Archive for the ‘Field Guide’ Category

Stranger Than Fiction?

Field Guide: identification of poems in their natural habitat –

Life doesn’t make any sense, and we all pretend it does. Comedy’s job is to point out that it doesn’t make sense, and that it doesn’t make much difference anyway.
Eric Idle

Loss Prevention — I don’t know why we kept a high-theft item like Oneida flatware right by the door, but we did. One blustery day in March, Mrs. S., a salesperson in the Housewares Department, observed a young man putting boxed sets of it under his coat, while she was riding the “up” escalator, at least 25 feet away, across from the door. Stuck on the escalator, what could she do?

“STOP!” she yelled, at the top of her lungs. Standing on the sales floor, between the escalator and the door, I looked up (as did the would-be thief) just in time to see her dentures hurtling through the air, over the sales floor, toward the 11th Street exit. Forming the fricative-plosive consonant blend, s-t, and heaving it with some force had caused her upper plate to dislodge.  Seeing a disembodied set of teeth coming straight toward him so startled the potential shoplifter that he dropped the flatware and ran out the door. chattering teeth

Inventory Control — Both the dentures and the flatware were recovered. At least they fared better than the three mannequins in the Junior Department who met an untimely demise in the witching hour one cold, dark night. Arranged, as it were, like bowling pins, with one spunky teen model in the lead and her two doting companions just behind, the three of them set to head out for adventure at a main intersection in the display aisle. An insecure security guard patrolling the deserted store on the graveyard shift reported that he had heard a noise in the wee hours, (about 3:00 in the morning) went to investigate, and as his vision locked on to the shadowy figures on the darkened sales floor, he saw movement, fired, and took out all three “suspects” in a single shot.

Tempting as it may be, you really couldn’t blame the security guard, though. A few days earlier, a sweet little old lady had crept up to the girls and asked them (in all sincerity) for directions to Ford’s Theater, nearby. She leaned in closer when they didn’t immediately respond, put her glasses on to inspect the surly teens, eyes widening as she realized why the girls were mute and so ill-mannered. “Oh!” she cooed in recognition, “You’re a dummy!”

Key Performance Indicators — Although these stories may strike you as “creative” writing, I assure you they are too absurd to be made up, and do, in fact, come from my own experience working in retail (my first “real” job). Real life teems with comedic incidents, ranging from the “tickle my funny bone” kind, to the out-and-out bizarre. It might seem more like tabloid fodder than material for poetry, but I think poetry’s earned what is perhaps a well-deserved rap for being too serious, academic, and stuffy. The only remedy for this is for poets to lighten up, stop taking themselves so seriously, and throw in some hilarity, at least once in a while.

A poem I found online, Go Greyhound, by Bob Hicok, models the use of absurdly comic details:

Go Greyhound
Bob Hicok

A few hours after Des Moines
the toilet overflowed.
This wasn’t the adventure it sounds.

I sat with a man whose tattoos
weighed more than I did.
He played Hendrix on mouth guitar.
His Electric Ladyland lips
weren’t fast enough
and if pitch and melody
are the rudiments of music,
this was just
memory, a body nostalgic
for the touch of adored sound.

Hope’s a smaller thing on a bus.

You hope a forgotten smoke consorts
with lint in the pocket of last
resort to be upwind
of the human condition, that the baby
and when this never happens,
that she cries
with the lullaby meter of the sea.

We were swallowed by rhythm.
The ultra blond
who removed her wig and applied
fresh loops of duct tape
to her skull,
her companion who held a mirror
and popped his dentures
in and out of place,
the boy who cut stuffing
from the seat where his mother
should have been—
there was a little more sleep
in our thoughts,
it was easier to yield.

To what, exactly—
the suspicion that what we watch
watches back,
cornfields that stare at our hands,
that hold us in their windows
through the night?

Or faith, strange to feel
in that zoo of manners.

I had drool on my shirt and breath
of the undead, a guy
dropped empty Buds on the floor
like gravity was born
to provide this service,
we were white and black trash
who’d come
in an outhouse on wheels and still

some had grown—
in touching the spirited shirts
on clotheslines,
after watching a sky of starlings
flow like cursive
over wheat—back into creatures
capable of a wish.

As we entered Arizona
I thought I smelled the ocean,
liked the lie of this
and closed my eyes
as shadows
puppeted against my lids.

