poetry readings

9 posts

Is That All There Is?

peggylee

Being a successful writer may not be the Shangri-La would-be writers think it is. In his fast-paced, anecdotal writer advice book, Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life after Which Everything Was Different, Chuck Palahniuk warns that true success depends on putting a new book out every year. Feed your demanding readers, in other words—or else.

Then he goes into a long story about Stephen King at a signing where the horror master suffered a bloody callus on his signing finger. He was getting bits of blood on the books he was autographing and asked a handler to fetch him some bandages.

No way, the fan behind the guy whose book was presently being signed shouted. He wanted the King’s ink and blood, too!

Turns out, so did the others in the serpentine line behind these two. Seemed everybody wanted that famous blood, thinking it would make their keepsake books not only better keeps but more valuable sakes. Thus, to avoid a mini-riot, the Master of Horror had to endure his own horror show of sorts, signing on in pain.

You guessed it, in Palahniuk’s book, book tours come off as decidedly less romantic than wannabe writers suppose, to the point where many stories have you muttering, “Is that all there is?”

If those words sound familiar, it’s because Peggy Lee sang the song in 1969.

It could be a theme song for writers. The thought came to mind this past week when I received a rejection from a small book publisher.

Think of it: You send five poems to a poetry journal with a reading fee of $3. Ten months later, you get a rejection and say, after the long wait, “Is that all there is?”

The book rejection seemed seven times worse. It cost $20 for the privilege of being read, but you know and I know that some editor reading a book of poetry knows within the first 5-10 poems whether she wants it or not, even if, in fairness, many poetry collections feature a whole that speaks volumes about their parts.

But, no. In this case it was, “Thanks for the 20 bucks, pal!” And for what? This publisher sent me a one-sentence (!) boiler plate rejection note, almost assuredly after having never read the manuscript in full.

Feedback, even in general terms? None whatsover. That would require I full reading. Instead, it was take the money in run, in broad daylight.

Is that all there is?

Even “success” brings this nagging question around. Got a book accepted and published? As a newbie, you get ridiculous delusions of grandeur. The book tours Palahniuk referred to. The huge sales sure to come. The inevitable demand for another book from your adoring legions.

Truth is, for 99% of writers, it’ll be but a few sales, and most of those to kind friends and family.

Is that all there is?

Palahniuk even shares stories of well-known writers like Ken Kesey doing readings for, wait for it, TWO readers, followed by none whatsoever at a second locale. That and readings where there three dozen people, but they only bought a sum total of three books.

Three.

One could well picture Kesey channeling Peggy Lee as he shuffled back to his hotel room, saying: Is that all there is?

Ah, well. There’s always the song for consolation. If you listen to it, the mood Peggy creates seems perfect for writers and poets who are learning the hard way. Success comes in many shades and, quite often, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Alas.

For Teachers of Poetry, a Cautionary Tale

schoolhouse

Yesterday I provided an excerpt from Rattle editor Tim Green’s interview of the poet Kwame Dawes. Today, a final excerpt, this time touching on the damage “education” can inflict on poetry.

“Part of the problem is that we teach poetry with a manual that is used for an exam. Just think about when people encounter poetry. As children you learn nursery rhymes, but slowly that narrows down, and you stop hearing poetry except in school and in a context that demands the dreaded ‘analysis.’ You don’t have the advantage of a poem being made into a Lifetime movie, which you have for fiction and plays. For poetry it starts to be all school. And in school the teacher stops one day and says, ‘What does it mean?’ But the teacher doesn’t say, ‘You’re going to spend the next 40 years of your life trying to understand what it means.’ ‘Next week there will be an exam!’ is what the teacher says. ‘So you’d better know what this means now.’ Poetry is not like that, but we learn poetry that way.

“Consequently, people come to a poetry reading to apprehend in the moment, because if they don’t, they remember their childhood experience when they felt like idiots for not understanding. If someone comes up to me after a reading and says a poem is deep, what they often mean is, ‘I didn’t understand a word of it, but I can’t admit it, so I’ll say you’re really deep.’ That’s the anxiety. That’s what we need to break. Here’s the thing: we do not put that pressure on music. I admit there’s some music that’s poppy, but look at how many songs are hugely difficult, and people will stay with them and will come back 30 years later and say, ‘You know, I’ve been singing this song for 30 years, and I never realized what was going on.’ … It’s because there’s no exam!

