Poets in their Youth

I did that "20 Books of Poetry" meme on Facebook and have enjoyed reading the lists generated by other people.

Except that it sparked a good case of neurosis in me as practically no one shares affection for the books I chose. I think about 3 books I picked have ended up on other people's lists.

And it's, you know, an exercise in inauthenticity, doing this list thing. At the moment I wrote the list, I chose the books that stuck out in my memory. If I were to be excessively honest, the first poet whose work I read in great depth was John Updike. I was in high school, it was the biggest book of poetry I could find at Half Price Books (and therefore, the greatest value for my Wal-Mart dollar), and so I read it.

From then on, not being an English major in college, I read uninformedly, continuing in a tradition of reading each year's Best American Poetry anthology and being sparked mostly by the work I read there, not fully understanding then the implications or ramifications of anthology inclusion/exclusion.

I don't like a lot of the poetry I should like. I remember teachers in my MFA program looking at me with great sympathy and confusion when I said I'd rather stick red hot pokers through my eyes than read any more Wallace Stevens (the only poem of his I can stomach is "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"). I actually described Stevens's poems as "word noise" in that class. I would rather replace my shower soap with sandpaper than have to read Elizabeth Bishop's Collected Poems again. And I, too, dislike almost all of Marianne Moore's poems.

The list of poets who've shaped me in the negative is probably longer than its companion list.

Sometimes I wonder if this means something significant about the quality of my own work. Something, you know, I don't want to hear.

And it's true, too, that I've drawn much of my poetic inspiration from watching widely of cinema. I could easily scrap out a list of films that make me want to write great poems. To wit:

Citizen Kane
Cleo from 5 to 7
Rear Window
The 400 Blows
Moulin Rouge
All About My Mother
Dead Again
Myra Breckinridge
V for Vendetta
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Bonnie and Clyde

That was a 30-second list. A longer reflection would lend itself to more certainty, but there you are.

I think The First Risk owes a great structural debt to Poison, for example, and The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon reflects my obsession with Lost.

Generally, I think I should read more poetry.


The Murderous Mandoline

No, not the musical kind...

...this kind:

Some of you know I have a fondness for cooking. Mostly I'm only able to complete meals when someone else is eating, typically the lucky/unlucky person I love. But in an effort to be healthier and keep grocery bills down (prepared foods cost more than their ingredients, have more sodium and fat, and generally don't taste as good), I've been trying to cook more.

I do most of my prep work on Sundays. Chopping, thawing, slicing, reducing, etc. It's easier to chop ten vegetables for five days than it is to do two a night, I say. So yesterday I prepped for:

Chicken pita pizzas (an old favorite)
Barbequed flank steak and cheesy cauliflower
Chicken with corn & black bean salsa
Smothered steak burgers with shoestring potatoes

Everything was going fine until I had to slice up the potatoes. I got out my trusty mandoline only to find that a key component of it was inexplicably lost in my move to DC: the safety gripper. The gripper has little teeth that sink into whatever you're cutting to give you traction as you move it through the two-blade cutting surface (one blade cuts horizontally, while several smaller blades cut vertical strips at the same time). Needless to say, running a starchy potato through a mandoline takes both strength and traction. I had one but not the other and so...

...the mandoline bit me. Bit my thumb to be more precise. Right above the little knuckle crease on the inside of it, where there's sure to be plenty of healing-preventing movement and discomfort.

And it was pretty deep. It was "little flap of skin" deep. It was "my thumb instead of an onion" deep. It was the kind of deep cut that doesn't bleed right away, that you wonder, "Well, now what?"

And then gushing blood. Luckily, none of it on my prep area. I got a strappy band aid on it right away and looped it tightly over the wound. The first band-aid lasted through the rest of my prep, and the second one got me through til this morning. I think I will be okay. In about a week.

I am a very clumsy person. I am often covered in small cuts and bruises because I constantly run into furniture, corners, sharp edges, or worse, I publicly trip over things. I once tripped over a cement block wall and then, five minutes later, realized I had a seven-inch gash running down my shin that was white in a few places. Stupidly, I did not get stitches and have lived my life since with an enormous but crowd-pleasing scar there. If you ask me, I'll tell you a dude pulled a knife in Chicago.

And, because Jen Lowe reminded me of it, here's an appropriate poetic companion for today's tale:

Sylvia Plath

What a thrill -
My thumb instead of an onion.
The top quite gone
Except for a sort of hinge

Of skin,
A flap like a hat,
Dead white.
Then that red plush.

Little pilgrim,
The Indian's axed your scalp.
Your turkey wattle
Carpet rolls

Straight from the heart.
I step on it,
Clutching my bottle
Of pink fizz. A celebration, this is.
Out of a gap
A million soldiers run,
Redcoats, every one.

Whose side are they one?
O my
Homunculus, I am ill.
I have taken a pill to kill

The thin
Papery feeling.
Kamikaze man -

The stain on your
Gauze Ku Klux Klan
Darkens and tarnishes and when
The balled
Pulp of your heart
Confronts its small
Mill of silence

How you jump -
Trepanned veteran,
Dirty girl,
Thumb stump.


