1 Feb

It is the start of my birthday week.  I think it’s an appropriate time to offer a sneak peek of my memoir in-progress.  This section, “Maybe,” will disappear in a few weeks, as I don’t normally like having my writing on my blog.  Thank you for this journey and I hope you enjoy!




In 1984, I cut a square from a piece of tan construction paper and wrote:



Spelling errors aside, I knew that this was where Annie lived.  Annie was that infamous red-headed, blue-eyed, freckle-faced, sass-mouthed orphan who vigilantly wore half of a gold heart-shaped locket around her neck.  The locket was her insurance that one day, her parents would come for her and whisk her away from the clutches of Ms. Hannigan and her bleak life at the orphanage.  In short, she lived with a broken heart until (she hoped) her real parents would find their way back to the Hudson Street Orphanage for Girls and claim her as their daughter.


Maybe far away or maybe real near by.


When my sister Lynne took me to see the 1982 movie version of Annie starring Aileen Quinn, I fell asleep halfway through.  I was five years old and the plot was lost on me at the time.  By the time the movie came out on VHS (and the plastic action figure dolls, and the soundtrack on cassette tape that I played in an endless loop on my purple cassette tape player, much to my mother’s chagrin),  I understood Annie’s plight and the grief that would keep her up a night, perched at the windowsill, looking out over Hudson Street for signs of her parents, singing about who they could be right then, out in the world as she imagined it: an ordinary couple doing mundane households tasks.  She played piano, he paid the bills.  They collected ashtrays (which my mother assured me was something that people readily collected during the 1930s and 1940s, and showed me her grandmother’s milk glass ashtray, kidney-curved with a scattering of yellow and blue flowers painted on it).  They were young, smart.  But they weren’t present.  They had given her away for a life beyond child-rearing, a life with a house hidden by a hill, a piano, and ashtrays.  They could be walking down Hudson Street, or in Connecticut, or Paris, or Mexico, or two blocks over.  Or dead.

When my mother would take me with her on shopping trips to the mall or my sister Lesley would take me once a year to the larger Galleria in Houston to see the Christmas tree that had been erected in the middle of the Olympic-sized ice skating rink, I would look for my birthmother in the wash of faces rushing past with bags from Neiman’s, JC Penney, Waldenbooks.

I pictured myself a detective in pursuit of the fugitive parent who had given me up for a better life, one, maybe, with a piano and ashtrays.  As I held my mother’s or my sister’s hand, I would scan the crowds, and look into the faces of each woman, and hope to see a resemblance.  Sometimes one of these strange women would catch me looking at them and I would hold my breath, waiting for her to walk over to me, bend down, say, hello, I’m your mother.  It never occurred to me how unsettling this would be—to have my birthmother be in the same shopping mall that I was with my own mother or sister, and further, to have my birthmother walk right up to me outside the Sunglasses Hut or Corn Dog 7 and greet me as her very own.  It never occurred to me how slim these chances actually were and how even if I did see my birthmother eyeing a strand of freshwater pearls in Dillard’s or buying perfume at JC Penney, I would never have known it.


He may be pouring her coffee. She may be straightening his tie.


When I would listen to Annie sing Maybe, I would imagine my birthparents in a house hidden by hill, one where my birthmother would straightening by birthfather’s tie while he poured her coffee in the mornings.  I once drew this picture, which has been lost to time or the garbage can or a wayward house cat, but I remember it clearly.  In the drawing, the green hill took up the largest portion of the white sketch paper.  The grass, shown as small slashes and straight lines rising from the hill’s curved surface, appeared to wave in an unseen wind.  There was a half-circle of sun in the far right corner, complete with yellow-orange lines representing rays.  On top of the hill was a small house (the technique of drawing a suggestion of a house hidden by a hill was lost on me) with a chimney smoking its fire plume into the clear, colorless sky.  There were windows everywhere and a narrow black door.