“Listen, I don’t want to stereotype cultures, but in Ireland poetry is read at bars and so on, and people don’t know what they’re hearing while it’s being read, but as they grow older they begin to contemplate it. They know it by heart, and eventually they begin to understand things that are quite complex, but at the time they had something to hold on to, and it was enough—they had the cadence, they had the prose, but they also had stretches that they understood, and they were allowed to have time, because that is not a school room. This also happens in griot cultures in North and West Africa where the griot carries the histories of the community. In cultures in which proverbs are cherished and valued, this also happens. We have come to ritualize this process of learning over time in American rural and urban cultures where ‘folk’ sayings and proverbs are granted the chance to be mysterious for a time. No exam next week. Heck, it happens in churches the world over. We accept mystery and the slow process of understanding.

“The problem with poetry today, even here in America, is what happens in the class room. That’s the problem with apprehending poetry, because we feel like we have to understand it right now—all of it, right now. And the only thing you can understand right now is the Hallmark greeting card—which, by the way, are very smartly written. [both laugh]

“Hallmark cards aren’t easy to write, if you think about what they achieve. My wife gives me a card, and it’s lovely, it tells me a lot. A guy in South Carolina gets the same card and thinks, ‘Wow, you found my soul.’ Same poem—wow, that’s pretty impressive, right? [laughs] So I do think that is the dilemma. That’s the heart of the dilemma: giving people permission to return, to learn and read and apprehend poetry over time. And I think, as we ease the pressure for immediate comprehension, we allow for the possibility of complexity. Because the technology of writing allows us to return and return and return. When there was no writing, we either memorized or we apprehended in the moment, and then the rest was the dew. But the technology of writing,  we can read to the bottom and go right back to the top. If we didn’t have an exam next week, we could keep doing that. If there’s any gift that our poetry community can try to inculcate in the culture, it’s that poetry is a life and life lived. I am not suggesting that we toss out the exam, but I am suggesting that we parallel that kind of learning with more open-ended approaches to encountering poetry. Because we do it with so much else. People go back to museums and do pilgrimages back to the same pieces of art once a month, and they come up with complex feelings and ideas about it. No one says they need a degree in art appreciation… But we rarely give poetry that space. I think that’s something that’s desperately needed.”

 

Nota bene: The entire interview can be found in the Fall 2019 issue of Rattle.

 

Billy Collins, Animated

collins

Billy Collins, one of the most recognized among American poets, did a wise thing years ago. He harnessed the power of video to many of his poems. This not only helped poet-writers with the art of imagery, it also gave reluctant poet-readers (often known as “students”) a door into the not-so-bad-after-all genre of poetry.

Given the amount of technology available to writers, teachers, and students alike, Collins’ example can lead in multiple directions. As readers, you can read, reread, discuss, reread, enjoy, reread, analyze, reread, and then view a poem.

As a writer, you can write your own. For some writers, wondering what your words would look like if animated might inspire the specific nouns which give birth to imagery.

Finally, as an animator, you can create a video for your own poem (or one for someone else’s poem that inspires you). The tools are there, even in the classroom in the case of many tech-savvy schools.

But whatever you do or don’t do, seeing and hearing accessible poems like Billy Collins’ will prove (once again) that poetry is meant to be read aloud, whether it be yours or someone else’s.

Here is Billy Collins’ TED Talk, which introduces animation for his poems “Budapest,” “Some Days,” “Forgetfulness,” “The Country,” and “The Dead.”

And here are words to the poems used in the video:

“Budapest”

“Some Days”

“Forgetfulness”

“The Country”

“The Dead”

Searching “Billy Collins Poetry” on YouTube will lead you to even more of his poems set to video.

Happy reading (and rereading) and viewing (and reviewing) and finally writing (and revising).

