As a poet, it’s good to be in the habits or both playing with sound devices and subverting expectations. As for the latter, Charles Simic provides an excellent example in his amusing imagist poem that appeared in last spring’s Paris Review:
On a frozen window
Of a small schoolhouse.
An empire, I read somewhere,
Maintains itself through
The cruelty of its prisons.
(I just pasted that from The Paris Review website; oddly, those weren’t the stanza breaks that appeared in the print version of the poem.)
I’m no Simic, but I do know the value of poetic practice. Sometimes that’s all you get with certain prompts from the Poem-a-Day Challenge. That’s all I got from “Write an explanation poem” last November 16, but I was grateful to bring myself to the experience of playing with both sound and subverted expectations at the same time. This one went through quite a few drafts.
Things should be as plain as
the nose in your pants,
or the nose of a plane.
You should hear this
clear as a beluga.
It should be as clear as
a static transmission.
Do I need to draw
you a pickaninny?
You’ll get it, Event Shirley.
This above all else:
To thine own self be truculent.
That’s probably the quinteenth
time you’ve heard that.
Don’t worry–pretty soon
you’ll get itch.
The Poem-a-Day prompt last November 27 was “Write an appreciative poem.” No surprise that I wrote about running—it’s one of the first things to jump in my head each time I handle a prompt. I didn’t feel like fighting it this time, so I let it flow and decided to deal later with whatever came out. It was a Thursday, which is a typical workout day for me. Most likely, I had been out for a run that morning, had read the prompt ahead of time, and was writing it throughout my morning workout routine.
This one never made it out of prose form.
You appreciate the great mystery of your legs. You don’t know how the bones and muscles and sinews are all patched together. You have no idea what architects laid the highways of nerves and vessels; you don’t know of the cloverleafs and interchanges or ow they are negotiated. You only know that they were built to last. And you thank evolution each time the gun cracks and you’re off, still in the race after all these years, still on your legs, still holding off the day when the highway is closed to everything but the traffic of nostalgia.
The PAD prompt last November 14 was “Write a follow poem.” I happened to be on a Northwestern fan bus on the way to the Wildcats’ epic upset of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, that morning and was far too occupied with talking to the folks around me and sipping Jameson to permit much work on poetry, so this one was scratched out real quick and never revisited. I put some margin notes in to remind myself to find some rhymes amongst the name of holy texts.
Funny how my disdain for organized religion came out on my way to a prominent Catholic university.
A Brief Lesson in Concision
all can be reduced
The option is yours.
The prompt last November 8 was “Write a blind poem.” If there was one thing I learned early on during my first attempt at the PAD Challenge, it was to trust my first instinct. That first instinct was “Stevie Wonder.” My drafting and revising process was pretty furious that day as I kept coming back to the notion of using Stevie Wonder in a poem. When I looked back at my journal from last year, I found seven versions of the poem before I got around to typing it. There’s heavy wordplay in this one, especially double entendre; it’s a guilty pleasure of mine that probably keeps my poetry from reaching another level. Still, I had fun. I ended up going someplace naughty, and it was fun getting there.
He muses late this morning
that keyboards wail under
Stevie Wonder’s nimble
fingers, each making the right
move at the right moment
despite never seeing where
they’re going—and wow!
He thinks he can play you
the same way, so you make
your pajamas into a blindfold
and lead him by the hand
to the execution.
I’ve been looking forward to November—not for the turkey and football, nor for the frost soon to crystallize the grass each morning, nor for the denuded trees and short days. Rather, November marks the return of the Poem-a-Day Challenge organized by Robert Lee Brewer over at Writer’s Digest. He posts a prompt each day of the month, and the challenge is to produce a poem. If you’re keenly interested, you can carry the challenge over into the New Year and submit a chapbook for him to judge. All of this is the poet’s backlash against NaNoWriMo (and really, why should novelists get so much exposure?!)
I mentioned this last year, having stumbled upon it unexpectedly early in November. I instinctively clung to it, even early on when I had to work on two prompts a day. An interesting assortment of crazy things happened, the most notable of which was that I found all kinds of time to write in little nooks and crannies throughout the day that I would have otherwise ignored. I created some effective organizational philosophies to keep my work and brain in order, and managed to stomp the balls of my inner critic who would otherwise be whispering really? you’re going to write that? what the hell’s your problem? And those are the nicest things he says day in and day out.
I ended up with a bunch of junk I never revisited after scratching out some initial thoughts, but I also ended up with a fistful of middlin’ poems that I abandoned but can bust out any time and keep working on. Best of all, I ended up with a decent amount of poems that I did keep working on and am envisioning as a part of a chapbook. If I sift out the junk, my output during the PAD Challenge last year equaled what I did the rest of the year. Given all this, I’m a believer in what can happen during the PAD Challenge for someone who is mental enough undertake it and stick doggedly to it.
