Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Bat Test

I've posted this before, but who can find old posts in a blog? Besides, I've revised it, and who knows, maybe I even have some new readers.

It's the background for an exercise I give my Creative Writing I students.

This is a student poem from a few years ago – the first draft of a poem that went on to become much, much better – bright and sensual and well-realized.

First Kiss
The surf rushes forward,
falling with fury into a fluid fusion.
Waves whirl and intertwine.
Surges of synergic seduction plunge deeper
as they rise and tumble.
Ripples diminish, and bliss licks the shore.
The ocean’s caress recedes
and I, standing barefoot in the sand

And my response, or the relevant part for this exercise:

You’ve already let us know that the poem is going to be about a romantic, breathtaking moment, by titling it “First Kiss.” So you don’t need to explain that.
You also don’t need to explain to the reader that surf is a crashing, exciting phenomenon. So ANYTHING you say about the waves will carry that. Which means that’s the one thing you DON’T want to say, because you’re saying it already. Adding anything about rushing, or fury, is going to be redundant, and will feel like overkill.

Richard Hugo, in The Triggering Town, talks about "writing off the subject." I'd add another, similar suggestion: "Writing away from the subject."

Not only do you not need to say what you've already said, you don't need to say what you've already suggested. It’s close to impossible to write total non sequiturs. If something pops into your head, no matter how disconnected it may seem from what went before, it's connected because your head is the one it popped into.

So the connections are there. They can’t help but be. Our minds are connection-making machines. That’s what they do. And that means you need to trust us as readers to make those connections. We will make them...sometimes even better than you, the poet, will, because we expect them to be there. If we know a poem is called "First Kiss," we'll connect anything that follows to the experience of a first kiss (whatever our experience of a first kiss is). So write away from it. Don't describe a first kiss. Describe something else.

Here's a stanza from a poem called “Summer Haiku” by Alicia Ostriker, which I originally found on Poetry Daily, and which you can now find on a website of the Montfort Literary Society, but I’ll post the whole poem below.The stanza reads

A mother bat soars
Crazily across the moon,
Mouth full of insects.

Now, instead of “Summer Haiku,” let’s call the poem


That night, a bat soared
Crazily across the moon,
Mouth full of insects.

Once we see the title "First Kiss," we're going to relate whatever comes after to the idea of a first kiss. We may read this and think -- this is a kiss she shouldn't have gotten into. This is a dangerous first kiss -- irresistible because of its crazy danger, because of the moonlight...but dangerous.

I revised the first line slightly, but suppose we restore it to its original state?


A mother bat soars
Crazily across the moon,
Mouth full of insects.

What’s her mother doing in a poem about a first kiss? Because it has to be her mother…she’s the first thing in the poem, and she’s at a vantage point to spy on the girl.

And the mother is nurturing. Maybe too nurturing for a girl who’s ready to try life on her own, with a first kiss.

Let’s put the same stanza under another title from another student poem, the next in my stack:


A bat soars
Crazily across the moon,
her mouth full of insects.

Uh oh. We're in the present tense now -- not looking back at the first kiss from a distance of time, but right there with the guy as his girl friend storms away, and his mind is full of doubts. Why is he looking at the sky, and not at her? Maybe because of the doubts. He wants to shut her out, at least for the moment. But he can't shut her out -- anything he sees is going to be relevant. And he sees a bat flying crazily across the moon -- the symbol of romantic love being crossed by the symbol of vampirism -- the creature who will first appear sexual and enticing, but will then suck the blood and the soul out of you. And in the speaker's mind -- because there's no way he could actually know this -- the bat is a woman.

The mouthful of insects may not be such a symbol of nurturing here. It may be the girlfriend’s mouth when he kisses her, or when they argue.

I went back to Poetry Daily, grabbed the titles to next couple of titles after Ostriker’s, and stuck the bat under them.


A mother bat soars
Crazily across the moon,
mouth full of insects.

He's visiting the dog's grave at night. He must be very lonely. And the solitary bat makes him feel even lonelier. But...it's a mother bat. Her mouth is full of insects for her babies. Even this world, bereft of a beloved dog, is full of life and nurturing in the strangest places...maybe? We have to read on.


A mother bat soars
Crazily across the moon,
mouth full of insects.

You make the interpretation.

Or how about this? Ezra Pound's famous two-line poem.


The apparition of these faces in the crowd,
Bats flying crazily across the moon.

Or William Carlos Williams:
So much depends

a mother bat

crazily across
the moon

mouth full of

The exercise? Take any one of the poems they've written for me up to this point in the semester, and revise it to include the bat.

Here’s the original:

Summer Haiku

by Alicia Ostriker

All night the peepers
Singing around our small pond,
Drunk men, happy men.

A mother bat soars
Crazily across the moon,
Mouth full of insects.

A grasshopper leaps
Through the meadow, escaping
The mower. This time.