After I completed this drawing, I remember sitting on the bedroom floor with it in my lap.  Inside the house lived my birthparents.  If I looked very closely through the windows, I could see the evidence of their life without me: tables and chairs, art in heavy frames on each wall, a staircase, dishes in the sink, a piano.  His tie.  Her coffee.  I did not imagine another baby in the house.  It never occurred to me that they would not be together.  There could be ashtrays.  Perhaps a dog.  Through the little windows, what I pretended to see what not unlike my own dollhouse given to me as a gift from my mother’s friend, Jeannette Johnson, another foster parent who lived in our neighborhood.  Little replica beds and chaise lounges.  A miniature chest of drawers.  A doll wife at the kitchen table, smiling as her husband poured her coffee.

These were my parents: toy husband and wife in a house built of pencil, crayons, watercolors.  A sun shined overhead and a chimney smoked into the white sky.  The hill and the waving grass.  A dark door.  I sat on the floor and ran my small fingers over the house, the hill, as though reading its secrets.  As though my parents were speaking to me: come find us. We are waiting.


Their one mistake was giving up me


Some nights, after my mother tucked me in, brushing my cheeks with her soap-scrubbed face and Jean Naté talcum powder, I would sing Maybe to myself, quiet enough that no one else could hear.  My bedroom glowed night-light gold and the shadows of the dollhouse were deep black against the opposing wall from my bed.  I would sing, or sometimes the words would come to me in fragments—their one mistake was giving up me—and sometimes I would cry into my pillow for someone I could not visualize, a primal wound.  The words would come to me and sometimes I would sing them out loud as I watched the door, afraid my mother would come in and tell me to go to sleep, it was late, I had school in the morning.  Sometimes the words would come and I would think them to myself, repeating the remembered phrase over and over as a small prayer, an amulet worn smooth, until I fell into dreamless sleep.

When I was just on the verge of sleep, remembering the words as they came to me, I would try to picture my birthparents in the hospital where I was born.  My birthmother would always be holding me, smiling down at my pink face as I had by then seen so many mothers do on television and in movies.  As I pictured their faces, myself in the hospital, my birthmother would give me away.  She would hand me over to a nurse in white and she and my birthfather would cry.  I would cry.

They made a mistake, I believed then.  Maybe they wanted to find me, but didn’t know where I was.  I was lost.  I had a new name—Amanda Leigh—and they didn’t know.  I imagined them at shopping malls, asking, “do you know where our baby Shannon Reneé is?”  There were little girls on milk cartons, on paper fliers on telephone poles, stop signs.

I had a half of a heart around my neck.  It came with my Annie doll and it was the first thing I tore from the cardboard packaging.  It came with the other half so the child could put the halves together when Annie got adopted by Daddy Warbucks at the end of the movie.  I put on the broken locket and dressed Annie in her red and white dress.  The other half of the locket became lost within a few days.


So maybe now it’s time, and maybe when I wake


The Annie soundtrack wore out and my mother bought me a new one to play in my purple cassette player.  I integrated Annie into my collection of Barbie and Skipper dolls and dressed them all as orphans.  They wore mismatched skirts and blouses, never the pink or yellow plastic high-heeled shoes.  They slept on the floor and never in the canopy bed with red velveteen hearts.  I pushed play on the cassette player and Annie led the Barbies and Skippers through It’s a Hard-Knock Life and sang Maybe alone on the top of a book, looking out onto the beige carpet road and the towering desk and stuffed animals beyond.

Somewhere among the tennis shoes, the crayons, the scatter of Barbie clothes and peel-off Tinkerbell nailpolish were her parents.  Maybe.

At night, I would put Annie and the Barbie Orphans to bed on the floor, each, and sometimes two, covered by old washcloths.  Annie would remain on the top of a book, sometimes sitting in my actual windowsill overlooking our front yard, waiting for her parents to come.  Before I got into bed, I would stand with her, looking out my own window at the dark street, the lawn, the other houses and imagine a house, a hill, a piano.  The whereabouts of the other half of the broken locket.


