Negotiating This Whole Balance Thing or Finding Time for a One-Woman Dance Party In Order to Write Poems

I have a theory. The time you were born directly connects to the time of day in which your creative energy is most abundant. It occurs daily at the same time, an overwhelming need to do whatever it is you artistically do. I was born at 11:50am. 10 minutes right before the clock struck lunch. My hours are the hours of 10am-2pm. During this time, I am my most awake self, often overcome by a strong urge to write, or simply become filled with too many ideas to ever be able to get down on paper all at once before they flit away by the time the midday slump hits. I sometimes wish I had a recorder in my head to capture all of the snippets simultaneously appearing and asking to be remembered to finish later.

This is my theory and for me, and few other whom I’ve approached with this theory – remains to be steadfast and true. What scientific evidence do I have to back up this claim of mine? None. Here’s what I do know:

I know that I never know how my writing will feel on any given day, and so cling to this notion that there is a time that sets itself aside for me in the event that I have that time available to write, prime writing time. I’ve asked my other half what time he was born: sometime late in the night. He spends his late late hours, designing, producing, conceiving new ideas, churning out his creative impulses when most of us are asleep. I’ve tried to match this cycle, pushing my bed time later and later, telling myself that the greats sacrifice and so must I! Rarely, do I live up to the night owl standards. When I do, I’m done for the next day, uninterested or uninspired to do/write anything. I’ve done myself in. And so, I hold fast to my theory of birth time = creative productivity. It’s my truth and I’m sticking to it.

However, I am also a working adult and don’t really have the liberty to just drop what I’m doing, tell my colleagues or boss, “Excuse me for a few hours while I go and write poems. Be back to discuss that partnership negotiation later.” I heard Tyehimba Jess once talk about how he knew he was supposed to be poet when he found himself spending more time on the job writing poems than being on the job. After that revelation, he applied to NYU’s MFA Program and for those of you who know his work, you know how that story ended. I aspire.

But I love my 9-5. I spend my day creating amazing programs at the library for youth of Chicago. I do have the chance to spread the poetry gospel to new generations of writers and young artists, helping youth of the city discover their passion, no matter the content area. It’s pretty sweet.

Yet, I still long for the day when my own nicely polished, fresh paper-pressed book of poems arrives at my door step saying, “Hello, Mama!” So I write – find the time in the evening hours, having a conversation with my afternoon muse, asking it to push back our quality time just a little later. The greatest part about having an other half that is also creative, is that unspoken understanding of needing time to make the dream happen, and so giving each other the time and space needed to focus on our art, in between the jobs and our toddler.

When it comes to creating artistic space to produce, adjustments can surely be made when necessary. I attempt to save that Noon energy and put it into an imaginary bottle I can open when I have the quietude to sit down and get down to writing. I read over work I become excited about getting back to later, running lines through my head throughout the day until I can get to my desk, or a piece of paper. But I cherish my nights, wooing my muse through Acoustic Evening playlists on Spotify (or now perhaps Tidal? I digress), tea London style, sometimes even a one-woman dance party to keep up the fluidity, the writing written one day or moment at a time.

Whatever it takes, man. Whatever it takes.

Let’s Dance, Poem

The first time you read a new poem it’s like a first dance. You’ve spent so much time choreographing the steps, practicing the movements, pauses, turns. You’ve built an experience between the two of you that now brings you to this moment, ready to present yourselves publicly.

You have the audience anticipating what’s to come, a mixed crowd, coming with their own, varied understanding of anything and this reading. Maybe this poem is the first poem your read, or maybe it’s the last of your 10-12 min. slot. Maybe the audience already has an idea of what it is you have left to say.

Watching the dynamics change as you read, either new or old poems, is always intriguing. There are some that you know have tuned out many poems or poets ago, attempting still to appear alert and interested in the way you’ve just played with “space” or serial poems. And when you’re the last poet to read, you feel the weight of having to carry yourself and your poems through. Order, here, matters.

Recently, for me, this was exactly the case. As the last poet to read at a reading, I was charged with “bringing it home.” During the intermission I shifted and shifted and shifted my poems’ order, wanting to live up to my duty as The Last Poet to Read. Do I read the poem that ends “snapped broken on the ground” last or “touching everything that breaks” last? Both are great closing-liners, but the poems have such a tonal differences. Decisions. Light / heavy? Heavy / light? Is the light poem really light? Go with what you know. Go with what you know.

In the end, I decided to end with the rookie poem, the one that could go either way. It was a new style and a new tone, a venture into some sort of humor. Never considering myself to be humorous by nature, let alone poetically, I didn’t know how this one would fair. Leading up that moment I could tell the audience was ready for something to shift in my reading. The old standbys were not producing the expected reactions or moving of spirits. What would this last poem do? What if they don’t find it even awkwardly funny? Nonetheless, I pulled it out as I finished reading the poem before it and we started our dance.

