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

The Fish in the Mirror

When I lived in LA, I had a Betta fish that could predict earthquakes. No kidding. Right before the Earth shook, he’d start banging his head against the glass so hard it would wake me up. I don’t know if it was a warning or just his own reaction; he was always a rather strange fish. When I went to the pet store to pick out a Betta, I chose him because he looked like he needed some help. His fins were straggly, and he just didn’t seem happy. I brought him home and named him Rothko, because he looked like Mark Rothko’s painting, “Untitled (Green Divided by Blue),” 1968.

Rothko often tilted in his bowl, which is never a good sign for a fish. I bought him medicine; I gave him special food. Finally, I thought that he might need some privacy, so I bought him a castle. Unfortunately, the little fella got stuck in one of the tunnels, and I came home to a most unpleasant situation. (On a side note, I’m not sure I should have fish. After Rothko’s tragic, and possibly self-inflicted, demise, my brother gave me his red-striped goldfish, Killer, because it kept eating his other fish. Well, I happily gave Killer his own bowl. He was a feisty fish, which I appreciated, but he did not understand his own bodily limitations. One Sunday, I came back from a weekend away, and Killer had cleared the bowl! He had launched himself with such a stunning will to achieve that it took me a while to find his body.)

“To An Ailment” is a two-stanza poem that begins with a harshly worded explanation about why Betta fish need their own bowls. Even their reflection in the glass can ignite rage, if they think they are encountering another fish: “When Betta fish see themselves, / they get so pissed off / that they beat their brains out.”

The second stanza serves as a philosophy on anger that incorporates the image of the fish: “Glass bowls are slick and / cold like fish, but are not / fish. Anger is an emery board, / two-sided and portable.” What only seems a threat—the reflection of the other fish—is enough to cause Bettas to destroy themselves. Contrasting this drastic example of the way that anger can destroy, the image of the emery board depicts anger’s subtle influence. Anger has no smooth side, just as the emery board is rough on one side and rougher on the other. Although the fish is trapped in the bowl, attacking its own image, the emery board is “portable,” and the reader is left to imagine the destruction that subtle anger can cause, when it’s small enough to fit in your pocket.

This week’s poem is short and sweet, like the life of the prophetic, if not unstable, Rothko the fish!

To read “To An Ailment,” click here.

For the audio version, click here or below.

Mark Rothko’s “Untitled (Green Divided by Blue)” 1968

screenshot-2017-02-06-11-47-04

Featured Image: http///www.practicalfishkeeping.co.uk/features/articles/frequently-asked-questions-on-siamese-fighters

Home Is Where The Poem Is

This week, I had the pleasure of interviewing my old friend and writing buddy, Alanna Krinard, who has worked in real estate for the last twenty years. We discussed writing, literature, and the poetry of house-hunting!

I remember reading a poem in my twenties called “The Race,” by Sharon Olds, about a woman who is desperately trying to reach her flight in time so she can see her father before he passes. I always loved that poem and admired Olds’ use of enjambment lines. When I was older, and teaching the poem in one of my literature classes, I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the dramatic situation in the poem. What I had once just admired for its form and compression of language, I now identified as a possible scenario in my own life, knowing that my dad is getting older. Are there any poems that you read when you were younger that have now morphed in meaning or intensity for you?

Yes, actually. The most significant one for me is “The Red Wheelbarrow,” or perhaps more appropriately titled, “XXII,” by William Carlos Williams. This poem seems so simple on the surface but has stayed with me for so many decades, rolling around in my mind, popping up at many different moments.

When I was young, I was struck by its direct candor and the vibrant nearness of the red wheelbarrow to white chickens. I’ve carried that poem around with me for many years, pondering the colors and rain, finding more and more complexity within its short lines. As I’ve become older, it continues to expand with meaning for me. This poem was purported for some time to have been written as Williams cared for a sick child. I had a child with severe asthma, and spent a lot of time in the hospital with him. During those times, I realized how the more mundane, average things in life that we take for granted can become so foreign. Sitting at a hospital window watching the rain outside, just wishing that my child could be well enough to be home, hoping for the mundane to become normal again.

I learned much later that the poem was instead inspired by someone who was a very hard worker.  Interestingly, this information came to me as I was strongly developing my own career, and my son had mostly grown out of his asthma. So, the poem then took on new meaning for me. In my career, I’ve worked very hard to develop my skill set and be an asset for my clients. So much depends on my ability to see an escrow through—people’s lives are changing, more often than not in very significant ways, and it’s my responsibility to make sure this part of the transition goes well for them.