Notice the important of re-‘s. Then go have some fun.

My Kingdom for an Audience!

audience

In this age and day, it is good to read a poem that starts with the line “How kind people are!” Not just read it, but with-an-exclamation-point read it, as if the idea needs to shout in these times where boorishness, shamelessness, and lies are king.

Connie Wanek’s poem, “Audience,” brings to mind poetry readings, where folks are, as a rule, kind. And rare. And often few and far between–but, by definition, still an “audience.”

The denotation is deliciously limber. My wife is an audience, for instance, when I unpack my troubles on her to divide them in half. It is a key part of a spouse’s job: relief through division.

My dog can serve as audience, too, tilting his head like Nipper, the old RCA Victor dog, as I go on and on, Mark Twain-like, about the damned human race (hint: no one’s in the lead).

But let’s return to Connie’s audience, shall we?

 

Audience
by Connie Wanek

How kind people are!
How few in the crowd truly hope
the tightrope will break.

Rare’s the man who’ll shoot the Pope
or throw his shoe at a liar,
though joining in—that’s natural.

An audience of St. Paul’s sparrows
is easily bored, easily frightened.
One blasphemy and off they fly.

Even a polite dog will snore
through reprimands,
though he’ll rouse to follow

the refreshments with a calculating eye.
But people, especially Minnesotans,
pull their sleeves over their watches

and want to find a way to like you.
If they can sit through winter’s sermons,
they can sit through you.

 

Sometimes poetry can send you in peculiar directions of your own making. It may be that the poet would be alarmed to hear it. Or it may be that she’d cry, “That’s exactly what I was thinking!”

Stanza one, for instance, reminds me of hockey games where fans wait out the game in hopes of a fistfight on ice. Or Nascar races where folks anticipate an exciting car crash. Stanza two, with the thrown shoe, brings images of President G. W. Bush–a.k.a. “another kettle of fish”–dodging a shoe some foreign journalist tossed at him during a press conference. Give him this. Bush had the moves if not the credentials.

Stanzas three and four bring more docile behavior to the fore. In five, the calculating eye of the dog eying refreshments cheers you. We love consistency and predictable behavior, after all, in our best friends.

I can’t speak to Minnesotans, having met none in my life. That they check their watches while finding “a way to like you” speaks highly of them, though. Trained by sermons, the joke goes. And sometimes a little humor is just the right touch when it comes to the tricky part of a poem (i.e. the ending). The days of saying, “And the audience lived happily ever after” are over, after all.

Applause, please.

“Go on. Get on, girl.”

cattle

This week’s New York Times Magazine poem, selected by Rita Dove, is “One-Way Gate” by Jenny George. I immediately liked the poem, but I cheered even more when I read the brief bio stating that “Jenny George is a poet whose debut collection, The Dream of Reason, was published last year by Copper Canyon Press.”

“Debut” and “Copper Canyon Press” in the same sentence? Very, meet impressive! That’s a top-of-the-line poetry publisher, so breaking through is worthy of all available kudos (“All kudos on deck!” as was once said).

Now back to the poem. As it is, like us, set in January (take a look out your window if you need any reminders), and as it features lines where the speaker looks one way while the cattle look another, one can’t help but think of Janus, the Roman god famous for being two-faced.

Sounds bad, but is he any different from the rest of us, looking both to the past and to the future, regretting on the one hand and hoping on the other? Just don’t tell the Buddhists with their “PRESENT” pennants, will you?

Reading this poem, one can see why Jenny George might catch an editor’s eye. For one, her topic is unique. For another, she has an interesting facility with words and the underlying thoughts that marry them.

For a taste, let’s read “One-Way Gate” together and then run back through the gate because, unlike the cattle, we can.

 

One-Way Gate
by Jenny George

I was moving the herd from the lower pasture
to the loading pen up by the road.
It was cold and their mouths steamed like torn bread.
The gate swung on its wheel, knocking at the herd
as they pushed through. They stomped
and pocked the freezing mud with their hooves.
This was January. I faced backward into the hard year.
The herd faced forward as the herd always does,
muscling through the lit pane of winter air.

