oulipost 26: ask a psychic

And lastly, before I cave in on myself in a singularity of poetic burnout, another lighthearted-fantastical one for Oulipost‘s beautiful outlaw (belle absente) prompt. I took the name Orson Welles for this one: the first line is written without the letter “o”, the second without the letter “r”, etc. Managed to even get some rhyme in there! All words are sourced from an article in the Voice about his film version of Othello, and turned into a goofy new age vaguery piece about dreams. Go figure.

Five poems today. Fin. *mic drop*

Ask a Psychic (see Page 13)

The scrap-fabric mysteries are seductive:
easy to decode and easy to believe.
A ribbon of dream fanning out like vertigo
is assembled in the hair, wispy-refusing-stiff,
as the dark fits together, bright but slow.

A mosaic might be made (and then undone)
by imagination. Who could look away?
Or, the setting may rather be pieced together,
each jagged vision in emptiness, one by one:
iron grillwork, black flags. A body of a play
you need can be learned, or embittered.

poem-a-thon 11: the three fates

So with the signal boost from NaPoWriMo yesterday, I think I had more hits than the rest of the week combined; it’s since fallen off back to normal levels. Oh well. I hope that people are reading and enjoying, overall. It’s tough to keep some kind of blogosphere presence without a gimmick or other method of hooking people. Sometimes I’m tempted to give it up altogether, but I do enjoy it, and I do it for the handful of people that make their appreciation known. <3

Today’s NaPo prompt is a form I wasn’t familiar with, the anacreontic, which is a somewhat whimsical form in seven-syllable rhymed couplets, short and lyric with an emphasis on wine and love, specifically. (It’s Ancient Greek, appropriated by the English Augustans et al.) I’ve had this one scene from some years ago (along with several others, naturally) floating around my head lately, and though this little ditty doesn’t do it justice, I got thinking about triple goddess myths, fates, petitions, oracles, and psychedelic drugs as a result. Seemed to fit, more or less! And it gave me some Thom Gunn echoes that I enjoy.

Don’t take it too seriously, though, nor the other poems I’ve written about these semi-mythical figures in this semi-mythical moment. Forget you saw anything. Move along.

Two Anacreontics: the three fates

Their bedroom’s Compostella,
tonight. Pilgrim, come tell the
sisters your hot, secret dreams.
Nothing’s ever as it seems.
Their cocks are out, hard but thin:
they sip cups of mescaline.

Like soap bubbles, meanings fuse
with those dreams: the sisters’ booze
pulls them loose. Given wisdom,
with what coin will you kiss them?
No fear! I’m here, disrober–
chaperone stoned, but sober.

Night-Song

Well, it’s been a while.

There’s been a lot of turmoil offline: still looking for a better job, a place to live, grad schools, etc. Mostly I’ve just been too drained and gloomy to write, which is an awful thing. (I hate  being just kind-of-depressed, because at least when you’re wildly dejected you can channel it into some kind of creativity. Being in that grey place in between is just boring.) But I sat myself down and forced myself to crank out this nonsense, which is the first thing I’ve written in two weeks. Putting it up here before I change my mind.

Probably will continue to be pretty quiet for the time being…

Night-Song

Listen, I brought you in from the sudden rain.
When we sleep, we are traveling, and I caught
the shape of you in the thunder’s deepening line.
You were moving east. You were unraveling.
Listen, I took a cab as fast I could. I believe
once in a while we must all be full of mercy
and we desire to do something good. I let you
drowse on my knee while the city flew by.
Listen, the long hex of Broadway was opal and fire.
The timeless chain of here, of now. Leading home,
where your body curled and uncurled at peace
with the night. I wrapped my lips round you tight.
Listen, sometimes the flare of joy is more than I
can take; and I want to say, if only you’d been there!
If you’d only been awake!

