Saturday, April 29, 2006

Just Visiting

Believe it or not, I went to graduate school in Miami—to study poetry. Miami might seem like the worst place for a brooding poet, but applications were due in February and I mailed all of mine from the apparent tundra of Pittsburgh. Yet even when the Surinam cherries were ripe and the rains had quelled, I found a way.

After I finished my MFA, I stuck around Miami for about two months, searching for some sort of work. Every day that summer, I walked the mile and a half down 77th along the Palmetto Expressway to North Kendall, bought a paper, and sat down outside at the Starbucks with a single cup of coffee. Most days, I nursed that coffee through the morning, and then walked under the Palmetto Expressway to find a bite to eat in the food court at the Daedland mall. Slowly, my money was running out, and my job search was going nowhere.

Then, my step-mother had a dream. She dreamed that her and my father drove all the way from Fort Worth to Miami and brought me back to a home I’d never seen. And they followed her dream through a string of Days Inns to load all of my belongings into the bed of their Ford F-150. That’s how I ended up in living in a three bedroom mobile home with sheetrock walls and working the night shift at a convenience store in Forest Hill. I made $7 an hour.

While I was there, I sometimes felt like a bit of an interloper. I was a tourist, just passing through. My background, after all, was nothing like any of the other clerks. One man had worked as a barber, but had failed to adapt when the industry developed chains where you rented your chair. One woman, a single mother who was actually much younger than me, still saw the baby’s father—even though he’d bitten her during a fight, leaving her left forearm scarred. One woman, who was raising her infant child with a girlfriend, was caught lifting money from the till.

While I worked there, I was "robbed" twice. No one ever held a gun on me or took any money from the register. Instead, both times, they stole cigarettes.

While I worked there, a group of three Mexicans would come in regularly to buy beer in 40-ounce bottles, often arriving at the very moment when it became legal to sell alcohol. They, slowly, were teaching me Spanish. By the time I left, I could count out their change.

While I worked there, I often fended off the advances of one particular girl. She was 18, and had somehow gotten a job as a waitress at a local strip club. In Texas, though, it’s illegal to serve alcohol if you’re not 21, so by the time I left, she was a "dancer." It was either that, or her father would lose their house.

While I worked there, I once saw a woman, seemingly high, stumble out of an old green pickup truck and into the store just to buy condoms. A slightly older woman in a pink dress and hat, smiled at her, and asked if she thought the Lord wanted her to treat herself that way. The younger woman, on the verge of tears, got back in line and returned the condoms.

I long to write poems for those people, but I seldom can. I don’t want to write about them—as I have here—by taking moments from their lives and transforming them into details of tragedy. Instead, I want to write poems that, like a hymnal on Sunday, can make the following Monday slightly easier. I want to believe that a poem can remind you to look at a child, or your own life, and remind you why you lace up steel-toed boots in the morning or put on a uniform you hate in the morning. I want to know that a poem can nudge you toward your dreams—even if that means driving half-way across the country to pick up your son.

Friday, April 28, 2006

The Spanish Prisoner

The sun is bearing down on the springtime flora, but a chill hangs in the air today. I’ve spent the morning surfing for the web for hints, tips, clues, inklings, intimations, and leads to help with the paying portion of my writing career. Unfortunately, sometimes I’m convinced that if a map to my life exists, I’m probably holding it upside down. I posted my resume on one more job site yesterday, and true to form, I’ve been showered by responses—from Nigeria. Since we moved, I think I’ve received six offers to help free the cash that’s trapped by the prison of Nigerian bureaucracy. Just picture it: in an Internet cafe in Lagos, some young man or woman is pouring over resumes, selecting potential victims, and what better mark than a professional who wants a job?

It may sound perverse, but I do admire their creativity and tenacity. Although, by in large, the emails look like form letters, I have, through those Internet cafes, discovered that a long-lost relative died in an African plane crash, that Chinese distribution of goods into the United States is best facilitated through Western Union, that a small English textile firm needs to find its bookkeepers in the greater Cincinnati area, and that I could make up to $4000 if I had "quite a handful of trust and honesty." The backstories for some of these cons could fit nicely into an Alexander Dumas novel.

