Poem a Day Project

Regular readers know that I’m in training for a week-long poetry workshop that starts a week from tomorrow. As I have said often, writers need to practice, so I’m taking my own advice and attempting a poem a day. I know my own process–journal until some image/phrase/discovery flows onto the page. Write and write with the associations in mind, be they auditory or visual or some memory that gets triggered. Here’s what I wrote yesterday:

FAMILY FEAST

Stories handed round like

whoopie pies, like wild

Maine blueberries–the one about a drunk

whom Gram secretly let sleep

on the porch, or the house fire

and the rescued kittens,

a child born with a broken clavicle.

Surprise twins, one tender, one

tough. Maggots on the turkey

left three days in the oven,

how a snowball led to marriage.

Stories for dessert–

peaches, apples, grapes.

Sorry about the spacing but WordPress insists that each return be followed by extra space. I’m sure some html thingy would fix this but it’s not worth the time to figure it out, and I still have a poem to make for today. As yet, no prompt or imagery to get me started. But it will come. As you’ve heard before, “Notice what you notice.” Then write, write, write, and follows every discovery to its deepest level.

Thanks to the aunts and uncles who over the years have provided me with these stories. This poem may not be great, but it’s better than a felony conviction. More next week. Be well, be happy, be safe, be generous and free.

Noises in the Attic

I am house sitting in Maine in a 200-year-old home. Early yesterday morning I heard a soft scratching in the dining room ceiling. Probably a mouse. I smack the wall near the spot and the noise stops. Then I hear a rhythmic rasping while I’m on the living room sofa reading Jane Smiley’s Duplicate Keys, a murder mystery about home intruders. Scared? Nah, it’s that house mouse but now it’s a bit louder and more insistent, almost frantic. I put down my book and go outside, wondering if something at least as big as a robin is trying to nest in the eaves. I don’t know how much noise a bird might make when it’s homesteading.

The house has been resided with clapboard-like cement composite, so whatever this critter is can’t damage it, but, hey, I’m a writer. I’m curious. I stumble around on the steep front lawn and find nothing bigger than a yellow butterfly. Back in the front room, the noise continues, increasingly louder and more insistent. I can stop it by smacking my hand against the wall, but as soon as I settle back onto the sofa, it resumes.

I call my sister. She has a fairly old house. “Ignore it,” she says. But I don’t want this thing damaging the wiring or digging down through the ceiling. I don’t want it to die and decay up there. “Yes, you do want it to die up there.”

I call a neighbor. “Yeah, old houses get critters, though not usually this late in the spring. Here’s the number for Animal Control, but I doubt there’s anything they can do.” Alright, I’ll be the New England stoic I admire, I tell myself. I let the dog’s out and in again. We all go to sleep. When we get up at 6:00 am, the house is quiet. Either that animal—likely a squirrel or chipmunk—has found a way out or it died and a couple of days from now I’ll regret its demise and open all the windows to air out the place.

This sort of incidental intruder would become, in the hands of a different writer, a ghostly or alien threat, if not to life, at least to sanity. Think of Robert Frost’s narrative poem “Up Attic,” or anything by Stephen King, another New Englander capable of make something out of this almost nothing. Either of them would do more that fret about the stink of a dead rodent in the ceiling.

Summer Reading As Real Reading

For many people summer reading means cheap books marinated with sand and suntan lotion. It means forgettable, relaxation induced coma. Not so for me or some of my writing friends. Summer reading is more like the reading lists that teachers once sent home at the end of each school year. The difference is this: as an adult you get to choose. Here’s the plan I shared with seven friends this week.

SUMMER READING PLAN

Courtesy of KVDbooks

  1. Begin where you are: list your ten favorite books and then branch out or go deep.
  2. Peruse Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer or at least consider these elements from her table of contents: Close Reading, Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialogue, Details, Reading for Courage. This list might guide you as you read.
  3. Create your reading diary/card catalog/notebook. Make a standing date with yourself to work on this and aim for a book a week.
  4. Explore two libraries and evaluate their holdings in your subject. Talk with a librarian. He or she may suggest books in your genre that you don’t yet know exist.
  5. Be faithful, proud and humble. It’s a commitment to your skill and talent as a writer. Be proud of what you do and humbled by the vastness of the written word.

My own plan involves poetry anthologies. I want to read lots of poems, dozens, maybe a hundred, before I go to Marge Piercy’s summer workshop in June. Just soak my brain in contemporary poetry. I’ve started my diary, a cheap steno pad that’s light to pack and no harm done if I tear out a page or two for whatever purpose.

