Ghazal at a Rave

Happy February! A friend of a friend of mine is doing a creative challenge thing for the month called 28K/28D, that is, 28000 words in 28 days. I’m going to spin it a bit: I want to try to meet a creative goal every day, because I have an assortment of them this month. (A poem will obviously count as one, but I have a couple prose projects that have been lying in the dust since December, and some crafty things to take care of.) As I’ve said before, new resolutions are a slow, accumulative process for me: I’ve been reasonably revising my lifestyle through January, and now it’s time to take it to the second level in February. I’m hoping additional electric shocks to the creativity will effect that.

Samuel Peralta has a prompt at dVerse to combine the ghazal and sonnet. I often end up doing iambic pentameter in ghazals anyway, but this time I have also made efforts to get a sonnet-fashion thematic turn, some internal rhymes and strong pre-refrain ghazal rhymes going (though I snuck in that extra syllable for kicks). Patricia Smith, with her Hip-Hop Ghazal (still one of my favorites!) is my spirit guide. The poem has a pretty simple narrative — I could call it “the time I went to a rave with the deaf pill-popper guy I had a huge crush on” — that doesn’t really betray any depth of emotion. In the workshop, I was accused (well, maybe “labeled” is a less fiery word) of being a virtuoso for bringing a carefully-crafted, lyrical poem that didn’t have enough dimension to it. I’m trying to fix that, but not on this one: the form is hard enough to do interestingly without giving it veins.

Ghazal at a Rave

Got spattered boots tied low to kiss the downbeat,
got phosphorescence strung to wrists. The downbeat–

all anabolic glow, you’re rhapsody
in blue, all star-shot when you miss the downbeat–

I love imperfect flow. I love to see
such un-restraint. Your debut. Hiss the downbeat–

hold high those fingers, throw mirage on me.
I’ll sidle up and watch you twist the downbeat–

you sign for pills? and no more ecstasy.
I fumble, sorry, shrug through this. The downbeat–

our grinding hips, your crowing wordless glee
before you move to find new bliss, the downbeat–

transcending speech. Say Joe by hand when we
part ways. Then pause and lift two fists. The downbeat–

Reverie Thirty-Nine: body of work

Birthday weekend! I’m doing my best to celebrate, but I’m blessed with some fantastically flaky friends, so it’s like herding cats to get anyone to do anything. (And the Fellow is at work until 6. Hrmph.) Meanwhile, had some good submission news yesterday, which I’ll share when the poem is up: it’s one that I’ve actually sent to a different issue of the same publication before, for a different theme. (And I’ve sent it around elsewhere as well, to no avail.) The submissions this week remind me to pitch Khara House‘s challenge for next month to submit something every day, which I intend to try. I exhort you all to do the same!

This week: “body of work

I was thinking about this phrase, and how bodies appear in poems. We often make myths out of bodies, as Shakespeare snarkily pointed out with his mistress’ eyes, etc.; by and large, I think we’re uncomfortable with being straight up about the fact that we’re meat, and oils, and saltwater, and musk, and electrical energy. (Mind and soul notwithstanding, that’s what most of the body is, not what it seems like.) And that’s okay — it’s a wonderful exercise in metaphor and simile to both come up with some description for our bodies or the bodies of others, and to avoid all the trite ones that have been done before. But I believe that to really be firmly grounded in truth on one side of a dividing line, you need to explore the other. So if your body and body-part poems tend to be clinical and/or mysterious, we’re going to practice coming to grips with this fleshy bag of blood we wear around.

Begin by brushing up on some basic anatomy. How many bones are there? What does blood consist of? Can you name ten muscles? Brainstorm for a little while, free-writing a list of factoids and questions about the body, yours or someone else’s. Try to keep this in mind: what are a body’s unique identifying features that you can’t see on the outside? And have a little fun: try lifting up individual toes, standing on one foot with your eyes closed, or doing ten jumping-jacks, to remind yourself of the interconnectedness of all your parts. Spend some time to get to know yourself.

Now pick out the three rawest things from your free-write. They don’t have to (and probably shouldn’t) be lyrical, as that will come later, but simply true and interesting. Did you have a compound fracture when you were ten? Great. Born without a right pectoral (like someone I met at a party once)? Even better. Fascinated by the appearance of muscle tissue stretched under the skin? Awesome. For myself, maybe I’d pick the constant growing pains in my knees, sparse armpit hair, and the exact length of time it takes caffeine to hit me like a ton of bricks. Try to grab hold of things you never write about: if you have to do eyes, hands, and mouths, pick the parts that don’t get enough play (the sclera, the carpal bones, the gumline).

