Bitch!

Today’s blog post is a writing invitation! Follow me, won’t you, down memory lane? In one graduate course I took during my MA program, our professor assigned us a recitation. Here is a conversation we had on the day mine was due:

Professor: Shanti, are you ready for your recitation?

Me: Yes.

Professor: What poem will you recite?

Me: “Bitch.”

Professor: Shanti!

“Bitch” by Carolyn Kizer was one of my favorite poems in graduate school. The dramatic situation (or plot of the poem) involves a woman who runs into her ex and remains calm and affable to him. However, she internally experiences an array of emotions, triggered by his appearance. Kizer anthropomorphizes her speaker’s internal feelings by manifesting them as a dog, or the speaker’s inner “bitch.” Here, I’ll read it for you; I cannot recite it anymore since my memory’s gone to sh*t:

What are my favorite parts of this poem? I like the contrast in the speaker’s tone of voice and the emotional reaction of the bitch: “My voice says, ‘Nice to see you,’ / As the bitch starts to bark hysterically.” I also like the range of emotions the bitch experiences. She first reacts to the ex aggressively, and the speaker has to remind her that “He isn’t an enemy now,” but later, “At a kind word from him, a look like the old days, / The bitch changes her tone; she begins to whimper. / She wants to snuggle up to him, to cringe.” At this point, the speaker and the bitch switch stances, as the speaker disciplines: “Down, girl! Keep your distance / Or I’ll give you a taste of the choke-chain. / ‘Fine, I’m just fine,’ I tell him.”

In the next several lines, the speaker explains that “she remembers how she came running / Each evening, when she heard his step; / How she lay at his feet and looked up adoringly.” Despite her devotion, “he was absorbed in his paper” but “the small careless kindnesses / When he’d had a good day, or a couple of drinks / …seem more important / Than the casual cruelties, the ultimate dismissal,” and the speaker must drag the bitch by the scruff “Saying, ‘Goodbye! Goodbye! Nice to have seen you again.’” The speaker’s desire to maintain dignity dominates over the bitch’s desire for the ex. Here, the bitch could really represent the id or a child, wanting this man despite the knowledge of his bad behavior. The speaker has the difficult task of tightening the reigns and escaping, while she still has control.

For the last three years, I have lived with dogs, and although they praise me each morning as if I were the rising sun, they are technically my wife’s dogs. I have lived with my eighteen year old cat (Mouse) for fourteen years. She is very much like a dog, which I hear is typical of the Maine Coon breed. Although she usually resembles royalty, greeting “her” guests as they enter “her” home, she does bestow special blessings on or warnings about some who cross her path. One memorable time she did the latter was when someone I felt “iffy” about came over. Mouse looked up at this person, then looked at me in disbelief (how could I let this disturbance into her home?) and began running around the living room, racing-track style. And although she has never once intentionally hurt me through scratching or biting (even when I’ve had the unfortunate task of bathing her) she ran right up to me, gave me a surprised look, and bit my hand. She pivoted and bolted down the hallway, fluffy tail a blur. I felt as though she had expressed, “You’ve been warned. Do what you will—I’m out!” She has also approved of people, sometimes placing a paw on their shoulder and giving me a knowing look.

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Mouse Cat Weiland

I actually didn’t have Mouse when I recited “Bitch,” back in grad school, but I sometimes think of this poem when I see her manifest the good and the bad of what I already know but won’t say or admit.

So, here’s your writing invitation: Write a poem that anthropomorphizes an inner insecurity or a set of mixed emotions. Please share in the comments below. No need to be shy; we’re all friendly here!

 

Photo Credit: https://www.etftrends.com/2017/03/are-parts-of-wall-street-being-two-faced/

Our Mothers

In preparation for America’s Next Top Model, I used to cook a giant bowl of pasta and toast a  hunk of garlic bread. A neighbor came over one evening, which happened to be the night of the season premiere, and was surprised when I shushed him. I usually turn off the television / phone / computer—or whatever technological distraction—when someone visits. He sipped his drink and watched as the models cried about their new haircuts, their weight, their tight, pointy shoes.

