Category Archives: On Writing

Queer History on Display

 

Queer History Display, Pride Vermont 2014

Queer History Display, Pride Vermont 2014

For Pride Vermont this year I created a display on Queer History. I thought I’d give it some additional life by posting it here along with the content I wrote for it / in it. That specific content can be found by clicking on Queer History Display near the top of this Web site.

As a bonus for weird people like me who think about creativity and how the mind works — particularly the somewhat happenstance  way the mind works — I’ll end with some comments about my creative process in putting it together.

First, though, it’s overall structure was this:

Center Panel: Pictures and text from past Prides, photocopied from old issues of Out in the Mountains, which are archived at the Leahy Library of the Vermont Historical Society. Pages are in chronological order, taped by top edge and overlapping. This allowed a page to be viewed and then lifted to view the page (i.e. the subsequent year) underneath.

Left and Right Panels: Selected Dates of Queerness I thought were important. My husband helped identify some key items I should include, like specific landmark court cases, and provided great insight into past events. His knowledge of queer history was (and remains) invaluable to me and any egregious errors that may be present in the copy I wrote describing such events are mine alone.

In the front of the three panel display, I had three sheets, each highlighting something of significance. Each had props, too!

LIKE SPORTS talks about queers in sports and the good news of more players coming out. Props were originally a basket full of miniature sports balls of all sorts, but people kept thinking they were to take, so I settled on a football taped to the table.

LIKE OUR TROOPS talks about queers in the military and the vileness of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Props were originally four toy jets circling the page, but people kept thinking they were to take, so I settled on one plane taped to the table.

LIKE SMARTPHONES talks about the absolutely horrible post-war treatment of the incomparable — and queer — Alan Turing, who, as father of computer science, laid the foundation for all computer technology. The prop was a toy smart phone, just the one, but still people kept thinking it was for taking, so it got taped down as well.

As far as creation goes, I originally intended to cut up the pages from Out in the Mountains, and tape them in an aesthetically appealing arrangement. But I was loathe to lose the year indication and other information inherent in the pages when kept as a whole. Cutting up the pages was also a more permanent move that I was hesitant to begin. The overlapping pages was an alternative that in hindsight I think ended up being the right decision.

I got important dates from Gary and a host of other sources, then wrote my own copy of such events in my own words. I tried to format such information in a way that was both logical and eye-catching, adding a few images here and there that seemed to fit.

The props — and indeed the stand-out pages — were an eleventh hour thing. Gary and I went to the Dollar Tree store (“Everything a dollar”!) so I could get the 3-panel display, markers and tape for the display. I wandered around the store and saw party favors, like the jets, and that got my mind thinking of doing some one-pagers. I found the balls as well as the phone, there. Or rather Gary found the phone.

I originally hoped to find a toy laptop, but failed to do so. Gary said why not use a cell phone, and it turned out that even makes more sense, as now we live in an age where phones are actually computers. How fitting for it to be used for a prop on a sheet on Alan Turing.

The point of all this creative talk is the consideration that creation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Sure, I had an idea, but the idea then got shaped and reshaped by the materials I gathered, which sparked other ideas and so on.

This is extremely important, I think, as sometimes potential writers will sabotage their creativity by saying something like I try to write, but I can’t think of anything to say. But such comments put things in the wrong order. Only the truly gifted start out with a specific — and presumably wonderful — something to write. I believe that most of us start out with a more vague notion of that something and write to clarify what that something is.

And we hope that it ends up being wonderful. Or at least readable.

Courting our Thoughts

This post is about words

More specifically, a word: court.

So if you don’t give a fuck about words and/or the word court, don’t read. But then again, even if you do give a fuck, go ahead and read but please don’t give your fuck to me. I’m not sure I even know exactly what you would be giving me, but I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t want it. I’m also fairly certain that I already have a sufficient supply of fucks of my own to give or not give.

Ah, beautiful language. Beautiful fucking language.

I attended a cool mixed-media performance last night at Buch Spieler, a record store with records. Owner Fred Wilber — of the band Madman 3 — laid down some nifty electronic sequences to accompany the ever provocative spoken word of VT Poetry Slam Champ Geoff Hewitt.

One thing good art does is lubricate the brain and heaven knows that my rusty brain perpetually needs a squirt now and again to remind its more creative neurons to stay on their axons; not something easy to do when your paying-bills job reminds you of the machine room in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

As I watched, listened, and zoned in to the show, I thought I need to write more poetry.

I also thought I’m hungry, as I had worked all day at the aforementioned job and had yet so far only had a couple of muffins several hours ago. But I mostly thought about poetry, as I can go longer without food than without creativity.

Fast forward to the next day, this morning actually, to after I fed our cats and was out walking our dog, both those things needing done before I’m off to my own version of Lang’s world.

WORD ALERT — the word COURT ahead —- WORD ALERT.

The above is for readers who might either be skimming or bored or both, wondering when the hell is he going to talk about the word court. So now you to know the hell is soon forthcoming.

I walked us up State St to the Vermont Statehouse, then through the parking lot, spilling onto a street I thought I’d never been on before. It turned out to be Court St, which I had previously traveled — though I hadn’t walked that part of it — when walking to Hubbard Park.

