Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Minutes of the Last Meeting

I used to give an assignment -- eavesdrop on conversations, and write down anything that you hear someone say in iambic pentameter. The purpose was to get poetry students away from the idea that metrical poetry has to be forced, or singsongy. I would tell them, at first this will seem impossible, but once you start hearing them, you'll hear them everywhere, and the real problem will become how to turn it off. Your girlfriend tells you, "I slept with your best friend the other night," and your response is, "That's great!" "It is?" "Yes, it's iambic pentameter!"

Anyway, one of the first times I gave this assignment, I decided to do it myself during a faculty meeting. I mean, you have to do something during a faculty meeting, don't you, to avoid going bonkers with boredom? So I started writing down lines, and pretty soon I had two pages of a notebook filled, and...I realized...a poem about academic life.

So here it is.

It wouldn't interfere with what we do;
I couldn't really poll the entire group.
Very, very briefly, here's the plan--
Elect the chairs of two committees first
(Able to run for these positions first)
Who'll want to lead the faculty towards greatness.
Within the AAC or SAC,
At least two people -- one is not enough
The faculty at large will vote for chairs,
The AAC, I find, now having done it.
The AAC, last Monday, voted no
Selected by the faculty at large
And they pick someone who they think can lead.
Maybe the better thing would be to keep
We have to somehow pull it all together.
Did everyone get a chance to sign the sheet?

There are seven searches underway
From a variety of different fields --
I know Im getting questions all the time.
Its not as academic a position,
The college writing program and the core.
There is the dean search, which is underway
A lot of applications were dismissed
This selection didnt represent --
I dont know anything about the search --
Is uppermost in everybodys mind --
And in the end, of course, its Artines choice.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Ignore or Fight?

Back in the seventies, I was working in New York for a magazine, and in connection with an article, I had to go and talk to a guy named Alan Shackleton, who was a sleazy exploitation film producer.

At this time, there was a lot of press being given to rumors about a  "snuff film" made in South America, a porn film that ended with an actual murder on camera. Shackleton, when I got to his office, was making plans to capitalize on the rumors. He had a cheap slasher movie, and he had quickly added a new ending to it involving a fake killing of the lead actress, or someone who he hoped looked enough like her, since the original movie had been shot several years earlier. When I walked in, they were all sort of in a panic. The film was so tame, in addition to being so lame, that the film review board was giving it an R rating. So they were scurrying around to find a piece of film from a porno movie that could be shoehorned in somewhere.

Apparently they succeeded, because the film opened a few days later with an X rating, the title of "Snuff," and the tagline "Filmed in South America...where life is cheap."

But meanwhile, when I got home that night, my girlfriend was making plans with a women's group to picket the theater when the movie opened.

"Oh, God, no," I said."Don't do that. Being picketed is this guy's only hope of making a profit on this movie. It's so awful no one will go to see it after the first day, but if the protest makes the TV news, that's box office gold for them."

But she and her group would not be dissuaded, and they did picket, and the film did make some money for Shackleton.

So I was right.

Maybe. You're really never wrong to stand up against the truly awful in society. I still think I was right...sometimes you're just playing into the bastards' hands. But maybe the bigger picture is it's not OK, and you always have to say it's not OK when it's not.

Monday, March 11, 2013

How a poem comes together (sometimes)

I just found these old notes on my hard drive while looking for something else. They must have been something I started doing for a class at some time. I seem to have been following the genesis and development of a particularly slippery poem. The notes were apparently originally handwritten, and then transcribed over.  I have no idea how much time went by between one and the next. I'm guessing that the lines of poetry and the metrical notations were the handwritten notes, and the exigeses came when I typed them all up.


I was thinking of writing a ghazal, and since I’ve been thinking a lot about a possible  connection between ghazal and blues, I began with

                the blues

and then tried to fit a couple of lines to it

The first crack of light in the morning was the blues
When all shadows were shadow, that was the blues

and at the same time, I written a phrase I liked the sound of

striped like snakes

and I started thinking of light – morning light, maybe morning light across a bed, striped like a snake, and the next line I tried was this:

She woke up in the morning with her arms around the blues
The morning light lay like a striped


that seems to be as far as I got with that thought. I was in the process of deciding I didn’t want to use “blues” as the monorhyme end word in a ghazal. The next couplet I tried was (brackets around works that were crossed out):

Morning [began] started like a [striped] snake across her bed;
When all shadows were shadow, the dark was her bed.

So I’d gotten rid of two things I really thought I wanted to work with, the blues and “striped snake.”

