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End of Story

I believe much trouble would be saved if we opened our hearts.
Chief Joseph

Guilty Pleasure – I have a confession to make: I have developed a habit of putting my finger in the middle of a book I’ve been reading, thumbing ahead, and reading the ending, just to see how it all turns out. Although my husband considers this to be cheating, I just can’t help myself. In a way, I do this to see if my narrative instincts are on track: I try to predict the outcome and then I read ahead to see how far on (or off) the mark I am. Although some people might think this ruins the story for me, (you can just hear them saying, “don’t tell me how it turns out!”). In fact, it increases my pleasure in that if a work is well-written, the ending is always a surprise that captivates me and makes me want to finish the rest of book just to find out what twists and turns the author takes to wind up there.

Proposition — despite what Hollywood (and English Departments across the globe) would like us to think, there is but one story in all the world, endlessly repeated and played out in a legion of seemingly fresh and innovative variations. Truth be told, they are just that: variations on a single theme. Perhaps the best synopsis of this timeless, universal saga can be found in the Cherokee wisdom story of the two wolves: speaking to his grandson about life, a tribal elder tells the youngster that inside him there is a terrible fight going on all the time between two wolves. The first wolf is good, and is characterized by love, peace, joy, hope, serenity, kindness, truth, compassion, and faith. The second wolf is evil, and is characterized by fear, anger, greed, superiority, jealousy, guilt, resentment, inferiority, false pride, arrogance, and ego. The elder concludes by telling the young boy that not only is the same fight inside him, but inside every other person as well. The grandson thinks about this for a few minutes and then asks his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?” and the old Cherokee responds, “The one you feed.”

Stranger Than Fiction
– a central theme that’s not limited solely to fictive narratives, this good vs. evil dynamic plays out in seemingly inexhaustible scenarios in real life as well. Consider, for example, the recent rioting in London, which occurred a few weeks ago, over several days in early August (2011). In the wake of such a fearsome display of unprecedented and chaotic violence, as Britain struggled to come to grips with the causes that led groups of “feral youth” to loot and pillage their own neighbors, consensus of opinion quickly pointed toward the entire nation’s moral decline as a leading factor. In an article that produced substantive online traffic, (and over 50,000 Facebook likes) Peter Oborne, chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph, opines: “Indeed, I believe that the criminality in our streets cannot be dissociated from the moral disintegration in the highest ranks of modern British society. The last two decades have seen a terrifying decline in standards among the British governing elite. It has become acceptable for our politicians to lie and to cheat. An almost universal culture of selfishness and greed has grown up.” Proponents promptly endorsed Oborne’s position from both sides of the political divide.

Ethical Dilemma
– the only problem with pointing to moral decay as the root cause of violence is that it feeds the wrong wolf. First, although governments around the globe have attempted to enshrine moral codes in statutes designed to regulate not only public, but intimately private conduct, the fact is that morality cannot be legislated. Although it’s safe to say that behavior is observable and can be regulated, morality is something that people carry around with them on the inside. Second, while it’s arguable that behavior is an outgrowth of morality, judging others as morally “disintegrated” places the observer in a position of moral superiority (the “evil” wolf’s territory). This promulgates a climate of fear, in which more violence can thrive. Third, the statement, good vs. evil, is perhaps in itself too simplistic a reduction of the underlying forces at work. Another way of framing the root cause of violence is this: rather than moral decline (or even failure) it’s safe to say that anything not motivated by love (the province of the “good” wolf) can be attributed to (and is the direct result of) its absence.

Finish Line – in the example set by bands of residents who formed “broom brigades” to help their neighbors clean up the mess, we witness a more germane response. As an act of compassion, supplying what’s lacking feeds the “good” wolf. It restores sanity and shifts the focus away from fear and the conflict it engenders. There is no story without conflict. No conflict — end of story.


But a Dream

html 101: keys to deciphering the “code” we use to pack and unpack our knapsacks –

A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight,
and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.

– Oscar Wilde

Taking Notes – I’ve kept a dream journal for forty years. A rich source of material for poems, not only in that it gives me instant access to the sub-conscious, but the years-long practice of recording and learning to interpret dream imagery and symbolism has led me not only to some searing insights into my own psyche, but to certain rather startling convictions about life in general. Like learning to “read” any language, facility and fluidity are gained with frequent application – the more often you practice, the easier it becomes.