The first few lines came, a few, small chuckles followed. The third and fourth line flowed out and then more laughs came, surprising and genuine. I continued to read and felt the air become lighter. I was breathing again. Who knew I could write a poem that could make others laugh?! Certainly not me. Did I discover some unknown crawlspace within myself filled with dusted, un-mined treasures? Maybe. Or maybe it was something else, something very simple. Maybe it was that this audience and this poem had their first dance. This was dance that didn’t belong to or, in some ways, even included me. Poems, whether new or old, are always a first dance with whomever is hearing them for the first time. During a reading, poems, whether new or old, are serious of first dances with whoever hears them for the first time and are touched or moved in some way.  These dances, ballroom-like, happen simultaneously and you as the poet are somewhere in the middle of it all as observer and orchestrator.

I tell my students that we do not choose to be poets, but that we are born poets. We have born with the purpose of telling the stories of those who cannot tell them themselves. Our words should touch, heal, or change something in someone. And so our poems are never meant to stay with us as our partners, but meant to go out to others and fall in rhythm where and with whom they are supposed to. I know this — but in the moments when I can actually see it happening, watch something move or shift in the air, it is so magical.  This reading showed me a new way that my poems can move, how they do move, and who they move with. I am so exited to take the news and run. Who knows though, the next time I read it, that finale poem may trip all of over the feet of the lady in the third row constantly adjusting her glasses or lose sync with the guy by the bar drinking his 3rd PBR Tallboy. Yet and still, I know that at lease one time that poem danced harmoniously with someone, and will do so again.

Dirty Thirty Did It List


30 is here. When it came knocking, I didn’t peep through the slit between the door and the frame to see who it was and what it wanted. I knew. I opened the door and said, “Come on in 30!” Okay, maybe I wasn’t that eager, but I was pretty kind to my new guest.

Me and Thirty got to talking when we sat down comfortably on my couch and thought about how we’d gotten here, what we were doing, and where the hell we were going. We had a good, long conversation. For the most part, everything was going alright. We were both pretty satisfied with ourselves and understood each other’s terms and purposes for the the coming year, but one thing that was clear was that I needed to get out and do more. After all of these years and all of things I’d done, Thirty pointed out that 1) “You don’t have any hobbies, so you should think about what is you like to do besides save babies and write because both of those are work, and 2) Don’t be what you always said you didn’t want to be, like those women on “What Not To Wear. Yes, you’re a mom and have a full-time job, but you still have big things to do and dreams to chase. Try to keep yourself up in the meantime. Make it work.”

And Thirty was right. Since she’s going to be around for a while so I may as well keep just enough adventure and curiosity to keep things interesting. So in the spirit of the this agreement, I came up with the Dirty Thirty Did It List. This “List” consists of all things I have either never done or things I’ve never done enough of. Life doesn’t stop at 30. Most importantly, life can stop at 30 and 1 day. This year will not be about mourning what I wasn’t able to do by the time Thirty and I got together, but to all the fun times Thirty and I will have, celebrating life for as long as I have it.

So what fun things do I have planned for this year?!!! Here we go:

1) Equestrian Are We?

Not really, but I’ve always wanted a horse, or at least learn how to ride one. Since I am a self-identified hopeless romantic, yes, I am in love with the fantasy of riding through sun-beamed trees of an angelic forest of friendly deers and humming birds to an open field where I will picnic and read the classics. (Man optional, but not required.)

2) Smell the Roses…or Peonies…or Daisies…

In college I had this desire to work in a floral shop. Random, but true. Flowers just seem so peaceful. They smell good and have so many different meanings. How you arrange them can be that nuance of emotional transference from one to another. Now that I think about it, they’re very similar to poems…


3) I’d Like to Think I Can Dance?

Maybe salsa? Definitely need to learn how to Chicago Step. I mean, I’ve had some pretty good impromptu teachers over my Chicago years, but there are still some moves I need to master. I still bring up to my mother that she never took me back to ballet and tap classes when I was 5. She claims I didn’t like my new teacher and cried every time she dropped me off for rehearsal. What 5 year old really knows what’s best for her?  Anyhoo, definitely salsa or bachata. What girl doesn’t want to be spun around the dance floor to passionate, worldly music?! Would seriously also try Flamenco.

4) More Jet Skis Please

My boyfriend and I took to Lake Michigan a few summers ago on a jet skiing Groupon at Montrose Beach. Best.Time.Ever. Beautiful blue water, waves, and speed. Gotta do it again this summer. Groupon, holla at me!

