Monday, December 18, 2017

* Excerpt from "Llama Love" *

Bone Song

Why are you with a man who boils tar for amusement,
then walks the walk like the Holy Book says?
Why are you eating the best buzzard’s brain?
Why don’t you like a twice-charged halo?
Why are you frank with him only behind his back?
You sully your wings flying so low behind.
When one is so disconnected from reality,
one isn’t usually in favor of auditing people’s flight.
There’s no clear evidence that flight even exists
outside of your imagination.

-excerpt from Llama Love, c. 2017 Flying Monkey Press

Monday, December 11, 2017

Experiments in Poetry- Acrobatics or Expression?

For most of my writing life, I have been a practitioner of the style commonly referred to as “free verse.” My only nod towards form is to imitate common speech, allow the lines to fall as the breath does. I will throw in a dash of alliteration here and there, if the situation allows, but more often than not, the result ends up feeling obvious and corny.

In high school, I experimented with formal styles, like sonnets, haiku and the like, but abandoned any hope of producing substantial work along these lines decades ago. Cummings could do it, Shakespeare created the mold many of us seek to shape our work by, but beyond those two examples, not much good, in my experience, can come from us mortals using the same rhyme patterns.

Every few years has brought a shift in my work, whether subtle or jarring. Recently, due to exposure to the work of Anne Gorrick and Adam Tedesco, to name a couple of local examples, I was inspired to try some more abstract methods. I took a workshop with Katrinka Moore, whose work transcends the seemingly simple procedure of erasure. I clipped and blacked out, drew random words from a cup, reversed lines and tore papers into shreds.

As a matter of fact, that last one is one of my favorite RANDOM WRITING exercises. I have participants work on a rough draft or a freewrite, and then ask them to tear the work up into chunks. We tape the scraps together, and examine the new, convoluted text for intriguing phrases created by juxtaposition. New poems can often emerge from these accidents. I like to use this exercise to help participants to loosen then hold on first drafts, to learn to not be married to the words as they fall on the page. More than one poet has gasped at these instructions, but warmed to the activity soon after.

I began to employ these methods with my own writing, to see where they would take me. After a couple of years, I must admit that I myself am perhaps too “married” to the basically autobiographical roots of my work to feel much satisfaction in writing from abstractions. The Ziegfeld poems I discussed last week are based on actual events, not my own life, but for the most part, my poems have been inspired by my own activities, emotions, and observations. I’ve been able to craft some pretty decent fictions from some of these exercises, but I still can’t get past the feeling that for me, they feel like parlor tricks, and not actual expressions. I’ve regarded them as a sort of lesser body of work.

I’ve tried fitting them into readings, since they are by no means works that I’m ashamed of, but they are so very foreign to the majority of my poems I’ve never been comfortable presenting them. The reaction consequently has been lukewarm. I pulled a bunch of them together into a small chapbook, creating a home for my seeming orphans. I called it Llama Love, after the longest poem, based on Facebook’s poor translations of a friend’s Egyptian posts. They sold well, but I have to attribute that to my llama sketch on the cover (see above). I only printed up a few, and even collecting them together was unsatisfying.

I’m glad I pushed the boundaries, and may go back to these experiments from time to time, but as far as where I’m at now, I’ll be to returning to my former narrative full-time. The poet I am is a reporter, a witness, and not the abstract wordsmith type. It works for many I know who produce rich, textured work, but not for me.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Are They Good Poems, Or Bad Poems? The Follies in Verse

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the theatre, and vaudeville in particular. It’s been so long, in fact, that I can’t remember when it first started. Warner Brothers’ old Bugs Bunny cartoons often featured popular songs of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and I learned snippets of some over the years, most often with the word “carrot” inserted for good measure. The older cartoons sometimes featured actors I would later recognize from their ink and paint counterparts- Edna May Oliver, Hugh Herbert, and Eddie Cantor, for example. A little jazz-singing owl introduced me early to the plot of Al Jolson’s first talking hit film, The Jazz Singer.

But all the credit can’t go to Bugs. As I delved deeper and deeper into the world of MGM’s The Wizard of Oz, I discovered that all of the leads had come to movies via the stage. Judy Garland of course first appeared as Frances Gumm, of the singing Gumm Sisters. Ray Bolger and Jack Haley were successful hoofers, as was Buddy Ebsen, the ill-fated first man of tin. Bert Lahr had survived the broad burlesque halls, and would return to the stage after an unsatisfying run in Hollywood. Frank Morgan had been an actor for years, following in his brother’s footsteps. Most intriguingly, Billie Burke, all pink fluff and trembles, had been married to the greatest producer Broadway had ever known, Florenz Ziegfeld, and been his widow for only seven years at the time …Oz was made. 

Vaudeville, like most theatrical events, is remembered in shadows. Except for some brief routines, often recorded decades after they’d been introduced, much of what we know is based on scratchy wax records, blurry film, and starry-eyes autobiographies, often ghost-written and almost always obscured by decorum and years. There are books upon books, many written by the performers themselves, others by historians who get most of their material from those same performers’ books. A few ambitious ones go to the newspaper archives, or the theatrical collections, scouring the scrapbooks for some juicy tidbit overlooked, or ignored, by those that came before.

With a very few exceptions (see Mrs. Ziegfeld, by Grant Hayter-Menzies), any books about the Follies written in this century are for the most part compilations of the work of others, or fictional accounts that tend to stray uncomfortably from the truth. Many wander into the territory of exploitation, dramatizing the worst rumors for the sake of storytelling. I wanted to write about the Follies, the year 1919, and all the great characters that made the show offstage as fascinating as what happened at the New Amsterdam. However, I wasn’t comfortable with “filling in the blanks,” on my own, or drawing conclusions on sketchy evidence. I found such so-called ‘histories,’ pretentious, and yet writers were producing such books every day. I haven’t the time to devote to full-time research, so the odds of finding sources that hadn’t yet been used were slim to none. 

Poetry seems to me to be the art of words that will work for this project. The brevity inherent will offer readers an impression of the times, without burdening them with a list of facts or dry, awkward paragraphs of pontification. There are stories that are told again and again-- W. C. Fields whacking Ed Wynn with a pool cue, Billie Burke flinging a diamond bracelet into a corner during one of many battles with Flo, with an eye on where it landed to retrieve it later, Bert Williams taking the freight elevator to his room after wowing audiences night after night onstage…. I feel like these anecdotes, told with grace and art and respect might make a collection of poems that would interest more than just us vaudeville buffs. There’s romance, tragedy, humor, music—actually, many of the same elements found in any edition of the Follies. 1919 was the year Actors Equity came into its own, and the year Prohibition went into effect. The Great War was over, and Woodrow Wilson pushed for a League of Nations to prevent another such global conflict. And still they danced. 

I have twenty-five pages of poems so far, and perhaps a few more brewing. I’ll post one or two here, and would love some feedback on all of it—interest, form, clarity. It’s a labor of love, and my intentions are good, but I might cross some lines. I know there are other buffs out there that will keep me honest.