Another is “Oranges,” by Gary Soto. This poem still makes my heart race with its sensuality. The newness and nervousness of a budding relationship, the understanding of another person who sees the situation from the outside. It gives me butterflies. I love the color play in the poem, and the feeling of winter—so exquisite.

A couple years ago, I bought my first home. While house-hunting, it was interesting to see how other people had remodeled or decorated but even more interesting that it made little difference in the “feeling” of the home. On one afternoon of house-hunting, I, who had lived alone for thirteen years and am not prone to fear of spooks, suddenly bolted out of a basement that was visually no more or less creepy-looking than any of the others we had seen! Do you find, as a real estate agent, that this intimate look into people’s lives, has influenced your writing over the years?

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t write as much as I would like. I originally got into real estate because I believed it would afford me the flexibility to develop my writing and potential literary career. However, I’ve become so active in real estate, that my writing has become more of a hobby.

Real estate is a very interesting career, because I have the opportunity to very intimately get to know my clients and their families in an exceedingly short period of time. We spend a great deal of time together in a very intense setting.  I need to glean their needs from their reactions to properties they see, because often, people can’t definitively explain what they’re looking for until they see it. I’ve learned over the years to read body language and sometimes depend more on that than verbal explanations. I can always tell when someone walks into the home they’re going to purchase—everything about their body changes, and they take in things differently than they do when viewing homes that might be ok but are not ideal.

And of course, I have the requisite “spooky house” story! This happened nearly 20 years ago, but I remember it plain as day. I was with a large group of extended family looking at multiple properties in an afternoon. We came to one home that was vacant, and from the moment I stepped foot in the door, I felt uneasy. Because I depend so much on my intuition when working with my clients, I’ve learned to listen to those feelings, so I was cautious during the showing. There were several children I was doing my best to keep an eye on, while talking with the adults about the property. This particular home was three stories, including a large basement-like addition with several bedrooms downstairs. As we walked downstairs, there was a very audible growl. Everyone heard it, and it sounded as if it were rumbling through the ductwork, coming out through the vents. We finished checking out the downstairs while the growling continued, and finally my clients decided to go outside and find the crawlspace so they could look in the ductwork, assuming that maybe there was an animal stuck somewhere in the heating system. We found the ductwork, but there wasn’t anything in it. I still, to this day, don’t have any idea what was growling at us, but… My clients decided against purchasing that particular home, even though it had all of the space they needed and was in a great location.

I can always sense discord in a home, even if it’s perfectly kept. Homes often very clearly represent an owner’s mental state. So, I suppose that I may have a broader understanding of the human condition than I would if I had chosen another career. In this respect, I do believe it’s true that these intuitions and experiences show up in my writing. I often find myself explaining settings and relating them to characters, and that’s probably a symptom of my own life experience as a Realtor.

Do you think there is poetry in the house-hunt?

Oh yes! Unequivocally so!! For me, poetry has always been about evoking emotion in meaningful, thoughtful ways. Poetry is often an opportunity to communicate something in a way that can influence another’s emotions or make something known that has been buried emotionally, politically, or that has just gone unnoticed. I’ve applied that to my real estate career.  From the very beginning, I’ve understood the power of communicating details.  That’s why I’ve always loved WCW’s Red Wheelbarrow—I’m so attached to the chicken that she’s stayed with me for decades. In my line of work, I use photographs and property descriptions to build attachment, and to depict a unique understanding of a property.

Every home has a story and can evoke emotion through that story.  Think of an older couple who is selling their family home to downsize—think of all of the emotions tied to the family who was raised there: Where have the children gone as adults? Are there grandchildren? How many birthday parties did the backyard see? How many spaghetti dinners were cooked in the kitchen? How many times did the oldest brother cannonball into the deep end of the pool? Was a chin ever split open on the pavement from a spill off of a bicycle? How many neighborhood kids played at the basketball hoop on the court, racing into the kitchen for a glass of lemonade that was made from scratch?

Where is the couple going now? What’s their new chapter? What is the freedom that will be afforded to them when they downsize into a more manageable property?