Please, don’t take the summer off. Make it count. Between baseball and the beach, read with conviction and purpose.

Attendez Vous!

Please, if you go to a poetry reading, pay attention to the poets. This is not difficult when the readers are well known and there is no open mic. However, the open mic can challenge your parents’ kindest intentions to teach you manners. I am put off and put out by self-centered attendees who blatantly show no interest in the work of others. They shuffle their own papers, flip through their books, go get latte/wine/beer or use the restroom while someone else is speaking. You know who you are. You want your three to five minutes and will stretch it if you don’t get the hook. I understand that some of the people in the audience are not poets, and I can almost forgive their rudeness, but poets should respect other poets. It’s enough pain that the rest of the world ignores us.

Fate gives you advance notice when you are going to a reading, so you can find twenty minutes in your exciting life to mark selections in your book or paper clip your two longish/three short poems together before you take your seat. Don’t make long introductions. We do not go to hear a lecture, a sermon or a memoir. Don’t take an axe to a gun fight. (My great-great grandfather did that and the result was unpleasant.)

If you must fidget while others speak, get back on your meds, carry worry beads, or doodle silently in a small notebook. Look interested even if you ache with disdain for the rest of the readers. Pretend that the one at the mic is Will Shakespeare back from the dead to entertain you. Fake it till it’s your turn, and for Pete’s sake don’t walk out before the readings end, unless A. Hitler strides to the mic and shouts racial or ethnic slurs. Even then you might keep your butt in the chair and hear something you’ve never heard before–a voice not your own.

 

The Wrong Story

Where do stories come from? Anywhere people congregate and I can watch them. Here’s one:

ASSUMPTION

            A thin old man comes into my local coffee shop. He is bald, has a prominent bandage over his right eyebrow, thick glasses, a walker, a brace on his right leg. He wears a plaid shirt and dress pants, black tie shoes and a zipper hoodie. A pregnant woman gives up her easy chair for him, and the barista brings his coffee. His walker has a black bag attached, so he must rely on it. I wonder how he got here. Driving with that brace would be a problem. Maybe he has adaptive hand controls, or someone dropped him off, and will come back for him. Or not?

At some point he becomes angry, then anxious that his niece has not returned. Long after the appointed hour he admits his predicament and asks the barista to make a call for him, but she cannot complete the call. She suggests he get a cab. He has no cash, having just spent his last five dollars for coffee. At closing time he’s still there, weeping. Cops come. “What happened to your ride?” He refuses to leave the chair, prefers to believe that Pauline will come. She has to come for him. He tells the cop, “Please, call her again.”

            “Sir, I’ve called this number. It’s out of service.”

            He hesitates but at last allows the cops to drive him home. The house is dark and locked. He has no key. His medicine is in that house and he’s in pain. They drive him to the ED.

            He’s now homeless, hurting and broke. His next check will slide into the mail slot at that dark house in a couple of weeks, unless someone can perform a miracle with Social Security and have the check rerouted. Pauline has access to his account. It’s been cleaned out. He’s outlived his wife, his sister, and his friends. Not a churchgoer, he is without resources. Maybe Senior Services will sic the law on Pauline, although she was nice enough when she dropped him at the coffee shop, and that bureaucratic ploy might take weeks.

This is the wrong story. The old man finishes his coffee and goes outside to a roomy old Buick, struggles to put the walker into the back seat and prepares to drive himself home. Now there are two old men, the one who just drove away and the one I have left stranded when his greedy niece deserted him at the local coffee shop. Both of them will live in my head and now in yours for a while, until we forget them. Maybe someone else will read this vignette and enlarge it. What will you do?

Minion Rules for Writers

The following guest blog comes from writer Fred G. Baker, author of Growing Up Wisconsin: Remembrances from The American Midwest. Thanks, Fred for the comic relief.

Minion Critique

By F.G. Baker

Rod Sterling Narrates:

In a book-publishing world controlled by one last corporation, it was necessary to create an elite cadre of editorial minions to prevent anyone from writing anything remotely original. It began in colleges, teacher’s trade schools and all classrooms, even and especially at writers’ retreats where the indoctrination could be applied 24 hours a day. The programing called ‘creative writing’ quickly generated a legion of editors, writers and agents who could group-think the mantra to the letter. All creativity was driven out of fiction until homogenous drivel was all that remained.

We look in on a typical ‘critique session’ at a coffee shop in which, by chance, the ultimate drivel was produced!

