Saturday, April 12, 2014

Hondo and the Sacketts to Ulysses and Prufrock


When I was young, I wanted to be a mountain man or cowboy, and that’s one of the reasons I ended up getting into poetry.
The first poem I consciously sought out was Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”  This was because I loved the Westerns of Louis L’Amour.  As a kid, I read his work over and over, and the characters in his books loved literature.  Often they would refer to “Ulysses” and Shakespeare and Plutarch’s Lives, and, because I wanted to be like them, a strong independent frontiersman (in suburban Indiana) I went to the library and checked out these works.
The appeal of “Ulysses” is straight-forward, particularly its rousing last line:  “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.”  I didn’t know who Ulysses was, but I understood this desire to travel, this wanderlust, and the sentiment:  “How dull it is to pause, to make an end,/To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!/As though to breathe were life.”  And it made sense to me that this feeling was universal.   The mountain men and cowboys had it, the Victorians understood it, the ancients did, and so did a Hoosier in the 70s.
L’Amour’s characters carried poems with them and within them, and I began doing so as well.  I memorized “Ulysses” and find myself returning to it over the years.  In fact, I suspect that some day, I will offer a course called “Ulysses in America” and look at works that deal with this figure.  The novel Cold Mountain, for example, would be on the syllabus as would the paintings of Romare Bearden.  As Frost says, “way leads on to way” and book leads on to book (and link to link).  
Reading pulp fiction Westerns influenced me as a reader and a writer, but not, as it turns out as a rider.  Although I pretended my bicycle was a mustang (and even named it), when I finally had the chance to be around horses, I discovered that I'm intimidated by them.  Man, those things are big.
  

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Why I Probably Should Hire Someone To Do My PR


A student that I like and respect tells me, “Talking to you about writing is kind of depressing.”
I understand.
I will never be the pitch-person for a Write Your Way to Happiness seminar.  At a book festival, after a reading, someone came up and wanted to discuss the life-affirming qualities of literature and the healing qualities of writing.  Perhaps it was simply out of orneriness, but I pointed at a shelf nearby that contained “Classics.”  Ernest Hemingway – suicide.  Sylvia Plath – suicide.  Anne Sexton – suicide.  Virginia Woolf – suicide.  Richard Brautigan – suicide.  David Foster Wallace – suicide.  Hunter S. Thompson – suicide.   I was about to work my way through the attempted suicides – Twain, Vonnegut – and then I was going to substitute “alcoholic” or “drug addict” for “suicide,” but I finally noticed the woman’s horrified expression.  I mumbled something like “Well, maybe writing helped them postpone killing themselves for a while.”  She moved away quickly, as if she was afraid that I was about to launch myself through a window.
My student made the comment she did, not because I had given a suicide litany, but because I had been explaining how writing doesn’t necessarily make me feel good as much as it makes me less miserable.  I’m irritable if I don’t do it, so much so that my wife can tell.  Noting my crankiness, she’ll say, “You haven’t written yet today, have you.”  And she’ll send me off so that my company will be more bearable.  But, even when I do sit down and put in some time, the next day I have to do it again.  In an interview recently, Billy Collins pointed out that a poet can finish work quickly, but this means a constant resetting back to zero and having to start all over.
As a writing teacher, I emphasize the work it takes.  The need to revise.  The need to put in the time.  The day-to-day struggle.  The discipline and craft.  It’s not romantic or inspiring.  It’s  … well . . . boring which is why it’s difficult.  Most of us have a low tolerance for boredom.  (It’s also why movies about writers are usually boring.  At least those that want to show them “working.”  The craft of writing is fundamentally uninteresting to watch; there is no action.)
I know my students want to hear something motivational.  Something elevating and quasi-mystical.  Maybe something that emphasizes the joy, the sense of accomplishment, the God-like power of creating worlds.  And sometimes I even want to say something like that.  But, just as I warn them about exclamation marks, I’m no Keating from Dead Poets Society.  I’m no coach, no personal trainer, no rah-rah speaker.
And yet . . .
F. Scott Fitzgerald (alcoholic) talked about a mind needing to be able to hold two opposing ideas at the same time.  I think the writing of poetry (and most writing) is … pfffff… piffle, not a waste of time, but certainly not as valuable as working in a hospital, fixing a toilet, taking care of a baby.  It’s just a poem, and usually not even that.  Just a draft.  It won’t affect anything, change anything, mean anything.  And yet simultaneously, I think it’s the most important thing that I can be doing. 
In the movie Shadowlands, someone tells C.S. Lewis that God may be answering his prayers.  He responds, “That's not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God, it changes me.”  
This is how I feel -- there is an internal need and my writing doesn't change anyone but myself -- but I'm no minister, so I don't put it in these terms.  Instead, I try to explain it more prosaically quoting Gloria Steinem who once said, “writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Misinterpreting Others, or What Can Lead Sherlock Astray