They’ll be there calling me “Baby.”  Maybe.


I sold the Barbies, the books, the locket at a garage sale years later.  My mother came into my room with a box and said, pack up what you don’t want anymore because we’re having a garage sale.  I was eleven, twelve.  My friends were no longer playing with dolls, listening to Annie.  No one wore their broken lockets anymore.  I kept the cassette, the Annie doll, and put them in the bottom drawer of my dresser.

I sold the locket to a woman who wanted it for her daughter, then about five.  The little girl snatched it from my hand, ran off down the driveway that had filled with baby cribs, baby clothes, bicycles, dishes, stuffed animals.  The woman gave my mother twenty-five cents and I listened to the clank of the coin in the tin cash box.  Do you want me to get it back?  My mother asked when she saw me looking at the girl with the locket.  I don’t need it anymore, I said.  The girl swung the broken locket and smiled.

That night, I did not sing Maybe, did not perch Annie on the windowsill, the book.  I remember listening to my mother wash dishes in the sink.  The house settled.  I could not picture my birthparents’ faces and did not go to the window.  I knew if I looked out the window, there would only be grass, other houses, a moonlit street.  The words came but I did not sing them, even to myself.  The dollhouse was against the wall, empty.  The little beds and chairs, the kitchen table and miniature plates and utensils, were still in place, waiting for a family to come, to open the door, sit down, eat.  In another room, my mother did the supper dishes.  My father listened to the radio while my sister talked on the phone.  The night-light glowed golden across my floor, my walls, the small couches and dressers.  I did not sing.

Books of 2014

2 Jan


I love it when the calendar flips to a new year.  I fill with hope and dreams and begin to make lists of all of the things I want to accomplish.  One of those lists that makes its way onto my iPad is a reading list of books I want to read by year’s end.  Of course, life gets in the way and I seldom complete the list, but the dream of hours spent sitting in quiet reading helps to calm my often unquiet mind.

Every year there are hundreds of new books that are released, each of which is a little voice I want to hear, even if in passing.  I decided to make a list of some of the just-released (i.e. Dec. 2013) or forthcoming titles that I can’t wait to read.   Please do leave a message in the comment box and let me know what titles you’re looking forward to (even if it’s your own)!


A Hundred Thousand Hours by Gro Dahle translated by Rebecca Wadlinger, Ugly Ducking Presse, $17, Dec. 15, 2013.  (Disclosure: Becca is a very good friend of mine and this book of Norwegian translations is simply amazing!)


Our Vanishing by Frannie Lindsay, Red Hen Press, $17.95.  March 204.  I had the pleasure of reading from my new book with Frannie in Watertown, MA back in the fall and she’s a spectacular poet.  She read a bit from this collection, and it’s astounding!


Book of Hours by Kevin Young, Random House, $26.95.  March 2014.


The Pedestrians by Rachel Zucker, Wave Books. April 2014.


 Can’t and Won’t: Stories by Lydia Davis, FSG, $26.  April 2014.


Cloud Pharmacy by Susan Rich, White Pine Press, $16.  April 2014.


Whitman Illuminated, illustrated by Allen Crawford, Tin House, $28.95.  May 2014. (I cannot wait to get my hands on this!)


If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? by Matthea Harvey, Graywolf, $25.  August 2014. (I am a huge MH fan, ever since I took her poetic forms class as a CW/Lit undergrad at Houston).

Blood Lyrics by Katie Ford, Graywolf.  October 2014.  (Katie Ford is one of my poetry heroes and I wish more people knew of her.  She is probably one of the best poets I’ve read in the past ten years and I was so fortunate to have her blurb my recent book.  She is innovative, intelligent, and moving in her work.  She a sneak peek from her forthcoming collection here).

