Sunday, January 11, 2015

What You'll Get

After the reading, the man comes up and asks, If he does write a poem, what will he get?  Then he adds, to make sure I understand, “How much?” He doesn’t go as far as rubbing his index finger and thumb together, but he might as well. I wonder how to respond. 
You’re usually paid nothing for poems, just copies, (and with the internet not even that).  This horrifies people who don’t know, and it can result in an awkward moment as if I’ve just revealed a dirty secret. You can feel the shift in respect from “wow, you’re a published author” to “wow, you’re some kind of sucker.”
You can make more in any job from babysitting to selling papers on the corner than from poetry.  And, the time might be better spent doing something else:  cooking, hiking, learning a skill, even cleaning out the garage of someone you love.
And the satisfaction of creating something can be muted when it’s so small. A poem isn’t a novel, a bridge a building;  it’s just a few lines, a handful of words. When I’m asked “What did you do today?” I often flash on Charlie Brown at Halloween saying, I got a rock. What did I do? I made a poem.  I feel I can sense the pity, the futility.  Oh, Sorry.  We’ll put it over here, out of the way, and maybe you’ll be more productive tomorrow.
Imagine if Jack had come home having traded his cow for poems rather than magic beans. They would get thrown out the window and grow . . . into nothing. (Okay, yes, some poems may grow inside you, but that doesn’t
help the starving old woman, does it).
So I look at the man who wants to know what he’ll get, and I remind myself that he’s here, at a poetry reading, that maybe he might not be thinking what I think he’s thinking or anything I’m thinking.  Maybe he does want answers, and although no one should go to poetry for those since the best are as shifty as Delphic oracles, he’s asking the poet, not the poems.
But the question has nothing to do with poetry, does it.  It’s about him. And that’s why I can’t answer it.  What does he get when he eats soup?  When he dresses?  Sings?  Stretches? If you bother to live, what will you get? If you bother to wash, to love, to walk? 
Finally, I say, I guess it would depend on what you write.  He nods, satisfied, as if this is exactly what he expected.

Monday, December 22, 2014

This Year's Gift

            The rumors have increased in the third grade to the point they’re impossible to ignore, so the son asks again, “Is Santa real?”  We’ve deflected the question before with variations of “What do you think?” and “Is he real to you?”  This year, however, he’s more insistent, so we decide it’s time to have the talk.
            We’re apprehensive about it because of what happened with his older sister.  A few years ago, she had insisted about the Tooth Fairy, “Tell me the truth.  I want to know the truth.”  So we did, and the truth devastated her.  She had sobbed on her mother’s lap, having immediately understood that it wasn’t just the Tooth Fairy we were talking about, but the Easter Bunny, leprechauns, Santa Claus… They all came crashing down. She realized she had been believing in lies all her life, and she felt betrayed. It was particularly wrenching because she had struggled with her faith in Santa Claus and she come to the conclusion that she had proof.  There were pictures, gifts, eye-witnesses, empirical evidence.
            My wife and I had never intended to do the Santa thing. In fact, before the children arrived, we had a lot of funny ideas about how we would parent.  For one, we believed in the myth that we would be in control.  But the grand-parents introduced Santa early in a big way, and soon we were doing it all – the phone calls, letters, cookies by the fireplace, food for reindeer sprinkled on the lawn,
            After we told our daughter the truth, as her sobbing eventually diminished, what consoled her was that her younger brother didn’t know.  She was in on the secret, and she had a responsibility to keep it.
            Now the moment has come for the son.  How would he react? Tears?  Anger?  Would he too feel betrayed and that everyone he trusted – parents and family and teachers – had been lying to him?
            We mentally brace ourselves, tell him, and he … laughs.  And laughs. It’s as if he has been pranked, as if we have been playing a great joke on him for nine years. 
When he finds out there will still be gifts, he laughs all the more. And, at that point, we discover the daughter has conscientiously kept the secret, in part, because she was afraid once everyone in the house knew, Christmas would disappear.  Without someone believing, we might not bother with a tree or decorations or candy canes or all the trappings.
            After the talk, I keep thinking about my children’s polar reactions and how they embody the masks of drama for this grand play of the holidays.  Weeping and giggling.  What do we do when we find out the fundamental story is a lie?  Cry?  Laugh?
            For the next week, the son keeps checking in and verifying different elements.  One day he asks, “So the basketball hoop?  That came from you?”
            The next day it is, “Reindeer can’t really fly, can they?”
            The day after that he says, “The tooth fairy doesn’t exist, does she?”
            “Where are the teeth?”
            “Your mother has them.”
            “That’s weird,” he says.
One afternoon, he sings the classic grade school variation “Jingle Bells/Batman smells/Robin lays an egg” except he changes it to “Jingle Bells/Santa smells.”  He stops, and says, “Daddy, I can make fun of Santa now.  I can tell jokes about him.”  No longer feeling watched all the time, no longer feeling like he has to stay in Santa’s good graces, he can say what he wants.  He feels liberated.
            And, so do we. This year he hasn’t made a list of pie-in-the-sky requests, things he knows we would never get, but, Santa might.  It’s a relief.  We had grown tired of being Santa’s naysaying foil and, frankly, of not getting credit for the cool gifts we’ve been giving.
One evening, the family in the kitchen, the wife says she needs new tools for the grill, and I say, “Maybe Santa will bring some.”  The son cracks up.  “Yeah,” he says, “Santa” making air quotes with his fingers.  “Wink. Wink.”  And the daughter is happy because finally, we’re all in on it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Surfing and Writing

