Friday, June 02, 2006


This morning, the doorbell woke me. The dogs bolted upright from the couch, growling in their precocious ways, as though they could actually frighten a stranger at the door. Outside on the porch, a repairman, protected from the rain by a thin, hooded raincoat, held a replacement engine for the burnt out fan on our air conditioner. As he practiced his trade out by the back door, I wandered into the kitchen with the puppies trailing me, brewed a pot of coffee, opened a tube of crescent rolls, and arranged them onto a small cookie sheet to bake what I assumed would be breakfast. Then, just in case either dog realized that they really could injure a stranger, I corralled Dixie and Archie into the dining room and blocked off all access they had to the outside world.

When the coffee finally finished percolating, I drank my first cup and waited for the repairman to finish the ineffable machinations of his work while the puppies flitted about confused by their confinement. When I checked on the crescent rolls, I saw pasty-white bits of dough scattered about on the cookie sheet. I had forgotten to turn on the oven.

Fifteen minutes later, after the repairman had loaded his equipment back into his truck and headed out onto the slick hilly streets of western Cincinnati, I checked on what might best be described as my brunch. Now, judging from the photograph on the cardboard tube of those crescent rolls, you’d expect to find flaky, golden brown, croissant-like rolls rising in your oven. In fact, I imagined for a moment that they might taste something like the light, buttery croissants I used to order with a latte or two at Boulange de Polk when I lived in San Francisco. Instead, I found several dark brown clumps of triangular flatbread. I ate this ill-conceived breakfast with real butter and a French jam that my wife seems to prefer while sitting in my office and attempting to ignore the pleading eyes of the puppies. At least I got the jam right.

The rain has subsided slightly. There is not a trace of blue in the skies above Cincinnati, and a slight mist still covers the bright green lawns of the tract housing that has been made unique by years of occupancy. I’m sitting in my office, trying to ignore the clatter and whelps of puppies playing with squeaking plastic balls on the carpet near my feat. I’m listening to yet more pop music and letting my mind drift to the melody of a hand-picked guitar.

After a couple of months of boxes scattered everywhere in my office and a couple of months of very close scrutiny of our growing dogs, this room has become a sanctuary for me. Granted there aren’t any padded walls, built-in library shelves, or a constant supply of free lattes, but I am, at the moment, sitting in a place that feels conducive to writing, where, for some reason, I’m not distracted by the constant draw of television or the lure of a curling into the thick comforters on my bed. Instead, I can listen to a song or two, grab a cup of tea, and contemplate the next step in my long and illustrious career. Plus, I think this space is tax deductible.

Of course, this room does have its drawbacks—like being interrupted once in a while by a puppy that managed to eat into a cushion, an errant root, or a little too much people food and having to clean up after the error.

Yet, having a place—whether it’s a cafe, a library, a corner of your bedroom, or an office—where one can go to focus on craft is invaluable.

When I was in college, I did the majority of my writing in coffee shops filled with more smoke than three-alarm fire. I carried this habit with me, settling after moving to Miami and then Dallas for the tables on the patio of a particular corporate chain of coffee shops.

To me, coffee shops are a fantastic vantage point from which a poet can look out into the world. You can—when the mood strikes—join in on a conversation and learn something about a topic you’d never wondered about, like working for a modern-day railroad. Alternatively, you can focus your attention and let the world around you dissolve into a soothing hum of background noise.

When I lived in San Francisco, I found a cafe that I really adored. It was a brief walk from my apartment, served decent coffee and relatively good sandwiches, had a literary-sounding name, and didn’t seem to mind if you leeched a little power for your laptop. While there, I started a novella about a hopeless, obsessive “poet” with peculiar notions about what poetry means. At this point, I don’t plan on even taking a visit to the extant pages of that little project; nevertheless, in my mind, that novella and that coffee shop are inextricably linked.