Now, peel apart the feature you have chosen. You may want to do some research on this, since I imagine most of us are not doctors or biologists. Learn about the nerves, muscles, bones (if applicable), and other tissues that make up the thing you’re describing. Make a list of these terms to use in your poem. But more importantly, look at the function of the pieces, and how they all fit together. This is what we want to echo in the poem, and where to expand the mind in a poetic direction. If the limb or organ in question has a muscle attached with contracts to do an action, how will your poem show contraction? If there is a nerve ending particularly sensitive to pain, how will you represent a pain threshold?

Let’s say I go with the knees again:

You can’t stop growing up, even when you try.
Even when you try, there is always something unlearned
learned by the secret compartments of the body.
Of the body, I’ve discovered a piece at a time: and I keep it all,
all locked up in knees and elbows, the secret of doubling,
doubling, duplicating, hardening until the weight of it,
it bends me backwards and I can’t stand straight.

The context of this is that, being rather tall, I had growing pains right up through my early 20s, which have (knock on wood) mercifully come to an end; they used to keep me awake at night. (Now I just have regular old run-of-the-mill joint pains as they arise. Thanks, yoga!) So there is the idea of growing, as well as the knees-and-elbows reference; I tried to link the lines together as well to give an idea of bones connecting, I suppose. (If I had more time with this, I’d probably try to do something more clever, but this is just an example piece, so there.) Developed further, I could try to drop more terms from the structure of the knee (the bursa, the patella, the ACL), and represent its function through the lines (how does a poem run, flex, and jump?), as well as maintain the imagery of growth and solidification that never seems to finish.

I don’t want to suggest that talking about bodily processes for what they are can’t be beautiful and interesting: the challenge is to find the beautiful and the interesting without resorting to any kind of obscuring language. And there is a difference between language that obscures and language that embellishes. If I talk about impatient cells dividing / until they seem prepared to burst their calcified levees, I’m animating them and giving some decoration to the words, but if I say something like I almost feel as though / I’m approaching a Malthusian crisis of the knees, what the hell does that mean? People are usually guilty of doing this kind of thing with the more sensitive body parts (genitalia, diseases, etc.), but watch out for it. You may surprise yourself with how much you obfuscate even something as straightforward as your hands.

So now that you have an idea of what to go for, you can take a couple different approaches. You can string all three ideas together and create an interconnected body, using some of the same structures of line and sound to give connective tissue to the parts. Or you can think about disease and injury and ways to tear these structure down, if you want to be melancholy about it. And of course, you don’t have to talk about your own body; you can meditate on the beauty, horror, or fascination of someone else’s. (There’s a retold story I’ve been meaning to steal and retell in poem form for a while that fits this mold; maybe this will be my chance.) Medical oddity can be a wonderful source of inspiration, provided you handle it with the correct sensitivity.

Play around with it. And somewhere in the middle of this process, stop and dance, get the blood moving around a little bit. Do some yoga. What good is writing about the subject you carry around constantly if you can’t stop and enjoy it once in a while?

Reverie Thirty-Two: elsewheres

I long for the days again when I have time to write poems, read poems, surf blogs, answer comments, and generally keep my head above water. (I know, I gripe about this a lot… it’s on my mind a lot, though.) But, after a tempestuous week at work, I finally am on vacation! So my hope is that (as long as I can find wi-fi) I’ll have a bit more flexibility to do just those things. Before going out daytripping, I’m trying to get this prompt out there, and I hope to hop back on tonight for some follow-up time. A solemn vow of not checking work e-mail has been made… oh, this modern world we live in.

This week: “elsewheres

Last night, I saw a production of The Tempest, which is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. (I’ve seen five different versions, and while this one wasn’t bad, I found it a little bit lackluster compared to others I’ve seen.) This, coupled with being on vacation, got me thinking about how we conceive of other places, how our perceptions can change, and how geography doesn’t always correspond to reality, both in the sense of the map and what this or that place is like/contains. And then I remembered a poem I wrote for high school English as a pastiche of Emily Dickinson, about finding the whole world within four walls, recluse that she was. John Donne did this too in “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is”. I don’t want to say that the world we carry in our heads is any less valid than the real one, but it’s interesting to see how they interact.

Therefore: let’s do a crafty poem activity. First, you’ll need a blank piece of paper, preferably with no lines or anything, and a second blank piece of paper. On one of them, make a list of places. They can be places you have or haven’t visited; real or imagined ones; cities and countries, or houses and streets, zooming out or in. Try to get at least five together. Then, next to each element of your list, put the following three pieces of information: the first impression you had of that place upon visiting/learning about it, the most recent impression you have of it looking back, and some unique physical feature of it. For example, if I said “Notre-Dame de Paris”: I’d think of a dark, Gothic, historical space, which became a lively place that’s still very much a part of the community once I saw it, and noted the incredible sculptural details over the giant doors.