Of course, you’d think that if there were one field of enterprise where you could expect not to be duped, it would be poetry. But be wary of where you send your poems. A number of so-called publishers offer huge cash prizes for a single poem, and some of these legitimately dole out that $10,000 prize. But before you enter such a contest, understand that these publishers will often accept a multitude of honorable mentions and finalists for publication in an annual anthology. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, to ever see your name in print, you have to buy the anthology, and it ain’t cheap. Businesses like this, while not legally fraudulent, are, in my opinion, simply cons. Although they do not prey on one’s greed, as the Spanish prisoner game would, they do encourage false expectations. Indeed, such enterprises prey on a writer’s vanity. For me, that vanity vacillates turbulently between extremes of self-aggrandizement and self-doubt, and seems, consequently, to be a perfect target for such schemes.

More, endless publishers might fawn over your poems, producing perfect-bound volumes that you can slide onto your shelves right next to Shelley and Keats—assuming you’ve written a large enough check. If you can avoid the path at all, try not to use such a vanity press. Such publishers rarely place books in brick-and-mortar stores. Plus, the entirety of any marketing budget will have to pour from your pockets.

Sure such a miasma is disconcerting, but it’s also apropos, because, to me, poetry itself functions a bit like a confidence game. Most of the time, a poem, like a pigeon drop, begins as a chance encounter between two strangers. For the poem to work, a certain level of trust must be established. Through visual cues on the page (line breaks, stanzas, white space), a poet can instantly signal that a particular work is a poem. The title, I suppose, then demarcates the nature of the relationship, or at least aims us both in the general direction. With the opening lines, a poet must be genuine within the artifice of the poem, just as a con man must be believable in the game. This is why voice is crucial to poetry. If your voice is affected or overly imitative, why should the reader trust you enough to go further into a poem? However, if your voice is genuine, the reader, like a mark, will be more likely to accept the stipulations of the scam...uh…poem. But, after the poem has been read, this comparison breaks down. A scam functions to fleece you, whereas a good poem offers itself to you. It asks, nothing more than that you contemplate it, that you remember it.

Now then, where is that Spanish prisoner?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

How Not to Change the World

When I was in college, I actually wrote a 50-page "epic" poem that would become the centerpiece of my senior thesis. At least, I think it was 50 pages. Even now, almost 11 years later, I’m impressed by such fevered ambition in a 20-year-old, and I’m vaguely stunned by the dogmatic certitude with which I approached the composition of that poem. You see, even though the protagonist of that poem was, of course, me, I couldn’t begin to doubt that it wasn’t literature with a great, big, fat, and juicy “L.”

Somewhere, I’ve heard or read that a young novelist will often receive a free pass on his first book. Editors, critics, audiences, family, and friends all expect a semi-autobiographical coming of age story. I’ll not claim that this is true, but for me "Genetics” was that type of tale.

I wrote the first draft of the poem during October of my senior year. On the day before Halloween, I was crouched over a white, Formica table at what was then my favorite cafe. Between scrawling black ink into my black spiral notebook and swilling sips of lukewarm coffee, I would stand up abruptly and pace around the narrow walkway between the scattering of tables against each wall.

At some point after dusk had settled well into night, a friend of a friend walked through the glass door and waved. I don’t think she ordered a coffee, but she sat down across from me—just as I needed a respite from those ineffable alleles that haunted me and my poem. I don’t remember much of the conversation, but I have little doubt that I rambled on about my mutant of a poem. It was, at the time, crucial to me for myriad reasons other than the simple wish to write something touching, beautiful. It was, I suppose, a railing against predestination, in whatever form it might take, so the randomness that followed must have seemed the perfect panacea.

