Experimental Writer?

The writer Lydia Davis, with whom I’ve just become acquainted, said in a 2007 interview with the Boston Globe,

“I haven’t met a so-called experimental writer who likes the term. It must be people who aren’t experimental writers who call people experimental. It’s just the wrong word. ‘Experiment’ carries the suggestion that it may not work. I prefer the idea of being adventurous, exploring forms.”

Davis’ quote keeps ringing in my head and makes me wonder about the fiction I write. Is it experimental? Maybe. Most of my pieces aren’t “finished” in the traditional sense, and most of them flow from brain to fingers to keyboard. I write and then usually I have to go teach, or change the laundry, or make supper, or tend to one of my children. I rarely have hours stretched before me in which I can write. I would love to believe I’d fill that time with writing (now that I’m sober, I have a better shot at that), but I’m not sure if I would. 

I suppose Davis is right when she says that experiment may carry the idea that the piece may not work. Another way of looking at that “not work” is failure, and that’s not something I apply to my writing anymore. I like some pieces better than others, but none of them are failures. The only failure is when I don’t write. 

Shifting gears slightly, a colleague of mine asked recently what I wanted to be when I grow up. My truest answer is a full-time writer. Since I’m only 42, it’s an achievable goal. In the meantime, I’ll continue to teach, write poems…

and “experiment” with pieces like the following.

Dr. Bee and the Nurse

He couldn’t tell if there was going to be an end to the meal this time, but he knew if there wasn’t, his daughter would have something distracting to say about it. He supposed he was programmed for that, so he shouldn’t complain? Right? Like he was a yes-man to everything else in this god-forsaken world, so why not that? Why not when it came to his little deaths, his children? King Lear never had it so bad.

Now, why did he go and say something like that? For one thing, he had sons, not daughters so there was one huge difference between himself and King fucking Lear. There were others, he knew, but he couldn’t remember more than the gist of the play right now. That was happening more and more lately, his inability to recall poems, plot lines, entire plays he used to teach, year after year, to classes of mouth-breathing Philistines who wouldn’t know good literature if it reared up and took a money shot to their balls or wee little pussies, so pristine and good, pure stock from the Puritan passed down and watered through baptisms and Baptist fellowship chicken bakes, where fat fathers stuffed their sweating bodies into ill-made suits and Mamas bathed in cheap perfume because you never knew who was looking or smelling. One couldn’t be too careful, even the Holy Spirit picked up on whiffs of sin, and what better way to mask that than with oie de toilette and bacon fat?

Oh, to be forty again, he thought, moaning a little. Was he asleep or just comfortably reclined? Who the fuck knew? “Comfortably Numb,” his oldest son, Falcon, would say, trying his damnedest to sing. The old man didn’t care for the original, let alone his idiot son’s butchering of the song. Jesus Christ, he was thirsty! And not for water, which is all the headstrong and head-banded nurses, seriously suffering in the art of beside manner and tender ministrations, seemed to bring. What about some whiskey, for God’s sake?! Something with some fucking kick to it, not just water, and for the food! Jello which shook like some red lady’s pock-marked ass, and some kind of torture-gruel that looked unfit for prisoners-of-war.

What was that dream, where I was the hero? What fucking war was that? Korea? Vietnam? The Big One that left Owen in a wheelchair, covered in his own shit half the time until his cross-eyed whore of a wife thought to change him? Jesus, so much suffering, so much pain on this blasted rock, and most of it never documented in pages, just left to rot in the minds of rotting bodies in the rotting ground. None of it matters.

He was sure he was awake now. The lights were brighter, poppier, and noises had the acute taste of metal. A fine meal to satisfy this craving, he told himself, and then he said it aloud, his voice a rusty pipe banged on by a screwdriver.

“Say what, Dr. Bee?” asked the nurse absent-mindedly, hovering somewhere near him, her giant, pillow-like arms able to suffocate him in a snake’s split-second. Oh, he knew! He knew! How could he not know?

“Say what, Dr. Bee?” the nurse asked again, taking a moment to cough up something extreme and hideous, her chest vibrating and nearly exploding with juice, the kind that made the Good Doctor wonder what the hell was next. Some drugs, he dared hope. Anything to take the sting of this pitiful existence away.

