I’m gonna use soccer as a metaphor for poetry Now poetry is like soccer in some ways and very different from soccer in other ways but it will be useful as a tool for talking about poetry Soccer is a team sport and there are lots of people to blame Poetry is a singleton sport and you have no one to blame but yourself Both require heart Both require a combination of conscience thought and gut level reaction Both require discipline and practice Both can be sooooo very satisfying when you win and kinda nasty when you lose not as nasty as a fight to the death, but then we are civilized, are we not? Most people write poetry and don’t really care if it is good or bad You are not one of those people It is good to care about whatever you're playing at When you play soccer you need to be serious about the game But can a player be too serious? Yes, they get so frustrated that they start missing shots that would be easy for them if they would just relax a bit (not all the way, just a bit) They lose focus and start grumbling about how wet the field is Or sweat got in their eyes When you play soccer there must be some ‘play’ to it You must be playful Same with poetry You must be playful with it sometimes If it is not for fun then what is it for You must find a balance between seriousness and playfulness Either extreme is OK but you will never be very good at the game Now soccer breaks into two parts Craft and Heart The craft of soccer is how well you get your foot around the ball How well you can turn a ball How well you know where the other player is and how well you can guess what they are thinking The craft of soccer is what you improve through practice And practice is very important You make your mistakes in practice and you learn from them You watch other players in practice and you learn from them You think about your game at practice and you learn from it You do not think about making your foot get around the ball If you are thinking about exactly how to position your foot you will miss the shot You tell your foot “Get the ball” and then you think about something else, if you over think the process you will take too long What’s funny to me is that when you do this in your poetry you call it a ‘blurt’ The way your foot goes around the ball is best known by your foot The way your words go around your poem is best known by your hand not your mind All poetry that is good is a blurt Now about Heart Practice can take you far but it will never take you to a win For that you need heart What does it feel like when you are right in the grove And the ball is lined up perfectly and the goalie is asleep and you have that perfect shot And you know, even before your foot hits the ball that it going to be perfect You feel this in your heart and you must let the heart get to your foot It is the most satisfying feeling in the world It is perfection Its what all the practice was for and it is more You asked > How do you know what your reacting to when you write > something? I would say that you probably don’t know what your reacting to in your mind But in your heart you know And you feel that you have lined that sucker up perfect And you kick that poem right past the goalie into the net (computers are great nets for this sort of thing) I know something I’ve written is good because I can feel its in the groove And I really can’t see the meaning myself until much later But I know its good ~ SCORE! Take that sucker, go home and tell your mama she dresses you funny (or whatever you say in your head, because they will give you a card if you say it out loud) Now if you want my input on craft Then you must tell me that you want it No problem, just kinda boring But hey, that’s what practice is for So Good poetry has good craft and good heart Craft is something you can practice and improve Heart is something you are born with I have seen great heart in you and that is why you can’t get rid of me so easily I will talk to you about your craft but the heart is so much more interesting When I go to a soccer game I never blame the craft of the players, that’s their problem I just figure they didn’t have enough heart I think you want to do good poetry right off the bat Without practice (I was the same way about piano, remind me to give you some of my music) And that’s OK but your craft will not improve very quickly that way Poetry must flow from you on a regular basis if it is going to improve There is no perfect poem There is just perfect poetry craft I also think you want to hide your heart because sometimes your work is very cryptic I have to work hard to unravel the meaning, but hey, I love working hard to unravel your meanings because they are usually worth it and I love the challenge You work makes me think (I always refer to poems as ‘work’, because its not the poem it’s the process, the crafting of the poetry that I like) So here’s the wrap up Practice your craft by writing a bunch of stuff as often as you can in small black books Pry your hands off you heart and let it run free in your words say all the stuff you’ve always wanted to say but were afraid Let’er rip
Habib’s English teacher, Mr. Bell, was one of the smallest members of the teaching staff, even on a Monday; however, he had a reputation for rousing sleeping students by slamming a large book onto their desk and shouting, “Tired students die more easily!”
