Saturday, June 10, 2006

A Present

The new Atlantic just arrived today. It is a welcome balm to the morning’s irritation. I spent the whole of my morning trying to sort out a scheduling mix up with a copyediting client. Great fun. Such moments have, occasionally, made me contemplate the idea of taking a part-time job at a gas station. I could do a simple job, do it well, and watch the Midwest and its vehicles roll past. I could observe the world from a vantage point that few people—at least few people with the leisure time to read literature—ever have the opportunity to witness.

Of course, I seriously doubt I’d ever take a job like that. I did it once—out of necessity—when I foolishly failed to find a job after graduate school. Back then, I think I made about 7 dollars/hour. Every once in a while, I’d managed a 60-hour workweek that netted me about as much as I’m expecting for a lazy week spent mostly working on a top-secret novel. You see, there are benefits to getting older and being middle class.

In fact, I sometimes wonder if my parents can even fathom what life is like for me now. My father—true to his protestant upbringing—worked diligently for his entire life. He served in the Air Force, worked as book binder, and then worked 20-odd years as a die cutter. His work was tedious, brutal, stifling, and dangerous, yet never earned as much in a month as I can make in a week (if I actually worked for a week). Nevertheless, he always kept me well-fed, always kept a roof over our heads, always made sure we had transportation, always made sure I had my own spending money, and somehow managed to take me to a few baseball games when I was a child. And for some reason—perhaps because of how very precocious I was as a child—I always assumed that I would go to college.

Now, because of what he did then, it’s possible for me to sit here on the patio and think, “I’d like to be a millionaire some day,” without chuckling to myself at the idea—even though I’m taking time off to pursue literary ambitions. Either that top-secret novel will actually turn into a publishing contract and (let’s not kid ourselves) a portion of a nice middle-class income that Michelle and I can invest or I’ll simply work harder at freelancing until I have enough clients to provide a steady income. My father, on the other hand, will only reach that financial plateau if my step-mother hits the lotto. Frankly, I hope she wins someday, even if I don’t see one penny of the windfall. After all, I don’t personally know anyone who deserves such luck more than them.

I think if I mentioned all of this to anyone who went to college or graduate school with me, they’d immediately form a perception of my father. They might assume that he wasn’t well-educated or that he didn’t have the talent to work his way, from the bottom-up, into middle-management and beyond. They would be dead wrong. In fact, I suspect, often enough, he was the smartest person at the places he worked. Yet, he never got a promotion to an office job. He always wore a blue shirt with his name stitched above the left breast pocket.

My father, who simply never had the opportunity to attend college, is, I think, among the smartest people I know. He was smart enough to volunteer for the Air Force at a time when being drafted into the Army might have significantly shortened his life expectancy. More, he’s among the very few people whose advice I always trust—not only because it comes from a place of genuine concern but also because it is consistently sound. Plus, he reads more than anyone I have ever known—with the possible exception of my wife.

I remember, as a child, that at bedtime, when I went to say goodnight, I would always find him sipping on a tall glass of milk and reading a novel. Now, I suspect he still reads a few chapters before bed each night, and I suspect that he will continue to do so until he no longer has the strength to focus his eyes.

Nowadays, with so many other distractions, I wonder how many readers like him will be lost. Will the Internet, satellite television, and personal gaming systems lead to the demise of such average readers? Will there be a day when the audience for fiction—like that of poetry—consists largely of students, other practitioners of the craft, and those who either love us or pretend to do so?

Personally, I doubt it.

You see, when I applied to graduate school, one professor gave me a recommendation so glowing that, if you were to read it now, you’d suspect I paid him. When I showed the letter to my father over Christmas break, he took the letter to work and made a photocopy of it to keep. That day, I think he showed everyone. He showed the secretary. He showed his boss. He showed the people on the floor who stood up all day facing cubicle-sized pneumatic machines with razor-sharp blades a letter written by a poet about a young poet he admired. And my father was proud.