I am so little,
Thinks the leaping grasshopper,
Why not let me live?

Sunday, February 25, 2007


How come nobody ever writes me any comments?

Let a Smile be Whose Umbrella?

"In poetry, to say "I" is to put on the mask."
-- Jon Corelis, on the Poetryetc. list

May a smile be my umbrella!
But of course, I'm not the fella,
And that smile is a corona
Not for me, but my persona.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Tagged for Ten

I am, apparently, part of a tag-team blogroll. I have been tagged by the redoubtable Anny Ballardini, as follows:

Okay, I have been tagged by our Great Tom Beckett who was tagged by Richard Lopez (who by the way mentions The Hitcher - movie I also wanted to quote) to name 10 favorite movies, not too bad, indeed. Difficult, though, these are just the first I was able to dig up, I am sure there are plenty more and will come out in the next few hours with a comment, how could I forget that one?

So, here is Anny's list:

1. La vita รจ bella (Life is beautiful) Benigni
2. Apocalypse now (Redux is all right) Francis Ford Coppola (loosely based on Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad)
3. A Beautiful Mind by Ron Howard
4. American Beauty by Sam Mendes with Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening
5. Catch Me If You Can by Steven Spielberg, I even liked Leonardo Di Caprio in this perfomance besides the usual Tom Hanks (see Philadelphia, Save Private Ryan, The Da Vinci Code, There is mail for you,
6. Dogville by Lars von Trier (not exceptional but I can forgive much to a movie that features Nicole Kidman)
7. The Experiment (a must see) by Oliver Hirschbiegel (based on the 1971 Stanford University simulation study of the psychology of imprisonment)
8. Girlfight by Karyn Kusama with Diana Guzman
9. The Lord of the Rings (3) by Peter Jackson and Harry Potter (the entire series)
10. Eyes Wide Shut by Stanley Kubrick with Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise

10. The Matrix + The Matrix Reloaded by Andy Wachowski with Keanu Reeves and Carrie Ann Moss, originally taken from William Gibson’s homonymous novel.

As it happens, I just did this exercise about a year ago for a website called The Cinematheque, so although Anny is quite right, and one's lists are subject to change at a moment's notice, I'll reprise that list here:

1. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943)

It's customary to list a movie by director, so I've followed that custom, and Michael Curtiz was a Hollywood giant, with a career that stretched from the slient era to the 60s. He directed some of Errol Flynn's classics (which means some of my favorite movies) like Captain Blood and Charge of the Light Brigade; he directed Yankee Doodle Dandy and Young Man With a Horn and We're No Angels, a movie I had occasion to quote to my Honors English class last week. And he directed The Sea Hawk, also with Errol Flynn, but I'll get to that.

But for me, Casablanca is not Curtiz's movie, or even Bogart's. It belongs to Howard Koch, beloved friend and mentor, who co-wrote the screenplay. Here's looking at you, Howard.

2. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

Your most formative experiences are, unsurprisingly enough, come in your most formative years. I was seventeen when I first saw The Seventh Seal, and I can't count the number of times I've seen it since then. And every time, I get that same rush of awe that I felt the first time I saw it.

3. The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)

I have an Italian film too, Anny -- not at the top of the list, but high up. I used to tell my screenwriting students, "Any one of you could make this movie. You could raise the kind of budget he had. You could go out in the streets of Poughkeepsie with a hand held camera, as he did in Rome. You could use amateur actors, as he did. All you'd need would be genius."

4. Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)

Anything by Kurosawa. Throne of Blood did Shakespeare (a Samurai Macbeth) almost as well, but Ran, his Samurai King Lear, benefits from Kurosawa's masterful use of color and the big screen. And why you should still go out to the movies: There's a scene in Ran where the king and the fool are sitting on top of a hill, talking. At the foot of the hill, in the lower right hand corner of the screen, is a dappled white horse. And I thought as I watched it, "On TV or vCR that horse won't even be on the screen."

5. Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948)
The classic Oedipal Western, worth the price of admission just for the closeups of the cowboys' faces yelling as the trail drive begins. If you wondered whether John Wayne could act, watch his disintegrating personality in this movie.

6. A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood, 1935)
You could pick any Marx Brothers movie. I picked this one.

7. Cabin in the Sky (Vincente Minnelli, 1943) -– the best Louis Armstrong showcase on film, and no ten best list of anything that has an opportunity to include Louis Armstrong should leave him out. I almost picked High Society for the same reason – I know most people don’t even think it’s the best version of this story, but it is, because of Satch, Bing and Frank.

8. Scaramouche (George Sidney, 1952) -- I am pleased to report that two movies on my list -- Scaramouche and Cabin in the Sky -- didn't even make the NY Times list of the 1000 best movies (three if you count my honorable mention for High Society). I take this as a tribute to my unerring good taste. Swashbuckling is one of the things the movies do best, how can you pass up a guy who was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad?