The Refinery: debi swim

Thanks to Margo Roby for her plug; there’s poems for the Refinery for the first time in weeks! I do enjoy having something more to do than stare at prompts or random lists of things I’ve scrummaged together and waiting for some kind of writing to happen. (Side note: if spell checker is correct, apparently “scrummage” actually is a verb.) (Side side note: I have used it completely wrong.) And also, as always, I will provide my usual disclaimer that I don’t have an MFA or anything, only my rambling experience; and that I hope you enjoy and get something out of these posts as much as I do. To anyone who hasn’t been around for the Refinery before: you should consider submitting! So today:

“Sun Stroked Thoughts” by Debi

Debi sent this poem in, with the claim of being an “amateur poet”. I only want to bring this up to say, too many people writing out there are too self-deprecating with their status. What people often mean when they say “amateur” is that they don’t write poems which have appeared in Poetry magazine, or they write stuff they don’t like to read afterwards, or sometimes just that they haven’t been writing long. First of all, not everybody reads or likes Poetry magazine, and everyone has an audience, somewhere. Second, I don’t like the stuff I write, either; I think everyone is critical of their own work, and finds it hard to step back enough to appreciate it. And third, a lot of those Poetry poets find their voice right out of the gate, and some struggle their entire lives to find it. So before declaring yourself “amateur”, reconsider what you mean by it. Remember that it comes from the word “lover”, as in, someone who is doing poetry for love rather than profession. If that’s the only thing you mean by it, you are welcome to describe yourself as such.

So, the poem:

The sand under my feet scritches
itches in places I can’t reach
a fish shaped kite flutters
utters in the blue sky
waves SWWWoooSHes
to shore sure as night follows day
dreams carry me across the sea
sons, winter, fall, summer, spring
forth as my sleepy thoughts drift
wood on the beach bleached white
hot Tropic of Cancer
causing sun.

Let’s see what we can do:
– I’m going to keep in the narrative frame of what I think Debi means by “amateur” things here, and pull them apart a little bit. My first tip on reading this is to find a balanced aesthetic, between experimentation and traditionalism. You can’t read poetry nowadays without tripping over someone who claims you need to be all avant-garde with text, to which I say, bullshit. Before I get into the meatier point about rhyme and word use, I keep stopping on that “SWWWoooSHes” in the middle and the formal structure of the poem. I am a fan of punctuation and line breaks in poems; it took me a while to realize it too, but I am firmly in that camp now. Punctuation gives you an entire set of tools to help you better craft your message, and it seems a disservice not to use them. (I count a line break as a punctuation mark as well, fyi.) This poem has a lot of punning and stuff moving across lines, but the sudden string of commas and that final period make the lack of punctuation elsewhere in the poem seem particularly stark. And the swoosh-onomatopoeia distracts me more than it gives any added benefit; “swoosh” by itself is strong enough. I don’t want to say that every poem needs to be a sonnet, or that grammar needs to be inflexible, but it’s also not a requirement to bend the rules. A river does not flow in a straight line downstream; make meanders and rapids and schools of fish.
– Then onto the sound. I find myself wondering about those early internal rhymes a lot. I get the puns in the latter half of the poem (which I’ll talk about in a bit), but I’m not sure why “scritches / itches” and “flutters / utters” are there, and it’s tripping me up. Particularly because it’s so early in a poem; remember that if you set an expectation in the first four lines (like rhyming couplets), the reader, however subconsciously, will expect it to continue. You may want to create the jarring effect of an abrupt shift, from regularity and rhyme to free flow, but you need to be aware it will happen. I think both “scritches” and “utters” can be removed entirely. The rest of the poem is pretty tight when it comes to sound, but the beginning wobbles the whole thing off course a bit. Poetry should sing, of course: but I get the feeling this is not meant to be a poem where sound is the only concern. As much as you should be aware of the jarring effect, you also want to be aware of how much the poem will be perceived a sonic device (rather than a thematic one). A good tip: have someone else read it aloud and see how it matches with your own style.
– And then, moving up another level, the thematic tissue of the poem: what is the third dimension here? As it stands, the poem is purely observational, which is fine if Debi wants, but I think there’s potential to dig down further. The title implies some complexity and damage beyond just the visuals, and the thoughts drifting across seasons/the Tropic of Cancer suggests both a particular location and a desire to leave it. Maybe I’m reading too much into it? But if I am, please treat as a case of a reader finding something which might be worth exploring: a common occurrence in workshops, if you let it happen. (And sometimes the readers are incredibly off the mark, so far behind they think they’re first.) It’s a short, image- and language-heavy poem, but the addition of ego could make for a stronger piece.