To me, that story demonstrates how much respect remains for literature today. It reminds me that people are still impressed by the word writer—and even by the word poet. The challenge is to write poetry that isn’t laconic, ironic, or simply moronic. The challenge is to write poetry that an intelligent person—like my father—who has no use for ontology, who has no use for the thinking of Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, Sartre, or Lancan would appreciate. Some times, I think that contemporary poetry has failed miserably in this respect.

Then again, when I opened this month’s Atlantic, I went straight to the poem. The poem “Arabic” by Alexander Nesmer—who was an undergraduate at Yale when he entered The Atlantic’s Student Poetry Contest—succeeds. I think my father would like it.

For me, I still intend to write poems that my father would find difficult—though I know he’d try. But, to be successful, I think I need to write more than just a handful of poems that my father would photocopy to keep in the living room, showing them off if company arrived, his face beaming with pride, and with the knowledge, I hope, that every lovely word would not be possible if I had not inherited or absorbed his love of books.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Axiomatic Run Down

I woke up this morning at 9 to the sound of whimpering. Archie the Incredible Italian Greyhound needed an escort outside. At the moment, he and Dixie the Dastardly Jack Russell are locked in mortal combat. They dart about the yard circling the widow's tears, diving through the hosta, and crashing through the daffodils. Their mouths hang open, ready to snap, as they lunge in the direction of one or another with a come-get-me growl or a bring-it bark.

Slowly, they tire. The air fills with the chattering tweaks of birdsong and the slow measured clacking of my keyboard. The air is damp and chilly. Yesterday, thunderstorms soaked the soil and filled the sky with the clatter of thunder. Now, both dogs mill about on the patio, taking slow gulps of water then filling their jowls with kibble. Their once white fur is speckled with black soil from the flowerbeds and dotted with violet berry stains. Archie hovers near the backdoor, as though he’d liked to shoot up the stairs to the kitchen and curl somewhere in the living room for a long sleep, but for now, none of us are going back inside.

You see, this morning, Archie had problems. At first, when I took him outside, he seemed fined. He went about the business of relieving himself and then convinced me to let him back inside. When I returned inside, after watching Dixie for a few minutes, I discovered that he wasn't fine. Archie, the perennially ill puppy who is cursed with allergies—just as I was when I was a child—was having gastrointestinal difficulties. Sadly, the poor little lad could not hold it long enough to be taken outside, and the result is now engrained deep in the carpet fibers of my office. To make matters worse, as he tried, with his tiny puppy mind, to avoid the wrath that he must surely expect for such indiscretions, Dixie wanted to play. She attacked him, thumping him to the ground, not quite realizing that Archie was having trouble with his belly.

Now, as he yips at a nearby lawnmower, he seems furiously happy. I’m hoping, for his sake and for the sake of my bank account, he simply ate something last night, like peanut butter or cheese, that did not agree with his digestive state.

Who among us cannot relate to Archie's pathetic state this morning? Who among us has not spent the morning wishing that our bodies would better behave? Who among us has not gone on with the tasks at hand even as we wished that the feasting of the previous day had never taken place?

Indeed, during my sophomore year of high school, among the many afflictions of an upper respiratory nature, I was stricken by an affliction similar to Archie’s. Yet, in all honesty, I don't remember the actual illness. Instead, I remember that Christmas break was approaching and that I simply missed the end of the semester. More, those absences brought the total to something like 30 or 40 over the course of November and December. When I returned to school in January, my history class gave me a large, hand-made get-well card. Class time was obviously used to make the glitter-filled keepsake (which I've long since lost), and even at the time, I was embarrassed beyond words. I never actually told anyone why I’d missed so much school, but clearly, I did not have the sort of life-threatening illness they must have imagined. To this day, people from high school probably still believe that I made a remarkable recovery from scarlet fever, cholera, or perhaps lupus.

I think, in large part, I simply didn't have much direction in school. I simply went to school then went skating or sat in my bedroom tapping away at the Nintendo. I wasn't a great student—mainly because I lacked motivation. And, often enough, the idea of staying home watching TV was far more appealing than the notion of walking to school.

The next year, everything changed. I participated in Academic Decathlon, a competition consisting of seven multiple choice tests, an interview, a speech, and a very brief quiz taken in front of an audience—all over the course of two days.