Translations of Maryland Traffic Signs Back Into English

Drivers who are new to Maryland may be confused by the awkward traffic conventions and surprising meanings of commonly seen traffic signs and signals. The following guide is designed to help visitors and new residents acclimate to Maryland's unique traffic conditions and considerations.

Below, you'll find the actual text of Maryland traffic signs, followed by their actual English translations directly beneath them:

Lane Ends in 500 feet
In 499 feet, suddenly jolt into the lane next to you in order to narrowly avoid walls or parked cars.

Traffic from Left Does Not Stop
Traffic from the left will not only stop, it will likely wait until you begin to move, crash into you, and halt all traffic altogether.

Coast on through! Preferably while talking on your cell phone.

Stop (All Ways)
Everyone should stop and then wave frantically at each other to go without actually moving until one person finally takes their foot off their brake slightly, at which point everyone should creep into the intersection until traffic is completely blocked. Then call the police.

This Lane Left Turn Only
Some people will turn left from this lane, but if you change your mind, you should swerve immediately into the lane to your right.

Slow Traffic Keep Right
Traffic in leftmost lane should maintain the lowest speed; please keep the right lane clear of traffic at all times.

Speed Limit 65
Do not maintain a consistent speed. Speed up and slow down at irregular intervals.

No Parking
Don't park here, but feel free to idle, flash your hazards, roll back and forth, and tap your brake lights while you pretend not to be parking.

No Parking 8 am - 6 pm
You will be ticketed at 8:00:01 am.

One Way
Pick a way, and then go only that way.

Capital Beltway: Left Lanes
Keep left for parking lot.

Green traffic signal
Wait ten seconds, then proceed.

Red traffic signal
At some point, consider stopping.

Yellow traffic signal
Zip on through, and we recommend you honk or give the finger to anyone in your way.

No Turn On Red>
Make half of your turn, then stop when you realize you can't turn on red, then hover awkwardly in the intersection in the face of oncoming traffic. A honking car will then signal you to complete your turn.


Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind

While I was in Chicago, Beau and I went to see Too Much Light Make the Baby Go Blind (TMLMTBGB), a show by the Neo-Futurist collective. TMLMTBGB is a randomized spectacle of "30 plays in 60 minutes" and it was pretty fantastic. A cast of six actors act out a 30 short-shorts that feature audience participation, stand-up comedy, dancing and singing, monologues, dramatic monologues. Some are very funny. Some are poignant or sad. Collectively, it was a crazy fun show.

Audience members are made to shout out numbers printed out and hung over the stage. On the back of the number is the title of the play. A cast member jumps up to grab the number, announces the title, and then the cast quickly take their places to begin. The play concludes when a cast member says, "Curtain," cuing the audience to shout out more numbers and start the show. All the while, a darkroom clock ticks backward from 60 and the cast and audience are tasked with getting through all the plays...

Of the ones we saw there were many standouts. "Revenge of a Theatre Major" was a one-liner in which a cast member stood there and, in the face of her now-laid off colleagues from college, "Well, I've still got my job!" "Neo-Gay PSA" began with an apology from the cast to "all the gay people in the world" who had been mistreated by America. Gays were asked to stand up to be recognized. Festive music began to play and cast members ran around hugging all the gays and saying, "You're gay--that's great!" Someone brought out a tray of candy and snacks and gave them to the gays. They wheeled out a cooler full of soda and water and offered it to us. You know, it actually did feel kind of nice to be gay for a minute.

Another good one was "Insult/Dance/Repeat," in which one cast member asked an audience member questions like, "Are you a mother?" And when an affirmative answer was given, two cast members ran out while the lights flashed, one sitting on the shoulders of the other, shrieking like banshees, and proceeded to shout something really atrocious at the audience member. In this case, it was something I'm not even comfortable typing out, but I almost peed my pants it was so awful and funny. This went on for some time.

The Neo-Futurists are "committed to randomness." To pay for the show, you pay $9, plus the roll of a die. (So, $10-15 depending.) The shows are run in a random order, and at the end of the show on Fridays and Sundays, one audience member is asked to roll a die. The total of the two rolls (Fri and Sun) is the number of plays the cast has to write and learn by the next week (2-12). After three weeks, you can potentially almost an entirely fresh show with that kind of schedule.


AWP Report, in Brief

I think I must be the only person who does AWP right. I didn't see anyone I dislike, I didn't overspend in the bookfair, I wasn't bored by attending the wrong panels, and I didn't get to spend enough time with any of the people I do like.

If anything, AWP only served to remind me that I wish there were more hours in the day. Also, I wish there were more seats in the hotel restaurants in which to spend those hours while talking to the wonderful people I've had the pleasure of knowing, working with, learning from, etc.