5) See Jen Run

Many awesome 5K runs came across my screen during my Living Social and Groupon scans for more than just spa treatment and restaurant deals. I’ve always enjoyed jogging and find working out as my place to escape and stay sane. In high school it was all about Track for me. For real. I don’t remember anything from high school more than I remember my Track days. I was more fielder than track, but I did do a couple of 4×4’s and 300 hurdles. Now that I’m all grown up, I’m bumping myself up to a 5K . Many of my friends have done them and I’ve dragged my feet about it for the past couple of years, but this year’s the year. Arm band and Nike+ Running app ready to go! I’m good. Let’s do this.

6) Road Trip West

I love road trips and have never taken one west. There’s no better place to try this one out than a trip to wine country? Please see current refrigerator magnet below. Who’s with me?!


7) Flying Trapeze

This is something that’s fairly new to my outing peripheral. A few of my friends have taken these classes on the north side near Belmont Harbor and loved it. It would be so cool to swing through the air. I probably need to work on my upper body strength beforehand, though. I mean, I know there’s safety nets and harnesses and all, but still…I’d like to fake myself out.

8) Swim With Dolphins

This one’s a 2-parter. Did you know you can swim with the dolphins (or whales, or maybe sharks?) at the Shedd?! Yes, yes, you can! I know, I know. It’s crazy! I’m all about it. However, I need to take Scuba diving lessons which apparently you can do at a pool at UIC. Thanks Groupon! Boom. Done.

9+10) Suggestions?!

This is the part where I’m willing to take on what you’ve got. I know you people all kinds of interesting things that I most likely have never tried. So send me some ideas. Let’s just keep in mind that I am someone’s momma.


I bet you thought my list was going to have some CRAZY stuff on it, didn’t you? Or may be you didn’t, but nonetheless I’m up for some challenges. I just want to show myself that adventure doesn’t end when your life on Earth hits a certain benchmark. Life stops when you stop breathing. My lungs and heart rate are just fine. There’s a whole world of newdom out there, Thirty. Come on. Grab your jacket and shoes. We’re going out.

“So, Who Do You Write Like?”

We recently had a very interesting conversation, my writing group and I, about maybe the second hardest ( and really most annoying) question to answer: So, who do you think you write like?

We determined that for purposes of submitting to lit mags, it’s an important answer to know. After all, knowing the style in which you write can whittle down where you send your precious ones, or rather, where the work of who you write like tends to be published and seen. But who wants to sit there and say, “Well, I write like him, him, and her?” We all would like to believe we are somewhat original and maybe can even do what we do better than the poet we “write like.” I mean come on now, after all, we writers love our immediate and singular gratification.

But we do have to acknowledge that our style may fall within a certain aesthetic, even if that aesthetic is a blend of various aesthetics. The tendency, when asked who I write like, is to say “Uh, Jennifer Steele” because I do, but my work carries many influences as does everyone’s work.

Maybe the bottom line is we just can’t (or do not desire to) point our finger to whom our work resembles. One of my fellow workshoppers made this great point: the writers we like to read and put in our top 10 list of greatest poets I’d like to be buried with are most likely not the poets we write anything like; even more strangely, we may fall into a section of writers whose work we don’t enjoy.

So what to do with that?

I don’t believe that saying your writing has particular influences or lies within the same “genre” as another writer(s) is necessarily a bad thing. I, myself, can see hints of writers I admire come through in my work in different ways, maybe not lyrically, but perhaps with use of white space or line breaks. Naomi Shihab Nye is one of favorite poets for reasons that have to do with pacing, lyricism, and narrative structure. My witting gleans her quietude and what I call “pow” contemplative lines that fall neatly within the narrative.

As you can tell, this conversation really got me thinking. Who do I write like? The only poet who I am ever able to identify with stylistically would be Tracy K. Smith. Now, Tracy is a baaaaad mammajamma. Her work is edgy and unexpected. My poems can relate to her placement of short statements, causing a reader to think and realize along with the speaker, pause the moment and consider for a while how we got here. Needless to say, me and Tracy could kick it.

But, Joan Houlihan is a newfound friend and what’s interesting is that I wouldn’t have immediately identified with her work, but taking a more critical look at poems I wrote a long time ago and still love, these poems seem to exist in this narrative/abstract/language realm her poems belong to. I can’t necessarily relate my content to her content, but do find myself strangely attracted to her writing.

So I guess I am somewhere mixed in with Tracy K. Smith and Joan Houlihan, plus all of the poets Amazon has recommended based on books purchased by people who also bought “Life On Mars” and “The Mending Worm.” Not a bad little crew.