Of course, that activity made missing long stretches of school impossible, so it was well worth it. More, with Academic Decathlon, I actually tried. I became a better writer and more self-confident. Like most people my age, I was accustomed to using the five-paragraph form for an essay. Although I now understand why this technique is taught, and have actually taught it myself at a community college, for some reason, in high school, it never occurred to me that an essay could be written in any other way. As odd as it sounds, I just assumed that you needed five paragraphs to support any kind of thesis. So, when I started writing the speech I was disconcerted to discover that I only needed four paragraphs to convey my thoughts. I panicked. I asked my English teacher for her advice, and she told me that if anyone could do it, I could. And I did. At the ensuing regional competition, I think I earned a gold medal.

I think, at the time, it was exhilarating that such a task could be executed differently, that I could, if you will, break the "rules" about essay writing I'd learned and still compose something that was effective.

Indeed, much of what is taught about writing is based on rules. To begin with, you learn the basics of grammar and sentence construction. You learn that fragments should be avoided at all costs. You learn that all paragraphs need a topic sentence. You learn that an essay consists of five paragraphs. But, eventually, you learn that all of these rules can—and should—be broken.

Poetry is no different. If you study poetry in a workshop setting, you'll learn the imagistic credo to "show, don't tell." You'll learn to position your speakers in specific settings. You'll learn to avoid mixed metaphors. You'll learn how to write metronomic sonnets or villanelles with feet that fall perfectly along an iambic path.

At some point, after you've learned all these rules, you'll notice that Emily Dickinson sometimes mixed metaphors to stunning effect. You'll notice that, sometimes, as in the work of Ashbery, and sometimes Stevens, abstract language can convey ideas that simply can't be communicated through the accumulation of details. More, you'll notice that much of the auditory beauty of Shakespeare's sonnets comes from subtle variations within the meter.

To me, those rules are a bit like that meter. For the most part, I abide by what I’ve been taught. I realize, that like Archie’s crate, those rules are designed to keep me safe, comfortable, and out of trouble. But, like Archie, much of the time, I want to break out, run around the house, and tear things up.

Games of Chance

Today, I won the lottery, sort of. According to an email I received, likely from Nigeria, and most definitely a new twist on the 419 scam, I won the online version of the UK National Lottery.

So far, I've won that particular lottery four times. A few weeks ago, I even won it twice in one day. What are the odds….?


Near the end of my senior year in college, the English Department had a reading for creative writing students at the university's Woman's Center. Of course, at the time, I was more than eager to read my poems publicly and took the opportunity to sell a copy or two of the chapbook I'd put together with the help of a friend and the staff at Kinko's. For a few weeks, that chapbook was vital to my existence. Each 5-dollar bill I could finagle for one of the gray-covered, typo-heavy collection of 16 poems meant lunch at the Chinese food cart on campus. Sadly, at that event, I think I only sold one—to the Department Head.

Later, after everyone had read and begun to mill about over beverages and potato chips, I ended up in a conversation with the English Department's secretary. I remember her as being a wonderful woman—always helpful, always kind, and almost always smiling. Yet, that evening, she leaned in to speak to me, almost whispering, and told me that one of the Creative Writing Professors had told her that I was "the best they had."


I have no doubt that, at the time, at least some of my professors believed that to be true. After all, their letters were good enough to get me into grad school with a fellowship. I must have been doing something right. For a while, I think I held onto that notion, almost cradling it like the memory of my first kiss, rather than a bit of hearsay that made me feel good about myself. More, I think that comment—likely nothing more than an offhand remark based on my performance at the reading—affected my perception of myself. Suddenly, there were expectations.

That summer, I used to joke (I think) with anyone who dared call me a genius (I swear it did happen once or twice—though perhaps that was sarcasm). I felt deeply uncomfortable with the notion. I still do. Yet, at that point, I also felt that there was some merit to such a label, and it frightened me.

This, I suspect, is largely because it never occurred to me to do the math.