One day, as I was settling into the morning, wondering what other mishaps my erstwhile poet could stumble into, a woman in a dirty sweat suit—clearly among the city's many homeless—came into the cafe. She asked for a glass of water, but was refused by the proprietor—who had every right to refuse her, business being what it is these days. She didn’t take too kindly to this—after all, who would? She started shouting at him, pumping her fists into the air. He asked her to leave and she did, angrily. But she stood out on the sidewalk, protesting his treatment with a barrage of swear words. The proprietor threatened to call the police. She responded, go ahead. She wasn’t on his property any longer. Then, the businessman went behind the counter, filled the metallic pitcher normally used for steamed milk with water, and dashed out to the corner where the woman was standing. You want some water, he screamed, here’s some water. Then he tossed the entire contents onto the woman and made some comment about her being filthy and needing a bath anyhow.

I just watched in horror. When the fracas was over, I gathered my belongings and left, never to return, even though I’d been to that cafe every day for the past two months.

Sometimes, I still miss that cafe and the environment that it gave me. Mostly, when I think of that cafe, I think of my unfinished novella and the peculiarities of human nature.

Archie is curled in a corner, sleeping. Dixie is in the other room, lounging on the sofa. Quiet music surrounds me. The birds outside are singing for what seems like the first time today. We have air conditioning again. And everywhere, conflicts are waiting to be resolved.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


This afternoon, my sinuses are clogged like the plumbing of a convenience store on the wrong side of town. A mere 18 hours after proclaiming that even illness wouldn’t keep me from writing a few words that will one day be read by someone other than my wife and a handful of trusted friends, I find that the fates in their churlishness have chosen to mock me. Granted, I’m not clutching at the knotting muscles of my stomach or sweating so much that fever-induced visions of Kubla Khan are bound to glitter up my typically banal dreams like a secret stash of costume jewelry in the underwear drawer of an elderly Southern woman who has lived out her life in the exclusive company of cats. But I do feel off-kilter enough to wander what the probability is that this mounting pressure in nose, throat, and forehead could lead to an actual explosion.

Alas, if I worked at Wal-Mart, I’m certain I’d have stood in a thirty-minute shower to loosen the congestion, dressed myself slowly, and driven to work to risk the contagion of my peers. Of course, by my own standard, such a comparison means I have to write.

At the moment, I’m sitting outside brushing tiny insects away from my laptop while vaguely policing the dogs. Dixie, our Jack Russell Terrier, has her mouth agape, as Archie, in a playful mood, growls and lunges in her direction beneath my legs. Earlier, I stepped inside to prepare some coffee and when I returned outside, I found that Dixie had burrowed a sizable hole into the soil beside the back door that has been moistened by the incessant drip of the air conditioner upstairs.

Oddly enough, both dogs are sneezing occasionally, and Archie is still struggling with his allergy-induced cough. Yet, if I could channel their energy today with minimal loss to the laws of thermodynamics, I suspect I could heat and cool my house for the remainder of the year. Apparently, if they worked at Wal-Mart, they’d have gotten ready by now as well.

Even still, I had difficulty getting started this morning. I had trouble waking and the ideas that were forming in my head are best left there. So, as an antidote to the general malaise of a pleasant still-spring morning, I wandered into my office and pulled The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry from my desk and thumbed through the back pages where you can find selections from contemporary poets who are just now reaching the age of 50. Of course, the version I have was published in 1988, so at that point, those few poets were in their 30s—very young and very accomplished.

Imagine, for a moment, being talented and successful enough as a poet to be certain that—through the Darwinian miasma of literary politics, poetasters, and other assorted academics—your reputation had grown enough that you were already on the precipice of canonization before the inevitable midlife crisis fantasies of fast cars or torrid affairs had taken hold. Such poets must have been infinitely peculiar children.

Perhaps, if you’re young enough, you believe that such success is inevitable for you and that your poems, unlike those of your peers, are bound to be widely anthologized and taught within the span of a few years—perhaps months. Perhaps you even imagine yourself to be a singular literary talent, like Arthur Rimbaud, whose approach to poetry could very well revolutionize the composition of verse. Personally, I hope you’re right, and if you are, I look forward to reading your work.

