Friday, June 23, 2006


It’s only 4:30 on a Friday afternoon of cool rain and gray skies. The puppies are grappling behind me yelping and snorting as snippets of pop music play from four corners of my office. Michelle, who left work early in the dashed hope of finally procuring an Ohio driver’s license, has vanished from the first floor of our house.

Over the past few days, I’ve spent an inordinate amount time searching the Internet for poetry readings somewhere in the greater Cincinnati—all to no avail. I’ve located one or two locations that held readings weekly before this brand spanking new millennium with which we’ve all been blessed, but I can’t seem to find a current series.

In some ways, I’m tempted to explain the apparent absence of such events by pointing out Cincinnati’s location in the cradle of the Midwest—perched between Kentucky and Indiana. Yet, there is a world-class art museum, a fine symphony, and a near top-notch ballet. So, I hope.

Perhaps, in the coming days, I’ll be able to report that the poetry scene here is vibrant and thriving, bringing community poets together with the poets based in the various universities. That’s how the small, but extremely supportive scene was in Pittsburgh. Writers groups mingled with the academics, and always, it seemed, there was a reading to go to somewhere within walking distance of Squirrel Hill. Back then, I was utterly immersed in that scene. I read my own poems in my own melodramatic fashion more times than I can remember. I still have pages covered with footprints from my histrionics in the midst of a reading.


When I lived in Dallas (the second time), I never sought out those experiences. I think, I went to one or two poetry readings. I was the guy standing at the back for one or two poems before turning away to spend my time on more interesting pursuits—like drinking, or drinking coffee. I did, however, give one reading with a colleague from work at a Borders in the far north of the city. I think 10 people came, and I worked with 8 of them. The others, of course, came to see him read.

In San Francisco, surprisingly enough, I never took advantage of the literary community there. I saw, I believe, two readings—a mediocre night of performance poetry that was made far more pleasant by the copious amounts of beer present and a jam-packed reading by Irvine Welsh which was made slightly more frightening by the copious amounts of beer present.


In some ways, I think that both approaches to a literary community are valid for a serious writer. The support, the exposure to new ideas, and the chatter about all things literary can certainly benefit you and your writing. At the same time, I believe that there are moments in a writer’s life when it’s better to be a ghost in the social world.

Sure, we all need the society of friends, loved ones, and the occasional stranger, but at certain points in my life, I’ve looked forward to leaving work and heading straight home, where a flickering computer screen waited for me. Of course, this may help explain why my career is where it is right now.

Better not to write in a complete vacuum, but too much conversation and you’ll end up founding a movement.


Rain drips from the broad green leaves of the catalpa tree in our front yard. The neighborhood is silent, save for jostling of wind and rain brushed leaves and the sound of the storm slicking the streets.

Michelle and the dogs are upstairs, asleep, perhaps stirring ever so slightly as the rain patters down against the skylight near our bed. I am tired. Today, for the most part, was an exercise in frustration. Much of the day, I sat here in this office, as the dogs bolted back and forth across the slight descending hill of our backyard, pausing now and then to growl at each other or an errant squirrel chattering down at them from the relative safety of tree-top branches.

In this office, filled with sun, I spent much of the day trying to think like a first-generation Chinese-American from Connecticut who moved to San Francisco in 1998. I had her voice for a moment or two, but the textures and the variations in syntax escaped me for the most part. Still, I kept trying, frustrating myself with my inability to find a rhythm I had discovered about a month ago.

Strange, but in many ways, this was the whole of my day. Of course, I spent stretches of time snoozing with the puppies. I used a few minutes here or there to rub the delicate space behind Dixie’s floppy canine ears. I spent a few minutes tossing a squeaking red plastic ball for Archie, watching him hop on his hind legs toward the ball in my hand. And I spent a few evening hours with my wife, eating dinner and watching a DVD of The Thin Man.


Regardless of what else I may think about the day, my mind keeps circling back, like a shark that can never stop swimming, to the subtle variations in syntax I just couldn’t manage.

Syntax, of course, is vital to writing, but in an essay, a proposal, or even a memoir, the use of syntax is, typically, little more than a stylistic choice. You can use the shape of your sentences, the interplay of complex, compound, and simple sentences (and sometimes fragments) to reflect your own voice. In poetry and fiction, however, syntax seems to me to mean so much more.

Consider, for example, the case of the persona poem. Imagine writing a poem from the perspective of an 18th century courtesan. How would your language change? Would you modify phrases differently? Would you be satisfied with simple, direct statements of the Hemmingway ilk? Or would your sentences loll on and on, couched like gilded patterns in red velvet, as threads of thought wound from participle to participle?

