Monday, August 29, 2011

Can I Get to the Moon?

I want to shake something up. I want to start something.  Or maybe I'm trying to finish something big.

Am I

The only way to answer that question is to pursue the goal, wholeheartedly, in spite of the question.  

Sunday, August 21, 2011

What Happens When You Cut Up an Elephant?

Cut this elephant in four pieces? Ouch!
Today I woke early from a troubling dream.  The images came from seeing elephant imagery in Buddhist art, and the 'trouble' from a timeless summer conversation on the porch of a meditation studio with my Buddhist teacher, Brian Arnell, and a friend.

I said that there could be no higher motivation in life than to aspire to be a loving person. Brian answered that while on a daily-life basis this is true, pure Buddhism would say that to make "loving" the highest goal is limiting because it only has meaning in reference to its opposite its opposite--hatred, or "not-loving."  He added that there is something "beyond" those competing values.

So, as I struggle to understand it, "love" is conceptually tied to a dualism that is conditioned on some kind of conceptual, conditional battle (good vs. evil). In Buddhism, there's a higher goal than anything dualistic, something called Nibbana, something that my familiar world of love, pain, and stories does not comprehend.  I felt threatened when Brian talked about something that touched on emptiness--I felt I could be annihilated in a bland, cosmic cream soup.  Do I really WANT enlightenment?

At the same time, it was a lovely moment. I wanted our gauzy summer talk to go on all night.We dipped in and out of topics; the moon was overhead. I lost track of time. (Thanks to Anne Arian for the lovely "gauzy summer" description.)

In the dream I had afterwards, someone was telling me about elephants: "If you cut an elephant into four pieces, it won't walk again, but there is a high rate of survival."  I don't know what says about quality of life!  Imagine trying to wash yourself with a trunk sliced down the middle.  The dream filled me with horror.  Did the "high survival rate" mean that the quartered parts would exist in a helpless, monster state, like living specimens in some veterinary equivalent of the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia?
Used by permission of  the (very cool) publisher,

In other words, it means that I find the whole Buddhist thing a little scary.  If I follow this path, is it the end of "me"?  Well, that's okay. I found Christianity scary, too, but not for the fundamentalist qualities that (say) The Simpsons and other pop culture icons lampoon so accurately.  Small minded literalism is actually pretty easy to dispense with.  But any spiritual practice that truly touches on The Divine will tug at the seams of one's patched-together sense of reality. (In the Bible, people who encounter angels tend to wet their pants.  Only in the Hallmark store are angels pretty beings who hang out on coffee mugs.)

Have you had "elephant dreams" that touched on fears about your spiritual life?
Ooh, scary.  Souls sucked up in a divine vacuum cleaner in Dante's Inferno.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Modern Poetry: A Guidebook That's a Hoot

My Philadelphia Inquirer Review of Beautiful & pointless {A Guide to Modern Poetry}
By David Orr  (Appeared 8.07.2011) 

If reading a guidebook to contemporary poetry appeals to you about as much as diving into a history of space heaters in this triple-digit summer, David Orr, poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review, knows how to turn on the A.C.  In Beautiful & pointless {A Guide to Modern Poetry}, Orr admits that books on poetry tend to read like math texts. Either that, he says, or they are rapturous “testimonials announcing poetry’s ability to derange the senses…(and make us) dance naked under the full moon, and  so forth.”
Orr is no highbrow who expects readers to know the difference between a villanelle and valpolicella before he’ll pop a beer with them.  If anything, he arouses reader sympathy for the poor poet, whose visions will never be optioned by Hollywood, and whose main audience will ever be other poets.  Even though Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in what amounted to an 1821 version of a self-help pamphlet that ‘“poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,”’ the political engagement of poets is in a “potentially awkward position relative to the larger political world, which is generally not paying much attention.” (At least not in this country.  Shelley might have been heartened to know that in Soviet Russia, China, and Burma, poets would be hounded like domestic terrorists.) 
This leaves the contemporary American poet laboring beneath the twin burdens of irrelevance and Greatness.  In fact, Orr dedicates an entire chapter to ambition because “it’s especially difficult to talk about the situation of poetry” (Is it healthy? Endangered? Post-mortem?) “when the people talking about it appear to agree on little, except possibly that a poem should begin with words.”
Instead, he approaches “what it means to write a poem” slantwise, “by talking about a related concept…Not about what poetry is, but about what we want it to be.” This touches on what Philadelphia poet Daisy Fried calls “capital-G Greatness,” and opens up a discussion of style.  A style approved as ambitious, Orr says, is “less likely to involve words like “’canary’ and ‘sniffle’ and ‘widget’ and more likely to involve words like ‘nation’ and ‘soul’ and ‘language.’”… “Our assumptions…work like a velvet rope: If a poet looks the way we think a great poet ought to, we let him or her into the club quickly—and sometimes later wish we hadn’t.”
Orr traces the implications of poetic assumptions.  He enters these via the arenas in which poetry has traditionally taken a stand, including “The Personal,” “The Political,” and “Form”…and in his touching concluding chapter, titled “Why Bother?” which, it seems, is a question poets ask themselves with depressing frequency.
Regarding the personal: “Poetry, we’re told, is…a means of answering Pete Townshend’s question ‘Can you see the real me?’” Orr questions how personal a personal poem really is.  Is the “’I’ of the poem in basic concordance with the facts relating to the poet-as-he-walks-around?”  This is “tricky business, because the personal depends on juxtapositions, not revelations.”   By way of explanation, Orr illuminates the contrasting effects of very different poems—‘The Tay Bridge Disaster,’ “possibly the worst poem ever written about a public calamity”; the embarrassing ‘Saved From Myself’ by pop singer Jewel; and the last by the “seemingly casual” poet Frank O’Hara.   Orr argues that the successful “personal” poem, like O’Hara’s ‘The Day Lady Died,’ “relies on our sense that some experiences—grief, for example…don’t sit very well alongside our day-to-day activities, so that when they’re brought up abruptly in a poem filled with ephemera, we’re forced to decide whether the sudden emergence (juxtaposition) of this other, more personal identity can be accommodated.  It’s a risky strategy,” he admits, because it courts humiliation.  Perhaps a poem is ‘personal’ simply because it takes lonely courage to write one.   
People keep writing the stuff.  Yet if poets themselves are to be believed, it was all over a long time ago.  Orr cites the “lamentations and counter lamentations” reflected over the years in essay titles by Dumbledore-caliber authorities: “Who Killed Poetry?” “Death to the Death of Poetry”; and “Poetry is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care?” 
Although Orr concludes, “poetry is a small, vulnerable human activity no better or more powerful than thousands of other…activities,” the truth is that humans have been creating poetry far longer than they’ve been creating timepieces or gecko habitats.  Perhaps Philadelphia’s lively scene means that poetry’s traditional yearning for immortality isn’t merely quixotic. “Yo, Philly!” Our poets sing. “There is life after death.” 