Apology to My Muse


You and I have been estranged for far too long and I miss you. You remain with me, but as some shadow confined to a corner, turning only when called. I’ve been selfish, expected you to expect to know your place as supplier, misunderstood your true purpose and lost sight of my love for you. I was afraid of you and your power, the unconditional nature of your being. Your proximity to me made me uneasy every time I questioned whether or not I was capable of fulfilling our potential. My faith in you wavered and for that I am sorry. There can be no relationship if there is no trust.

I lost my way and have had trouble finding it back to you. So much has happened and perhaps I’ve built those capsules of moments and years around you to quiet your voice of expectations. I knew you were there. You were always there. You were close enough to call and I knew you would come, prepared to give. I rarely, if ever, replenished you in the way that was necessary, that demonstrated my love and appreciation for you. How disingenuine of me! There were times when I asked you to show yourself, a servant treasure to my art. You gave me what you could and reserved the rest.

I’ve neglected you for far too long. It is time to make things right. I will set aside my fears and learn to listen, to hear you and to trust you. Who knows me better than you?

Please forgive me. Stay.



Getting Back to Business

I’ve said this often, I am a terrible procrastinator. I’ve spent too much time (years really) attempting to either perfect every poem or simply find every excuse of why I cannot find the time to write. Every moment I look up and realize how much time has passed since I graduated grad school I get a little bit sad, a little bit disappointed with myself. I drench myself in thoughts of “I should have my book by now…,” “I should have published x amount of poems by now,” “I should be writing x amount of hours everyday,” “I haven’t written in so long how can I call myself a writer?” And so on and so on. In my mind I know that I have too long been my own worst critic, stopping myself before I’ve even started.

When I do find the time to sit down and write I remember how much I love it and how much I miss the excitement of finishing the draft of a poem, or the challenge of finding the right word to replace a general one, or rearranging lines and stanzas until it just feels right. It’s exhilarating. Yet once that session is done I do not return to the writing table for a long time. Insert excuses here. The list becomes longer and longer. I mask my insecurities about writing with the excuse that I do not have enough time. I’m too busy with tomorrow’s workload and meeting. I have to teach. I have to do this. I have to do that. Now that I have a child I have hit the mother load of excuses.

But the truth, as it always is, is that I do have the time to write. I have the talent to write. I have the love and the passion to write. I have the utensils to write and I have an abundance of books and music and such to inspire me to write. All I really need to do is remember the fun, remember the exhilaration of putting pen to paper (yes, Pen.To.Paper) and finding those infinite combinations of words that form my stories, my voice, the voices and stories of others. When I was a young writer that was my answer whenever I was asked why I enjoy writing. I was in aw of the infinite possibilities of combinations of words, of how no matter what words we use every day can be put together differently to make a new sentence, phrase, emotion, etc.

As writers we can reach a point, when get to the place of MFA’s and fellowships and publications, where we can lose touch with our younger writer selves who wrote because yes, we were angst-y, and in love, and broken-hearted, and happy, and all we wanted to do was the tell the world about it. When I’m with my students and they are performing their poems, or I’m listening to poems of other students I become nostalgic. I become so filled up with possibility and free-ness. Young writers are so free and un-hinged in a way that causes me to remember why I pursued writing in the first place, the days when I felt that if I wasn’t a writer then I didn’t know what I was meant to be on this Earth. A little melo-dramatic? Maybe. But true.

Somewhere along the way I started taking myself to seriously and between the fear of both failing and succeeding, and worse being mediocre. (Issues, right?) Once, I had a conversation with one of my professors about the fear of success. It’s crazy to think that anyone can be so afraid of being successful that it prevents them from pursuing their art. Tony Medina often mentioned the sadness of those writers who were great writers, but were so caught up in their fears that the only published one book or one body of work. In some ways I understand that fear, as odd it is. What if you do write something great and that one piece of work is your peak? How can you top the expectations of those who are waiting for you to do something else amazing? It sounds self-centered, but it’s a legitimate reserve for some writers. I can admit that I have read a work by a writer, watched a movie or show by a director, and the follow-up work was lackluster and I was disappointed in the second experience. Who am I to have that judgment? No one, really. Yet these are the types of thoughts writers allow to cripple them.

I don’t want to be one of those writers. I’m trying my best to be done with the excuses, to find myself mixed between not giving a fuck and giving a fuck, between youth and obligation. I am a writer and I want to be a great writer which includes a necessary discipline. I have the time to write. Housewives and Scandals (oh the guilty pleasures!) can wait. Someone, even if it’s only one, will like something I write. I have always said that if one person is influenced or touched by my writing then that’s all that matters, that I’ve done my job and I have to hold fast to that idea and hold myself accountable. I just have to have fun, again.