filling: 3 egg yolks, cream (though I used buttermilk), 1 C sugar. You can tell that this was made with the lighter variety. Besides pie, this was one of our favorite rhubarb desserts when I was growing up, but the most common way for us to eat rhubarb was always as a sauce, which can be put on cereal or eaten by itself at breakfast or poured over ice cream for dessert.

Rhubarb sauce is just cut rhubarb and sugar that is simmered until it makes sauce. Let the sugar sit on it awhile before cooking, so it starts to form some juice. Kim made this in the microwave, which is Mom’s preferred method, though the old-fashioned stove-top method ought to work. I don’t know that recipe by heart, though it’s pretty simple and you could experiment with the amount of sugar you use to get the tartness you want. My guess would be 1/2-3/4 cup of sugar for 2-3 cups of cut rhubarb.

However you cook it, if you have a patch of rhubarb, count yourself lucky. It’s full of vitamin C and potassium, so it’s a healthy and refreshing summertime treat.

*As a side note, the decision to visit an elderly relative during the COVID-19 pendemic wasn’t an easy one. Even as we were leaving, cases were spiking in a number of states. We had self-quarantined for 14 days before we left, so we felt reasonably safe visiting, but we had a 14-hour drive to get there. With 3 drivers and few stops, we were able to do it in one day and with only a few restroom breaks at rest areas — the only times we went indoors. While there, we hardly went out at all, only driving to the neighboring town so we could get curbside pickup of groceries. Because we kept our exposure as limited as possible, we felt it was as safe as could be. That’s not 100%, but probably not any higher than her daily activities would be.

Thoughts on Replacing the Mississippi Flag

This is a historic time in Mississippi. This week, both the state House and Senate passed a bill with more than a two-thirds majority to remove the current state flag that features the Confederate flag in the canton, and the governor signed it into law. A new flag will be designed by a commission and voted on by the public in November. The bill says that the new flag design may not contain the Confederate flag and must include the words “In God We Trust,” which means the flag will still be problematic, but it will be an improvement. Make no mistake, this is a momentous occasion, yet a lot still needs to be done.

I wish the new flag would mean that Mississippi is finally a more progressive place. It is, and it is not. For instance, during the debate in the Senate, one senator asked whether other Confederate symbols could be used on the new flag, mentioning Georgia’s flag, which is based on the Stars and Bars flag of the Confederate States. Of course, the answer was ‘yes,’ since the wording of the bill does not prohibit anything other than the Confederate battle flag. I would hope that the commission will design a flag that is more inclusive, but even if it does, it is limited by the bill and must create a flag that represents religious intollerance: “In God We Trust” presumes a monotheistic religion and arguably privileges Christianity over other monotheistic religions. Whatever ends up as our new flag, it will be a compromise, and there will be some who try to resist change.

On the other hand, there are many, many people of good will who are working hard to make Mississippi a better, more tolerant state for all of its people. This week, the legislature also put a resolution on the November ballot to change the state’s constitution so that the Governor and other state-wide offices may be elected by the popular vote. Now, they must be elected by the popular vote and by a majority of voting districts; otherwise the House of Representatives gets to select the winner. This means that a candidate who loses the election could still be installed in office by the legislature, and it is a provision that was specifically implemented in the consitution to limit the power of Black voters. Taking this step to change the constitution is just as important as changing the flag, and may have longer-reaching effects, but it won’t happen unless enough people come out in support of the resolution in November — all the more reason to register and vote!

And beyond that, much work remains to be done in Mississippi. Income inequality and education remain huge issues. Access to adequate health care and even food is a problem in many areas of our state. Our prison population is much too high and the conditions in prisons are terrible. All the problems with policing that are issues across the country are magnified in Mississippi. Our legislature has a Republican super-majority in both houses, thanks to voter suppression and gerrymandering. It’s not likely that radical change will happen anytime soon.

Still, the fact that Mississippi could change its flag when the opposition has so much power is absolutely amazing. It is a beginning, but it is only a beginning. Change in Mississippi can be a long time coming. This is a sign that it is coming. We can celebrate the victory, but the struggle is far from over.

New Life for Old iPad: Instagram Poetry Machine

This year, I retired my old 4th Generation iPad because it was getting pretty slow. I couldn’t do any serious work with it, and even reading the news or other recreational uses were painful. So I finally broke down and upgraded, but still felt bad to have a working electronic device without using it.