However, if you are wrong, as I was, I hope that the cascade of rejections doesn’t frustrate you. I hope the setbacks of experimenting with your voice and your technique don’t leave you grasping for other ways to fill you idle time. I hope the experiences of life itself do not impede upon your dreams as they will for so many who say, at some point in their youth, I’d like to be a poet.

In fact, I think that perseverance and patience, though easy to overlook, are as important to any kind of success as love of literature and any innate talent you have. Indeed, I know countless people who wrote lovely poems in college and demonstrated enough talent to forge a career in poetry (assuming they wouldn’t mind teaching of course). And although I’ve googled what names I can remember, I have yet to find a single mention of those names in concert with poetry. Perhaps, I just missed one or two names or perhaps I will one day see those names. For the most part, however, I know that many people I studied with in college with have gone on to focus on careers in other fields and the unique contours of their own family lives.

As for me, I’m still nurturing my poetic goals. I’m still reading what poetry I can, always keeping my eyes open for a delicate line by a poet whose work I should explore more. This morning, as I flipped through the stained and dog-eared pages of that well-used Norton, I came across the selection of Paul Muldoon’s poems. Although I’d heard his name, often in the same breath of other Irish poets like Seamus Heaney and Eavan Boland, I’d never paid much attention to Muldoon. To me, rather than highlighting the apparent shortcomings in my reading, my ignorance of Muldoon indicates the sheer volume of good literature that is available to us. Indeed, if you were to start now, focusing solely on the so-called classics, I seriously doubt you’d read them all. And if, through endless nights of reading by candlelight, eschewing all other print materials like newspapers and magazines as well as the time vortex of television, you probably wouldn’t like yourself much. Your relationships with actual human beings would suffer, and you probably wouldn’t have time to do the dishes or even the occasional vacuuming. Yet, even if it is a Promethean task, if you care about literature, you’ll read as much as you can.

Of course, the great thing about that reading is that sometimes you’ll stumble across a poet you’ve neglected and discover a distinctive voice that beckons you to read more and more of the work. The small smattering of poems, of course, is just a beginning, and I’ll be looking for a more recent book or two the next time I make it to an appropriate store. At the moment, though, I’m intrigued by the poem “Brock.”

It’s a lovely little poem with a ballad-like style that reminds me, in some ways, of Ted Hughes, Rudyard Kipling, Randall Jarrell, and perhaps, Phil Larkin. The poem delicately walks a line between the historical and a confessional mode that seamlessly links the personal (through relatives in this case) to the tragedy of World War I. More, in some ways, I think the poem is a more powerful anti-war piece than Randall Jarrell’s famous “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” Indeed, through a hyperbole linking the lives of infantrymen to badgers (also known as “brocks” in Muldoon’s lexicon), Muldoon offers a possible explanation to the “how” implied by Jarrell’s starkly grotesque imagery. Furthermore, the hyperbole suggests a fairy-tale-like tone, slightly reinforced by the seemingly simplistic rhyme scheme (aabb). Here, in the first stanza, you can see how Muldoon establishes that fairy-tale-like tone and the virtuosity of his rhymes:

Small wonder
he’s not been sighted all winter;
this old brock’s
been to
Normandy and back

I’m thoroughly impressed by the slant rhymes at work here. Throughout the poem, the rhymes are delicate and almost imperceptible. In fact, if you read through the poem quickly, I think it might be easy to mistake these lines for free verse.

As the poem continues, we witness all manner of badger-like behavior throughout the trenches and foxholes of early 20th-century France. Yet after we encounter “…badgers keeping badger-slaves” Muldoon allows us, via a first-person speaker, to see the humanity underlying these tales in the briefest vision of a grandfather “carr[ying] bovine TB” and the speaker seeing “[his] father in his Sunday suit….patrolling his now-diminished estate,” so that the war, after diminishing its participants to a badger-like state, lingers on in the consciousness of the living for generations.