“Why do you watch this show?” my friend asked.

“Shhh,” I said. It was time for their close-ups.

Here’s why I liked ANTM: it reminded me of writing poetry. Bear with me. The best models possessed both technique (knowing how to angle their bodies into “good lighting,” for example) and an ability to relinquish control. Many of the models were criticized for looking “too posed.” In poetry, the writer must “find the good lighting” through word choice, line break, and punctuation. However, if the writer cannot let the poem grow organically, it feels too manicured, and the reader is left wishing for the poem’s heart to beat.

I like the way Lu Chi describes the relationship between technique and intellectual depth, in The Art of Writing:

“While the language may be lovely
and the reasoning just,

the ideas themselves
may prove trivial.”

I don’t think there’s intellectual depth in modeling. In fact, in cycle 1, the best model of the group (Elise Sewell) got “eliminated” because she responded to the question “What makes a woman sexy?”  by discussing the correlation between estrogen in the womb and desired “feminine” features. To this response, the judges reacted with some version of “Oh, you’re smart, huh? Do you think you’re better than us?” (By the way, if you ever feel like hearing a good, expletive-laden rant, I highly suggest listening to Elise go off about the “wasteful” people around her.) Intellect appears absent, and even shunned, from ANTM. However, in order to produce interesting photographs, the young models must contort their bodies in uncomfortable clothing (or no clothing at all) whilst dropping their emotional guards. I was always impressed by the ones who could do it. To lower one’s shields, one must know she has them and what triggers them. Likewise, the life force of a poem, which I believe is emotion, can only be allowed, never forced. While there is, of course, a place for intellect in a poem (but perhaps not in modeling) without a certain surrender, the poem can sound stiff or “too posed.”

Another theme that I noticed in ANTM was the influence of mothers. Tyra enjoyed discussing her mother’s support and love, and she frequently told the girls how sacred their own mothers were, which I always thought was rather naive. Some of the young models even talked about their broken relationships with their abusive mothers, but Tyra relentlessly conjured the mother figure image, either from her own personal narratives or from the memories she evoked from the young models.

It is through these two lenses—the marriage of form and intuition, and the pervasive presence of the mother, that I wrote the poem, “Our Mothers.”

In the first stanza, the speaker describes the youth of the models. Their “blooming faces” and “Tightly-knit / skin that won’t be missed till / worries stick like flour to the dough” indicates both an innocence and a certainty of future worries. The second stanza switches to a  memory of the speaker’s mother, who’s skin is both vampiric (an image that conjures darkness) and without wrinkles (which reminds the reader of the young models in the first stanza). However, the reader also learns that the mother’s skin is young-looking only because she rarely leaves her dark bedroom and that she also has a pill habit. The speaker remembers handing “her bottles like / spices to a master chef,” which references another reality show, Master Chef.

In the third stanza, the speaker discusses the success of the models who don’t rely on their natural physical beauty but rather, allow themselves to be vulnerable:

“On Top Model, the girls who give up
their pretty bones, that which they’ve
relied on their entire short lives, stare
ugly into the lens. The forgotten
loneliness, a soft rage that burns,
looks back at them like
a friend from long ago.”

The speaker romanticizes modeling, indicating that opening emotionally for a photograph can somehow connect the model to her true self, dark as it may be. The models stare “ugly into the lens,” which seems to have been a strange trend in fashion for at least the last twenty years. (On a side note, I got married earlier this year and was surprised to see that even the some of the women modeling beautiful wedding gowns seemed fairly pissed off about it.)

The fourth and fifth stanzas return to the mother. In the fourth stanza, the reader learns that the drug addiction has gotten worse and that the mother is homeless and alone and possibly hearing voices:

“Alone in her car, where my mother
sleeps every kind of night. Only
her voices listen now, though I try
as if the Milky Way is a sparkled
highway that sags under the weight
of our messages, piled star after star
till it breaks the night.”

