Tag Archives: Writing

Temple Thoughts

“My name is Temple Grandin. I’m not like other people.
I think in pictures. And I connect them.”

So begins the biopic Temple Grandin. This thought-provoking film tells the story of a woman living with autism. Notice that I used the word “living” and not “struggling” or some other woe is me verb. It is a life and not a battle. In fact, living is too weak a verb. Better to drop the “with” and change “living” to “leveraging.”

This thought–provoking film tells the story of a woman leveraging autism.

Much better. At least to me, since I mostly think in words. Or at least I think I do. Describing how you think seems to lose something in the description. We can communicate how we think, but that’s not the same thing as conveying it. “I think in pictures and I connect them” gives me a better understanding of how Grandin’s mind works. But that’s not the same thing as Understanding; not the same thing as knowing, “what it’s like.”

This natural – yet altogether profound — human disparity is captured especially well in an exchange between Temple and her professor [my emphasis in bold].

Dr. Carlock: Okay. Okay. Can you bring everything you’ve seen to your mind?
Temple: Sure.
Dr. Carlock: Even if it were an everyday object, like, say, shoes?
Temple: I see all the shoes I’ve worn, my mother’s and other people I’ve met. And you have three pairs, one needs a new heel. And I see the newspaper ads and TV ads and… Can’t you?

I certainly can’t. I’m not even that good at basic visualization. At least not as good as I think someone who is good at such visualization would be. Heck, even “thinking in words” may be an overstatement of orderliness regarding my junk-drawer mind. It might be more accurate to say I think in splotches of half-formed reality; a mishmash of a little visual this and a lot of textual that.

Especially lots of text of the hearing kind; that internal voice which is quiet to the world but is reading aloud inside my head what I just wrote. It judges the flow, phrasing, and so on. It’s there, too, with story dialogue, which is usually the first thing that comes to me in writing fiction.

I’m lousy with description, large casts of characters, and keeping time periods, ages, and hair color straight. I have to work hard, and do work hard, at these things. Dialogue, though, comes comparatively easily for me, as I hear it clearly in my head.

If you go inside your  head and think about your thinking, what do you feel is happening? What do you see? What do you hear? Or are those two verbs not applicable to you? They certainly aren’t always applicable to me. Perhaps you have better words; ones that would more accurately describe your experience. Or maybe you might become so frustrated trying to do so that you end up saying, “I just think and thought happens.”

Which is a valid enough statement since it is your mental milieu and no one else’s. As long as you can successfully navigate the You landscape to get your thoughts where you need them to go in order to live a fulfilled life, the route is less important.

But sometimes we focus so much on the aforementioned disparity that we spend an inordinate amount of effort trying to correct our thinking to better conform to normative ideas of thought-processing. In effect, we strive to eradicate a perceived or identified weakness.

The problem though is that sometimes such striving causes us to under-appreciate – and thus underutilize — a strength.

Grandin, however, realized early on that although autism gave her some challenges, particularly social ones, such issues were far outweighed by the gain it provided in the powerhouse visualized thinking it encouraged. She saw things in ways “normal” people didn’t and made conceptual connections that normal people couldn’t.

If she corrected her autism, she would be correcting her brilliance. So instead, she embraced it, leveraged it, as a part of her and became (and is becoming) all the more brilliant.

Temple Grandin is a living example of playing to ones strengths and the movie is a resonating suggestion for the rest of us to do likewise.

———–

JD Fox’s Awesome Opossum Bonus:

Dialogue at work.

Years ago, I took a writing class at college where one of the assignments was to compose a short piece of fiction containing dialogue. The restriction was that each piece of dialogue must be three words or less. I decided to take it a step further and told the whole story using only dialogue. Flaws notwithstanding, I think it still holds up fairly well.

MOOD SWINGS
You’re so young.
Too young?
No, it’s just…
Just what?
I’m just surprised.
Consider yourself lucky.
Are you legal?
Legal enough.
How much?
Fifty.
That’s too high.
Suit yourself.
What about twenty?
You’re kidding, right?
Fifty’s too high.
I’m worth it.
Do you swallow?
That depends.
On what?
My mood, mostly.
What else?
The person.
But you’ll suck?
For fifty, yeah.
That’s a lot.
Fifty’s the price.
I’ve got twenty.
Good for you.
And this.
What’s that?
A bus pass.
And the twenty?
And the twenty.
Hand them over.
Here you go.
Okay, then.
So what now?
Go in here.
Here?
Yeah.
It’s dark inside.
And your point?
No point, I…
Good.
What now?
Pull it out.
Like this.
Yeah. Like that.
And you’ll…
How’s this?
Oh… my…
You like that?
Yeah.
And this?
Oh, God, yeah.
That feels good?
That feels great.
You close?
I’m close.
Okay, then.
I… Oh, Oh…
How was that?
Incredible. You swallowed?
Yeah.
Why?
Because of you.
Because of me?
And my mood.
What does…?
I told you.
What’s this?
Your bus pass.
It’s yours now.
Don’t want it.
You earned it.
Don’t need it.
You’re worth more.
I know.
More than twenty.
I know.
I live nearby.
So?
Want some coffee?
No.
We could…
No.
I mean…
No. Just go.
What about you?
What about me?
It’s cold outside.
I’ll survive.
I know, but…
Don’t worry.
Too late.
I’ll be fine.
Spend the night.
No.
Please.
Why?
I’d feel better.
Oh, you would?
You would, too.
You think so?
I know so.
Nearby, huh?
Around the corner.
That’s convenient!
Sometimes.
It is cold…
Yes, it is.
Well, okay, then.
Good.
Which way?
This way.
Lead the way.
Here we are.
Already?
Up these steps.
What’re you doing?
Take my hand.
Why?
There’s ice here.
Oh. Just don’t…
Don’t what?
Get any ideas.
About what?
What this means.
A warm bed?
Spending the night.
What’s it mean?
You tell me.
Tonight you’re safe.
And tomorrow?
Tomorrow’s another day.
Tomorrow I’ll go.
We’ll see.
I will.
Whatever you want.
I won’t stay.
It’s your choice.
Yes, it is.
But for tonight…
What?
Sleep on it.