It could have been any gate, any moment when things go
one way and not the other — an act of tenderness
or a small, cruel thing done with a pocketknife.
A child being born. Or the way we move
from sleeping to dreams, as a river flows uneasy under ice.

Of course, nothing can ever be returned to exactly.
In the pen the herd nosed the fence and I forked them hay.
A few dry snowflakes swirled the air. The truck would be there
in an hour. Hey, good girl. Go on. Get on, girl.

 

In S1, I just love the simile, “It was cold and their mouths steamed like torn bread.” It’s one of those “stops-me” similes. What the…? Torn bread? But wait, I kind of get it. There’s slant rhyme and there’s “slant simile” (and if there wasn’t, I just made it up, so now there is.)

Torn white bread! Maybe circa 19 Wonder-Bread-Three. Like steam “tearing loose” from the mouth in the winter air. Get it?

Then, at the end of the stanza, the herd is seen “muscling through the lit pane of winter air.” Not as high on the Wowzer Scale, but still very nice indeed.

S3, which follows the middle stanza’s more philosophical turn, brings us back to concrete details. It’s one of those deadpan, “life is just so banal, but…” finishes. Nothing spectacular or catchy,  instead going for effect through the sheer simplicity of moving dumb beasts that are juxtaposed to a one-way gate of fate. These poor beasts don’t know the quarter of it (or should I say, the “quarter pound with cheese” of it?).

All that banal stuff only heightens the impact of those parting words: “Hey, good girl. Go on. Get on, girl.” Alas, the time to “get on” comes for all of us, eventually.

Our truck will be waiting someday. As will a market in the sky….

Choosing Poems for a Poetry Reading

lost sherpa

When you first begin the task of choosing poems for a poetry reading, it’s like walking into a grocery store’s cereal aisle where the choices are so vast they overwhelm the shopper.

In the case of poetry, do you choose funny poems or contemplative poems, fancy poems or simple poems, poems with sound devices or ones with narrative merits? Maybe a little of everything, you might advise, but a lot rides on the locale and the audience.

For me, tonight, the venue is a public library — a place that I hope will host many events like this in the future. Anyway, here’s the line-up card for tonight’s reading along with a little bit of the reasoning behind it:

  1. “Provide, Provide” (from The Indifferent World)   Like Frost, whose title I borrowed, I write a lot about nature. This is a nice, solid, short poem to reflect that.
  2. “Simplicity”  (from The Indifferent World)  From Frost, I will move to another icon who has influenced by work, Henry David Thoreau. This poem pays homage to an important concept in his book Walden.
  3. “Return of the Native”  (from The Indifferent World)   A little twist for #3, this work is straight out of the imagination — one that couples ghosts with a whaler captain’s house along the New England shoreline. You know they’re in there!
  4.  “Mrs. Galway Goes to Night School”  (from The Indifferent World)   By poem #4, the crowd will be ready for a little narrative poem about a school bus driver going to night school for Irish Literature. James Joyce, this one’s for you! And Mom, you, too!
  5. “Barnstorming the Universe” (from The Indifferent World)   Back to the imagination, this one’s a fanciful work based on a Maine barn that looks like it experienced a crash landing from outer space. It’s a real barn, one I run by each summer morning. A postcard poem, then, with hyperbole for a return address.
  6. “An Old Man Walking Dawn’s Borders (from Lost Sherpa of Happiness)  This is my “dark horse” choice — the kind of poem you wouldn’t initially think of reading, but then, the more you look at it, the more you say, “Why not? I feel kind of sorry for this old man. Let’s share his story by giving him a mic!”
  7. “Into the Urban” (from Lost Sherpa of Happiness)   Ready for a memory poem? Memories are one of the most valuable resources a poet has at his disposal. This one takes readers to the city of Hartford, CT, when I was a kid visiting my great-grandparents’ apartment.
  8. “When Babcia Caught Her Breath” (from Lost Sherpa of Happiness)   From the city to a Maine lake, and my how time flies, as this one concerns my grandmother visiting the wilds of Maine for the first time. The whole poem was built on the last line, which were words she actually said — ones that I will never forget.
  9. “Lost Sherpa of Happiness” (from Lost Sherpa of Happiness)   The title poem tips its simple hat to Buddhism, which, along with Taoism, has influenced a lot of my work. If listeners like it, they’ll know there is plenty more where this came from.
  10. BONUS POEM (from Lost Sherpa of Happiness)  I have a few ready if time allows, but I’m sharing the mic with two other poets, so time will be a taskmaster laying down some discipline — always a good thing.