The speaker wants to connect with the mother, but it proves as impossible as using the Milky Way as a medium of communication. In the fifth stanza, the speaker  again describes her mother as physically youthful: “My immortal mother only now / begins to silver against the black.” The speaker then imagines her as a contestant on ANTM: “Her long, stringy hair would get / chopped on Top Model, razored / to highlight her cheek bones, / centered, even in her sixties.”

The last stanza focuses on the vulnerability of the models: “The models bend like baby / dolls in vintage, ruffled skirts. / The foreign girl gets sacked. / Back to Europe with her chic, / bald head.” The girls pose like baby dolls, which makes them look childlike and susceptible to that strange hue of misogyny that asks grown women to remain infantile. The foreign model is far from home, and using the word “sacked” reveals the harshness of the reality show’s environment. Upon her dismissal, and in the final stanza, “Everyone is crying / and partly wishing it were / them, far away and alone.” In the final two lines, the speaker connects with the models: “like me. Thinking / of our mothers.” The last few lines take the momentum of two narratives (the models’ competition and the speaker’s trouble with her mother) and create a scene of mixed emotion and contrast. The models presumably want to win the contest but also “partly” wish they were going home, and the speaker finds connection and meaning from a show that centers around arbitrary achievements.

“Our Mothers” first appeared in Two Cities Review, Issue 5, Spring 2015

Our Mothers 

On America’s Next Top Model,
blooming faces march
down the runway. Tightly-knit
skin that won’t be missed till
worries stick like flour to the dough.

I think of my mother’s vampiric skin, without
crease for the years she spent self-penned
in a dark and air-conditioned room, delegating
her pill habit. One by one, from the floor
beside her bed, I handed her bottles like
spices to a master chef.

On Top Model, the girls who give up
their pretty bones, that which they’ve
relied on their entire short lives, stare
ugly into the lens. The forgotten
loneliness, a soft rage that burns,
looks back at them like
a friend from long ago.

Alone in her car, where my mother
sleeps every kind of night. Only
her voices listen now, though I try
as if the Milky Way is a sparkled
highway that sags under the weight
of our messages, piled star after star
till it breaks the night.

My immortal mother only now
begins to silver against the black.
Her long, stringy hair would get
chopped on Top Model, razored
to highlight her cheek bones,
centered, even in her sixties.

The models bend like baby
dolls in vintage, ruffled skirts.
The foreign girl gets sacked.
Back to Europe with her chic,
bald head. Everyone is crying
and partly wishing it were
them, far away and alone,
like me. Thinking
of our mothers.

High School Never Ends or Why Poets Hate the Question “Did that really happen?”

Before I talk about my poem, “Dormant Trigger,” I’ll tell you why poets usually don’t like to be asked if the poem they wrote “really happened.” Imagine the following scene on any typical talk show of the 80s or 90s: A guest discusses her drug problem and reveals that she’s pregnant for the third time, with yet another man’s child—but wait—she isn’t sure which gentleman is the father, and she has also gambled away her grandmother’s retirement fund. “Boo!” yells the audience. “This lady’s got problems!” Then, one audience member gets the attention of the host who bounces up the stairs and pops the microphone in front of the guest’s face. “Do you have something to say to our guest?” “Yes, I do [insert host’s name].” She turns her judgmental gaze to the troubled guest and blurts out “You have low self-esteem!” She wags her finger and the audience cheers.

Why do I bring up this talk show / timeless example of public shaming? Of course, the woman has low self esteem. Good grief. She also probably suffers from addiction, possible mental health issues, and it doesn’t sound as though she’s been afforded many opportunities in life. It is irritating a) that someone dumbed down her troubled life to rival some pseudo psych article you might read in Glamour Magazine, and b) it’s beside the point. Up on that stage is an actual human being with complexities. Most likely she feels for her children. She has hopes for them, even if her ability to take good care of them is inhibited by her current state of mental health. Who was she as a child? How was she treated? What did she learn about relationships? about herself? about her body? about men? If a poet were going to write about her, these are some of the questions the poet might ask even before putting pen to paper.

