[caption id="attachment_761" align="aligncenter" width="200" caption="Beautiful in the Mouth by Keetje Kuipers"][/caption]My dad has a joke which, like all his signature witticisms, he likes to repeat whenever he has an opportunity to squeeze it into conversation. Someone I’d never even met once repeated this joke to me in a letter—that is, after he’d been seated next to my dad on a plane for three hours. Unfortunately, I have only myself to blame for this joke and its persistence in my life. As most any poet will tell you, much of the “work” of writing poems happens in a nearly invisible way, or so it might seem to the untrained observer. I stare out the window, I take the dog for a walk, I make a cup of coffee—but really, I’m writing poetry. All writers are thieves and scavengers, and poets especially are always on the look-out for anything they can steal for their verse. While it might look like I’m sunbathing, I’m actually hard at work mining the experience for any image or fleeting observation I may be able to use later in a poem. Of course, this is an exaggeration, and one that my dad picked up on right away. One day he caught me defending my life of leisure with the following declaration: “Poets never get a vacation!” And that’s become the mantra he loves to taunt me with. Usually, this phrase elicits a wry smile from me, even though I’ve heard it hundreds of times. However, in the last week—as I’ve flown from San Francisco to Denver to San Francisco to Philadelphia to Denver to San Francisco in a matter of days on a number of red-eye flights—the idea of a poet on vacation has taken on new meaning for me. Last week marked the beginning of what I humorously refer to as my “book tour.” As any great promotional adventure should, mine started at AWP, which was in Denver this year. While I love the general literary gluttony of AWP and like to spend as much time as possible wandering the book fair and hanging about the hotel bar, my travel schedule has lately been ruled by my dog and his desire not be abandoned at a doggy hotel. The result was that I flew into Denver on Thursday morning and managed to squeeze in two reading appearances—one each night I was in town—before flying out again on Saturday evening. It didn’t sound like much of a vacation when I made these plans, but that’s exactly what it turned out to be. Thursday night I read as part of the Born Magazine lineup. If you aren’t familiar with these folks, you need to check them out. They describe themselves as an “experimental venue marrying literary arts and multimedia.” I’d describe them as astounding and wondrous innovators of poetry on the web. Essentially, the editors, led by the marvelous Anmarie Trimble, pair a poem (or occasionally a prose piece) with a visual artist, who then works with the poet to construct a beautiful and often unnerving visual rendition of their poem. The result is a glorious fusion of color, movement, music, and poetry. One of my own poems, “What Afterlife,” was transformed by the artist Andrew Kostuik into something entirely creepy. But each piece is completely different, as is evidenced by the various poems that appear in the most recent issue of Born, including this one by BOA poet Dan Albergotti. The Born reading in Denver took place at the Gypsy House and included readings by Ander Monsen, Monica Drake, Thomas Crofts, Esther Lee, and Emma Ramey. Even through my haze of jetlag, I was delighted to be there with them. On Friday night I was feeling a bit more rested, which was a good thing because it was the night of my actual book launch reading. BOA authors Cecilia Woloch and Dan Albergotti had very generously agreed to read with me, and I’d set us up at a local winery in downtown Denver. In addition to being a cozy, little venue just a few short blocks from the main AWP hotel, the D’Vine Winery included thirty bottles of wine for the event. The bottles had special labels on them that showed my book cover, so it looked as though we were serving wine called Beautiful in the Mouth. It was perfect: Thom Ward, our fearless editor, quoted Whitman; Melissa Hall, our lovely Director of Development, snapped pics; Dan and Cecilia gave brilliant readings; I got through my own set list without passing out from nerves; everyone drank plenty of wine and the folks who bought my book got to take home bottles for free. We all left feeling tipsy from good wine and good poems.
[caption id="attachment_808" align="aligncenter" width="198" caption="Keetje Kuipers signing copies of Beautiful in the Mouth"][/caption]On my last day in Denver, I camped out at the BOA table at the book fair. Thom, editor Peter Conners, and Melissa sold books and talked up the authors while I signed copies. I’d been worried for months about what to write in people’s books. I’m almost always too nervous to ask authors I don’t know personally to sign a copy of their book for me, so I didn’t really have any idea what sort of inscriptions poets might include when signing books for strangers. But I shouldn’t have worried: People who bought my book had wonderful stories about their connections to my work, their own writing, and the literary pursuits that had brought them to Denver for the conference. It was easy to feel a kinship with everyone I met, as if any poem, anywhere, by anyone was a sort of triumph for us all. Meeting people who had read my poems, or who wanted to, was the perfect way to end my time at AWP. I got on the plane back to San Francisco that night with a sense of wonder at the generosity of spirit and enthusiasm I’d experienced. Less than twenty-four hours later, I was back at the San Francisco airport boarding a plane for Philadelphia. My destination was Swarthmore College, my undergraduate alma mater, which had invited me back to read. I graduated almost ten years ago, and I wasn’t sure what feelings to expect when I returned. When I’d been a student at Swarthmore, I hadn’t majored in English. I’d taken a number of literature classes, and even a poetry workshop, but I hadn’t been the most promising poet on campus. Now, as part of my visit, I was asked to judge a poetry contest in which I hadn’t even made the honorable mention list as a contestant myself years ago. It seemed so odd to be coming back to read my poems as a guest of the college when, as a student there, I’d so struggled with my poetry—my desire to write it and its elusive nature in my young life. Nathalie Anderson, a poet and professor at Swarthmore, as well as my first mentor, welcomed me into her home for a nap when I arrived in Pennsylvania at 6:30 in the morning. I fell asleep surrounded by shelves and shelves of books, and when I woke up and Nat ferried me off to lunch, I felt haunted by books: For the first time in my life, I was talking about writing and poems with a mentor in a way that made me feel like a peer. This is perhaps the most astounding thing that has happened to me since the publication of Beautiful in the Mouth. It seems wrong to admit that the publication of a book might change certain things in my life—because I believe every poet wants their love of poetry and their dedication to the craft to stand on its own—but the book has allowed me to feel pride in my poetry in a place where I’d always felt before as though it were inadequate. To sit in Pennsylvania eating Thai food and trading thoughts on books and poems with a woman who shaped my earliest sense of poetics is an experience that humbles me even as it rewards.
[caption id="attachment_810" align="aligncenter" width="186" caption="Breakfast at Ashton House"][/caption]
That night I read to a packed house of students, as well as old friends and mentors. Erica Harney, a marvelous painter I’d met four years earlier during our time together at the Vermont Studio Center, drove all the way from Pittsburgh to hear me read. Friends from my old college a cappella group showed up, and the head of the Theatre Department (I’d been a theatre major), Allen Kuharski, surprised me by buying a copy of my book and asking me to sign it. After I read, I announced the student winners I’d chosen for the various poetry prizes this year. But first I told everyone there what I believe to be most true in my heart: “Poetry doesn’t choose you. You choose poetry.” It’s endlessly comforting to me that poetry is a craft, that it can be pursued and learned and improved. Unlike being a singer, you don’t need to have an overwhelming measure of natural talent to begin with. You just need desire.