Archive for the ‘Poem-Craft’ Category

The Wall

Poem-Craft: musings on yarn-spinning, fabric selections and the like –

I know but one freedom,and that is the freedom of the mind.
– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

In the news — on August 13, 1961, East Germany started construction on the Berlin Wall. That was fifty years ago. Some 18 years later, in August of 1979, I visited it, and had occasion to see it from both the West German and East German points-of-view. It took me quite a while afterward to construct this poem in response to the austerity I witnessed in the (then) communist sector, East Berlin:

Before the Fall

– for HGH

The radio tower looms
stark, above a lean landscape.
The singularity of gray reigns
in the atmosphere, unsmiling,          
and hard says the eyes of its people.

The scars of World War II repose
untouched, pock-marked buildings –
mute monuments to the “evil West.”
Their pitted witness testifies
to a simple commerce
exchanged – communist pillaging
raids the tomb: tourist maps
exclude churches, chronology
begins ‘jahr zero.’

Yet here, its specter raised:
the Ishtar Gate
in sanctified lapis and gold,
King Nebuchadnezzar II’s ancient
wonder – forty-seven feet tall
and a hundred feet wide, its blue
tiles boast dragons and aurochs,
one hundred-twenty lions
anointed in regal-gold
line the Processional Way.

Reposited to the Pergamon Museum
brick by brick, the walls of Babylon,
expected to weep in captivity,
send up its plaintive wail.  These very stones
cry out, mounting with new mortar
and sand, sing defiance:

We have risen!

In contrast with the opulence and prosperity of West Berlin, there were several things (besides the details included in the poem) that struck me about the visit: first, I was almost certain that I was going to meet my doom when I was required to enter East Germany through the infamous Checkpoint Charlie, being American and all. My traveling companion, a West German citizen, had to use a different checkpoint, and could not accompany me. We were to rendezvous on a specific corner on the East German side. I’d gotten through the first two security stations without much cause for alarm (except that they confiscate your passport and give it back to you on the other side) and was exiting through a fenced area, thinking I was in the clear, when a soldier carrying a rifle ran up behind me, shouting, “Fraulein! Fraulein!” I froze, my heart racing as I waited for the firearm to report, and wondered what I had done wrong that was about to get me shot.

“You forgot your passport!” he called. Relieved, I turned around and smiled weakly, gathered my errant, forgotten passport, and walked into the bright morning sun on the East German side. The second thing I remember is how disgusted my West German escort was about the wall’s very existence. “Germans watching Germans!” bemoaned my friend. We took lots of pictures of the emergency warning system that lined the banks of both sides of the river. Just in case someone accidentally fell in, (from either side) potential Good Samaritans were supposed to pull this alarm, (remarkably similar to a fire alarm) then wait thirty seconds before jumping in to save the drowning victim. That’s so the guards on either side would not suspect the Samaritan of being a defector in reality, and shoot. Appropriate aide would be administered only if the alarm had been set off.

Finally, the best treasures (and therefore, the best museums) were on the East German side, which was cause to visit. Despite that, however, the East German economy was rigged. We each (my West German friend and I) had to exchange 10 DM (Deutsche Marks) for East German Marks at a very unfair rate of 1:1, and spend all ten of them while we were in East Germany. You couldn’t hold on to the East German Marks as souvenirs, nor were you allowed to bring US dollars or West German currency across the border. Though fixed and tightly controlled, however, it was immediately apparent that the East German government spent very little money on sprucing things up for tourists, much less themselves.

Nonetheless, it was an historic and worthwhile experience overall. Quite an eye-opener. And although I hadn’t spent a tremendous amount of time reminiscing about it in the decade that followed, like the German citizens (on both sides) I saw working together toward its demolition, I, too, found myself exhilarated and rejoicing when, at last, in 1989, the wall came down.

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Thinking Out Loud, Part 3

Poem-Craft: musings on yarn-spinning, fabric selections and the like –

Now Comes the Hard Part

Writing is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy
and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress,
then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant.
The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled
to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.