The first time Habib saw him do this, he thought, ~Bellicose Bell bellows by the beastly boy below.~ Unaware that it had expired, Habib attempted to write a story that did not infringe the patent on plots. Skipping the specification and figures, his claims read:
1. A story comprising at least one plot device selected from the group consisting of: boy meets girl, stranger comes to town, boy loses girl, hero goes on a journey, boy regains girl, and man hunts whale.
2. The story of claim 1 in which Hamlet’s father’s ghost sets off an unfortunate chain of events.
An abstract of Habib’s story would read along the lines of, “Stranger comes to town where he meets girl and boy. Girl and boy lose stranger but his ghost sends them whale hunting for their fathers.”
Mister Bell’s response was scribbled obliquely across the bottom in red pen, “Obvious. I anticipated the ending, as have many before me. Your grammar and spelling is atroceous.” For good measure he had added his initials with a florid swirl. It was an illegible signature, but it wasn’t Kurtz, it appeared to say, “Jesus.”
I like public speaking. Gathering info, organizing thoughts, using bullet points. My dream job.
Somewhere, though – somewhere. It gets weird.
Maybe I begin editing mid-thought and ‘uh-wha-the-I-‘ comes out instead of the new cooler thing I just thought up. Or the audience sounds like a laugh track, and I find myself doing crazier things in the weightlessness of ‘they think I’m funny!’ Crazier things like making jig movements with my arms and talking through my chin. Things like saying, “Woooo!” Like making sound effects to explain a point. Making faces. Jigging. Goofiness slips into me and I have to stop.
So I smile when that happens. Then I step behind the lectern of public speaking. If I’m goofy short enough- if I catch it before they call me on it -it works. I’m forgiven! Laughs lurch in, fill the awkwardness. Smooth it away. Like being locked out of my house in my towel. I’m embarassed-the neighbors are shocked—but all is forgiven if I’m terrified, apologetically hold the towel and make efforts to get in the door. Maybe they’ll even chuckle as they back out of the drive. IF, however, I were to saunter out in my towel, grab the paper, wave to a friend (casual and nonplussed) – disgust and rolling of eyes. Being accidentally an idiot – okay. But purposely- you’re in no man’s land. A jerk.
So it is with speaking. Walk too far out on the laugh track and hang over the edge– and the forgiveness (possessed, I say! no-seizure, right? Poor thing.) will turn into muddy silence.
Being sensitive to shifts remains the most powerful tool when speaking to a group. When you lose someone (‘boring’, ‘can’t hear ya’, ‘hurry up’, ‘not this again’), they’ll shift. Head drops to the hand, legs uncross then recross, bodies lean to one side. A fire could break out. Time is limited. Change the subject. Wrap up with quick words. Caffeinate your tone. Be abrupt. And Edit. Right then. Chop up your nice sentence into baby mush and get to the next part. If the speaker believes that moving to the next point will calm the shifting, the speech dies. Keep to the key phrases, use a transition word and smile. And move. Walk about. Gesture. Find an eye.
Until, of course, you feel like jigging.
Mary was half asleep when they came into her room. The hands–floating in the air—white on white—touching, prodding, poking, groping. Different hands than the ones in her dream. Those hands were soft and gentle with a sweet smell and soft song. Those hands fed her, held her, calmed her, and rushed away the demon of her dream. The black demon. The spitting dog with long pointy teeth and matted hair–forever chasing, snarling, and snapping at her, running away when the soothing hands came.
The new hands pinch and prick—hurting Mary. Then more hands, rough and strong—shifting and lifting—Mary levitating then quickly landing. Rolling–overhead lights flicker through her drowsy eyelids. Pushing through swinging doors, white turns to green. Cold metal, rubber and glass hum their greetings as the doors flap, flap, flap. Machines tower over her—glinting, glowing, and glowering. Grabbing hands lift Mary. She stiffens at the rush of cool air across her naked bum. The shock of cold greased metal on her backside brings Mary out of her stupor. Fight! Struggle! Scream! Arms and legs are strapped but Mary shakes her head—no, no. The hands stop her head still and hold firm while straps are fitted and she is silenced with the mask of black rubber.
