oulipost 23: cannibal

On a roll with the Oulipost prompts, at least. Today’s was to do an “inventory” poem, dividing up the words in a text by part of speech and working that into a poem. I took an advice column in the Voice responding to the reader’s question about whether to go vegan, and ended up with, um, this. Tongue planted in a very macabre cheek.

The italic bits started as direct quotes, but I cobbled them a little bit in the end. The four lists are verbs, concrete nouns, adjectives, and abstract nouns, respectively, drawn from the response. (There are some prepositions/articles mixed in for flourish. Sue me.) I tried to work in a bit of subtle sound similarity as well.

One more poem to go! I’m trying to get these done early in the day so I can relax this evening…

Cannibal Comes to Terms with Self, Diet

I clearly remember the day I decided
I don’t like people telling me what to do.
Prepare, continue, embrace.
Move, become, reclaim.
Should take, can do, must face.

Something that I once thought was pure evil:
occasionally I’d splurge.
Cow’s body, bird flesh, the dead.
Swordfish steak, bacon, eggs.
Vegan burger. Human head.

I enjoyed it more passionately.
I seemed to love it even more.
Unique, biological, honest.
Grotesque, bizarre, pure.
Full-blown, aware of the finest.

I wrestle with the fact that I might have to choose
a version of myself that had existed before.
Thought in sin in sincerity.
Pleasure. Damage. Brutality.
Omnivore-violence-philosophy.

Recursion Twenty-Three: third meander

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.”
~ Carl Jung, Swiss psychologist and mystic

Guys, I apologize for my unruly behavior in getting these things up in a timely fashion. I know that I gripe a lot about the usual goings-on in my life, but for real, I do try to make this happen early in the day so that you have time to cogitate on the prompts, if you are in a cogitating mood. And equally for real, it has just been a shitstorm of a month. I know a lot of people have it worse, so I shouldn’t complain like I do, but when you have this low-level buzz of frustration in every aspect of your life, it wears you down after a while. You all know what I mean; we’ve all been there before, I think. NaPoWriMo is a wonderful thing, but that’s just one more aspect of life (writing) where I feel like somebody is just rubbing a key back and forth over my… muse, I guess, in this case.

There’s only a week to go, anyway, so I’m trying to think of some clever and creative ways for us all to work our craft a bit in the final days of the month. (And then, I think the best thing to do after the month ends is take one day and not write. You could revise, maybe, but just allow the spring to be spent.) Today, I’ve been taking my cue from the Mississippi, which — if you’re not familiar with how it looks — turns into the wriggliest serpent of a river as it gets down past Tennessee, into Arkansas/Mississippi territory. I could’ve called this prompt third, fourth, fifth… nth meander, since it seems to wind more than it doesn’t at a certain point. This is apparently normal for rivers to do when they enter large expanses of fairly flat plains: the things you learn on Wikipedia researching the longest extended metaphor you’ve ever kept up.

So let’s talk about how to draw inspiration from that concept. In previous “meander” prompts, I asked you to sidetrack from the momentum of thought you’d been building up to that point. But now we have a pretty solid spool of water unwound across the landscape, with your triplicate themes and images revolving around a common center, etc. (Or at least, I hope you do; if not, no time to throw those things together like the present!) Instead of swinging wide off-course, I want to suggest this, instead: let the images wrench you from side to side, as though you were a bowling ball and you’ve lined the lanes with bumpers. You can pick two fairly narrowly defined aspects of the thematic tissue holding your work together for this last week, and arrange them so that you’ll loop merrily between them on the way downstream. (But not with too much energy: a meander, after all, is a slow thing.) Say I stick with my pet example theme of biological process in the world again. I might have how flying things are born on one bank, and the surface colors of fauna on the other.