– Winston Churchill

Toy – I got glasses and breasts the same year – a development which simultaneously threw off my center of gravity and ruined my tennis game. Not that I had ever been all that athletic, really, unless mental gymnastics, imaginative leaps, or a gift for storytelling count toward athleticism. Nonetheless, prior to seventh grade, (that fateful year) my classmates and I all played football together on the blacktop at recess with blatant disregard to gender “differences,” simply because our class and our school was so small that if we didn’t organize co-ed games, we wouldn’t have had enough of one group or the other to form two complete, opposing teams for any sport, save basketball, and (believe it or not) we had no hoops.

It was the same way in my neighborhood. With respect to summertime ball games, despite all the “second-wave feminist” rhetoric raising everyone’s consciousness in terms of “gender identification and socialization,” we espoused a non-discriminatory “gender equality” policy in the alley, born of necessity, not politics.  Thinking back on those childhood summers now, the sense of mental clarity I had about the world and my role in it, before things got “complicated,” the image that kept coming back to me was the mimosa tree in our next door neighbor’s back yard and the quality of light I still associate with those carefree summers: the southern exposure alert, awake, and at the same time idle and serene.

Batting language around like a cat with a new feather tickler, I begin with a kind of “word association” in my notebook:

Mimosa tree: sweet, candy, candy-coated, sugary, delicious, honeyed, luscious, nectarous, ambrosial, aromatic, fragrant, perfumed, pure, scented…

But mostly, it’s the quality of light: southern exposure; alert, awake, aware, calm, tranquil, serene, idle (but not lazy) attentive, watchful, vigilant sky full sun stare rims

By letting the mind go into a “free fall,” I can reach a state (some call it “that liminal space where writing happens”) in which, at least for me, language seems to just bubble up to the surface. Then, I begin working consciously, trying to “freeze” the scene from my memory in place on the page:

Mistress – before I’ve even finished the first draft, a task that is more intuitive (right-brained) than logical (left-brained), the “inner critic” has gone to work, pointing out the weakness in the over-familiar “dinosaur.” I make a note to myself to look for other word choices, put the draft away, and try to ignore it. But it won’t go away, won’t shut up. Still on the tip of my mind the next morning, I go back to work, complete the first draft, and start looking for a title. In my mind, it’s the summer between fourth and fifth grade, so I calculate the year (1967) and start doing some research.

I find an event that fits the time period I want to suggest, and, even better, connects to the theme of “gender” identity: the Mariner 5 launch on June 14, 1967. Its mission: to study the inner solar system, specifically, the planet Venus.

Tyrant – Now the task becomes one that requires some skill: how to yoke the spacecraft together with my own personal experience in order to suggest the theme, or point I’m trying to get at: that is, although the feminist critics (i.e. Judith Butler, et al) may be on the right path initially, they ultimately draw the wrong conclusion about “gender identity” and “equality,” in my opinion. In her essay, “Gender Trouble,” Butler uses the phenomenon of gender impersonation, or “drag” (think: John Travolta playing Mrs. Turnblad in Hairspray, for instance) to suggest that “gender is a kind of persistent impersonation that passes as the real” and further asserts: “What other foundational categories of identity – the binary of sex, gender, and the body – can be shown as productions that create the effect of the natural, the original, and the inevitable?” This line of inquiry leads her (and other feminists) to conclude that “gender” is a fiction, a social construct, a creation that is all in the mind, and is consistently reinforced through socialization.

This much, I can agree with, based on seventh grade. Seemingly all of a sudden, for no reason that was clear to us, the nuns swooped in, segregated the girls from the boys, told us we couldn’t play sports together anymore, and left us bereft of the other half of our teammates and companions. Why? “Because we said so. Because it’s sinful. Because it leads to nothing good.” Suddenly, just when we were starting to get along on the field as well as we got along in the classroom, we should view anyone of the opposite sex as an outcast? Somehow, that just didn’t seem right to me, and I remain unconvinced.