Once you have your five places, use that second sheet of paper to make a map. Let your inner cartographer run wild! You don’t have to correspond to reality here. France can be next to Japan, your mother’s house can be in Atlantis, the Bodhi Tree could be in Times Square. Part of the fun here is creating the artifact itself, so embellish it as much or as little as you want. Maybe you want to give it an illuminated border, draw the places in elaborate detail, and connect them with winding roads. Or maybe you want to mimic the old Renaissance drawings of heavenly spheres, having one location nested inside the other. However you do it, I recommend taking a picture/scanning it and including it with your poem.

Because what we’re going to do is basically a travelogue poem moving around the map. The trick is to defy reality: let’s say I’ve placed Japan just to the east of France. I don’t want to say “and then I crossed the Alps to Tokyo” in open defiance of reality, so I’m going to couch it in metaphor:

…and in the morning, the sunrise took me
in its warm crimson fingers, cupped me like a lily,
drawing me towards its face. And the light parted
on the streets of Tokyo, and I took two steps
down the mountains into a cauldron of life.

Much better than saying “then I went east”, and the actual distance between the two doesn’t matter. Try not to let your connections between places be roads, trains, etc. Get there through beauty and physical action. Narnia was reached through a cupboard, wasn’t it? Think of the legends of seven-league boots; grow a pair of wings in your memory, from your bedroom to a desert island.

Take us around the map with words. Let’s say I ended up with the following five places:

Notre-Dame de Paris: historical Gothic, an unexpected community center, sculptural details over the doors
Tokyo: lots of tea-houses, bustling metropolis, Harajuku costumes
the woods behind my house as a kid: infinite, terribly small, a compost heap
Borders bookstore in NJ: last outpost of civilization, a cave of literary wonders, the round cafe
Greek island of Symi: storybook town, windswept mountaintop, lots of random cats

Say my map has Paris, with Tokyo to the east, the woods to the south, the Borders to the southwest, and Symi to the far west. Paris to Tokyo, the sunrise caught me; from Tokyo to the woods, I followed the summer heat. From the woods to Borders, I traveled the Delaware River (which flows SW near me); and to Symi, I searched for paradise. (I always think of paradise to the West, but that’s Tolkien’s fault.) These are the kinds of transitions you can use, while the places and their details can form the main stanzas.

Really pay attention to how you internalize a place, and let the progression through the poem show how that has changed. Don’t be just descriptive of its physical elements, though those are important. Mention what stood out to you once upon a time, and what stands out to you now, in this moment, writing the poem. This is a poem of constant motion, both through an (imagined) space, and through time, as those spaces change. You can try to layer in some broader meaning (was The Tempest just a fantasy set on a desert island, or were there colonial allegories running through it?), but you don’t have to. The way we interact with places can be intensely personal, and if you focus on the metaphysical parts of them, it will resonate with your reader.

I know this will take a lot of thought and effort, and I don’t expect anyone to turn this around in one day or anything. But do take some time and really cogitate on it… I look forward to seeing what you have to offer!

In the Calder Room

Hey! Not to shamelessly self-promote too much, but if you go to lulu.com and check out my chapbook for sale, they are having a sale through tomorrow (Friday at 11:59 PM they say), 20% off sitewide. So if you want to pick up GBG for $8.00 instead of its usual steep $10.00, now’s the chance…

And I also don’t want to get too ahead of myself, but given a lot of the offline writing I’ve been doing lately, I think there might be more on offer from me on Lulu in the near-ish (or at least not-too-distant) future. We’ll see. I have a trip planned to the Northlands in August, and I plan to disconnect as much as possible.

But for now, this is for Victoria’s dVerse prompt about “balance” in many forms. I decided to do a fairly balanced form (the terza rima, with its iambic pentameter and ring rhyme), using ekphrasis of Alexander Calder’s mobiles (which are pretty breathtaking examples of balance and stillness vs. motion; and people don’t do ekphrasis for sculpture enough!), on the topic of staying balanced in life, in general. Apparently, Calder invented the mobile? I thought it had been on cribs for ages, and he appropriated them, but it seems to have been the other way around, or so Wikipedia claims. All I know is, I’ve been a huge fan of his art since I was a wee lad.

In the Calder Room

We hold our breaths, afraid we might disturb
this jungle. Shadow-trees paint ivory walls:
their fruit sways slightly, and the light’s superb.

The leaves are fixed the instant of their falls,
while schools of fish, suspended, orbit slow.
A herd in yellow metal peals and calls.

All revolutions sway, move to and fro,
in time and painted colors. Scrap and wire
maneuver: redbirds come, piranhas go.

And from the door, unfurled with steel-blue fire,
these Libra woods seem candle-bodied things.
They puppet out the light, and never tire.

Some lesson’s beaten in those sharp-edged wings:
perpetual motion, secret upkeep, on
and on. Grey arias that gravity sings.

This is a life, with all its daily spawn
that tug and shift, hung from the ceiling beams.
Where is our point of tension, stretched and drawn?