More, in a poem, you have those nasty line breaks to navigate. Should this line be enjambed? Should the line be end-stopped? Should a sentence flow from line to line to line like one of the complex metaphors that glisten from Satan’s slithering lips in Milton’s Paradise Lost?

Oh, there is much to think about!

But, somehow, you will know. You will find the rhythms (one hopes) that cling to the content you are trying to convey. You will know the phrases that can be elided and the participles that can be dangled—against reason—to convey the simulation of speech from a particular person at a particular time in a particular place.

The key, I suppose, is to listen.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Prescriptions of Self

At some point during the five-year period I lived in the Bay Area, I stopped thinking of myself as a poet. Even with that decision, I never stopped writing poetry. I would dash off a poem every now and then—something long-winded and esoteric or something simple driven by an image, like the sad shape of a cello held between a woman’s legs.

In fact, with the death of a laptop, I probably lost a handful of good, salvageable poems. Remember, back up.

At that time I was, of course, more free to pursue activities like dating, drinking, and a wholly unhealthy absorption in the world of PlayStation gaming. I gave up on the notion that I could publish a few poems here and there and make a clean re-entry into academia. I focused on my professional life, mired in the corporate world, and when I had the time, turned my attention to fiction. I managed to fall in love and out of love and in love once again with the woman who is now my wife.

In retrospect, I'm not entirely sure if I changed those career plans or if the sheer momentum of my life helped with the decision. Life, after all, has a momentum all its own.

Nevertheless, during that time period, I suspect that all of my friends, when they thought of me, thought of me as something of a poet. Even now, I hesitate to call myself that. At a party or a chance meeting with a stranger in a street, I'd never describe myself as a poet. I'm more than happy with the title writer—even if, on darker days, I question the accuracy of that title for the time being.

In graduate school, the poet Carolyn Kizer came to Miami to read for us. I met her just outside the elevator on my way to check my mailbox. The director of the program introduced me to her, saying, "This is Les. He's a poet."

I said hello with my head bowed, looking at the white linoleum tiles that covered the entirety of that building and sort of shook my head. "Well," I said. "I wouldn't say that just yet."

Now, I'm still not sure I'd say that. I write poems. And since turning 30, I actually try to publish those poems—sometimes. Still, it's difficult for me to think of myself as a poet. And why should I? After all, if I'm just someone who writes poems now and again, it's so much easier to remember that all of those cliches about the necessity of melancholy or the travails of being a poet are just poppycock. Me? I'm just someone who loves words like "poppycock."

After all, was Edith Wharton a poet? James Joyce? D.H. Lawrence? Borges?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


Today will be the longest day of the year. Since it's well past midnight, and I've yet to sleep, I can believe it.

Tonight, I'm up late for business reasons. My wife, Michelle, has just descended the stairs from our bedroom, bleary-eyed, clutching Dixie away from her body. Our poor little Jack Russell just had a minor accident in her crate. Perhaps Dixie cried, but not loudly enough to wake Michelle from a well-deserved slumber. Then again, it's possible, Dixie simply nursed too much on her water bottle. Whatever transpired, she’s now curled on the sofa, recovering.

As for myself, I'm in my office, listening to pop music and contemplating how to emerge from a recent rut in my writing. My top-secret novel has momentarily stalled because I can't decide whether or not to put a key character to a series of seemingly awful travails. A story I started with the sole purpose of entering a Glimmer Train contest sputtered when I couldn't decide on the precise nature of a secret the protagonist will soon uncover. Worse, I have been unable to write a poem.

Of course, as always, there are extenuating circumstances. Archie was ill, and his suffering served to obliterate my sleep schedule with the efficacy of a pound espresso on an empty stomach. Then, I've had a surprising (for me) amount of business with which to contend, and I'm beginning to suspect I'm losing those fights. Plus, this past weekend was sacrificed for a Father's Day trek to the other side of Ohio.

In short, I'm currently trying to recoup a semblance of what I call normalcy after last week.

Naturally, all of this existential bellyaching is little more than a litany of excuses. Life interferes, sometimes, with writing. Such is life (feel free to insert your favorite cliche for such a sentiment here).

I do think, however, that those excuses amply illustrate one of the reasons why so many people aspire to be writers and so few actually succeed. Indeed, for me, such quotidian interruptions combined with intermittent ambitions for success in the corporate world help explain why ten years after I'd assumed I would have first found some measure of success with my poetry, I'm still working to make certain that a handful of people who have never met me know my name and admire my work.

I, in all honesty, do not know what the future holds. I worry, sometimes, that I'll wind up with a series of unfinished projects—all victim to my apparently lofty critical faculties and the simple intrusions of everyday life. Most of the time, though, I let myself dream. I let myself muse about the tingle of angry adrenaline rushing down my spine as I read the first review of my first slim volume of verse. I allow myself to contemplate the specter of me growing gray in a tweed jacket as I sit before students at a university somewhere, who look up at me expectantly as I draw Freitag's triangle on the blackboard.