Somehow, we ended up across the street at my favorite bar, pressing against the limits of our tolerance. Then, we ended up at her place, pouring more whiskey down our throats as one of her roommates chatted online with a long-distance boyfriend, ignoring us almost completely.

The next morning, I singed a tuft of hair as I bent to light a cigarette on the front burner of her gas stove. I stood in her kitchen, taking the first deep draw into my lungs, and studied the way the morning’s sunshine pierced through the shadows of the oak trees that towered, even above the roof of her apartment. From that moment, I later carved thirty-three syllables into a tanka and that was the first poem I would publish.

A few days later, she found me sitting in the same coffee shop, plowing through the same enormous poem. She took a folded sheet of paper from the pocket of her jacket and handed it to me. It was a poem. I hate to admit this, but I have no idea whether or not it was good. I didn’t take the time to find out. Instead, I read the poem as though I were sitting atop that gargantuan "L" in the word "literature," dangling my pasty-white legs. I pointed out the lines that, ever so slightly, seemed vibrant to me, and I took a pen to the lines that, in my overrated opinion of myself, seemed awkward or contrite. This wasn’t a workshop. She hadn’t asked for a critique. And the poem, I suppose, was about the night we spent together—just like the tanka I started over the next few days.

A couple of months later, my mother rode the bus up from Texas for a visit. It was a difficult visit, as my mother isn’t really well. In the midst of what seemed the inevitable shouting and eye-rolling that accompanied her visits, I showed her a draft of my 50-page poem. And at this moment, I wonder if I’ve ever done anything crueler than that. You see, the other main character of that poem is her. And, bless her shattered heart, but when she read those pages, what could she do but weep to see her son saying, in print, the very words she’d fought against for the entirety of her adult life? But at the time, I think, this perspective was entirely foreign to me. The poem was mine, and its potential importance was worth whatever damage it might cause. Bullshit.

During the final semester of my senior year, "Genetics" was finally near completion. I performed it, more or less, at a poetry reading for the Amnesty International group on campus. At least one person in the audience commented that there were moments where it seemed as if I’d actually "lost it." But, in a way, I’d lost it long before then—and it had nothing to do with my parents or my genetic code. Instead, I’d lost track of why I fell in love with words. I’d used them, manipulated them, and maneuvered them with the brute force of a politician.

Now, I honestly believe that self-censorship is almost as important as self-expression to a poet. Poetry, after all, is about communication and unabashed cruelty has a knack for severing those lines. Of course, I don’t want to suggest that any subject whatsoever is taboo. I believe that, in a perhaps apocryphal story, Ted Hughes was right when he interrupted Sylvia Plath in the midst of a marital row and told her, that’s what’s missing from your poetry! If you feel compelled to write about your parents, then write about them. Just remember, that if they read the poem, and they are hurt, you’ve earned the pain that follows. As for me, well, since then, I’ve learned that my perspective is but one among many. "Genetics" might some day be shredded into several smaller poems, but none of them will hurt anyone in the same bludgeoning way. I’ve learned that some things are left unsaid for a reason. I’ve learned that poetry isn’t simply the domain of those who studied it, and that I should pay more attention to those who haven’t. I’ve learned more and more to follow Emily’s advice to “tell the truth, but tell it slant.”


Today, I was caretaker for the puppies. I had to take Dixie to the vet for the last of her puppy shots, so I slept on the sofa until the last possible moment, and then escorted her and Archie into their respective travel carriers. Archie, the more high-strung of the two, actually loves going to the vet, so he comes along for the tail-wagging ride.

When we returned home, both of the dogs were restless, so I took them outside to cavort in the still-long grass of the backyard. During an intermission in the violence, which seemed to veer now and again toward actual aggression as Dixie protected her still-sore right haunch, I found our phone and dialed my father’s new number. It had been too long since I’d placed a call to Texas.