 

Hey. I’ll let you know how it goes!

 

A Closer Look at Rilke’s First Letter to a Young Poet

rilke

This week marks the 115th anniversary of Rainer Maria Rilke’s first letter to Franz Xaver Kappus. Franz sounds like a lot of young poets. “Dear Established Poet,” he writes. “Would you please read my poems and tell me if I’m horrible at this?”

If you read Letters to a Young Poet today (there are ten in toto), you’ll see that the first letter contains the most advice about poetry per se. The rest? Yes. Here and there. But mostly a philosophy on life and insight into the way Rilke thinks.

One thing the first letter establishes quickly is that Rilke falls in with those poets who believe you should write for yourself as opposed to for markets (for others, if you will):

“You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you–no one.”

Sound advice, if you’re one of these poets in a hurry. Poetry writing does not reward the hare. It’s all about the tortoise, the writer willing to let his poetry steep, age, meld its flavors. Look again later and revise. Cut to the bone. Repeat step one. On and on. But does youth have patience for such practice? And, in this day and age, when “youth” lasts well into the fifties, does anyone? Back to Rilke:

“There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”

As we now know that Kappus met no success as a poet, we can only assume that, once he went into himself, he learned that he “mustn’t.” Or, shall we say, he felt “he must,” but learned otherwise once he escaped military school and listened to the Sirens of a bourgeois, materialistic life of comfort.

“Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes a great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty. Describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sound–wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attention to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance.”

We interrupt this letter to reread and pay homage to the line, “And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sound–wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories?” Dysfunctional childhoods may lead to best-selling memoirs, but the rest of us can only tip our metaphorical hats to Rilke with that line about childhood being “that jewel beyond all price.” Nothing can be exchanged for the innocence and the freedom, the imagination and the dreams that leaven a healthy childhood.

“And if out of , this turning within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.”

Modern-day poets love the capital-R Romanticism in these lines, but do they truly agree? It seems not. It seems most must be validated by other eyes, especially experienced eyes. Namely, those of editors and critics–the latter a breed Rilke particularly despised.

“So, dear Sir, I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to, the question of whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.”

In other words, if you find the source of your well and it leads to great art, guard it like a dwarf guards his treasure deep in some cave. If publication and fame come, let them be posthumous.

This hypothetical poet is almost Christ-like in his humility and faith, it would seem. Does he exist in our modern times? And is Rilke himself an example? Rilke met writing fame while alive, after all, so I’m going to go out on a limb and say this was Rilke waxing nostalgic and Romantic in one fell swoop, that writing to a youth attending the same school he once did put him under nostalgia’s spell, bringing to mind, as it did, that “jewel beyond all price,” childhood.

Still, there’s valuable advice here. Go deep. Consider nature. Write about the impulses that move you personally. From that, something will resonate for others because we’re all in this together and people are people, no matter what their culture, religion, or time in history.

The Six Stages of First-Time Authorship

book sales

PROLOGUE: I wrote this way back in the late spring of 2016, after my first book released. For some reason, I decided against publishing it because it cut too close to the bone. Today, with two books to my credit, I better appreciate the humor in it. If you can’t laugh at yourself and the crazy pursuit of poetry writing, what can you laugh at? Ha-ha. Enjoy. Especially if you’re a poet or a would-be poet. A reader of poetry, you say? A little insight for you. And hopefully a chuckle or two.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

Everything happens in stages. I learned this in the Self-Help aisle. I couldn’t help myself. And now I’ve discovered it is true of first-time authors who publish first books. Not just via my own lens, but by studying other authors of first-time books. And though I call it “The Six Stages of First-Time Authorship,” I might as well call it “The Sick Stages of First-Time Authorship.”