From another angle or three:
– I do like some of the punning. “Day / dreams” and “Cancer / causing” are my favorites, I think; and although “beach / bleached” isn’t really a pun, that forceful of an immediate rhyme draws attention to itself in the same way. (I’m less keen on “shore sure” and “sea / sons”.) I like that the poem takes the high road and does puns instead of clichés, which can get tiresome very quickly. Line breaks might disrupt some of this effect, but I think that the clever reader will still be carried through by these phrases even if there is empty space in their middles. Trust your reader!
– Always go with specifics! For me, the two strongest moments in the poem are the fish-shaped kite and the Tropic of Cancer. For the first one, ask questions: who is flying that kite? Where did it come from? What kind of fish is it? Visualize, hypothesize, jazzercise. You open yourself to all kinds of explorations from that one minimal scrap of an image: picture the fish swimming through the sky in the sea wind, or chasing another kite like a fish goes after prety. And then, the second one: I love the specificity of Tropic of Cancer. Where is it? What is the point of naming it? Why does it have that name, anyway? The door is already shining light through the keyhole with the “Cancer / causing” pun, and I want to see it pushed wide.
– …but at the same time, if these incidental moments are expanded in the poem, I would also want to see a corresponding expansion of the general theme: summer-y, or at least beach-y, daydreams. Right now, the poem is, I think, balanced in subject, where the right proportion (the largest one) is devoted to those daydreams. The internal rhymes seem more salient because they’re right at the start, but they actually don’t take up much space; and punctuation/line breaks or their absence, by definition, are salient without taking up space. The poem is honestly, primarily, concerned with its topic, and that’s good; the slight cheek of the puns and the foregrounding of sound overall take up as much space as they should.

A few more things:
– I can’t put my finger on it, but I feel like there’s a couple missing prepositions in here that would somehow better flow the poem.
– The title, as I mentioned, is good. Maybe play around with it to make it even better?
– Honestly, I’m not sure what purpose the list of seasons serves.
– But the more I look at those last two lines, the more I like them.

A little bit of trimming and punctuating, followed by some expansion in all corners, could do this poem a world of good, I feel. Debi: I hope this has been some valuable advice. And for the rest of us who need something to scribble, here’s a prompt that you might consider…

Describe a quiet moment you are having/have had, where the threat of the usual turbulence is waiting, just out of view. What are the benefits/risks of escape, and the benefits/risks of staying? Include an odd image that catches your eye, a specific location in the world that you’ve never been, and clever enjambment on at least two pairs of lines. Separate the poem into at least two distinct stanzas, and at least three sentences (not necessarily complete ones).

Happy writing!

Wanderlust

Just sitting at the cafe stretching the writing-brain this evening. I’ve been getting good responses on the chapbook manuscript, and wrote two poems while here; next I’ll probably go home, eat dinner, and revise. Might try to get through one more as well, but an offline well-crafted one (which will probably not get finished tonight). This is just an exercise. It’s from that same excellent Dorianne Laux prompt from ReadWritePoem almost exactly four years ago, to do something autobiographical and loaded with imagery. I got way too cryptic in this one, but I think I just wanted to play with some images a bit. Shrug? Anyway, I think it’s a good prompt to come back to every four years.