My step-mother picked up the phone, and after the typical greetings, she told me that their dog—a 2-year-old toy poodle—had died. He had a heart attack. The vet, apparently, could not tell them why or explain what had happened. He was, I believe, the third poodle they’d lost within the last 5 years. Even though they are both retired and live on a fixed income, they’ll find another puppy soon. They’ve already found a breeder, but with rising gas prices, their mortgage, and numerous trips to physicians, I find it difficult to imagine how they will manage. But they will.

I’d like to offer a little help—perhaps for Mother’s day. After all, I suspect that they still need someone to occupy that space once reserved for me: they both need to be caretakers. Sadly, I don’t think my wife and I can afford to offer any assistance at the moment.


At the risk of being caught in a rhetorical fallacy, every one who has ever written a poem has written about a treasured pet. I know I have. In fact, this trend is so widespread that many instructors of creative writing classes will forbid students from turning in a poem on the loss of a pet. In such an approach, the death of our dear "Spot" or "Fluffy," is relegated to a blacklist of topics including cancer, abortion, and how much you hate your poetry instructor.

Such a poem can easily slide into maudlin melodrama. In fact, to write such a poem takes an understanding of the techniques of poetry and the history of poetry that most beginners simply don’t posses. So imagine yourself as an instructor. Imagine that you never provided such an injunction. Now try counting the number of cliches you would be forced to read if every student you taught over the course of a 5-year period insisted on writing about that long lost pet.


I think I’ve lost the poem about my first pet—a parakeet. Unfortunately, I’m certain that two copies are extant somewhere in the world. I wrote the poem as part of my thesis during graduate school and seem to recall that it was about more than that pet. It was also about my father—a subject of countless poems. Yet, in the poem, despite very real evidence to the contrary, the father had passed away, and, if I remember correctly, the image of the parakeet—its feet balled in tiny fists—led to an image of the father breaking the earth with a rusted spade. That image, I think, led to a reflection on the father’s eventual death. So, when I wrote it, I assumed that the poem was deeper than a simple lament on the passing of a parakeet. I have no idea if it was.

Now, if you have the time or the inkling, try writing that poem about your long lost pet. Focus on the details that somehow make that pet unique from the millions and millions of pets that populate the country. Narrate the most bizarre anecdote that sets your pet apart from the world’s bestiary. Think about why you would want to write about your pet, and most importantly, why a reader would care enough to not turn on the TV or start surfing the Internet.

Maybe the exercise will be cathartic. Maybe a sound in a single line will trigger a torrent of memories. Maybe, you’ll read the poem, and think, what have I done?


After I spoke with my father for a while, it started to rain. I hurried the puppies inside, and fixed myself a sandwich. Against all reason, both Archie and Dixie did not clamber up onto the sofa and flop into sleep. Instead they peered at me as I pulled the deli meat and cheese from the fridge, and sat politely on the edge of a rug in the dining room. I gave in and offered a piece of soprasetta to both dogs before finishing the complex construction of two nice Italian sandwiches on white bread.

When I’d finished making my lunch, Archie was out of sight. I called for him, but he didn’t respond. I searched the office and the spare bedroom, but still I couldn’t find him. I finally spotted him crouched beneath the dining room table coughing. He’d lost the soprasetta I fed him, along with bits of lunch and breakfast. I rubbed my hand along his fur and lifted him onto the sofa, as if this could correct my mistake. Nevertheless, he curled down beside me and slept.

After lunch, Dixie joined us on the sofa, and we curled together sleeping off the day, and though both dogs had rough days, we managed.


Right now, electronic music bleeps around me and Michelle and the dogs sleep upstairs. I’m exhausted and drawn to faulty hypothetical questions. I find myself making the same kinds of equations I once made when I knelt on 12-year old knees, asking for evidence of God. Right now, if I could choose between buying my father and step-mother a puppy and never publishing another poem, I’d choose the former.