Alas, we have only so much time in our lives. Since today is the longest day of the year, I think I'll just break out of my rut.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Practice Makes Permanent

When my wife was a small child, she had a coloring book that showed every profession she could imagine. There were images of a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a dentist, a pilot, and, of course, a writer. As my wife tells it, she thumbed through the book, studied all of the images in their outlines and chose, as if to foreshadow her own destiny, to color in the lines of the writer’s desk, his jacket, his chair, his well-coiffed head from which those literary ideas would emerge, and of course, his typewriter. She filled in the lines carefully, circling the crayons around and around for the smoothest possible blend of color. She stayed within the lines, as best she could, steadying her hand against excitement now and again to avoid straying outside the lines.

When the page was filled with the brightest colors possible, so that the writer’s smile seemed to her almost to gleam, my wife was finished with the book. She did not move on to the doctor or the lawyer.

Because, even then, she knew.


This past Saturday, I drove my wife, our niece, and my wife’s sister south along the eastern edge of Ohio to an enormous high school in the middle of farm country. Our niece had her first dance recital. Personally, I’d never been to a dance recital before and had no idea what to expect. My wife, on the other hand, had participated in countless recitals, having studied ballet from a time when she was too young to write full sentences until she left home for college. Still, I don’t even think she was prepared for what we saw.

The program, such as it was, consisted of more than 50 performances by a variety of girls of different ages and abilities and one tiny boy in a tumbling routine. Our niece participated in two routines—one for ballet and one for tap. Thankfully, her second routine was just after intermission, so the family was able to make a quiet escape shortly after her ballet piece.

Prior to Saturday, I never thought I’d see anyone dance to “Little Red Corvette” while wearing ballet shoes. I never thought I’d see anyone tap dance to the “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” I never thought that a dance school would focus on teaching the one-handed cartwheels a high school girl might need to make the cheerleading team. I never thought that routines performed at any school for dance might resemble any kind of routine you’d find at a strib club at the edge of town. And yet, that is precisely what we saw. And it was mind numbing.

Of course, in the midst of that four-hour ordeal, we witnessed the most curious of phenomena. The youngest of the dancers—no older than 6— broke their slow, confused steps once in a while with sideways glances to the teachers showing the steps in the wings. They tried, in their multicolored, sequined outfits to synchronize their movements, but every once in a while, when one of the little girls had trouble telling her left from her right or missed a shuffle here or a missed plie there, they would fall out of synch and continue dancing—only to leave the stage to the smiles, camera flashes, and applause of the audience.

We, the audience, forgave these smallest children their missed steps.


When I was in 6th grade, my Reading class wrote stories near the end of the term. I don’t remember why writing a story was part of the curriculum or what our stories were meant to entail. I do, however, remember small slivers of the story I wrote. Set in a random metropolis, the tale followed the exploits of a superhero and his sidekick; they were, if I recall correctly, some errant combination of Superman with Batman and Robin. I cannot, for the life of me, remember what ferocious animal-like names I gave these characters. More, I cannot remember what type of foe they had to face. But they did face their foe—tragically. The ending, I suspect largely because I didn’t know how to end a story, was likely the bleakest ending I have ever written: the young sidekick perished in battle. And that was that. No foreshadowing. No denouement. No examination of the consequences of the lad’s death on his erstwhile benefactor.

He was dead. And that’s all there was to it.

In retrospect, I can’t help but wonder why they didn’t phone my father. Why wasn’t I called into the office and sat down before the school counselor? Why didn’t she smile at me from behind a stack of papers that only served to make her look busy, and ask, point blank, is there something going on with you at home? Is there something you’d like to talk about?

I suspect, very strongly, that a child writing such a story nowadays would be faced with a series of questions, and perhaps, a prescription or two to keep things ticking as they should. Still, you have to admit, I did write a story with an ending. And endings are difficult.


Poetry is, I suppose, something we expect children to read. Even from the first moments a child is read to (if he is lucky), a child will delight in the sonorous words that fall from the lips of his mother or father. Although he will not know what to call it, a child will giggle at the use of a pun or imitate the play of consonance and assonance in a favorite line. A child, among other children, will continuously play with words, belting out rhymes as she skips rope on the sidewalk outside her family’s home.

What happens between those moments and adulthood to make our view of poetry any different? Do we somehow lose touch with the innate metaphoric qualities of language the moment we realize the moon is not, in fact, made of cheese?

Why do you suppose so few adults read poetry?