Saturday, March 28, 2009

Morton West-ward ho!

This past week I once again had the pleasure of reading before a group of students from Morton West High School in Berwyn, IL. I previously read at Morton two years ago, having been put in touch with a teacher there by my pal (and fellow Fractal Edge Press poet), Tom Roby. I'd mentioned that I enjoyed working in the public schools, especially in working class communities, and thus Tom's nudge Berwyn-ward. Berwyn is just outside the Chicago city limits, a smidge from better-known Oak Park with its earnest Ernest Hemingway and frank Frank Lloyd Wright pride worn on its civic sleeve.

The person who'd been my contact at Morton was now gone, but Jaime Dahm, who teaches creative writing there—and had been at the prior event—was now in charge. Unlike before, where I was set up in a corner of the main library area to read, myself and the audience had a special room all to ourselves in the back, away from the brouhaha. (Morton is a big school and the number of students milling around the common area was daunting.) Cookies and water were provided, and being conveniently close to the entryway, the chocolate chip scent wafting outward provided further incentive to an assembling crowd of mostly seniors.

I'd forwarded approximately a dozen new poems to Ms. Dahm ahead of my appearance, which she copied and handed out to the students. When I arrived, she showed me some of the questions which they'd written out in advance of my appearance after reviewing the poems. Most of them were as good if not better than questions a more “learned” crowd might ask, so I was excited to get down to the nitty gritty. I'd have to say my favorite, however, was “what inspired you to write things people don't even think about?” Indeed! I had Ms. Dahm return the questions to their writers—some had been written on the poems themselves, and I wanted the students to have them in hand while I read—and said at the beginning that it was up to them to ask the questions. (I didn't do this to “put them on the spot,” but thought they were well worth everyone hearing. I also suspected I might answer some of them unbidden via my own commentary.) Unfortunately, the author of my favorite question failed to bring it up during the Q&A following, at least in its unadulterated form.

The reading itself went quite well. Most of the poems had not yet been tried out before an audience, so I was officially in uncharted waters. Thankfully, I was never rewarded with cricket chirps, though certain ones did resonate in particular with the students—two, specifically, on opposite ends of the poetic spectrum.

The first was also the last chronologically I read, taken from my ongoing Loma Prieta persona poem project. Since much of what I've been writing lately is less narrative than usual, and also going for “the funny,” I wanted to include it for its leavening potential, and also to hear how/if it “worked” with this group. (I'm a believer that reading is as important to the reader's ears as the audience's—gauged not necessarily on how they react, but sometimes how they non-react.)

Loma Prieta #1: Donna Marsden

Hospital Administrator, age 36. Born in Torrance, CA. Daughter of a Los Angeles police officer. Married, divorced and remarried. An administrator in the pathology department at the University of California at San Francisco. Lived in Alameda.

“We grew up out here” was Bruce's
line, and never an apology. (We
Californians don't feel the need
to apologize for our lifestyle.)
If anything, more than once I'd been
on the phone with friends in the Midwest
and said, “It's your tornadoes that scare
me,” although I hadn't been really
scared since watching The Wizard of Oz
as a child, back in Torrance.
Every
spring, it played on TV, and each
time I'd watch, and get scared all
over again when Dorothy's house
picked up off the ground
and whirled away, into a black-funneled sky.
That fear gave me a thrill,
took me somewhere I didn't know
I wanted to go. Like our Victorian:
I hadn't thought we could afford to own
out here, and when Bruce and I signed
the papers, my hand shook (but
only a little).
I liked painting and papering
the walls, fixing furniture, making it
our own. And the china cabinet
we found at that yard sale—it was
my idea to wrap rubber bands around
the knobs, preventing grandma's plates
from shaking loose and crashing
whenever a little jolt hit.
Like
the tea cup she always drank from,
blue birds and clouds circling the rim?
It broke last summer, after
a small quake, and it was
my fault. It was her favorite;
I should have been
more careful.

I miss our dogs and cats, the plants;
in the morning, the sun rising
behind green leaves and fronds
in the bedroom, our little jungle.
The low hush of traffic
over the hill,
morning rush, sounded like mysterious
animals talking to each other, candy-
colored birds buzzing, or some yet
undiscovered species in the Amazon
rain forest. We always talked
about going. And Bruce's whispers, after
shutting off the alarm—we
still have some extra time . . .

If I had been late to the carpool,
if I had stopped to put up
my hair, if I had paused to gloat (just
to myself, just a little) about
the promotion . . . if, if,
if . . . If I had eaten granola instead
of Froot Loops—if I wasn't allergic
to bee stings—if I had won our 8th
grade spelling bee, and not
Susan Sweetwater—if I hadn't kissed
my boyfriend's roommate, been so
drunk, at that party . . . But I did,
am, didn't, did. So much water
under long-gone bridges. Are
they even still standing?
The van
was on time
like it always is. Traffic wasn't bad.
Nobody felt like talking. Sunlight
strobed through the Madrones.
Last weekend, Bruce
and I went to hear
Bonnie Raitt; we didn't do that so
much, hadn't been able to afford it,
but now, with my raise coming,
I was looking forward to going
out more, relaxing a little,
living it up.
I felt a bump and
just then all I could think about
was Bruce, working
late, the view from his office
window above the Embarcadero
and the dinner I had promised
for when he got home, something
he liked,
a surprise.