I got to thinking about the abandoned poems from last year and decided re-purpose them here. Some of them are inspired attempts that didn’t fit the theme I went with last year, some are playful, and some are still stuck in prose form. So if you’re reading this post and the serial to follow, I’m open to suggestions. I’ll post throughout the month.
This first one came from the November 19 prompt “Write an Excuse Poem.” I took it to the extremes with the cliche opening line, but knowing that I was working with cliche from the start meant that I needed to subvert expectations. I tried that with the final line, but it may have been too much of an attempt at cutesy wordplay. Cutesy or not, practice counts for a lot.
Excuse me for breathing
down your neck—
I have no choice
given the position
you’ve got us in,
and even though this
is thoroughly your fault,
I don’t expect
You won’t go there.
This is no imposition
to me, really; I enjoy
doing my job, so
you’ll just have to deal
with my hot breath
down your neck.
Your soft, slender neck.
I mentioned earlier this week that I wrote a second piece of flash fiction concurrent with “Zadie,” and that I would put it up here since it hasn’t gathered any publication interest.
Whereas I purposefully worked toward a compelling visual image that would act metaphorically to end “Zadie,” I did the opposite with this one. I wanted to start with something that would hook the reader and become more significant as the story unfolded, and that the reader would look back at and see as working both literally and metaphorically from the start of the story. Somehow, the idea of a key broken off in a lock came to me as the opening image. I got to thinking about under what circumstances that would happen to a person, and this story dropped into my lap. I worked hard to hone the voice of the narrator here; I’m not sure how well I did.
Shortly after finishing this one, I came across a “100-word story” contest. This one was already pretty close the a mere 100 words, so I pared it down one day in between classes and on my prep period. It was worth the effort, despite it not winning or even being published.
The jagged stump of key sticking out of the lock looks like a finger. The floodlight overhead
buzzes and blinks, flashing snapshots of the finger pointing at you. Accusing you. Clumsy
The night is growing darker. Colder.
You raise your leg and piston your foot against the lock. A second time. The sound of
splintering wood crackles in the air. Another kick, and the door bursts open. Now who’s
Honey, I’m home. It’s clumsy me.
She’s standing on the far side of the kitchen table with a steak knife in one hand and the
phone to her ear.
A piece of mail I’ve been waiting for all summer finally arrived two weeks ago. It was the April, 2015 issue of Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine. I was contacted last May by the nice folks who edit and publish Flash at the University of Chester in Chester, UK; they wanted to put up my flash fiction piece “Zadie.” I wasn’t going to argue with them, of course, though we did debate a little about line and content edits. And I had to get my head around why I was contacted in May about inclusion in an issue that was intended for April, but they said it was all a matter of busy-ness and marking piles of undergraduate papers at the end of the term. I know that racket all too well.
I’m happy. Flash is a reputable international publication that in the very least has included a writer for whom I hold a great deal of respect because of her stories in The New Yorker. I’m honored to be joining their ranks, even if it is to the tune of a mere 314 words. That’s not a typo—my story is 314 words, and it’s not even close to being the shortest one in the issue.
How does one write such a short, short piece of fiction? Kinda like one writes poetry, I guess. Seems logical, too, that since I’ve been studying and practicing poetry and fiction for the last five years that I’d “discover” a way to merge them. What happened was that I arrived early at a local school board meeting last January and happened to have my journal with me. I challenged myself to write something that I could complete in the 30 minutes before the meeting started; plus, I wanted it to end with a compelling visual image that would act metaphorically. I wasn’t quite sure what that image would be, but I had an opening line that I deliberately crafted to be rude, profane, and shocking if only to get the reader’s attention right away:
“Suzi was the type of girl who would fuck on a pile of coats on a bed in a spare bedroom at a party.”
I wrote fast and hard, and then let it go by the time the meeting started. I didn’t visit it again until I typed it two weeks later, and then I pottered around with it here and there over the next few weeks. I wrote another story along with it, but I really only viewed the pieces as practice. I showed them to a writer friend who really liked them, which was enough to encourage me to submit them to Flash when I found a listing for the publication while scrolling through a database of publications that were accepting stories. I was surprised to hear back from them because I hadn’t really thought much of the piece.
So now I’ve got an international publication to my credit. I’m pretty happy about that. A copy of Flash will cost you about $14, but I can save you the money. If you text “pure genius” to 847-528-2873, I’ll text you a PDF of “Zadie.” And hey—it’s only half as long as this blog post!
P.S. Lest you think I got away with a potboiler writing stunt, the opening line mentioned above is not what was published. Instead, it was this:
“I practically heard the synapses firing in Zadie’s brain the moment she started scheming.”
P.P.S. That second piece of flash fiction I wrote along with “Zadie”? Nobody seems to want it. I’ll put it up later this week and you can decide the quality of it yourself.