To get to the Park, I went up School St and turned on Hillside Ave; that intersection where Court St angles off to go its own northwest way. I absently registered the name and idly thought about the word Court in the context of names like Fowler Courts at Purdue University, where I lived for a couple of years. I tangentially thought of how roads are called streets, avenues, lanes, boulevards, courts, and so on, and wondered about the distinctions.

I also thought holy mackerel, Hillside Ave and especially the Cliff St that it becomes is friggin’ steep; this is tiring. But that’s unrelated to the promised Court discussion, so we will say no more about it here.

Walking southeast from the State House down the unfamiliar street I came upon the Hillside Ave signage which also informed me I had been walking on Court St.

This time I thought, “Oh, duh, that makes sense.” The name of the street, that is. Before the Statehouse, is the Vermont Supreme Court. So a road leading to Court being called thus isn’t exactly head-scratching. But it is fascinating from a philosophy of mind viewpoint.

The duh, that makes sense came about because I automatically, and effortlessly, drew the “logical” connection of their being a judicial court and the road to it being called Court. Previously not realizing the presence of such a building, my Court thoughts were different.

To me this illustrates two important mental points.

The first should be obvious: that thoughts are always about something; that is, attached to something. I mention it here because sometimes in philosophy you’ll hear goofy ideas about Pure Thought, as if we can strip away the mental from the physical and thus better understand it. But that would be like cutting down all the trees so you can have a better look at the forest.

The more sublime — and amazing — point is how its aboutness and its attachment changes along with our experience. We never think in a vacuum; in a space devoid of content. Our interactions with the world — and what we are doing at any given moment in time — influence it.

What is altogether neat — or spooky — is that most — practically all — of this type of processing occurs at the unconscious level; our brain continuously processes — and reprocesses — the inputs we feed it via our senses and our ongoing mental activity. Its “conscious” output is thus heavily — primarily, really — influenced by the Un, even though it feels otherwise.

I have a lot more to say on this, but unfortunately I have to go to my non-thinking-about-thinking job. But I want to end with this illustrative thought:

When you read the first two words here in this little blog — “This post…” — what did you think “post” referenced? You likely didn’t think of fence posts or flag posts or bulletin board notices or daily mail or any other usage of post except for an entry like this.

But the two words — This post — give no clue on their own as to which meaning of “post” is intended. Yet you did not need to have anymore than those two words to have an expectation of a blog entry.

You consciously read the words, but it was your unconscious that gave the otherwise vacuous words meaning.

Million Years Start

Okay, so i went to a retreat recently for persons living with HIV and I intend to blog about it, but in the meantime this is a sort of how I write post revolving around a little exercise I did there that hopefully will end up being a completed short story at some point in the near future. it’s fairly complete in my head, but there are so many other stories going on in there at any given point in time that I’m not sure when exactly near future will be.

During one of the workshops I attended, we each took a different writing prompt from a pile and saw what we could do with it in a short time-frame: the goal of reading it at the talent show that night what we had written earlier that day (which we all did). My time got shorter as I went on a hike. I almost stayed at the inn and kept working on the story, but I wanted to do as many retreat things as possible… time always requires a trade off.

My prompt was Never in a million years did…

I dropped the “did” and started writing in long hand, but soon switched to my easier to read typing. I wrote the dialogue first, as that is always what I hear the most clearly and gives me the best sense of my characters. I’m lousy with setting, physical description, and other grounding items. I have to work hard on adding such things during revisions.

I usually “see” the story via the back and forth conversations of the characters in my head, then build the full text story around that framework. I feel characters — that is, sense what they are feeling when they speak — more than have an external visual of them as I write. I sometimes will have some specifics in mind with regards to how the character (or setting or house or city or whatever) looks, etc, but the emotional context is always the primary starting point and is what drives the story for me.

During revision, as I work on completing this as yet unfinished story, I will change decapitating as a member of the audience kindly pointed out afterwards that the word doesn’t go with fingers; an embarrassing oops…

I also will have to research the two movies mentioned as in my initial conception of the entire story, which at first only included mentioning One Million Years, I was mixing their plots up.

That said, I thought I would go ahead and post unaltered what I read at the talent show, flaws and all, some already mentioned and others to come out during revising:

————————————————————————————————————

“Never in a million years,” Marcus said.

“Why not?” Donnie asked, right hand hanging over the top of his best friend’s open locker. It’s color, blue, marked his grade, as did Donnie’s, also blue, as if the lockers already being in the least cool wing of Plankton high didn’t scream their ninth grade status loud enough.

The gym, cafeteria, and parking lot full of cars of kids old enough to drive lay a social grand canyon away at the other end of the school. Cars like the black 1986 Firebird driven by the boy front and center of their current back and forth.

“Well, for one thing, he’s a senior.” Marcus said, pulling out his English Composition book. “He’s not going to be interested in going out with some stupid little freshman.”

