Stupid Questions

mic

In the education world, the saying goes, there are no stupid questions. But in the big-boy world, the expression has deep roots. One place where it is most prevalent is sports, where breathless victors, still caught up in the power and the glory of their heart-stopping wins, often find a mic thrust into their faces with the question (from a supposedly college-educated sports journalist), “How do you feel right now?”

Stupid question. And I long to hear the athlete who replies, “Horrible. This is the worst feeling I’ve ever endured. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to the locker room for a good cry.”

But no.

In the writing world we have stupid questions, too.  How often are established writers drilled with stock questions begging stock answers? Too often. Here are a few of them, along with answers we might appreciate, if only the interviewed grew weary enough to wax playful:

Q: Where do your ideas come from?

A: Aisle 7, bottom shelf, Wal-Mart automotive department. They’re made in China, my ideas.

Q: What inspires you?

A: Ben & Jerry’s ice cream as hors d’oeuvres, salad, main course, and, if need be dessert. On a Friday night when all weekend’s breaking loose.

Q: Where do you write?

A: Where I’m sitting at any given moment. Often a chair. Cliché, I realize. Do you need the brand and model, in case you want to add inspiration to cart?

Q: Who do you read?

A: Poets. To steal ideas.

Q: But who are the great poets?

A: Your list is as good as mine. Pay no attention to those poets behind the curtain. Words to live by.

Q: What do you recommend to someone just getting into the poetry-writing business?

A: Turn back, oh man. No. Really. I recommend that you do not read any poets, classical or contemporary, and, whatever you do, don’t write every day. Or what you know. Or to show vs. tell. Poison to writers, all of it.

Q: Do you make a living as a published poet?

A: My God. Like Scott and Zelda before the crash. Have you never seen drunk poets dancing in public fountains? They’re in damn near every city in Europe. Also Des Moines.

Q: Do you believe in MFAs?

A: Would they disappear if I didn’t? Me, I am letterless, as was the case in high school, where the quarterback got all the girls.

Q: Is poetry dead?

A: Why do you think zombies are so popular now? Read Poetry and Rattle, why don’t you.

Q: If I had to subscribe to one poetry magazine, which one would it be?

A: The American Conservative. For erasure poetry.

Q: Is there any question I didn’t ask that I should have?

A: Don’t mock me. And thank you.

 

Political Poems Big and, Better Yet, Small

shihab nye.jpg

Political. It’s a big-tent word, all right. And these days most folks focus on the “big” as in bigmouths that crowd the field we should call “government” but instead call “politics” because there’s more politics than government going on by far.

You can write a political poem about this bigness, sure. But it’s a tricky business that walks a thin line between proselytizing in poetry’s chapter and verse and art-for-art’s-waking with a bit of mind-shifting meaning. Me, I prefer the “small politics” strategy, wherein you write about an everyday topic that takes a stand and demands a soap box. One that does not fit into the narrative being writ large on Washington D.C.’s gluttonous stage.

Materialism, for instance. Or raising children. Political acts? In their way, yes. And what better vehicle than poetry to prove the point? Today’s poem is from one of my favorite poets, Naomi Shihab Nye–her name itself a poem. It’s called “Rebellion Against the North Side” and, like any rebellion, can be considered a “shot heard ’round the world” to its readers.

 

Rebellion against the North Side 
by Naomi Shihab Nye

There will be no monograms on our skulls.
You who are training your daughters to check for the words
“Calvin Klein” before they look to see if there are pockets
are giving them no hands to put in those pockets.

You are giving them eyes that will find nothing solid in stones.
No comfort in rough land, nameless sheep trails.
No answers from things which do not speak.

Since when do children sketch dreams with price tags attached?
Don’t tell me they were born this way.
We were all born like empty fields.
What we are now shows what has been planted.

Will you remind them there were people
who hemmed their days with thick-spun wool
and wore them till they fell apart?

Think of darkness hugging the houses,
caring nothing for the material of our pajamas.
Think of the delicate mesh of neckbones
when you clasp the golden chains.
These words the world rains back and forth
are temporary as clouds.
Clouds? Tell your children to look up.
The sky is the only store worth shopping in
for anything as long as life.