Then it becomes a matter of finding images that tick-tock back and forth from one thing to the next. I might start with the image of a cuckoo replacing an egg, then fade into camouflage to fool the nest mother which leads into birds being fledged, from which I might wax painterly on the colors of feathered things against the sky, zoom into some metaphor about souls and flying and the purpose of this beauty being different from viewer to viewer (but not forgetting about that cuckoo who kicked it all off)… and so on. It’s like playing poetic pinball, with you and your reader drifting over the field, then lurching back in another direction when you hit a particularly strong image. (Note that this doesn’t have to be as tight as a change every line, though it can be if you want: a list poem that alternates between themes works too.) But two things to bear in mind: stay linear so that you don’t jump the banks entirely, and make sure that the concluding lines of the poem are worth it. What is the synthesis of the angles you’ve chosen, what do they add up to? This is the counterpoint to the hard choices from yesterday; now you can have your cake and eat it, too, and then go back for more cake. As you reach the end of this wiggly wish-wash, you should feel a concluding relief.

And then, of course, you know what to do. Drop it in the comment box, hear?

Recursion Sixteen: give a man a fish

“Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”
~ Henry David Thoreau, American naturalist and Transcendentalist philosopher

I hope that I can get through today quickly; this evening, I have a pretty cool interview-thing. Well, not exactly an interview, I guess. There’s this nonprofit cultural group that does a variety of projects in the city, one of which is preserving endangered languages (seeing as New York is perhaps the most linguistically diverse city in the world). And then as a subset of that, one of the directors organizes poetry events: readings in rare languages, supporting traditional poetic events, having exhibits, etc. It seems a little bit sporadic, but I stumbled across it, thought, “hey, I call myself a linguist-poet, maybe I should get involved,” and sent off an email about volunteering (rather than just donating or becoming a member). So I’m meeting with the woman in charge of that this evening, and I hope it will be fruitful. I keep feeling like I have a lot of undirected energy that ends up getting poured into job stress, and if I can find some other outlet for it, either the job stress will get less attention (though it will still be there, maybe my at-this-point-physical reaction will diminish), or the gravity of my stress will just collapse on itself, imploding into this knot of nervous agita so dense that even good vibes cannot escape the pull of its surface. (I’m hoping for the former.)

This is going to be a pretty short Recursion, and I think that for a couple of days, at least, it will be a bit less intense. The prompt yesterday should be running underneath as a sub-current: hang onto that list of differences you made! Keep yourself on your toes by exploring the boundaries of your work. That will be half of each prompt for today, tomorrow, and probably the day after; consequently, the other half presented each day will be simpler. We’re going to get into some metaphors of humanity interacting with this month-long river thing we have going, from the very basic to the very advanced (fishing to megalopolises, more or less). Today I’m keying off that old wisdom, Give a man fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.* I can’t promise that the suggestions will lead to some kind of massive change in how you write, but I hope you at least get one carp or something out of it. Maybe even a grouper.

(* I am equally a fan of: Give a man a match, and he’ll be warm for an hour; set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.)

There are three fishy things I want to consider: the shoals or schools that show up in little pools in eddies along the river’s length, the idea of something swimming independently faster against/with the current, and the notion of carrying it home to eat it. Try this: look at a draft or two that you wrote six or seven days ago. Pull out one rich or abstract element: winter or injustice or Spain. Dig deep and find some very specific and as-yet-unused image, life-form, or moment that easily comes loose: the town’s one rusted plow or the rich drunk driver getting off scot-free or palm trees in a cafe in Córdoba. Now, take that image (and you can have several related ones if you want: a little school masquerading as a list poem, perhaps) and bring them down to what you wrote yesterday or the day before. How does the meaning and nature of the items change when projected into different abstracts, especially the entirely new things you brought in yesterday? Maybe now you have summer and disgust and Hawai’i. See what happens when you project one against the other. Finally, if you want to make that image into a nice clambake or ceviche, catch it in some kind of narrative net or with a well-angled line and take it home to the cookfire. Serve it up to your family, or to guests, and see if they can find the hooks in the images’ mouths. I’ll let you be the judge of how best to interpret that.

It’s a lot of fun to run away with metaphors, let me tell you. I hope this one isn’t too convoluted to work with. And I equally hope, in turn, that you’ll demonstrate for us your piscine culinary arts. If it works for you, keep on fishin’.