People's Drug StoreLiving Color – I started recording my dreams when I posed a question to myself in my diary: I wondered aloud (or at least on the page) if I dreamt in color. That night, I dreamt that I was standing outside of the People’s Drug Store on 12th Street, N.E. (another Washington D.C. institution, now defunct) and, as luck would have it, in the dream itself I was quite aware of looking up at the company’s logo and that it was, in fact, bright orange – too obvious to miss. In the dream, I answered myself aloud: “Yes! I do dream in color!” I was hooked. The pages of my diary ceded to a dream-record and I began a lifelong “vision quest,” puzzling out their significance and meaning.

Just a cigar? – not long after that, I had an unusually haunting dream, the kind that sticks with you, regardless of the attempts to shake it or shrug it off. Heavily symbolized, I was overcome with its emotional residue, and felt weighted down by its gravity. I didn’t become fully aware of its implications or significance for decades. In the dream, (which I somehow understood as taking place far into the future) I took a familiar route down Michigan Avenue, toward my childhood home. I became more and more aware as I approached my street that something was wrong. It looked like the row of houses on the block I grew up on had been bombed. When I got to the house itself, the inside was abandoned, the hardwood floors were rotted out and jumbled up like broken toothpicks, and I was left with the disconcerting feeling that my childhood home stood in shambles. I used this imagery to frame a poem, some thirty-five years later:

from Empty HouseRoyal Road – although I had this dream when I was about fifteen, my immediate interpretation of it had been unsatisfactory, and as such, the dream content stayed with me. It wasn’t until my father was dying and I was called back home some thirty-three years afterward that the fullness of the dream’s meaning sank in. As a teenager, I’d interpreted the dream to mean that I would leave home (which I did) and that despite the fact that I’d been very happy there growing up, as an adult with my own life, I would find that there was nothing there for me. As an adult with my own life, however, the dream’s meaning and significance deepened when I realized that the house (even if it was my childhood home) symbolized the outer, or physical realm, and that for me, especially as a poet, my inner world (or the mental/spiritual realm) was far more vital and engaging. Rather than leaving me feeling dismal, the truth of the matter, that nothing material was as attractive to me as the recognizable, albeit intangible, precepts of love, desire, peace, etc., was freeing at this point.

Freudian SlipTony Crisp (whose online dream dictionary I frequent) says that the closer we are to being ready to accept a thought or situation by admitting it into our awareness, the more direct (and less symbolized) it becomes in our dreams. Another dream that stayed with me for a long time provides an example of a direct confrontation that is less symbolized, and therefore easily recognizable. Making a poem out of it, however, proved a bit more of a challenge:

Sheer Illusions

The interpretation of this dream appeared immediately obvious to me: the “it” that chases me, night after night, and appears to be always closing in, is fear. When we turn around and face our fears, they vanish, seemingly into “thin air.”

By the light of the silvery moon – poets often speak about the “trance state” or “liminal space” where poems come from and writing occurs. In my experience, what bubbles up from this space is most often the so-called “irrational” sub-conscious, which actually has a logic all its own. The same process occurs several times a night as we enter and move through the dream state. Learning to decode the images and symbols presented in dreams is a worthwhile pursuit in and of itself, as it sheds some light on the inner workings of our own minds. The added step of reading or working with these symbols and images in “normal” waking consciousness (i.e. translating them into language, that they might be shared with others) deepens the understanding of self, and enhances the creative experience. Freed from the constraints of the “rational” mind, writing becomes less about work and more about play. Intent on being heard, latent voices speak. Rising to the surface, they utter their secrets, confiding only to the poet who listens keenly.