“I’m not stupid. And I’m not little”

“Oh, gee whiz, don’t be such a geek. You always take things so literally. I didn’t mean you specifically, I just meant freshmen in general… though, hmm, come to think of it, you are more towards the puny side. One thrust and he’d probably split you in two.”

“Haha, you’re so funny you’re not. And besides it’s not like I’d be asking him to sleep with me…”

Marcus snorted and glanced at Donnie.

“At least not till a second date, eh?”

“I’m serious, Marc.”

Marcus clicked his tongue and slammed his locker, nearly decapitating Donnie’s fingers.

“I am, too. Hello, Earth to Donnie. Think who the hell you’re talking about. He’s not just any senior, he’s Jacob Alexander Rivington III, for Christ’s sake.”

“So? I’m Donald Alan Johnson the first.”

“You can’t just call yourself ‘the first.’ That doesn’t even make any sense.”

“Sure I can and sure it does.”

“Whatever,” Marcus said, invoking their usual one-word conversation ender and starting to walk towards class. But Donnie wasn’t finished and continued as he fell instep beside Marcus.

“It’s not like I have bad breath or cooties or anything. I’m intelligent, halfway-attractive, witty, and—“

“and still way, way out of his league. We both are. Not just other side of the tracks, but a whole other railroad. Get over it. Over him.”

They took their seats.

“It could happen. Be like a John Hughes movie. Like Pretty in Pink.”

“Molly Ringwald with a dick? Now there’s a vivid image.”

“Well it could, and you know what I mean,” Donnie said, studying the chewed-up pencil in his hand, running a finger along the myriad indentations; a pencil that had fallen out of Jacob’s backpack earlier that day during a rare juxtaposition of their respective lunch paths. “I just need to find the right approach to give this back to him.”

Marcus glanced over at him.

“Oh, yeah, nothing says go out with me like here, I found your spit-covered, gnawed-on piece of wood.”

“I wouldn’t say it like that.”

“How would you say it then? It’s just a stupid pencil. I don’t think a boy whose family lives in Chester Heights and who drives a frigging firebird to school gives a damn about losing something like that.”

The bell for class rang.

Donnie frowned, Marcus’s words causing reality to infringe on fantasy; he now envisioned approaching Jacob and Jacob laughing at him. Or worse, Jacob not laughing at all; just taking the pencil with a socially polite Thank You while giving him a pitying look, or maybe even scrunching up his face in way that said What a weirdo.

“You’re probably right,” Donnie said, shoving the pencil into his pocket and trying to forget about it.

#

But he couldn’t forget about it.

Or about Jacob.

That night at home he gave up on trying to concentrate on Math, History, or any of the other utterly unimportant to him at the moment things he was supposed to be thinking about. He didn’t tell his parents this, of course, but said he was going to study in his room.

Door closed and TV volume low, he tried to distract himself with video games, MTV and much later with Channel 4 up all night. The latter proved the most successful with a prehistoric double feature, a movie with Raquel Welch called One Million Years BC and another one, a comedy, starring Ringo Star as a caveman.

Fireworks against a Stone Wall

Cause baby, you’re a firework
Come on show them what you’re worth
Make them go, “Oh, oh, oh”
As you shoot across the sky

Props to the folks from Vermont PRIDE who made the Third Annual Stonewall Commemoration happen. A nice blend of music, history, and personal reflection, it beautifully celebrated – and remembered – the night 45 years ago when some drag queens in a dive bar were being harassed yet again by the police, as they had been harassed time and again by pretty much all of modern society, and said “fuck this.”

They fought back. And inspired, on that significant queer night, for others to join them. Fought back and reclaimed a little piece of themselves that no one else has the right to take: their pride.

There is more to that night, of course. A lot more. And there’s more history before it, more after it, and the writing of such pages is ongoing. But I’ll save parsing of significant events and analysis to my political scientist husband who graduated summa cum laude and did his honors thesis on the gay rights movement.

For this little blog, and with the little time that I have before I go to work, I wanted to focus on just one aspect of the amazing, moving event: the opening song.

Trevor, an Outright Vermont youth, played an incredible acoustic rendition of the song Fireworks by Kate Perry.

I’m not a Kate Perry fan. Heck, I didn’t even know who she was till he played the song and mentioned her as being the songwriter. Afterwards, so touched by that song and it still resonating in my thoughts, I found her original version on You Tube.

I wouldn’t have thought that one could have a lyric like “Make them go, “Oh, oh, oh”” in a song without it sounding insipid. In Kate Perry’s version, I was right. So I clicked Perry off in mid “oh”, closed my eyes, and heard Trevor’s soft and soulful “Oh, oh, oh”; a voice that brought out the meaning of the lyrics – and here I will give props to Mrs. Perry for penning them — in a way such that tears came unbidden to my eyes.

Right now my current situation is very difficult and I feel oppressed, depressed, and stressed.

Perhaps ironically, being queer is the one thing in my life that isn’t brutally marked by those three things. Sure, oppression is still there; of course it is.

But what I mean is: I am now legally married to my spouse of 18 years and live in a progressive state. I am also out 24/7 and do not put up with homophobic bullshit. So although there is still much – much — work to do with regards to queer rights – especially for Trans folks – I feel mostly safe and secure in my sexuality. Maybe not yet safe as houses, but safe as at least a decent tent.