Recursion Eleven: a moment of reflection

“One’s action ought to come out of an achieved stillness: not to be mere rushing on.”
~ D.H. Lawrence, English novelist and poet

But only a moment, okay? I don’t know about you fine people, but I’m having a crazy day at work, and chances are I won’t have much time for writing today…ugh. At least last night was relaxing and productive, more or less. If you are also in need of some cheeky good fun, go check out McSweeney’s Internet Tendency for their celebration of NaPoWriMo, resident poet Dan Chelotti doing a haiku a day. Today’s: “James Tate in the woods / petting someone’s lost donkey / a bear looks on.” I can think of no finer meditation on the nature of nature, can you? And James Tate! I am awed by his celebrity presence.

Speaking of meditation, though, today we’re going to try and pull back a little bit to find those brief bits of silence, trying to get some kind of inspiration out of them. At the bottom of any good-sized cascade waterfall is the plunge pool, where the water grows momentarily quiet before it begins to flow again. Every time I see a photo of some falls splashing against those mirror ponds at the bottom, I admit to being completely wistful and swept up with the desire to drop everything and go swim in one. Or just float; or sink to the bottom and sit quietly for a minute. I keep talking about wanting to make our interactions with the stream of thoughts and ideas this month three-dimensional, and discussing the different ways to interact with what comes along: so far we’ve been trying to move into different angles, leave topics and return to them with the certain beauty of a parabola, surround things with chaos, and completely the pull the rug out from under readers’ feet. Yet middle ground has a place in the third dimension, too, and it’s helpful to have a reminder of where we started from, as a reference point.

And silence of course has a role to play in process, too. Many a poet has generated some truly magical work in solitude (e.g. Emily Dickinson), and any habitual meditator struggles against the truth that in the absence of any stimuli, the brain will summon up anything and everything to engage itself. You don’t have to go that far: we want production, not negation, after all. Try this: read back through everything you’ve written in the last ten days, but try not to let anything stick. Then go sit somewhere, with your eyes closed, for ten minutes. (I know, it sounds impossible in this day and age.) You might think about the images you allowed to stay from yesterday’s winnowing prompt; you might simply be full of sensory input from wherever you are; and your brain might say, screw both of these options, and you’ll daydream. Don’t resist those scraps of thought. Sort them as they arrive, and keep close at hand the ones that attract you the most.

Then, when you’ve finished, write down what small things have occurred to you, and place them next to the things you’ve kept so far this month. Allow writing to happen: there should be no force involved. As each image rises to the surface and demands attention, place it in gently, without any kind of symbolism, emotion, or connection to anything else. You should be navigating among objects that mean nothing more than what they are; if you’re going to have any kind of opinion, let it be the slight anticipation that eventually we will begin moving again downstream. Or maybe the sense of relief at surviving yesterday’s plunge. That can tinge, lightly, this poem (which may be as simple as a list poem), but stay quiet. Afterwards, of course you can tweak and polish as much as you want, and now you might have several new unbidden images to work with for the next several prompts. Do come back and let us know…!

125th Street

An homage to the aftermath of Friday night’s party. Just a simple little observational piece for the We Write Poems challenge to use anaphora. I find it very natural to use anaphora when no one tells me to, and really aggravating when I make specific efforts to.

Last night was night two of the workshop, which I think went better than the first, a bit. (I didn’t go first this time, which was a relief.) The poem I ended up with was pretty personal and tightly-braided, so the feedback this time wasn’t that it was too bloodless, but that it might be too dense: my options would be to take out some of the thematic stuff, or expand the poem tremendously. (I tried to cram in poetry as a theme, travel, Dylan Thomas, differing ideas of beauty, family issues, family history, and questioning what makes life moments significant. All that in 28 lines. So much for trying to be trim!) I do feel a marked improvement with my comfort level about personal stuff lately, but I get so much nitpickier with it than I do about the usual stuff. This one was a dash-off to exercise the word-muscles, but I’m learning how to gild the spare poems with some fresh, bloody emotion. If nothing else, the workshop has been helpful so far for that (and general notions of craft, too).