What a remarkable poem.

At the moment, a robin is perched on the neighbor’s fence with its beak gaping open, looking askance at our Italian Greyhound. Archie, in response, growls and barks at the beaked menace while wagging his tail. My throat feels constricted by pressure changes and pollen, and I am tired. But, by the same token, today I am thankful for my dogs, for the peculiar children throughout the world who will one day do great works, and for the poetry of Paul Muldoon. Perhaps, someday, somehow, someone will say the same thing of your poems on a cool cloudy day when she’d much rather sleep.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Sick Day

It’s nearly noon and these are the first words of the day. On some days, when I’ve got the slightest headache, a touch of allergies, and the sticky buildup of summer dirt and sweat clinging to my arms like a second skin, it’s difficult to concentrate. Of course, on some days, when I feel good enough to be prancing about the block like a thoroughbred racehorse festooned with roses after the Kentucky Derby, I still have trouble getting started.

Since my schedule still orbits like a cold moon around the planetary path of the puppies, I often have to spend a significant amount of time coddling them before I can settle down in front of the computer. Once there, like everyone else, I spend an ample amount of time clicking through Yahoo and ESPN to keep abreast of the latest news, err, entertainment. Then, I still have to take a few minutes, which can easily morph into hours, surfing the blogs and litmags that I enjoy. If you add a handful of minor business ventures, query letters, and the requisite housekeeping to the list of accomplishments, it is not that hard to imagine a day, once looked forward to, devolving into a muggy nap on the sofa as I wait for the air conditioning repairman to phone. Plus, on some days, like today, I end up feeling like my writing is a little off the mark, as though my superego finally noticed how often I wander over to the sprawling cage where my id stalks the edges of light and dangle bits of food in its direction to convince it to speak. Fearing an escape, perhaps my superego has tossed a heavy tarp over the cage, blocking off all light.

Of course, if Freud’s theories were traded on NASDAQ, they’d be penny stocks in danger of delisting. I realize that the process of cognition and cognitive development is both more complex and simpler than Freud’s trinity-like construct would have us believe. On a CAT scan, of course, finding the superego isn’t any easier than locating the soul. Yet like the soul, I think the descriptions are occasionally useful. How else can you write mixed metaphors that no one else in a workshop will notice?

Now, the dogs are circling between the antiquated fence that cages them and keeps them safe and the newly arrived wrought iron patio furniture where I am sitting. They look both tired and restless, as though they’d like to be able to lie down on the cool concrete beneath the table while digging up dandelion roots or sniffing out the fallen berries that I just discovered in our backyard. Dixie the smarter of the two has foraged a twig of some sort and sprawled on the concrete near the back door to finish eating. And I can relate. Today, I feel both tired and restless. I’m ready to take on the world, right after a nap and a few hours lost to the oblivion of the PlayStation console upstairs.

Yet, right now, I realize that the problems of a writer are actually fantastic problems to have. Perhaps my dilemmas aren’t as interesting as those of Brad Pitt or LeBron James, but by the same token, when I wake up in the morning, I don’t need to shave and shower so that I look presentable in a bright blue Wal-Mart smock.

I think that, as you write poems, such perspective can actually help immensely. If I were commuting each morning to a discount store, fretting over whether or not the 20-cent spike in gasoline prices would force me to cancel a long-promised excursion to King’s Island for the kids that I’d been saving toward for four weeks, would I worry that my prowess for stocking shelves seemed a little off kilter today? If I were a cashier with a cracked nametag that I’d repaired with a layer scotch tape, would I fret over the way this sticky heat has clung to my skin?

It’s pleasant to have the problems of a poet. Sure it’s been romanticized again and again. All those writers are crazy, poverty stricken, rebellious fops who don’t fit in with the rest of the civilized world. And sure, once in a while, the cliche is true, but come on, walk away with an English degree from a respected university and your life will be, in many ways, far easier than it otherwise could be.

