A Public Service Announcement: Do Not Kill Your Friends Over Poetry/Prose

As a member of an active and passionate writers group, I have participated in many a debate over many different writing related subjects. For example, I once told a guy to check out the book How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish. (And I’m telling all of you to go read it too.)

On the surface, telling a writer he needs to learn how to write a sentence could be construed as being…ummmm…rude. Incredibly rude. Harsh even.

But I didn’t stab him. Nor did he stab me.

Unlike this guy.

Apparently, one gentleman asserted that prose was the only real writing. He became the victim of a friend who also happened to be a poet. The poet stabbed the prose proponent to death.

So, look, there are really only a few rules in this game:
1. Write hard.
2. Write well.
2. Remember writing is subjective — so don’t kill your friends. No matter how much you’ve been drinking.

And while I may have taken too joking a tone over this, I am well aware that a man is dead. His death was tragic and a truly terrible thing. I hope what we take away from this is that there is enough room for everyone to have their own opinions and to create beautiful things — poetry, prose, or otherwise. Rest in peace.

A Week of Almost-Not-Quite: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

Ah, welcome to Tuesday comrades. Time to see what we’ve accomplished this week.

For me:

It’s the week of almost-not-quite.

1. Almost finished a new short story. I’m up to the climatic, near-end scene. The story sorta wrote itself, which is always nice, right? But it still isn’t finished. Just two more scenes.

2. Worked on the first chapter of the book I’m collaborating on with Ali. (Soon she and I are going to be joined at the hip we’re doing so much together.) But I didn’t finish the work I wanted to do on the second chapter.

This collaboration thing is interesting. It seems to me that a lot of the decisions you make while writing are instinctive. When you have a writing partner, you have to be able to articulate – or, at least, to show – to another person what and why you’re doing what you’re doing. This is true both for this blog now that we’re both working on it and for the fiction piece we’re doing.

Ali – what are your thoughts on this work together stuff?

3. Almost hit my scheduled weekly word count for my own novel. But not entirely there. Sad faces all around. And I’m pretty sure I’m not going to hit the count again this week because I’ve got to prep for a presentation that my writing group is doing this Sunday. (More on that next week!) Also, I have to prep my submission to the same group – which means editing some of my NaNo pile instead of new writing. At least that is all on the same project.

4. Almost finished with a poetry chapbook on Ted Bundy that I’m going to submit to a competition. Need three more poems. I know the subject matter, it’s just a matter of finding the right words. Poetry is tougher than anything when you’re struggling with finding words. So it’ll probably take me right up to the deadline before I finish.

5. Oh! I did finish one thing. I set up a page on Facebook for my writers’ group The Under Ground Writing Project (UGWP to those ‘in the know’). If you’re so inclined, you can go on Facebook or go to the website and click Like. Also, feel free to join the website itself, even if you can’t make the regular meetings. There are writing forums and blog posts and writing resources listed. The only thing you can’t do on the site is read the group’s documents. You’ll forgive me for protecting our work, right? I really want to promote writerly friendships.

Now it’s your turn! Tell me what you’ve been up to this week!

Story and Poetry – Why Aren’t They Together?

In Fragile Things, a collection of short stories and poems by Neil Gaiman, there is a wonderful poem called “Instructions.” As Gaiman says in the introduction this poem is “Quite literally, a set of instructions for what to do when you find yourself in a fairy tale.” While he might not come out and say so, I say that the poem is also a pretty clear set of instructions for what to do in life as well.

It is also a mini-story. Even though the main character is ‘you,’ there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you follow the advice throughout the poem, you will arrive safely at the end…just like a character growing through a novel.

Reading this poem got me thinking about the disconnect I sense between ‘poetry’ and ‘story’ in today’s poetry. I’m no professional poet, I haven’t had poems published in any big name magazines, and I’ve only had a couple workshops but I am a reader. I love to read poetry and short stories and plays and novels. You name it, I’ll read it. (Or at least give it a good shot.) And what I’ve noticed in a lot (not all! there are exceptions everywhere) of contemporary poetry – which I’ll call poetry after the 1920s – is that there is a horrid tendency toward, um, navel gazing.

Oh yeah, I said it.

A huge amount of the poetry I have read made me go: so what? (Again, not all! No need to list ad nauseum the exceptions – if it made you feel something, then it wasn’t a poem of the navel gazing variety, agreed?)  The poet shot a deer. Big whoop. The poet watched a baby being born. Sweet, sure, but millions of women have babies every day. Again, I say big whoop. My reaction has run the gamut between “huh, that’s okay” to “why did the poet just waste two minutes of my life with his self-satisfied, political whack job view on a subject I care nothing about?”

Then I read Neil Gaiman’s “Instructions.” My initial reaction was of the elitist, poetry workshop variety. Enter Snooty Jenny: these line breaks are sloppy, there’s not a high level of ‘telling detail,’ and so on.

But, ya know. I liked it. A lot. And I told my snooty self to shut up and re-read the poem again.