Citizen by Claudia Rankine, Graywolf.  October 2014.  (Graywolf is knocking it out of the park in 2014 and I can’t wait!  Rankine is such an influential poet of our time and she really helped to change me as a writer and person when she was my senior honors thesis adviser at Houston.  I adore her and her work.)

Twenty Poems That Could Save America by Tony Hoagland, Graywolf.  November 2014.  (Another win for Graywolf.  I love Hoagland’s work and his irony and intellect, even if it’s been the cause of conflict over dinner parties and AWP hotel room conversations.  He’s legendary.  Read more here.)


22 Nov

On this 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination in Dallas, Texas, I offer you my poem, “The Pink Chanel Suit,” which was published in Rattle in 2011.  You can find it here.



2 Nov

After a horrendous past two months (mysterious illness-like symptoms, numerous tests, doctor’s appointments, plus the government shutdown which assisted in preventing me from traveling to LA to receive my PEN Center USA Literary Award for Poetry, etc.), I am looking forward to next week, where I’ll be traveling to MA for a series of three Perugia Press-related readings to celebrate my book, The Wishing Tomb, and Gail Martin’s Begin Empty Handed, which was awarded this year’s Perugia Press Award.  If you’re near any of the places on the itinerary below, I hope you’ll come out and join us:

The Collected Poets Reading Series
w/ Gail Martin & Lori Desrosiers
Thursday, November 7, 2013, 7PM
Mocha Maya’s, 47 Bridge St.
Shelburne Falls, MA

Friday, November 8 at 7:30 PM
w/ Gail Martin & Joan Barberich
The State Room
35 State Street (behind India House)
Northampton, MA

Saturday, November 9 at 7:00 PM
Salon Reading w/ Gail Martin & Frannie Lindsay
Invitation only
Watertown, MA

While in MA, I also am hoping to have a little excursion time to see Emily Dickinson’s house, the Plath archives at Smith College, and to have dinner with my sweet cousin, Hope, who lives in Boston.  I can’t wait!

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll mention it again: I am a list maker.  Call me OCD and you wouldn’t be far from the truth.  I love lists.  This type of list (below), however, is one of my favorites.  It’s my reading list.  I thought I would share my fall reading list with you:


After Her by Joyce Maynard  (lovely, dark, coming of age novel, which I was inspired to read after hearing this bit on NPR on the way home from teaching a class one afternoon)

The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano (this is a new release by two wonderful poets, both of whom I’ve had the pleasure of publishing in PLR)

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (recommended by my mother, who is perhaps the most widely read person I’ve ever known, except for maybe my dad, who actually reads the encyclopedias).

Dallas 1963 by Bill Minutaglio (anyone who has known me long enough knows that I have a Kennedy-history obsession that is not limited to the assassination history.  This Nov. marks 50 years since the assassination of JFK, and this new book has been released just in time).


Ain’t No Grave by TJ Jarrett (this is probably one of my favorite books of poetry to come out this year, and I’m in the process of reviewing it for a journal).

Begin Empty Handed by Gail Martin (this is a wonderfully crafted new book, and I’m looking forward to reading with Gail next week)!

Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky (I first read this book as an undergrad, so it’s been about eight years since I poured over its perfection.  I love this book, as does almost everyone who has read it.  I read it in tiny slivers and ruminate.  It’s best digested that way so the foreign story will unfold carefully, and not all at once).

I was invited to record a podcast for Arizona State University’s wonderful literary journal, Superstition Review.  My podcast consists of me reading a handful of poems that have been published in SR, included a few from my second book, The Wishing Tomb.  You can listen and read more, here.

Book List for Creative Writing Classes

14 Sep

I’ve been teaching Intro to Creative Writing at my college for five years and I’m so fortunate that for the first time, I’ve been given the green light to choose my own texts beginning in 2014.  I just put in my book order and would like to share the selections that I made (and some that I didn’t, but that I still highly recommend).