9. War and Peace (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1968) -- It would be easy to make a ten best list entirely from movies that did not make the NY Times 1000 Best List (Modern Times, Ivan the Terrible Parts I and II, Rio Bravo, just to name a few). I had put Lawrence of Arabia on my listoriginally, and it's a great spectacle, but I had forgotten the greatest spectacle of all time (so did the NY Times, but I'm making amends for my error). Featuring the entire Russian army, and wonderful acting, and not a slack moment in nearly seven hours of running time.

10. The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978)
Best concert film ever.

And extras. Anything by Kurosawa, but especially Dersu Uzala: The Hunter and the underrated Dreams. Anything with Errol Flynn, but special mention to Robin Hood, which I'm re-watching now with my 6-year-old grandson, and The Sea Hawk, where Michael Curtiz once again had the benefit of a wonderful screenplay by Howard Koch. Some Hollywood B movies that achieved a level of greatness: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Tarzan and his Mate, The Incredible Shrinking Man. Rosselini directing De Sica in Generale Della Rovere. Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy. And on that note...my mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.

I can't think of anyone to pass it along to. Who do I know who has a blog, whom Anny doesn't know? I'm sure I'm forgetting someone. But I'll post this anyway.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Lips Like Chew Toys

Can't keep doing the same things every year, even though they always come out differently, so I tried a new exercise in my creative writing class last night, and it worked pretty well. I passed out strips of paper to all my students, and had each of them write a simile -- whatever came into their heads.

Then I had them read out their similes, and discuss how they worked -- what the second part of the simile told us about the first part. Pretty standard exercise. "Her lips were like orchid petals" -- her lips were soft, moist, warm, rare, valuable, etc. -- even bluish in color.

Then I collected all the slips of paper, tore them in half, shuffled them around, retaped them together, read the similes created that way, and discussed what these new similes told us.

"Her lips were like a chew toy for men." That makes the lips different, doesn't it? What do we picture now? Chapped -- maybe rough and reddened from too much passionate, violent kissing -- and apparently with more than one man.

"Her unshaven legs were like a desert cactus" became "Her unshaven legs were like burning embers." So rough you could strike a match on them? Capable of exciting passion even though unshaven?

My point...you don't have to worry about making connections too obvious. The human mind is a connection-making machine -- it's wired to look for connections between things. You can take chances, try for the unexpected, try for effects you may not even understand yourself.

As Richard Hugo says in his great book, The Triggering Town, "when you are writing you must assume that the next thing you put
down belongs not for reasons of logic, good sense, or narrative development, but because
you put it there. You, the same person who said that, also said this. The adhesive force
is your way of writing, not sensible connection."

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Speaking of Auden

I think for a lot of our generation, Auden was a god that failed and then was partially resurrected. He was one of my poetic heroes, then became someone I didn't want to be -- glib, superficial, and either wit at the expense of substance or substance at the expense of wit. Richard Hugo said it really well in his wonderful book, The Triggering Town:

When you start to write, you carry to the page one of two attitudes, though you may not be aware of it. One is that all music must conform to truth. The other, that all truth must conform to music. If you believe the first, you are making your job very difficult, and you are not only limiting the writing of poems to something done only by the very witty and clever, such as Auden, you are weakening the justification for creative writing programs. So you can take that attitude if you want, but you are jeopardizing my livelihood as well as your chances of writing a good poem. If the second attitude is right, then I still have a job. Let's pretend it is right because I need the money. Besides, if you feel truth must conform to music, those of us who find life bewildering and who don't know what things mean, but love the sounds of words enough to fight through draft after draft of a poem, can go on writing--try to stop us.

So I -- and a lot of others I've talked to -- didn't want to be in that Auden camp. I didn't want to write about things I was sure of, and bend language to illustrate those sureties.

But hey, Auden was great, and gradually I came back to recognizing that, if never back to looking at him as a poetic role model. He wrote lots and lots of poems that had both wit and substance.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

What Poets Do

I don't use the Fucking Your Sister letter as an assignment to critique, I use it as an assignment to provoke discussion. What was hard about the assignment? I get a variety of answers, but generally they're along these lines; It was about emotions that were painful. It was hard to imagine myself in that situation. I didn't know what to start with. I had a hard time fitting it all in, or putting it together. I didn't know why I would be telling all this to this person I hadn't talked to in a long time.

And what was fun about it? I got to use my imagination. It was a challenge. It has...no one actually ever says this in my class, but I think that's because they're scared of me at that point...it has all that neat stuff like sex and death and forbidden desires. Anyway, whatever they come up with, I can turn into my object lesson...this is what poets do. They have to reach deep into themselves for emotions they may not be comfortable with. They have to find words for those emotions, and organize them. But they get to exercise their imagination, and write about all that neat stuff.