            Because I think I have something to say.  – writer, Wonderful Town
            I have nothing to say and I’m saying it. – John Cage

            This summer I spent some time on a beach watching surfers and people learning to surf.  Individuals and families would wade out into the waves with boards.  They were happy to be out there, happy to be engaging in the activity just for the activity.  The novices were happy to be learning something new, but I don’t imagine any of them were thinking, “I’ll do this professionally” or “I have something to show people (like that guy on the beach over there).”
            I thought about the number of people who “want to be writers.”  They ask, “How can I be a writer.”  It’s an odd question because the answer is simple.  Write.  If you write, you’re a writer.  But that’s not what they’re saying.  They want something else.  They want to be published or read or known or admired or . . .
            I doubt anyone goes to the surf school instructor and asks, “How can I make a living at this?” or “How can I become known/famous/the equivalent of being a “published” surfer”?  The question doesn’t even make sense.
            If people ask, “How can I be a better writer?” that’s something the right guide or teacher can help them with.  But first, there needs to be the desire for the activity itself.  You have to want to spend your mornings willing to get up early, get your gear together, and get out the door (metaphorically speaking).  You have to be willing to get wet and tossed around and be tired and, frankly, to not have left a trace in the ocean when you’re finished. 
            Okay, maybe a better comparison is to my presence on the beach.  I’m a walker not a surfer.  And why was I walking the beach at 6 in the morning?  Because it’s a good career move?  Because I was driven to be there?  Because I had something to say?  No.  I was there because I thought it would be interesting.  Because it makes me feel good.  Because I’ve never regretted going for a walk.  I was there because I was bored waiting for my family to wake up.  Because I thought I might see something – like surfers.  I was there because I was exploring.  I didn’t expect to find a treasure chest.  I was there because it made me feel aware, alive, healthier, in short, good.
            Maybe this should be my question when someone asks the equivalent of whether they have “what it takes” to be a writer?  Do you like doing an activity for the activity’s sake?  Surfing?  Walking?  If not . . . then probably not.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Call

This fall my fifth book of poetry “This Miraculous Turning” is being published.  Most of the work is about my children, but there are a number of incidents and experiences that aren’t in the book because I couldn’t shape them into what I thought were successful poems.

When the social worker called to announce our daughter’s birth, we were on vacation, but we had taken a bottle of champagne to be ready.  She told us the news, hesitated, then said . . . She’s black.
Having met the birthmother, this was no surprise.   In fact, the social worker had been at the meeting.  Was she healthy, we asked?  Yes, the woman said, then repeated, But, you should know, she’s black.  We were puzzled by this and only realized later what she was trying to say.