Admittedly, results are skewed. Mostly, I examine first-time poetry books, meaning it’s a special subset of authors whose works, in 99.7% of all cases, never see the light of a bookstore bookshelf. Instead, the books sit on a dark, unchecked (except by the author–every day) shelf of Amazon. A dot all-is-not-calm bookstore.

Stage One: Euphoria

Holy Toledo Ohio, my book is out! And no, Ma, it’s not from some cheesy vanity publisher. It’s the merit system. Go-o-od stuff. Told you so, doubters! Confucius would be proud! Must tell everyone I know! No, no. That’s too obvious. Must tell everyone I don’t know, too! How do I spread the word without seeming to spread the word? Show me the way. I’m there. I’m a worker bee. I’ll do the social media scene, even. I’ll send you a copy if you write me a review. What’s more, I have this feeling that some big reviewer from some major paper is going to stumble upon this book (God works in mysterious ways–and, part-time, for me!) and decide to write it up. The darkest of dark horses, this book! It’s only a question of who (The New York Times Book Review?), where (page 37? I’ll take it!), when (give it three weeks, tops!), and how (Kismet)! Woot!

Stage Two: Happiness

I’ve sent copies to every relative I know (one, “Aunt Irene,” I made up). And friends (some “acquaintances,” really, but whatever). They, in turn, will suggest this book to people THEY know. And on Goodreads, many of my friends (whom I’ve never met) have marked it as “To Read.” YES! All of these “To Reads” will soon convert to 5-star reviews once they’ve read it, I’m sure. OK, OK. I’ll be a big boy about a few 4-star reviews because that’s how I am. Magnanimous. Give it a week. Or two tops. The book is only 72 pages, after all. So that’s around 32 reviews right there. In the bank! Right out of the gate! And everyone knows reviews beget reviews like Biblical people begat Biblical babies. Can you say  “catalyst”? Can you say “momentum”? Can you say “royalties”? Ka-ching!

Stage Three: Reasonable Hope

I’ve been checking those Amazon sales stats every few hours and hey, not bad, especially in the category of POETRY>CONTEMPORARY>REGIONAL>LIVING(MARGINALLY)WHITE MALES>STAGE 3. (Surely it can’t just be the 3 out of 87 people at the office who said they bought it after I group e-mailed the entire company. Twice.) And all 32 of those “To-Reads” on Damn-Good-Reads? I got one review out of them so far. But it’s just the beginning, I’m sure. Almost sure. Even tsunamis start somewhere. As is true with them, a little lift would do me good…

Stage Four: Reality

Holy sinking Amazon jungle mud! I’ve never seen sales stats sink so fast. By the day, even! And the number of “To Reads” on Goodreads has held steady. OK, to be honest, it’s down one. And the number of reviews has held steady, too: one (Cue Three Dog Night: “ONE is the loneliest number that you’ll ever see…”). And the number of “Currently Readings” is steady, too (Zero Mostel would understand). I sent reviewer copies weeks ago and followed up with “Did you get it…?” e-mails just like I’m supposed to. Marketing Man! That’s me. The guy listening to Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence”! Is this all there is? Doesn’t a man get rewarded for his hard work (marketing) and brilliant ideas (writing)? Or is that a Horatio Alger myth or something?

Stage Five: Despair

Well, THAT was fun (not). Back in Stage Two some party crasher said the only money poets make is at readings where, if they’re lucky, two people might buy their books. Might. “Yeah,” I thought. “But my book is different because it’s by ME and, last I checked, I’m special.” Or so I thought. (OK, I don’t want to think. Too much. Because it’s getting me down. And yes, the Buddha would be very disappointed in me. Too much self. Just a hyphen away from -ish, he’d say. Or something clever like that, damn him.)