Visit Me at AWP

Where you can find me:

1. My room, stealing a moment (call for instructions).
2. The Writer's Center/Poet Lore booth, #238.
3. "Poetry's Electronic Communities" panel chatting about LOCUSPOINT, Thursday at 4:30 - 5:45 pm, Private Dining Room 2, 3rd floor.
4. Watching the ASU/Piper Center for Creative Writing booth from afar, trying to gauge if they "miss me" enough or not.
5. Resuscitating a cocktail (at appropriate times of day only).
6. Resuscitating a coffee (anytime).
7. At the Court Green/Fence reading event on Thursday at 6:30 pm, Film Row Cinema at Columbia College Chicago.
8. In Alison Stine's hotel room for her book party.
9. Checking my email in a dark corner to see how Arden is doing with her lovely pet sitter, whom Arden may like more than she does me.



Push/The Uninvited

First, the good news: Dakota Fanning.

The other good news is that there isn't too much bad news about Push. Chris Evans (somewhat robotically, but, okay, expected) plays a telekinetic man pursued by a shadowy government agency called "Division" who want to experiment on him and others like him: watchers, who can see the future; bleeders, whose screeches can cause death; shadows, who can hid things or people from watchers; sniffers, who can track just about anything; and pushers, who can implant thoughts into the minds of others.

Visually, this movie is fantastic. Set in Hong Kong, the vibrant colors and MTV-style camerawork suit the locale and act as a sort of tribute to the bright neon and hazy glow evoked by the city. Like Blade Runner, Push owes a lot to noir, plugging in a femme fatale, a good woman, and man haunted by his past as the three main characters.

Dakota Fanning is actually the standout here, playing a precocious 13-year-old watcher who serves as Evans's moral compass and guide.

My main complaint about almost every movie I see lately is that it's just "a little long." I think Push would have benefitted from some editing here and there, but overall it was enjoyable and interesting and fun.

Also, I had very low expectations going into this, so I was not disappointed.

The Uninvited is a different story. Moody, internal, and evasive, it tries to be more clever than its audience but, with one unforeseeable exception it keeps hidden until the end, it's just not smarter than most moviegoers. Elizabeth Banks delights as a campily creepy nurse-cum-stepmother, while David Strathairn practically chews his own arm off as the tortured father trying to move on.

The two teenage actresses do good work here--As Anna, the emotionally haunted daughter who can't get past her mother's death, the actress masters the big round eyes and pouty shock of being constantly haunted by ghosts. The actress who plays Alex outdoes everyone in the film a little bit by mastering that specific brand of adolescent insolence most teenage girls possess.

Unfortunately, the end of this movie sounded a lot like a whoopee cushion.

Add to that the fact that there was more talking in this theatre than on NPR's Morning Edition and it was nearly unbearable. The gay couple sitting behind us kept shushing us any time we whispered, and then proceeded to eat food so loudly it sounded like they were unwrapping Christmas presents for 45 minutes--and one of them guffawed several times when it was totally stupid to do so. It was frustrating. Also, someone in the audience had a laser pointer--FUN!--and added their own postmodern commentary to the film by zapping it at random times throughout the show.

Push: A-
The Uninvited: C-


Dear America,

Miguel Murphy edited OCHO 22, an all gay and lesbian issue seeking to capture the wide variety of voices within the community, collected in response to the civil rights travesty of the passing of Proposition 8 in California.

Go here now.


My Accidental Date with David Leavitt

I've been busy lately. Busy-busy. So busy, in fact, I have almost no time to read my personal email (much less read it closely). So when a friend of mine mentioned he'd made reservations for a group of us for Wednesday night of DC's restaurant week, I dutifully got all bundled up last night, timed my Metro trip to give me extra time so that I would be early (a common complaint against me here, that I'm late--a rarity elsehwere in my life), and grabbed a book for the ride.

I got to the restaurant about 40 minutes early. I grabbed an overpriced cosmo from the bar and sat down to read my book for a while. I felt relaxed. I sipped my drink and read "The Wooden Anniversary" from David Leavitt's novella collection Arkansas. It was wonderful. I didn't worry myself about the time, although I'd glance up occasionally to see if my friends had arrived, or to hazard how long it would take before the scotch-drunk conventioner to my right would actually fall off his barstool, but other than that, it was a quietly pleasant evening.

Just after nine, I checked my phone and wondered why no one had yet arrived. Since I have a smartphone, I popped up my email and reread the email. I was in the right restaurant, the right time, the right night. Then the date scrolled by: Feb 18.

So, there I was, having travelled 30 minutes by Metro to enjoy a delicious (but overpriced, yes) cosmopolitan while reading a wonderful David Leavitt story in a restaurant bar full of strange people. And I thought it was wonderful.

If only this were an isolated occurrence, I'd not be as embarrassed. But truth be told I once gathered up four friends for dinner and the Margaret Cho performance in Phoenix--a whole night early. That was embarrassing. But since this time it was just me, I actually wondered if it's something I should do more often.

Although Arden would probably have a different opinion, were I to ask her.