Life outside the Rose Garden

So keep your eyes set on the horizon
On the line where blue meets blue

Life outside the Rose Garden

Sick at Thanksgiving, it’s hard to be thankful
for fever, fatigue, and loss of productivity.
At times like this, I feel the virus
mutating my immune system cell by cell.

The next day, today, same bills still to pay
make staying home a pretend thought
stolen from others with sufficient means;
possessors of dreams that do not stay frozen.

How do you keep your eyes on the horizon
when fog banks keep rolling in?
I drink coffee, write bad poetry, and try
to keep things in a less jaundiced perspective:

I have my spouse of nineteen years
plus our dog, two cats, and a fish.

Joyful Reading

2013-Dig-Into-mini-poster-PPL

Read this sentence.

Okay, now see that same sentence without reading it. That is, only see lines and curves and closed spaces. Hard, isn’t it? Maybe impossible. It’s far easier to read it. So much so, when you see the sentence “Read this sentence”, you can’t help but see it as something to be read, and automatically do so.

In fact, as you are reading this blog, it is likely that you are hardly noticing the individual letters as your brain —  like with no longer seeing lines and curves and enclosed spaces unless specifically asked to do so — automatically perceives whole words (or more!) instead.

Stop and consider how bizarre yet wonderful that is. Once we learn how to read, and especially read well, it becomes so entrenched in our mental processing we scarcely notice this altogether extraordinary achievement.

And it is an achievement. It is something you didn’t possess at birth and had to be learned. A likely part of that learning involved folks reading to you and, if all went well, cultivating delight in the written word and all that it offers.

Today I had the pleasure of experiencing that early period of childhood development first hand. Starting my volunteering for Outreach at the Kellogg Hubbard Library, I went with its program veteran Ray to take books to All Together Now Community Arts Center for the preschool it operates.

The kids, mostly two- and three-years-olds, greeted our arrival with enthusiasm. We spread out the books we’d brought on the floor and they raced from book to book, looking for the one that appealed the most to them.

We adults — myself, Ray, and several staff — did not have to cajole the kids to engage them in this form of childhood learning. We simply sat on the floor or in chairs as the kids clustered around us with their prized findings and ongoing pleas of “can you read this next?”

The joy in reading and being read to was palpable, appreciated, and welcomed.

Yet far too often as we grow older, the want to of it metamorphoses into have to. ironically, this seems to happen as reading becomes so easy, so entrenched that it becomes a taken-for-granted feature. Perversely, it also seems to happen during the course of school years, where reading gets drained of its inherent wonder and becomes just another task; a chore.

How do we fix that?

Or, maybe a better question, is why do we let it break?

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.

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.

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.

Drivin’ the Point

So okay, Gary and I recently saw a couple of movies at Sunset Drive-in: Godzilla and The Amazing Spiderman 2.

Godzilla is a movie about the famous giant lizard. This version opens with a man losing his husband at the nuclear plant where they work. In effect, he causes his husband’s death because he has to seal off part of the plant to protect others from the fallout during a breach. So of course he is tormented by this throughout the movie…

Oh, wait, just kidding, that didn’t happen. He had a wife, as is typical of Hollywood, which is actually quite conservative despite the ridiculous claims otherwise.

And Spiderman 2, of course, is a movie about the famous spider-like human. In addition to fighting evil-doers and being an all-American champion of the people, this superhero has an on-again, off-again, tumultuous relationship with his boyfriend…

Oh, wait, just kidding, that didn’t happen. Because Spidey has a girlfriend.

During the same week we saw the movies with their “blatant” and “disgusting” displays of heterosexuality, Michael Sam celebrated his getting picked by the Rams by kissing his boyfriend. I’m not kidding here, as that did happen, as he does have a boyfriend.

Though I am just kidding about “blatant” and “disgusting” as I would never say that about displays of either heterosexuality or homosexuality, as at their cores they are both natural expressions of being human.

But some folks think otherwise, using a different standard for evaluation. Upset by the Michael Sam kiss, they are going on various and nonsensical tirades about it. The Russell Report remarks on this perpetual – and ironic — double standard:

Others want gays to keep it in the bedroom, which isn’t entirely true. The couple in Lawrence v. Texas were arrested for gay sex despite keeping it in the bedroom.

The thing is, though, sexuality is never kept in the bedroom. Certain physical acts, yes, but certainly not the attraction component of it, which is “on display” everywhere. We are social animals by nature. As such, we are constantly forming bonds with one another and expressing those bonds in different ways.

A nod, a shake of hands, a pat on the back.

A smile.

A penis and vagina, a penis and ass, or no penises at all.

A kiss…

Those in a tizzy over Michael Sam probably watch movies like Godzilla and Spiderman and barely register the heterosexual content. They live in a world of privilege, validation and reinforced assumptions of their reflected world that make such registering unnecessary.

But I register it and I point it out. And I counter it.

Not by telling the makers of Godzilla and Spiderman to keep it in the bedroom. But instead, I write about it. Sometimes directly in blog posts such as this. Mostly, though, I prefer to drive the point more subtly by simply writing stories with queer protagonists that reflect my world.

My world which is their world which is your world too: our shared world of hugging, nodding, kissing, fucking, talking, touching, listening, loving, and just plain existing.

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.

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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

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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:

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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.
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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.