We brought our failures with us,
their taste, their smell.
But the kid
who threw up in the back
pushed to the window anyway,
opened it
and let the wind clean his face,
screamed something
I couldn’t make out
but agreed with
in shape, a sound I recognized
as everything I’d come so far
to give away.

Best Practices — I think what makes this poem so lifelike is that the poet dresses what is a rather mundane event (a long, cross-country bus ride) with concrete details that are, true to experience, far too colorful to be completely fictitious. As a result, not only do we, the audience, see the humor in the situation, but we also recognize in it (and in ourselves) a kernel of truth — a gesture that lets us scrutinize ourselves without condemnation. We drop our guard and begin to empathize with the speaker, rather than disparage the speaker’s plight. We can see ourselves in the same spot. This, like laughter, is good for the soul.


Thinking Out Loud

Field Guide: identification of poems in their natural habitat –

Part 1: Videopoeia

The imagination imitates. It is the critical spirit that creates.
Oscar Wilde

Ideation(n.) the process of generating and communicating new ideas. As a poem is literally a “made thing,” from the Greek, poein: a thing made from the imagination, I thought it would be interesting to take a critical look at how poems develop. To start us off, I “borrowed” a collaborative project, termed a “videopoeia” (coined by Omer Zalmanowitz, the videographer, who is one of the collaborators) — that is, a video-graphic re-presentation of the poet, Carleen Tibbetts, reading her own work aloud. Tentatively titled “Sad Grammar” or “An Idea Plumping in Salt Water,” the piece exemplifies the collaborative nature of “ideation” as it allows for the creation of an entirely new form of creative communication:

Critical thinkingalso termed “higher order thinking skills,” (that is, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, according to Bloom’s taxonomy) the actual “work” in making a poem begins after the initial drafting of a piece. This is where the poet/writer/artist begins to look at his/her own work through the lens of the “critical spirit” Wilde refers to in the opening quote. Toward that aim, I asked each of the collaborators (Carleen Tibbetts, the poet; and Omer Zalmonowitz, the videographer), a short series of questions regarding the creation of the work. Their answers demonstrate critical thinking skills in action:

Question 1: What was the initial impulse for creating this piece?

Carleen: The initial impulse was reading Ron Silliman and looking through my language journal for fragments, sentences, phrases, images, etc. that struck me and then experimenting with a repetitive pattern and then trying to structure the poem as many of his book-length poems are structured: block text format.

Omer: The impulse behind the videography was to capture Carleen’s performance so that the relief image of the performance wouldn’t be lost to those unable to attend the reading and thus, to keep the dimension of Carleen’s performance of the poem be part of the text. I have wanted to make a community of readings, the more readings that are available the better and I have wanted to do so for formal and informal readings since the vocalization, the spoken word, the reading and the performance is invaluable to poetry and it should be kept as part of the process of poetry-making whenever the performative aspect is present, whenever the spoken word of the text takes place on the tip of the tongue.

(Note: these answers epitomize analysis, in that they examine the work, and break it into parts by identifying motives or causes)

Question 2: What are your thoughts about the piece? Is there anything you’d like the audience to know about it?

Carleen: I wasn’t sure how long to make it. It was a first draft, so I just stopped at one page.

Omer: As the photographer/videomaker I am circulating throughout the world the gift of the text that Carleen is embodying, but it is not my poem, my body of text. This videomaking exists as a stamp on the letter — the text — and the envelope: the performance — of Carleen’s poem-making — with this stamp — a mechanical stamp, or in this case, a digital stamp — Carleen can send her text — the poem — in the envelope of her performance to various digital locations by using the digital stamp — the video. In that sense, by using this analogy, I am just the mailman, the postal worker who stamps the parcel. I’ve stamped Carleen’s poem with the ability to circulate it through the world as a video/digital/visual-auditory performative act.

(Note: these answers deliver synthesis, in explaining the production of a unique communication)

Question 3: What are your thoughts about this piece as a cultural artifact? Where will you take it from here?

Carleen: I’d need to gather more language to work into the recursive pattern in order for it to be a long poem, or a VERY long poem, in Silliman’s case!