The second likely doesn't need an introduction:

The Angry Whopper®

The Angry Whopper® is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore!
The Angry Whopper® is a road rageaholic.
The Angry Whopper® is so tall for his age, the other kids make fun of him and he whimpers and stomps out of the room.
The Angry Whopper® has been galvanized by gloom.
The Angry Whopper® is a misunderstood genius, or so he'd have us believe.
The Angry Whopper® is affronted and annoyed whenever mistaken for a Double Quarter Pounder® with Cheese, fiery and fuming if christened a Baconator®, piqued and provoked whenever fancied a mere White Castle Slyder®.
The Angry Whopper® flunked anger management class. Again!
The Angry Whopper® chafes whenever it doesn't get its wrathful way.
The Angry Whopper® flaunts his his flame-broiled burger patty furiously.
The Angry Whopper® whops its enemies upside their adversarial heads.
The Angry Whopper®'s ill-tempered tantrums tersely traumatize the collaterally damaged.
Splenetic, riled and resentful, the Angry Whopper® battles the blithe Whopper Junior® in a duel to the death!
The Angry Whopper® convulsed into choleric spasms of disdain.
The Angry Whopper® broods with a solemnly sullen and sarcastic brain.
The Angry Whopper® aggressively ignites the taste buds of its open-muzzled eaters.
The Angry Whopper® is displeased and discordant, maddened and mordant.
The Angry Whopper® bitterly bitches about any old goddamn thing...
The Angry Whopper® stormed out of the big meeting in a hateful huff.
The Angry Whopper®'s impassioned speech to shareholders did nothing to quell fears of a ferocious freefall in an exasperated economy.
An indignant sesame seed bun and sore-yet-spicy, cross-but-crispy, sulky sizzling onions voted to secede from the Angry Whopper®. They lost.
The Angry Whopper® jalapeños jalapeños jalapeños all the way home.
A paranoid Angry Whopper® thinks everyone is against ham.
The Angry Whopper® is passive-aggressive over the meritorious tang of pepper jack cheese.
The Angry Whopper®—inflamed, infuriated, irascible, ireful, irritable, irritated—has waited and waited and waited, enraged, outrage exacerbated.
The Angry Whopper® would get a kick out of kicking your uppity uptight ass!
The Angry Whopper® quaffs from a half-empty glass.
The Angry Whopper® is vexed, vehement and vilifies vitriolically.
The Angry Whopper® is turbulently, tumultuously tomatoed.
The Angry Whopper® resents the implication—!
The Angry Whopper® rules a resentful, offended and noxiously nettled nation.
Amazed and mayonnaised, the Angry Whopper® tasers its foes with fierce aplomb.
The Angry Whopper® rages, rages against the dying of delight.

Thanks to Ms. Dahm and the students of Morton West for making me feel welcome and for being such a terrific audience.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Our Father,

I was recently asked to do a variation on my "Ternstedt" poem (see January 27th post), based on Tony Hoagland's excellent essay, "Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment," in his highly recommended book of essays, Real Sofistikashun. The idea struck me as rather daunting, since I've certainly abandoned poems that weren't working before, and used them as spare parts for newer, hopefully better-functioning engines; written imitations and homages. These approaches were more familiar to me. Yet, despite my initial reticence to disassemble the impulse that gave way to the former poem, I think I'm happy with its latter-day unsaintly counterpart, and learned a bit more about the aesthetics of this nebulous form by doing by design.

Avoiding narrative wasn't the issue. I began with the basis of my previous poem, my father as a central character, but I decided to widen the perspective a bit, depersonalizing it to a certain extent by saying “our father” instead. (For the record: I haven't any siblings.) From that change, I thought of the biblical reference to the “Lord's Prayer.” This gave me a skeleton over which to stretch the skittery skin and sinew of this new gryphon. And though I did make narrative sit in the backseat this time, I don't believe I totally ignored it, as here I wanted narrative—or the conscious impotency of it—to be staggered through the repetitious use of em dashes, frustrating the reader's attempt to get into any regular rhythm. The poem, instead, loops on itself in a series of asides that are, hopefully, hermetically rhythmic and sportive. I also chose to keep the factory worker motif from the last poem, at least partially, by referring to the father's “first shift posse,” which also gave me additional wiggle room to toy with the names and associations of his “peeps.”

I like playful language. I can do something that's barer, but even in those works it's hard for me to ignore the impulse to let the words sing. Here, perhaps the words harmonize but in a language that is archaic or eccentric or unto itself: art for art's sake. As I understand it, the skittery poem is self-consciously playful, or can be on a number of levels. I didn't want to be opaque; I wanted to be oblique. A more dissociative poem, of course, can be skittery, but for myself I prefer to consider the style as a smart method for constructing a “shaggy dog” poem. Not that every one has to do that, or not, have 'meaning' or not, but if I did throw everything and the kitchen sink into it you'd have a poem with many ingredients but no defining flavor. Hopefully this one has taste, while not necessarily being tasteful.

Our Father,

who art in heaven, or
arts in heaven—because he so enjoyed
painting on the weekends (seascapes,
portraits, still lives)—still
lives—in the memories of those who then
knew him best: Moose Mulhern,
Petey Peters, Ed ((just Ed) who was any-
thing but well-adjusted, if you re-
member that one Xmas party where he
came dressed as an X-rated Saint
Nick: Saint Dick (the Gingham
sisters practically fainted
when he came down the chimney))—
guys from the factory,
his first shift posse,
the punch-me-out-pleasers,
retire-in-twenty-teasers,
a-pack-a-day-wheezers,
his what kids nowadays might say
peeps—“in heaven!” in how
he licked his Nirvanaic lips
after Thanksgiving undid his belt
and unzipped his fly—“why,
we're all family here”—
and he collapsed snoring
on the Lay-Z-Boy, reclining,
declining dessert until Aunt Francis
delivered it on tiptoe and tray
with a knowing wink and a wave
of her kindled Virginia Slim
while cousins football cheered
for the same rival teams
year after rollicking year
—in Florida.

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