Monday, April 30, 2007

Mixed Messages

I was searching unsuccessfully for a Mexican soccer match on TV one recent Wednesday evening and I found I couldn't avoid seeing simultaneous gossip shows covering the so-called story about Alec Baldwin chewing out his daughter over the phone. The next story was also about some father/daughter relationship gone wrong, and so forth until I realized that there was a poem in there somewhere. So far so good.

To complicate matters, however, I'd also been meaning to write a poem entitled "Blood and Treasure" since that's suddenly the buzz-phrase for why the Iraq war is such a waste. I hadn't figured out what to say beyond that, though, so the poem hadn't progressed beyond its title. And although people will publish a poem with no title, they won't publish a title without a poem.

Anyhow, I sat down at the computer to compose the first poem, but got stuck once I'd tinkered with ways of describing not-so-smart Alec's situation. So I started in on "Blood and Treasure" instead, but didn't get any farther than "Expended in a wasted effort, by definition."

Enter the genius of the cut and paste tool in Microsoft Word. I decided to combine the little false starts to both poems, and suddenly there was a new thing: a commentary on politics as well as on our current obsession with fatherhood. The thing sprouted wings, though I'm not sure where it's flying. I did switch the opening sentence around a bit, to suit Alec's spoiled-brat version of paternalism.

Blood and Treasure/Father and Daughter

Wasted in an expensive effort,
by definition, Alec Baldwin
bullies his ten-year-old daughter’s
insolent answering machine.
Iraqi Freedom is too precious
to account for all families in crisis;
so Blackwater and Halliburton
investigate the parentage
of Anna Nicole Smith’s newsworthy offspring.
Jenna Bush writes a book on AIDS
because her father likes to make war
promiscuously. Tom Cruise invents
a missile, and then finds a woman
to convert to an acronym.
Lynn Cheney is forced to don
a burka at gunpoint; she smiles inanely.
Britney Spears plays Guantanamo Bay
where Johnny Cash winces paternally
and gives her some pills.
Lynndie England’s daddy wouldn’t
undress in front of her. Jessica Lynch
had to be rescued from the river
one fateful picnicking Saturday.
Donald Rumsfeld stalks his little girl’s
unwitting prospective boyfriend, who paints
a frog, absentmindedly, on a sidewalk
near her Arizona home.
Saddam Hussein fathered many children;
some of them are now presumably women.
Do they miss him? Does it even matter?
Blood and treasure, father and daughter:
they always seem to go together
like peace and war, or oil and water.
No love that hurts so stupidly
and innocently can last forever.

I'm not sure what to make of this strange experiment in grafting two poems together; I suppose it's possible to see post-Saddam Iraq as the USA's disobedient/recalcitrant/resentful/righteously indignant daughter...

My friend Victor Schnickelfritz would no doubt say that such a defamiliarizing strategy is long overdue in my work. In any event, now there's a poem where previously there were two little nubs of nothing. I'm not sure if or when I'll try this again, but it was worth an attempt.

Here's the url for an article co-written by Katrina Onstad (a friend of mind from my college days) on the topic of lousy celebrity fathers, just for fun.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Poetry Out Loud

I can't keep silent anymore; I have to blog (or brag) a bit about Poetry Out Loud, the high school poetry recitation contest that I'm involved with here in Sacramento. The brainchild of Dana Gioia, this nationwide contest gets kids to memorize a classic or contemporary poem, recite it (with dramatic gestures, if possible), and compete for prizes including a college scholarship. It's a great idea, and it has brightened up the last two winters for yours truly. The Sacramento Bee published a little write-up just before the California state competition, and I followe up with this poem, written just after it was over.

I get to participate in the event in my own way, too: when I go and visit high schools to publicize the contest, they usually want me to give a demonstration of how to recite a poem, so I oblige them. Anyway, here's the poem that tries to sum up the experience of a performance.

The Recitation

First, the shyly confident greeting,
then the poem’s title and author.
Deep, deep breaths. Head up. Begin
with words, clearly enunciated,
projecting subtle determination.

I am a presence and a person
to be reckoned with. I open
my heart to you, syllable
by syllable. Pay more attention.

May I offer you this gesture
as proof that I’m not just up here
floating bodiless in space?

I do have hands, arms, wrists,
shoulders, elbows, fingers, teeth.
Don’t look now, but my young face
is staring at you, an imperious mask
forged out of vowels and consonants.

I’d eat you alive, given half a chance,
but thankfully, these sounds control me—
and they need you for their performance.

Endings are for the audience,
and so I slowly withdraw my life,
leaving you, at last, with this:
the object I have memorized—
to leave, or take; to kill, or kiss.

If you have any questions about Poetry Out Loud or would like to get involved in next year's contest, don't hesitate to email me.