Then, I decided to get into Intagram poetry and faced two problems. 1) I didn’t want to clog up all the storage on my other devices with photos of poems, and 2) Instagram has ridiculous limits on the number of accounts you can have active on one device. I manage several instagram accounts for my job, so even though we post infrequently, I already have more than the allowed number for any one device. Adding another one seems silly, and I’m cheap, so I don’t want to rely on a third-party solution I have to pay for.

I could just log out of one infrequently used account on one device and use it for my new poetry account, but that would mean a lot of switching back and forth at some point, which is a pain. Instead, I chose to use the old iPad, which has a perfectly servicable camera and has enough storage now that I’ve deleted a bunch of apps that I won’t use anymore. The stripped-down iPad 4th Gen now works reasonably quickly and will take pictures of published poems from the contributors copies that I’ve kept over the years or of poems from my books that never appeared in magazines. I can photograph several in one sitting, and then post them periodically using the Instagram app on that device.

I’ve also learned how to take screen shots of electronic versions of poems, then open that in a photo editor on my computer (Photos works well enough on a Mac) to crop as needed and export to .jpg format. Then I can use AirDrop to send the image to my device (I’ve been using my iPhone to do this with Poetry South because we’re running a series of poems that I wanted to cross-post to Instagram). That ought to work just as well with the old iPad.

Using the iPad for Instagram works best for poetry because I’m not actually taking pictures out in the real world—I’m not a big fan of iPad photography, since you have to hold up the big old iPad to shoot. I did have to do a little juggling act to hold a magazine and my iPad to take a picture of a page, but once I find my old book easel (which I used to use for transcribing poems that I wanted to translate), then I can set up the open book in a well-lighted area and use two hands to take the picture with the iPad. And who knows, with a stripped-down iPad, I might even find I like using it to compose poetry, as long as I turn off auto-correct! That is, unless I plan to write Dada poetry; then auto-correct would help. In any case, it’s nice to have a use for the old iPad as long as it still works.

How I Became an Instagram Poet

Calling myself and Instagram Poet may seem like a bit of an exaggeration, but I am sticking my toe in those waters by posting my first ever published poem and my first published translations (which actually predate the first poem) on Instagram. My plan is to follow these with more poems, mostly from my first two books, but also some that have been published online and are no longer available.

The reason why I’m doing this has everything to do with the revisions I’ve been making to my site this week, so this is really the next in the series of posts about changing themes and moving to the block editor.

After setting up my static home page and book pages, I realized one thing that was still missing from a good author website was a page with links to individual poems or other published work. Fortunately, I had that on my university web page, so I only needed to update the list with some recently published poems, including two that went online last week at Juke Joint.

Once I had that page created, though, I felt that it wasn’t enough. On the one hand, a list of links isn’t visually exciting, and on the other hand, I wanted to be able to add more poems than the ones that are currently available online. I was thinking about my first book of poems, which is out of print ,though I still have copies. (Setting up a simple store to sell those online may be another post topic for another day.) I’d like to give people a taste of my early work and I’d like to republish a few poems that have appeared in obscure print journals or only appear in a book.

WordPress has a block for Verse, so I could just type them onto a page or make a blog post with a poem, but that seemed too limited. I’ve known for quite some time that Instagram poetry is popular, and though I have few illusions about becoming a famous Instagram Poet and earning a mass following, it did seem like a good platform to be on. I also realize that a lot of what passes for poetry on Instagram is more like self-help slogans than poetry, so I could say that as an academic poet I refuse to post poems on social media. On the other hand, ever since I got my start in poetry at the Uptown Poetry Slams at the Green Mill in Chicago, I’ve been in favor of bringing poetry to the streets. I started as a college poet and quickly learned that being pretentious won’t get you very far, so why not take your poems where people are reading poetry?

Common advice, though, is not to post things online for free when you can publish in a literary magazine for a contributor’s copy and a credit for your CV. Once a poem is put online in any format, most magazines will call it ‘published,’ so I plan to only post poems that have been published somewhere already: either in a book or magazine. I may also post a few poems that I don’t plan to send to magazines or that I write specifically for Instagram and my website.