            Oh…black as in black black.

Since the placement had been for a bi-racial child, the social worker had assumed this might be important to us, that we might be adopting bi-racially in hopes of somehow mitigating our child's "blackness."  And we recognized she made this assumption because it was important to others.  My wife and I aren’t na├»ve; we know there is a long legacy of prejudice against those with darker skin, even within races. Still it was a shock to realize that some parents might get that far along in the adoption process and then halt a placement if the baby was not as light as they had expected.
We had known our joy would be tempered by the birthmother’s grief, and we had thought we understood some of what we’d encounter, but the social worker’s comment evoked an unexpected sadness and gave us a quick, brutal, lesson.  Our choices were going to be subject to misunderstandings and misinterpretations.  The very presence of our family would trigger all sorts of assumptions and judgments. 
We told the social worker how relieved we were the baby was healthy and how excited we were to meet her.  We hung up and poured the champagne into tumblers to celebrate.  We knew this wasn’t how most people thought it was supposed to be drunk.  So be it.  This was how we were going to do it.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

40 Years of Blazing Saddles

This year is the 40th anniversary of the release of Blazing Saddles, a film full of cheap gags, puns, drug jokes, and sophomoric humor, including the famous farting campfire scene.  It also is a smart satire of racism and prejudice.  A reflexive film, one that breaks out of its own sound stage and spills across the studio, its meta-technique isn’t a gimmick or stylistic trick, but an incisive critique of the film industry itself.  Mel Brooks isn't satirizing the West, but Westerns and the way they have constructed “the West.”  In doing so, he emphasizes the racism that has been a persistent component of that mythic construction.  As he puts it, “the engine that runs Blazing Saddles is hatred and race prejudice.  Serious stuff for a movie with an on-going joke confusing Hedley Lamarr and Hedy.
            From the beginning, Brooks’ intentions are clear.  The whites in power are idiotic.  They demand, using racial slurs, that the blacks working on the railroad sing good old work songs.  They not only want the workers to work, but to act out stereotypes.  They want to control their labor and their identity.  When Bart sings Cole Porter’s “I Get No Kick from Champagne,” Lyle, the white boss, is bewildered and suggests “The Camptown Races” instead.  The black workers feign ignorance, so he gets down and sings it himself, complete with a ridiculous dance which the other whites mimic.
Those in authority – the law makers – are either corrupt or child-like.  Either way, they are intolerant, narrow-minded, and depraved while the “common people” are racist and in-bred (all of the citizens of Rockridge are Johnsons).  They spout and admire “authentic frontier gibberish.”
            The slapstick of some of the humor can make it easy to overlook the film’s skillful artifice.  When Bart, who has become the sheriff of Rockridge, meets the Waco Kid, the Kid is hanging upside from his bunk.  He literally has the opposite viewpoint and vision of those around him.  He doesn’t see the world or Bart as the people of Rockridge do.  Bart asks, “Are we awake?” and the Kid replies, “We’re not sure.  Are we black?”  He then says, “We’re awake, but we’re very puzzled.”  The use of the first person plural – we – unifies them, and whereas everyone else, including the old ladies, address Bart using racial slurs, the Kid doesn’t. 
When Bart asks the Kid if he needs any help, he says, “Oh, all I can get.”  The townspeople too need help.  They’ve begged the governor for a sheriff, then they’re scandalized and appalled by the person he sends. As the Kid tells Bart, “What did you expect? Welcome, sonny? Make yourself at home? Marry my daughter? You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know... morons.”
The friendship of Bart and the Kid, the respect and admiration they have for one another, is the core of the film, and it argues for the possibility of breaking out of the damaging, imprisoning, stories, and telling new ones.  I want to believe this, and, most days, I do.  Just as most of the time, I believe satire can be a weapon for change.  But, as the daily headlines show, some stories keep repeating themselves.
            Genres are easy to parody, but as Stephen Colbert has said “satire is parody with a point.”  Forty years later the point of Blazing Saddles – the pervasive prejudice of our story-telling and American mythologies – still stings.