My top picks

My top picks


I teach the Intro to Creative Writing section, which is a mixed genre class that is part workshop model and part lecture/in class work.  For reference, the majority of my students have very little experience with writing, but are interested in it.  Many of these students are also unfamiliar with contemporary work and have never picked up a literary journal or been to a reading (which is something that I have them do).  In deciding which books to use, I had to take all of this into account so as to not scare them off of literary writing nor overwhelm them straight out of the gate.  It is my sincere belief that if you, as an instructor, overwhelm students who are just getting their feet wet, you’re not doing the student any service and in fact, many may end up so overwhelmed, that they may never return to writing or reading.

Here are the books I chose to use in 2014 (starting in the Spring term):

The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo: this is a classic resource used in CW courses nationwide, and my department has been using it for as long as I can remember.  It has wonderful essays on writing in it, and I always begin the semester by having my students read the one titled, “In Defense of Creative-Writing Classes” as this begins the discussion on why CW courses are important and what gain be gained from taking them.

The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland: I used this book in a CW course when I was an undergrad in English/CW at the University of Houston.  I found this book to be exceptionally helpful.  The book not only showcases traditional forms (sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, etc.), but also includes “open” forms as well.  Each section of the book focuses on one form and gives a page of information/”how to,” a page or two about the history of the form, a page or two about the contemporary use of the form, and then quite a few pages of examples from both canonical and contemporary poets.  I highly recommend this book for beginning-intermediate undergraduate CW classes.

A Short Story Writer’s Companion by Tom Bailey: As my class is a mixed genre class, I needed to find a book that would function in a similar manner to The Making of a Poem, and this book fits the bill.  It discusses and gives examples of the basic elements of fiction writing, which is something beginning CW students need.  It also discusses the importance of drafting and revision, which is something  that I teach in my class as well.  I have found that first time CW students are not in the habit of drafting and revision, so this was a great selling point to me for this text.


There are so many texts I would love to use, but I just can’t justify having my students plunk down loads of cash for a lot of books.  However, if I could use more books in a perfect world, here are the rest of my recommendations:

On Looking: Essays by Lia Purpura: I went back and forth on this book, and I ultimately decided against using it (even though I love it so) because they style of writing might be a bit over my beginning CW students’ heads.  In past semesters, my CW have read one of the essays in the book, “Red,” and it was near-mutiny.  I’m all about challenging my students, but sometimes you have to ease them into the challenge for best results.  I do recommend this book for intermediate-advanced CW classes.  It’s a wonderful book on inspiration and looking at things from a writer’s eye.

An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art by Annie Finch and Kathrine Varnes: I also used this book when I was in my CW classed at UH and found it helpful.  It’s very similar to the The Making of a Poem book, but is slightly more advanced in that it delves deeply in the specifics of form, meter, etc.  For an Intro to CW course where students are not very familiar with poetry at all, I think that introducing them to anapests, trochees, and syllabics might be a bit much.  We do discuss some forms in my class: sonnets, villanelles, and occasionally the ghazal in particular, as well as some contemporary forms (the found poems, contemporary ekphrasis, the cento), but this book is definitely for the more advanced student.  I recommend this book, however, for use in a forms class or an intermediate CW course.

American Women Poets in the 21st Century by Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr:  Claudia Rankine had me read this book when she was my senior honors thesis advisor at UH and I loved it.  The reason I didn’t choose this book is because it didn’t offer the breadth of “lessons” that The Making of a Poem did.  This text is wonderful and offers a wide variety of voices from contemporary American women poets and annotations of their poems.  I would use this book for a class on American Women’s Lit, Contemporary American Poetry, or an intermediate-advanced CW course.

The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux: This is another great stand-by and I have been using it for the past 5 years, which is why I decided to switch it out for the The Making of a Poem text.  I love this book for how it discusses inspiration and breaking boundaries (death, love, etc.) and offers writing prompts/suggestions at the end of each chapter, but I think that the specifics that The Making of a Poem offers might help a beginning CW student a little more.  My previous students have enjoyed this book, but have also commented on how they would like a book that has more examples and “how-to” instruction than TPC gives.  I do highly recommend this book for any intro-intermediate CW course and I am very likely to use it again in the future.