Did he have daughters? He did not. “I do not,” he said.

The nurse craned her head, big as a child’s balloon about to pop, toward him. “I gotta change you now,” she said. “Time to get and see if them britches is clean or soiled.”

“If you come near me,” said The Teacher, clear as a newly forged, bronze bell–the kind that’s inscribed with philosophy, its tongue made of some kind of amazing metal that never fades nor loses its ability to coax dulcet tones from its outer shell–the lip, shall we call it?–and therefore, the peals would go on and vibrate into eternity–“I will cut your jugular and watch you bleed like a stuck hog.”

Well…that took care of absolutely nothing. The nurse changed him and out the door she went, muttering curses.

Even in Death, the Ranch Hand Laughs (Classic Poem Series #1)

*chortle* Classic Poem Series…that makes me laugh. It’s true enough to me, though. These are poems I wrote in graduate school, and I’m glad I saved them. I’ve submitted some of these for publication, but as of now, I’m quite happy to post my work here. I hope you enjoy them.

Even in Death, the Ranch Hand Laughs

He was raised on cactus needles
and leather strips,
given only boiling water to drink,
had only rocks for friends.
He learned to tip his hat to no one.

He looked at us with the slightest of grins,
cool on the edges,
as we chewed our grass
and our many stomachs burbled.
He would puff out his match-struck cheeks
and sing as the night yawned into being,
sitting on the fence,
right with the world.

He died with the sunrise,
leaving us to our plaintive lowing.
Even now, we hear him laughing,
chastising us:

you silly moon-fed beasts,
when will you rise from the grass
and understand that you never needed me?
When will you shake the flies from your face?

Here and There

I’m considering doing something a bit different with this poem and perhaps others. I want to record me reading it, add some sound effects, and some music. I don’t know how it will turn out, but I’ll post it on Soundcloud when I finish. Maybe I’ll do the same for some stories I’m working on.

Here and There

Here are the open mouths,
gaping like nightmare fish–
here are the Spanish women,
lost in deft translation,
forgetting the original tongue.

Here are the long-lost vacuum
tubes of black amplifiers left
on my father’s stage the night
he winged in for a one-man
sobbing show that Rolling Stone’s
ghost editor called, “Incomprehensibly
terrible, yet savage in its beauty,”
despite an out-of-tune Fender
and a water-logged microphone.

Here I am, thirty years later,
controlling my anger by remote,
and you are still somewhere
in the immortal ether of music,
drunk on old applause, clinging
to a ratty velvet curtain, vowing
to never let go again.

“Winter” (published poem)

I’m honored to have one of my poems appear in Sweet Tree Review‘s inaugural issue.

Winter

When the snow is hard as brick
and the sun neglects its normal path,
she hides under covers and unthinks
the world, turning ice to water,

reminding the sky what it forgot:

the deep meaning of blue,
not the amnesiac gray
that scrolls like a player piano
sheet across the vaults of heaven.

A Man, a Turtle, a Boy

This little story is significant for a few reasons:

  • no one dies
  • no one is involved in dangerous, compromising, or hideously embarrassing sexual situations…most of which end in someone’s death
  • tragedy–neither of the epic Greek variety or the dark Flannery O’Connor in which the Holy Spirit moves and wreaks destruction in its path–happens.

I suppose all bullet points can be summed up in the first.

The man with the turtle said, “Just give my money back and I’ll be going.”

The boy behind the ticket counter looked as unsure as a new-born shrimp. Shrimplet? He wasn’t sure which, but he knew he looked unsure. And pale. He watched himself enough in the plexi-class reflection to know that. “Excuse me,” he said, “but I’ll have to ask you to keep voice down.” There, he took a chance and was brave. He waited to see what that would net him.

The man with the turtle blinked. The turtle blinked. The whole world blinked at least four or five times before the man said, “I haven’t raised my voice.”

The boy sighed and picked at the scabs on the backs of his hands. “I’ll have to get the manager, and he’ll just tell you the same thing, sir.” So he was back to saying “sir” after giving himself permission to drop it once and for all.