Omer: I had noticed the complimentary property of the graphic/visual to the auditory — this is nothing unique, language works that way, a sign and a sound, and yet I was surprised how each line’s contour, length, number of letters, syllables, implied rhythm as it relates to the audio performance, how the lines were in themselves performative, already always having a suggested form about them, and yet how open-ended the process was as the possibilities at captioning the poem were plentiful — in that sense, in the captioning, I had tried to mimic the rhythm of the spoken word with the visual presentation of the captions. Even when a writer reads from a block of text, there is idiosyncratic parsing of the words into sound bytes that form sentences over the duration of speech, and although I’ve imposed a foreign parsing of the sentences of the poem onto Carleen’s vocal performance of the poem, it is the reading out loud of the poem, the spoken words, that guided me in the captioning process.

(Note: here we find probative evidence of evaluation,in that both collaborators offer their opinions, by making judgments about information, validity of ideas, or quality of work based on a set of criteria)

Brainstorms – critical thinking is integral to the making of poems (as well as all artistic works) in that it allows the creator to clarify his/her initial goals (or impulses) in the origination of a work, to examine his/her assumptions, to discern hidden values, and to evaluate his/her conclusions. Over the next few weeks, I will publish a series of posts entitled “thinking out loud,” which will examine the process of poem-making from ideation to publication. I think that critical thinking is just as important as “creativity,” and in fact, probably contributes to the overall definition of what it means to be “creative.” Over the next few weeks, I intend to test that assumption.

Kudos – I would like to thank my colleagues, Carleen Tibbetts and Omer Zalmanowitz, for allowing me to “kick off” this series with the generous contribution of their collaborative work and their thoughts on its inception.

Carleen Tibbetts received her B.A. in English from Loyola Marymount University and her M.A. in English from CSU Northridge.  Her poems have appeared in L.A. Miscellany, The Northridge Review, Redheaded Stepchild Magazine, BluePrint Review, Ancora Imparo, and Zocalo Public Square.

Omer Zalmanowitz is a graduate of Cal State University, Northridge, awarded a B.A. in Music Studies and an M.A. in English with a concentration in Creative Writing.  He is interested in literary theory, cultural criticism, performance art, creative writing pedagogy, interdisciplinary studies, and travel writing, and also is interested in acoustics/sound theory.

Astronomical Phenomena

Field Guide: identification of poems in their natural habitat –

floating all around my rooms: poem shards
on scraps of paper, bits of doom
– Notebook #4 (1994-95)

Vernal Equinox – one of the coolest things about living in the Mojave Desert (with 225 flight days per year) is that most days you can look up and, barring the habitual afternoon wind, you can actually see the sky. It was a half-dozen years ago, at this time of year (right around the Vernal Equinox) that I first noticed an intriguing spectral phenomenon on my westward drive to work each morning around 6:30 A.M. – heading into the moon-set, in my rear-view and side mirrors, I could see the Eastern sky filled with the just-rising sun. However, it was the apparition of the moon growing dimmer, and simultaneously larger as it approached the horizon, that captured my poetic imagination. So, I tucked a mental “snapshot” away in my notebook for further exploration.

Observatory – I didn’t get around to looking at that image again for several years. When I “re-discovered” it in my notebook (or language journal) I started imagining the Moon as a feminine presence, like Mozart’s “Queen of the Night,” a personification of royal personage. I wondered why “she” got bigger as she approached the horizon. In researching the physical science, I discovered that it was all an illusion, a visual trick our eyes and brain collude to perpetrate on us — astral bodies only appear to get larger as they near the horizon. I began to imagine (because I could not actually observe) the moon’s pathway from apogee to perigee as “she” circumnavigated the globe. I wondered who eclipsed whom as she queued up between Earth and Sun, about to “take center stage” again on the Eastern horizon. None of this, however, explained why her light failed and she became a ghostly effigy as she sank behind the hills that landscape my vantage point.

Powers of the Super Moon – and so, like all poets, storytellers, myth-makers, and magicians, I felt compelled to supply an explanation of my own. She seemed to me rather like an ingénue, slinking off, shoes-in-hand after Prom Night, into the waiting antemeridian sky:

Astronomical Phenomena 6:39 Antemeridian

"Astronomical Phenomena - 6:39 Antemeridian" 2008. Anne Yale. Brushed air.