 

I don’t know about you, but I smell poetry in the lines “We were all born like empty fields / What we are now shows what has been planted.” Also: “The sky is the only store worth shopping in / for anything as long as life.”

Only a poetic politician could pound her fist on the lectern and say, “The mall? It’s in the sky right above your noses! Look up! Look up!”

Does it preach a bit, like every political poem, to the choir? Yes. But “small-ly,” to coin a word from you-know-who’s “bigly” life. And if it convinces only the already-convinced (read: parents) more than any can’t-be-convinced teens, so be it. The point is that small political poems can be bigger than any two-party, power-grabbing, ego-massaging big ones. Easier to write and read, too.

 

Brian Doyle: Pro at Prose Poetry

mink-river

I first discovered Brian Doyle when I read his imaginative novel of the sea, The Plover, a few years back. The good ship Plover makes a cameo in Doyle’s earlier book, Mink River, which I just finished reading yesterday,

Doyle is a prose writer with poetic blood coursing through his veins. You need only look at his inspirations to learn why. In the back of Mink River, Doyle includes among his “lodestars, compass points, emotional touchstones” while writing the book these stalwarts: The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake and The King James Bible. He also tips his hat to that poetic essayist Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being.

Blake and the KJV especially are quoted early and often in this book. The crow is partial to the Psalms. The doctor likes Ecclesiastes. And Blake words just jump willy-nilly, followed by the one-word nod, “Blake.”

Among the poet’s bag of tricks, anaphora and polysyndeton and alliteration are three favorites. Doyle’s disciplined rambling brings a small Oregon town to life slowly but surely. In episodic chunks, we meet a cast of characters, Winesburg, Ohio-like, including a speaking (and thinking) crow named Moses. The book walks the line between real and surreal at times, but a gentle approach to surrealism always seems to carry it across the suspension bridge of disbelief. And before you know it, gentle reader, you have favorite quirky characters. Or quixotic ones, maybe. All cued up.

So what does this poetic prose look like? Let me copy a bit from the text as an example of Doyle’s delights. If you like it, perhaps a whitewater raft trip down the Mink is in your future. Or a trip at sea on the Plover, if you prefer.

And even if not, it’s fun to watch a writer having fun, luxuriating in words, turning in them and breathing them like oxygen for the creative lungs. Here, then, is a dash of Doyle:

“New trout, having never seen rain on the river, rise eagerly to ripples on the Mink. Some windows close against the moist and some open for the music. Rain slips and slides along hawsers and chains and ropes and cables and gladdens the cells of mosses and weighs down the wings of moths. It maketh the willow shiver its fingers and thrums on doors of dens in the fens. It falls on hats and cats and trucks and ducks and cars and bars and clover and plover. It grayeth the sand on the beach and fills thousands of flowers to the brim. It thrills worms and depresses damselflies. Slides down every window rilling and murmuring. Wakes the ancient mud and mutter of the swamp, which has been cracked and hard for months. Falls gently on leeks and creeks and bills and rills and the last shriveled blackberries like tiny dried purple brains on the bristles of bushes. On the young bear trundling through a copse of oaks in the woods snorffling up acorns. On ferns and fawns, cubs and kits, sheds and redds. On salmon as long as your arm thrashing and roiling in the river. On roof and hoof, doe and hoe, fox and fence, duck and muck. On a slight man in a yellow slicker crouched by the river with his recording equipment all covered against the rain with plastic wrap from the grocery store and after he figures out how to get the plastic from making crinkling sounds when he turns the machine on he settles himself in a little bed of ferns and says to the crow huddled patiently in rain, okay, now, here we go, Oral History Project, what the rain says to the river as the wet season opens, project number …something or other … where’s the fecking start button? …I can’t see anything … can you see a green light? yes? is it on? damn my eyes … okay! there it is! it’s working! rain and the river! here we go!”

I’ll miss the book and the next one will suffer a bit by comparison. Is there any higher compliment you can pay an author?

Ten Honest Rejections

reject

Your poem has been rejected. Again. But don’t you wish the rejections were a bit more truthful? After all, we live in an age where “truth” is under siege. It needs all the help it can get. And boiler-plate rejections are just so impersonally vanilla. Let’s try a little chocolate pizzazz, shall we, because if we’re going to get rejected, we might as well enjoy it a little, no?