Story in the Here and Now:

The chief minion reviewed their discussion without summarizing or telling anything. “I’m not sure, but I think it meets all the limitations of the checklist: no prologues, flashbacks, or dream sequences, all showing and no telling, where, when, single point of view, drama, emotion, simple language, no semi-colons, no words beyond a seventh grade level …We have to check that. Next year they want to reduce it to a fifth grade level and we want to anticipate …Yes, I think we have perfect drivel. I am excited but not exclamatory.”

The group of four minions sat around a table at a Starbucks here, now. They were critiquing the beleaguered work by one minion, number 5,324,492, in their midst who had been revising his novel for thirty-seven years to finally get it just right. (Finally, oops, -ly word, delete.) 5,324,492, called 92 for short, was relieved and excited too, but not to the point of exclamation. He had produced a masterpiece.

The chief said, “Let’s look at it again in case we may have missed something.” He laid out the single page of text for them all to see, showing:

Help!

A Novel by 5,324,492

Here and now.

Help! I am confused, therefore I am afraid.

The End.

The minion sometimes called Mary said, “Isn’t ‘therefore’ a forbidden word now, implying too much. I think it is not on the fifth grade list.”

“Good catch, Mary. Maybe we should try ‘then,’ but that would simply indicate sequence in now and not causation. And I’m concerned that ‘confused’ implies that there may be a back story and, therefore, may be a ‘data dump.’ Why am I confused? That isn’t ‘showing’ and also implies backstory.”

92 said, “But I liked therefore and confused. It is the raison d’etre for afraid.”

The chief glowered at 92. “92, I’m surprised at you. We use no foreign terms or italics here in this group. It is rule 4,239. It causes the reader to stop to think what it means and we can’t have that. Many readers aren’t able to come back to the story again. They just sort of drift out there. Watch it, mister, no exclamation.”

Another minion said. “Shouldn’t there be contractions? It sounds formal now, ‘I am afraid.’ Nobody talks like that. It sounds expository.”

Mary said “And it’s too short for a novel. We could repeat the words but that would be redundant, wouldn’t it? It would repeat the story, tell the reader something he already knows.”

The chief said. “You’re right Mary. We have to call it a novella, but it is even too short for that. Maybe a nov, or just n. And as for the story, there’s no story but that’s OK since it’s character driven.”

92 moaned. “Then ‘the end’ is unnecessary since it’s telling the reader something he already knows once he runs out of words.” He pulled out a huge bottle of white-out and doctored the document.

 

Help!

An n     by 5,324,492

Help!                I’ m afraid.

92 smiled. The chief said, “I love committee-work.” They all bought more coffee.

***

The new n was accepted by the publisher immediately and sold in vast numbers. It was translated into 472 languages, some of which had become extinct and some of which did not exist yet. Of the six billion people on the planet, everyone bought a copy, except a few skeptics whose names and addresses have been recorded for future action. The corporation celebrated reaching its ultimate goal of producing such perfect drivel that all other publishers were driven completely off the planet.

The world waited for 92 to produce his promised, in-the-works, romantic novel ‘Fuck!’and his who-done-it, ‘Who the Fuck!’ The later title is simply a working title since it may violate the new titling rules by having too many syllables. More later.

Rod Sterling was imprisoned for using big words and exclamatory rhetoric.

The End.

Writer as Architect

While other little girls were jumping rope or playing with paper dolls, I was drawing house plans. My grandfather was, among other things, a building inspector, and I happily tagged along while he inspected new construction in our small town. If I had been born later in the century, I might have said that I wanted to be an architect, but no one took my interest seriously and I was left to choose between teaching English or nursing. I’ve done both, but deep down I still long to wrestle with big designs. The closest I have ever come to real architecture was to write a newspaper article about Buckminster Fuller, my secret hero. I am fascinated by the tiny-house movement. I live in an apartment of my own design.

Now there is the architecture of a novel challenging me. I have to provide a living structure for my characters, not just a house but several and a city to contain them. My people need roads, offices, and houses with kitchens and bedrooms and good plumbing. They need furniture, doors and windows. They need everything. I’m doing architecture on a grand scale, what would be a planned community if I weren’t dealing with the city of Providence, RI. It’s already there and I have to fit my creations into what exists. Grandad never had such a challenge.

Beyond the world building, I’m wrestling with the structure of the novel itself. What comes first, next, last? Does the story have a strong foundation and enough space to move around in? Will the finish work complement the framing and will the walls hold out the weather? The greatest and worst part of this design is that I’m the only one doing the work. I’m metaphorically hanging sheetrock and painting trim. I can only hope that when I’m done and the “For Sale” sign goes up, someone will buy it.