Sunday, September 29, 2013

More Than a Year Later...An Update

My last post here was more than a year ago - June 2012. During that neglect, there have been some mighty big changes in my world. They have largely put my creative writing on hold until now, but I'm excited to be getting back to it.

The big news (and one that will eventually lead to a blog name change, or me finally getting off my but and just buying a domain already)is that I am now Mrs. Colleen S. Harris-Keith, wife of Mr. Jed Waters Harris-Keith. It's a whirlwind romance story that I will be blogging about separately, for those of you who want to read it. For now, let me say that I found and married my best friend, it is the very best decision I have ever made, and my life has changed for the wonderful-ler. (You'd think a poet could come up with a better word. I'll work on it.)

The past year has also been characterized by trying to get my rheumatoid disease under control. A much less romantic story, punctuated with inflammation flares impacting all of my joints, bouts of related colitis, frustration, missed work, lots of doctor visits, and trying out lots of medication combinations. The bright side is that I have wonderful doctors who listen and are willing to help, a husband who does everything under the sun to make my life easy and my world easier to negotiate, and family and friends who support me. I'm still achy, my GI tract is a hot mess, but I am using the cane a lot less, and after my most recent stint in the hospital and doc-ordered homestay, I'm doing more to take care of myself.

In the vein of taking care of myself, I've found that the gymming I'm accustomed to tends to be too high-impact for my joints. I have taken up swimming, which has been surprisingly therapeutic both in terms of an exercise that doesn't cause instant pain and swelling, and as a sort of meditative time. I've been on pause for the past three weeks while recovering, but am looking forward to getting back into the pool this week.

In addition to getting married, Jed and I have added to our family. We are the proud parents of basset hounds Otto (7 years), and new baby boy Igor. Ridiculously cute videos available at my YouTube channel. I highly recommend bookmarking them and watching when you're low. Also, if you are under the impression that basset hounds are lazy (which they are not, until they hit about 7. Unless you add a puppy to the mix.)

Since my last post here, I've defended both the prospectus (November 2012) and proposal (September 2013) for my dissertation. What this means - the first three chapters are written, the instrument is approved, and next steps are IRB approval, piloting, then distribution, collection of data, crunching of data, and writing the results. With luck and health, I'm hoping to be hooded in May 2014.

The focus moving forward is on my health, both physical and mental. I've let the craziness of the past year distract me and I've not been writing much, aside from the dissertation and some scholarly project stuff. My creative writing has been on hold, but I'm starting to get itchy, so expect more in the coming months here.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Planning for the Fall (Yes, Already!)

While the bulk of my papers and presentations tend to be library-related (since that's the career that pays ye ole bills), I wanted to start building up my English/Creative Writing chops. (Largely to woo the English department here into considering me for additional classes, should they need folks, but also just to keep my skills and research in that area up to date and sharp.) I got lucky, and have had a few papers accepted that I'm very proud of.

Because of those acceptances, I'll be doing a wee bit of traveling in the fall (okay, more-than-normal traveling, for me) to present a couple of papers in Europe. (Hitting Ireland this summer has given me the travel bug.) In October, I'll be presenting my paper "Mythology as curricular crossroads: The intersection of constructivist theory, Women’s Studies, Creative Writing, and student research skill development" at the Myth & Interdisciplinarity International Conference in Madrid. After that, I'll be headed to Salzburg to present "Adding meat to metaphorical bones: Research, critical thinking, and leveraging the academic library for creative writing praxis" at the 2nd Global Conference on Writing: Paradigms, Power, Poetics, Praxes. The generosity of my library dean and the University in terms of funding are making this possible, as I wouldn't have a prayer of capitalizing on this without their help.

There are a number of other book chapters and paper presentations also in the hopper for fall, but they're largely library science or EdD-program related, so I'll spare you the detail. And then, of course, there's EdD comps and dissertation proposal defense in August and dissertating (is that a verb?) in the fall. Suffice it to say, fall and the remainder of this summer will be characterized by writing, writing, writing.