How could poets know the answers to these questions? Unless they can research or interview the woman, they’ll probably have to guess. Nearly all poets create speakers and dramatic situations for their poems that are, in some way, reflections of their own experiences. If a poet writes about the woman on the talk show, does that mean that she, too, has a drug problem? Maybe, maybe  not, but she may know what it feels like to be confused or betrayed or ashamed.

For these reasons, it is always best not to ask the poet if the poem is autobiographical. If it did “really happen,” then you are probably in for an awkward, if not depressing, conversation—and believe me, you do not want the poets getting depressed on you! Also, the poet took time to give the speaker depth and grace. It is much more interesting and enriching to honor that speaker as her own person, rather than trying to match her personality to the poet’s. Finally, it’s complicated. One might answer the question “Did this really happen?” with a question: “Which part do you mean?” Of course, this conversation quickly becomes tedious. Maybe the poet does have a drug problem but doesn’t have any kids. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Poems want to stand on their own, uninhibited by their creators.

Now that I’ve explained why poets don’t like to be asked if the subject of a poem actually happened to them, I will tell you that “Dormant Trigger” is about something that actually happened to me! And no, before anyone asks, it didn’t happen at the university that I teach at now. Despite the fact that it “really happened,” I’m still going to discuss the poem in terms of speaker and dramatic situation as to keep the focus on the poem rather than on the mean girls. Here’s the story:

I’ve always appreciated my dad’s honesty, even when I was younger. When I came home one day, frustrated with the casual cruelty of teenagers, I asked my dad if things get better after high school. His face slightly twisted into a tentative grimace. “Not really,” he said. “People act like that even when they’re old. They just get slightly more sophisticated about it.” Unfortunately, I have found that he is right. “Dormant Trigger” is a poem about such behavior, later in life. I think it’s funny that this experience happened after a faculty meeting. Much of our young lives are spent in school, and it seems that that’s where much of the bullying occurs. Well, apparently, teachers are not immune!

In the first stanza, the speaker directly addresses “you and your friends” who “laughed and mocked” the speaker. It is not until the third line, that the reader learns that the speaker (as well as the ones mocking her) is a teacher. The poem then shifts out of the moment and into a memory. We’re not sure, at this point, how the speaker feels about the other faculty members. Rather, she thinks of Stephanie, a girl from high school whom the speaker remembers as more beautiful than her but also as unkind. She reveals that the only reason she spoke to Stephanie was because of an unnamed “kindness…despite / the countless times she smoothed lotion / over her jail bait legs, longer, slimmer, than / mine.” In these lines, the reader can visualize Stephanie’s appearance as beautiful, but there’s also an edge to it. She has “jail bait legs” that she “smoothed lotion / over,” indicating that she understands her sexuality and power. The reader also imagines her as supernatural. She makes “that silent / whistle only teenage sirens possess” to rouse her group of girlfriends to “feed on the weak” (presumably the speaker).

In the second stanza, the reader is back in the present moment of the poem: “Restraint: Outside the faculty room, I wanted / to fling on you all the glares and inside jokes / (at my expense) from gym class. To claw / your pretty, straight hair and make you feel / like a pimple-faced idiot, naked / in the shower room.” The speaker holds back her urge to retaliate. She feels transported back to adolescence and can only think to respond as she wishes she could have, when she was young and bullied.

In the third stanza, the speaker uses the word “escaped” to describe how she leaves “without taking / your poise with me.” One gets the sense that it was all she could do to hold herself back as she walks away from her colleagues. However, the tone shifts quickly as she then begins to wonder “who Stephanie might have married, / what job she took. Were her thighs / still firm; did her friends still serve / as her beautiful, clear-faced watch dogs?” The speaker’s musings sound realistic at first; Stephanie very well may have gotten married and she most likely has a job. However, the reader can see the hold Stephanie still has on the speaker, as the questions begin to imply that life could remain stagnant, that Stephanie hasn’t aged and that her girlfriends still swarm around her, “protecting” her from less popular kids.