As far as I can tell, based on my own experience, the mind is ungendered, neither “male” nor “female.” While there’s no arguing about the biological differences between men and women (which begin to assert themselves prominently at puberty) I always thought that “gender” identification is indeed, a social construct. However, as the mind does not have “form” or “body,” I’ve always thought of the mental plane as more or less a level playing field, where men and women could play and compete on the same terms. That is, of course, if they can get past the (gender) biases and stereotypically assigned gender roles ingrained in them from seventh grade on.

Killing the Monster – Butler’s conclusion is that as gender is a fiction, a construct, there can be no “ideal woman” or “ideal man” in Plato’s theorized realm of forms.  Ergo, Butler concludes, if there’s no ideal “man” and no ideal “woman,” then “there is no pre-existing identity” — a conclusion she and her feminist pals use to discredit Plato’s entire theory, one of the premises on which all of paternalistic Western civilization rests.

This, as far as I’m concerned, is a bit like “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” if you’ll pardon the cliché. Is it not also possible that if “gender” is a construction that’s all in the mind, then “male” or “female” or even “body” might also be a construction? That is, rather than the mind being “in” the body, couldn’t the “body” be all in the mind? After all, couldn’t that be what Plato was trying to suggest with his allegory of the cave?

If that’s so, then it’s also possible that we do, in fact, have a “pre-existing identity,” but that as this identity is not a body-identification, it is without form, i.e. sexless and genderless — a far more “disruptive” deconstruction, I think, than Butler’s conclusion. With that in mind, I offer up the poem, still in progress, currently in its fourth or fifth incarnation:

Mariner 5

 Because it was designed to conduct only scientific measurements, and was equipped with more sensitive instruments than its predecessor, Mariner 2, it was able to shed new light on the hot, cloud-covered planet and on conditions in interplanetary space.
On June 14, 1967, it was launched toward Venus.

– Solar System Exploration, NASA.gov

Full-sun stare, vigilant sky
rims the backyard, tickling
the southern exposure – pure clarity
sheers orange-yellow-pink pom-poms
wisping all over the mimosa. Canopied
beneath its lazy, late-morning perfume,
I imbibe forbidden novels, read gorgons
in clouds, let earth-cool grass
devour me.

I engage in espionage from a cat’s perch
up a neighbor’s tree, deploying
maple seed helicopters
on reconnaissance missions,
parachuting out after them –
tactical maneuvers from branch collar
to landing zone.

On the cusp, ungendered,
I decipher heartwood
in a time before sex matters,
before I am some

body — transfigured:

by desire, love’s wounds, the scarring
grown over –
more resistant to decay,
but feigning life.

Orbiting constant summer
in mutant twilight,
transformed again –
a traveler, incommunicado,
fixed
on a signal
from inner space.

Storied Résumé

Poem-Craft: musings on yarn-spinning, fabric selections, and the like –

Real education should consist of drawing the goodness and the best
out of our own students. What better books can there be
than the book of humanity?
– Cesar Chavez

Grammar School — Fourth row, second seat, Professor Chianese’s Rhetoric for Writing Teachers, my first graduate school class — I sat writing away, totally focused on the first task we’d been assigned. As the professor ambled up and down each row, he looked over each person’s shoulder, stopping now and then to peruse his/her first in-class writing sample. My heart began pounding as he paused next to my desk and glimpsed over my shoulder at my paper. My palms began sweating, the lump in my throat leapt into the empty chair in front of me. Reading my paragraphs, he squinted. With what seemed to me like an inordinate measure of perverse glee, he announced, “You went to Catholic school, didn’t you?”

Grad Schoolhow on earth could you have possibly known that? I must have wondered aloud, because he leaned in and whispered into my ear: “Your grammar — impeccable! Those nuns must’ve pounded it into you.” One knowing twinkle, and there I was, exposed for what I was, shamelessly laid bare in front of the whole class, the consummate weight of the professor’s gravitas gazing on me and my essay. And though I am loathe to admit it, it’s true — I am, in fact, an emblazoned hussy of the worst kind: a bald-faced philologist.