Nevertheless, I want to clarify something for myself: writing is work. Although I haven’t, to date, been fantastic at following this advice myself, I honestly believe that if you feel good enough to drag yourself to a day job, you ought to feel good enough to jot down a few lines of poetry or a few paragraphs of prose. After all, if you wouldn’t call in sick to a grocery store, why would you call in to your life’s work?

I’ll tell you a secret now. Intermittently, over the last two years, I’ve been working on a series of poems unlike anything I’ve ever written and, shockingly, unlike most of the poems I’ve seen written. For the time being, the project is low on my list of priorities, but every few weeks an idea will come along that belongs. When I think about the project, I find myriad reasons to find a book of matches and carry the manuscript pages into the backyard as tender for a marshmallow roast. The poems—regardless of quality—seem near impossible to publish. I’ve only found two or three very small markets where a published poem wouldn’t stand out like a boil on the gargantuan face of a movie star in a sappy romantic comedy. More, the poems are difficult. Most of them are suffused with multiple voices, and worse, build upon each other to carry readers into an ethereal, melancholic world that is punctuated by moments of paranoia and resignation. When I think of sending these poems off, it is far too easy to imagine an editor who hasn’t yet had enough copy skimming through a few lines, stopping before the third stanza, and mumbling to herself, “what the hell is this” before tossing my submission back into the slush pile.

Yet, at the same time, I believe—whether through delusion or a kind of faith in my talent—that one day those poems will be important—maybe even as important as the work of Wallace Stevens. I imagine students in college classrooms everywhere thumbing through the book as a student in the back of the room mumbles to himself, “what the hell is this.” I imagine PhD students, eager to start dissertations on early 21st century poetry, confronting my book only to reconsider their choice of topics.

Perhaps, in a way, these useless fantasies sustain me as I toil away making my poems better and better. Yet, I honestly believe that—even if I don’t manage to publish a single poem from that collection—those poems will be more than worth writing. They entertain me immensely and my wife likes them—a lot.

And so what, if on one particular day, the rhythms in my poems sound like a coughing dog? Revision is always around the corner, and I’ll never know how good a day’s work was until long after the day is done—unless, of course, I don’t apply myself and succumb to the doubts that buzz around like summer insects on the last front porch in a neighborhood whose light is still flickering. So, for me at least, as long as I can make it to my computer, there won’t be any sick days for the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Pip's Fortune

My wife has taken the day off, and after a flurry of post-guest cleaning, she's now watching a horror movie and relaxing with the puppies, who had seemed to have exhausted themselves galloping around the backyard. Yet, after a respite of carrots, water, and lounging on an area rug inside, both dogs have uncorked reserves of energy that I no longer seem to posses.

Outside, the muggy heat and scorching sunlight has chased the residential wildlife under canopies of shade—even though it's not yet June. As for myself, I’ve spent much of the morning wandering between the backyard and the basement, searching for warranty documentation, and trying, without luck, to phone someone to service our smoking air conditioner.

At the moment, my brain feels almost as crispy as the wiring in our air conditioner. My thoughts, sadly, are not even muddled. They are simply non-existent. There is nothing here other than the ache of sleeplessness in my eyes, the chorus of the background music, and the chatter of the ceiling fan overhead.

Yesterday, as I thought about the upcoming day, I certainly didn't expect to be reminded that—even in summer—exhaustion, ennui, frustration, and dashes of melancholy can fill a house as quickly as ants can cover a discarded bratwurst. I don’t know, honestly, what I expected from today, but this isn't it.

Of course unmet expectations aren't all that unusual—are they?

After graduate school, when I had finally found my own studio apartment in north Dallas, which was literally on the other side of the tracks, I spent a few weeks gathering poems onto the hard drive of an antiquated 286 that was nowhere near "Y2K compliant." I printed about twelve, wrote four very dignified, if stilted, cover letters, folded the poems into thirds, and sent them off to readers and editors of some of the best literary magazines in the country.