I did.

And I thought of something. Contemporary poetry, in my general unscientifically-polled opinion, does not embrace story. Sure, something generally happens – a deer gets shot or a baby gets born or whatever. But there’s not a story within it. There is no beginning, middle, or end supported by the things that make poetry work: line breaks, stanzas, meter, rhyme. The genres of fiction and poetry have gone their separate ways and it seems like it’ll take a miracle to mush them back together.

It wasn’t always this way. Poetry used to be The Method for story, political essays and commentary, and a whole host of communications. Part of that is because meter and rhyme make stories, commentaries, etc., easy to memorize and repeat. (Thus easier to ‘go viral’ back in the day.)

While by no means an absolute certainty of the future of meshing the two, there are signs that story is returning to poetry with really incredible popular results – especially in the YA field. Ellen Hopkins, for example, with Crank, Impulseand her new adult release, Triangles. Karen Hesse with Out of the Dust. What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones. And the list is growing.

I think that’s good news. What do you guys think about poetry, just in general? Do you enjoy reading it or hearing it? If not, why not? Inquiring minds want to know.

Have you read any good poems that tell a story?

And now, here’s Neil Gaiman reading “Instructions” at Cody Books (Pay attention to the intro, the crowd’s reaction, and Gaiman’s questions – what do you think about that?)

Random Post of Awesome: Braggin’ on a Buddy!: Ajay Ramachandran Poetry Published by Midtown

Great news! My buddy Ajay Ramachandran, who comments early and often on anything Virginia Woolf or P.G. Wodehouse (our very special mentors from earlier this year), has had a a wonderful poem publish by Midtown: A Journal of Writing and Fine Arts.

“Achebe to Zwiren”

Please go check it out – it’s well worth it. Bookophiles will adore it, and those who followed the Woolf and Wodehouse discussions will find it particularly impressive. Ajay knows what he’s talking about! Congratulations, Ajay!

The Multi-Creatives: David Keplinger’s By and By: The Copybook Songs of Isaac P. Anderson

A lot of writers I know do multiple creative things: needlepoint, ceramics, jewelry making, theatre, art, dance, music. There’s a certain attractiveness to this. Because, always, creativity breeds creativity. Through experimentation people find what they want to say, and then, through even more creative exploration, discover the way to say it.

Every now and then, these various artistic bits merge, developing into something new and very interesting.

I have had the great opportunity to study with a poet by the name of David Keplinger (you guys may have heard me mention his name around here before). I’ve heard him read his poetry at many different venues.

But, I’ve probably heard him sing in bars, or around campfires, more. Cuz that’s just how we roll.

Now I’ve just learned that David has combined his poetical sense and his musical inspirations to cut an album based on his great-great-grandfather’s poems. I was so absolutely tickled by this that I had to let you guys know, so you can check it out. It’s a really moving tribute to his family, but I think the historical notes, the creative expression, and the folksy style are inspiring too.

Haiku

Haiku is defined in Jack Myers’s The Portable Poetry Workshop as: “A Japanese lyric form composed of three lines totaling 17 syllables: 5, 7, 5 respectively.”
Well, if you ever want to understand the terminology of poetry, you can’t do much better than this book. If you want to know the definitions for anything from “enjambment” (“A line ending whose syntax carries over to the next line”) to homolochos (“A classic, stock physical-comedy character of the buffoon type”) Myers has the literary and poetical definitions for ya. But – and no offense to Mr. Myers, who is a former Texas Poet Laureate and two time NEA fellowship recipient – the definitions didn’t quite cover enough for me as I worked through one particular section in Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums.

In the scene, Ray is mountain climbing with his buddies Japhy and Morley. As they climb along they are inspired to compose haikus on the spot. Stuff like: “Talking about the literary life – the yellow aspens” – from Japhy. My first thought as I read was That’s terrible. And I’d tolerated plenty of sorta-Buddha babble from these guys up to that point.

Still, while I may have disliked “Rocks on the side of the cliff…why don’t they tumble down?” – from Ray – I appreciated Japhy’s explanation of what a haiku is: “A real haiku’s gotta be simple as porridge and yet make you see the real thing.” That definition makes a heck of a lot more sense to me than a breakdown of syllables-per-line.

And the way the characters composed these haikus is very telling about the Beat generation of writers as well.

In his 1974 essay “On the Road: Notes on Artists and Poets 1950-1965” poet Robert Creely describes his experiences as a poet during the Beat time period and it’s surprising similar to Kerouac’s life experience: “I had gone through a usual education in the East, had witnessed in shock the terrifying conclusion of humans killing one another, had wobbled back to college, married (mistakenly) in the hope of securing myself emotionally, had wandered into the woods…and I was returned without relief again and again to the initial need: a means of making articulate the world in which I and all like me did truly live.