The man placed his box turtle on the ticket counter. The turtle, which seemed ordinary enough at first with brown and pale green squares on his shell, slowly turned his head toward the direction of the boy. The boy suddenly thought he looked like the wisest creature that ever existed. Forget the owl and all its purported wisdom…the turtle–this turtle– was where it was at.

“If I understand you correctly,” said the man, calm as an unruffled lake, “even if a patron leaves fifteen minutes into a show and politely asks for a return on his money because the show was a colossal disappointment, it’s the policy of this theater not to return his money and thereby ensure that said patron will never return?”

The boy knew most kids his age couldn’t follow the man’s words or ride the wave of his cadence toward full understanding. Many adults thought the kid wasn’t very smart because he loved skateboards and strange music and smoke the occasional joint. The boy was incredibly smart. “With all due respect, sir,” he said–meaning it, for what it’s worth–“you brought a turtle into the theater, and that’s not allowed.”

The man looked down at the turtle. “Mr. Chow enjoys the cinema,” he said. “I bring him with me every Friday, and then I take him to my film club as we discuss what we saw and what’s soon coming to the screen. He doesn’t make noise or disturb anyone, I assure you, in either venue.”

“It’s a pet, sir. In our theater. If I bring out the manager, he’ll freak out.”

“I see.”

“You can hide Mr. Chow and I can get him, but like I said, he’s weird about giving money back.” The boy found himself relaxing more and warming up to the man. And Mr. Chow. “He figures that today, you pretty much know what you getting before walking into a movie because trailers give so much away, and TV spots, and stuff like that.”

“That doesn’t change my disappointment in the film,” the man said. “And as a patron, I assumed your establishment valued my business. As I said, Mr. Chow and I come every Friday.”

The boy liked how the man referred to himself as a patron and the theater as an establishment. The man had better manners than anyone who bought tickets from the boy. Genteel. That was the word that described him.

“Okay,” the boy said. He took out his wallet and open the register, breaking a ten and giving the man $7.50. “Here’s your money, sir. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the film, and I hope you and Mr. Chow will continue to be patrons.”

The man looked down at the money. Mr. Chow turned his head, looked at the money, and slowly nodded. The man swept it from the counter and into his hands. “We accept your generosity and would like to buy you coffee some rainy afternoon, for that’s the best time to have coffee with a friend.”

The boy found himself smiling. He didn’t have many friends, and certainly none like the man. Well, he supposed, he did now. “My name’s Alan,” he said.

The man bowed. “My name is Stephen. I believe you’ve met Mr. Chow.”

“Nonetheless, it’s a pleasure still.”

Now it was the man’s turn to smile. They talked until other customers showed up, demanding tickets quickly so they didn’t miss the previews.

Weird Poetry…My Calling Card of Late

A friend popped by my office this morning  and said, “I got your poems” (I emailed him two last night). And then he stared at me and nodded. And kept nodding.

“I don’t know what the nodding means,” I said after a few moments of awkward silence.

“Your style is definitely…unique.”

“Yeah, it’s a little odd,” I said. “Take your time getting back to me. There’s no rush.”

We talked a little more about submitting poetry and about the the book he’s working. After he went off to class, I began thinking about something I read yesterday. The article deals mainly with poetry contests, something I’ve yet to attempt (and may not after reading the article):

Typically there are two types of aesthetics (following the MFA division of poetry into two major camps): the narrative/formally uninventive/epiphany-based confessional or memoiristic short poem, and the experimental/avant-garde/language poetry camp, which takes its inspiration from deconstruction and makes a fetish of the insensibility of ordinary language.

While I think there’s room for blending between the two, I find myself more on the experimental side these days. I’m not avant-garde and I don’t fetishize the insensibility of language–there are poets that do, and they usually make me want to bang my head on a table. My poems lately have just become weird. They have Potato People and the Toothy Teethy Sister. They talk about a couple trapped in a masquerade party that only they’ve attended, and another has a man and woman using rib-spreaders on each other to get to what they assume to be treasure but finding doorways instead into which they disappear.

I have a few narrative/epiphany based poems that I’m proud of, but I’m shying away from that style (and it’s my friend’s style, so I’m curious and a bit worried about what he’ll say). I’m not sure if my poems will find homes in “respectable” print journals; I have quite a few out there, so we’ll see in a few months’ time. As much as I’d like to land a poem or two in a print journal, it’s not my sole motivation. Writing and sharing my work is, and so far, my poems have found homes with new, online journals.