  1. Dear Writer: Thank you for your recent (as of 14 months ago) submission. We really didn’t read it because, well, we’re pretty elite as poetry journals go (and they go), and we receive upwards to 500 submissions a day, most of them as awful as yours. Thanks for the $5 reading fee, though! Yours, Kevin Ka-Ching, Editor-in-Chief.
  2. Dear Writer: Thank you for your most recent query about the considered-long-lost submission that must have fallen behind our inbox 18 months ago. We have found it and brushed off any e-dust bunnies as a gesture of respect. Please accept our sincere apologies for the length of response time for this rejection. We trust, being a poet, that you understand.
  3. Dear Writer: We started reading the first of five poems you submitted and, eight words in, knew you didn’t know the first of five things about writing poetry. We’re good, no? (Your eight words, on the other hand, aren’t.)
  4. Dear Writer: Do you really count yourself a poet? Does your house really lack a mirror? Perhaps it’s time you looked honesty in the face. Or at the very least, started bothering the short story market’s editors. End of story.
  5. Dear Writer: Thanks for the laugh. Really.
  6. Dear Writer: Thank you for your Poety Zine submission but, to be honest, these are not Poetry Zine kind of poems. We like politically-slanted work, especially ones that rail against the New Fascism taking over the world like unfree verse. In a similar vein, we like pop culture poetry–works that mention things readers care about like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, selfies, texting, and uploaded photographs of food.  Your poem about snow and birches and crows (of all things!) was lost on us.
  7. Dear Writer: We opened your submission only to find that you are not a known writer whose name would lend credence and panache to our journal’s cover. How disappointing. Try us again. When (and if) you have a name, we mean.
  8. Dear Writer: Your first poem contained the words darkness, lovely, very, cerulean, shards, and dog. News flash: No, no, no, no, no, and no poem can succeed once it’s swallowed these words.
  9. Dear Writer: Do you know the first thing (or, should I say, the last thing) about line breaks? What are you, winging it here? Is not poetry a science? An art? Are you willing to put in the time before you waste ours? We are all volunteers here, short on time and money and, like most poetry ventures, about to disappear into Internet vapor at any moment. Be kind and do your homework. Please.
  10. <a moment of silence / OK, more than a moment / utter darkness / very lovely darkness / cerulean-shards-inside-a dog-darkness>

The “Sullen Art” of Writing Poetry

dwarfs

Sure, some writers love to spout off about inspiration, about their passion for writing, about the way their precious ideas bloop out as finished products, ninth month in the first week and Hail Caesarean!

Then you have the honest writers. The ones who write quality poems, but acknowledge it as work that seems to take this side of forever. Writer as the eighth dwarf, call it, whistling as he heads off to the mines for another day’s work. Poem as dirt and sweat, then. As collar so stained you can no longer see the blue.

One poet who described writing this way was that brief star from Wales, Dylan Thomas. I say brief because his life was cut short by the black hole called alcohol (also known as “America’s drug of choice”).

In the end, Thomas writes, his work is for the lovers “Who pay no praise or wages / Nor heed my craft or art.” Now those are words a writer can identify with, as writing, even when published, seems the province of a vacuum, of a god named Hoover or Dirt Devil.

Here is Thomas’s “In My Craft or Sullen Art.” Does it look, like so many good poems do, spontaneous and born of sea or briny foam (or, God save us, of Adam’s rib)–miraculously? Or can you picture the messy process, the ink stains and half-past-midnight oil, start to finish?

I know a poet who claims he sends no poem to markets until he’s revised it for at least a year. Hyperbole? Perhaps. But if it’s true, it’s wise. Wiser than any golden potato chip.

 

“In My Craft or Sullen Art” by Dylan Thomas

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

Sure Things: Food and Loneliness

rice

What to write about?

Seems like an easy enough question. Some say your topics should be determined solely by the dictator that is you. Others say have mercy on your readers’ souls. Consider them. Others still–the agnostic wafflers of the bunch–say, “Why not both?”

I’ll be political and not take a stand because who really cares what I think? I do know this: You’re in trouble if you think you can write about something you know nothing about or don’t care about.

