The Hell of Form

I wrote a poem last night. An honest-to-gawd poem. It hasn't been happening often lately, partly because I've been so busy, partly because I've been more interested in going on dates with short fiction, and partly because I've been putting too much pressure on myself.

The title of this post comes from a Beckian Fritz Goldberg poem that you should read in a book you should also read (Lie Awake Lake) because it would be good for you.

I'm teaching a workshop at The Writer's Center right now called "The F Word: Poetic Forms," exploring primarily non-traditional forms (although to do so hefty discussion of traditional forms is obviously involved). Last week, my students took a traditional form and altered it to suit their purposes, which I think helped them see the possibility of "play" in their poems.

Not that their pieces were "light"; in fact, it was quite the opposite. But several of them sought out restriction that helped them.

When I was writing last night, I let a form establish itself in my first stanza--a loose form, mostly involving number of words, a first-line simile that dictated the next lines' content, and a shift out of the stanza into the next prompted by a who or the word "where." I also gave myself the loose premise that the poem would be about the idea of flickering, which ultimately kept it close to the idea of light and vision.

I'm not unhappy with it, although it feels like an evolution.

The last poem I wrote was a sonnet about the movie The House on Sorority Row (1983), which uses only sight rhyme and no sound rhyme on its otherwise traditional rhyme scheme (the last couplet, for example, uses "laughter" and "slaughter").

But I miss the feeling of being swept up by the hand of a sequence of pieces. This piecemeal work is less fun for me.

I'm trying to bring my obsession with form into my prose, but it's more difficult for me there. In my last story, I tried working with the idea of "negative space storytelling," where the backdrop of the narrator's story is sort of the "true narrative," but it is lensed through the narrator's more immediate experiences and concerns during that time, and the events are shuffled out of order, since the narrator is too young to understand the causality of one event leading to the next.

Writing is fun. I should do it more often.


The Future of Arts Leadership Green Paper

This season, Americans for the Arts is hosting an online salon on arts-related topics surrounding our future. As part of our work of the Emerging Leader Council, I crafted this green paper in collaboration with the ELC's ideas about where our leaders (and leadership) are heading. You can follow and participate in the discussion here.

We owe a great debt to the generation of leaders who established the nonprofit arts sector as a viable career choice, one that both offered and required preparation and expertise. Those leaders, who established and shepherded arts nonprofits from fledgling grassroots efforts to massively successful organizations, have in turn mentored and developed the next generation of arts leader. Along with their support, today’s nonprofit workforce can access formal education in arts management graduate programs, which have become common nationwide, as well as join professional development organizations that segment us by field, by discipline, by region, and by our level of experience. This means our ability to pool resources—human, intellectual, and community-based—is at an all-time high. It also means that we, like our sector, are accustomed to—and thrive on—change.

That’s fortunate, because our sector is in constant change. In the last twenty-five years, much of this has been due to technology, with its great leaps forward that have radically altered both the way we get work done as well as how we communicate with our constituents and with our colleagues. With the increased education and awareness of the nonprofit model, we’ve learned that in order for our organizations to thrive, we have to think with a mission and behave like a business. Borrowing standards, practices, and policies from our for-profit colleagues have been an essential part of the professionalization of our sector, and it has ensured the continued success of many nonprofits. We must not be “nonprofit” in the sense that our businesses make no income; instead, we must be “not-for-profit,” an important distinction.

As leaders, we have learned not to fear change, but to embrace it. The future of leadership must do more than just embrace change, however; it must anticipate it, rely on it to push our organizations forward. We have identified several effective strategies to implement change management into organizations as part of healthy life cycles.

Conventional wisdom has been encouraging leaders to become well-rounded, being “competent” in all areas of management and leadership, but we ask why this should be so. Competence is rarely invigorating, nor does it inspire change; it encourages stasis. As in physics, when all variables are held constant, the system remains inert. The last ten years have demonstrated that the world in which we live and work is anything but inert, that change is pandemic, and that the speed with which change occurs has only increased. In the life cycles of organizations, different skills will be needed at different stages. In times of growth and expansion, an entrepreneurial leader can be visionary and motivational to the constituency. In times of stabilization, a more administration savvy leader can steady the ship. In times of external change (such as the recent recession), resourceful and collaborative leaders can be most effective. It is a rare individual who can be entrepreneurial, bureaucratic, and collaborative all at the same time, but it is sometimes possible for a single individual to evidence these skills in a single tenure. But we hold that this individual is a rare find.

Small organizations—the vast majority of our sector—sometimes fear change, particularly staffing changes, because vacant positions prevent work from being done and knowledge from trickling down into databases and organizational files. Instead of fearing staff attrition, we should incorporate it into our organizational goals and visions. While the traditional, even corporate, ideal is to create professional growth opportunities for staff from within, the reality is that smaller nonprofits will not have this luxury. The fluidity of staff and projects will be acknowledged, and even embraced. Strategic plans provide the best sense of what kind of staff and leader an organization will need for a five to seven year period. Based on the goals and objectives of their plans, organizations should both capitalize on the strengths of their particular leader and make arrangements to staff the organization with the necessary skills to carry out the work ahead.