“Breathe,” the hands tell her. “Breathe deep and count slowly. It will be over soon. Count backwards with me—20, 19, 18, 17, 16…”
The black dog is growling, jumping and snapping at a toy hanging by the door. Mary is hot and thirsty under the scorching sun. She wants the shade of the front porch but the dog is there. The amber light of the desert sun is unforgiving and there are no trees or structures. Just the house–dry, dark, decaying–with shingles missing, windows broken, and porch leaning—all askew. Mary must run–hide but something keeps her still, looking closely at the dog and at the house. She slowly traces the path to the front porch as the dog continues to jump and snap at its prize—just out of reach. Mary is thankful the dog is not after her but wonders what could distract it so. Stepping out of the hot sun and on to the porch, her vision clears and she sees the thing occupying the dog. The unbelievable sight of it fills her sick with fear and revulsion–she starts to retch and turn away. For what Mary thought was a toy, is a hand—a human hand–a soft and gentle hand—dismembered and swaying in the hot breeze–hanging by a rope around its wrist.
Mary turns her head and vomits into the crescent shaped metal bowl. Blood and bile stare back at her and she tries to cry out. Her throat is sore and dry–all she can do is whimper and moan. Tears fall and the hands come to her—white on white. The soft gentle hands hold the cup with the straw and place a wet cloth on her head. The hands soothe, encourage and make promises of ice cream and Jell-O. Mary sleeps.
The front cover will include text that has been torn from all sorts of places: a phrase from a newspaper headline, a word from a Sears catalogue, two letters scavenged from a shoe box, one from a Subway napkin, and three more trimmed from Auntie Linda’s Christmas card. That’s all as it should be, because that’s pretty much how the book is being written. Here are several fragments taped together and masquerading as the opening of a short story:
Once upon a time there lived a king and queen who were as forgettable as all the other kings and queens who had lived since time began. On Saturday, April 7, the queen agreed to join the king for a ride in his dingy along the mighty River Cole. Max Smith turned to watch the launching, gliding in sharp prowed silence with the blades of his single skull brushing the still surface of the Cole like the feet of a water spider below the rowlocks on their riggers. His widow’s peak and run-away mustache completed the skinny antithesis of what one would expect of a champion rower. He had taken gold in the cup races back in October, and yet he looked every pound a weakling as he nodded silent recognition to Habib.
With mock formality, Habib greeted Nichaline, “Good morrow, young miss. I trust she fares well.”
She replied with a very low bow, “Good morrow to the sailor. Neptune be praised that he is returned unharmed.”
“They found better meat, so they didn’t eat me, said the sausage.”
“What courage,” replied the butcher’s daughter.
“Right it is,” he answered, and with the oars steadying the dingy at the bank, and Max Smith’s little dog, Montmorency, unhappy and deeply suspicious atop the Five Arches Bridge, into it she stepped and out they shot on to the waters which, for the next seventy minutes, were to be their home.
Within a few hundred yards Habib was perturbed by the silence. He put on his touch-of-Bronowski accent and gave a speech on hydrodynamics and hull design, “Where do vee get this combination of laminar und turbulent flow? Frum the deepest depths of skience, Nichaline.”
“You’re German, is that why you’re all toasted?”
“I’m half English and half Indian.”
“I though you were a Paki.”
Habib, who had heard far worse far too often, casually replied, “Dad got here before partition. Always called himself Indian.”
“So, which half is Indian?” Nichaline asked, with either surprising facial control or surprising dumbdom.
“Everything from the waist down.”
She became less high spirited, more edgy, ill at ease. Applying steady and splashless strokes, Habib moved them up the river. It was wrapped in a delicate grey haze with a mud brown undertone, like a dirty thought struggling for words through a mist of racing hearts. Turbid waters dodged under the Highfield Road Bridge, threatening to give up a face or a waving arm through its dull murk–a murky depth that suggested drowned creatures, or staring corpses, white from bleeding in some ponded shell hole on the Western front.
In an attempt to defuse the racial shell that threatened the stability of their boat, Habib explained the Troy two to the one-hundred theory. This was his name for the principle that for any modern individual to have been the product of matings between unrelated humans since the siege of Troy, there would have to have been two to the power of one hundred humans alive at that time: a figure that dwarfs the total number of humans that have ever lived. Thus, he concluded, we are all related or highly inbred, “an interesting dilemma for those who support wars against those of different races.”