Lessons from AWP, the largest conference for writers in the country

Thanks to Karen Schubert and Liz Hill of Lit Youngstown, I had the opportunity to speak on a panel about Great Lakes literary arts organizations and how place informs purpose at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Washington D.C. last week.

The other panelists were David Hassler of the Wick Poetry Center; Kelly Fordon from Lit Detroit; and Janine Hairston from the Indiana Writers’ Consortium. I loved learning what other literary arts centers around the country do, and what lessons we might learn and borrow from them.

I also got to interact with other lit arts centers during the rest of the conference. Other highlights included seeing Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, give a keynote on Thursday night, having dinner with friends Cathy Barber and Mimi Plevin-Foust, and checking out Capital Bikeshare as I rode back and forth to my friend’s house off H Street.

It was fun to see all of the activity happening in DC, including many cranes in the air.

Oh, Man, Even the Birds in this City

santa_ana_river_review_square_logoA year or two ago I saw a robin’s nest perched on a stop light in my neighborhood and thought, “I’ve gotta write about that.” I think that several times a day and nothing comes of it, but this one stuck around. I named the poem “Oh, Man, Even the Birds in this City.” Here’s the first stanza:

“At West 58th and Bridge / an empty nest sits on the crossbar / of the stop light, / a patchwork bowl of / mud, sticks and grass.”

I thought the nest was abandoned but then I saw birds in it. The cars flew past and no one noticed. The birds making a nest in the intersection seemed like a metaphor for making it in our tough, resilient city.

“A few days later, / a robin fluffs her feathers while / cars and trucks whiz-blam by. / Why so determined to settle here?”

I wrote it, workshopped it once or twice, and kept sending it out. Recently it was published by the Santa Ana River Review, the literary magazine of the University of California at Riverside. Check out the poem here (it’s on p. 98). 

Contributing to ‘A Race Anthology: Dispatches and Artifacts from a Segregated City’

raceanthologycover2When I saw the call for submissions in 2015 for “A Race Anthology: Dispatches and Artifacts from a Segregated City,” out now from the City Club and Guide to Kulchur Press, I knew what I wanted to write about. I grew up in an in between time when racial hope and the legacy of racial segregation were equally present. The elementary school I attended, Roxboro in Cleveland Heights, was 50/50 black-white, but on the other hand the tracking system there started early. Racism was a heavy topic in our household, as my grandfather on my mom’s side came from Texas and carried prejudiced attitudes with him when he came to work as an orthopedic surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic. Growing up, I heard stories from my mom about my grandfather forbidding her from playing with black children, even as I made black friends at my school.

“When I became friends with Lonnie, a black classmate, I asked my mom if I could invite him home for lunch (back then, kids with stay-at-home moms could do this, an anachronism in our test-centric world),” I write in my piece, which is called Roxboro. “I remember eating peanut butter and jelly with him and giggling in our basement playroom as we bounced around on a giant ball.”

Now I live in Cleveland with my wife, Katherine, and our three children. Our two school age kids attend Campus International, a CMSD school. But we are protected by the mantle of privilege, and racism persists: “My hopefulness was punctured last year when I learned of Tamir Rice’s death. Home with my kids on Thanksgiving break, I couldn’t stop clicking on the iterative headlines on Cleveland.com. As I watched the video of Timothy Loehman pulling onto the lawn and killing the 12-year-old boy two seconds later, I felt a black pit open in my stomach and fell into it.”

I just picked up my copy of A Race Anthology a few weeks ago, and I’m looking forward to digging into it. There are many, many fine contributors here, including the likes of RA Washington, Sharon Holbrook, Mary Weems, Ali McClain and others. Check it out here.

Also, read Amy Hanauer’s wonderfully written piece on Cleveland.com about it here. 

The journey of a reluctant blogger

IMG_1575 (1).JPGBlogging isn’t something that comes naturally to me. I’m a perfectionist, which sucks if you want to write more than one blog post per year because you’ll never put it into the world. Blogging isn’t about waiting until you have a perfectly polished gemstone, it’s about getting your work out there (well, not too out there) and can also be about developing ideas still in formation.

The truth is, I’m kind of afraid of blogging. I’d rather sit behind a pretty wall of words than be exposed in a raw vulnerable state. When blogging first became popular it was considered “lesser than,” books and magazines still the most valuable content. I wanted to put my writing out there in some permanent, aggregated way, but I also wanted it to be validated by someone else.

Blogging can be a way to build an audience and try out new ideas. Blogging appeals to me now because it’s entrepreneurial and you can write and publish quickly. You can see how people react online, creating a quick feedback loop that allows you to develop ideas or gauge interest in a topic. Sharing your ideas makes the work less lonely.

Tonight I went to Lit Cleveland’s “The Craft of Blogging” with Jill Miller Zimon, Nikki Delamotte and Darlene Norwood English. I was inspired by how Jill leveraged a political blog into all kinds of work, including speaking, teaching and writing; how Nikki published her first words on her blog and now works at Cleveland.com, in part because she has a keen grasp of writing online and social media; and Darlene’s personal blog that has powerful posts about embracing her natural hairstyle, how Sandra Bland’s death affected her, and other topics.