Being able to articulate the world sounds like a pretty tall order to me – but I think, as Japhy points out in his haiku definition, that articulation doesn’t need to be complicated. Haiku is not complicated. It’s as “plain as porridge” but it is articulate. It says a lot with very little.

Japhy quotes a haiku by Shiki: “The sparrow hops along the veranda with wet feet.” He goes on to explain why that’s a great haiku: “You see the wet footprints like a vision in your mind and yet inthose few words you also see all the rain that’s been falling that day and almost smell the pine needles.” What Japhy describes is the articulation of the haiku.

Turns out, this is one of my favorite scenes in The Dharma Bums, partly because it got me thinking about poetry, which I enjoy – dry terminology and all – and partly because of the statement it makes about the Beat writers. The scene functions articulately.

The Beats didn’t worry about haiku syllabics (Kerouac doesn’t even break the haikus into lines). These guys were just experiencing the world and playing with words at the same time. Creely says in his essay: “any form, any ordering of reality so implied, had somehow to come from the very condition of the experience demanding it.” The scene articulates the idea of spontaneous, experimental composition. The haiku form within the scene is Kerouac’s example.

It’s great, layered, which I dig.

The Difference Between Poetry and Lyrics: A Crash Course in One Way to Read Poetry

I have had the opportunity to take several poetry classes (and even succeeded in earning passing grades). In every one of the workshops that I’ve had in this genre, there’s always a person or two who says something along the lines of : “Poetry today is music.” Meaning that music lyrics are today’s version of old-school poetry.

Well, sort of. As my teacher, David Keplinger (awesome instructor, check him out at American University in Washington D.C.–Director of Creative Writing: Careful girls, you’ll automatically have a crush), put it: music depends on on the music to get the emotional response. You can have pathetic lyrics and still have a great song–note the amount of Top 40 hits with Yeah, Yeah, Yeah in the lyrical layout.  You can have a moving experience with music that has no words.  Guitars, violins, kazoos…they all serve to fill in the spaces.

Poetry depends on the rhythm of the words (syllables, pauses, meter, etc.), the way the words are juxtaposed (rhyme, blank verse, line breaks, etc.). The closest thing that music has is, believe it or not, rap. Yep, Eminem probably has more in common with T.S. Eliot than Celine Dion.

To keep it easy, let’s just look at word juxtaposition (how words are placed near one another) and let’s look at P.G. Wodehouse–because he’s our mentor and he’s also written poetry and musical lyrics.

Check out the following stanza from “The Infant in Arms” (You can check out his other poetry at that site as well.)

“And when the days are dark and cold,
When it either snows or pours,
You’ll shift the scene of your daily toil,
And do your work indoors.
And toy with someone’s “Modern War,”
Or KIPLING’S martial verse,
Or while away the hours of rest
At Kriegspiel with your nurse.”

Now, without thinking too hard about it–what sticks out to you? For me, it was Kriegspiel. Why? Because it’s German and we already know about Wodehouse’s experience during WWII. Plus, Kriegspiel is a war game, like Risk or Chess. And if we look at the title, we see that Wodehouse is talking about an “Infant in Arms”–so now we have children who haven’t left the nursery (the word “nurse” gives that away, right?) who are playing German war games. Connect the dots. Now it’s a political commentary, yes?  

So that’s one way of getting into a poem: check out the key/odd words and see what they’re placed near. Compare the title to what’s presented in the text.

The other bit, if you take a peek, is there’s a rhyme scheme. Pours and Indoors. Verse and Nurse. (For those technical scanners, here ya go: ABCBDEFE.) This creates a sing-songy element–which is interesting because we’re talking about small children and sing-song is the whole purpose of nursery rhymes. But it’s just an echo, helping reinforce how the subjects (war and children) don’t fit together.

Rhyme shows up in musical lyrics too, no doubt about that. But generally (nowadays) it’s not in such a recognizable pattern as ABABCDCDEFEFGG–and ten points if you name the type of poem that rhyme scheme belongs to!

I’m not going to go into meter. (Mostly because I’m listening to music and listening to a different beat is not conducive to looking at meter….) Plus I’ve gone on at quite a length already!

So, let’s look at some lyrics by Wodehouse, from the show Show Boat, here’s “Bill”:

He can’t play golf or tennis or polo,
Or sing a solo, or row.
He isn’t half as handsome
As dozens of men that I know.
He isn’t tall or straight or slim
And he dresses far worse than Ted or Jim.
And I can’t explain why he should be
Just the one, one man in the world for me.
He’s just my Bill an ordinary man,
He hasn’t got a thing that I can brag about.

Okay, so there’s some rhyming. But, if you look at word juxtaposition, there’s nothing surprising or switch-it-up. It reads fairly plain on the page. The woman’s talking about Bill, and you can hear the sweetness when she talks about him. But if you’re looking for emotional impact–well, it’s kind of boring. That’s because lyrics depend almost entirely on the performer and the music to deliver.

Take those same words, and listen to Ava Gardner deliver the goods:

Works a little differently, doesn’t it?