Clearly, the professor meant that year—not ever in the storied history of the university. So, if you figure that about 10 years of students make up a generation, that’s 9 students right there who could be far superior talents to me. More, consider how many universities in the United States offer creative writing programs. According to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, 310 colleges offered minors or majors in Creative Writing in 1996—the year I graduated. If we assume that half of those students focused on poetry and we multiply that by the 10 years it takes to make a generation, then approximately 1,550 students between 1991 and 2001 were the best poets in their year in their English Department. And remember the numbers are growing.

So, as you can see, the comment—even if it is more than mere hearsay—carries far less weight than I attributed to it. Such praise or encouragement from a professor does not automatically open doors. It is not an edict from the crested peak of Mount Olympus that cannot be ignored. It was, after all, just an opinion—an opinion which leaves open the possibility that nearly 1,500 people of my generation received similar training and had similar talent.

Plus, I’m fairly certain that I wasn't even the most talented poet in my class. I think that might have been my wife.

More and more, success in literature seems to me a bit like hitting the lottery. What are the odds….?


Nowadays, if someone told me that I was a genius, I'd probably just blush and say thank you. In fact, I’d much rather have someone say to me: I loved that poem or That was a damn good story.

Luckily, I've had experiences like that, and I see no reason—other than a flight into the Covington Airport errantly colliding with my office—why I won't hear similar things in the future. And hopefully, someday, you'll have the opportunity to agree or disagree vehemently with such assessments.

Of course, I'd still like to win the lottery, but not the UK National Lottery, the Ohio Lottery, or even the Power Ball. No, I'd like to win the publishing lottery. I'd like to find myself an agent that could start a bidding war over a novel by an unknown author. I’d like to say hello to Oprah on that fateful day when she introduces me (and my book) to her audience. Then, and only then, I could retire this notion of being a writer and spend my time playing Texas Hold ‘Em tournaments. I think I'd need a nice pair of sunglasses for that.

Now then, what are the odds…?

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

There Is No There, There

I have a headache and it is already 9 o’clock. Archie is lounging on the area rug in front of me. Dixie just leapt onto the sofa to greet Michelle, who has just walked in from the front yard.

Today has been absurdly difficult (for a poet). I woke early, at 6:15 this morning. Rather than crawling onto the sofa and cuddling up with the puppies to add a couple more hours to the four I slept last night, I chose to brew a pot of coffee and throw myself into the day’s task. Alas, those tasks still have not, as yet, been completed. And now, I'm waiting for the casserole that Michelle, in true 50s housewife fashion, is baking. The television is playing and now the dogs are pummeling each other, barking now and again between the swats of their paws and snaps of their jaws that comprise their combat.


I’m still trying to find my rhythm for the day, to feel comfortable in my skin as I clatter away at the keypad, but the headache seems intent on cracking those plans like ceramic dropped on a tile floor. Worse, my eyes are beginning to ache with exhaustion, and my neck is cracking like kettle corn on the asphalt ground of a summertime carnival.

Archie is lingering at Michelle's feet whining catlike noises in an attempt to convince her to share some of her casserole. Unfortunately, the dish contains diced onions, which of course are toxic to dogs. At last, he, like Dixie, has lain down on the sofa and is drifting off to sleep.


Now, midnight is approaching and I can feel exhaustion seeping into my arms and legs. Two moths that darted inside toward the light are flitting around above my head, and sleeping dogs are pressed up against me.

I've struggled all day to focus, to follow the rhythms of my breath, to link one paragraph to another, one image to the next. I'm frustrated with myself. Michelle has just carted Dixie off upstairs, and after a low moan, Archie has propped his head against my leg.


Last night, around this time, I wrote the first draft of a villanelle and emailed it to my wife so that she could read the poem at work in the morning. Of course, when she saw it, she read the poem and sent back her comments. Not surprisingly, my wife is a kind critic to me. She quibbled with one detail, but found the rest of the poem lovely. Perhaps it is. I, however, suspect that there are, at the very least, a few feet that will disgust me, a word choice or two that is not precise enough, and a number of rhymes that could be better. Luckily, at the moment, I think the refrain works and that is, in my limited experience, the most difficult task when composing a villanelle.


