Archive for November 2010
I always consider it a good day when I get completely blind-sided by a poem, when I unexpectedly find one so awesome that all I can think is, “Holy Shit…!” That happened Wednesday afternoon this past week when I flipped through the November 29 issue of The New Yorker. I saw in the table of contents that there was a poem on p. 54 called “Sestina,” by Ciara Shuttleworth. I’m passingly familiar with the form, having experimented with it a few years back. I didn’t expect much, mostly because the title of the poem referred to its form (something Ted Kooser advises against in The Poetry Home Repair Manual). I was equally as surprised to see The New Yorker running a form poem. Once I read it, though, all I could say was “Holy Shit…!”
I intended to hyperlink to “Sestina,” but it’s only available for subscribers on the website. Nonetheless, I was stunned with what the poet did with only six words and a helluva lot of punctuation. If nothing else, it reminded me of how important it is to break free of classic forms and explore, even when you are trying to work within a classic form.
The sestina is a classic form, and it’s not an easy one. It’s traditionally written in iambic verse (usually pentameter), though that is not a hard and fast rule. What cannot be changed, though, is that you’re going to write six sestets (a six-line stanza) and wrap up with a tercet (a three-line stanza). All told, you’re going to write 39 lines. But wait… there’s more. There is going to be a set of six words that will help focus the poem. Each line ends with one of those six words, and those six words come in a different order in each sestet. The tercet also uses all six words in pre-determined order.
Confused? So was I a few years ago when I mucked around with a sestina. I made sure to write about one of my favorite things so at least I would have fun while I was at it. My example is below, as crappy it may be (what I’m really saying is that I’m either hard-up for blog content or am fearless about showing you how crappy of a writer I can be… it’s a little bit of both!). My “word bank” was pitch, strike, field, ball, bat, base.
My Girlfriend Explains Baseball by Jeff Burd
The action starts with a pitch.
It may be a ball or a strike,
depending on the ump’s field
of vision. If it’s called a ball,
then the batter didn’t swing the bat
as he plotted to get on base.
The batter will try to get on base
but still make the pitcher pitch
a lot of balls during the at-bat.
He might get fooled by a strike
or thumped by the ball,
or put it in play in the infield
on a short hit, or the outfield
on a long one. He will take at least one base
and pay attention to what the ball
does on the following pitches.
If he has the chance, he may strike
out on his own during the next at-bat,
flying into the next base like a bat.
If the ball leaves the playing field,
it may be considered a strike
if it flies outside of the base
lines. The batter waits for the next pitch,
again trying to hit the ball.
If he keeps swinging and missing the ball,
he makes an out and loses his turn at bat.
When that happens, the ump calls the last pitch
a strike and the batter must leave the field
without advancing ninety feet to first base.
The stat keeper will mark it as a strike
out. The next time up, the batter will try to strike
the ball with the bat, hoping to launch the ball
over the outfield fence. He’ll touch each base,
and pitchers will learn to fear his bat;
he’ll be known as one of the best in his field,
able at his whimsy to kill any pitch.
It’s all a matter of strikes during each at-bat.
If the batters don’t hit the ball and put it in the field,
they’ll never get on base. They’ll be frustrated by each pitch.
I’ve spent time the last three Thanksgivings posting updates on my running life. This is quite deliberate since it was on Thanksgiving Day in 2007 that I injured my Achilles tendon running a 5K. In 2008, I wrote about almost having fully recovered from the injury. Last year I wrote about the same thing after facing setbacks in my rehabilitation. This year, I’m writing the complete opposite. I am back. This morning was the proof.
For the second year in a row, I ran the Turkey Stampede in Elkhart, Indiana. The day was a carbon copy of last year– chilly and rainy. The 40 degree temperature was perfect for running. As I also wrote last year, it’s the kind of stuff that makes cross country runners’ mouths water. We have always loved to romp through mud and rain in cold weather. We were weaned on it at an early age, and it’s what helped build the mindset we need to run. I can hardly think of a time I didn’t run at least a halfway decent race in the same conditions.
The weather, though, is where the similarities to last year end. I’m a different runner now, perhaps even the polar opposite of what I was last year. I’m 25 pounds lighter, have built more upper-body strength than I’ve ever had in my life, and am on the longest pain-free streak of the last 12 years. To the outside observer (if there is anybody who really gives a damn about my running!), the difference can be seen in the results. Last year I ran 29:57. I was happy to finish, and fought off the urge to outsprint people at the end. I fought calf soreness throughout the race. This year, if the chip timer is to be believed, I ran 23:15.
I didn’t fight the urge to outsprint anybody this year. The reason for that is simple: I couldn’t have run any harder than I already was. Whereas for years I used to straggle along and throw all caution to the wind at the end and be happy to finish in less than 30 minutes, now I am pushing myself hard throughout and wanting to keep things in the 25-minute range. I am doing warm-up runs beforehand, hydrating myself days ahead of time, and am wanting to hit consistent 8-8 1/2 minute miles. This is a huge shift for me, and it has a lot to do with maturity. I used to want the glorious finish, the hard sprint to prove I was never so far down that I couldn’t bust ass when it mattered and pass people in the homestretch. I became addicted to that. It was all so rah-rah Rocky-like. But it was also how I came to hurt myself, and how I came close to never being able to run again. Now I understand the importance of preparation, pushing hard throughout the race, the importance of consistency, of starting strong, staying strong, and finishing strong without getting my ego involved in a pissing match with other runners. Those other runners I would have tried to pass in the homestretch are so far behind me now that I’m cooling off and drinking water as they finish.