Which brings us to two sure things: food and loneliness. Like air and water, they will keep you grounded.

How do we know food resonates? Easy. People eat it up. And people with cellphones (there are a few, apparently) actually photograph and upload the stuff before eating it. Curious case closed!

And loneliness? True, most confuse loneliness with being alone, two different animals. Unlike many in this world, I cherish alone time. It sustains me. And my writing. But I know the world also harbors manic social sorts. They get frenzied by lack of sound, technological input, people. They believe they are unpopular, neglected, or sad if not buoyed by activity and input. (How sad!) Can you go wrong, then, when writing about the poignancy and beauty of alone-ness? Rhetorical, I assure you.

My thoughts turned to these two staples of writing after I read Li-Young Lee’s poem “Eating Alone,” which nicely breathes and drinks the two poem-sustaining wonders in one fell swoop. And check out the last line! It speaks to the ages (if you’ll pardon the pun). See if you agree:

“Eating Alone” by Li-Young Lee

I’ve pulled the last of the year’s young onions.
The garden is bare now. The ground is cold,
brown and old. What is left of the day flames
in the maples at the corner of my
eye. I turn, a cardinal vanishes.
By the cellar door, I wash the onions,
then drink from the icy metal spigot.

Once, years back, I walked beside my father
among the windfall pears. I can’t recall
our words. We may have strolled in silence. But
I still see him bend that way-left hand braced
on knee, creaky-to lift and hold to my
eye a rotten pear. In it, a hornet
spun crazily, glazed in slow, glistening juice.

It was my father I saw this morning
waving to me from the trees. I almost
called to him, until I came close enough
to see the shovel, leaning where I had
left it, in the flickering, deep green shade.

White rice steaming, almost done. Sweet green peas
fried in onions. Shrimp braised in sesame
oil and garlic. And my own loneliness.
What more could I, a young man, want.

 

— from Rose by Li-Young Lee, BOA Editions

The Ordinary–It Should Scare You to Death

cellar-stairs

Too often, when writers set out with a purpose such as “to make my readers laugh” or “to scare my readers,” they fall victim to stock props of the genre as found on TV, in the movies, and yes, in literature. But there’s more to, say, scaring people than vampires by night, zombies by day, and Sean Spicer press conferences by cable.

If you really want to write about fear, get in touch with your inner child. As adults drugged on maturity, we often forget the powerful knack children have for seeing malevolence in the most ordinary of objects, and there’s no better Museum of the Extraordinarily Ordinary than your basement.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a moment to regret the passing of poet Thomas Lux at the tender (by today’s standards) age of 70. I was reading some of Lux’s poems when I came across “Cellar Stairs,” a piece in which ice skates, ice picks, roofing nails, a fuse-box switch, and yes, even a freezer, do yeoman duty as witches, monsters, and boogeymen:

Cellar Stairs

It’s rickety down to the dark.
Old skates, long-bladed, hang by leather laces
on your left and want to slash your throat,
but they can’t, they can’t, being only skates.
On a shelf above, tools: shears,
three-pronged weed hacker, ice pick,
poison-rats and bugs-and on the landing,
halfway down, a keg of roofing nails
you don’t want to fall face first into,

no, you don’t. To your right,
a fuse box with its side-switch-a slot machine,
on a good day, or the one the warden pulls,
on a bad. Against the wall,
on nearly every stair, one boot, no two
together, no pair, as if the dead
went off, short-legged or long, to where they go,
which is down these steps,
at the bottom of which is a swollen,

humming, huge white freezer
big enough for many bodies—
of children, at least. And this
is where you’re sent each night
for the frozen bag of beans
or peas or broccoli
that lies beside the slab
of meat you’ll eat for dinner,
each countless childhood meal your last.

“Cellar Stairs,” from New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin).

The minute you go for laughs or frights in the usual, well-trod places is the minute you should stop and reconsider the tack you’re on. People are killed in droves by ladders, bathtubs, and stairs. Why, then, are you channeling Freddie Krueger?

Get your remote and channel this: your childhood home and how much it resembles your present-day home. There are places in the former that scared you and places in the latter that should, and even though those places are populated with objects both hum and drum, your job is to make them thrum.

See you later. I’m going down to the cellar for a minute.