Of course, such a choice is a fallacy. We all manage somehow.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A Jar in Tennessee

Over the weekend, Michelle, the dogs, and I drove to the edge of Ohio to visit her family once again. Most of the drive is across the flat fields of corn, wheat, and barley on interstates that pulse with a steady stream of semis and commuters, but just east of Cambridge, we exit onto state route 22—a two-lane road that rolls and pitches through Salt Fork State park then up into bright green hills spotted with cattle and sheep. Most days, the drive is a pleasant tour of the countryside that is spotted with signs marking the passing of Amish buggies and wild deer. You never even pause to notice that most of this highway is missing a shoulder, or that the grass beyond the sharp turns clings to a frighteningly steep hillside. However, on Friday we reached 22 near midnight in the midst of a spring storm.

A few minutes after we merged onto 22, a car, traveling back toward Columbus, flashed its high beams. At first, Michelle and I had no idea why. We wondered aloud, over the sleeping puppies in the backseat, if a cop was up ahead. I even joked that it might be funny, once in a while, to flash your headlights at oncoming traffic to warn them of nothing in particular. But nothing seemed wrong. We didn’t see any police or any accidents. Then, on the edge of a tiny township that I haven’t been able to locate on any map, two people stood in the middle of the highway, waving flashlights.

I slowed, almost to a stop, and rolled down my window. A crew-cut man in a green knit shirt shined his flashlight into our car. Archie, our Italian greyhound, stirred from sleep in the backseat. The man leaned in and asked us where we were going.

“Why? What’s wrong?” I asked.

“You’re not getting through on 22. There’s a downed power line about a mile ahead. The whole highway’s closed.”

My wife leaned across my chest and told him where we were headed and that we could just circle back to 77.

Archie, now fully awake, cleared his throat and began a low, rumbling growl. I turned toward him, shushing him, as the man with the crew cut explained to my wife how we could keep from heading all the way back to the interstate. It would be, he said, a brief 5-minute detour.

My wife, thankfully, memorized the directions, so we crept forward about 100 yards to a three-way intersection where two women wearing plastic ponchos waved us to the right and onto Wolf’s Den Road. At first, it looked like any other suburban development, and Archie settled back down to join Dixie asleep on the backseat. Trimmed lawns and shuttered houses lined each side of the street. Maples and oaks bloomed in front yards. As we drove further on, there was less and less light. The trees around us thickened. The road narrowed. I wondered, for a moment, if we’d gone too far. A facade of trees replaced the houses that lined the road. Driveways became less and less frequent. In the distance, frogs filled the air with their croaks as unidentifiable night birds crooned high-pitched hoots, as if to startle us. After we crept on for about 2 miles, the road dipped into a near constant grade, before leveling off onto a gravel road that did not even seem wide enough for my sub-compact sedan. Sycamore trees, their bark splotched with patches of white and gray, mingled with black oaks to arch across the road, blocking even the faintest glow of moonlight. And as we edged forward, the trees grew thicker and thicker, until it seemed as if we’d found ourselves trespassing in the vestibule of some pagan cathedral.

"I’m kind of scared," I said.

"Yeah. It is kind of creepy here," Michelle answered.

"Do you think we've gone too far?"

To ease the peculiar tension and interrupt the mingled song of swamp frogs and owls, my wife and I kept talking.

"Do you think that crew cut guy was a cop?"

"He didn’t have a uniform."

"Yeah, but he talked like one."

"Where do we turn again?"

The road tumbled down another canted hill toward an overgrown creek. I slowed the car and inched across a single-lane, wooden bridge. Civilization seemed a distant memory. I feared that we might end up lost in some Ohio wood.

We’d been on unfamiliar roads in the middle of a forest for what seemed like hours without seeing a single car. Then, we reached Endley Road, which was paved. I made the sharp turn and headed toward 22. Occasionally, we wondered aloud whether or not we’d missed the turn off for the highway and even thought that perhaps the directions had been wrong. Or worse, intentionally flawed.

At last, we made it back to 22, where a line of cars was stalled. We were less than a mile from where we’d made that right turn into the unknown. Both of us laughed. I was exhilarated. Now, safely on a well-traveled highway, we could talk about the fear that had felt nearly palpable.

