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Three From the Street

Street PoetryI’ve been thinking recently about how institutions built around poetry, much like museums of art and culture, are always trying to engage the participation of a broader community. Yet inherently, through concrete (in this case, meaning un-moving, or actual) spaces with doors that people can walk in and out of and opening and closing times and specific workshops and programming that require a reservation, or a ticket, and advance planning; this outreach becomes more and more inflexible in certain ways while it becomes wonderfully diverse in others. Inflexible mostly in terms of location. The people must go to the place for the thing. The thing does not go to the people. This is good because it is a self-selecting process; those who are interested enough will take the time to get to the place to see/absorb/hear/participate in the thing. This is bad because the walls, the environment, the self-selected crowd, build limits around the thing, and have an influence on what the thing becomes and what it says.

There is a wonderful video from a talk by Kewulay Kamara at Poets House where he says, “when something is written, it’s ossified, it’s limited” (I’ve embedded the video at the bottom of this post). In the same way, when something is built, it builds limits while it builds stability. But we cannot build poetry centers out of air and everywhere.

The following images are a few street poems. I am drawn to them because they have nothing to do with writing on a white page (that rigid, ossified thing). They are expressions on mediums that are temporary — a green wall at a construction site, a piece of cardboard nailed to a tree, a closed building (which used to be an amazing Mexican restaurant called El Norte). I will admit that I feel slightly betrayed by the fact that two of the three pieces have authors with an internet presence but these are the times in which we live.

The first image is by Elbow Toe, a more improvisational and sparse piece when compared to his other work. The second has no author, nailed to a tree in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. And the third is quite beautiful, yet perhaps written by this guy who seems crazy.

Chicago Park El Norte The text, if you can’t see it clearly, says:

I’m here now. So pick up your pants. Put down your guns. And think about the little ones. — The Last American Poet

The Furniture of Lietuva

I have just returned from an eye-opening trip to Lithuania with my friend. With her tireless parents, we traveled from one end of the country to the other. From Vilnius to Seduva, from Seduva to Siauliai, and then on to Kretinga, Palanga (a dip in the Baltic Sea) and down to Druskininkai on the border of Poland and Belarus.

The trip has inspired two poems so far: “Treescapes in a Cramped Domestic Space” and “The Overwhelming Panorama of Another’s Routine.” More may eek out over time.

But before that happens, here are some photos of the furniture that I saw there.

Plant against plant pattern


The sofa.

chair and well-lit mirror

An inviting green chair inside Kretinga Manor (although I don’t think you were allowed to sit in it) with lovely lighting behind.

two striped chairs

A dashing striped chair duo. Note the nice floor pattern that sets them off! Also in Kretinga Manor.

benches at the amber museum

Soft benches at the Amber Museum in Palanga with the curtains giving structure to the air coming out of the vents. My friend’s uncle is named Gintaras, which means amber in Lithuanian.

stool or tiny table

A stool that doubles as a tiny table!

the second parlor

What the family calls “The New” or “The Second” Parlor

washroom in rundale palace

This is actually not in Lithuania, it’s a washroom in the Rundale Palace in Latvia. The stool, handily doubles as a chamber pot.

the first parlor after the party

First parlor post party.

spa interior druskininkai

Square seats Inside a spa in Druskininkai.

The couch bench

A weird, long couch/bench outside of Cili Pizza in Druskininkai.

Green on Green

Green OnionsYou really know it’s spring when people start misplacing their green onions.

The Twilight Zone: Comforting in it’s Pre-internet-ness

I think people were more present then. Then here being the time before the internet. As a special bonus, let’s throw in a “then” that was also before cell phones. People had to look for things, and wait for people.

I find myself, when typing content on a screen, using fragments of language, sort of like the George Saunders story, “The Semplica Girl Diaries”:

Am getting off track, due to tired, due to those fighting cats.

I think that’s why I recently became obsessed with the Twilight Zone. Here are some screenshots I collected.Screen shot 2014-09-14 at 9.22.23 PMScreen shot 2014-09-11 at 10.40.21 PMScreen shot 2014-08-26 at 8.25.52 PMScreen shot 2014-08-28 at 7.13.22 PMScreen shot 2014-08-25 at 9.33.01 PMScreen shot 2014-08-09 at 4.21.32 PMScreen shot 2014-07-30 at 8.21.03 PMScreen shot 2014-07-30 at 1.25.32 PMScreen shot 2014-07-24 at 8.11.07 PMScreen shot 2014-07-16 at 10.04.51 PMScreen shot 2014-07-16 at 10.01.34 PMScreen shot 2014-06-29 at 7.59.45 PMScreen shot 2014-06-29 at 7.42.43 PM

Writing Process Chain-Letter

This week, Abriana invited me to answer some questions on the topic: “MY WRITING PROCESS.” I think this is a kind of virtual-chain-letter-of-creative-thought, similar to “The Next Big Thing,” that spread like wildfire a while back.

I’m always game for exercises like this.

Let’s start by thanking Abriana Jetté for inviting me to partake. She’s a teacher, reviewer, anthologist and writer (we’re both Boston University MFA-ers). But the trait of Abriana’s that I am most familiar with is her ability to be both a keen listener and thoughtful learner of the work and process of what she calls “emerging” writers. For poets that have never had anyone really listen to their work (we’re not counting classroom workshops here), Abriana is crucial. She often carries poems around in her jacket pocket or her bag and lets them sink into the cadence of her life for a while before sitting down and reflecting on them. Her thoughts shed light on each person’s work with dignity. She is the poetry contributor and anthologist at Stay Thirsty Media and I’ve been really lucky to connect with her. Now to answer some scary questions!