Nowadays, my wife is always the first audience for my poetry, unless I read the poem aloud and one of the dogs hears me mumbling. For the most part, I know what to expect from her and this is wonderful. When my own critical voice turn their volumes up to 11 (because it's louder than 10), the encouragement and support she provides can be priceless.

And now, I'm not sure I can imagine writing poetry without her comments mingled with occasional adoration. Sure, I could ask her to be more critical and take a red pen to each document I send her. She could, I do not doubt, spend a few minutes and eliminate all that is extraneous and highlight everything that is suspect. But, in many ways, I suspect that asking her to find a critic's hat (which must have feathers) seems vaguely cruel. After all, she knows that, with patience, I can better each poem I write, and more, when she reads a poem that first time she reads it. She enjoys the poem as a reader would, not as a student or peer or critic would. And I love her for this reason (among many, many others).

Of course, to be honest, she might just like me a lot.

Now, it would be absurd to suggest that you should run out and get married if you aspire to be a poet, and although the sheer absurdity is almost enough for me to suggest it anyhow, I'll stop just short. You should have early readers for your work—and know what to expect, what to ignore, and what to add.

After all, why does one write a poem?


My headache still has not subsided. So, rather than suffering any longer, I'll climb the stairs and collapse into my bed for a long sleep.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Jug Jug to Dirty Ears

After reading Ulysses, T.S. Eliot remarked that Joyce had “single-handedly killed the 19th century.” I first heard that quote in college, although I’m not sure where. Back then, I used to contemplate how pleasant it would be to follow suit and figuratively kill the 20th century. I liked to imagine taking my pen up like lance and charging headlong, unthinking, until the canon itself was torn asunder with cutting metaphors and pointed similes. Perhaps, in some ways, my ever-looming ego still longs to slay that wicked century and steal off with its pot of gold.

But, as I’ve grown older, the notion seems more and more absurd. Who could possibly kill a century like that one. It was a century whose very modus operandi consisted of laying its own entrails bare. Everywhere, it seems to me, was the evidence. The history books for the time will be tinged with the crimson of actual spilt blood and shadowed by the ever-looming presence of utter annihilation. It was a century of inflation, of political murder, of global pandemics, of ever-shifting borders, of ceaseless strategic war, and of a new kind of horrid crime. But lest we forget, it was also a century of prosperity, of penicillin and polio vaccines, of democracy finally approaching its promise of a government by the people regardless of color or creed, of technologies so complex and intricate that we could dot the skies above us with countless satellites for our phones, our televisions, and our computers.

It is a century that, through necessity, led us to endlessly reinvent ourselves, endlessly killing off remnants and vestiges of ourselves in the service of one ideology or another.

It is a century of marvelous, failed ideas.

In literature, well, "western" literature at least, it was the century of the late Victorians, the Moderns, and the Post-Moderns. Countless schools ranging from the Imagists to the Surrealist to the Beats to the so-called New York School and the seemingly movement-less miasma of today, graced us with their insights into poetry and its composition.

Somewhere, amid this sprawling description of the past century, is the kernel of post-modernism. I’ll not try to define the term here, other than to say that in the field of literature, it is that which followed the modern. It is the mode that built upon those first fretful steps into verse libre while abandoning, in the face of the history surrounding it, the quest of the modern for absolutes.

Doubtless, this definition is simultaneously sufficient for my task and woefully inadequate. You, without doubt, could posit countless definitions of post-modernism that more succinctly capture its essence. But, alas, it is a term which is notoriously difficult to define. It is as slippery as a wet garter snake.

As for myself, I hate it.

One night while I was in college, I went to dinner with a poet who was a year ahead of me in college. Shortly, she’d be off to graduate school, where she’d do wonderful things. We went to a lovely Middle Eastern restaurant that was no more than a mere minute away from campus. Occasionally, it occurs to me that this may have been a date, albeit a bad one since the notion hadn’t exactly crossed my mind.

We were seated at a small table near the aisle and, of course, the conversation turned to literature. I think, at the time, and perhaps even now, she was better read than me and seemed to my mind brimming with theory that she would later deftly work into her poetry with a wry ease that still strikes me as admirable. For my part, I declared over couscous and hummus that I, quite simply, hated post-modernism. In retrospect, the comment was likely nothing more than an ignorant boast.