The Dawn – learning to “crack the code” of dream logic is like finding a key that opens every lock in the world. By extrapolating what I know about the inner workings of my own mind and applying it to the inner workings of other authors’ minds, I can also “read” the symbols and images I find in literature. Plato's CaveTake the Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, for instance. In dream symbolism, a cave (or being in an underground space) represents the sub-conscious (also indiscriminately refereed to, unfortunately, as the unconscious). In Plato’s teaching narrative, people are prisoners, held captive in a cave, and because the “light” is behind them, they can only see the “shadows” on the wall of the cave. The captives, in other words, facing away from the light (i.e. Truth or Self) see only shadows (i.e. fear of the unknown, feelings that overwhelm them, etc.) and are imprisoned (much like the speaker in the poem, “Sheer Illusion,” above) by this unexamined, unarticulated state of mind. When the prisoners turn around and walk out of the cave and into the light, which initially pains them, they realize the “shadows” were only false notions, not real. The allegory immediately resonates within each of us, and we all “get it” on an intuitive level right away, because the symbolism speaks to the sub-conscious directly without the meddlesome interference of the “rational” mind. However, reading and interpreting the meaning of the symbols requires some analysis, which is the province of the “light” or conscious/rational mind.

Scientists disagree on the purpose and function of dreaming, except to recognize that it is integral to our health and well-being. Comfortable with intuition and mysteries, artists, however, accept dreams and dream vision as a source of inspiration. Isaac Singer labored over improvements to the design of the sewing machine until the solution of placing the hole for the thread at the bottom of the needle occurred to him in a dream. Albert Einstein pondered complex mathematical equations, and similarly found solutions when napping. For me, a certain liberation of spirit transpires through the process of dreaming, one that is recapitulated in the process of writing. Ultimately satisfying, the two processes, woven together, yield insights into the workings of both the inner and the outer world.

Thinking Out Loud, Part 2

html 101: keys to deciphering the code used to pack and unpack our knapsacks –

TAG! You’re It!

moments of truth and beauty are never scripted,
they exist mostly in the blank spaces
between the items on the checklist,
come up through the cracks in a conversation,
rarely look anything like you thought they would.

– Mary McNamara, “No one does it like Oprah
Calendar section, L.A. Times, Wednesday, May 24, 2011

Do not iron— defined as “making art from the undisguised, but often modified use of objects that are not normally considered art,” the Watts Towers, pictured

Watts Towers

"Watts Towers" Sabato Rodia. Mortar and found objects

here, epitomize the concept of “found” art. In addition to porcelain, tile, and bits of glass, there are bed frames, sea shells, scrap metal and assorted bottles mortared into the structure that speaks to us in a peculiar vernacular that marks L.A. — one that is like obscenity or good teaching: easily recognizable, but difficult to articulate. (I know it when I see it.)

Do not wring —along the lines of making art from “found” objects, I’ve started a little collection of “found” language in my journal. Once I started looking for discrete units (interesting bits) of language, I found the place literally littered with the stuff.

From traffic signs:Drifting Sandto fortune cookies:
you can find language pretty much everywhere. I found these tags stuck on “Amanda,” a new style of jeans:

And this list of instructions was inside a new travel coffee mug:

Do not bleach — what to do with these prizes? Play. Make art from the “undisguised but often modified” use of the language, the epitome of which can be found in a familiar Lewis Carroll poem:


"Jabberwocky" Lewis Carroll.

Created by replacing recognizable words with “nonsense” words, Jabberwockyexhibits a sense of play, surprising us with its use of language, as does this excerpted shard by e.e. cummings:

anyone lived in a pretty how town

"anyone lived in a pretty how town" e.e. cummings. brushed air.

Freed from the pretense of poetry as “high art,” these two examples remind us that one of the first principles of making art is to have fun.

Machine wash — so, I thought it might be a fun exercise to start out with a label I found inside a new article of clothing:and modify it. As it is small and has interesting line-breaks already, all you’d have to do to create a found poem would be to substitute some of the words. For example: Stream wash/ cold, dark stones/ glassy. No / shoes. Tumble wet/ lost feet. No outlet.

Tag! You’re “It! — if you’d like to play, use any of the “found” language offered here, modify it, and leave your poem in the comments. Ollie, ollie, oxen free!

B of A

html 101: the “code” we use to pack and unpack our knapsacks –

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.
– William Wordsworth


Piggy Bank. 2005. Photo. McLeod, Wikimedia.

Starting An Account – in a rhetorical bid to cash in on then President George H.W. Bush’s “kindler, gentler” conservative response (that is to imply “tepid” by connotation) to the prevailing recession of the late ‘80’s and early 90’s, Bill Clinton coined the oft-since repeated phrase “It’s the economy, stupid!”