Unfortunately, poems—even though thousands upon thousands of your readers are poets—are seldom, if ever, read solely for their craftsmanship, and I do, honestly, believe that those poems are well crafted. The language is interesting, tight, and complex. It's clear, I think, that a reasonable intellect is struggling with and against difficult questions of "human experience." More, I think the poems display a smidge of technical virtuosity. And at that time, I thought they were perfect. I expected the readers and editors to notice the quality of those lines immediately and to open up the pages of their respected journals for my crystalline beads of wisdom. I was certain.

Yet, 2-3 months later, the rejection slips—all unsigned—came trickling into my mailbox. I waited, still, holding out hope that one or two would be accepted and suspecting that such a publication would change my life through the ineffable force of actually having my poetry read by, well, hundreds of people. When that last self-addressed stamped envelope finally arrived, I tore the envelope to shreds, like a cat tearing into the side of a sofa, and yanked out the small brightly colored slip of cardboard paper that was printed with black ink and the larger white sheet of paper that seemed somehow more promising. The colored note was, of course, a form rejection slip, and the white sheet was, of course, a subscription form to the esteemed quarterly journal. I’ve always found the inclusion of these extra scraps of waste paper deeply fascinating. How often, honestly, does this sales technique generate a single subscription? Couldn’t those journals wait a month or so, until the sting subsided a little bit, to pitch the poems and stories that are, according to the editors, superior to your work?

Anyhow, when I saw that rejection note, I was furious—for the poem. Perhaps that reaction was merely a set of mental aikido moves designed to protect myself from the vested interest I have in poems I’ve written, but I’m not certain. I was, nevertheless, offended that the poem hadn't found itself a home. I questioned the quality of the journal, the knowledge of the editors, and the care that the readers had taken in perusing my manuscript, and I held a grudge, on behalf of a single poem, for years.

Now, I've forgotten which journal irked me so, and I've reread the poem with far, far more time cushioning any attachment my ego had to the poem. I think, now, that the poem was well crafted, but I see little reason why it would stand out from the mass of competent verse that must funnel into whatever literary journal that was. In addition, I now realize that literary quality—as much as it should be—is not the sole and only criterion for the selection of a poem in any literary journal. Editors read far too much work, leaving little room for the kind of quiet contemplation that a good poem actually deserves. Furthermore, editors are looking to create a journal that can be sold, so a poem that's different enough from the overriding aesthetic of a particular issue might not be included. Finally, as difficult as it may be to believe, editors are actually people too. They have bad days when the neighbor's dog spent the night barking at a rabbit just beyond the fence line. They have days when home life feels a bit like the jaw-of-life ripping through the roof of their sedan. They have moments where concentration lapses and they wonder what the next episode of Lost will be like.

In short, inheriting Miss Havisham’s wealth—even if, like Pip, you deserve it—is not always as easy or likely as it may appear. But, there's always a metaphorical fortune out there for you somewhere—if you're willing to hunt for it. Read widely, becoming familiar with as many journals as you can. If you can afford to, subscribe to a few journals that always seem to publish work you admire. And most importantly, work on your poems until you can't make the little beasts any better, and do anything you can to make yourself feel better about the long, tedious process, even if it means waiting by a rotting cake in your wedding dress. That’s what I’m doing.

The Truth Is Out There

Memorial Day has just—officially—ended. The in-laws are back at home, having arrived safely in spite of the summer-like heat, winding two-lane roads, and holiday traffic. The dogs—covered in the milky perfume of their puppy shampoo—are nestled into the tiny dens that they’ve made from the folds of our crimson comforter. Michelle is sitting beside them, flipping through a decorating magazine, while the foreboding music of an old X-files episode fills the living room. As for me, I’m in my office, sipping a customary cup of tea while trying to chase images of Craftsman-style furniture from the portion of my mind that’s typically reserved for fantasies like winning the lottery and publishing a novel that Oprah selects for her book club.