And what of the new Buyers? Maybe this will be their first home, and they want to start a family. Maybe someone wants to open a cottage business from the garage, and the location is just right for transporting goods. Maybe there’s an extra bedroom that would be perfect for….. A writing studio! The backyard might be amazing for BBQ’ing on a warm summer evening, with the pool lights on, and some music playing.

There’s always a story in every real estate transaction, but the story comes from the people.

People’s hopes and dreams are tied up in the spaces where they live, and this is what keeps me connected to the poetry of real estate. People build lives in their homes.

When I list a property for sale, my job is to tap into that feeling and market the home to people who might be attracted to feeling that way about where they want to live their life. That’s why staging is so important—it helps people feel connected to the space, and allows them to understand how they might live in a home. It’s harder for folks to envision a floor plan without furniture or warm paint colors that help tell a story. I want people to fall in love with my properties before they even see them in person and to be ultimately even more excited when they finally step through the front door.

One of the things I love about the Real Estate industry is that it’s always changing. When I first started working as an agent, our MLS database of homes ran out of  DOS, and I distinctly remember the day that my brokerage purchased its first FAX machine. There were no cell phones, and the internet couldn’t support photos, at least not in a way that was accessible to most people. We’ve departed from those days to a time when online representations are absolutely crucial, and video is becoming more and more valuable through social media. There’s poetry in innovation, because that’s where attachment is born.

Frank O’Hara wrote many of his witty and often conversational poems in his book, Lunch Poems, during his lunch hour, when he worked at The Museum of Modern Art. What would a book of “lunch poems” from a real estate agent be like?

What’s a lunch hour?!?

One moment, because, ah, I do love Frank O’Hara.  From “Morning”:

I miss you always
when I go to the beach
the sand is wet with
tears that seem mine

The biggest issue I face with writing is consistency. It’s not because I don’t want it badly enough.  I don’t have the kind of career that is contained within the hours of 9-5, with well defined breaks and vacations. I work during the day when banks, lenders, and title companies are open and am available for questions or deadline-related functions. I work long stretches after hours and weekends, when my clients are off work and able to see properties. I’m available to my agents for questions after hours that are crucial to their transactions, which are often highly complex.

Lunch is often trail mix with an orange in the car between showings and inspections. Both travel well. Sometimes I eat at my desk as I look through our MLS system for new listings. Our market North of San Francisco is highly competitive, and I need to be fully aware of new inventory in order to best serve my clients. Because there are so few homes that come on the market compared to the numbers of Buyers who want to purchase a home, I can’t allow my clients to miss out on a new listing. It’s crucial that I stay focused and passionate in order to serve my clients as they deserve.

I recently went on my first vacation as an adult but needed to be able to check in with clients and the agents who were covering for me while I was gone. I’m pretty well tethered to my business—I’m sure that there are other small business owners out there who understand. Unfortunately, this doesn’t leave me much emotional energy for writing, but I love what I do and am most fortunate to have an amazing client base who refers me to people like them. I adore the people I work with, and at this point in my career, I choose my clients carefully. The benefit is, I have the opportunity to surround myself with people I enjoy being around. The downside is, I’m a better Realtor than anything else at this stage in my life. I’m working on that.

What does all of that have to do with the question of what a book of lunchtime poems from a Realtor would look like?

Well, I would say that my poetry is wrapped up in the relationships I build with my clients and the other people I work with, whom I care deeply for. I’m fortunate to have an amazing staff.  When I do have opportunity to write, they are often on my mind. They show up in places I wouldn’t expect—in pointed descriptions, in the way a character might laugh, in the distress of a life event that shows up in a startling turn of fictional events.

I’m currently writing a book for Realtors of eleven traits, which successful agents exhibit. I’ve learned these traits from observing other successful agents and by considering what things I would like to improve, so that I can provide the best service possible for my clients. I have two works of fiction that rear their heads occasionally as well. Sometimes, I have to stop everything I’m doing to contribute to those works, because a new twist has just dawned on me, or I’ve realized an aspect of a character that hadn’t quite come together yet.

So, just like my lunch hours are stretched into thin little pieces throughout the day, so too, is my writing.

alanna-krinnard

Alanna Krinard: I started writing when I was about 10 years old, and have continued throughout my life. I graduated from UC Davis in 1997 with a degree in English, and went straight into my family’s real estate business. I’ve been in real estate since 1997, and currently manage an office, recruit and train for Century 21 NorthBay Alliance in Sonoma County, California. I also run my own sales.

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