Not much, to be honest. I have a full-time job that has nothing to do with poetry. As a result of this crammed schedule, my poems have changed. They’re being followed, they move quickly, and they obsess over the passing of time and the imperfections of language. You cannot ever say what you hope to say, no matter how long you have to try to say it. Pages in my poems take different shapes. They are scribbles on sandy beaches with an ominous tide coming in to wash everything away, or a cave in the brain with drawings and smeared, illegible writing (time is a very good eraser).

I have been interested in the way the word “mine” and “mind” sound so similar. Mine has two meanings, but the one I’ve been working with is the one in which you dig. My poems have been playing with the similarity of these two words, how you can toggle between the two with the slightest alteration of sound. What happens when you mistake a mind for a mine? A tunnel opens up.


Elizabeth Ayres just said “no” to this question. Obviously, she feels, every writer is different because they have different eyes and brains and backgrounds. But I suppose that I could say that my poems (at least right now) are interested in construction, not only of language, but of content. Poems, for me, are built objects. They hold emotions, but do not begin from an emotional landscape (as they once did). The structure comes first and the emotion sprouts from that scaffolding. The potential threat of anarchy in every poem is something I try to loosely harness; allowing it to occasionally take over.

But I’m sure all poets generally feel this way.


What does this question mean? Why do I write poetry instead of short fiction? Or why do I write about the horrendously inescapable passing of time? If it’s why do I write poetry, the answer is because I can’t do anything else. I don’t really have a choice in the matter. It is the architecture of my expression and it’s been this way from the very beginning. Black and white photography is wonderful to create, but it doesn’t thrill me in the same way as just having written a good poem.


I write poetry — more likely agonize over not writing poetry — whenever I can snatch a minute or two: Sunday mornings, 6 am on weekdays before work, a line or two before falling asleep. I scribble down images or thoughts that I hope to build on later and they make a pile of scraps on my desk.

When asked about his writing process, John Ashbery says he puts it off until the afternoon. Then he brews a strong cup of tea and begins. If only it were that easy for me. Here is a picture of Ashbery’s desk from “Created Space: A Case for John Ashbery’s Chelsea Apartment.”  The caption is: Ashbery’s domestic environment is an organic, mutable living-quarters-cum-laboratory. Office. Photo by Ahndraya Parlato.brown-fragmentsB

For me, this desktop epitomizes the process of putting together a poem and the whole act of distilling sound and idea into one beastly organism.

Now, I would like to invite Calvin Olsen to answer these questions. I’m excited to hear what he has to say! Calvin is a guy from UTAH (ahem, IDAHO) who currently resides and works in Boston. He was my colleague at Boston University and his poetry is minimal and playful, and yet he’s a prolific writer. You can get an impression of his work at Calvin VS. World where he participated in the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project or by visiting his website devoted entirely to his Haiku. He teaches, writes, and hosts TEDX talks, too! He makes poetry accessible to all without minimizing the mystery and energy that goes into the process of creating. We’re pen pals!


Sometimes on a bike ride through rural Ohio…

This happens:


Portrait Without Seeing


Picture Window Picture


The Best Comments


This is a painting by my dear friend, Li Jing Fei.

This is a painting by my dear friend, Li Jing Fei.

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City Structures

skwak-sophie-travelaccomodationsAre you also a little sad that this sleeping shadow did not make it into my little book of poems? I know, right? Me too. All of the pictures in my little chapbook were drawn by Stephanie Kwak who is a true fellow friend, and who just recently went to Beijing and met Ai Weiwei. This drawing of the sleeper is her interpretation of my poem “Travel Accommodations.” She is a pure talent, isn’t she? Don’t be too sad because the book is lovely.

It was made by the nimble hands of Liana at Damask Press (with much help from her grandmother), and just last week I had a little celebratory reading. It was like when Dorothy wakes up from her knock on the head and her trip to Oz and she says “and you were there…and you and you and you were there!” That’s how I felt at the reading. My boss, the very boss Amanda (boss meaning cool!) of Chicago Detours fame was there. My beaming parents, Wanyu and the Cho crew, and even little miss Lisa Hiton  appeared all tan and from completely out of the blue! Well, sort of from out of the blue. More like from off a plane that came from Greece where she had been writing poetry and concussing her head on trees. What a happy day. The reading, not the concussing. Also, I got to take home the boxed wine that Nancy brought and I am drinking it right now. Here is another image from City Structures. This one is from “Light Structures in the Library of Babel.” Isn’t is just wonderful?


I just returned from a brief stint at the Grimes Farm where my family encouraged everyone to enjoy nature by giving away trees and hosting the 13th annual Grimes Farm Run! We had a whopping 170 people register. You should join us next year! While I was in Iowa with my family, I found:

1. A postcard from 1908 of Chicago’s Michigan Ave (with horses and unpaved roads!) In fact, it’s this very one: POSTCARD - CHICAGO - MICHIGAN AVE - COACHES - YOUNG TREES - STUNNING - 1908

2. A tiny book of poems by Persian poet Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Since I am drinking wine, I will quote his wise words: “Better be jocund with the fruitful grape than saddened after none, or bitter, fruit.” So there you go.