In retrospect, this holiday weekend was a pleasant one. Although I felt, at times, as though our seemingly spacious house had shrunk to size of a child’s tree house, I’m glad the in-laws came down. I heard some marvelous stories, helped improve the aesthetics of our front and back yards with the addition (thanks to my mother-in-law) of patio furniture and a number of bright red impatiens, geraniums, and dahlias (thanks to my wife). And now, slowly, the house is becoming a home, and my thought processes are decomposing into cliches.

Or are they? Even if Merriam-Webster offers a solid definition of "cliche" I seriously doubt that definition could help you recognize one of those unsightly blemishes and scrub it out of your writing. Indeed, I think that cliches are bit like Justice Potter Stewart’s famous quip about pornography: ". . . I know it when I see it."

Of course, such an eyeball test doesn’t really pass the mustard. It isn't always as easy as pie to recognize a cliche in your own work. Sometimes, of course, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Other times, a second, third, or fourth read of your own work might be needed before you can look at the dastardly little phrase, sigh, and say, "If it'd been a snake, it would've bit me." And sometimes, when push comes to shove, you might need another reader to look over your work and tell you to give it a rest.

In fact, I remember one such class in college. In the Advanced Poetry Workshop, a young woman brought in a poem suffused with the comforting imagery angels—not the terrifying and melancholic sort of angel you find in Rilke. As the class critiqued the poem, the discussion’s tone became a bit more savage than was probably appropriate. Student after student pointed at a line and offered it up as a cliche. This continued for a few minutes, until in the apparent interest in saving time, our professor asked me to list the cliches I found in the poem, and I did. In retrospect, I regret my role in that critiquing session, and I’m amazed that the student in question managed to quell the tears, which—had the poem been my own—certainly would have been welling up in my eyes.

Yet, even now, I’m not sure how such a poem should have been approached. After all, the class was the advanced workshop at our school, so she should have had some experience writing her own verse and taking criticisms of that verse. Plus, I’m not sure what else I could have said about that poem. I like the articles? The typeface is very nice?

I think, honestly, that aside from revealing how cruel I was capable of being, that story demonstrates the emphasis that most readers of poetry (and serious fiction) place on Ezra Pound’s old decree to "make it new." Of course, as a poet, you simply cannot craft a poem that is completely and utterly original. We are, alas, bound by our language, our culture, our time, and the expectations of our present and future readers. A completely original poem would, to my mind, be utter doggerel. Consequently, poetry is a sort of balancing act. You have to create lines that observe Pound’s credo without tumbling off the deep end and inserting an ideogram or two in lieu of language your readers will understand and connect to.

More, writing poetry requires that you know—as much as possible—what has been written. By reading, and reading widely, you’ll develop your own cliche-o-meter, and it will serve you well.

The air conditioner has just gone wacky, and I walked out into the muggy morning to check the damage. The fan has stopped working. Ironically, I suspect it overheated. Tomorrow, I’ll get out my tools, poke around, and in all likelihood, phone someone else to diagnose and make the repairs. Oddly enough, my wife is still awake. She is still embroiled in an episode of the X-Files. And as I think of climbing the steps with her to call it a night, I’m convinced that I could write many, many shiver-inducing stories about alien conspiracies. Of course, I think that might be a tad bit cliche now.

Sunday, May 28, 2006


When I was 14, I helped my best friend and his brother build a miniature half-pipe ramp for the exclusive use of skateboarders around his neighborhood between the driveway and sidewalk in his front yard. Unfortunately, we neglected to add coping—the inch-wide metal pipes that serve both to protect the ramp and as a medium in the technical artistry of a competent skater—to the lip of the ramp where the platform met the transition. One summer day, my father drove me over to my best friend’s house and I clambered up onto the ramp to relax in a splotch of shade atop the azure-painted plywood that constituted the mini half-pipe. My friend was inside, at the moment, likely talking to some girl or other before realizing that I’d arrived for the weekend.