Getting a cold, though. I think I’ll reward myself with pancakes tonight.

125th Street

where we waited
for the downtown train

and balanced upon the worn backs of benches, crowing
and singing hymns invented out of cracked cement
and the rusted perforated girders
and the rat pawing through Styrofoam cups leaking water
and brown light, reflective, thorough,
and the whole station gleaming snow-covered
and three of us breathing consonants to echo on Broadway
and loving the night, which was also a morning
and a legato of time, with vodka-soaked wishes breathed
and babbled into frozen vapor-roses
and splayed across the graffiti of the chipped wall
and the screeching xylophone tracks
and distant glaring lights that followed long curves
and dipped through tunnels which cried mercy, mercy
and got their siren hooks in us
and drugged us happy to be alive
and standing balanced upon the backs of benches

while we waited
for the downtown train

What the City Wears

Friday, at long last. This first full week of work has been absolutely killer, but five more hours until freedom. And then next week, I’ll be leaving a tad early to head south for the Winter Getaway, which I am way psyched about. The year is off to a reasonable start, I suppose… hoping to relax a bit, but also get some things done, tomorrow and Sunday. Also have yet to select a poem to Refine for the second edition of the Refinery. I think I know which one I’ll be doing, but let this be your reminder to send yours in!

DVerse wanted poems that are imagistic, but with a deeper concept. (Which is how I tend to think good Imagist poetry with a capital I should be.) So, here’s a list poem about a thought bouncing around my head this morning; it’s New York, all the way. Other cities would be dressed much differently. There’s a few words and phrases I really like in here, and I hope the weft of the poem isn’t too plain to bury them in indifference.

What the City Wears

Blue jeans, pipelegged and long as an island
dipping its stitches in a moonshine bay.

Tuxedo shirt that could use some ironing,
with mismatched sleeves for each bridge and
each buried tunnel. French-cuffed, top button
undone.

A loose smoke-colored cravat, all ripple and flow.

Heavy boat shoes that challenge the step
but bear the mark of journeys. That sole worn
all the way from Hong Kong, that frayed lace
trailing with Nigeria and Pakistan.
Leaving their own impressions, walking on water
and carrying a bearer of miracles.

On cold days, a woolen jacket, sometimes
houndstoothed with white and grey, but mostly
drab and comfortable. No gloves. Dirty nails.

Contact lenses swimming in lake water,
cuff links sharp as half-constructed spires.

A single carbonado diamond that flashes
millionfold between its ragged breaths
like a fierce pulsar
questioning the sky.

Book of Hours

It’s been days! I do apologize for that.

I’ve been lounging around (well, lazing about, I guess) for the last couple of days, and I intend to do so for the next few as well, making resolutions and catching up on things and whatnot. The Victorian Christmas dinner went off without a hitch, and the holiday itself was lovely. Check out 4 and 20, where a Christmasy poem of mine is up as the poem of the week. And then this one is for Donna’s prompt (to talk about a museum display without focusing on the art and/or to describe people as something other than people), inspired by the Cloisters, the medieval art museum in New York. If you have not been, and have the chance to go, I highly recommend it. I tried to fold in some of the look/layout of the museum, the metaphorical and memento mori elements of the books of hours themselves, and some of the other artwork, alongside parallelisms and some color work. Whether it all functions or not is up to you.

Book of Hours

The cloister is a shore-washed pink pearl,
a tea rose, an eternal mouth speaking old French
from its clifftop perch. And it is the moon,
drawn down at the moment of eclipse, opened up
like a jewelry box, complicated out into column
and gallery. The cloister is hung with unicorns
hunted through green brocade and oriel windows
spinning their endless story. And it is the sun
before you can see the sun, coming over Long Island
like a smooth tear of quartz. The cloister can be
turned wall by wall to show the passing of seasons:
crabapples blooming one moment, snow killing
the grey tiles the next, singing its slow weather
with a monophone prayer. And it is the pattern of
every cherry-blossom star spelling out
the constellations of faces, coming and going,
flattened out with impeccable detail, their tales
rising then setting with the flip of a page.