By parsing the sentiment of the entire nation and articulating it in a single (albeit pithy) catch-phrase, “Slick Willy,” a speaker as charismatic as he is scholarly, has effectively demonstrated for us the poetic principle known as word economy. By definition, word economy involves squeezing as much profit (i.e. meaning) out of as few words as possible. However, this is an enterprise that is not without effort, as it requires the skillful manipulation of a personal “word collection” or lexicon.



Savings – while word economy is a marketable skill for sloganeering, its use in literature adds to a work’s artistry and grace. Regardless of whether a writer practices poetry or prose, boiling an idea down to its most essential expression and rendering it in its most concise form with precision and clarity is the ends – the means is in the savings account, that is, one’s personal lexicon or “word bank”. The best thing about starting a word collection is that it is the most frugal of all possible hobbies: it costs nothing. And yet, the payoff is great: acquiring an extensive word collection allows an author a wide ledger and nearly limitless resources from which to draw when writing.

Establishing a Line of Credit – the primary source of language comes, of course, from reading. However, budding writers should not restrict themselves to books alone. In a literate society, language litters nearly everything: blogs, billboards, brochures, clothing tags, product instruction manuals, social networking websites, store fronts, even fridge magnets. Once you begin looking for fascinating bits of language, you’ll find them all over the place. Interesting words or lexical items that are pretty or unique become part of a rare “special collection.”

Safe Deposit Box – some writing teachers suggest buying those prefabricated poetry fridge magnets and playing around with the words; however, I think it’s more valuable to make your own. In Poemcrazy, Susan Wooldridge advocates making “word tickets” – essentially the same thing as those magnets, but you print words from your own collection on them. Another method, promoted by one of my professors, Dorothy Barresi, is to keep a language journal – like a diary, except the entries record the details of your word inventory instead of (or perhaps as adornments of) personal narratives.


Artist's Notebooks. 2010. jpg

Personally, I like the idea of keeping all my treasures in an artist’s notebook. Drawings, dream imagery, fabric scraps, symbols, dried flowers, metaphors and personal observations fill the pages of mine, in addition to any irresistible word-crumbs I may find. Since color wakes up the brain, I use a variety of crayons, colored pencils, markers and highlighters to bejewel its otherwise stolid inked pages.

Checking – Once your collection begins to grow, it can be tempting to show off; however, underwriting the basic premise of word economy is that no unnecessary words are used. In order to avoid temptation, therefore, good writers float their prizes thriftily, occasionally dropping a one-hundred dollar bill out of the clear blue sky, as in this sentence, drafted from the cache of Virginia Woolf:

"On Being Ill"From her essay “On Being Ill,” this sentence is quoted and discussed by Francine Prose in Reading Like a Writer. To some, this sentence may seem too wordy, a run-on sentence, perhaps. However, as Ms. Prose points out in her discussion, the sentence is, in fact, a display of Ms. Woolf’s prowess: in her economical efficiency, she has not presented a single superfluous word in this 181-word deposit, and cutting any of them would sacrifice the sentence’s overall clarity. Frugally interspersed among what is otherwise mostly ordinary language, we strike pay-dirt in these judiciously uncovered jems: precipice, obdurate, annihilation.

Withdrawal Slips – in all writing, the prime objective is to score a piece that is clear and concise. Leaner still than prose, poetry seeks to eliminate all words that add no meaning, without becoming so spare as to sacrifice clarity. Toward that end, prepositions, (of, on, in, to, for, with, etc.) questionable or manipulative modifiers (aka adjectives), vague nouns, imprecise or inactive verbs, useless repetitions, and passive voice constructions are all targeted for line-item veto. Let’s take a look at “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, for example:


excerpted from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot

If we injudiciously withdraw all of the prepositions, for example, “through certain half-deserted streets” becomes “Let us go, certain half-deserted streets” — which no longer makes sense at the sentence level — thus, Mr. Eliot’s precise use of language would be lost, much to the poem’s detriment. While the predictable use of the modifiers insidious, restless, and tedious help conjure up what Virginia Woolf may have been referring to with her bristling surmise of “Mr. Eliot and his four-piece suits,” they nonetheless help characterize the bureaucratic title character. More interesting are the atypical modifiers, i.e. half-deserted, and muttering (both verbs, although used adjectivally) and sawdust (a noun, used adjectivally). Better still: the simile — like a patient etherised upon a table — an image that forms an unlikely comparison to evening in the analogous relationship Mr. Eliot sets up for us, despite his patented choice of the British, (“s”) rather than his native American (“z”) spelling of the word “etherized.”