Stage Six: Enlightenment

All this time dreaming. All this time beating the hollow drum. A couple of months lost! A couple of months I could’ve been writing! You know: Book Two. As in “Lather. Rinse. Repeat.” As in “Do it again, only better.” It’s what writers do. And the second time around (one hopes), no more stages. Just back on the saddle and writing again. It’s all that matters. Writing. Every day. In the words of another poet — one of Biblical proportions — “All the rest is vanity, a striving after wind….”

___________________________________________________________________________________________

Nota Bene: After Book Two, I’ve learned. I started writing right away. I am no longer a self-deluded man. Of course, every poem hungers readers just like you hunger for chocolate chip cookies, but reality is a good teacher and writing is a good habit and joyful challenges are the stuff of our workaday lives. On to #3!

Love Poetry in an Unusual Place: the Bible

sol

One of the great revelations (if you’ll pardon the word) of my youth was learning that you could read the Bible two ways — one if by religion and two if by literature. Another epiphany (if you’ll pardon a second word, oh good judge) was that the Bible wasn’t always a stodgy read. Who put me on to this? My 87-year-old great aunt.

Yep. As if she were discussing the weather, my devout Aunt Mae once got on the topic of the Good Book, which is really a whole lot of good smaller books. I was showing off by telling her how much I enjoyed reading the King James Version of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. What led me there? Of all things, the less-than-holy book, The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway. Papa had stolen his title from Ecclesiastes one day when he was chasing after wind and rivers returning to the sea. Me, I just wanted to read the source of his catchy title.

Anyway, back to Aunt Mae. She nodded and kindly allowed me my cynical dose-of-reality Old Testament favorite, but then she looked toward the ceiling and waxed poetic on the merits of the Song of Solomon, the book directly following Ecclesiastes‘ hard act to follow. What’s more, when I looked later, I discovered that the Song of Solomon is even shorter than its predecessor. To a teenager, that spells “readable”!

The very night of our discussion, I dove into my KJV again. Whoa! This book was kind of sexy. Well, for the Bible, I mean. The young lovers of the little book that could were in worship mode, I discovered, but mostly about the wonders of love between (pardon us, Percy Sledge) a man and a woman. Metaphors and similes grow like kudzu in Solomon’s catchy tune, too.

For example, let’s cast a poetic eye on 5: 10-16, wherein she speaks of him:

My beloved is white and ruddy, the chiefest among ten thousand.

His head is as the most fine gold, his locks are bushy, and black as a raven.

His eyes are as the eyes of doves by the rivers of waters, washed with milk, and fitly set.

His cheeks are as a bed of spices, as sweet flowers: his lips like lilies, dropping sweet smelling myrrh.

His hands are as gold rings set with the beryl: his belly is as bright ivory overlaid with sapphires.

His legs are as pillars of marble, set upon sockets of fine gold: his countenance is as Lebanon, excellent as the cedars.

His mouth is most sweet: yea, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.

Followed by 7: 1-9, wherein he returns the favor:

How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince’s daughter! the joints of thy thighs are like jewels, the work of the hands of a cunning workman.

Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies.

Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins.

Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bathrabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus.

Thine head upon thee is like Carmel, and the hair of thine head like purple; the king is held in the galleries.

How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!

This thy stature is like to a palm tree, and thy breasts to clusters of grapes.

I said, I will go up to the palm tree, I will take hold of the boughs thereof: now also thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine, and the smell of thy nose like apples;

And the roof of thy mouth like the best wine for my beloved, that goeth down sweetly, causing the lips of those that are asleep to speak.

Granted, the figurative language trades in objects and allusions most Biblical–ones sounding a bit foreign to modern ears–but there’s no questioning the ardor heating up these pages. The lyrical poetry is a paean to youth, love, the beauty of God’s human creations. In short, the book serves as early inspiration for a favorite font of poetry (even in months outside of February), love.

My discussion was many decades ago in a city far, far away, but I’ll never forget Aunt Mae’s eyes, how they sparkled clear and young again as she glanced up and momentarily lost herself in praise of this book. Who was she recalling, I wonder? Surely a love from her deep and storied past. Surely a tale I would never hear but could infer, anyway. A story that repeats through the annals of time with an infinite cast of entering and exiting players….