Helen W. Mallon once got a black eye at a poetry reading. You can read about it on her blog via

Saturday, August 6, 2011

How I Got a Black Eye at a Poetry Reading

When I was studying fiction writing at the low-residency Vermont College program,  we students sent out monthly packets of blood, sweat, and tears to our professors via the USPS.  The postal clerk, half asleep, would ask, "Does this contain anything liquid, fragile, perishable, or potentially hazardous?"

I always wanted to reply, "God, I hope so."

Writers want their words to hold compressed power; we want to change the way readers see the world.  We want IMPACT.

First, writing has to impact us.  Before I succumbed to the desire to write fiction (it was a struggle) I took a poetry writing workshop at my old school, Germantown Friends.  High school students and old people like me were mixed in together.  The last session of the class was to be a pot luck dinner and reading held at the home of a father/daughter duo who happened to be taking the class together.  I made a casserole, got my poems together, and parked behind several other cars along the U-shaped driveway.  Balancing glass dish, poems, purse, and myself, I got out of the car, took a couple of steps, and inadvertently hooked my foot on a fallen tree branch I hadn't seen in front of me.

 It was a beautiful pivot, ending in pain.  I knocked on the large front door holding my poems, and thought, "This is a dramatic entrance." Blood ran from my nose to my chin .

I missed the actual reading and the potluck.  My parents, who lived nearby, picked me up and took me to the ER with my face in a rag.  I found out later that someone had scooped the contents of the casserole back in my dish and set it out on the table with the other food.

I still have the X-ray of my skull from that evening. There was nothing broken, but I developed a  black eye worthy of a maudlin painted sunset.  I loved it when people asked me how it happened.  The incongruity!  A poetry reading!

Actually, creative writing is not for the faint of heart.  There's a huge amount of self-exposure involved with no promise of reward or fame. What we're trying to say may end up, on paper, neither liquid, fragile or potentially hazardous.  It may be as clumsy as a sprawl on the ground.

But there's no point in trying unless we shoot for something beyond our abilities.  Why stick with what  you already know how to say?    If it doesn't shake you first, how will it shake the reader?
Mine wasn't as pretty as this one.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Boomer's Guide to Alienating Your Fellow Man

Admit it. Life as a middle aged person can be kind of a drag.  Work, work, plod. Worry about the economy. Be nice. Clean the toilet. Yeah.

Forthwith, here are some jazzy comebacks to sprinkle throughout your day. Won't cost you any money, and the outcome of your impulsive remarks will make your glad that your impetuous youth has gone the way of all flesh.  Or these encounters might make you ready for senility, when you'll be able to get away with anything.

So. Say one of your coworker says "Howzit going?" and you can tell he doesn't give a rip and you think he really thinks he could do your job in half the time (but you might be wrong).  Try this out:  "Just what do you mean by ''IT'"?

For those times when the MacTeenager at the MacDrivethrough is MacRude and messes up your MacOrder, but you know that only the young and desperate would take a MacJob:  When she simpers "Have a good one," reply, "Which french fry are you referring to?"

When you're at the mailbox, and your neighbor, at her mailbox, calls out "How you doing?" Consider responding, "Oh, I'm all sorts of things."  It could be the start of a deep soul correspondence. Or not.

"Nice day," says the UPS man.  "Yes, it is," you say, "and I like the way this box smells."

"How are you?" asks your neighbor who never talks to you.  Look over your shoulder, then say, "Who?"

These were very cool but tipped over easily.
The clerk at the liquor store has gauges in his ears, a sleeve tattoo, and a pierced lower lip with a soul patch.  "How're you?" He asks.  Recall the magic of the sixties. Then look him in the eye (is it bloodshot?), and say, "I am  Far F**cking Out."

Those who really lived the sixties may not remember them, but the tribe has to stick together.   Is there something you've always wanted to reply to a cab driver, investment broker, convenience store clerk, telemarketer, department head, certified public accountant, therapist, or zookeeper, but never have?