I also just received an email that my short story, "The Patron Saint of easy Girls" made it through the first pass and is moving on to the judges in a flash fiction competition. Which reminded me that I have an unfinished flash fiction collection I was working on, plus the poetry collection, plus the essays. I am seriously considering cancelling cable so that I am less distracted by the boob tube and have more writing time. But, the Food Network. (That's pretty much the entire reason I keep the cable subscription. Cooking competitions turn me on - probably because my own kitchen is far too small to work in.)

Also had lunch with one of the English faculty today, as she's been teaching the CNF class for awhile and is an old pro - I wanted to pick her brain about syllabi and such. The sushi was good, the conversation was fun (I really must get out and socialize more), and I feel like I'm on the right track with building the syllabus. I'm really looking forward to teaching this class. I'm going to try to polish off the syllabus this weekend so that can be done, as well as the syllabus for my Violence & Reality TV in Literature class for the freshmen.

And a book chapter and a conference paper and maybe a paper or two coming due for class. So, as usual, you can find me at the library - even when it's closed.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

What's Percolating in Colleen's Head (Or On Her Computers)

I am, indeed, alive and kicking. In between work, research for work, coursework for the doctorate, and trying to maintain a decent bedtime to keep the immune system mollified, I thought I'd talk a little bit about the works-in-progress on the humanities/creative writing side of life.

I was lucky enough to receive a contract from McFarland for Mythology and Modern Women Poets: Analysis, Teaching, & Critical Reflection. (I may or may not still be dancing a jig about this. SO EXCITED. Ahem.) The call for chapter proposals is open until April 30, and I'm still looking for folks interested in writing on teaching women poets and myth, or women poets who work with myth writing critical reflections of their work and inspiration in the genre. You can find the call here if interested. I already have a number of talented scholars and writers lined up to submit chapters - it's wonderful company to be in!

I also find myself working on and then drifting away from a handful of creative manuscripts at varying stages of completion.

First, there is a collection of CNF essays. Right now, the essays have the common themes of socio-economic class concerns and (oddly enough) lessons learned from my father's presence, and later, his absence. I'm letting this one grow organically, which means that I wrote about 7,000 words on it last weekend, and it's lain silent since then. It's "percolating," which is what I call it when I'm conscious of a project, and have it rolling around in my head, but nothing - aside from incubation - is happening. These essays are interesting as an exercise in non-fiction (which sates my librarian-need to research the oddest of phenomena), but they are also emotionally draining. I don't want to slide too far into sappy memoir, so this is a delicate balance. I will note that I notice my writerly tics far more in prose than I do when I'm in poet-mode. Repetitive phrasing, sentence length, and other bad habits stand out to me more in this format. I find I am also much more mentally tied to the Times New Roman 12-point-font in essay form, while I am far more likely to experiment with new fonts when writing poetry. (This project is also a interesting exercise because I'll be teaching a CNF workshop in the fall. Getting a taste of my own medicine before I inflict myself on the students, as it were.)

I am wrestling with two poetry manuscripts at the moment. One could be close to finished - at least length-wise - if I could wrestle the poems into submission, somehow. I'm tentatively calling it Madwoman City, and that's what it feels like right now. Disparate pieces, disparate voices, disparate styles, no organizing principle that makes me happy. it reminds me, in fact, of living in an all-women's dorm at college. But I'm drawn back to it, again and again, so there must be something salvageable in there. I may try to shave it down to a chapbook before trying to rebuild it into a manuscript. What I really need is a weekend in a hotel room, where I can run clothesline up and down the room and fool with the order of poems that way. (I do believe poet Kathleen Driskell mentioned doing that at one point for one of her books, but it may have been one of our other Spalding poets.) In any case, this collection seems to be missing something, some sort of connective tissue, so I'm worrying at it like a hound with a bone.

The other poetry manuscript isn't so much of a manuscript as a manuscript-fetus. Right now it is taking form as a collection of loose narrative sonnets, following the life-thread of a woman. Originally I titled it Gentle Cycle, right now the title on the file is Some Assembly Required. There are (I think) some really wonderful and mature pieces in there, but it is slow, slow, s-l-o-w going. This is due to a combination of factors - that the time I've been devoting to creative writing has been minimal, that I work extremely slowly when faced with formal strict containers like the sonnet (this slow speed is faster than usual, since I'm going with loose sonnets and not strict ones), that I have not yet cancelled cable so I have a DVR full of delicious trashy television, that I have a 9pm bedtime. But this one, too, is percolating, simmering just under the surface. And what is happening is lovely, it's just (the word again) slow. I'm trying to imagine it as a cask of something lovely that needs to steep a bit before it can be loosed on the finer palates of the world. That sort of sentiment has the bonus of not making me feel guilty for not getting off my arse to do more writing, of course.

