Tyree Daye’s “River Hymns”

Gabrielle Calvocoressi, author of Rocket Fantastic and featured poet for 4X4CLT in June 2017, served as final judge for the American Poetry Review’s Honickman First Book Prize. She chose Tyree Daye’s River Hymns, citing the poet’s ability “to show us a world we thought we knew and then expand our understanding.” Daye joins Charlotte Lit as featured writer for 4X4CLT in June 2018.

Daye is from Youngsville, North Carolina, a small town northeast of Raleigh with a population of 1,157 according to the 2010 census. The poems in this collection are imbued with a sense of that place. Action happens at home, in church, and outside. The separation between inside and outside is a thin one. Outside is close, sometimes capricious, where threat and beauty reside in equal measure. In “Wade Through,” the speaker’s mother is quick to pass along inherited warnings:

The presence of extended family, both living and dead, is keenly felt in these poems and the separation between those two states is also a thin one. The speaker’s grandmother is dead, but that doesn’t stop him from speaking to her. In “How Long Is Her Hair Now?” he asks, what’s the price of being / obsessed with the dead? It’s a question the poet returns to again and again. Earlier in that same poem he admits she sometimes answers back:

As one would expect from a book with “river” in its title, currents run through this book. Yes, the actual rivers—the Haw and the Neuse are named specifically—but so is the river of gin that ensnares many. As Daye notes in “Southern Silence,” one of the collection’s standouts:

And in “What is God but Rain Spilling Me Over?” the dead also gather near the river to drink and confess / in the ribcage of the pines. The strongest current, though, is that of extended family. In “Sore,” the speaker says he comes from a clutter of folks and they’re all here: aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, alive and dead, where they live, where they’re buried, what they liked to eat, how they liked to play. The family’s geography weaves in and around the rivers, living in houses they don’t own, where people they love have died or “made ghost” and haunt them still.

Calvocoressi wrote that in River Hymns she encountered “new ways to think about family and community, new ways to wrestle with my own landscape and legacy.” That’s the gift Daye’s plain-spoken but beautifully wrought lyrics offer us.

Join Charlotte Lit in welcoming Tyree Daye for two events on Wednesday June 6:

Master Class, 10 am to 1 pm: Tyree Daye teaches a master class at Charlotte Lit, “Writing the I—Giving our Poems Identity.” In this workshop, framed by Barbara Guest’s “Invisible Architecture” and Vievee Francis’ “Coming to the ‘I,’” we’ll take a look at the way the poet’s personal narrative and the poem’s symbols frame the structure and emotional connection to images. We’ll also learn ways of diving into the subconscious, where many of the images we use in our writing exist, and consider those moments of coming up for air, when our written work begins to develop identity. Register here

4X4CLT Release Party, 6:30-8:30 pm: Join us in celebrating the next release of 4X4CLT posters, featuring poems by Tyree Daye and art by Hasaan Kirkland and Kathie Roig, at C3 Lab in South End. Tyree reads from his award-winning collection River Hymns, and Kathie speaks about the creative process for her handwoven art, which will be on display. We’ll also have craft beer courtesy of Triple C Brewing and delicious bites from Earl’s Grocery. Free!

Immutable Laws of Writing #3: Writer’s Block Does Not Exist

Writer’s block does not exist.

That might seem harsh, especially if you’ve experienced writer’s block. Let me clarify: I acknowledge that we can feel blocked, and that many writers call this feeling “writer’s block.” Immutable Law of Writing #3 contends that there is no ailment, no virus, no universal diagnosable condition called writer’s block. “Writer’s block” is a bogeyman. When we’re blocked, it’s something specific masquerading as a force we can’t control.

So, what does block us? And what can we do about it?

1. You’re blocked because the writing feels hard.

Can’t sugarcoat this: writing is hard, or can be. Just because the words sometimes (or even usually) flow freely doesn’t mean you should expect that all the time. It’s a craft, not magic. If you’re blocked, ask: is it just that the writing is hard, and I’m avoiding it because it’s hard?

One solution: give yourself a small quota—say, 250 words—and write until you get there. Remind yourself, say it out loud: writing is hard some days. If you don’t write on those days, you soon won’t be a writer at all.

Another solution: write something else. Write something you want to write. If there’s something nagging at you, a story that won’t stay out of your head, work on that. Come back later to the work that got you stuck, when you’re refreshed.

2. You’re blocked because you don’t know what’s next.

The question here is: Why don’t I know what’s next?