The concluding lines offer a reflection on pain:

“What I remembered then, is that inflicting pain
is a prayer. Like tattooing
Don’t look at me across your throat:
you want what you give.”

Often times, a line break can add an element of surprise. The first line break in this passage creates a slight pause before “is a prayer,” an action one does not usually associate with “inflicting pain.” The next image takes the reader completely out of the school setting. I’ve always found it strange when someone dresses or makes up her / himself to be noticed but then, gets angry at the attention. It’s an interesting game. The last lines emphasize the contrast between intention and reaction: “Like tattooing / Don’t look at me across your throat:”

The last line reveals a complexity in human desire. Perhaps people who are combative don’t precisely want arguments but rather to feel passion from someone. With this idea in mind, I ended the poem with “you want what you give,” which leaves the reader to reconsider some human behaviors.

“Dormant Trigger” was Issue 9’s Poetry Contest Winner in Bop Dead City, December 2014.

Dormant Trigger

When you and your friends
laughed and mocked me after our
faculty meeting, I thought
of Stephanie, a beautiful, skinny
9th grader whose one moment
of kindness kept me
speaking to her, despite
the countless times she smoothed lotion
over her jail bait legs, longer, slimmer, than
mine, as she made that silent
whistle only teenage sirens possess,
alerting the other girls it was time
to feed on the weak.

When I escaped, without taking
your poise with me, I wondered
who Stephanie might have married,
what job she took. Were her thighs
still firm; did her friends still serve
as her beautiful, clear-faced watch dogs?

What I remembered then, is that inflicting pain
is a prayer. Like tattooing
Don’t look at me across your throat:
you want what you give.

On “Crack Jenny’s Teacup” By Kate Garrett

When I came across the phrase “crack Jenny’s teacup,” on Talk Like a Pirate Day many years ago, a course was set that would reach its destination in a poem of the same name, and finally a chapbook named after a line in said poem. The phrase means, quite simply, to visit a brothel, and it got me thinking—pirates and sex workers in historical and fantasy fiction are often united in the popular imagination. Even the ever-family-oriented Disney have always included a few in their Pirates of the Caribbean films. Historically, it’s accurate—I realize this, not only in stumbling across the phrase “crack Jenny’s teacup,” but because famous female pirate Anne Bonny, it is said, was close friends with a bisexual man who also happened to be a brothel owner.

Learning about Anne Bonny’s friend led me round another spiral of thought: the many examples of queerness and empowered women in the world of historical pirates. (I was already pirate-obsessed, but more reasons to adore them are always welcome.) Anne Bonny’s crewmate Mary Read lived parts of her life as Mark Read, with male pronouns, and was equally happy being Mary with female pronouns. As well as being genderfluid, Mary was possibly also bisexual, and I know of at least one history book written entirely about gay male pirates. Buccaneer Jacquotte Delahaye also lived as a man for a time. After Jacquotte came “back from the dead,” a woman again, she refused to marry or have a relationship at all, because she didn’t think any power balance in that situation would be fair to either partner, and she was more concerned with providing for her disabled brother (which is why she was a pirate in the first place). Empowered women, ahoy.

With all of this in mind, my first port of call was thinking of a way to reclaim the phrase “crack Jenny’s teacup.” I mean, it sounds rough, crude, a bit disrespectful—all the things you’d expect from nautical slang regarding this popular shore leave activity, really. But what if the pirate visiting was also a woman? And what if the two women, both outsiders by profession in a very ‘masculine’ world, were actually in love, in a committed relationship, so bringing a further layer of separation between themselves and the men around them, and between the human beings and the jobs? After all, we speak of so many people in history as if they were only their title or profession: kings, queens, knights, cowboys, outlaws, highwaymen – pirates. I wanted to find the people behind the stereotypes this time, even if in this poem they are fictional. And the people I found were two women completely dedicated to each other.