As I've been reading more nonfiction (and particularly nonfiction on writing), and reading to prepare for teaching in the fall (the CNF workshop, and a freshman seminar on reality tv in literature - more on this soon), I'm also thinking about writing a series of essays on the intersection of librarianship, teaching, and poetics, but my brain would need far more rest than it's had in the past few weeks before I tackle something like that. But again...percolating.

Other things in the mental percolator: a paper on using myth as a vehicle for an interdisciplinary curriculum in higher ed (if it doesn't get picked up for the conference I'm hoping for, I might use it as an introductory chapter to the Mythology and Women Poets book, with some tweaking), a paper on leveraging academic libraries to support the creative writing curriculum (and why honest-to-gods research is so very, very important to good creative writing), some critical reflections on course-building, a collection of slightly-longer-than-flash fiction that has been moldering in my projects folder that I should consider returning to.

Percolating, percolating, percolating.

I don't even drink coffee.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Teaching Creative Writing: Making Inroads

As I'm trying to re-balance myself and what I work on in my free time, I have been making a conscious effort to try to make teaching more of a priority. I consider it the weakest area of my CV since it's what I do least, compared to publishing and service. Thanks to a serendipitous combination of generous friends in the right places, opportunities through my university, and a supportive boss, I have been able to get into the classroom, with more opportunities slated for the coming semesters.

I participate in my University's Freshman Seminar program, where I teach a one-credit course on a fun topic (courses range from "Star Wars and the Roman Empire" to "Politics and South Park"). In Fall 2011 I taught "Poetry and Mythmaking: Using Creative Writing to Revise History" which was not only incredibly fun, it let me see that I was right about how excited students might get about both mythology and poetry if put in the right context. This coming fall, I am offering a course titled "Reality TV in Literature: The Hunger Games & its Predecessors" through the same program. It is a great way to test the waters for a class you are thinking about designing as a full 3-credit class, as well as a nifty way to dip into some pop culture and try to get students engaged and interested in a topic early in their academic careers - proof that learning can indeed be fun.

Also this coming fall, the English department offered me the chance to teach a section of their Creative Nonfiction undergraduate class. While CNF was not my primary training focus in my MFA, I have had a few essays published in journals and as book chapters, and my book The Kentucky Vein (Punkin House, 2011) was mostly poetry, but concluded with a handful of essays. So I am qualified, but I am also reading everything on CNF that I can get my hands on, from books on writing to collections of essays. I can't wait to try my hand at teaching a workshop and encouraging young writers.

In Fall 2011, I designed an upper-level course titled "Modern Women Poets and Mythology" that has generated interest from the Women's Studies, Classics, and English departments. I couldn't accept the generous offer to teach it this semester due to working to get a handle on my health, but am hoping the departments might agree to offer the course next spring (2013).

There are hundreds (thousands?) of writers and MFA grads desperate for a teaching gig, of any type, anywhere, and I am profoundly grateful for the chance to get in the classroom and try my hand with students. These teaching opportunities also mesh really well with a topic on which I am interested in doing more research, the place of research in creative writing, including leveraging the library for research purposes in the creative writing curriculum, and focusing specifically on research skill development for creative writing students. It's a nice melding of my two sides, the creative writer and the librarian, and something I hope will help writers as they develop their craft.

I expect to blog more about my experiences in the creative writing classroom as I have them - stay tuned!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Of Blessings and Luck: Gonesongs to be Published!

Robert Ward, my long-suffering editor at Bellowing Ark who published my first and second books, and never holds my long-delayed email responses against me, will be publishing Gonesongs, my fourth book of poems. (Look for it at the end of 2012, or early 2013. Don't worry, I'll let you know when it is available!) The collection is close to my heart, as it was my creative thesis for my MFA degree, and includes a number of very personal pieces. So, hooray!