We laughed and joked about it.

"Was it just me, or did that feel like an episode of the X-Files?" I asked.

"Yeah, but I kept thinking I’d hear banjo music any second." Michelle said.

We both laughed and were on our way—slightly delayed, but safe.

In retrospect, I’m disappointed by the way my wife and I described the event to each other. We traveled briefly into the unknown, into a wild region that is only minutes away from a familiar path. And in that darkness, how could one not feel trepidation? How could you not experience the slightest twinge of anxiety after being instantly removed from a well-lit highway at the suggestion of a strong voice? Yet, our descriptions, while they do encapsulate aspects of how we felt, rely entirely on references to popular culture.

Think instead of the great themes of the Romantic poets. They were not mere nature poets; rather, they recognized that nature can inspire awe, that fear and reverence can commingle, and perhaps, that we should never forget how truly small we all are.

Poetry, to me, is like a trek into a dark wood. You never know what you will see, and when you see something that moves you, let your senses describe it. Don’t take your experiences and filter them through television, film, or pop music. Instead, describe them as they are. Otherwise, you could end up writing little more than the lyrics to the theme song that’s already stuck in all of our heads.

Monday, April 24, 2006


The greatest threat to civilization is civilization itself. I wrote that line in graduate school while attempting to compose a poem linking the actions of a child, of Matisse, and of Ronald Regan. The notion behind the poem was something like: the size of your sandbox influences the nature—and consequences—of your “play.” I never could get that poem to work. I suspect this may be because it’s difficult to imagine a single action with truly global ramifications. Then again, it may be impossible to write poetry about President Regan because he is, in many people’s minds, a caricature of one sort or another. Nevertheless, within the barren landscape of that poem, I discovered that single jewel of a line that sounded to my ears like it should shimmer somewhere in the thin-leaf pages of Bartlett’s.

In fact, the instantaneous familiarity of the line led me to believe that this had been a case of accidental plagiarism. So, I walked over to the local Barnes & Noble and scoured the reference shelf for famous quotations. I read countless quotes on civilization. To this day, my favorite is Gandhi’s response to the question, “What do you think of Western civilization?” Yet, among all of those quotes, I couldn’t find that line.

Next, I tried an Internet search. Google returned thousands of links about civilization and its threats, but no single quote combined the elements that you can see above. Yet, despite the mounting evidence, I could not convince myself that I had, in fact, written a line like that. So, I asked one of the poets who was acting as an advisor on my thesis. Of course, he could not place the line, and helped persuade me that this wasn’t a case of internalizing something I’d once read a tiny bit too much.

But how could you place a line like that in a poem? After all, even if anthropology, cultural theory, and philosophy do inform poetry, they are not the foundation of it. No. The foundation of poetry is, quite simply, the five senses channeled through your imagination. If you’d prefer abstracts like “civilization,” focus on becoming a social critic like Baudrillard. So, what could I do with the line? I couldn’t just cut it and forget about one of the best phrases I had ever written, could I?

Eight years later I certainly could. That poem has lain dormant somewhere in my files for nearly 6 years. So why worry now?

In graduate school, however, my attitudes were slightly different. Instead, I chose to frame the line as an epigram by a distinguished historian. Of course, I had no intention of giving what may be the only moment approaching genius in my entire poetic career to someone like Howard Zinn, so I invented an academic. His name was A.D. Knight. He was, of course, the type of gentleman who felt most comfortable in a crimson jacket and a monocle. We had plans—occasionally very elaborate plans. Unfortunately, I’ve heard very little from Mr. Knight. I’ve begun to miss him.

A few years ago, I uncovered the poem again. I toyed with the last stanza, changing Regan to Carter, then to Cesar, and then back again. That stanza never came together. Maybe someday it will. Maybe someday you’ll see that poem, recognize Mr. Knight’s name, and wish him well on his post-modern quest. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll even pause for a moment and wonder, why does this make me think of FDR?