We foresee more and more situations wherein employees and organizations can create mutual “win-win” scenarios that involve a three to five year employee commitment (shorter term employment) to pull the organization toward a specific goal. For example, an organization beginning a branding process should invest in a multiyear commitment to a design professional who seeks to build a portfolio that will further her own career agenda; at the end of the period, the employee can move on (and up) while the organization brings in an employee whose skills will stabilize the brand rather than continue to innovate it. The trend in our culture means workers will have more jobs in their lifetimes, and this is because people are constantly seeking education, training, and new opportunities to grow and develop, as well as to advance to positions of greater responsibility in their careers. Because arts organizations can be small or specialized, it could take years, even a decade before an employee would hope to move up the ladder in one organization. We need to encourage transition between organizations as a means to keep all our organizations fresh, vibrant, and forward thinking.

As leaders, we can spark change and development in our organizations by creating and maintaining smart staff development programs and evaluation processes that are employee-focused. We agree that some organizations cannot match salaries of our for-profit peers and thereby risk losing talented and effective labor to other sectors, so the strategy of including staff development and training as benefits might be viewed as an important opportunity for bright, advancement-minded individuals. Evaluation programs that are employee-minded stress the importance of skills and development needs, not “successes” and “failures.” For all staff, not just leaders, 360-degree reviews provide a panoptic sense of their impact and effectiveness. This practice also encourages employees to be reflective not only about their performance, but about how the effect the organization as a whole. This kind of external concern, this fundamental self-awareness, is an important trait of a good leader and often one of the first to develop.

Collaborate and participative leadership strategies—a flat-organization structure in which staff make concerted contributions to the organization’s leadership—can also serve a staff development function while building in a means for seamless succession. The win for organizations when they employ collaborative leadership strategies is that they ultimately plan for succession. By observing them first hand, employees learn the skills and qualities of good leadership. They will appreciate the increased investment in their abilities, and as leaders, we should not fear losing this expertise to other organizations. It is certain in our future employees will leave organizations for better opportunities. We must accept that. But we should not let attrition cripple our approach to maximizing the time we do have with our staffs because this ultimately only hurts our own organizations. In addition, by contributing to the skill development of the field, we cultivate a healthy and savvy sector workforce of peers who will buoy the nonprofit arts in our country. The camaraderie of the field will continue to be important as it has in the past, and our networks of associates, mentors, and mentees will only become more essential as technology makes us able to collaborate over great distances.

Lastly, we must confront, without fear, significant organizational change. Whenever a for-profit industry bubbles in a period of great expansion and growth, everyone accepts that some of them will fail, will close. We, too, must accept this of ourselves. As more and more arts nonprofits have developed, so has the competition for financial resources, for funding. It’s possible that, like for-profit business, the market and/or the community cannot sustain the sheer number of organizations coming into existence. Looking ahead, some of our organizations will close. Some will forge cooperative partnerships with other nonprofits, while others will seek alliances with for-profit colleagues. Some organizations will merge to pool resources and missions. And some will continue to grow. The nonprofit life cycle includes this, plans for this. Even when it will be difficult to do so, as leaders, we must make these difficult decisions.

It may seem oversimplified, but the only consistent aspect of leadership will be the necessity of change leadership. We foresee a future of arts management wherein arts leaders do not remain in their positions for decades unless they are able to evolve with their organization’s change needs. It could be that the relationship Executive Director and Managing Director (or other second-in-command) will become even more essential and that it is through staff evolutions in these positions that we will see the most effective use of change leadership. For most of our workforce, it will mean job transition, in the interest of skill building and leadership development, will be the primary goal rather than dedication to a single organization or cause. We can see reflections of this in our for-profit peer organizations as well, meaning that our vision of the future of nonprofit leadership is in line with trends in other sectors as well.



You can't be too careful anymore, when all that is waiting for you won't come any closer. You've got to reach a little more.


Some Hawaii Pix


Whale watching

Near the lava fields

Public art: "Cherish the reef"

Body surfing (look for our heads)

Jeep style

Where the lava came out of Haleakala

The trail we hiked at the lava fields


The mountain slips into its wig of clouds and steps into the moon's blue spotlight. She knows the words to this song, the static of the ocean fuzzing softly against her lips. She wears the glittery gown of night. The whales roll over in their water beds, clap softly their fins against the water. Their calves want to grow up to be this beautiful, to sing this song, the feel wig shimmer with rain and sweat and city lights. The song goes on until there are no more words to say. The mountain, triumphant, bows until the wig slips from her head like fog.


Beau and I are about to be stranded in Phoenix.