I still, I suppose, had no idea what post-modernism was, even though I confronted it every day in the architecture of the campus, in the work of my professors, and in the slow, measured lines that I myself was composing. Only later, much later, did I realize—with a shock akin to sticking your finger in a light socket (and yes I tried once when I was three)—that I could best be described as a post-modernist. Alas, it’s true of everything I write. My work is self-reflexive, punctuated by meager attempts at irony, and unabashedly derivative. My work is mired in fin de siecle melancholy, even though the end of the century has, well, already passed.

Yet, even though I’m more familiar with the term and better versed in the continental theories that were so lately in vogue, I’m certain that I hate post-modernism. Sure, I bandy the term about with affectations of learning—mostly with the purpose of teasing my wife. More, there are countless authors and poets—many of them tidy examples of a kind of a post-modern paradigm—who I adore. Take Ashbery, for example: amid his endlessly shifting moods and ever-so-slippery pronouns, Ashbery continuously inundates us with references. Daffy Dick, Elmer Fudd, and the Comte de Lautreamont end up equals in the wandering psyche of his speaker(s). How cool is that?

Still, I weary of identity as a political force. More, I tire of the notion that my work—or anyone’s work can be so loosely codified. I despise the notion, which post-modernism (and its theories) seems to posit, that we have a reached a point where our work can only be described as a reaction to what has already been written. I bristle at the idea that there is nothing new to write, that there is not a theme which has not been tackled by some writer, most likely Shakespeare, in a manner better than I could possibly imagine. Personally, I’d like to imagine a poetics of possibility, a poetics that does not simply repeat the same tired themes, or buckle at the impossibility of ever communicating clearly without error and without misinterpretation to anyone other than the ego of the poet. I’d like to imagine a poetics that recognizes the limitations of language, embraces them, and goes on about the business of poetry: reflecting the world through its own unique artifice.

Now, my wife is in the next room watching reruns of a sitcom. The puppies have come in from outside and are curled on the crimson comforter behind me nestling against one another. Earlier in the afternoon, Dixie interrupted my writing with a bark that mingled with a yelp. I heard both aggression and pain—although I’m not sure if either was there—and walked over to check on her well being. I found her bowing, as though for play, and yipping at a tiny cardinal whose feathers were still fuzzy. Dixie bounced around it, barking, and I chased her away, shielding the tiny bird with my body. I drove the hatchling, like cattle, with a stick toward one of the honeysuckle trees near the back fence of our yard and then coaxed it onto the perch of that stick without ever laying a hand on the small, vulnerable creature. I lifted the stick into the honeysuckle, and left it in a bundle of branches. The cardinal chick tilted its head, staring at me, uncertain whether to consider me a threat. It chirped and chirped, again, then leapt ever so slightly and flapped its tiny wings furiously to move a few inches to the next branch. Hopefully, the bird will survive—even though I have my doubts. Imagine the sound of the song that bird will sing if it survives. Do you think, even for a moment, that the creature would care where the song came from? It knows, without thinking, that the song comes from the breath from beneath the hollow bones of its heaving chest.

A Garden Among Forked Paths

The weekend is essentially over, and as I sit in office, with the puppies sleeping on separate sofas as my wife reads a thriller of some sort late into the night, the scent of wood burning in my neighbor’s fire pit wafts in through the cracked open window that looks out over our backyard.

This afternoon, when I stepped outside for a moment to check on the canines and ensure that they hadn’t finally clawed their way into their own version of The Great Escape, I found both puppies darting into and out of the flowing daffodil and bamboo foliage that lines the rear wall of our house. They sniffed fiercely at the ground, shaking stalks of Ohio spiderwort as they weaved through the greenery and circled half-buried flagstones, and dashed past the trunk of our magnolia tree. They were, apparently, hunting rabbits.