Exhale: the apex, highest of extremes,
considering all at once. The unmarked verb,
the axis mundi, weighing days with dreams.

Fortune-Telling

This one came to mind last night while I was walking through the post-squall evening on my way from Point A to Point B. I hadn’t really thought to write it down until now, and dVerse has a prompt that I suppose is close enough to share this one (an “other world” prompt). There are moments when you’re in a place that’s so suffused with beauty that you can’t hope to sum up all the details: so you have to just pick out the most curious and unique ones that you can find.

Fortune-Telling

If I were the kind of person to practice
divinations in reflecting pools

   disturbing the water
   to stir up some truth dwelling on the bottom,

then this, now, would be my scrying glass:

   Washington Square wrapped in an evening gown,
   silken and hunter green,
   with each brick a wet possibility under
   my tumbling feet

and what sorts of oracular things would I see
but myself walking on the sky
wreathed with ginger-smoke and matted with
black branches making their drowned offerings
to all the gods of dusk,

   people coming and going, doing a bee dance
   on the hexagonal stones:

trudging out the gamble of their own futures
and mine
and each other’s,

   ignorant as balloons tracing along the ceiling
   clutched by clouds that groan heavy with weight.

Xiuhtecuhtli

This was for the Poetic Asides prompt today, for a poem about a sport. I am not a very sportive person, but (as alluded to once or thrice in previous poems) I’ve dabbled in fire dancing. Here’s a photo:

Not a very good one, and years old, and you can’t even tell it’s me, but I promise. Anyway, that’s as close to sport as I get. But it’s impossible to write a poem about the mystique of fire dancing (poi) without some kind of mystical/ritual aspect to it, I think. Which is how the whole Aztec fire-time-afterlife-god angle got worked in, which is connected to threads running through most of what I’ve been writing this month. Anyway, I posted the poem on Poetic Asides earlier, but I just felt like there were pieces missing, even if those pieces were as small as a line break or a word here and there. (There’s a little bit of Cummings trying to work its way out here.) So this is a revised version. Do with it what you will!

Xiuhtecuhtli

crouches on the edge of vision with
eyes heavy under chipped turquoise lids

watching us light kerosene torches
and tossing the first drops to his feet
beginning to
open them into tea roses
melt them into hot gold

and we are spinning to the beats of drums
and the hollers of the circling crowd (because
everything we do for him we do in a circle
with the precision of one round
year) and we make

curtains of light that hide us
ramparts of heat that enclose us
canopies of thin-sheeted flame
which lift us up

all gods are brothers and sisters who
trade their offerings around the dinner table
so we hope

it’s no offense to say (as we
let our joints go slack to paint this air
fresh cracked from the newborn night with
vanishing streaks
of stolen days) that we always felt this was
more water than fire
more viper than falcon or

at least we live the brightest in
that blindness where it’s impossible
to tell the difference

Leap Year

One part dVerse poetics prompt, one part Edna St. Vincent Millay (shamelessly pilfered rhyme from “First Fig”), and one part Dorothy Parker-inspired sass: this is the result. I’m generally not fond of most ballades, aside from Francois Villon’s in the original Middle French, but I think I’ve only written one in my life, so it’s a form that it was important to come back to. And since the prompt dragged it out of me, here’s the result. (It’s been a slow morning at work, and all I can think about is how February is already a third over. Where has all the dancing time gone?) This will be an eventful weekend, methinks.

Here’s a tip for rhyme poems, like these or villanelles, or anything else that requires many variations on the same ending: the four easiest ones that I’ve found are -ay, -ight, -ow (as in glow, not now), and -air, and their variations. You can get ten solid, different, and interesting words out of each of those, easy. Just don’t overdo them, or all your rhymey poems will sound the same. An honorable mention is -ee, but people usually take it too far (rhyming extraordinarily with bee or something doesn’t work).

Leap Year

The qualities of February
rankle us: everything in grey-white,
metallic, static. And the very
notion of losing a misspent night
(or three) is offensive in our sight.
Time’s already short enough, my friends,
so from temptation’s apple, we bite:
we’re burning the candle at both ends.

No angel nor devil nor fairy
dare cross our delirium tonight.
We are making a mad sort of merry,
racing the hourglass in mortal fright
and defiance. Our future’s not so bright:
whether the present is all depends
how it’s spent. What is that doubled light?
We’re burning the candle at both ends.

‘Tis the season to be contrary,
damning the dark season with delight.
And we’ll rush on, heedless, unwary.
We gather what scraps we can of might,
locked up in these skins set to ignite.
When winter’s heart contracts and extends,
always the next dance while we recite,
“We’re burning the candle at both ends.”

Come, prince and peasant, king and knight:
the transient body folds and bends.
We’ll crack our ice with an earthbound flight:
we’re burning our candle at both ends.