Right now it is poverty that is causing me the most anguish. I am one of the working poor: I work over forty hours a week at a low-paying, physically-demanding job and feel trapped; locked in an economic closet, as it were.

So trapped, disillusioned, and full of worthlessness, I almost didn’t go to the Stonewall Commemoration.

But Gary and I did and I heard Trevor sing.

The song is about being queer. It is about being poor. It is about being in any situation where you feel like others are in control; a song about feeling worthy no matter what others say or do. About knowing that you are inherently worthy despite circumstances that might make it seem otherwise. About showing that worth no matter what.

My writing is my attempt at showing.

My writing, though, hasn’t been as consistent as I would like it to be; that is, I haven’t been writing consistently. Hard financial circumstances and emotional exhaustion tends to dampen the fireworks of creativity despite the mythical and romanticized view of the starving artist.

My story thoughts have been disjointed and jumbled, all mixed together with trying-to-make-ends-meet ones; the latter casting doubts on the story ones being worthwhile at all. I have had a lot of starts and stops of new stories, fizzling out not because of no story left but because of the fire going out; extinguished by the dark water of despair that insidiously advised me that I wasn’t getting anywhere.

I recently installed the trial version of Scrivener to try to regain some order. It is a writing tool that allows for disjointed thoughts for when the linear is too overwhelming. With it, you can worry about coalescence and cohesiveness later; it encourages you to run with whatever story thread you have at the moment.

This morning I was thinking about how I could best use it when it occurred to me that one of those fizzled stories could have another view added, which would take it in a fresh direction. Using the flexibility of Scrivener, I could start working immediately on some scenes involving that view and worry about compiling them into the whole later.

But I’ll save the immediately for tomorrow, when I have a day off. For now, with the time counting down to the start of my shift, I will let this minor post be a little spark across the sky.

Invisible Me

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?

I’ve never been popular. And I don’t expect to be.

Most of my thoughts are probably too esoteric for the Viral Video population while at the same time being far too simplistic for Great Thinkers. My stories are a little too subversive for mainstream consumption while being too ordinary for postpunkalyptical digestion. In conversation, I’m frequently only half-understood, and usually it’s the wrong half.

I would never be described by:

Whoa oh, it’s out at night he goes
He slips easily into conversation

That’s okay, though. Or more okay than not. For one doesn’t have to have everyone read you or understand you or like you for a pleasant life to be obtained. A carved-out social niche could be quite comfy enough for such purposes.

But how does one make such a space? A place where you are welcomed and accepted? Or at the very least one where you are acknowledged?

Such questions become doubly difficult to answer when something happens that indicates you’re going about it all wrong or, worse, that maybe there’s just something fundamentally wrong about you that keeps such a place always over there and out of reach.

I had such a recent experience with being turned down for a job.

Now it should be noted I am used to rejection. Don’t like it, of course. But I am used to it. Competition in both the writing and the job market is fierce. Submitted stories frequently get replies of Does Not Meet Our Current Needs and the same is true with employers who are Pursuing Other Candidates At This Time.

But this particular not-getting-the-job was special. Or rather not special, which is what made it all the more troubling to me.

For the employer knows me and I’ve done non-paid work for them. Still will do so, in fact, as I believe in their mission. All in all, I had always thought I was reasonably well-liked there.

They have a small staff of paid folks and when an opening came up I applied. As it was something I truly wanted to do and something I was impassioned about, I spent a lot of time on crafting cover letter and resume.

Still, I tried to keep my hopes at minimal. For like I said, the market is fierce and I know they had received a staggering number of resumes. With so many applicants vying for the same position, and with probably a great many of them also well-liked and also having done work for them, it would be unwise to have Great Expectations.

It turned out, though, that my low expectations were apparently not low enough.

For I not only didn’t get the job, I received a form letter rejection that gave no indication that the employer knew me from any other applicant on their desk. That impersonal missive hurt far more than just the “No.”

Emily Dickinson goes on to write:

How dreary – to be – Somebody!

Yet I can’t help but think how dreary it also is – to be – Nobody! Especially when I thought that I was finally becoming something else; something visible.

Our Queer Language

Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

Speak my language

This post is about the difficulty of defining sexual orientation.

But it is also about the struggle to create a decent (that is, successful) resume for a tough economy. Indeed, it is even more broadly about the challenge of adequately presenting identity at all.

The word “queer” seems to be in fashion in Vermont. I see it used by RUI2, Outright Vermont, and many of the people I have encountered, especially youth. Of late I’ve taken to using the word myself, identifying as “queer” rather than “gay”.

The word “queer” of course has a mixed history, being both a pejorative as well as, perhaps ironically, a word of pride. Sometimes its status as either appears to ebb and wane through the decades; at other times it appears to possess both characteristics simultaneously.

In effect, it is a queer word itself.

Yet it also seems to be the best word we currently have.

The LGBT community has a serious letter problem. Or I should say the LGBTQ, or maybe LGBTQAA, or is it LGBTQAAI or LGBTQ*? Indeed, those of us middle-aged remember it as GLBT, the L and G getting switched somewhere along the way.