In a conversation with a car salesman, he says, referring to both of us, "We're just a couple of golfers here." I have no idea what he's talking about. I dislike golf.  I have only played a few times, and the last time, years ago, was a disastrous outing with my brother and father.  The salesman has meant his comment to bind us together, but instead it annoys me. Later I realize what happened. I was wearing a hat that said Strata.  I had “borrowed" it from my father because I liked the colors and because I like to wear things of my dad's.  I hadn't known that Strata was a golf brand.
We make all kinds of assumptions about one another based, not only on race, gender, age, geography, the usual suspects, but on what people wear, eat, listen to, etc. We believe peoples’ tastes say something about them.  (Nick Hornby's Hi Fidelity is a great novel about this.)  Much of the time it might, yet often we probably mistake the results of relationships for displays of taste.
As I walk down the street, someone yells "Go Chicago!" and, again, I don't know why until I realize that I'm wearing a shirt that says “White Sox” on it. I put it on because it was clean.  I don't care about baseball; one Christmas my brother gave me a bag of t-shirts and sweatshirts he bought at the Goodwill.  It may say something about his frugalness or my slovenliness or my indifference to what I wear, but these cannot be known by looking.
My music collection has been stolen a couple times and not replaced, my favorite books I give to others to read, and the DVDs on the shelf are a haphazard assortment of things that others have given me.  In short, many of my possessions reveal little about what I like and have liked.
            It’s not, as Reagan said, “facts are silly things.”  It’s that facts are almost impossible to correctly interpret without context.  A student of mine estimates that she has seen “Little Mermaid” over a hundred times.  Does this tell you something about her?  Perhaps, but probably not the right thing if you don’t know that she did so while working at a daycare.
People are hard, if not impossible to know and understand from the surface -- as almost every fairy tale says -- yet we persist and insist.  We live in a world of signs that we not only misunderstand, but usually don't realize we have.  I didn’t explain to the salesman or the guy on the street why I was wearing certain clothes; they moved on unruffled by their misinterpretations. 
We all do this.  We confidently navigate a world that is nothing like what we think it is. 
We’re just a bunch of golfers here.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Winston-Salem Poetry in Plain Sight Project


The first “public poetry” I ever read was on a bus in Chicago.  It was a poem by Charles Bukowski, and it made me fall in love both with his work and the idea of poetry circling our heads instead of advertisements.  On those bus rides, I read pieces from Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and many others, and I responded to them more deeply than when I encountered them in a classroom.

So, I’m delighted to be a part of the Winston-Salem Poetry in Plain Sight project.  Last year, it featured my poem “Baking with My Daughter.”  This month, people around town might see the following, which will also be in my next book, This Miraculous Turning.


We Were Only Going to Stay a Year or Two

The way my children speak sounds strange
to me.  They put more syllables in words
than I think they need, and watching football,
my son says, “Daddy, that’s just a big ole mess.”
And it’s odd that I can name other children
around the block and where they go to school,
and that I know the jobs their parents have
or desire or have lost.  I give directions now
according to where places used to be,
and I no longer think anything about taking
the neighbor’s garbage can to the curb. 
This is how it happens.   Roots simply grow. 
In the spring, no one should bother asking
the dogwood if it intended to flower.