Contemporary American Poetry edited by A. Poulin, Jr. and Michael Waters: I used this book when I was in Jericho Brown’s advanced CW workshop at UH.  It’s a great book, but is actually more of an anthology (similar in the manner of Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century, edited by Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin, which I also highly recommend).  It’s a great assortment of contemporary poets, such as James Dickey, Kimiko Hahn, Robert Haas, Louise Gluck, Yusef Komunyakaa, Sharon Olds, Naomi Shihab Nye, David St. John, and others), but there isn’t any discussion of the poems, the forms, etc. that I wanted for my beginning students.  That said, I think this would be a great book to use for an intermediate-advanced CW and would be great even for grad students in poetry to use as a model and launching point for discussion and critical analysis of contemporary poetics.

I hope these recommendations help you if you are building a CW course or looking to purchase books on writing, whether fiction or poetry.  What are your must haves when it comes to books on writing?  What texts have worked for you in previous courses that you’ve taught?  I’d love to know!

2013 PEN Center USA Literary Awards

23 Aug
It’s official: my second collection, The Wishing Tomb, winner of the 2013 Perugia Press Award, has just been awarded the 2013 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Poetry!

This year’s award recipients include Joan Didion, Lifetime Achievement Award (to be presented by none other than Harrison Ford!); Filmmaker Sonia Nassery Cole, Freedom to Write Award, Kickstarter founders Perry Chen, Charles Adler and Yancey Strickler, Award of Honor, Ramona Ausubel, fiction for her novel “Nobody Is Here Except All of Us,” Seth Rosenfeld, research nonfiction prize for “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power”; Joy Harjo, creative nonfiction for “Crazy Brave”; Mark Boal for his screenplay for Zero Dark Thirty; Danny Strong, who wins for his teleplay for HBO’s “Game Change”; Amanda Auchter in poetry for The Wishing Tomb; Philip Boehm, for translation of “An Ermine in Czernopol,” originally by Gregor von Rezzori; Michael Harmon in children’s literature for “Under the Bridge”; Ed Leibowitz for journalism for “The Takeover Artist” in Los Angeles Magazine; and Dan O’Brien for drama with “The Body of an American.”  Here’s the first official write-up in the Los Angeles Times.

First and foremost, I want to thank each and every one of you for your support over these past few years.  It has meant so incredibly much to me.  The last two years have been strenuous and difficult to say the least, and even a five minute phone call from some at one time or another has made all of the difference.

Here’s the kicker: PEN Center USA will be giving out “swag bags” at the awards dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel in October.  They are requesting 500 copies of The Wishing Tomb to include in these bags.  However, Perugia Press, which is currently celebrating its 16th Anniversary, is a smaller press, and 500 additional copies is a lot to give away for free, even to such a prestigious event such as the PEN Center Awards.  Perugia Press, as a result, is holding a fundraiser to help offset the costs of sending so many copies of my book to the awards festival.

How you can help: Here is the link to the information about the Perugia Press Fundraiser to send The Wishing Tomb to the 2013 PEN Center USA Literary Awards Festival.  Any amount will help, if you can.  The cost to Perugia is $5/book, so even $25 will add up.  I dislike asking for donations in general, but I think it’s important to get not only my work out there, but to have a smaller press represented on a national scale.  Let’s get poetry in the hands of the 500 attendees!

Thank you, again, for your support and encouragement.  I hope you can help send this book to the PEN Center USA Literary Awards Festival this October!  If you have any questions, please contact me!

Guest Blogger: The Creativity of Not Writing

18 Jul

I’m the guest blogger for Arizona State’s Superstition Review today!  In this post, I’m talking about maintaining creativity during a dry spell, vintage cookbooks, and being okay with not writing.  See the post here!

How do you keep creative when not writing?