So, I made 29 out of 30 days for the month, which is pretty damn good, I’d say. I could go back and bang something out for the day I missed, but it’s just not worth it to me. Today’s prompt was to write a letting go poem, and I thought about one of the most important periods of my life, when I left the church I’d been raised in and let go of the beliefs I’d centered my entire life around. That’s a lot to encompass in a single poem, so this doesn’t even try. It shorthands a bit of the details, but I think the images are evocative enough to get a sense of what I’m talking about.
Not parents, but church
(and thus parents for there
is no family without church
for them), the eternal, bliss
of the Lotos-Eater, dream
of the concussed. Gave up
on eternity, on marital bliss,
on miracled eyes, vegan lions,
circumnavigating the universe.
Discovered love was conditional,
that even God has limits, that I
did too. That I could disagree
and be content with less than.
That I didn’t need to.
I don’t want to say I’m mailing it in here at the end of NaPoWriMo, because I’m trying, but the prompts just aren’t sparking much in me. Plus, as this poem illustrates a little, it’s the end of the term, which means I’m burnt from the work and facing a pretty significant workload between final papers and final exams. I’ll be meeting my workshop for the last time this evening, and I’m looking forward to that, in large part because they’ve been a really engaging group of people to work with.
So with that in mind–it was a class on Poetic Forms–a sonnet, based on the prompt “And suddenly” in the title.
It’s summer, in an academic way.
The days aren’t quite hot yet, but the classes
are nearly over. Once I post my grades,
I’ll be free for a while, sit on my ass
and try to catch up on the things I missed
since January–update my website,
read a book or three, explore the mess
that is my desk (no telling what I’ll find).
And then, as always, autumn will appear
sooner than it should, and bring with it
another batch of students, papers, grades,
responsibilities. I’ll get to hear
the same excuses, pretend to give a shit,
pine for my academic winter break.
Today is supposed to be an end of the road poem. I’ve written a lot of poems about specific roads, but they’re always about the motion, the travel–the Overseas Highway, US 50 in Nevada, etc. So I reached back into my memory and pulled out the cemetery roads that were everywhere in south Louisiana when I was a kid. We came across them all the time while preaching, and knew there was no point in driving down them because no one lived on the same road as the family plot. But we’d look, every so often. Much of this poem is taken from imagination and hearsay, though not the part about my granddad and uncle. That really happened.
_____ Cemetery Road
At the ends of these roads, branched
from converted family farm driveways,
always a family name, a plot, maybe
a chain link fence, wrought iron gate.
Little else on the highways between
gas station/post offices which claimed
the status of town–Sun, Bush, Tallisheek.
On All Souls’ Day the graves bright
with whitewash; on Easter, generations
picnic outside the fence. The youngest
hunt eggs, pick their names out from
the stones of their ancestors, roll
on the grass between cement caps.
There must be something concrete
about living with your dead. Before
Granddad died, he made his sons
promise to build the coffin by hand,
and they did. Uncle Tinker lay in it
to make sure he’d fit, was in his own
not long after from cancer. But neither
is buried in a family plot–I wouldn’t
know where to go see any of my
dear departed if I cared to try.
Let me be burned and cast to the wind,
or buried at sea, or returned to
enrich the earth. Let me become
ephemeral. No marker, no road.
Are you a sensitive poet? I may be.
No poem yesterday–just couldn’t get into the prompt. Maybe I’ll find something to go with it today, but I can’t say I’m all that worried about it. Today’s options were to write a hopeless or a hopeful poem. This one isn’t really hopeless, but it does look at a discouraging situation that anyone who’s ever taught can certainly relate to.
Each class is twenty-seven
which on paper day means
I bring an extra bag.
Eighty-one papers slide
off the desk if stacked straight–
even snagging staples can’t
resist gravity, the slick
ski slope of printer paper.
They avalanche me; no
hope of a St. Bernard to dig
me out, no barrel of brandy
to blur commas to semicolons.
About a month ago, I saw a story about a project being put together by a brand new production company. The project was called “Poetic License 100 Poems 100 Performers” and the idea was to get actors to perform their favorite poems, package it into a CD, and sell it during National Poetry Month. They sent me a sampler to review, and I couldn’t really get a handle on how to approach it for the longest time. I was really turned off by it at first, and I can’t honestly say I’m into yet, though it’s growing on me some.
Part of the problem is my own bias, a bias that Curtis Fox and Don Share discuss in their Poetry Off the Shelf podcast from a couple of weeks ago. One of the things they discuss is the poet’s intimacy with his or her own work. Fox plays two audio clips of the same poem at the beginning of the podcast–one by Edward Hirsch and one by an actor. And as Fox says, it’s easy to tell the difference. The one performed by the actor is more noticeably emotive; it’s breathier, more earnest, and I respond to that as false. That’s a little unfair, I think, because I’ve heard poets read their own work in that same tone, and I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt.