Moonflower –and then, I remembered that all natural  “phenomena” are in fact, located in the observer, rather than in the observation, so I felt compelled to have the poem’s speaker (aka “I” presence) intrude on the scene, like the voice-over narration in a motion picture, but on a static, two-dimensional image re-created in words on the page. And it was then that it occurred to me that while Moon does not emit or manufacture her own light, she performs a service nonetheless: as an astronomical “mirror” she reflects astral light back to its source; however, only as much light as the observer is willing to admit being witness to.


Field Guide: observing poems in their natural habitat —

If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off,
I know that is poetry.

– Emily Dickinson

Fourth row, second seat – close enough to see the teacher without my glasses (which I hate). Positioned in the “T- zone,” (across the front and down the middle) where the “good students” sit, it’s hard to keep the book I’m actually reading (wedged between the covers of the Algebra 2 textbook) shielded from what I believe to be the unsuspecting view of the teacher. On the “down low,” passed from the kid behind me, I receive a folded piece of paper, creased to perfection. In a classic repetition of the all-too-familiar scene, the teacher confiscates the page that rivets my (lapsed) attention, and begins to read from it aloud:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide,
and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with
much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. (Whitman)

Murakami at Versailles

Murakami's sculpture: Flower Matango. Palace of Versailles. 15 Nov. 2010. Photo by Leilani Hall.

Most kids pass notes about lunch plans or crushes. My friends and I subvert a mathematics lesson with the “poetry underground.”

One of the things I like best about poetry is that it has a way of sneaking up and clobbering us. It perpetrates a surprise in language in which both writer and reader are complicit. It baits us. It pushes past the understanding of our own language in all sorts of surprising and unexpected ways, giving us and our language fresh “building materials,” luring us in with metaphor to alert us to the possibility that things might not be what they initially seem, and inviting us to consider new ideas.

Simultaneously, poetry promotes “opensure” rather than “closure” – it asks us to rise to its level and contemplate what is presented to us in its carefully scripted environment. In the word-scape Archibald Macleish paints for us in his poem, “Ars Poetica”:

A poem should be equal to
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea –

A poem should not mean
But be.     (17-24)

In the lines “For all the history of grief/ An empty doorway and a maple leaf” Macleish presents us with one of the most enduring reasons to write and purposes for public readings of poetry: the elegy – a funeral song or lament – a way to express and share our grief. Robert Frost’s contemplative, highly crafted “Nothing Gold Can Stay” surprises us with an elegy that observes what is constantly fleeting in our world:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

The surprise is in finding such beautiful language used to describe what passes away. In a similar vein, one of the most surprising elegiac poems I’ve read lately is called “Elegy with Fall’s Last Filaments” by Chris Dombrowski, in which the speaker contemplates, grapples with, and finally comes to terms with the death of a loved one. Here is just the opening stanza for you to savor:

In the one world
you called twin
tired of being
misidentified how
swiftly you became
the spider mending
each day its
wind-rent web and not
the box-elder beetle you
had been grasshopper
still tearing
at the ties intricate void
bright bardo room
she I call her hangs
like a home light
beneath the eaves and you
would have left her on            (Davis and Murphy 31)

In this beautifully wrought piece, the speaker “reads” us into the departed loved one’s “last will and testament” by showing us something about the loved one’s spirit, comparing her living presence to a spider, then a box-elder beetle, then “grasshopper/ still tearing at the ties intricate void”. I read this poem as a proper New Orleans send-off, a “home-going” celebration (much akin to an Irish “wake”) of the loved one’s life and his/her influence on the speaker.

Much like Emily Dickinson’s way of identifying poems in their natural habitat, my very unscientific method for recognizing a poem is that it will literally give me goose-bumps. Like lightning, about to strike, poetry makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. My scalp starts tingling: although the poem’s subject is the grief experienced in the wake of a beloved friend’s parting, separation, and absence, the work of the poem itself is done in processing that emotion, staring it squarely in the eye, contemplating it, rolling it over, picking it up, and examining it with a magnifying glass. (We have ignition.) As the poet works through all of the emotions he feels, he opens them up, rather than burying them; exposes them to the air, rather than swallowing them. (I get shivers.) Instead of just recycling the same old wound, the poem elegantly honors the mentor’s spirit, keeping it alive by releasing the speaker’s attachment to any prescribed physical form. My “home light” has been turned on – the poem doesn’t deny the reality that the loved one is dead – it lives gracefully within the territory in which it finds itself, breathing new life into an age-old mystery: what’s the best way of honoring who/what has passed?

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