It would’ve been all too easy to make the sex worker an observed character, to have given the speaking power to the woman in the traditionally masculine job, so I made her the narrator instead of her pirate lover. Both women stand up to the “final customer” of the evening: the speaker “shoos” him away, and when he starts to get lippy through familiarity with the speaker, her girlfriend shoots him a look and he leaves. And when, in the wee hours, our narrator is off duty, she and her lover can spend a rare night together while the latter’s ship is docked. Behind closed doors and underneath her sailor’s clothing, our lady pirate loosens “her hair and her smile,” and there is another side to her, which our narrator adores just as much as the dashing rogue: “I love her when she’s soft, or when she’s hard.”

When I started reading this poem at events, I was surprised to discover it chokes me up, and I have to read it through tears–particularly the last stanza: “now she wakes: deadly, delicate” and “but I lose her each time / to breeches, boots, and ship.” I’ve never been a pirate or a sex worker. The characters in this poem are fictional, but I can feel the narrator’s sadness as she remembers the inevitable separation from her girlfriend, because that’s something any person who’s ever loved another can understand. Pirates might be thieves, even murderers, and certainly they were terrors at sea, but that’s just it—they lived their life at sea. If any of them did have a loved one, they would be away from them for long periods of time as much as any Royal Navy sailor. And why would a pirate not have a loved one? They’re still people. Even Blackbeard had a wife.

“Crack Jenny’s Teacup” was first published at Melancholy Hyperbole, and is included in Kate’s tiny chapbook of historical pirate poems Deadly, Delicate.

Kate Garrett

Kate Garrett’s poetry has been widely published in online and print journals, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and longlisted for a 2016 Saboteur Award (in pamphlet form). However, while her poetry is busy doing stuff, Kate bums around reading books and hanging out with her husband, children, and cat in Sheffield, England. (Okay, okay, she also edits at Three Drops from a Cauldron / Three Drops Press, and Picaroon Poetry.)  Stalk her on Twitter (@mskateybelle), Instagram (also @mskateybelle), and Facebook (facebook.com/kategarrettwrites).

Featured Image: http://lesluv.deviantart.com/art/Anne-Bonny-Black-Sails-437042617

Wading into the Sea Change –by James H. Duncan

I sometimes contemplate whether or not it was wrong of me to think, upon discovering I had cancer, “I don’t want to be a cancer poet.” Please understand I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a poet exploring that experience, especially when it’s their experience, but there’s a fear of being boxed in that comes with writing about this new life. There’s a worry that this disease will overwhelm the creative desires and processes and narrow the vision.

I’ve made an effort to write about as broad a life as possible, but fighting against the sea change was a losing cause, as cancer will eat away at your existence in constant, subtle (and not so subtle) ways, just as it will your body. As such, I began noticing the details of this new life coming to the fore and calling for attention. So I gave it, and I found that writing about those details, rather than the overwhelming fears that came with this harrowing journey, comforting, rewarding even.

One of the details I noticed, repeatedly and quite hauntingly, was the empty waiting room. This limbo territory I found in doctors’ offices, hospitals, and labs became a fascination. Sometimes, they weren’t empty, but even the small groups, couples, or individuals felt remote from one another—separate tribes wandering a strange land, quiet and wary of what came next. When empty, the rooms were still littered with the detritus of those who came before and moved on, and for all we knew, may never return. How many people have read that Time or Elle? How many children that Highlights magazine? Who else has tapped on the tank of lethargic fish gurgling out an existence in the window overlooking Madison and 53rd Street? The song playing overhead from dusty speakers embedded into drop-ceilings, who else heard that muffled tune and didn’t realize that maybe it was the last song they’d ever hear?

Details like these made the experience not one of being “a cancer patient” but of being a human working through a homogenous system of rooms and regulations, of dulled grays and beiges meant to comfort but somehow dehumanizing the movement from healthy to dead, or at least being lost somewhere in between. I suppose it does circle back to some of the great fears we have, the core human emotions—loneliness and the uncertainty of what lies behind that final door. It’s something we can only know for sure once we’ve walked through it, our final appointment with the last grim doctor any of us will ever see.