Secondary School – The only thing I ever got in trouble for in Catholic grammar school was (wait for it…) talking. A lot. Too much, in fact. It’s a habit I’ve been unable to shake. I have a propensity for prolix. For me, with its prized word economy, poetry functions somewhat like a 12-step program for verbosity. I say “somewhat” because even as I disclose this about myself, I am keenly aware of the inherent narrative disposition and lengthy character of a lot of my poems. On analyzing this, I’ve identified the compositional issue as giving the reader “too much exposition” and I’ve begun taking corrective steps by issuing the necessary background information in a kind of controlled release throughout a single piece.

Professional Developmentfrom an in-service teacher-training workshop on total quality management, I gleaned this little gem: “prior planning prevents poor performance.” It became my mantra. I posted it in my classroom. Taking it to heart myself in executing a piece of writing meant that I too, had to “practice what I preached” and explore a technique I’d heard of, but never actually used before: making an outline. Although it seemed completely counter-intuitive to write an outline for a creative piece, that’s precisely what I did — I wrote an outline for this poem, and then created lists of supporting data to “fill in” the rest:

Facebook

"Facebook" Anne Yale. 2009. Brushed air.

Better Books – it wasn’t until graduate school that I discovered that college is literally a place where we go to “read together,” from the Latin: “co” (meaning together) + “legere” (meaning to read). And then I realized why everything we study in school is called a “discipline” and that perhaps even more important than the reading part of the word is the social interaction aspect inferred by the word together — we read together — that is to say, we come to class and discuss what we’ve learned from our reading. And what I’ve learned from talking with students younger than myself is how to negotiate all the technologically advanced tools which now serve higher education. For example, I’ve recently been introduced to Facebook, Moodle, and Skype, as well as the vast online resources available through most universities’ libraries being linked together via the Internet. These same colleagues, however, also issued a caveat with regard to tool consumption: beware of the time-assassinating aspects of getting sucked in, especially with regard to social media.

Book of Humanity – while online learning applications provide a great resource of efficient content (i.e. reading material) delivery, there is not and never will be an online or computer-generated substitute for face-to-face classroom interaction, which, as I discovered, (much to my chagrin) can actually be thwarted if students let the tools consume them, leaving them no time to prepare in advance of classroom discussion. On reflection, perhaps we might benefit from pulling back, re-evaluating “best practices,” and focusing more on the product/process of education (i.e. content: reading, writing, thinking about and discussing ideas) and less on the tools (delivery method).

With that in mind, perhaps the “institution narrative” of the purpose of a good education should similarly be re-evaluated. Is/should the ends or goal really be the “good job” or “degree” or whatever “pot of gold” we’ve ordained as waiting at the end of the educational rainbow? Or is the actual product of education inherent in the process of reading/ writing/ thinking about/ discussing ideas together in and of itself? As Cesar Chavez clearly articulates in the epigraph to this piece, what better books can there be?

Traffic Signals

Poem-Craft: musings on yarn-spinning, fabric selections, and the like –

No person shall drive upon a highway at such a slow speed
as to impede or block the normal and reasonable movement
of traffic, unless the reduced speed is necessary for safe operation,
because of a grade, or in compliance with the law.

California Vehicle Code, Section 22400. (a)

California may be one of the only states in the union where you can get a traffic ticket for driving too slow. On the morning commute out of the Mojave, we hurtle toward Los Angeles, 80 miles-per-hour, bumper-to-bumper in the pre-dawn dark. Imagining ourselves smugly independent in our separate vehicles, we slalom downhill toward our destinations unaware that we actually travel together. Our fates are tied: we’re always just one blown-out tire away from our lives’ intersection at freeway and collision.