They hurtled about in their commotion, sniffing furiously and letting low tumbling growls escape from their tiny diaphragms, and as I watched in fascination as they plunged again into depths of foliage, a small brownish rabbit with specks of black fur all along its coat hopped hesitantly along the edge of the flower bed and then nestled, in plain sight to me, between two earth-scraping branches of a hardy weed. Small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, the rabbit did not stir. Its black, pebble-sized eyes stared up at me, unblinking. Yet there was not a single twitch of movement.

The dogs hurried about, oblivious to the rabbit’s escape and tactical retreat into camouflage. They bounced over the foliage, scraped at bits of fur, and sniffed along the patches of soil where they first spotted the tiny creature. Fearful for the rabbit—no more than a baby—I called to the dogs, “Dixie! Archie!” I called to them again, clapping my hands until they looked up and then I hurried them inside where my wife was eating dinner.

All day, I have felt like my dogs must have felt. I have been circling around a goal, edging closer and closer until night fell. You see, I copyedited all day. Instead of focusing on poetry, my thoughts on poetry, or even a good novel, I strained my eyes against a computer screen to make certain that phases and subtypes were spelled properly. The work was, alas, tedious.

As night fell, I finally finished, and managed to jot down a few lines of what seemed a clever poem, but now seems to me to be the worst type of first draft. Indeed, I think by tomorrow that poem will be torn to shreds with the same lack of compassion my dogs would have shown that tiny rabbit. I also managed to stare a bit longer at pages and pages of prose, and this pleased me. Hopefully, I can say the same tomorrow.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel I spent the entire day on circumnavigating the edge of a goal, of a wish fulfilled, of a tactical decision made deftly. Night, now, is slipping away. Michelle has joined the puppies in slumber. My back aches, and I know that I am up far too late.

Perhaps, this feeling of incompleteness is a bit like reading Borges, or like a character in one of his “fictions.” It is on the edge of reason, on the edge of reality, but only just so.

I’ve been speaking endlessly here about the necessity of reading, but have I yet mentioned fiction? I think, typically, many poets fail to see how valuable fiction can be to the development of one’s poetry. After all, many of the same techniques—and concerns—found in fiction are unavoidable. A first-person speaker, for example, can’t have direct knowledge of another character’s thoughts. The speaker must glean those thoughts through indirection or simply describe the movements, the gestures, the words of another character, allowing the reader to draw her own conclusions.

Likewise, if your poem tells a story—any kind of story—then you are bound by the construct of plot. There will be a beginning, middle, and end. The plot may be labyrinthine, but there will always be a beginning, middle, and end—not necessarily in that order.

More, I think that in modernist and contemporary fiction you can find worlds upon worlds of overlapping ideals. You can experience places unimagined. You can find enviably brilliant similes, like Gogol’s comparison of cockroaches to raisins in Dead Souls, and if you have the wherewithal to read Joyce, perhaps you can ask yourself more questions about poetry: What is it? How did it get here? Where is it going? Indeed, huge passages of Ulysses read like perfect alliterative verse. It hurts my head.

Personally, I consider Kafka, Borges, and Angela Carter to be among the most important influences in my poetry. In fact, I’d argue that a single story of Borges has likely had more impact on how I approach a poem than the entire oeuvre of W.S. Merwin—a poet I admire immensely for his utter originality, deft use of imagery, and penchant for elision that somehow heightens meaning. Yet a single one of Borges’s stories (and even his essays) opens up entire worlds while exciting your intellect with an electricity so violent that I sometimes wonder if it couldn’t explain the phenomena of spontaneous human combustion. Consider, for example, “The Garden of Forking Paths” or “The Library of Babel.” The stories are so carefully crafted that even the meticulous footnotes referencing works that may—or may not—be extant in our world lend credence and power to unbelievable tales. And who among us has not, at one point, felt utterly lost in a book, as Ts’ui Pen’s novel would have us be?

Ah, you see, there are many paths through the garden. One fork leads here, another there. One allows you to see the rabbit hidden near a hole; another does not. One path is festooned with spring flowers; another brings only the harsh snows of winter. The hour grows late, and I am weary. I sip on my tea, but it is cold now. And, at last, I realize the goal around which I’d been circling. Tomorrow is trash day, and I have forgotten.