The end of the article is quite encouraging:

O ye oppressed contest-submitters of the MFA world, throw away your shackles and start your own collective with like-minded friends, publish poetry you want to immortalize you, not poetry with the maximum chance of pleasing screeners and judges! Start your own press! If nothing else, write on scrap paper and share it with your wife and dog, but don’t dilute your work to win contests! It doesn’t cost $30,000 to publish a book of poetry. Maybe it doesn’t even cost $3! Just as it doesn’t cost $100,000 to “buy two years of time” to get feedback on your writing in an MFA program–maybe it just costs a library card.

Don’t dilute your work to win contests or to fit what others deem to be appropriate parameters. Just write.

Muse

When it’s time to write, it’s time to write.

Muse

“It’s time to write,” she says, standing in the corner,
smoking the cigarette I can no longer have.
“No, I need to get ready for class, and make some copies–”
“It’s time to write,” she says again. She walks over,
drapes her arm around my shoulders, and sighs.
Her touch is from the grave, but I like it. I always have.

“You’ll hang around for a bit?” I ask, foolishly,
knowing she’ll do whatever she damn well pleases.
She purses her lips and brushes my cheek with a kiss.
“Maybe just for a while. Until you’re warmed up.”
I hear her breathing next to me, feel her radiant cold.
I click over to a blank screen and begin to bleed.

Reggie and Len (a dialogue)

I was scribbling in my journal the other day while with my kids at karate practice, and this is what came out. As I continued writing, I began picturing Bert and Ernie and one of their many conversations at bedtime. You know (or maybe you don’t), the ones where Bert is desperately trying to go or stay asleep, but Ernie has something terribly pressing he must share. By the end of the conversation, Bert is awake and generally pissed off. Here’s one of my favorite examples.

What follows is a riff on Bert and Ernie’s Odd Couple‘s chemistry, though with decidedly fouler language. Reggie begins the dialogue:

My eye hurts.

Man, fuck your eye.

Well, it does.

You want me to punch you in the mouth so you can bitch about that, too?

No.

Alright then. Go to sleep.

I can’t.

[sighing] What?

My eye.

Ah, Jesus.

It really hurts, man. I think I need to go to the doctor.

You don’t need no fuckin’ doctor, man. Go wash it out or get some fuckin’ ice.

When we were little, my brother and I were playing with some neighborhood kids, and this girl–

Did I ask for a bedtime story?

Just listen. So this girl hurls a massive rock at my brother. I mean, out of nowhere. We hadn’t even been arguing with this girl or her friends. And she had damn good aim, too, hit my brother right in his left eye. She ran off after that, and we went home.

What the fuck was the point of that story?

My brother is basically blind in that eye now, like 30 years later. Started out with a detached retina and got worse.

All because some bitch hit him with a rock?

That’s my theory.

Reggie, did someone hit you with a fuckin’ rock today?

No.

Then why–

I worry about my eyes.

Please shut the fuck up and let me sleep.

[a beat]

It might be pink eye.

Are you fucking serious?!

Look, that stuff’s nasty. It’s basically caused by shit in your eye. Like real shit. Fecal matter.

What the Jesus, Reggie? You trying to keep me awake and make me sick?

I’m just worried.

Look, I get it, but you can’t do anything about it, right?

I could go get some ointment.

Then get your ass on a bus and go to the fuckin’ Rite Aid on Lincoln.

I don’t know. I’m kind of tired.

What?!

Yeah. Good night, Len.

The fuck? After all that running your mouth and hyping me up, you’re just gonna–

Shhh. Come on. It’s been a long day.

[Len, wide awake, stares at the ceiling]

I Would Trade My Warm Life

Inspired by the mysterious and wonderful Greek lyric poet Sappho, whom Plato called the Tenth Muse.

I Would Trade My Warm Life

I would trade my warm life
for your cold, wine-dark nights,
your finger tracing my scarred cheek,
your dangerous breath on my chest.

Let the gods wage war on each other
and exact their petty revenge.
I’m done calling out to them
as I wish I was done calling out for you.