Our overnight flight from Honolulu to Phoenix is still a go, but our second leg, from PHX to BWI, has been shut down by U.S. Airways. (Yes, I said I'd never fly them again, but I'm a cheapskate and they had the best fare to HI.)

I spent 1 hour 7 minutes on hold with Orbitz (listening to Pachelbel's Canon on repeat the whole time).

Orbitz said, For us to call the airline, the wait is 60 minutes. You can call the airline yourself and it might be faster.

I called the airline myself. U.S. Airways said, We're experiencing higher than usual call volume and then hung up on me.

Now we don't know what's going to happen...

9 phone calls (8 of them to U.S. Airways) and 3 hours later, we have a new itinerary from hell but are grateful for it:

Maui to Honolulu tonight
Honolulu to Phoenix overnight (arr. 9 am)
Stay all day in Phoenix
Phoenix to Charlotte overnight (depart midnight)
Charlotte to DC (arr. 9 am)

Then we get to drive from the airport through the snow!


Postcard from Maui

It's a common misconception that humpback whales leap from the water as attempted acts of suicide. In fact, these leaps are purely bravado. From the boat, we listened to their simple songs that, in another context, might be runaway pop hits. To the aft, the moving cloud, the flocked water seemed to make the island wring itself up like a rag. If a fin breached the water, the woman in the homemade hat would shriek Show us your body! It was like the Superbowl of Whale Watching. The rest of us on the boat silently decided to vote her off, Survivor-style. Shocked, I said, I haven't seen this much tail since the 70s. In the water, dozens of whales made like they were waving hello. But any whale will tell you, when you've only got one finger, that's what they're giving you. They swam 3,000 miles to give you that finger, and you paid $30 to see it.


Postcard from Maui

The writing has never been so clearly on the wall. So to speak. With all the rights they've taken from us, this one was just an eventuality. Despite our flaws, we hit the beach early on, and the sun held us in its mouth haphazardly, like a dog. It seared our flesh. The waves crashed in like a series of drunken uncles nobody wanted to see again and threw their foam around like slurred profanity. It was embarrassing for everyone. I followed you through the beachside while the sun berated us, interrogating us with its naked bulb. Although I was scarred, I felt invincible. Nothing could ruin me now. I could hear the waves lapping at the shore in desperation. That's when I knew I had won.


Postcard from Maui

Before dawn, the crashing waves popped like fireworks, snapping and fizzing out into raucous birdsong that ultimately woke us. Then, a leaf blower. Then coffee. The beach rolled out ahead of us, as soft as Berber carpet, and we laid upon it while the sun, like a god, made us bronze. Near sunset we scaled the craggy rocks that broke the beach in two and, for a little while, observed the human animal in its habitat au naturel. When we snorkeled, we saw a single fish--it was alone, skimming along the scalloped seafloor, its body so clear you could see right through it. It wasn't any kind of metaphor--I assured you of that, and as the sun fell behind the island, I memorized your face in its honey glow.


Postcard from Maui

The soapy-clean scent of lavender thickens the air here. In the woods, a rooster crows again and again, but no one answers. Our car exhales a long breath of smoke into the nearby clouds and we let her rest from the long ride up. Cars snake along the switchbacks to the mountaintop slowly, like toys. Below us, the island's waist tapers where the north and south shores long to touch one another. Beyond that, I can't really say what there is. Some water, then nothing.


Postcard from Maui

Surfing is the oldest form of matrimony known to humankind. The surfer's relationship to the wave is one of interdependence: without the surfer, the wave has no purpose; without the wave, the surfer has no purpose. It's a precarious but happy marriage. Beneath this lurks a secret. For while the wave will lift you up and carry you to shore, it does so because it knows more often than not, you'll fall into its open mouth. It wants to taste you, even for a second. Even though you taste very, very salty.


Postcard from Maui

The horizon dissipated into fog, the way an Etch-a-Sketch loses its marks with just a simple shake: the island was there, then gone. Then the ocean was gone. Then the trees fuzzed in and out of clarity like uncertain ghosts. And then rain: thick braids of it rolling in the street. When it stopped, we'd found the lava fields where the red stain of lavablood had long been dried. In the tide pools, crabs assessed us guardedly. They were wise to be so cautious. When the mountain goats appeared on the path, they pretended we weren't there. In another context, a workshop participant would claim this metaphor was too heavy handed to come at the end of the tale.


Postcard from Maui

The ocean in my mouth is a salty, salty pretzel. I fell into the wave and you laughed, then fell under yourself. The ocean's essentially an equalizer that way. On a nearby island, rain fell in a billow of sheer curtain. A three-legged dog chased a stick on the beach while we swam, then skipped into the surf. The sun overhead dimmed for a romantic dinner somewhere; we were not invited. Our feet disappeared into slippers of sand. We wore them like dance shoes. We wore them like fins.