The addition of each letter is supposed to make it more inclusive, but in a way it defeats itself, especially if we are not careful in our thinking. It reminds me of the debate about adding the Bill of Rights to the Constitution of the United States, where it comprises the first ten amendments.

We have inalienable rights. The ninth amendment itself is very clear on just how broadly this should be interpreted:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Yet we tend to gloss over its stunningly bold and arguably sweeping statement of the individual and focus instead on the comparatively weak checklist quality of the other nine. Focus to the point that we give those other nine entries in the Bill of Rights some kind of comprehensive status rather than viewing them more accurately as emphatic.

Likewise with LGBT (or GLBT). Its original intent may have been to be more like the ninth amendment in its scope. However, Each letter represents a category that, like the Bill of Rights (with the exception of the ninth), inevitably leaves something out; leaves someone out. So the “solution” has been to add more letters.

But each of those letters becomes yet another unintentionally narrow category – another checklist box – that may or may not quite accurately fit the person. In many ways I am such a person, though I’ve commonly used “gay” as the best fit.

I have had sex with women. Two, actually, which is still plural, but is less than the number of such encounters I have had with men. Still, less or not, that sexual history is part of me. It is also a part of me that I could “get it up” for a woman.

Yet, I do not consider myself bisexual according to my understanding of the word. For the “getting it up” I mentioned has less to do with attraction, arousal, or desire, and more to do with the mechanics of body, blood flow to penis, and the manly urge to ejaculate.

Sure, there was some attraction, arousal, and desire present in the opposite sex encounters, but it was situation-driven rather than because of orientation.

“Gay” seemed to be a closer fit, encompassing my spontaneous thoughts of such things. With a woman I have to deliberately think about whether or not she is attractive, whereas with a man such notions arise automatically and instantaneously.

So I’ve usually described myself as gay.

But for whom is that term necessary? Defining myself as gay does nothing to facilitate my own understanding of self and it does not change my history in the least. I am still who I am, who I was, and who I will be.

Instead the definition is for the benefit of the world at large; an attempt at conveying who I am to others who are not me.

Yet, whatever word I use is going to be colored by the experiences of the reader, who necessarily can only understand it as a category; a category that will not – can never — have quite the same hue as my own understanding of it.

Such is the problem of language in general. It is adequately functional at best and highly dysfunctional at worst. If I say think of “chair”, we are both thinking of the same thing and yet not of the same thing. For your thought of “chair” brings to that particular neuronal firing all of your previous chair thoughts, constructing it accordingly.

Typically such disparity is close enough for government work.

If I asked you to sit in a chair, I likely wouldn’t find you sitting on the floor due to an intractable misunderstanding of the term. On a day-to-day, we can make corrections, too, that alleviate some of that discrepancy by being more precise: “Hand me a screwdriver… no, I meant the Phillips screwdriver.”

Neither my coloring nor yours changes the reality of chair or screwdriver. Likewise our back and forth refinement of such terms only affects our alignment of language to one another and not the underlying object itself being thus referenced.

Resumes present a similar issue. I have certain work experiences I wish to convey. Did I collaborate with team members or did I communicate with them? Did I coordinate that program or manage it? Did I write content or create it?

All of those action words are true, yet they fall short of the elusive whole truth. The unchanged reality of what I have done – the chair and screwdriver of my work history – gets put into a category that limits it, sometimes to detrimental effect:

The employer might assume you can’t do work A because the terms they associate with doing work A are not present in your resume. I’ve been trying – quite unsuccessfully so far – to tweak my resume with each new application in such a way that I can generate a favorable response; one that, in my eyes, more accurately reflects the breadth and depth of my capabilities.

A resume, at its core, is an expression of identity; a work identity. A sexual orientation is another one. And of course there are innumerable others, all of which get continually tweaked during communication as we attempt to convey who we are in the best, most clearly understood, way possible.

Queer is much broader and inclusive than the paint-by-letters of LGBTQA-Z. For me, it encompasses the entire spectrum of gender attraction, identity, and expression. For I cannot think of anything more wonderfully strange and beautifully odd than the underlying diversity that is inherently present by us each being unique.

Of course, that might instill the comment that “straight” people should fall into that category as well, indeed making everyone queer.

Well, yeah, in a perfect world I think they should and think they would. For in a perfect world, everyone recognizes everyone else as being sovereign of their own selves; recognizes and respects that sovereignty.

For now, though, the world is queerly imperfect.

So when I write “queer” protagonists I am writing characters “outside the norm”; however, for them queer is the norm, as it is for me. We’re just waiting for the world to catch up.

In the not so Present

This is why events unnerve me

It’s early morning. When am I?

I am currently sitting on our couch with a laptop and a cat – Amber – on my lap (making a fairly crowded lap) with a cup of coffee close at hand. But I’m only partly located in this most curious currently; this collective fiction of now.

Instead I am thinking ahead to my shift at Shaw’s grocery store, which begins in a few hours and will be day number six of eight-hour-plus shifts. I am thinking ahead and beyond that, looking forward to Thursday when I have time off (which is weird expression when you think about it).