Over the past year, I’ve been blogging more. Maybe with the inspiration of these social media mavens I will complete my goal of writing a post a week this year. Or maybe I’ll just get sucked into the next season of Homeland.

On being a middle child in a pragmatic family

I’m writing this post from my “office,” which is a corner of our bedroom with a nice, comfortable desk near a window. Not that I’m complaining. The kids aren’t here, and I’m sneaking in a few minutes of writing before work.

My new book “The Shape of Home” deals a lot with growing up and navigating the influences of childhood to find your own identity. I was the third child in my boisterous, often chaotic family, and the daydreamer artistic one at that, something I write about in my poem “In Medias Res”:

I arrived late to the party
after the food was cold and half-eaten
after the hosts who were half-drunk
had become half-sober
in the middle of stories
about things that happened before I was born
I slipped in like a quiet gift
they’d find cleaning up

Friends and family know I’m habitually five minutes late (or worse) everywhere I go. I’m organized most of the time and have a deeply pragmatic side, but it fights with my head-in-the-clouds dreamer side. The pragmatism comes from my mom and dad, kind hearted, tough Presbyterians whose coat of arms would be someone mowing the lawn if we had one. My family always made fun of my artistic side, but at the same time my parents nurtured it by exposing me to books, art and music and encouraging me to read my heart out as a kid.

Late to school
I swung open the metal doors
and dropped in
like a trumpet blast in a measure of rest
Late to the playground games
my own shoes
walked off without me

I think becoming a parent made me grow up (in a good way) and become my own person. Suddenly I have my own kids to get places on time, who of course have no sense of urgency at all. Isn’t it funny how time changes as you get older, and seems to move more quickly?

On time the gray hairs of whiskers
sprouted on my cheeks
and children sprung forth
and grew tall like corn …

You can read the poem, which was published by Blue Bonnet Review, here.

How do you get “deep work” done?

gypsybeans-2Lately, I’ve been thinking about my ideal workday. I’ll soon be working two-thirds time as director of Literary Cleveland and would like to spend the rest of my day writing and getting my work out into the world. We’re only talking about a few hours here, since parenting and housework crowd the edges of my days. I write early in morning from 6:30-7:30 before the kids go to school — I’ve been unusually productive lately, and have found ways to focus on writing new work and not get bogged down in revision — but have not yet felt comfortable returning to my work after that.

So, could I continue writing after ferrying Jonathan to where he needs to be for the day? Where would I even do it, and would it require consumption of one $2.55 drink at the coffee shop per day, thereby adding a whole new item to the family budget? If I do this, will I be productive or spin my wheels? Can I complete my Lit Cleveland work in 5 hours a day plus evening events, now that I have some help from interns and part-time staff?

These are the questions that plague my overwrought brain. This article, which Katherine sent me, helped me think about these questions: https://medium.com/time-dorks/a-day-without-meetings-how-i-started-from-scratch-to-create-the-perfect-workday-da266714f002#.d08qqdlou



The Shape of Home to be published by Finishing Line Press

chilcote_lee_websquare-600x600I’m happy to announce that my long journey to publish my chapbook of poems, The Shape of Home, is winding down: the 32-page book will be published by Finishing Line Press in March. Order your copy here: https://www.finishinglinepress.com/product/the-shape-of-home-by-lee-chilcote/

Here’s the description: “This wry, poignant collection of poems explores how we are shaped by the homes we grew up in and in turn shape the homes we create as adults. Chilcote probes the influence of his childhood, the steadfast nature of love, the joys and drudgery of parenting, and the struggle to maintain a creative life.”

And a kind blurb from my friend and fellow poet Nin Andrews, whose workshop I participated in at Mac’s Backs:

The Shape of a Home is a debut collection of poems that are as refreshingly honest as they are tender, witty, and compassionate. Lee Chilcote is clearly a welcome new voice to American poetry.

~ Nin Andrews, author of Why God Is a Woman and other books

Here are a couple more, from the wonderful Brad Ricca, who read and commented on an early version of this book, and Susan Grimm, a fantastic teacher who also helped me edit it. What the hell, gotta toot your own horn.

This is the poet-as-father-homemaker-musician, who is late to parties, argues about the greatest guitarist of all time, and is left awestruck at the sight of his own father because “Protestants have fathers who / only appear at night.” If the Midwest has a certain tone of voice and subject — as a place that is somehow always the present abruptly set amid the rusty ruins of the past — then this is what Chilcote captures so triumphantly against the din of music, the cloud of booze, the scramble of children, and the presence of Love, who, as in his poem “Caveat Emptor,” is “the architect who shrugs his shoulders.” A delightful, intimate, and thoroughly noteworthy debut.

~ Brad Ricca, author of American Mastodon, winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award

Lee Chilcote is not interested in a vapid beauty that smooths over invisible barriers and difficult loves. The clamor of the world makes itself heard in his poems. His “muses are sirens, trains, barking dogs.” The Shape of Home curves lovingly around children that spring up “like sunflowers,” but these poems report as well on the black thread that runs through desires and dreams.

~ Susan Grimm, author of Roughed Up by the Sun’s Mothering Tongue and other books