When my friend finally emerged from the front door, he bounded down the front steps of the stoop and ran over to me. Then, as greetings flew through the air, he grasped each of my ankles in his hands and yanked, expecting for me to slide down the transition of the ramp, giggling, before standing up to thump him with the semblance of a punch on the bicep. That, alas, is not what happened.

I did, of course, slide down the ramp. Since no coping had been added, the plywood that had been chipped and shredded by a few months of our skating was rough and exposed at the lip where two pieces of plywood met. As I slid down, my brand new, white, Jimmy-Z shorts ripped. My ass, suddenly, stung. I reached around my back to feel what had happened to the fleshiest part of my butt and felt the wet warmth of blood. After punching my friend in the arm hard enough for him to stumble backwards with a look suggesting both wonder and confusion, I dashed into the house, slammed the bathroom door, and craned my head and neck as far backwards as possible in an attempt to see the damage done. I couldn’t see anything, so I told my friend that I thought I had a splinter in my ass, and of course, he told his mother.

The next few minutes were an ordeal. I stood in the bathroom, gritting my teeth, as my friend’s mom tried to extricate the bits of wood with a pair of tweezers. Unfortunately, the splinter was too big and she ended up simply pulling tiny shards of wood out one by one. Next, I endured the pliers. Sadly, the force of the pliers seemed only to tear at the inch-and-a half long chunk of wood that was embedded in my left cheek, so by the time my father arrived and gave the pliers one last try, I was pleading to head to the hospital.

After his attempts failed, my father agreed, and I sprawled out in the back seat, refusing to sit on the damaged area. Luckily, the clinic where our family doctor worked was still open, so we simply drove there.

My father checked me in with the receptionist then grabbed a seat and started thumbing through a magazine. For my part, I just wondered around the hallway, examining the water fountain, the other patients, and the desk where the receptionist jotted down complex notations. Eventually, my pacing to and fro disturbed one of the receptionists and she asked me to have a seat.

I replied, simply, that I’d rather not, and my father explained the gruesome details to her.

After a bit of fairly minor surgery, the splinter was—at long last—removed from the fleshiest region of my buttocks.

I have no idea why, but this story reminds me of Bukowski. Perhaps it’s the grittiness, the limited violence, or the seemingly incalculable odds of having such bad luck (a few years later, I managed to lodge a splinter under my fingernail while walking back to work from a donut shop). Nevertheless, this story brings the drunken, independent, misogynistic, and supremely talented poet to my mind.

Yet, when I was in college, as much as I hate to admit it, I didn’t really know who Bukowksi was. To this day, I still haven’t read enough of his work to comment intelligently on the bulk of it. Back then, however, I never would have admitted to such ignorance.

In fact, one night, while I was experiencing a state of deep inebriation, a friend convinced me to head to the local coffee shop/movie theater where Barfly was playing. I agreed and watched the film, agitated by the senseless violence and poverty on screen, and on the way back toward campus, as we talked about the movie, I hesitated and concluded that I never really liked the Beats anyhow.

Now, as I sit here and birdsong filters in through a cracked-open window in my office, it seems to me that Bukowski—despite the variety of criticisms leveraged against him—was sometimes a damn fine poet. His work now reminds me that writers (like everyone else in the world) often don’t know what to do. We all have our intricate plans, like skateboarding away a summer afternoon, and often enough, find that reality makes such plans laughable. I think, honestly, that if we were to judge poets solely on the basis of the mistakes that they’ve made—both in print and in their lives—we’d be depriving ourselves of such tiny gems as Bukowski’s “A Killer Get’s Ready.”

Maybe with the way academic life is going, the “morality” of a poet will have some bearing on whether or not that writer should be read by students. Certainly, I think you can cite examples where that trend is beginning. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to realize, if you’d like to write poems, that even an utter dick can write lovely poems and even a father who cares deeply for his child can make an errant decision.