Time off, or maybe more accurately time on, to provide feedback on a poem in my mailbox from a professor of English I met; and also review his feedback on a poem that I sent him. I plan (another non-now word) on doing so tomorrow morning.

In the morning before I go to the afternoon orientation at the library for volunteering there. Which will be before The Vermont Cares board of directors early evening meeting. Which will be before the later evening Montpelier Conservation Commission meeting.

I’m thinking to the next days as well. Friday with another Shaw’s shift. Which will be before the Montpelier Friday Night Group, where I’m co-facilitator. But also Saturday, which is another day off (and another strange phrase when you think about it), where I wil be volunteering at the Vermont Queer and Allied Youth Summit.

I type these words, this list of upcoming, as Amber makes a little half-purr noise indicating life is good on JD’s lap and closes her eyes. My eyes are open, but I’m only partly seeing the screen and her, most of me looking back to recent events that I had hoped to have blogged about by now.

Such as the wonderful film by Kubrick I recently saw called Paths of Glory. Or before that to the wonderful poetry reading I attended where sixth graders from Main Street Middle School read their poems alongside seniors (senior as in elderly, not grade) on themes of adolescence (Looking Back, Looking Forward). Or after that to a wonderful birthday party a friend had where – and this seems very Vermont to me – a recitation of Four Quartets by TS Eliot was given.

A lot of wonderful deserving to be written about. And I want to write about the not so wonderful, too. And write about the in-between wonderful as well.

Some things somehow do get written in the oh so limited now space that doesn’t even really exist, forever falling away out of our grasp.

I didn’t write about the sixth grade poets, but I got inspired to write a short story about a queer sixth grader trying to get his older sister in trouble and things not going as he had planned. Wrote it and submitted it. I haven’t yet written my response to the poet on the poem he sent me. But a dystopian poem of mine we had recently discussed has been accepted for publication by Cactus Heart.

Two, four, or six degrees of creative separation, maybe?

Daylight stirs Amber. She decides her now is better spent on the condo by the window and currently stares out into a reality that for her is happening one tick and tock at a time.

My own ticks and tocks are a jumbled mess. Past and future clicks of the clock blur together as they’re drenched in present worry of there not being enough of them left; soaked in the realization there were never enough to begin with.

I type here as I.C. Water by Psychic TV plays on ITunes. The song is dedicated to Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division. His temporality ended abruptly with a rope.

I type in this ambiguous space of when I am as the now dissolves and brings me ever closer to the far less ambiguous when I’m not.

Tick.

Tock.

Tick?

What Do You Meana Sestina?

I had a wonderful conversation at La Brioche with Rick Winston yesterday about art, movies and the Sestina, which is his first choice for writing poetry. I also groused about my current underemployment, where I am neither earning enough to live on nor using my skills. Here I don’t mean my poetic skills, although that would be really cool if it ever came to pass that I actually earned money with them, but I mean my more job marketable skills like Microsoft Office proficiency, records and information management, and administrative capacities.

He suggested that in the meantime I could write a poem about stocking shelves at the grocery store. So I went home and did so, using his preferred poetic form. What I thought I would do is share what I wrote, and then follow it with some notes on its formation and where I will go with revising from there.

—————————————————

Grocery Store Lament
JD Fox

My features blank, I am nothing
as I open boxes all day to stock
the shelves. There is so little time
to spend outside of it trying to create
a decent piece of art, a memorable work;
the great American novel or perfect story.

It all makes for a sad story.
Sure I started out from nothing
making life seem like a divine work
but as I take middle-age stock
of my life, I think, what did he create
and why the hell did he spend the time?

Surely no god would waste their time
on such a run of the mill, same old story.
After all, he’d have the means to create
something brilliant from that nothing.
But at the end of the day I just stock
grocery items for the masses; mindless work

that makes it very difficult to work
up the desire to continue my time
here on Earth. I think if I were a stock
I would have crashed long ago, my story
done, the selling price reduced to nothing
with no shareholder value left to create.

Am I doomed to watch others create
while I’m forever stuck performing work
that at the end of life amounts to nothing
but a squandering of this limited time
to give a happy ending to my story?
Am I blood from a turnip: vegetable stock

for the soup of someone else? My stock
in trade compels me to create
as if I might write a breakout story
that would allow me the luxury to work
on my art in something resembling full time
before my American Dream reduces to nothing.

But if this nothing is the lock, stock
and barrel of my time, I hope others create
this epigraph of my work: end of story

————————

The sestina can be an intimidating form. End words of the stanzas are repeated in a specific pattern that at first glance may seem incomprehensible. Even second glance. Hell, even after third glance and reading the Wikipedia entry on it, with its tables and algorithmic charts outlining the intentionally complex form, I’m not sure I truly grasp the mathematics behind its design. But that’s okay, as like electricity, one doesn’t need to fully understand it in order to use it.

I planned on using a table to keep track of my end words, but then I found this helpful Writer’s Digest article on the Sestina. The author, Robert Lee Brewer, mapped out the structure by line numbers, identifying the end words he used and providing a convenient skeleton of the form.