Friday, March 02, 2007


i haven't been writing all that much this past month, but there is some news to report: I'm going to have a broadside of 8poems about my daughter released this month. The release party and reading is at The Book Collector, 1008 24th St. between J and K, Sacramento at 7:30, Wed Mar. 14--I'll be featured alongside Steve Williams, who is having a chapbook released as well. So I thought I'd break my usual policy of late and post a poem about Nora here. She's nearly all I write about these days, I must admit, but I don't want the blog to become monotonous or saccharine, so I've been seeking other themes when blogging.

Her Walks

Outside at last,
at any cost,
she ambles purposefully,
for a day twice as windy
and half as warm.

Persuaded to let go
of my hand
and avoid the street,
she's still determined
to cling too tightly,
or else to climb
each set of steps,
accost every bush
and pry loose
every piece of gum
from here to the corner.

She falls, and then
picks up sticks and rocks
as she wends
her endless way
on the return
and roundabout trip
which now begins-
half an hour
and one whole block
from home.

I know I should supplement this poem by posting a cute picture (of which there are hundreds) but I don't have the web knowledge to do so. I can offer a url with a picture of her, though:

Thursday, February 01, 2007

American Dissidence?

I got an interesting rejection notice in the mail last week, and I thought I'd share it with whoever chances upon this blog. I'd sent a few moderately political poems about Iraq, the President etc. to a magazine called "The American Dissident" run by a gentleman called G. Tod Slone. Here's what he wrote back to me:

"As a poet (untenured!) myself, I hate to tell you this—or maybe actually I love it—but your cover letter listing your miraculous publications credits + your poems mirror many other professional submissions I've received. In other words, it is an easy thing to criticize afar, while a RISKY and tough thing to criticize near as in the English Department [...] Capiche? Dwell, reflect, the try me again if you have any COURAGE. Careerism vs Truth and Real Excellence!
Best, G. Tod"

After getting this remarkably self-congratulatory missive, I revisited the submission guidelines for "The American Dissident," and found that the journal is intended, to "amongst other things, provide a forum for examing [sic] the dark side of the academic/literary industrial complex". Well, I thought, no wonder he is so delighted to have the opportunity to reject my work! That's the whole point of the journal, it would appear—to reject work by poets who make a living as teachers, and who manage to find things outside the "academic/literary industrial complex" that are politically relevant. I just wonder what "other things" Mr. Slone wants his supposedly "engaged" publication to deal with, besides his personal grudge against the academy he no doubt feels has somehow snubbed him. My big mistake, clearly was in overlooking his (entirely reasonable if somewhat peculiar) demand that poets who submit to his journal should include a "cover letter containing not credits, but rather personal dissident information and specific events that may have pushed you to reject indoctrination..." By indoctrination, he seems to mean higher education, since for him the "academic/literary industrial complex" apparently acts as "Ministry of Information and Entertainment for the nation's ruling families, Republican and Democrat, white black and Hispanic." Pretty paranoid stuff, I think you'll agree, and possibly motivated by the fact that (as the flier he included with his note complains) "The NEA, NEH and Massachusetts Cultural Council have all refused to accord the American Dissident grants." Sad, no doubt, but sadder to see another self-professed poetry lover confuse official rejection with political relevance or artistic integrity. My advice to Mr Slone, should I write back to him (I'm still debating that) would be (and I borrow his majestic all caps): "GET OVER YOURSELF!"

Nevertheless, I was moved to read over the enclosed flier touting the journal's agenda and immediately composed a haiku using some of Mr. Slone's favorite epithets:

Happy-faced fascists
hogging the copy machine;
God, I'm radical!

That seemed like a rather thin poetic offering for this month's blog, though, so I'll tack on another Iraq poem, sort of a sequel to last month's offering. I'm not sure if it has COURAGE or not, but here goes.

Saddam Hussein at the Gallows

I approve of the noose you placed around my neck.

It has long been anticipated.

I approve of the trial you offered me,

where I could match your lies with mine,

where I could shout, “Long live the nation!”
and “God is great!” as you read out my sentence.

I approve of the fact that you captured me,

and I offered no resistance.

I approve of the speed with which you convinced

yourselves that you had defeated me,

and then forgot the power I will possess in death.

Everything you thought were my mistakes

were moves in a much greater game

than you could possibly understand.

You will notice that I am the only one

on this platform without a mask.

Everything has been explained to me;

I will stand where you want me to stand

and test the strength of your rope with my weight.

If it holds—and why should it not?

I trust you are not quite incompetent—

I will die in the manner I would have chosen

for myself some time ago, if given the chance.

Perhaps my approval will give you pause,

and make you question your vengeful ways,

but do not stop the procedure now;

I would be less prepared to go with each interruption,

each show of human decency,

and I might even begin to pity
those who are doomed to execute me,

and that would scarcely befit a man

such as you have made me, such as I will become.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Happy New Year?