Wanderlust

You try your best; you find your life buried under the ice,
snow-blind. You scramble against the glacier with all your might.
This is how it’s been from Genesis on. What did Eve do?
She chipped away. Sooner or later, you go from lion skins
to library books with their stale perfume, you tame the wild grain,
then you’re plonking at an out-of-tune piano. They say necessity
breeds invention. When did we first need these little things?
You go down to see the cherry trees bloom in April, you lounge
at the hookah bar with Abe and Angel, hoping one of those
Egyptian men watching the soccer match will take you home,
knowing what lasts, and what doesn’t. Another year means
another city, Orion posed somewhere else overhead. Soon,
you’re scooping up centipedes and drowning joints in puddles.
Pigeons cling to the tips of girders like limp hangnails.
And you’ve crumpled hundred-dollar bills in sweaty jean pockets,
espresso foam flecks your well-licked lips. So many ancestors
died to get you here, how can you not feel a bit ungrateful?
But you’re really trying. Where to? You could follow the third rail
to Gowanus, sniff the bayou of old condoms, needing beauty,
any kind of it. Or go further. Maybe Providence when the leaves
turn; you once knew a man there, tattooed with birds. Further still.
This is where you are against history, a post-evolutionary Age.
Lucky. But you feel like you’ll never be lucky enough.

California

Guys, this Kay Ryan kick I keep referring to is getting out of hand. Part of it might just be that I haven’t had time lately for really expansive stuff, part of it is probably that so much of my direction in workshop has been towards self-restraint, and part of it definitely comes from my abiding love for all of Ryan’s work. But I find myself pulled over and over to poems with that same kind of structure. I don’t think I’m getting anything particularly deep across, but they’re mad fun to write and structure and polish, with the occasional glimmers of something significant. It’s good exercise-writing, to force yourself to pay attention to sound, economy of language, and overall visual structure. So, here’s a simple one for We Write Poems‘ prompt about finding treasure at the end of the story; this was the first thing that came to mind. I’m a fan of ambivalent endings.

California

More of a transition
than a state:
opening the door
to a colonial mission,
or dipping in rivers
with ceremonial weight.
More of a place
to skip town for
than those in its grip,
bitter from the chase,
will admit, or allow for.
More terrestrial than
its known motion:
sharp bends on uplands
thrown high, down
through endless wheat
waiting to be drowned by
its lonely ocean.

reading: eduardo c. corral, “slow lightning”

Well, first of all, the obvious news I have to give my plaudits for is the double rainbow of DOMA being partially-struck down (arguably the most important part of it) and Prop 8 being thrown out. Neither of these is a complete victory, individually (parts of DOMA still exist, and theoretically someone could appeal the Prop 8 decision) or as a whole (plenty of states still don’t recognize marriage), but it’s a cause for celebration, as far as I’m concerned. Pride this weekend will be absolute mayhem. And I stand with the progressive bloc who cautions that there is plenty of drama going on to rage about and fight against (the women’s rights in Texas, the voting rights all over, etc.), but I believe that we are heirs to complexity and can hold more than one emotion about these things at once. Never ignore all the stuff in the world that needs to be struggled against, but cherish the good moments when they come, because they give you a foundation to build on for progress, and the energy to fight the good fight. And meanwhile, my heartfelt congrats to the many, many couples I know that needed this victory, as well as to the ones that I don’t. ^_^

(I also hear NJ lawmakers have renewed the push to override Christie’s veto. Yeeaaahhh Jerz.)

Anyway, on to the reading portion. Eduardo C. Corral’s book Slow Lightning was recommended to me by Bryan Borland first, I think, at the Rainbow Book Fair. Not long after, I managed to procure a copy, and then felt guilty when I hadn’t read it at last month’s #poetparty, where Eduardo was hanging out. So: now that I have finished, I can say with honesty what a fascinating journey of a collection it is. And certainly this opinion is shared by some of the poetry nabobs, since the collection won the 2011 Yale Younger Poets prize, one of the highest accolades for a first book. There are a number of clear reasons why: the unique quality of the voice, the daring-yet-delicate architecture of each poem, and the fever dreams of their content which do not draw back from being either physical or spiritual. This is a book of careful balance between identities and narratives, one that creates lots of doubles (with a number of possible conjunctions to join them), and one that struggles with contradiction. Even the title suggests a desire to figure out how to live with being at odds with oneself.