The next thing I was going to get rid of was the ghazal. It wasn’t working for me; I didn’t feel it. But I still liked the formal regularity of the line, and I knew that the lines and rhythms I was hearing were formal. I decided to try a villanelle.

Day slipped like a snake across her bed.
When the shadows clustered into shadow
She pulled the darkness up around her head.

Then, on the back of the page, a bunch of scattered notes. I was trying to find rhythms that I liked.

  -     /     -        /    -    /      -   /       -    /
day slithered like a snake across her bed

   /        -         /  -    /       -   /      -     /
Day slipped like a snake across her bed.

    /     -       /      -     /   -    /    -
Shadows clustered into shadow

and a bunch of possible rhyme words for the B rhyme:


and under the list of rhyme words, another line:

hair like snakeskin stretched across her bed

which seems to mean I was moving away from the snake-as-sunbeam image, and this is maybe an example of letting a fine isolated verisimilitude go by.  I think snake-as-sunbeam may well be a pretty good image. But I was allowing myself not to be locked into it, to look around for other possibilities.

So here’s what fills up the rest of this page:

Like a snake she’d let into her bed

which I guess I hated. I hate it now, looking at it. The metric pattern forces the line to sound stilted and awkward – “LIKE a SNAKE she’d LET inTO her BED” -  which puts that horrible, ugly stress on TO. So under it, I have a note for the stress I want:

/    -   into bed  (DA – duh INto BED)

and under that, a line that fits the meter:

Like a snake she’d followed into bed

which I also liked better as a plot line, but I seem to have abandoned it. I go on to try a couple of other lines, using one of the “B” rhyme words. I didn’t have the whole lines, just this much:

-    /     -    /   pretended she was dead
/  -    /    -   , made her skin like tallow

and then filling out the lines (indicating words crossed out, words stuck in, and in the third line, a stressed syllable that had to go in, but I didn’t have yet):

For two days, she pretended she was dead,

[made] her arms ^  like clay, [her] breasts like tallow,
Hair [hung] like snakeskin   /   across her bed.

Then, on the back of the page, a couple of lines that don’t seem to be going anywhere, and I think I knew they weren’t going anywhere:

When she was seventeen and newly wed,
 What men were   /    -    pierced her like an arrow


By now, I had the beginnings of a poem:

The day slipped like a snake across her bed,
And when the shadows clustered into shadow,
She pulled the darkness up around her head.

They challenged her to prove she wasn’t dead.
She showed her arms like clay, her breasts like tallow,
Her skin shed like a snake’s across her bed.

And it was working pretty well. Except I didn’t like it. I liked the image of breasts like tallow, but “arms like clay” didn’t do much for me. It seemed to be just there for the meter, to fill out the line. “They challenged her to prove she wasn’t dead” seemed like a nice line. It was metrically regular. It said something interesting. Why didn’t I like it?

Looking at it again now, I do kinda like it, and I like the formal poem that’s starting to take shape. But at that point – and I hope my instincts were right – I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t like the form, and I really didn’t like the meter. I wanted to break free of it...into free verse, as a matter of fact. I guess that’s why they call it free verse.


So I changed “wasn’t dead” to “was alive,” and I broke it into two lines, to shake myself loose from the metric regularity:

To show them she was
alive, she wriggled free from
her skin, like a snake, and now
her new breasts were soft, like tallow,

So I’d completely and finally abandoned the snake-as-sunlight image. Too bad, maybe. Or OK, maybe. Anyway, I needed to start stripping things down. I knew I liked the image of breasts like tallow to suggest a new, moist, not-quite-formed body emerging from the shed outer layer of skin. Here’s the next start:

To prove to all three of them she was
alive, she shrugged free from
her skin, like a snake, and when
she turned around, her new breasts
were soft, like tallow,
[and her hands]
[and] her hair was downy, and white like milkweed,
and she blinked in the light.

But she was fast, she had
pads of air under her feet.
[and] She could move in any direction,
she could spin and dance like a leaf.

I tried out the “three of them” to see if they’d open up an interesting plot line, but they didn’t, so I let them go. This was pretty much the last hand-written draft.

That's the end of the notes I have in this file. If there were more intermediate steps, I don't remember them. But here's the finished poem.


They asked her to prove she was real,
so she shrugged out of
her skin like a snake, and when she
turned around, her new breasts
were soft, like tallow,
her hair was white like milkweed,
and she blinked in the light.

But she was sudden, she had
pads of air under her feet.
She could move in any direction.
She could flip and scoot like a leaf.