One of the final prompts in this year’s PAD Challenge was “write an open letter poem.” I had been thinking about those confounding dead trees I see each day at the edge of the faculty parking lot at school, and decided on a whim to address those trees in my letter.
Ah, hell! The truth is that I’ve been pissed at myself for a few years for not being able to find out what those trees really mean to me as a poet. I decided as a last-ditch effort to make them the subject of this poem, and if it didn’t work out I was going to surrender to the notion of not being able to write a poem about them. Thankfully, this one worked out pretty well.
Oddly, this is the second poem I’ve written that has taken the faculty parking lot as inspiration. Here’s the other one from two years ago: Faculty Lot, January.
For now, though, here’s what I got out of the trees.
An Open Letter to the Dying Trees at the Edge of the Faculty Parking Lot
Winter has gnawed off your bark,
leaving you vulnerable to rot
in the wet of April and blisters
and dryness in August. You creak
and crack against the wind. Now
your spines are splintered and
you’re falling onto each other.
We know institutional abuses
relentless as time. We know
the ground is fetid and soft
with decay, but you won’t loose
your roots—you stand
austere and defiant each day.
I once worked with a woman who told a story about how every Thanksgiving her family would wait for their grandfather to finish eating and scoot his chair out from the table. He’d pat his belly and look around at whomever was giving him their attention, and announce for all to hear: That’s another Thanksgiving shot in the ass. Seems like a fitting post-script to the PAD Challenge this year, so I stole it.
I turned in my chapbook last week, thus completing the 2015 Writer’s Digest Poem-a-Day Chapbook Challenge. I wrote about this last November as it was kicking off, and posted a few poems from last year that didn’t make the final cut. Right now, I’m feeling my way around that strange landscape of a just-finished project that took a long, long time and a lot of effort and leaves you with a big empty feeling once it is complete. Not having several poems right in front of me demanding my attention is a strange sensation; my poems have been on my person or close enough to my person so much lately that I can probably claim them as dependents on my income taxes.
Thus are the after-effects of the PAD Challenge. It takes a lot of your time when you commit to it, which is one of the perks. You spend 2.5 months of your year in the process and not really worrying about when the muse will once again shit upon you. That first month is all about responding to the prompts, even if it is a few scratches in a journal as your eyelids grow heavier and heaver at 10 P.M. The second month is all about rewriting and reshaping and weeding out the weak stuff from the strong stuff. And if you’re like me, those last two weeks are dedicated to formatting your chapbook.
I guess it’s safe to say that I have a method for the PAD Challenge. Perhaps that method is what led me to producing what I think is a damn fine chapbook given the time constraints and my standing as a poet. And hell, modesty aside, I think this year’s is a damn sight better than the one I submitted last year. So many of my poems last year hinged on clever word play that I’m almost embarrassed. Word play might be cool for a poem or two every now and then, but there are far more sophisticated and respected poetic devices one should develop. I think I got to some of them this year and took them for a solid test drive.
I started to experiment with forms, which is good. My poems are usually about one stanza long and are deductive in their logic. I abandoned stanza form in numerous poems, but not the deductive reasoning. Maybe that will be next year’s goal: to be more inductive. Anyhow, I have multi-stanza poems, one that is a set of couplets, and another that is literally all over the page because I felt it should be all over the page. The PAD Challenge gives you license to do those types of things since you’re producing so many poems so fast that you don’t really give yourself time to stop and reconsider or second-guess yourself. Add that to the list of advantages of accepting the challenge, right behind “turning off the inner critic.”
There was an all-around different vibe to the challenge this year, and I’m still trying to get my head around it. It felt last year like I was producing a lot more and having a lot more free-wheeling fun with what I was writing, but that may have been due to the novelty of the act. I caught on a few days in to the whole deal, and worked furiously and joyfully at catching up and then staying caught up. I think, too, that I was looking at the writing as an escape from some life issues and thus got more out of it. The build-up this year was intense for me, knowing as October broached the horizon that the challenge was but a month off, and then that month was spent on baited breath until it was time to cut loose and write-write-write. I expected to shoot off like a rocket on November 1 and produce all kinds of verse both elevated and profound. It didn’t quite work that way, and I had to get in my own head and remind myself to let things come to me. Glad I did, because boy did things come to me once the challenge was in full swing and I had been writing for a week.