But I have a wealth of poems to draw on from my early work, and I have copies of most of the print journals they were published in. It seemed like this would be a good format to use for an Instagram poetry post. For those where I don’t have print copy like ones published in online journals that no longer exist, I can create an image of the poem either from the book they were in or by taking a screen shot of the file. I could even post a video of me reading a poem or find other creative ways to use the platform. So it makes sense to post poems on Instagram in order to then display them on my Poems page, which will also give me a way to frequently update content on the page.

That left me with a decision, though: should I use my personal Instagram account or should I start a new one just for poetry. I have a Facebook account for myself and a page for me as a poet, so two accounts does make sense. In the end, WordPress helped me make that decision by limiting what I could do.

I went down a rabbit hole trying to see how I could embed Instagram posts on a WordPress page. Ultimately, it’s pretty easy, but what I learned informed my decision on how I wanted to do it. I’ll say right now, I use WordPress Personal. This level is pretty inexpensive and allows me to avoid having ads on my site and lets me have my personal web domain The new Block editor has two ways to interface with Instagram: you can link to a specific post (as I did above), or you can link to an Instagram account and display the latest posts, as I do on my Poems page.

Theoretically, you could use the Custom HTML block to embed content, but Instagram doesn’t provide much in the way of code to embed a feed. I could use a third-party tool that would give me more control over which posts to include, but that is a level of complexity I wasn’t comfortable with. I’m sure I could set it up, but something would inevitably go wrong: the tool I was using might change or disappear, or Instagram could change their policies and the tool might no longer work.

I could also upgrade to WordPress Professional, and for twice my monthly rate, I could link to an Instagram account and filter by hashtag. It’s not that expenive, so that’s what I would probably do if I wanted to keep just one Instagram, but then my poems and my personal photos would all be mixed together. Since it’s cheaper and easier to have a separate poetry Instagram, and since that helps me keep my personal stuff off the poetry account, it seems like the best way to go, at least for now. Professional has other advantages, including a simple store and more control over my theme with custom CSS, so I may end up going that route in the future, though I may also find a better and more cost-effective way to sell a copy or two per month (or per year?) of my out-of-print books, so I will probably stick with WordPress Personal for awhile.

In the end, once I had my Instagram poetry account set up, linking it to my page was fairly simple. I used the Latest Instagram Posts block and entered the address of my account. The only problem I had was that it took a few tries to unlink my personal Instagram account (which I had linked while testing) in order to link the poetry account, so I would recommend setting up the account you want first. You can only link one Instagram account to a WordPress site, so that may influence your options if you want both personal and professional content from Instagram on your site. In that case, I would recommend WordPress Professional or a third-party option for linking to Instagram.

More Fun with Blocks

As promised, I’m writing about my experiences updating my blog to an author website with a static home page and learning WordPress’s new Block Editor.

I never was able to get the image carousel that I wanted the other day. I could use an image gallery, but the options for linking with that are quite limited, and the one carousel option doesn’t allow me to use the image to navigate to a new page or link. Clicking on the image would only bring up more information about the image that WordPress generates. I might be able to put the link in a comment, but that seemed clunky. So with this in mind, I decided to set up my own set of images that isn’t a gallery or a Tiled Gallery.

Instead, I used the Layout Grid. This gave me the option of 4 columns (rather than 3, which is all the Column block allows). I also created a header above my layout of book cover images, and then I used the Group block to make these all the same. I set a background color and made the group full width. This works well for four images, and I have more control over how it looks. It also changes to a square layout or a column on smaller screen sizes. See my home page for an example.

I also had fun setting up my book pages. First, I used the Cover block with the “wave” pattern along the bottom to take an image from each book cover and make it the header image for the page. The Cover block allows for a text overlay on top of an image, which I used for a pull-out quote from a review or blurb of each book.

Next, I experimented with the Pullquote block and the Quote block, but in the end, I didn’t like either one. Some Pullquotes were formatted in ways I didn’t want, and I couldn’t control the color of the horizontal line on the Quote blocks in my theme. There’s probably a way to do that with CSS, but that’s more than I wanted to mess with. Instead, I used the Paragraph block and the Group block set to Full or Wide alignment, and I used the background and text color options to highlight the text in different ways.

It took some experimentation to figure out how to group blocks and create the areas I wanted on the page, but in the end, I liked it better than the standard Pullquote formatting, at least for longer passages. For short passages, the Pullquote block might be easier. A good example of this is on the page for A Writer’s Craft.

All in all, I’ve found the Block Editor isn’t too hard to learn. It just takes some getting used to and some experimentation.