Capital Contribution – it’s also worth pointing out that unlike prose, sentence fragments are budgeted within poetry’s household expenditures. For example, Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” more than likely the shortest poem in the English language, (at least, of which I am aware) consists merely of two phrases:

PoundThe first fragment describes the subject: the apparition of faces in the crowd; and while the second fragment gives us its analogue: (look like) petals on a bough, it does not give us a predicate. Certainly, a poet as grammatically grounded (in several languages, no less) as Pound intentionally juxtaposed these two fragments, to “crash the market” with properly Modernist ambition. In fact, the two fragments strung together in analogy do indeed form one complete thought: a metaphor (sans verb) that is one of the most exquisite examples of word economy extant.

ATM – unlike sloganeering, sound bytes, or even prose, the ultimate goal of poetry is to pack as much meaning into as few words as possible by extending the principle of word economy by way of figurative language (i.e. allusion, imagery, metaphor, etc). This allows for ambiguity, and requires the audience to “unpack” the poem’s language, opening the work up to multiple readings and myriad interpretations including (but not limited to) literal, figurative, symbolic and/or allegorical levels of meaning. In this way, a writer makes a deposit, kind of a “loan” that, with interest, a reader collects on — a “savings” no other banking institution can mortgage, broker, borrow against, repossess, or lock away in its vault.


html 101: hypertexts’ meta-language – keys to deciphering the “code” used to pack and unpack our knapsacks —

May the discourse be with you.
– Rick Kilpatrick

Clipped: (202) 555-2121 KIT – benched in the dugout, Hans looks up from his phone and nods quick acknowledgement of his buddy, Ed, just in from right field. Angling the screen toward Ed, Hans shows him Becky’s message. “What up?” asks Ed. Hans answers with a question of his own, “What’s kit mean? Does she want me to call her?” Ed enlightens Hans, “Dude! She texted you her number! And it’s not kit, it’s K-I-T… means keep in touch.” Still unsure of the subtext, Hans asks again, “So does she want me to call her or what?”

Bites: Unaware that his good buddy, Ed, had been already talking with Becky, Hans sits in the dugout next to Ed, pinching his ball cap between this thumb and forefinger, absent-mindedly using his third finger to scratch his scalp and gaping at his cell’s touch screen. Meanwhile, (back at the ranch) our boy Ed, intent on “reaching out” and actually “touching someone,” scribbles his next message to her in his notebook:

somewhere i have never traveled gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me
or which i cannot touch because they are too near  (cummings 1-4).

Two friends sit on the bench in the dugout, thigh to thigh,


"Nude Descending Staircase, No. 2" (1912) Marcel Duchamp. Oil on canvas.

one flanking the “North rim” of the Grand Canyon, one facing south, both of them attempting to navigate the Colorado River sandwiched in the rift betweenI ♥ u and “somewhere i have never traveled gladly beyond any experience” — Can you feel me now?

Scarcely held together with heavy-duty packing tape, my copy of e. e. cummingsa selection of poems (with an introduction by Horace Gregory) would have disintegrated long ago if not for the heft of the 3M Scotch brand. After my initial reading of cummings’ selections, I began driving all of my teachers insane by using the uncapitalized “i” and taking liberties with punctuation, only to be told that only published poets (as opposed to aspiring thirteen year-old girls) had that kind of [poetic] license.

Nonetheless, it was the language itself that drew me back in, and sucker-punched me every time. Of course, at thirteen I read these lines in terms of concrete “touching” – and thought long and hard on how a thing could be too near to touch. As I grew older and less “sophisticated,” the implications of abstraction drew first light, and in facing down the hurdles to apprehending my own psyche, I began to understand and appreciate mister cummings’ statement in a whole new way. Let’s face it, I’d been baited.

Then switched – my appetite for cummings forged a neat segue into all sorts of contraband (I like to think of his work as sort of a “gateway” poetry) – delicious new ways to use language comes in a variety of savory flavors, giving us and our language fresh ingredients with which to code and decode our connections to one another. The goal isn’t the elusive “finish line,” it’s the “pursuit of happiness” completed through the “hard work of conversation” that starts with an invitation from another person:

Keep in touch,

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