My Book Finds Precious Real Estate

So your book is listed on amazon. Ho-hum. The same is true for 4,609,398,623,211 other books. Where the rubber really hits the road is when your book sits on a bookstore shelf. We’re talking prime real estate, many dots beyond com, between Barnes and his distinguished brother, Noble, say, or between some Mom and some Pop in an independent bookstore, maybe.

Such was my treat Wednesday night when I ran into the University of Connecticut’s Barnes & Noble bookstore before taking in the basketball game at Gampel Pavilion. There it was, into the blue and on the poetry section shelves, standing between Billy Collins (nice to meet you, William) and Rita Dove (peace out, sister)–The Indifferent World, looking anything but indifferent with its gaudy red “Local Author” sticker.

I had one-quarter a mind to autograph it on the spot, but no. Probably out of line without management’s blessing. So I just said hello, because you know what? This particular copy of the now-familiar book looked different. A prince among the paupers waiting to be adopted at amazon. An august leader among the plebes sitting in my to-be-signed-at-readings bag at home.

Despite the watery cover, it had definite airs. And why not? I say. Seize the moment, kid. Carpe your diem while the sun shines, because the sun also sets, as Hemingway almost told us.

In parting, I whispered these words to it: “I hope you find a good home–but maybe not just yet. Maybe after a few weeks, enjoying the view.”

img_2870

A Poem Should Be…

macleish

Ars Poetica. According to both Merriam and Webster, it means “a treatise on the art of literary and especially poetic composition.” And strictly speaking, in the Dead Language (that’s Latin to you), it means “the art of poetry.”

Many poems carry this title, and it is considered a rite of passage to write your own Ars Poetica. Thus, if you count yourself a poet and haven’t written one, you should. I know, I know. What a pain in the ars.

So to start, think of this: What should a poem be?

Done? OK. Then here’s better advice: Think of what a poem should not be. Chances are, brainstorming this way will lead you to thoughts most no one else has had while parsing and arsing this fabled beast called poetry.

Don’t believe me? Check out Archibald MacLeish’s go at it:

Ars Poetica by Archibald MacLeish

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

Dumb
As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.

*

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.

*

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean
But be.

 

I don’t know about you, but I like this definition of poetry. As the Beatles (or what’s left of them) like to say: “Let it be.”

And if you’re looking for deeper meaning, find a beach and pound sand. Archie’s having too much fun telling us what poetry isn’t. Or maybe what it is but no one in their right mind ever would have guessed it is (poetry being for left minds, as you know).

Got it? Then good luck and get writing.

If Every Word Is Suspect, Your Writing Will Be Arresting

szymborska

Here’s something I learned from the late Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska: If every word is suspect, your writing will be arresting.

What does this mean? It means writing–especially poetry writing–cannot always be a prisoner of denotation. Of course, specific language serves the creative writer’s purposes for imagery, but there has to be more: not only connotation, but something even more unusual at times.

Sometimes you need to stare at a word for an hour until it begins to change shapes like a Protean gift from the Muse. Sometimes you need to consider angles and caroms that wait like a bounce in inertia’s clothing. Sometimes you need to take chances with words and be willing to write something awful on the faith that every pan of mud might contain a chip of gold.

Consider these three words: future, silence, nothing. Wislawa Szymborska did. And from those rather tired, heard-them-before-and-maybe-even-too-often abstractions, she found gold.

How? By simply handing them to her brain to play with for an hour or so while she made dinner. The result? “The Three Oddest Words.” Enjoy:

The Three Oddest Words

When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.

When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.

When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no non-being can hold.

 

By Wislawa Szymborska
Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

And look what happens to words when they return to their natural habitat in “The Joy of Writing”! We even get a cameo from the word “silence” again–still breaking the rules, still escaping the bullets of denotation, still doing what writers do best when they see not only the world, but words themselves, differently. Enjoy again:

The Joy of Writing

Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence – this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word “woods.”

Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,
are letters up to no good,
clutches of clauses so subordinate
they’ll never let her get away.

Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,
prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,
surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.

They forget that what’s here isn’t life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof’s full stop.

Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.

 

By Wislawa Szymborska
From “No End of Fun”, 1967
Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

 

Share this: