Saturday, April 28, 2012

Some Book Festival Conversation

 - How many books, Joe?
- On the table here?  I don’t know.
- You don’t know how many books you’ve written?  I’ve written 18.  Mostly novels and autobiographies.  What are you working on now?  I’m working on a novel.  About my life. 

- What’s this?
- It’s my most recent book of poetry.
- Poetry?  I had to read poetry once in school.  Good luck.

- I open this up and the first poem starts off about garbage and the next one is about sex.  Why should I read these?
- Actually, I thought that one was a love poem but . . . .
- And this one is about drinking and smoking at a party.  You counter-culture generation…This one starts okay.  You mention Shakespeare, but then you drop him.  Your generation just doesn’t seem to have any literary values….I used to read poetry.  I don’t have time for it anymore, and none of this modern stuff is any good.  You’ll have to come see my book.  My booth’s over there.  You’ll like it.  Everyone does.

- My son-in-law is a poet too. Do you know him?
- No, I’m sorry I don’t.
- He’s very well known, but you probably have to be a literary type to have heard of him, someone who knows that kind of literature.

- Are you in a program?  I’m in a program?  What program are you in?

- I wrote my book from start to finish in 14 days.  I’m working on the sequel now.  I think it’s going to take longer.  Maybe a month.

- Oh, this is poetry.  You looked like a normal writer.

- I was asked to write a review of your book, but I didn’t like it, so I did you a favor and didn’t do it.

-       You would be interested in my book.  It has twenty-seven pictures.

-       Hey, are you from here?  Yes?  Then you should buy my book.  Let me go get it.  I take checks.

 - I don’t really like to read.  I just came with a friend.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Graduation Season

We’re just about to enter graduation season, and that means all across America people will be spending huge amounts of time and energy to go sit somewhere and wait to leave.

My daughter and son both “graduated” from daycare. Yes, I was glad that they had mastered the pre-school skills. I honored and respected their achievements on the monkey bars and in the sand box, and I understand the impulse to mark the occasion of “moving on,” and yet, I found the idea of a graduation ceremony ridiculous.

Thankfully, there was no “commencement speaker,” but I suspect this may be the only time. In the upcoming years, elementary school, middle school, high school, college, there will be hours spent dressing up, waiting for my children’s names to be called, then going out for a celebratory meal.

The event itself consists mostly of waiting. We wait through the speakers. Then we wait and watch our sons and daughters, family and friends, troop by, almost indistinguishable in the auditoriums and gymnasiums. We wait as the names get read out for the one or two we recognize. Then there is the fleeting feeling of Finally!. Then we wait some more. If we can’t resist, we check our cell phones or fake faintness and sneak out. Sometimes we actually listen and wonder about the language. What are the “rights and privileges” conferred by a degree? Discounts? Club memberships? The right to move up in line?

With its tedium and its deliberate design to remove traces of individuality, the ceremony itself often seems symbolic of the worst of the education process.

Then there are the speakers. Why is it that no one on the “platform” can seem to resist dispensing advice? The official song of graduation should not be “Pomp and Circumstance,” but “Everybody’s Talking at Me.”

We nod our heads, laugh at the right time, even clap, yet immediately forget what’s been said. Is there anyone who remembers advice from a graduation ceremony? (Their own, not one that they googled like the addresses by Steve Jobs or J.K. Rowling.) Is there anyone who suddenly thought, “My God, he’s right. I should live for today. I should take risks/be happy/be all I can be.”

Some speakers go on and on with a laundry list of Dos and Don’ts as if they’re Moses. I’m not sure where this practice originated. Often it feels like the professor who, after the bell has rung, insists on saying “wait, just one more thing,” trying to jam in some last information, but it’s too late. At graduation, those present have either been educated or not. It’s done. Let them go. And let us go.

So, I propose that we commence with ending commencements. Keep them for when they’re important. Fifth grade? No. Eighth grade? No.

And if we must have speakers? Here’s my advice to them. No more advice

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Small Doses of Poetry

I used to have a massive one- volume book containing the complete works of William Shakespeare. I owned it for years. I took it on trips. It was dense and impressive. But I never read it. It was too big. Whenever I wanted to read a play, I bought it in a single volume. This way it was not only portable and manageable, but pleasurable. The words weren’t in small fonts jammed in double columns. I could read not just for sense but as a sensory experience.

This same issue exists with poetry anthologies. As wonderful as books like Norton anthologies are and as cool and important as they look on the shelf, I suspect few people read them for pleasure. We buy them and haul them around for classes or use them for reference. In trying to be as comprehensive as possible, they sacrifice readability.

For many people, the poetry they read is in these texts. They do so because it’s assigned for a class, and usually they’re required to read dozens at once.

The problem is that a poem is a remarkable condensed and efficient delivery system. It’s the equivalent of a cigarette or a Belgian chocolate. It gives an intense emotional charge in a short period of time. So, too many too quickly will become overwhelming. Chain-smoke a pack of cigarettes, and you’ll feel nauseous. Eat a box of chocolates in one sitting, and you’ll feel sick. Poems are the same. Furthermore, even if each of those chocolates is distinctly different, you won’t be able to sort them out. They’ll blend together.

Novels can create their own space, entire universes, in which the reader can move around. A poem works differently. It may be that a book ingests a reader, but a reader ingests a poem.

Consequently, poems need to be read in small doses. To switch the metaphor to medicine, if a small amount of medicine is good for you and will heal you, that doesn’t mean a large amount taken at once will make you superhuman. Just the opposite. It usually will harm you.

So, maybe books of poems should have warnings or advice like on medicine or bottles of wine. For a healthy, fulfilling, lifestyle, take in moderation.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Taxi Driver Who Quoted Poe

Years ago, I had a landlord, Lou, who worked as a night time taxi driver. During the day, he wore golf shirts and slacks. When he went to do his shift, he would put on a leather vest, jeans, leather fingerless gloves, and a wide-brimmed hat. “It’s important to look like someone who you shouldn’t mess with,” he told me. He was a big guy with a big black mustache, and he looked imposing (except when he was walking his wife’s tiny toy poodles Tinky Winky and Teeny Weeny. He was convinced that she had chosen the dogs and the names to embarrass him, but although he grumbled, he loved them).

Lou knew the fastest way to get around the city which, he would point out, wasn’t always the way you wanted to take. You didn’t want to scare tourists by going into some areas, so when a fare got in, you had to figure out who they were and the best route to take them.

Lou also knew hundreds of poems. Before he drove a cab, he was a long-haul truck driver, and he would spend the miles memorizing poetry, especially William Butler Yeats. Once he picked up two English professors at the airport. He heard one of them misquote “The Raven.” He corrected him, and then said he knew the whole poem. “I bet you a hundred bucks, you don’t,” the professor said. Lou took the bet, started reciting, and, at the end of the ride, the guy had to give him a hundred dollars. But, Lou liked to point out, “He didn’t give me a tip.”

Inspired by Lou I typed out short poems on index cards to learn while running. I found not only did the run seem to go faster, but I had to start making decisions about what poems I wanted to memorize. Which did I feel were worth the effort? Which sounded good? Which had something to offer? Suddenly, I had to come up with a personal criteria. I had no intention of reciting these to other people (which, unless you’re Lou or have an Irish accent, can come off as either pretentious or a party trick). These were only for me. They had to be short, they had to speak to me, and they had to be enjoyable to know.

I still have a stack of some of them in my desk drawer: Robert Frost “Fire and Ice”; Gwendolyn Brooks, “The Bean Eaters,” Gary Snyder, “I Went into the Maverick Bar,” Robert Penn Warren, “Treasure Hunt,” Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays.” And, although I no longer know them all by heart, I still carry many of the lines with me.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Rain and Revision

Sometimes it takes years to understand a poem or a process. Decades ago, I encountered Gary Snyder’s poem, “After weeks of watching the roof leak/I fixed it tonight/by moving a single board.” I didn’t know what it meant or if it meant anything at all. Sure, I was a procrastinator too, but why would someone take so long to make such a simple and valuable change? And where was the rest of the poem? How could this be the whole thing? The moment intrigued me, but I felt either I was missing something or the poem was.

Although I read, teach, and admire Snyder’s work, I didn’t consciously think about these lines again until recently as I listened to the poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil talk about her writing process. Nezhukumatathil mentioned how that as she revises poems sometimes she will tape them on her walls and walk by them again and again as she goes about her day. I know other poets who do this or something similar, and suddenly Snyder’s poem came into my head. I was surprised, in part, because I hadn’t realized that I had memorized it. But there it was. Whole. And, I found that I had an understanding of it (an not the).

We look and look and look at a problem and then, after days or months or years of living with it, sometimes giving it concentrated attention, we make a small adjustment, move a single board or paragraph, change a line or delete a word, and we have improved it.

It seems so simple and can take so long.