I first picked my six words, ones that seemed to go together thematically for me: stone, stock, time, create, work, and writing. My original first line was I’m a blank state, I am stone, with the thought that I would use later Am I fated to be crumbling stone or maybe Am I slated to be crumbing stone to have a dual meaning of slate. I toyed around with this, even writing a first couple of lines, but decided stone wouldn’t work (nor would writing), and changed them to nothing and story.

Here it should be said that since you will be repeating words, the most useful ones are those having multiple meanings and can be used as different parts of speech (noun, verb, etc). Doing so opens up more creative possibilities and minimizes the chance that you will write yourself into a corner where the line becomes forced by the demands of the form rather than supported by it.

And yeah, admittedly, nothing and story may not seem like much better choices than my original words, having limited definitions and parts of speech themselves. You can use story as a verb, but it is not common. However, the new words felt right, which is sometimes the best gauge for such things, so I went with them.

I Copy/Pasted the poem skeleton into word. Then I used Find/Replace to put my six chosen words into that skeleton. This allowed me the freedom to construct line by line, knowing readily what end word I needed without having to leave the poem to refer to a table. I wrote each line next to its guide:

Line 1-nothing (A) My features blank, I am nothing
Line 2-stock (B) as I open boxes all day to stock
etc.

Then when I finished, I simply deleted the guides, which might be akin to erasing initial sketch lines in a drawing. And voila: sestina!

During revision I will likely change the title to Grocery Clerk Lament, making the title more specific and accurate. I dislike that in this first draft I have both reduced to nothing and reduces to nothing, the repetition here seeming lackluster. Maybe for the first instance I should change it to something like fallen to nothing, or closing at nothing, which seem to go more with stock prices anyway.

Or I could instead change the second instance to crumbles to nothing, or maybe rewrite the line so I can use the verb form crumbling. Both crumbles and crumbling seem to go with American Dream, so either one should work.

I will definitely go through and tighten the lines, though I have read different thoughts on the rules for the form regarding this.

One guide has said the initial line in each stanza should be seven syllables and the other lines ten syllables. Even more specifically, the ten syllables should ideally be in Iambic Pentameter. For those who don’t know, Iambic Pentameter is just a highbrow way of saying each line of ten syllables should sound like da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM.

I’m not much of a counter and probably won’t be that anal. I’ll go with the school of thought that contemporary sestinas do not have to strictly adhere to that specificity of meter and syllable. But nevertheless, there can be a fine line between intentionally not adhering and just being lazy.

Is the line off meter because it really is the best way the line can be written? That is, to write it any other way would do a disservice to the poem.

For such determination, counting and meter manipulation can be extremely useful even if they do not result in a line meeting such specification. Such focus often reveals weak phrasing in the initially composed line. But one can also achieve that end sans counting just by playing around with the line, reading it aloud, and so on, which is more my tendency.

A tendency I would love to indulge more. So if there are any patrons of the arts out there reading this, please consider making a karmic donation to me.

All Hail the Villanelle

I attended a Poem City workshop today on the Villanelle that was run by writer Samantha Kolber. This structured poem has its roots in peasant dance songs. The form is at once both deceptively simple and complicated.

Simple because there are just two rhyming sounds and there are repeated sentences throughout. So just write a couple of lines down and the poem’s already half done!

But complicated because the challenge lies in using that formal repetition to effectively build tension and so on. The sentences should have a connection that comes out more fully through the progression of the poem; maybe even seeming wholly unconnected at first.

One of the best, and best know examples of the form, is the famous poem by Dylan ThomasDo not go gentle into that good night.”

My ten-minute workshop stab at it, along with thoughts about its on-the-fly creation:

———————–

GRAVITY KEEPS ON HOLDING ME DOWN

Gravity keeps on holding me down.
I stare at the clouds so white, so soft.
There is blood on the ground.

I try to think thoughts profound
as I try to raise myself aloft.
Gravity keeps on holding me down.

In my thoughts I only drown;
my skin wrinkled and hard, never soft.
There is blood on the ground.

I listen for some sense, some sound
other than war pigs feeding at the trough.
Gravity keeps on holding me down.

The indifferent world goes round and round
as I start to shake and cough.
There is blood on the ground.

My life has become a smileless frown
that unremarkable day when my gun went off.
Gravity keeps on holding me down.
There is blood on the ground.
—————————–

The traditional structure, which I follow above, has six stanzas. The first stanza introduces the two repeated sentences with their end word rhyming. They bookend a line with the only other rhyming sound in the poem. The next four stanzas call out the repeated sentences on an alternating basis (like melody and chorus), using the rhyme of the repeated sentences plus the second rhyme, until they are brought back together in the last stanza, evoking what is hopefully a somewhat new (or at least more vivid) image.

Visually, the pattern is:

A1 (repeated sentence #1)
b (second rhyme)
A2 (repeated sentence #2)

a (rhymes with A1 and A2)
b
A1

a
b
A2

a
b
A1

a
b
A2

a
b
A1
A2

I thought of the repeated lines first, A1 and A2, thinking of the dual meaning of gravity, both as the  physical force and also as seriousness, especially with respect to grief. I soon had a vision of a gun going off, though I was thinking more of it being an accident.