That over-earnest tone is in full bloom in “Poetic License,” at least in most of the pieces I received. The poems themselves contributed to this–lots of Romantic, Victorian and early Modern selections with ponderous points to make. The selections that seemed to work best of the 14 I listened to were Charles Busch’s rendition of “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning and JoBeth Williams’s version of “When I Have Dreams” by John Keats. Busch got the sinister tone of the Duke of Ferrara across without chewing every line (unlike Chris Sarandon with “Ulysses”), and Williams was understated with Keats, and let the poem do the talking.
But I’m willing to reconsider my current position that the poet is always the best person to perform the work. As Don Share pointed out in that podcast, the notion that the poet is the best performer is apparently a fairly modern convention. It strikes me–on the surface at least–as similar to the modern veneration of the singer-songwriter in popular music. During the first half of the twentieth century, there wasn’t much of an expectation that singers would write their own songs, or that songwriters would perform them. Today, there’s a distinct prejudice (in the US) against people who “just sing,” as though that’s an ability that any schmo off the street can provide given enough practice. “True Art,” it seems, comes only from the person who writes his or her own material and then gives it voice.
But just as not all songwriters are good singers, not all poets are good at performing their poems. (There are also those who are better at performing their poems than they are at writing them–Billy Collins defines this category for me.) And anyone who’s gone to enough poetry readings knows this. The poet doesn’t want to be up there, grappling with the microphone stand, dropping the cap to the water bottle, shuffling sheets of paper or thumbing through a book, mini-post-its blooming from its edges. Stammered explanations of obscure (or not-obscure) words and stories about where the poems came from abound. And then the poem is either rushed through, or every word, every line break, is
Maybe these poets should make friends with actors, and bring them along to readings–let the actors perform the poems under the poets’ direction. Everyone wants to direct, right?
It’s probably unfair for me to slam “Poetic License” too hard. I get the feeling that poets are not the target audience–fans of Broadway, where most of the performers currently work, are the people this is being pushed on, and they may well love it. For those of us who want to hear contemporary poets reading their own poetry, there’s From the Fishouse for one. For audio of poets reading other poets’ work, Linebreak, and The Poetry Foundation’s podcasts for a couple of examples. And a lot more, only a google search away.
Prompt for today was to write a poem inspired by a song. This is even harder to do well, in my opinion, than an ekphrastic poem, just because music is so ubiquitous and so often repurposed that to do it in a poem seems cliché from the start. And it’s also very easy to come off as a pretentious jackhole, depending on what moves you and why.
So I tried to dodge that by going way back to when my family moved to Louisiana and experienced Mardi Gras for the first time–experienced is probably the wrong word, since we didn’t actually go to parades. We saw it happening at a distance mostly, though my friends brought beads and doubloons to school and I wanted them to an insane degree. And the music–Professor Longhair, The Funky Meters, Doctor John–I couldn’t get enough of it, especially the whistling. I tried to copy it as closely as I could, in secret, because I’d have gotten in trouble for that as badly as if I’d been whistling Christmas carols. Carnival music is so much better though.
Go to the Mardi Gras
I’ve never hit the high note
or trilled the closing riff
like Professor Longhair did,
though I chapped my lips
and wore my jaw out trying.
Never went to St. Claude
and Dumaire because we
didn’t celebrate–Mardi Gras
wasn’t found in our Bible.
No doubloons, Zulu coconuts,
no sitting on rickety ladders
arms stretched for beads.
The Professor said someone
would tell me what Carnival’s for
but I didn’t need explanation.
I tasted it in the piano, the whistle.
Today’s prompt was for an evening poem, so I went with a metaphor of balanced equations, an evening out as it were. The initial image comes from the park where Amy and I took a walk this afternoon. Some men were sitting under a group of pine trees on a blanket, and a very brave squirrel had approached. It stood on its hind legs facing the group, and while one of them offered food, the rest took pictures with their phones. The rest is just free association, the idea being that I wanted to create equations which didn’t make immediate sense, but which might render up some meaning if you tease them a little. I hope I succeeded.
To find balance,
feed a squirrel part of your picnic lunch
and take its picture with your phone.
Use ions of rue as a catalyst
in a solution of boric acid and
a hipster’s skinny jeans.
The ratio between velocity and
an automaton is equal to
pi multiplied by available horsepower.
I cannot tell the difference
in cereal hitting the inside of a bowl
and my cat’s cry for affection.
In a very powerful piece in the Guardian, Bidisha writes about how she’s tired of being the token woman in the British arts scene, and about how women are consistently underrepresented in reviews, on panels, and in other venues. Her numbers speak for themselves: “I felt it [nausea] when I saw this week’s edition of the London Review of Books. Twelve chaps and four lucky ladies have written in it. The previous edition had 11 men and three women. A fortnight before that there were 16 men and four women. But on 11 March there were 25 eunuchs and a perfectly rendered wooden Pinocchio puppet. Only joking, it was 15 men and four women.”
I was directed to this piece as part of a larger conversation that was spawned by the reaction to Blake Butler’s announcement for issue two of “We Are Champion”, which is an all-male issue. When criticized, Butler responded pretty dismissively, which spawned an epic comment thread, complete with some clueless people not getting an obviously satirical comment about how the commenter hopes her sons are able to overcome all the obstacles put in their way when it comes time for them to attempt to become great poets. Amy King’s is beautiful in its brutality. Continue reading