Resisting the urge to speed is difficult. Knowing this, the city recently put in a new (and confounding) traffic circle down the street from my house, at the junction of two highways, where there have been far too many such “fatal attractions.” The results are obvious: before the circle was put in, there were hundreds of failures to “yield the right-of-way,” whereas since the traffic circle’s installation, nary a shrine has been erected to commemorate the loss of yet another family member to these mean streets and the carnage brought on by our haste. The traffic circle arrests us, detains us, makes us slow down and pay attention.

traffic lightIn a similar fashion, we’ve all been taught to read for speed, that is, to quickly pin down the point of whatever it is that we’re looking at. Whether it’s a menu, a computer screen, a novel, a do-it-yourself book, the stock report, or even a movie or television show, it’s all about deducing the main idea, comprehending the supporting details. Just like when we navigate through the surface streets and highways of our lives, punctuation and the particulars of form/genre of a piece of reading material provide us with the necessary conventions and “traffic signals” while “texting.” Poetry, as a genre, is a “traffic circle” – it requires us to slow down, do some sight-seeing, take in the view.

STOPWith regard to punctuation, I liken a period to a “stop” sign. It directs us to come to a complete stop, exhale, and draw in a new breath before proceeding. Similarly, a semi-colon is like a flashing yellow light; it says “stop, look both ways, proceed with caution.” And a comma allows us to perform what’s colloquially referred to here as a “California roll” – that is, a rolling stop (no brakes, one foot on the gas, ready to proceed through the intersection).

When crafting “traffic signals” for readers to follow, poets use the conventional method (i.e. punctuation) most of the time. However, more and more with contemporary poetry, poets experiment with “new technology,” that is, they try to craft new ways to give readers the same kinds of traffic direction, but without relying on the conventional green/yellow/red light signals we’ve become accustomed to. For example, Clint Campbell engineers just such a “traffic circle” in his poem, “Night Follows” by utilizing line breaks to form “flashing yellow lights” and wider than normal gaps between words (i.e. white space) to install “speed bumps” that work together to slow down our habitual “speed reading” patterns, get us out of our “ruts,” and give us signals to follow in the absence of punctuation:

Night Follows

"Night Follows" (2010). Clint Campbell. Brushed air.

Signaling – although there are no commas in this poem, the gaps (white space) within a line mark places where we should slow down before proceeding. Similarly, as there are no periods, there are no “hard stops.” Rather, we find ourselves passengers, rolling along with the poem’s movement right through to the end. As opposed to the iconic traffic jam at rush hour, this poem’s form and surface structure create an experience that can be likened to traffic when it is flowing smoothly.

Intersections – on a very basic level, the “rules of the road” exist to keep us from colliding with one another. These (sometimes unwritten) rules are conventions we agree to follow in order to ensure our own safety and the safety of others. “Safe” in our individual cars, however, we are isolated from our traveling companions. As human beings, our natural instinct is to reach out, to try to communicate with one another, to intersect.

On a literal level, this poem keenly observes several intersections: those that deal with changes in light (i.e. dusk or dawn) as day/night overlap; changes in traffic lights from red to green to yellow and back to red; and the experiences shared by the poem’s speaker and the other person the speaker addresses throughout (i.e. “the skies deep/ as your eyes”).

But the “engines” that drive this poem are found at the figurative (or hypertext) level. For example, the poem’s two central images work toward signaling what lies at the “heart” of the matter: “These hands to clench     a fist/to take money / /These hands to hold with tenderness too/ cut flowers” (9-12). “These hands” evokes an (internal) engine that drives the speaker (as well as the audience), that is, a feeling of tenderness, perhaps even love. “These hands” then intersect with a second set of “engines” – that is, the need or will or desire to succeed (“take money”) and simultaneously, to find beauty (“cut flowers”) in a material or physical world. The intersection of these two “engines” conveys the ever-present tension between our internal desires, or what drives us, and what is driven by us, that is, the external means we seek for fulfilling those desires.

Under Construction – Some might read this poem’s final image: “the untraceable midnight       colors/ toned and slick/ a dark scaled shark just behind/ just beyond” as an omen; others may see an intriguing invitation. Where the poem takes each reader depends on the back streets and inroads found in each one’s imagination. The poet’s work, however, is done in translating the images in his/her mind into words and leaving them on the page as “pick up” lines, ready to be devoured.

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