For better or verse, “off” isn’t that friendly of a rhyme word. So I wrote down options — cough, aloft, soft, off, trough – and went with them.

Not easy to think of a way to use trough, but I did like the earthiness of animals tromping on the ground, thinking it a good compliment to the repeated line Gravity keeps on holding me down, so I wrote pigs feeding at the trough. Which didn’t quite fit how I wanted.

But we had been talking about Norwich University earlier along with war, so war pigs came naturally to mine (and also Black Sabbath, incidentally, as a tangential note). I think that single word makes the line fit a lot better into the scheme, though it changes in my eyes the firing, like maybe it’s not accidental.

Still, accidental firing or not, the poem seems to retain the same high-level of guilt of the shooter, which is the primary image i was wanting to capture.

Slammed

I attended last night’s poetry slam at Kellogg Hubbard Library and read a couple of poems. Although I could have done a better job (i.e. I gave a horrible reading), I’m glad I went. I met some new people, heard some cool poems, and received some nice encouragement, like that from slam meister Geoff Hewitt who also recommended a book of poems by Aram Saroyan he thought I would enjoy (from Black Sparrow Press, incidentally, which published much of Charles Bukowski‘s works, all of which I have read and have been influenced by).

But mostly I’m glad I went because I did horribly. I hate “failing,” but I hate “not progressing” more and the two are unavoidably linked. My goal isn’t to “not fail,” but to “fail better.”

So now in the aftermath (or afterglow) I’m thinking of how I can improve such failing. I’m thinking I maybe should have read the sonnet I’d written instead of the beat-inspired poem about abortion. Or maybe just read the latter better.

I’m thinking Warren (WMRW Radio Annual Call-in & Live Poetry Slam!) is too far for me to travel tonight since I have to do my eking grocery clerk gig until 6:30 pm, but I might be able to do the call-in thing, where I would have another wonderful opportunity to fail.

I’m thinking the second poem I read was better received, despite my flawed performance.

And I’m thinking I’ll share that second poem below:

NORTH BY SOUTHWEST

1.
Ah, Christ, when did the road
to Purdue University become so paved? Did I miss
a memo, a leaflet, a constitutional amendment
that would have given me better directions? Or maybe,
I just cannot read so well, the coffee
and tear-stained map unfolding into social hieroglyphics
foreign to me.
Eighteen years old and already lost at sea,
I watch
in my hindsight mirror as my best friend
takes a bite of an apple
I can’t taste. Don’t want to taste, actually, the snake in me
having an altogether different purpose as my desires surface,
but still, I clutch the wheel like I’m in control and don’t feel
anything inside me. I see
the sign saying 465 Exit Straight Ahead.
Like
an arrow going the wrong narrow way, I think,
but take it, anyway. I always do. Sometimes
you have to go a little South, after all, in order to fly North,
and in 1987 leaving Anderson is no exception.
The bypass
wraps around Indianapolis like intestinal machinery
and craps us out onto I-65.

2.
Weren’t there horses before machines? Wild
hopes running, roaming free? Full of fever
I reach
over to touch my best friend’s knee, but instead catch
myself and turn
the radio also on. So many stations, but all I get
is static. My friend hand’s me a cassette,
saying, “Why don’t you play
this?” I
oblige
and the greedy tape deck takes it. How great
it is to be inserting something somewhere! Rush
ushers Tom Sawyer in. I look in the backseat for Finn,
but all I see is a backpack containing my paint
by number SAT scores
promising the future is yours,
if I do what I am told.
But I grow old, I grow old,
whether or not my trousers are rolled
and I want the goddam brass ring
Oh, I don’t mean bling
You can have that sort of thing
I mean the luxury to be me
To have that kind of clarity.
But instead I have a welcome packet and a half-filled casket as dumb
and dumber academic junk remind me I was sunk
before I had a chance to swim. Over
to my right, a Deer Crossing sign warns me to watch out. How
odd. For the headlights are always on me,
and I think that I must be
the only one frozen.

3.
Still
You can make good time going nowhere.
Like ice, high school wore thin.
It had been a motionless affair.
Yet locked in place I fell through,
with a poker face pocked with rue.
And oh, it was so irrelevant.
All hail holy Thomas Covenant. I was, I am, a bloodguard beyond repair
with little worth protecting, the predetermined physics
of my body only outwardly observing the laws
of organic chemistry prevalent in the halls.
But the need to heed the societal call
to be a cookie cutter
made Engineering seem full of bitter
sweet butter.
But I wonder,
as I take us off the highway,
to gas up at a red and yellow Shell station
offering a free car wash, what
the real catch is. My friend
comes out of the washroom as, my tank all filled up,
I pull the nozzle out, careful not to let it drip,
and slip it back into the slot where it belongs, where it’s supposed to go,
the right hole being so very important you know.
“Do you have to go?” he asks.
Things left unsaid I shake my head
and get back behind the safety of the wheel,
thinking,
Where in the world does someone like me
have to go?