And related to that, holy cow. Book FOUR. I am a hell of a lucky poet, in a time where poetry presses are struggling to survive, and poets are willing to sell their eyeteeth to be published.

In celebration, and in a display of complete cheeky brashness, today I submitted my application for an NEA Literature Fellowship in Creative Writing. They are awarded every two years; out of more than 1,000 applications, the judges pick about 45 poets to receive the $25,000 fellowship. It is, in a phrase, a Very Big Deal. All the judges have to review are the ten pages of poetry you submit - they receive no other information. And so, I chose what I think are my ten best poems, though distinguishing "best" from "favorite" is no mean feat, and I may well have flubbed it. But not applying *guarantees* that I wouldn't be winning, and at least now my name is in the hat. The deadline is March 1, and the fellowship begins in 2013.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

CFP -- Mythology and Modern Women Poets: Analysis, Reflection & Teaching

Mythology and Modern Women Poets: Analysis, Reflection & Teaching

(Call also available in .pdf format here)

Book Publisher: McFarland

Contributors needed for book chapters on modern women poets and mythology, including the following topics:

  • The use of myth by modern women poets
  • Women poets and world creation
  • Myths most commonly appropriated by women poets and critical commentary as to why
  • Critical analyses of modern women poets utilizing myth in their work, including (but certainly not limited to) the following women poets:
  • Olga Broumas
  • C. J. Burns
  • Audre Lord
  • Anne Sexton
  • Louise Gl├╝ck
  • Carol Ann Duffy
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Diane Wakoski
  • Hilda Doolittle (H. D.)
  • Joy Harjo
  • Judy Grahn
  • Lili Bita
  • Catherynne M. Valente
  • Other women poets working with aspects of mythology
  • Comparison/contrast of women poets whose work utilizes the same myths
  • The challenge of feminizing traditionally male mythological perspectives
  • Critical reflections on, and recommendations for, developing courses for/teaching mythology and poetry in the K-12/undergraduate/graduate/workshop levels
  • Critical reflection by women poets on their own creative work related to mythology
  • The challenge women poets face in re-visioning commonly understood myths
  • Scholarly inquiry into why women poets are attracted by mythological structures
  • Other topics relevant to modern women poets and mythology
The above list is not exhaustive; prospective contributors are encouraged to be creative. The above list is not exhaustive; prospective contributors are encouraged to be creative. The intent of this collection is to fuse, in the same volume, critical analysis by scholars, critical reflection by authors, and best practices for teaching topics related to modern women poets and mythology.

No previously published, or simultaneously submitted material.

Editor Colleen S. Harris is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, author of three books of poetry, including The Kentucky Vein (Punkin House, 2011), These Terrible Sacraments (Bellowing Ark, 2010), and God in My Throat: The Lilith Poems (Bellowing Ark, 2009), and co-editor of Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching (McFarland, 2012). Her fourth book of poetry, Gonesongs, is forthcoming in 2013 from Bellowing Ark Press. Colleen holds an MFA degree in Writing and an MS in Library and Information Science. Her poetry has appeared in The Louisville Review, Free Verse, Wisconsin Review, River Styx, and others. Her work has been included in Library Journal, Writing and Publishing: The Librarian’s Handbook (American Library Association, 2010), and Contemporary American Women: Our Defining Passages (All Things That Matter Press, 2009). Colleen works at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as a full-time member of the library faculty and occasional adjunct in English and other departments.

Please send titles and abstracts for up to 3 topics for chapter topics you would like to contribute, as well as a 75-90 word author’s bio. Please send in a .doc or .docx Word file attachment by April 30, 2012 using MYTH/your last name in the subject line to You will receive a confirmation response with guidelines if your topics haven't already been taken. Contributors should plan for each chapter to be between approximately 2000 and 3000 words. Those included in the anthology will receive a complimentary copy as compensation.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Magic of Twenty-six

Thought: I have largely lived my life within the bounds of twenty-six letters.

Sitting in the specialist's office today, reading Louise Erdrich's essay "Two languages in Mind, But Just One in the Heart" (in Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from the New York Times), I was struck by something.

Well, I was struck by two things. The first was how eloquently she put her love of a second native language in harmony with writing the essay in English. The second was, when she noted how verbs and nouns differed, that most of my lived experience, and my reading experience, and my feeling experience I can express, happens within the bounds of twenty-six characters.