One of the best things to come from the challenge is that I finally wrote a poem about the dead trees at the edge of the faculty parking lot at school. For years now, I’ve left the building at the end of each day and looked at those damn trees, thinking there is something about them that is speaking to me poetically; something greater than them being trees and me being a teacher. I couldn’t put my finger on it for the longest time despite several efforts to write a poem about them, but something clicked during the challenge and I found the poem that had been calling out to me from the nether regions of my psyche. I’ll post it later this week with some comments.
So, who wants to check out a chapbook produced by an up-and-coming poet? Text the phrase “you ain’t no Bill Shakespeare ” to 847-528-2873, and I’ll reply with a pdf of Everything You Should Know… . And hey—thanks for reading!
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,700 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 28 trips to carry that many people.
I got an email from the literary minds behind the website Extract(s) last week telling me they loved my story “State of the Union” and would publish it today. I was happy to hear that, and am even happier now that it is up on their website.
I haven’t quite taken to the notion of online publishing. It’s not the first time I’ve been published online (remember Imitation Fruit back in 2010?), and it won’t be the last, but in my mind the greatest legitimacy still lies in paper publication. As such, I don’t usually submit to online-exclusive publications. Regardless, when I was grinding through a batch of submissions about six weeks ago, I stumbled across Extract(s) and liked what they had to say about what they look for in prose submissions:
We are looking for fresh, well-crafted stories that make us cry and laugh and think. We want to be moved in some fundamental way in as few words as possible. Our readers should carry your characters with them as they go about the rest of their day—or longer.
I was pretty sure I had something they would consider. Turns out I was right. It helped, too, that I felt they had a worthy list of contributors over the past few years.
“State of the Union” came to me last winter in a flurry of short-short pieces I was writing. I had poetry on my mind after last year’s Poem-a-Day Chapbook Challenge, and the concision I had been practicing (along with the use of symbol, inference, and all kinds of other stuff) paid off when I got a few ideas for non-poetic writing. I wrote three short-short pieces, and “State of the Union” is the second to be published (I mentioned the first back in September).
I had been thinking at the time about something I learned at a reading I attended in the summer of 2014. The writer mentioned that he couldn’t teach anybody much about creative writing other than the basis of every story is plot, character, and language. I started thinking hard about language and how I use it in my stories, and paying attention to how I saw it being used in what I read. Plus, language is a big issue at my school—our students frequently “talk Zion,” as they say. With such a huge amount of diversity in the building, we are blessed with a mix of all kinds of slang and vernacular. I had the feeling that if I listened close enough, something would fall in my lap that would help me unfold a story. Right again.
The idea for “State of the Union,” though, didn’t come from a student. It came from a parent and the emails she flooded me with last year about how unfairly her daughter was being treated in my class. They arrived with such frequency that I began to hear helicopter blades chopping the air every time I read one. I picked a few lines out of her emails that genuinely showcased her language fluency and that I would reference in a conference because they were serious questions that a teacher shouldn’t ignore. But there was something more happening. She had a legitimate, if misguided, consideration about the institutional treatment of minorities who complain too much. That got me thinking deeply, and rather uncomfortably, about the racial situation in the country, especially in light of all the racially-charged police shootings of late. I felt I had something legitimate to say, and relating the basic facts of and honest reflections about my experience with that parent would be enough to say it. I designed it as a bare-bones story with no preaching or pontificating.
So I drafted and drafted, and had about half a dozen writer and teacher friends check my progress and offer editorial insights. No sooner had a finished the story than I happened upon a call for submissions for an anthology titled Race in U.S. Education. I submitted the story to the editors, thinking I had a good shot at making publication because of my story’s unique genre classification: flash non-fiction. Damned if I’ve heard back from Race in U.S. Education, though. I finally got tired of waiting for my story to be discovered and sent it elsewhere. I’m glad I did.
And you know what else? If you read this blog post, you might as well read my story since this post is longer than the story! Here’s the link: dailydoseoflit.com/
Thanks for checking it out!
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.