Out of this experience came the poem, “Last Appointment of the Day,” which appeared in Kleft Jaw #4 and is slated to appear in my upcoming chapbook We Are All Terminal But This Exit Is Mine. I hope you enjoy the poem, or at least, can relate to it. Then again, perhaps it’s for the better if you can’t and never will. If only.

For the audio version, click here or below.

Last Appointment of the Day

across the table where picture books and
children’s magazines wait for small hands,
across the green carpet where plastic cars
and wooden jigsaw puzzles lie patiently

for children who may never return

there is a fish tank, the saddest looking pit
of gloom ever, dark as a thunderhead
in tornado alley, listless fish waiting
on death, floating nowhere in the murk

there’s a scream in my mind but there’s
no sound, like a horror film on mute,
internal and forever, and all these
empty chairs surrounding me

the receptionist calls out my name
so I get up and go inside while music plays
from somewhere overhead
as they shut the door behind me

James Duncan

James H Duncan is the editor of Hobo Camp Review, a former editor with Writer’s Digest, and is the author of What Lies In Wait, Berlin, Dead City Jazz, and other collections of poetry and short fiction. His work has appeared in American Artist, Up The Staircase, 3:AM Magazine, Boned, and Poetry Salzburg Review, among other journals. He resides in upstate New York. For more visit www.jameshduncan.com.

Photo Credit: the dark door by adamy on deviantart
http://pezcame.com/ZGFyayBkb29y/

Garbage Angel

April is the cruelest month, breeding
thesis statements from all-nighters, mixing
keggers and study groups…

Oh, whoops! Sorry, T.S. Eliot. ’Tis the nearing conclusion of spring semester that makes me so digress. It also makes this month’s The Poets That You Meet  a wee bit on the short side. But first, a few announcements…

  1. The Poets That You Meet will now appear on the first Wednesday of every month. I am excited for some great upcoming posts, including guest blogger James Duncan’s discussion of his beautiful poem “Last Appointment of the Day”; Kate Garrett’s analysis of her poem about lesbian pirates; and an interview, about the poetics of wine-making, with a talented vintner in Northern California. Do I know all the interesting people or what?
  2. Also, on the first Wednesday of the month, I plan to publish a new installment of Online Enlightenment. This month, the talented Heather Akers shares her sunset photo and a meditation on light.
  3. Well, I’m no Jenna Marbles, but I have recently started a YouTube channel with some videos of me reading at different poetry events. Click here, if you dare disturb the universe…dang it, Eliot, get out of my head—I have a blog to write!

Anyway…on with the show (and no talking of Michelangelo)!

Recently, I watched an episode of Bob’s Burgers, an adult cartoon about a family who struggles to maintain their burger restaurant, above which they live. One of the daughters, Louise, a sarcastic evil genius, falls hopelessly in lust with the teenage pop sensation Boo Boo, from the band Boyz4Now. As she enters a contest to ride on a “grown up roller coaster” with him, she gazes into his boyish face on the computer screen and exclaims, “I’m going to ride a roller coaster with you Boo Boo, you disgusting, beautiful, garbage angel!”

This scene reminded me of some advice I received from Barbara Anderson, when I took her poetry class in graduate school. She told us that, to add tension in language, poets should “juxtapose beautiful imagery or language with MTV street slang.” I haven’t watched MTV in years, but I believe what she meant was that one should contrast the elevated with the crude. I think of Tony Hoagland’s book, Donkey Gospel, and in particular, his poem, “Dickhead.” The adult speaker opens the poem with a reflection on his survival of adolescence:  “To whomever taught me the word dickhead, / I owe a debt of thanks. / It gave me a way of being in the world of men / when I most needed one.”  He goes on to explain that “back in the world of men, / when everything was…scary, / hairier and bigger than I was” that using the word dickhead became “a song that meant the world / was yours enough at least / to bang on like a garbage can.”