Thought: There are only three letters difference between "I love you" and "I hate you." Only three between "I love you" and "I loathe you."

There are only twenty-six letters in the English alphabet. The things we build from twenty-six letters. Novels, poems. Newspapers. All the things that come from language, our stories. Many of us live out our lives in twenty-six characters. An arbitrary number. Slightly more if we start adding accented letters so we can steal words and phrases from other tongues, for the things English has yet to find a concise way to say. More than that if we start to include punctuation, considering the mad growth of emoticons entering the language in the age of digital communications. And languages like Chinese and Japanese with their thousands of characters and nuances...but let me stick with my native tongue, and limit myself to the capacities of the twenty-six I know.

In twenty-six letters, you can read Nabokov's Lolita. King's The Stand. Stan Rice's Red to the Rind. Vampires and werewolves and eighteenth century drama and erotica and war and death and sublime beauty and bodice-ripping romance and the history of centuries and the parts of a tulip, all in twenty-six letters. My dissertation-in-progress. My grocery list. Most of my music collection.

And what mastery of those simple characters can do! I vaguely remember learning to write in those lined booklets they give (gave?) children, where the middle dashed line dictated the size of the small letters, and the solid top and bottom lines dictated where the letters should stand and reach to. The struggle to make letters look uniform. The way I beamed when I could make my own name; how my mother hung it on the refrigerator as a statement of accomplishment. The wonder at equating the words I could write with the words in the books my mother read to me. The magic of being able to name myself and everything else in an indelible way, in a way that could tell others after me "I was here, and this is what I saw, and this is what I have to say about it." This led to a love of reading what others had left behind. Which led to a love of libraries, and my eventual career.

Thought: there is only a one-letter difference between "don't" and "won't."

I am convinced there are two kinds of writers in the world - those of us born with stories to tell, and those of us with a love of language so deep that only writing, building new realities with words, gives us an outlet for it. The first kind, I think, become novelists, journalists. The second, if they never learn to really structure themselves, become poets. There are all sorts of other divisions that can be made, on different lines. But this one feels true for me - I am a poet mostly because i love language and the beauty that comes from pairing certain words, just so, without worry of how I am going to carry a plot or character development or any of those other things requiring a much deeper commitment to a story. My commitment is, as Richard Hugo might say, to the music.

And still, it comes back to those twenty-six characters, and what mighty castles and pitiful houses we can build with them.

And what happens when people are given these letters? Why, they tell stories. And their stories ring of truth, and a story written down is a story that refuses to die. A story written down outlives the bearer of the story, and killing the bearer does little to stop the spread of the story. Violence becomes less useful as a silencer, and morphs into something meaner, something smaller, a punishment that has no hope of stopping anything, a spiteful tantrum with a goal but no chance of real lasting success. These people make songs. Because when we conquer a people, we can steal their language and forcefeed them ours, but eventually, they build their stories and recast their songs. I think of the African American authors, women writers, accounts of Holocaust survivors, the war-torn, the ignored, the invisible, the exiled and dispossessed. The ones who did not, in the end, get to write the histories, but who grow to be the ones to add the details the conquerors would forget.

The story wants to be told. All we need is the will and the tools.

Thought:Give people a camera and the word will see them screaming their stories on the news, faded by next week. Give them literacy, and pen, and ink and their stories will live forever.

And so books are burned, and schools are bombed, and children are scarred and maimed. And they may have more or fewer than my twenty-six, but I would build them blocks and carve their characters. I would give them to all the parents and the children, and I would have them build stories with their languages, borrowed or stolen. I would have them build music and stories and bridges.

No wonder there are grown men in Afghanistan willing to throw acid in a young girl's face for the crime of attending school, where she might learn to read and write. Let her cook for her family, and nourish them quietly and in silence. Let her learn the feel of a weapon, perhaps to load bullets, and aim, and fire. Or to pull a cord or push a button, to detonate herself and leave her legacy splashed on bricks, to be baked dry and fade under the sun. But to allow her a pen and paper, the time to put letters together, to form words, to record her own thoughts, dreams, desires and outrages...that, my friends, is what danger is made of. *That* is what kills empires and builds nations. *That* is power.