I have reached my Zen.
I couldn’t possibly have run a 23:15. That would have been 1:40 off my best time from last summer, which was a 24:54. I had to workout 6 days a week for 3 months to reach that summit. I’m working out 3 times a week now; 4 if I’m lucky and my work schedule falls just right. Hell, I hadn’t even run for 6 days before today. Even though I felt like I ran real tough, I don’t think I ran that tough. When I crossed the finish line, the clock read 28:57, but it was the same clock used for the 10K race that started a few minutes before the 5K and wasn’t reset. But 23:15? Please! My only other explanation is that the course is not a true 5K. Based on my time, it might be more like 2.9 miles than 3.1. But it was the same exact course as last year, which could mean that I was a lot slower last year than I thought I was.
Anyhow… I’m back. We’ll see what I write on Thanksgiving Day 2011. I don’t know how long my Zen will last, but I plan on running out the string for as long as I can.
Few things have motivated me to write the past few years as my creative writing classes have. The students seem to have some kind of pull on me; or rather, my striving to master what I teach has a tremendous pull on me.
This is good in some ways. I have had some nice success with pieces I started when was writing along with my students. Pressure is an excellent example. I’m a believer in participating in what I expect from students, and that encourages me to write outside of my comfort zone and develop my skills in other areas. Poetry has been a good example of that. I didn’t know too much about writing it when I started teaching creative writing, but have since developed a pretty decent repertoire of knowledge and skills that help me teach it to students.
But that wasn’t so hard. I had the poetry impulse and had been writing it as a sidelight to my regular creative nonfiction for over a year before I started teaching. Plus, I had taken poetry classes at NU that helped me develop my skills even more.
This is why fiction is still so hard for me to teach. I haven’t had much training in it, and never had the fiction impulse that pushed me to write more of it so I could come to know it better. This is the same complaint I’ve had ever since I taught fiction for the first time in an advanced creative writing class last spring. Now I’m teaching it a second time, and it seems that it has actually gotten harder to teach. I realize now that the advanced class is what saved my bacon; I had to do little more than dangle the genre before them and they steamed ahead and created using their accumulated skills. But I’m not teaching advanced creative writing right now. I’ve got to break it down and use a different approach with my regular creative writers. They’re making me sweat.
I knew this was going to happen, and I think subconsciously I set myself up for it. I want to be a better fiction writer so I can have more balance in my writing, so I can be stronger in more areas. And I know that if I have to teach something, that automatically forces me to improve my skills in that area. And as far as writing is concerned, the best way to improve those skills is to feel the heat and get singed while you’re working on your own stuff.
So here I am, working on another piece of fiction, and struggling to teach fiction to my students. I’m using myself as a guinea pig. It’s a painful process full of deadends, blind curves, and plenty of chuckholes. But I’m doing it. And since necessity is the mother of invention, I’ve managed to create some pretty effective lessons in the last two weeks that have addressed some important areas of fiction writing that high school students can handle. I’ve had to experiment on myself to see if something works for me. If it does, then I have to find a way for it to work for my students. It sounds incredibly self-serving as I write this, but I don’t really know a better way other than to return to grad school to study fiction writing. Since that ain’t gonna happen, I’ll just fall back on the notion of teaching myself how to do something so that I can teach others.
But it ain’t easy. Especially in these early stages. I need to be significantly ahead of my students so I know how far I can expect them to stretch. I’m not there yet myself, and it’s frustrating. It might take another two years before I’ve really got a feel for fiction skills and can bring them to my students in any meaningful way.
I haven’t been blogging at all for the past few weeks due to an unusually busy schedule and a lot of traveling, but I wanted to wrap up this serial by finally posting the poem I talked about in early October. I had the chance to polish it a bit and present it at a poetry seminar I attended on October 30. I was able to record the reading; it is pasted below. By the way, I was impressed by the seminar leader, Herb Guggenheim. He made some excellent points about writing verse, and shared a number of his own poems along the way. You can check out what he has to offer in his book, The Further Adventures of Pete Sussman: New and Selected Poems.
I Wish To Inform You by Jeff Burd
Say we’re in your car
tooling around my neighborhood,
or around town,
or you’re giving me a ride to work.
and I’m strapped into the passenger seat.
I’m gawking at the red and white Cape Cod
with the driveway framed by rows of maples
three doors down from my condominium,
and you’re starting to think
I’m some kinda rube
fresh off the farm
exploring the big city.
You’re shaking your head
What the hell…???
as I’m wowing about the hedgerow
along the sidewalk that leads to the park
two blocks over
I had never noticed it before.
But wait, there’s more! I’m tilting my seat
and gazing through your sunroof
in heavenly wonder at the sky and clouds
and expounding upon their shapes and sizes!
By now you’re wondering aloud
that it’s no surprise I’m single
because how in the world
do you sell someone
on the notion
that what I’m doing
much less a forty-year old man?
Then I’m informing you that you’re not seeing
the disease, just a symptom of it.
See, for all these years I’ve had to focus on
getting myself where I’m going and haven’t
much been able to notice how I get there,
so going somewhere—anywhere—and appreciating
the journey is a luxury
because for once I don’t have to
worry about watching out for myself.