Well, it's now creeping up on 2007 and the issue that seems likely to matter most again this year is Iraq, so I couldn't resist offering my version of the "way forward" that Bush and his clueless cronies are seeking. I've tried to avoid naïve finger-pointing and cheap shots, though some of that is inevitable, given the unbelievable scope of the stupidity and arrogance the American administration has displayed. The disastrous consequences of their epic miscalculation are obvious to all by now, it seems, so I'd like to get beyond that and offer a broader critique of the mindset behind the assumption that we can "win" anything in Iraq or achieve any goal whatsoever by exporting our political ideas (forcibly or otherwise). So I've tried to put aside my personal outrage at Bush's moral blindness and obnoxious folly, and to articulate my (perhaps very Canadian) scepticism about what I see as a larger American view (and not exclusively the property of Bush/Halliburton/Cheney).

The Way Forward

Maybe we can get beyond this mess
by blaming the worst of our problems on
unlucky generosity,
an incompetent twit, a dire enemy,
or a slight historical maladjustment
resulting in crossed purposes
at the core of our culture. But maybe it all
boils down to something more elementary:
you can't force other people to share
a smugness which they neither admire
nor understand. The real way forward
would be to admit there is no such thing,
only a less horrendous sameness,
a kind of passionate coexistence
under duress and in disgrace.
That's why we should not come through this time
as best we can—instead we should learn
the full extent of our self-delusion
and not pride ourselves so much on the laws
and lessons we have written down;
we should try to live as if we'd forgotten
the secrets that made us wealthy and crass.
Which may include someday burning this...

I guess from my perspective if "progress" can be said to happen it occurs unconsciously, almost subliminally. Any explicit order or forcible suggestion is usually counterproductive, especially when crossing cultural or ethnic lines, because people resent being told they're not doing things the right way. That view may be a bit self-serving, since it opens up a space for art to operate as well: things like poems usually just assume a norm without making it into some sort of law or commandment. This poem violates that rule, though, and that's why I suggest it might be worth burning some (better) day, just to show how fully its ideas have been followed and transcended.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Pandora's Language

I haven't been writing much, so this morning I set myself the task of writing something that would work as a blog entry, and the only thing that seemed remotely inspiring was the list of my daughter Nora's favorite words which is included in the poem. I was initially going to call the poem "Her Favorite Objects" but somehow the image of Pandora's box kept creeping in as I was writing, and so I'm provisionally going to go with "Pandora's Language," just because it forced me to think a bit more about what I was saying about the things and words in the poem.

Pandora's Language

Her favorite objects are also her favorite
subjects, so she has learned them well:
box, birdie, fish, and bubble;
shoe, hat, apple and ball.

She bounces the box and unlaces the bubble,
wears the fish and chirps at the apple,
picks the birdie from a tree,
watches the hat swim in the sea,
bursts the shoe with a poking finger
closes the ball at the sign of danger—
she needs better words or a different world;
I can't tell which, because I'm old.

Her favorite subjects must renew
themselves in objects like clothes or clocks:
ball, hat, apple, and shoe,
bubble, fish, birdie, and box.

I suppose I'm picturing Pandora before she lets the chaos of the box loose on the world (after all, she mistakes a ball for the box here). The myth lets me play around with the otherwise slightly cloying list of words and discover some hidden sinister or merely inevitable significance here, but I'm not sure how it works for the reader.

So this poem is less than an hour old, and I'm letting it loose already. Perhaps I have a bit of Pandora in me.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Hallowe'en Candy

Even though I'm a day late, I've decided a poem for Hallowe'en. I guess a few apologetic remarks about the limited nature of "occasional poems" like this one would be in order, but frankly I've always felt that most if not all poems are "occasional" in some way. Most poems (for me, anyway) come from a particular place and time, and so a poem about a holiday isn't necessarily at a disadvantage.

The Humans on Hallowe’en

We light three candles, put a bad face on
our lunkhead pumpkin, scoop out his brains
and pop his eyes right back into his skull
with the clumsy end of our carving skill...

Ready to take the easy way out
before the tricksters expected at eight,
treating them to a handful of what-
ever chocolates they want to grab,

we’re scary good at playing the really
hospitable couple; we spring at the shuffle
of feet on the doorstep, chuckle at greed
and tolerate ingratitude.

In the lull between each demand
for candy, we sit around at loose ends,
emptying pockets of Snickers and change,
watching the street for the lurching return

of goblins, demons, pro wrestling fans...
We’re lonely for ghosts, peering out at the moon,
and our greatest fear is that no one will come
to haunt this undisguised night we call home...

Even a pretty much completely cheapened holiday has a certain emotional power, for those who still try and participate in them (this year we vacated our house for the evening, so we were off the hook), and I guess that's what I was trying to get at here.

I'm wondering how many people out there have favorite "occasional" poems. I vaguely remember T.S. Eliot's Christmas poem for his wife, and a few elegies for dead famous people (Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" is probably my favorite), but none about Hallowe'en.