It could be that you’re a pantser—a seat-of-the-pants writer, as dubbed by Larry Brooks—who lets the story emerge organically. One solution is to try some pre-planning. You don’t need to become a full-out outliner, but do spend some time imagining the story forward. At the very least, if writing a novel especially, identify the primary substructure. Most use this one:

  • The Setup (establishing the stakes)
  • The Inciting Incident (sets the story in motion)
  • Plot Point 1 (the story direction changes)
  • Midpoint (something important happens)
  • Plot Point 2 (a twist that sends the story toward its conclusion)
  • Resolution (how it all works out)

Once you have a general destination, you’ll get moving again. They don’t have to be good words. As a devoted pantser, you already know that most your words are going to get edited or edited out.

3. You’re blocked because you are out of ideas.

Just as I don’t believe in writer’s block, I don’t believe that writers ever run out of ideas.

Generally the opposite is true: we have so many story ideas that the trouble is deciding which one to work on. If that’s the case, try this: make a list of your current story ideas. For each, write a descriptive paragraph explaining what it’s about. (Alternately, do this out loud.) The one you wrote or spoke the most about is likely the one you have the most energy for. Follow the energy.

But let’s say it is possible to be out of ideas. Then what?

In a story-in-progress, add a new and unexpected character, or introduce some kind of trouble, and see how your characters respond.

If starting a new story and not knowing where to begin, start with the universal story frame:

  • Someone
  • Wants something badly
  • But there are obstacles
  • Which are overcome, or not
  • And someone is changed, or not

Identify a someone, something they want, and why they can’t have it. Try making lists on paper or using a mind map. Select one and start telling their story.

If you are writing a short story, use this basic setup: create two damaged people and bang them together. That is, name and describe them, then put them in a situation where something has changed (often phrased as: what’s different about today?).

4. You’re blocked because you’re not inspired.

Your muse, for reasons unexplained—the muse never explains—has vanished. Let you down. Gone on vacation. Or worse: is visiting the rival writer down the street! Oh, disloyal muse!

Seriously: you’ll wait a long time waiting for inspiration to arrive. Go and seek it out. Walk in the woods. Go to a movie. Read your favorite book, or a new one. Take a writing class. All of these can help. But the best solution is to put your behind in your writing chair. If you sit down to write every day between 9 and 11 a.m, say, you’ll find that that’s when the muse tends to appear.

5. You’re blocked but you don’t know why. It’s any and all of these or something else.

The one final fool-proof method is to lower your standards.

Immutable Law #1 says the words aren’t going to write themselves. You have to write them. It doesn’t matter if they’re any good. We have to edit later anyway. So give yourself permission to write badly. You can even choose it: “I’m going to write badly today!” Write terrible words that you will be ashamed of later. It’s liberating, really.

And once you start writing, Immutable Law #2 kicks in: objects in motion tend to stay in motion.

In the end, blockages happen to all of us. Sometimes, your fingers hover over the keys and nothing happens. How easy it is, when that happens, to get up and say, “I have writer’s block.” How easy it is to blame the universe and the muses. Next time, see if you can identify why you’re blocked, and then you’ll know what to do.

And you can stop believing in writer’s block. For good.

Where’s the Library at, a**hole?

In the old grammar joke, that’s how the bright freshman responds to the Harvard professor when he’s reprimanded for ending a sentence with a preposition. Finding balance between being right and being obnoxious is a delicate dance, one I’m beginning to wonder is worth navigating at all.

I was an English major. I am an avid reader. I spend most of my day thinking about writing—my own or that of others. But admittedly I break “The Rules” all the time. To me, beginning a sentence with a conjunction is a reasonable move if it renders a sentence more approachable. And (see what I did there?) while some will take issue with me, I won’t lead the charge for who vs. whom or can vs. may. In modern parlance, they have become nearly interchangeable (cue the wailing of middle school English teachers). Even so, I wonder which, if any, rules matter anymore as we contend with the daily torrent of words we both consume and produce.

Language is a living thing, one that’s always changing and adapting. I appreciate being afforded these greater degrees of nuance. Each year Webster’s Dictionary adds over a thousand new words to the lexicon. For instance, the next time I spy a typo on the froyo shop sign and react with a facepalm, you’ll be able to accurately describe my action and its cause. But after the facepalm? What next? What happens when the daily twitterings out of the highest office in the land are a bland word salad composed of limp iceberg lettuce mixed with “great” carrots and “huge” cucumbers. Do words and the rules governing them matter anymore?

And speaking of typos: over the past two weeks or so, a number of flagrant errors have accosted my hypersensitive eye: the political mailers advocating for the “perseveration of rights” and “formally incarcerated individuals.” Or the KFC placard—fast food signs being a notorious source of typos—touting its spicy chicken “sanwich.” Even those who know better (or should know to be more careful) make these mistakes, such as the nonprofit executive director who writes of his staff’s  “extrodinary” work. Do proofreaders still exist? Or are most people counting on autocorrect to save their bacon? These missteps send me rifling through the junk drawer for the nearest red pen. As the coffee mug slogan goes, I am silently judging your grammar. (Like vs. as. There’s another one.)