I think it’s interesting the way Hoagland transforms a crude word with humor and graceful language: “…and having that / beautiful ugliness always / cocked and loaded in my mind, / protected me and calmed me like a psalm.” Of course, I love the pun, but I also like the juxtaposition of “beautiful ugliness” and the likening of swearing to the comfort of a psalm.

Well, I think it was fun, last month, to include a writing prompt at the end of my post. If you are so inclined, include (in the comments below) a poem that you wrote (or a stanza or two) that juxtaposes a version of “beautiful language or images with MTV street slang.”

Until May, dear readers!

Photo Credit: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CLBWWsbVEAAD_jP.jpg

I Don’t Like “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” There, I Said It.

This week, rather than a poetry explication or an interview, I offer you a writing invitation. Follow me, if you will…

A couple weeks ago, I taught Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream” to my morning American Lit. class. I’m going to be brutally honest. I’ve never really liked this poem. I like the contrast between the living and the dead; I like the rhythm; I like ice cream, but that’s about it. I’ve always found the poem unnecessarily opaque. “Let be be finale of seem”? Please, Stevens.

Anyway, the students were able to recognize imagery and tone. Line by line, I guided them toward an understanding of the dramatic situation, and in some cases, I just filled in the blanks for them. They did a good job. What I remember most about this lesson, though, is the look on their faces when we discussed the ending of the poem and the meaning of the title. Here’s how I will describe their facial expression: blank, with a dash of surprise. They’re a good class, my favorite one this semester. Often, they make intelligent observations about the poems and are lively and fun to teach. I did not take the surprise in their eyes as delight, nor did I take it as a condemnation of the poem itself. It seemed more, to me, a question: “Are you serious?”

I don’t blame them. I wanted to say, “Yeah, you’ve got to do some acrobats for this one,” or “I’m not sure how important it is for you to have read and analyzed this poem; I don’t much care for it myself.” Instead, I just shrugged and moved on to “The Snowman.”

That day got me thinking about poetry in general. I do think there is meaning and growth that a reader can experience through this genre, but I tend to feel as Frank O’Hara did that “Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not.”

Am I sorry that I’ve read “The Emperor of Ice Cream” at least one hundred times in my life? No. Or at least, there are things I’m much sorrier that I’ve read even once. (The comment section of any online article, for instance.) I like piecing together the mystery of poetry, but at the end of this poem, I often feel like my students looked that day in class. Seriously?

Many years ago, I read Jim Simmerman’s “A Brief Introduction,” a postmodern poem whose speaker introduces the reader to tour the poetic home of Simmerman. The line I like best is when the speaker invites the tourist to view one of Simmerman’s forthcoming poems, which reads:

A robin pecks
at the ice
in my rain gutter.

I make a big
deal of it.

I love these lines. I think they perfectly contrast the ephemeral nature of birds and ice, with the blunt pragmatism of a poet’s job: to find meaning in the mundane. Also, I’m a fan of humor.

And so, dear reader, here is my writing invitation. I invite you, in the comments below, to post your own short poem that highlights the contrast between the ephemeral and the blunt. Don’t worry if you think it’s perfect or not—we’re all friends here! Let’s have some fun! But, please, let us keep President Voldemort out of this round. He doesn’t get to have all our attention!

Also, here’s an exciting announcement:

This Friday, (and hopefully every first Friday of the month, thereafter) I will post an installment on my new web corner called, Online Enlightenment. Each month, I will publish original literature, art, or music that explores notions of enlightenment. This Friday, I am honored to share karvy’s beautiful song, “A Place For Us.” Check back on Friday to read her description of how this song resonates with the theme of enlightenment and, of course, to hear her haunting melody.

If you are interested in submitting to Online Enlightenment, please email me at shantiweiland9@gmail.com. I’m leaving the topic of “enlightenment” open but would like work to focus more on what enlightenment is rather than what it isn’t.

Photo Credit: https://www.odt.co.nz/otago-museum-bristling-happenings