It would be impossible to thoroughly explore all of one’s possible identities within the scope of one book, and so there is more emphasis on Chicano identity than, for example, gay identity (which is still very present, but I’d argue not as overtly). Lots of family tales fill the pages, and Spanish is thoroughly mixed with the English in most of the poems; this could be a stumbling block for some readers, but it illustrates the honesty with which Corral is writing. (Sometimes the word you want just isn’t in the language you’re writing in.) But what makes this selection intriguing is that so much has not yet been figured out. In the most maudlin confessional poetry, you find these poets who have already worked everything out, and have psychoanalyzed themselves into flatness; it’s all very pat and one-note. Here, we see less resolution: the figures in the poems (ranging from Corral’s father, to nameless immigrants, to unnamed lovers, to Frida Kahlo) are presented in terms of images that range from mundane (“Prepaid / phonecards. Flea market bicycles. / Above his heart, an alacrán tattoo.”) to the absolutely magical (“If I dream I’m cupping her face / with my hands, I wake up holding / the skull / of a wolf.”), with very little interference from the author. The poems are expressed in terms of the concrete world; even dreams become solid, and handled with physical verbs.

The overall effect of all this is one of standing in two places at once, a crossing of physical borders (U.S.-Mexico, for example), linguistic borders, the border between reality and visions, etc. Corral does not only bring us with him to exist in those liminal spaces, but shows us how he thrives there. This aesthetic coats each of the different exercises he chooses: list poems, ekphrastic pieces (of which there are several), and regular blocks of lines are equally at home in this place he creates. I think most of us can find some truth in those moments of being in-between, but not all of us can understand the full depth of growing up in/being assigned to an in-between-ness full-time. One should always appreciate a gentle guide leading us in step by step, to the point where even the horrors of such an experience (which the author narrates evenly, refusing to let us look away) become more deeply comprehended. There is no doubt that surface political realities, questions of racism, identity tension, and the use of metaphor’s apparatus to make sense of it all reflect and reverberate with each other; or if there is doubt, I exhort you to read a few poems like these.

Regarding writing style, I find it interesting; outside the context of experiments, I’m not very taken with pieces that scatter themselves across pages and break in odd places. (Some of the poems require the book to be turned sideways, but this might simply be because of line length.) However, the author loosens the seams of poetic structure with a deft hand, which eases some of the work the reader must do, and of course writing “outside the lines” serves to further the point of the book’s boundary-crossing matter. So, if pressed to pick a few favorite moments, I’d go with these:

Once, borracho, at breakfast,
he said: The heart can only be broken
once, like a window.

~ “In Colorado My Father Stacked and Scoured Dishes”

Kahlo undresses in front of a mirror.
Her spine: a pouring of sand
through an hourglass
of blood.

~ “Poem After Frida Kahlo’s Painting The Broken Column

Am I not your animal?
You’d wait in the orchard for hours
to watch a deer
break from the shadows.
You said it was like lifting a cello
out of its black case.

~ “To the Angelbeast”

This is all from the first read, and Slow Lightning is the kind of book that demands a second. There’s something cyclical, beautifully and terribly, about the patterns created within its pages. (I’m reminded of two lines from Muriel Rukeyser’s “Ballad of Orange and Grape”: “It could be war and peace or any binary system… orange into GRAPE and grape into ORANGE forever.”) There are things to be cherished and things to be overcome, in any time you choose, at certain places balanced between two worlds. Corral does an admirable job of surviving between a number of such pairs, and furthermore is able to project his vision on behalf of those who don’t make it. There always be a need for work like this, to say there is still something to be done; if there are poets who can manage to say that with this lush and curious kind of language, raw and fanciful at once, then I say, bring on those poets.