I recently finished reading a long novel that I’d checked out from the library. A fellow library patron had noted a typo on one of the pages by circling it with a pink highlighter. And not just circled it, but attempted to excise the errant word ending with the correct proofreader’s mark. Clearly one of my people. While I would not have done so myself (marking a library book a graver sin than making a typo) I recognized, even appreciated, this act of resistance. For lovers of language, such mistakes make us twitch. We want to make it right. We’re the ones who, on happening across the lovely word ‘lexicon,’ say it to ourselves under our breath: lexicon, lexicon, lexicon, until we’re driven to the dictionary to relearn that it’s derived from the Greek lexis, meaning word or speech.

What if, to use another word from the same Greek root, you’re dyslexic? What if, dyslexic or not, you simply couldn’t care less if someone swaps perseveration for preservation. Eh, you figure, they know what I mean. Maybe I should remove the comma splice from my own eye before noting you used complementary where you should have chosen complimentary. Maybe if we writers and readers are the standard bearers, we can share our love of language with the rest of the world without sounding like a**holes. Shall we discuss it? Shall we discuss shall?

Lisa Zerkle’s poems have appeared in The Collagist, Comstock Review, Southern Poetry Anthology, Broad River Review, Tar River Poetry, Nimrod, Sixfold, poemmemoirstory, Crucible, and Main Street Rag, among others. Author of the chapbook, Heart of the Light, she has served as President of the North Carolina Poetry Society, community columnist for The Charlotte Observer, and editor of Kakalak. She is the curator of Charlotte Lit’s 4X4CLT, a public art and poetry series.

Read Like a Pro

It’s open mic night. It seems simple enough. Just get up there and read your work, right? Not quite. As the saying goes, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. My suggestion is to go a step further: read like a pro.

Not that you’re expecting to be paid to read your poem or prose piece to a group of ten to thirty people, but it’s better to read as if you’re getting paid for it.  “Professionalism” is really about doing your best, delivering a quality product, satisfying your customers and making them want to come back for more. It’s both substance and image, the steak and the sizzle. Some tips:

Be ready to read. Have your poetry or prose handy and in the correct order. If you plan to read from a book or electronic device, flag the pieces in advance.

Approach the stage briskly. Try to reach the microphone before the applause dies out.  A brisk approach will energize you and raise the level of anticipation in the audience. If you have a mobility impairment, sit close to the mic, so you have less distance to cover, and ask for assistance if needed.

Treat the microphone as your friend. Speak up! The number of readers who can’t be clearly heard outnumber those who are “too loud” by a factor of at least 10 to one. Understand that not all microphones are the same. Some work just fine 12 inches from your face; others you almost have to kiss. Could you hear the readers ahead of you? If not, speak louder or get closer to the mic. Don’t tap on the mic, but feel free to ask, “Can you folks on the back row hear me clearly?”

Limit introductory and transitional remarks.You’re sharing time on the stage with other readers, so be considerate of everyone’s time.

Speak in the Goldilocks Zone. Reading in a monotone can make a good poem or story sound dull. Reading in a bombastic or melodramatic manner can be annoying to the audience. Find that “Goldilocks Zone” in between. Give your transitional remarks a slightly different “voice” than your reading—just enough so the audience can tell the difference between your remarks and your reading.  I remember attending one open mic where the author used the same tone and inflection in her remarks as in her poems. The audience didn’t know when to clap.

Make eye contact. To the extent you can do so without losing your place, look up occasionally from the page and make eye contact with the audience. Try to scatter your eye contact so that people on the right, left, in the middle, front and back feel as though you are speaking to them personally. This helps the audience to stay engaged and shows that you are interested in them.

Don’t apologize for your work.People don’t want to hear, “I wrote this ten minutes ago on a cocktail napkin” or “I know this a piece of crap but I’m going to read it anyway.” Just do the best you can with what you’ve got.

Do what you can to look good, sound good, and show interest in the audience. Who knows? Someday you might actually get paid for reading your work.

Richard Allen Taylor is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Armed and Luminous (Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2016). Richard’s poems, articles and reviews have appeared in Rattle, Comstock Review, The Pedestal, Iodine Poetry Journal, Wild Goose Poetry Review, Asheville Poetry Review, Toastmaster Magazine and South Carolina Review, among others. He currently serves as review editor for The Main Street Rag and formerly co-edited Kakalak. After retiring from his 44-year business career in 2013, Richard earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte in 2015.